We are but warriors for the working day, but our hearts are in the trim

March 14, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Republic was kind enough to run the below letter to the editor from yours truly this morning in response to this editorial. If you are feeling the least bit skeptical, feel free to look these numbers up for yourself. The Republic’s editorial claims that now is not the time to expand parental choice because district schools are vulnerable. My claim is that Arizona district schools have never performed at a higher level than now and that we should in the immortal words of Darrel K. Royal “dance with the one that brung ya” which is to say stick with the strategies that brought success. Letter follows:

On the most recent Nation’s Report Card, Arizona 8th graders tied the state of Maryland in math, and outscored many states including Rhode Island, Delaware and North Carolina. These states spend far more per pupil than Arizona. None of these states has a majority-minority student population (Arizona does) but fortunately our students didn’t get the memo that they weren’t supposed to win. Instead they have been leading the nation in academic gains.

Arizona’s charter schools get still less money overall but scored higher than the statewide averages of 49 states on the same test. Arizona charter schools educate a majority-minority student population, but scored a single point lower than the highly funded and demographically advantaged Massachusetts-the nation’s long-time state academic champion. Again, the “you are supposed to lose” memo apparently went to Arizona’s spam folder, and our students and educators achieved an unprecedented academic triumph.

Arizona is never going to win a spending contest, but that is not the purpose of our investment. Our goal must be to maximize opportunity, not spending.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9


Andy Smarick on K-12 Paradigm Shift

March 13, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Andy Smarick has a new paper out from AEI discussing Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shift framework and the current context of American K-12. Everything he describes is very apparent in the discussion of K-12 out here in the Cactus Patch, especially the discussion about “Incommensurability.” Smarick describes the process by which adherents of the old and new paradigms stop making sense to each other:

According to Structure, the perspectives of adherents of the new paradigm are, in many respects, permanently and irrevocably incompatible with those of their predecessors. It is not just that the paradigms take different positions on particular issues; it is that they ask fundamentally different questions, look for different types of answers, and prioritize different things. Kuhn described it as talking past one another and “practic[ing] their trades in different worlds.

Just yesterday an unsigned editorial in the Arizona Republic read:

This year’s ESA budget is about $40 million according to the Arizona Department of Education. That is more than the state provided to fix things like lead-laced water and mercury in public schools.

In the same edition, Jeb Bush wrote a guest editorial:

ESAs will not cause a mass exodus from public schools. Instead the result will be improved public schools. An enterprise that can take its customers for granted behaves much differently than one that risks losing them.

In the Republic’s paradigm the state is responsible for flooring installed in some district campuses in the 1960s and 1970s and should cease giving students further choices until everything is all clear in district land. Obviously this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, but the billions in funding that state taxpayers gave districts every year can be used on facilities, not just any additional emergency assistance. Moreover, the state was going to fund the ESA kids whether they went into the ESA program or not, and in fact the majority of them are special needs children, and the consistent claim of the districts have been that they must divert local funds for each child. It’s not like the budget for the ESA program in other words prevents districts and the state from addressing mercury-vapor inducing flooring in other words.

Under Governor Bush’s paradigm, the districts will continue to improve as long as parents have the ability to vote with their feet-whether it is to get away from toxic mercury vapors or a toxic academic or cultural climate etc.

And so it goes…

 


A Once Proud People Begin a Fight Against Hopelessness

April 30, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Republic ran a fantastic story on their front page of this Sunday’s edition on Navajo schools in Arizona and the efforts underway to turn them around. The story shows how school grading, digital learning and immigration reform can help people who have taken a courageous decision to help themselves.

Background: schools located on the reservations in Arizona face enormous challenges and have truly abysmal test scores to show for it. Isolation, poverty and rampant alcoholism probably constitute the top three problems, though not necessarily in that order. Arizona has the lowest Native American scores on NAEP and they are not only abysmal they have been declining.

In K-12 policy discussions in Phoenix, the subject of “the Res” comes up frequently. Often people will claim that you can’t do this, that or the other thing because of “the Res.” Problems as deep as those caused in large part by a century of having the federal government “take care” of you don’t lend themselves to quick or easy solutions.

It is a long article that focuses on the personal story of Harold Begay, the Navajo Superintendent who returned to run Tuba City school district determined to turn things around. Here are the policy related parts of the story:

When the State Department of Education started assigning letter grades two years ago, Tuba City High School got a D.

It could fall to the bottom or head higher. Begay chose to go higher.When he was named superintendent, he pledged that the district would achieve the top letter grade of A.

Skip ahead….

Last summer, Tuba City High School’s grade improved from a D to a B. In addition to a better performance on standardized tests, the school showed more improvement than other low-performing schools. Navarre was honored at the state Department of Education’s office in Phoenix.

People are starting to believe what Begay told them two years ago”‘We’re going to become an ‘A’ district'” 

As a card-carrying member of the K-12 policy discussion going on in Arizona’s capital, let me be the first to confess that not me nor anyone else down in Phoenix could have ever dreamed up the policy solutions that Begay implemented in Tuba City. That is as it should be – A-F school grading was intended to put a focus on problems and call them by their proper names. Solutions come as a decentralized process.

Most of the conversations I have heard about “Res schools” have involved a sad air of resignation. The article mentions that Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, who carried the A-F bill in the Arizona Senate and implemented it as Superintendent, became the first person in his position in twenty years to visit schools on the reservation. I don’t know whether that is accurate or not, but I think it is fair to say that if anyone has had a serious plan about what to do about reservation schools in Phoenix it has been well concealed for a very long time.

Read the article however and you’ll the solutions that Superintendent Begay developed on his own: a new emphasis on Navajo culture, hiring teachers from the Philipines and use of a digital learning platform know as Beyond Textbooks. Beyond Textbooks is a product developed by the incredibly impressive Vail Arizona school district, located at the opposite end of Arizona from Tuba City in southern Arizona.

Recruiting teachers to extremely isolated and troubled areas is a real challenge. Tuba City is 75 miles north of Flagstaff out in the middle of a very desolate nowhere. If you want a small vignette into the idiocy of our immigration laws, note that Begay is losing half of his Filipino teachers to expiring visas. We ought to be throwing these teachers a ticker-tape parade, but instead we’ve decided to boot them out of the country.

By the way, don’t hold your breath waiting for American nativists to rush to Tuba City to provide the instruction these children need.  They are ummm busy, or something. But I digress.

Tuba City High Schools jump from a D to a B grade was possible because of the emphasis on student learning gains. Twenty-five percent of a school’s grade comes from the gains of the overall student body, and another 25% from the gains of the lowest performing quartile from the previous test. If you get gains your grade gets moving. Arizona will need to nudge up the grading standards in the future but for now the system just may be working as intended by meeting the worst schools where they are at the moment.

Tuba City schools face many challenges and have a long, long way to go, but don’t make the mistake of betting against them- they are back in the fight.


Arizona Republic Series on Digital Learning

December 12, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Republic began publishing a multipart series on digital learning here in our humble patch of cactus on Sunday. You can read installments one and two online.

Thus far, here is what I have learned for this series: Arizona is a wild west in terms of regulatory oversight, the main online providers in Arizona earned C grades, pure online learning works for some kids and not for others, Gene Glass dislikes online learning, and some people are uncomfortable with for-profit companies being involved in education.

Perhaps they are pacing themselves by backloading the stuff we didn’t already know into the latter part of the series.

The Wild-West bit is par for the course out here and it may be just as well. It isn’t like an extra bureaucrat or three would be likely to do anything productive. What is needed in my view is a system of 3rd party administered end of course exams. A good portion of the funding should be conditioned on how the student performs on these exams. At the moment, Arizona law provides an incentive for students to sign up for online courses rather than to educate students. The same of course can be said for the traditional districts. The river needs to flow both ways on this, as I have no more interest in funding mere seat time in a brick and mortar than I do academic failure in a digital setting. If someone needs to go first, I nominate the digital providers.

He likes it! Hey Mikey!

At the moment, Arizona has neither end of course exams developed, nor any infrastructure for 3rd party administration of such exams. Neither to my knowledge does anyone else. Time to get cracking on that.

I could write an entire post on how silly it is to implicitly expect for-profit companies to spend more money than they receive. Maybe later in the week. In the meantime, I’ll be curious to see what the Republic has to say next.


Bean-counting Arizona Tax Credits

October 15, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Republic ran a complex story with an unfortunately simplistic headline: Tuition tax credits drain state money.

The reporter made a serious effort to bean-count the individual and corporate tax credit programs. The headline is all the more unfortunate given the fact that by the Republic’s own estimation the program results in a $3 million savings to taxpayers.

 I wish someone would “drain” my bank account in a similar fashion.

The corporate tax credit, which makes only those switching from public schools eligible, was designed to generate savings, and obviously does so. The individual credit does not have the same eligibility requirements, and thus is a good deal more complex.

The Republic reporter, Ronald Hansen, made a good faith attempt to estimate the potential costs and/or savings of the individual program by looking at the National Center for Education Statistics figures on private school enrollment from before and after the tax credit passed. Making the assumption that the increase can be attributed to the credit, Hansen then made estimates regarding the number of kids who would not have gone to private school without the credit (savings generators) versus the number benefiting from the program but who would have gone to private school anyway (cost generators from the state’s perspective).

In short, this is an incredibly complex task- an attempt to estimate the price elasticity of demand for private schools. Hansen has made a serious attempt at estimation, but it is fraught with peril.

For starters, there are more than one estimate of private school attendance in Arizona. The estimation technique is highly dependent on this, and the Arizona Private School Directory lists more than 3,000 more private school students than the NCES. It would not shock me if they both underestimate the true number, which would generate larger savings.

Second it is also important to note that several other things happened during the same period of history. Arizona, for instance, is closing in on 500 charter schools being in operation. Ron Zimmer of the RAND Corporation and two colleagues studied the impact of charters in Michigan and that private schools lost one student for every three students gained in the charter schools.

There are over 100,000 students attending Arizona charter schools. In the absence of the tax credit program, there would have been a substantial overall decline in private school enrollment. Whether those kids went to charter or district schools, they would have cost you money. More to the point, they will have led the Republic to seriously underestimate the number of private school children who would otherwise be attending public schools without the tax credit program.

If private choice opponents are scandalized by the thought that the credit might cost the state money, I’d like to call their bluff. Arizona lawmakers can create a personal use tax credit for students switching from public to private school (i.e. my kid switches to a private from a public school, I take a tax credit). We can set the maximum credit at $3,000, and taxpayers will save thousands upon thousands of dollars every time a kid switches. Such a program would help close the state’s yawning structural budget deficit.

Any STO critics willing to cut out the middle man for the next generation of parental choice reform and save big money in the process? Or is generating savings not the real issue? If not, let’s keep our focus on real issues. Email me at mladner@goldwaterinstitute.org and let me know.