Sad and Lonely is a Bad Look-Even More Than Usual When You Lead in Gains

January 30, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Arizona Republic columnist Bob Robb turned in a gem recently on the improvement in Arizona academic achievement:

The furious reaction to an ad campaign by some Arizona business organizations raises a question that deserves more than a superficial ponder: Why is there such resistance, hostility even, to good news in Arizona, particularly about K-12 education?

Arizona schools are seriously underfunded compared to other states. Legions have made the leap, based upon this indisputable fact, that Arizona children are getting a lousy education compared to the kids in other states.

That has never really been the case.

According to the 2009 results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, the most reliable cross-state measure of student learning, Arizona kids, considered as a whole, did lag behind the national average.

But that was mostly a function of demography. When the data was disaggregated, Arizona was right around the national average. White students in Arizona did as well as white students elsewhere. And Latino students in Arizona did as well as Latino students in other states.

When the 2015 NAEP results came out, Matt Ladner, senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute, made a startling discovery. Arizona students led the country in gains between 2009 and 2015.

According to the NAEP administrators, who work for the federal government, Arizona results for students as a whole in 8th grade reading and math were now “not significantly different” from the national average. Arizona white students now score above the national average for white students. As do Arizona Latinos compared to Latino students elsewhere.

This should be very big news. It should have catalyzed an intense discussion and inquiry about what was happening in Arizona classrooms that yielded such astonishing results, particularly during a period when the schools were on starvation rations when it came to resources.

 Instead, these remarkable results have created barely a ripple in the discussion of K-12 education in Arizona.

Robb gives yours truly too much credit as there were others who noticed the Arizona gains earlier than me. I simply dug into the details and subgroups trends. In any case, Robb does an admirable job of describing the climate in Arizona. The dedication in some quarters to what seems to be an entirely self-defeating and irrational strategy is truly astounding.

The strategy strikes many of us as follows: how many entrepreneurs attempting to raise investment capital would make the argument that even vaguely sounds like “our product is HORRIBLE and you should be ASHAMED unless you give us more money. Buy our stock or you are a bad person!” How do we imagine such a strategy would work out?

“Everything is HORRIBLE!!!!” is a whip-up the base type strategy, but contributes to skepticism and ultimately defeat by poisoning the well with the public. In 2012, the districts put a tax measure on the ballot to support education, which failed almost 2-1 on election day. Then, as now, people were touting polls allegedly showing that the public supported the measure, but on election day the voters rejected it overwhelmingly. Proponents still grouse about the no campaign, but the no campaign won for a reason and in fact people on the yes side of the effort swear up and down that the support for the measure had begun falling before opponents launched their campaign.

The reason is simple: the public lacks confidence that increased spending will see the inside of a classroom. In other words they fear (rationally) that the money will simply be wasted. A non-stop narrative of “Everything is HORRRIBLE!!!!” is like the soundtrack to building public skepticism regarding sending good money after bad in AZ K-12.

Robb notes in his column that district supporters fear that drawing attention to Arizona’s nation leading gains may undermine the case for additional revenue, allowing some to make the case that current funding levels are “good enough.” I however believe that the opposite is true- instead of the self-defeating misguided pitch above, what if the pitch became “Arizona has the fastest improving public education achievement scores in the nation. We are asking for your increased support in order to accelerate our momentum in providing our students the knowledge, skills and character necessary for success in life.” Imo:

I’m content to let this whole democracy thing work itself out on the question of funding. Arizona has lots of old people and large average family sizes. The states just above and below us on the funding rankings are Idaho and Utah, respectively. Hmmm…what do those states have in common? Here’s one:

Arizona (and Idaho and Utah) have large average family sizes and we should not want or expect this to change. Arizona has lots of retirees living on fixed incomes anxious to vote every election- and this is increasing. Arizona has no oil gushers or hedge fund billionaire clusters paying sky high income taxes. Add on top of that a self-defeating trash-my-own product fundraising strategy reinforcing a notion on the part of the public that Arizona schools could not find their posterior with both hands and a map. Call me nuts, but disabusing the people of this latter notion, rather than reinforcing it, is helpful rather than harmful to the case for increased funding.

Arizona is never, and I mean EVER going to win a spending per pupil contest, but some cards could be played much better. Instead of winning a spending contest, we have been winning a bang for the education buck contest and leading the nation in academic gains. I’ll eventually once again become one of the millions of voters on a statewide funding vote. So far I am batting a thousand as far as landing on the winning side, but my vote is very unlikely to be decisive. If funding were driving results, we would not be seeing trends like this:

So cheer up Arizona- we’ll eventually put the 2018 elections behind us and while the capacity of the school crowd to pull defeat from the jaws of victory is strong, at least the Arizona business community seems to have embraced a positive path forward. Oh and also there is a whole lot to be happy about in improving faster than any state, especially if we can keep it up.



New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones, Taxes and Meh School Performance

November 8, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

NAEP Reading Scores from 2015 along the horizontal axis, NAEP reading cohort gains (2015 8th grade scores minus 2011 4th grade scores). Ok so stare closely at the chart around the 262 score from the bottom to the top. Arizona, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Michigan, Rhode Island, New York, Florida and Delaware all had approximately the same 8th grade math score, but took different paths to get there. Some, like Delaware, Florida and Maryland started above the national average in their 2011 4th grade scores, but had small gains. Others like Arizona and Oklahoma, started below the national average in their 4th grade scores but grinded their way to large gains to catch up.

In 2011, Arizona 4th graders scored a 212 in 4th grade reading, Oklahoma a 215. Maryland’s 4th graders scored a 231 in 4th grade reading., New York stood at 222. Maryland students had an almost 19 point advantage over Arizona students and a 16 point advantage over Oklahoma students. Maryland spends far more than either Arizona or Oklahoma, and New York literally spends more than twice as much per pupil as either of these states. It shouldn’t happen that either Arizona or Oklahoma students would tie Maryland and/or New York by the time those 2011 4th graders became 8th graders.

Keep staring at that middle portion of the chart. Is Tennessee supposed to be neck and neck with Rhode Island? Rhode Island’s 7 point lead in the 2011 4th grade reading scores and almost $7,000 per student spending gap would say no, but the Tennessee kids didn’t get the memo and ended in a dead heat by 8th grade.

Ok so spot NY on the above chart and then look at math:

Arizona, Connecticut, Kansas and Maryland had 2011 4th grade math scores of 235, 242, 246 and 247 respectively. These had current (not total) expenditures that year of $7,782,$16,224, $9,802 and $13,946 per pupil. As an Arizonan, I’m delighted to have closed the gap with Connecticut, Kansas and Maryland. If I were a taxpayer or educator in Connecticut, Kansas and/or Maryland I would not be pleased.

Now locate New York on the math chart. I guess $19,965 per pupil just doesn’t buy what it used to in New York.

Ultimately it is good news that we have examples of states with diverse student bodies making academic progress. Remember- winter is coming to state budgets as 10,000 boomers per day reach the age of 65 and health care costs continue to rise. I hope you can get that sorted out New York but in the meantime both your students and taxpayers are getting horribly short-changed by your K-12 rent-seeking groups. The founders included a solution for you in our constitutional system: federalism. Did I mention that in addition to lower taxes, it is very pleasant here in the winter? As Ling Ving once sang “New York’s alright-if you want to freeze to death!”

Be sure to bring your golf clubs:

As far as where you’ll send your kids to school, Arizona has outstanding options in the public school system in both districts and charters. Here’s some dots to connect on the average performance of Arizona charters:

Additionally if you happen to prefer a private school for your child, Arizona’s policies support your families capacity to make that decision. Tired of having the daylights taxed out of you to pay for a public school system you don’t want to put your kids in, and then paying private school tuition on top of that? I thought you might. Head south until you reach Interstate 10 and then go west young family!

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