It’s Too Much Winning Arizona!

April 25, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona winning just does not stop-BASIS scores five of the top 10 US News and World Report’s Top 10 high schools.

You other 49 states are cordially invited to join in the winning. We’ve yet to find any point of diminishing marginal returns here in the Cactus Patch.






The Education of High Performing Students

September 6, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Fordham released an interesting report last week making the case for including high performing students as a subgroup in state accountability systems. Like most of you who spend your time reading obscure blogs written by wonks on a continuing mission to entertain themselves, I am sympathetic to the needs of high achieving students. In fact, recently a person who served as an official in the administration of Janet Napolitano when she was Governor of Arizona told me that gifted education was THE issue when they took office in 2003. The parents of gifted students were up in arms that there was very little to nothing to meet the needs of their children, and elected officials were hearing about it non-stop.

Then, I was told, the parents discovered BASIS charter schools. Things quieted down.

Arizona had badly over-exposed testing items in those days, and the dreaded worksheets drilling to those over-exposed items were too much in evidence once students reached the 3rd grade (the first year of state standardized testing). I experienced this first hand as a parent, and have heard the tale repeated many times in conversations with other parents during the sad, dying days of the AIMS exam. We called it “the 3rd grade wall.”  One of the priorities for those concerned with the education of high achieving students should be to maintain the integrity of the state testing system (aggressively curtailing item exposure and excessive district test prep) imo.

So anyway, I don’t have a problem with including high-achieving students as a subgroup, but I also don’t see it as strong tea.  The NAEP seems to suggest likewise. I ran cohort gains on 4th (2011) to 8th grade math (2015) for a relatively generic group of relatively high performing students- non-FRL eligible students in the general education program. Fordham identified four states as leaders in high-achieving subgroup accountability: Arkansas, Ohio, Oregon and South Carolina.

Math general ed non FRL

So putting on my social science cap, let me note that I have no idea what drives these numbers. One can certainly speculate with some confidence that socio-economics has something to do with it. Massachusetts and New Jersey top the list for instance, and just happen to be two of the four states with an average family income for a family of four in the six figures. DC also did well, but remember this is a very select slice of DC- the part that is knocking the ball out of the park. To the extent that policy has an impact on this (unknown) we should expect lags, etc. so try not to get too excited.

It’s hard to draw many conclusions from this, other than Arkansas’ dead last ranking seems to indicate that states need to do a great deal more than put high-achieving students in as a subgroup. My advice for Arkansas from the Cactus Patch (we are nipping at the heels of MA and NJ despite being much less wealthy and spending far less per pupil than either state btw) is, ah, see about passing some strong choice programs. Also, get BASIS on line one, stat.


Choice 60, Default 0 in Southern Arizona National Merit Semifinalist Bowl

September 15, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So the Tucson AZ based Arizona Daily Star put out a story on 60 Southern Arizona students being names National Merit Semifinalists.  The author didn’t seem to notice what I found most interesting about the story.

For a little perspective, Arizona has five or so percent of students attending private schools, around 18% in charters. So about 70-75% of students attend districts.

A quick run down of the list of students and their students however reveals that about 49 out of the 60 National Merit Semifinalists attend choice schools: charters, magnet, private and home schools. Suburban districts and magnets earned all of the district semifinalists. No one attended a non-magnet Tucson Unified high-school, which is the by far the largest school district in the region.

This is usually the part of the conversation where my enthusiastic union affiliated Tucson friends will dust off their talking points about evil charters creaming students, etc. Note however that Arizona law requires random admission lotteries, a law that does not apply to magnet schools. Thus the school most obviously creaming students (read all about it here on their admission page) is University High, a magnet school run by Tucson Unified. University High had more National Merit Semifinalists than any other school, but you know that minimum GPA, admission test and other criteria just might have something to do with that.

Personally I don’t have a huge problem with an occasional magnet school with exclusive admission policies as long as parents keep the place afloat, but I certainly respect the views of those who do. I do however have a huge problem with people running the most blatantly exclusionary school in the state accusing others of doing covertly what they are doing openly without so much as a teaspoon of evidence.

Just as a thought experiment let’s assume for the moment that all of these charter, suburban district, magnet, private and home schools all represent some sort of student creaming conspiracy and this entirely explains their monopoly on National Merit Semifinalists. I don’t for a moment believe this to be the case, but if it were, er, why did the parents of these bright children choose to enroll them in choice schools? After all if you put these same kids in TUSD they would have done just as well right?

I’m guessing no, not so much. Parents know these kids best and have voted with their feet. If you take the position that a house in a well to do suburban district represents a form of parental choice (I do), the final score is Choice 60, Assigned 0 in the Southern Arizona PSAT Bowl. That goose egg represents a looming catastrophe for Arizona’s future btw- as the number of potential National Merit Semifinalists attending TUSD stood vastly larger than either zero or sixty. I have met some incredibly dedicated TUSD educators who practically kill themselves to effectively extend the school year for disadvantaged students. I don’t think that anyone wakes up in the morning, stretches, yawns and enthusiastically drives to work so that they can make sure that kids fail to reach their potential- that’s not how this works imo.

Every system however is perfectly designed to achieve the results it produces. This system needs a reboot.





Why E.D. Hirsch Should re-examine his position on parental choice

September 26, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So a few years ago when Sol Stern decided to attack parental choice for reasons that are still largely only known to him, City Journal posted an online debate concerning Sol’s article, which included a full-throated endorsement of Sol’s position by E.D. Hirsch.

I had a hard time making much sense of the Hirsch critique. It seemed to read much more as an indictment of bad state standards than of the parental choice movement.  The parental choice movement’s original sin seemed to be in being a “structural reform” that ignored the vital importance of imposing Core Knowlege on everyone.

Or something to that effect, near as I could tell. I was and still am confused with exactly how this is supposed to happen, but I’m sure someone has a fail-safe plan this time.

My own contribution to the debate attempted to make the point that of course the political constraints facing parental choice programs keep them from being some sort of miracle-drug cure-all, but that was hardly a reason to oppose it. I haven’t seen any other miracle cures either. Moreover, there is no reason to imagine that the parental choice movement and the standards movement need to necessarily be at odds.

In any case, above is a picture of the district middle school in my neighborhood-Shea Middle School in the Paradise Valley School District. Shea is proudly announcing that Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Curriculum will begin in August 2013 in a 9000 point font banner you see above. At least one of the elementary schools that feed in to Shea Middle School has also  adopted Core Knowledge.

Shea’s adoption of Core Knowledge might have something to do with the fact that two of the highest performing charter schools in country opened campuses in the area this fall. Arizona homegrown outfits BASIS and Great Hearts both opened new schools within a few miles of Shea Middle School in the Fall of 2012.  Both BASIS and Great Hearts have an impressive record of academic achievement. Some of the Great Hearts schools have generated 1,000 student waiting lists, and both operators have attracted the interest of out-of-state philanthropists.*

Of course it could be the case that these new schools opening in the neighborhood had nothing to do with the decision to adopt Core Knowledge, or to hang a giant banner advertising the adoption for that matter. Other Paradise Valley schools have used the Core Knowledge curriculum for years. It is within the realm of the plausible that Shea Middle School would have been adopting Core Knowledge in 2013 whether facing competition from BASIS and Great Hearts or not. If I were to have the opportunity to ask PV officials about this, they might very well make such a claim with conviction.

And if I hadn’t seen an email from a Parent-Teacher group from one of the feeder elementary schools full of steely determination not to lose students to the new charter schools, I might have even believed them. The email expressed (rational) concern about losing students and listed a number of possible strategies including the adoption of IB, foreign language immersion and (yes) Core Knowledge as reform strategies….and now the banner.

Smoking gun? No. Enough to convince a reasonable person? Certainly.

Parental choice mechanisms have done a great deal to satisfy parental demand for Core Knowledge and CK type schools. If we had more of it, we would also have a higher use of CK and similar curriculum both in district and non-district schools. Hopefully it will prove useful for Shea Middle School. Alternatively, we could dream of a master plan that transforms millions of public school teachers into Allan Bloom in one great non-incremental stroke, but I think we all know how that story ends.

Oh well, back to the old super-genius drawing board…

Personally I am a fan of traditional curriculum and want it to be available to those who desire it. I’m also leery of imposing it on those who don’t. I view American schools as having serious curriculum problems, but plenty of other problems as well. Dirigisme got us into this mess, and some of us are naturally skeptical that a new and improved version is going to get us out of it all by itself.

* Disclosure: I serve on the board of a BASIS school (not the one discussed here) and two of my children very happily attend a Great Hearts Academy (but not the school alluded to here).

Edited for Typos

BASIS Schools names Craig R. Barrett President & Chairman of the Board

July 1, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I have served on the BASIS Scottsdale school board for the past few years, and I am happy to pass along this great news about our very high performing charter schools:

Scottsdale — On July 1, 2010, Dr.  Craig R. Barrett will become BASIS School, Inc.’s next President and Chairman of the Board.  The Arizona non-profit corporation operates some of America’s highest performing schools, BASIS Scottsdale and BASIS Tucson, and will be opening a third school, BASIS Oro Valley, in 2010.  BASIS is planning to open at least three more schools in 2011. The charter schools serve students in grades 5 through 12. 

Dr. Barrett, who served as Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Intel Corporation, has been a long-time advocate for higher standards in American education and is committed to making BASIS Schools a national presence.  Dr. Barrett and his wife, Ambassador Barbara Barrett, first became familiar with BASIS Schools in 2006 when they visited the BASIS Scottsdale Middle School campus and sat in on courses in 7th grade chemistry and 8th grade algebra II.  Their experience with the school, coupled with BASIS Tucson’s top ranking in Newsweek’s list of America’s Best High Schools, led the Barretts to become founding contributors to the BASIS Scottsdale Master Teacher Campaign.  The Campaign not only helped the school expand to offer high school grades in 2007, it also enabled the school to  recruit and retain a highly expert  faculty which was, no doubt, behind Business Week’s assessment of BASIS Scottsdale as the “Top Arizona School for Overall Academic Achievement” in 2008.

In addition to their involvement with BASIS Schools, Dr. Barrett and his wife are generous supporters of excellent educational programs such as the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University (one of the nation’s 3 best Honors Colleges according to Reader’s Digest) and the Thunderbird School of Global Management (ranked the #1 full-time International MBA program by Financial Times and US News & World Report).  Dr. Barrett also co-chairs the Business Coalition for Student Achievement and Achieve, Inc., is a founding member of Change The Equation, the Presidential STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Coalition, a member of the National Governors’ Association Task Force on Innovation America, and is Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of Science Foundation Arizona.

Dr. Barrett is devoted to improving American education, a goal that aligns closely with his new position as President and Chairman of the Board for BASIS School, Inc.  “The average U.S. kid gets an education that is substandard, well below that found in other industrialized countries,” says Dr. Barrett, “BASIS is an isolated instance of excellence in U.S. K-12 education – by the time kids get through middle school, they have taken three or four years of high school math, physics, chemistry, and biology.   As more BASIS schools open around the country demonstrating what is possible, parents are going to begin to question why their kids aren’t getting the same opportunity.”

Dr. Barrett received his BS, MS, and Ph.D. in Materials Science from Stanford University and joined the faculty of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering upon completing his Ph.D.   Dr. Barrett has authored over 40 technical papers, as well as a text book on materials science entitled “Principles of Engineering Materials.”  BASIS Schools is honored to welcome Dr. Barrett aboard.

Job Opening: Basis Schools

May 13, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Vice President Growth: BASIS Educational Group

BASIS Educational Group seeks a Vice President for Growth who will bear primarily responsibility for the implementation of BASIS School’s growth plan. BASIS Educational Group is the Educational Management Organization for BASIS School, Inc., the charter holder for the nationally recognized college preparatory schools, BASIS Tucson and BASIS Scottsdale and for the new BASIS Oro Valley school scheduled to open in August of 2010.


BASIS Tucson, the charter group’s flagship campus, has consistently ranked in both the Newsweek and US News lists of the best high schools in America. Now, BASIS is embarking on an expansion aimed to make the schools a national presence within the next five years.


The Vice President for Growth will be the lead staff person responsible for implementing and coordinating all the elements of the BASIS replication plan. He/she will be responsible for coordinating all relevant applications for new schools and will be responsible for creating a positive recruiting environment in the relevant market areas as well as assuring that a suitable physical plant is ready for occupancy on opening day at all sites. He/she will support student recruiting efforts and will also assist with staff recruiting efforts for new schools as he/she becomes more familiar with the “BASIS model.


Specific responsibilities of the position include:

1.    Evaluating potential locations;

2.    Field testing potential school sites;

3.    Coordinating media relations in new markets;

4.    Coordinating with local BASIS booster groups;

5.    Managing Charter Board relations for replication efforts;

6.    Applying for and managing federal start up funding;

7.    Refining the BASIS building prototype with the BASIS architect;

8.    Consulting with Challenge Foundation Properties (CFP) on the choice of specific building sites;

9.    Coordinating with CFP on construction and financing of buildings.


The Vice President for Growth will work out of BASIS Educational Group’s office in Scottsdale, AZ. Salary is negotiable based on experience and knowledge related to the position. Please communicate your interest to Michael Block, Chairman, BASIS Educational Group, at

The Way of the Happy Warrior

May 30, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Last week, I gave a commencement speech for the BASIS middle school. Newsweek recently named the BASIS Tucson the nation’s top high school. Charter schools took 10 out of the top 100 spots, which is far out of proportion with their numbers.

I had no idea of what to talk about, so I researched commencement speeches on the internet. There seemed to be two models: first you can quote a philosopher and give advice. Second, you can talk about whatever happens to be on your mind.

I chose model 1. For my philosopher quote, I used this nugget that I have seen attributed to Zen Buddhism:

The Master in the Art of Living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion.

He hardly knows which is which.

He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing.

To him he’s always doing both.

When I first saw that quote, I said to myself “WOW- that’s what I want to be when I grow up!”

Let’s face it though, I’m not in much danger of growing up, so it remains only an aspiration for me.

The quote however perfectly describes my colleague at the Goldwater Institute Clint Bolick. The magazine Legal Times recently honored Clint in compiling “The 90 Greatest Washington Lawyers of the Last 30 Years” to mark the magazine’s 30th anniversary. The list honored attorneys for upholding the legal profession’s core values and “fighting to expand liberties and protect civil rights.”

Congratulations to Michael and Olga Block and their BASIS team, and the other charter schools making the list. Congratulations also to Clint, the only person I know getting lifetime achievement awards at the age of 39 (Ok, 39ish) and happily spending his time doing what he loves- suing bureaucrats.

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