Wild West Parents to Ineffective Schools-DRAW!

January 25, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Yours truly has a new piece at Ed Next today called “In Defense of Education’s Wild West: Charter Schools in the Four Corner States.” Here’s the punchline:

Just as the country benefits from political diversity, we also benefit from a diversity of policy approaches at the state level. There are those who seek greater uniformity among state charter-school policies—urging that all charters should be for five years and that default closure provisions should be spelled out, among other guidelines. Such advocates should consider the success of these western states, which have chosen not to adopt such policies. The 50 states will become less useful as laboratories of reform if we adopt a single set of policies everywhere.

Many states—including three of the four featured here—have experienced high rates of overall K–12 enrollment growth, which raises the opportunity cost of imposing a stringent charter-authorizing process. It does not follow that every state should rush to amend its charter policies to match those of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, or Utah, but the obvious flourishing of the charter sectors there offers food for thought. Questions to consider and debate include: What factors have led to success in these states? What steps can policymakers and philanthropists take to enable parents to take the leading role in closing undesired schools? How important a role does open enrollment in suburban districts play in creating a successful bottom-up accountability system?

We don’t know the answers to these questions. But we do know that relatively freewheeling charter-school systems have prospered in multiple states. Surely we have as much to learn from these success stories as we do from the cautionary tales from states that have experienced difficulties.

Check it out and let me know what you think.



Wild West and Loving It

November 9, 2017

NACSA you’ve got some ‘splaining to do!

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The chart below plots the 2015 8th NAEP grade math scores against the 2011 to 2015 NAEP math cohort gains. The below charts include state averages and the numbers for state charter school sectors in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico and Utah. In the NACSA ratings of state charter school laws most proximate to these data, I recall all of these states with the exception of New Mexico received single digit scores out of a possible 30 something points, clustering towards the bottom of the rankings. New Mexico still ranked pretty low. Generally these states lost points for not having default closure and similar type provisions. How did the charter schools in these state manage?

The high performance/low NACSA phenomenon looks to be a western trend. These charts are not stone tablets handed down from the mountain, but I can’t think of any reason they would systematically favor charter sectors. Those “Wild West” charter sectors look, ah, really good at math. If you recall the international comparisons, Massachusetts ranks up there near the best European and Asian countries. Let’s take a look at the reading results:

Well there you have it- AZ, CO, ID and CO all have Massachusetts like results, and it appears that when it comes to spurring reading gains, New Mexico charters are the ultimate power in the universe…I suggest Enchantment State parents use it.

Please do me a favor and email this post to the next five people you hear use the term “Wild West” as a term of derision in an education conversation. Bless their little hearts, but they generally have not bothered to look at empirical data in order to see whether it can be squared with their regional/ideological prejudices.



Parents Administer Frontier Justice in Wild West Charter Schools

July 18, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Parents out west administer quick frontier justice to undesired charter schools and the results are pretty awesome in today’s 74.

Yippie kai yay!

Size Does Matter Visual Aid Followup

April 5, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I posed the question a couple of weeks ago as to why the National Association of Charter School Authorizers would score the charter school law of Nevada three times higher than those of Arizona and Colorado. The Arizona and Colorado charter laws after all have a delightful record of actually producing charter school seats, and both states rocked the NAEP like:

I, ah, have yet to receive anything approaching a coherent response. So I thought I would create a little visual on seat creation. The below chart shows charter schools opening in NACSA’s second rated state (NV) and also Arizona (which had a 9/33 score for most of this period) for the period Nevada has had charter schools (Arizona got a five-year head start). Just to practice my chart making skills, I inserted the flags of each state as the chart filler.

What is that you say? No Nevada is in there– it is just a little hard to spot. See that slightly different color blue smidge at the bottom of the Arizona flag? That is the Nevada flag. Here-let me give you a better look:

I think you have a good idea of what the Arizona flag looks like. This is similar to the NAEP data explorer not being able to give us academic scores for charter school students in Nevada because, well, like the visual the sector is just too small. In fact, when you examine NACSA’s top 10 ranked charter school laws, the list correlates strongly with small sectors, weakly with impressive results.

I want to make sure that my friends in the Silver State understand that I do not want to be understood to be critical of their efforts-I want nothing but the best for Nevada charters. Rather I want to not set the bar too low on defining charter school success, nor to misunderstand what actual success in charter schooling looks like. Hint: success looks a lot like Arizona and Colorado.

The comment section as always remains open if someone would like to explain why a rational person would score Nevada’s charter law three times higher than Arizona and Colorado. And by “any rational person” I mean “any rational person who supports charter schools” as obviously lots of people who do not support charters would have ample reason to rank Nevada’s law three times higher than Arizona or Colorado’s- as from that perspective delightfully contained.


Colorado Faces the Future

July 22, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This week I’ve been writing about Colorado’s charter school sector’s delightfully high NAEP scores. To wrap this up, I’d like to put this success in a broader context of Colorado’s present and future.

So if you’ve been to Denver in the last few years, it is hard not to notice that the place is booming. The Big Bird construction cranes kind of give it away.  Growing up in oil-boom Texas, I was told about an old saying that held that if you see more than two Big Bird Cranes in a downtown area get ready for a crash. Denver seems to be defying this old nostrum comfortably. So far.

Favorable age demography stands as big if subtle factor in favor of Colorado’s boom.  The state has an unusually large working age population vis-a-vis the elderly and youth populations. Demographers quantify this through age dependency ratios- take the number of working age people (18-64) and dividing that by the combined number of 17 and younger and 65 and older. The basic idea is that at any given time working age people are pushing society’s cart, while young people are drawing upon public services such as education (for the young) and healthcare (for the elderly) at high rates.

Colorado age dependency


In 2010 Colorado had an age dependency ratio similar to that of the United States as a whole in the 1980s and 1990s.  Lots of working age people with relatively few elderly and young people worked wonders for the United States back then as the Baby Boomers entered their prime working, earning and taxpaying years.  We even had these quaint things called “budget surpluses” at the federal level in the 1990s while the Republicans and Democrats locked each other up and the tax revenue continued to pour in.

Ooops almost got drawn down the 1990s nostalgia event horizon. In any case with one of the nation’s lowest age dependency ratios, le bon temps continuer à rouler dans le Colorado! Perhaps Colorado will make better use of the current boom than the country made of the 1990s in education, as you see from the figure above that the Census Bureau does not project favorable age demography to last.

Colorado youth and elderly

Colorado is currently advantaged by a large middle-aged population, but middle-aged people have a funny way of becoming old.  Elderly people typically move out of their prime earning years, thus paying fewer taxes, and represent some of the most expensive patients in our health care system, some of which state taxpayers foot the bill. A growing elderly population creates strains on all other state spending priorities.

Over the next 15 years, through a combination of an expanding youth population and (mostly) through population aging, the Census Bureau projects Colorado’s total age dependency ratio to move from one of the lowest in the nation in 2010 (55) to a number that is far higher than any state in 2010 (72).  The Colorado of 2030 will have greater age demographic challenges than the Arizona or Florida of today.

One of the few things you can do about this now- world class education results. The United States largely squandered this opportunity in the 1990s, and the consequences seem ever more obvious and ominous.  The American economy may or may not be “rigged” but it seems terribly likely to seem that way to those who did not acquire the knowledge and skills to succeed in life in school. Is there any aspect of American life more rigged than K-12 education?

Colorado’s embrace of charter schools has rewarded the state with a highly effective system of schools producing globally competitive results.  A survey found that 66% of Colorado charter schools had wait lists, and they average size of the wait lists was larger than the average student enrollment of a charter school. Wonderful though it is, one can infer from this that the charter sector alone cannot satisfy parental demand for options. Colorado needs as much improvement as it can get from any and all available sources. More effective and more cost effective education is precisely what Colorado needs and what charter schools have delivered, but the pace needs to quicken.

Much of the Colorado working age population of 2030 will be going back to school in a few weeks. A slowly growing but still minority of these students show globally competitive academic achievement. The clock is ticking- Colorado has the opportunity not to repeat America’s mistakes from the 1990s, but it is far from a given. Unless you succeed, you’ll live to regret it. Colorado has however a record of success to build upon- fire up the Big Birds!



Rocky Mountain HIGHHHHH!!! (State Score Backup!)

July 21, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’ve been digging into the very impressive NAEP scores of Colorado charter schools.  NAEP is the gold-standard of academic testing data, but it does make use of sampling whereby a representative sample of students in each state takes the NAEP rather than every single student. Charter school students in Colorado are now more numerous than say left handed kids with blonde hair and blue eyes, and each NAEP example involves a separate sample of students.  So a single sky-high score on one of the NAEP exams for charter school students could easily be the product of a favorable sample, solid achievement across all four tests instills confidence.

Still it is good to examine other testing data that does not involve sampling. The Colorado Department of Education released a 2016 State of Charter Schools Triennial Report that contains state testing data comparisons for charter and district schools. This data addresses a different question than what we have examined in the previous two posts. Previous posts have demonstrated that Colorado charter schools show top-notch performance across a variety of subgroups when compared to high-performing states. The data below uses state data to address how Colorado charter students scored compared to Colorado district students.

These data have further limitations. The report notes them as “preliminary” and we do not have access to the raw data- only the percentages of students meeting for exceeding grade level benchmarks. The Arizona Charter School Association analysed state data and determined that the state data displayed an even larger gap between charter and districts than the NAEP gaps. Without analysis however, we can’t make comparisons between state and NAEP data. Note also that judging by NAEP that Colorado’s district system is relatively high performing itself compared to other states.

With those caveats in mind, the state data shows a consistent advantage for charter students in math:



And in English Language Arts:

CO PARCC Reading

The report contains some breakdowns by student subgroups (family income, ethnicity) on both the current and previous state exam. These comparisons broadly favor the charter schools. The report also presents aggregate data on schools by type under the state’s accountability framework:


For those squinting at their Ipads, the last four columns basically show that a smaller percentage of Colorado charters fell into the “Does Not Meet/Approaching” category (40.52% to 52.07%) than districts, and a larger percentage made either “Meets/Exceeds” (59.48% for charters, 48.93% for districts).

The overall conclusion of these data is not that Colorado charter schools are “good” while Colorado district schools are “bad” whatsoever. Good or bad for whom? The good news for Coloradans is that you have a system of independent public schools operating at scale and producing on average world-class academic results.

Keep it up- in the concluding post I’ll show how Colorado’s need for highly skilled/educated workers is set to grow over time.

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