The AEA’s Nose is Growing

February 25, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Last week I had the opportunity to discuss Florida’s education reforms on the Arizona PBS public affairs program Horizon with Arizona Education Association President John Wright. We were discussing Florida’s Nation’s Report Scores and I was surprised to hear John make the following claim:

The steepest increases that Florida saw in both reading and math scores were between 1994 and 2002- before most of these reforms took place.

There are a few problems with this statement. First, the Florida legislature enacted most of the reforms in 1999, which falls between 1994 and 2002. The Nation’s Report Card gives tests both 4th grade reading and math and 8th grade reading and math. Florida students however did not take a Nation’s Report Card tests in 4th Grade Math, 8th Grade Math or 8th Grade Reading in 1994.

Florida’s 4th graders did take a test in reading in 1994. Between 1994 and 1998 (the last test given before the reforms) Florida’s reading scores increased by 2 points. After the reforms, Florida’s scores increased by 18 points. A ten-point gain approximately equals a grade level’s worth of learning.

I thought perhaps John had his dates mixed up, but there was something to his assertion on trends, but not so much. Going back as far as possible into the 1990s for each subject, the average gain during the pre-reform 1990s equaled 4 points. Post-reform, the average gain has been 20 points. I you calculate per year gains, the post reform period does almost three times better than the pre-reform years.

John also claimed that Arizona’s K-12 budget cuts were “pulling the rug from beneath the teacher’s feet.” The 2008 Superintendent’s Financial Report however reveals the total revenue per pupil to be $9707 per pupil while the 2009 Superintendent’s Financial Report reveals the latest figure at $9,424 per pupil: a whopping $283 per pupil decline.

The AEA has a budget several times larger than the GI, so it ought to be able to avoid outsourcing his research function to golf hecklers who don’t have their facts straight.

Golf Hecklers of the Arizona Left

February 16, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

JPGB readers will of course remember the great American film Happy Gilmore in which Adam Sandler plays a hockey player who joins the pro golf tour in order to save his Grandma’s house. Happy’s nemesis, Shooter McGavin, employs a heckler to get under Happy’s dome while golfing.

Happy, easily frustrated, loses his cool and gets beat up by Bob Barker.

So taking a page from the Shooter McGavin playbook, the left has given me a stalker of my own. David Safier, a retired teacher and blogger, has taken to spending his time playing the role of “Jeering Fan” to my Happy Gilmore. Safier blogs at Blog for Arizona, a multi-author blog of the Tucson left.

Some time ago, Safier claimed that I had simply manufactured a $9,700 per student revenue figure for the Arizona public school system. Making the assumption that Safier was open to evidence, I produced links to the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Financial Report and the Arizona’s legislature’s research arm documenting the figure.

Chuck Essigs of the Arizona School Business Officials, not someone inclined to often agree with me on education policy, nevertheless had the intellectual honesty to admit that the full spending per pupil figure is around $9,500.  Sadly, the response from Safier essentially amounted to putting his hands over his ears and muttering talking points from his teacher union pals. Something about lunch money for Twinkies getting into the revenue report. No word yet on how this nefarious twinkie money made it into the expenditure report.

The Tasty Magic * of the Arizona Left- We spend $6,000 per pupil-Nothing to see here-Move along

Slowly but surely BfA references morphed from “friend of the blog” to “right wing propagandist” and such. Ah well, no good deed goes unpunished.  A little tour of the Arizona left wing echo chamber proved educational if not satisfying.

Safier has now blogged up a series about Florida, but can’t get even the most basic facts straight.  For instance, Safier tries to claim that the improvement in Florida’s 4th grade reading scores began in 1994, before the reforms. If one visits the NAEP website, however, one learns that Florida’s reading scores were 208, 205 and 207 in 1992, 1994 and 1998.  On a 500 scale point test, the technical term for that is “as flat as the highway between Dallas and Fort Worth.” Mere bouncing around with very low scores.

After 1998, however, scores increase to 214 in 2002, 218 in 2003, 219 in 2005 and 224 in 2007.  A rough rule of thumb is that 10 points approximately equals a grade level worth of learning on NAEP exams. So during the 1992-98 period, scores dropped by a point.  Between 1998 and 2007, they increased by 18 points.

So, the average Florida 4th grader is merely reading at a level almost two grade levels higher than Florida 4th graders were in 1998. Also, Florida’s minority students began outscoring multiple statewide averages back in the early aughts. Nothing to see here! Move along!

In the imaginarium of Safier, the Florida reforms are advancing at the behest of a vast right wing conspiracy foisted upon an unsuspecting Arizona at the behest of the evil Dr. Ladner.

Grade your schools or I'll blast you with my "laser"

The truth is that other states have adopted Florida reforms, still others are considering adopting Florida reforms. The vast majority of people, regardless of ideology, want to see public school improvement.  Sadly, some are so emotionally wedded to the idea that such improvement is only possible if we spend $30,000 a child that they make themselves look silly.  Hopefully this crowd will eventually put on their big boy pants and join the adult conversation.

Until then, I guess they can continue to heckle from their self-imposed exile on the sidelines. In the end, Happy wins the tournament, gets the girl and saves Grandma’s house. The heckler gets stood up by Shooter McGavin at the Red Lobster.

The One Florida Program

October 2, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Public school officials have come to resemble the kids at college football games holding up the sign “Hi Mom! Send More Money!” Public school officials constantly call for additional resources, a call that lawmakers have answered. Nationally, inflation adjusted spending per pupil nearly quadrupled between 1959 and 2004. Unfortunately, there was very little evidence of increased student learning during that period- NAEP scores have been largely flat since the late 1960s despite the increase in funding.


One state, however, has figured out how to utilize the insatiable appetite of schools for additional funding as a carrot to improving student performance.


Florida education reforms not only have improved early childhood literacy, but have also prepared a higher percentage of minority children for college work. Governor Jeb Bush pushed a One Florida Initiative, which sought to replace race based affirmative action with more effective instruction: better preparation rather than lower standards. The results have been impressive.


Working in partnership with the College Board beginning in the year 2000, the One Florida plan sought to increase the academic achievement of Florida’s students, particularly underrepresented in universities. The comprehensive plan included professional development for teachers and counselors and free PSAT exams for students. Florida officials created AP Potential – a web-based tool to identify promising students for AP coursework.


The program relied heavily on incentives, creating an AP Teacher Bonus – $50 for every passing score, up to $2,000. The program also created an incentive for the school, paying the school an additional bonus of $650 per student passing an Advanced Placement exam. Florida officials carefully wrote this bonus into the funding formula so that it went to the school, not to the school district.


The reformers didn’t stop there, however. Florida’s A-Plus reform plan assigns letter grades to schools based upon student performance. The One Florida plan provided an additional school bonus of $500 per student passing an AP exam for schools rated “D” or “F.” The idea was to set high expectations and to reward success.



The National Math and Science Initiative recently collected data on the number of students passing AP exams, broken down by ethnicity. Figure 1 presents the number of Hispanic students having passed an AP exam per 1,000 junior and senior Hispanic students. Florida not only leads the nation in Hispanics passing AP exams, they do so at a rate nearly 8 times greater than that of my home state of Arizona.


Do schools respond to incentives? Judge for yourself: between 1999 and 2007, the number of Florida students passing AP tests increased by 154%. Figure 3 below shows that the number of Florida Hispanic and African American students passing an AP exam more than tripled between 1999 and 2007.



Florida’s education reformers achieved these results for what ultimately amounts to a tiny portion of the Florida K-12 budget. Floridians should not be satisfied with these results, but should be proud of this level of progress- and work to extend it.


The next time the public school establishment calls for additional resources in your state, the question should not only be whether they should get them or not. The question should also be “in return for what?” Pay for performance is an excellent idea for education funding.


In Florida, high-schools get more money the old fashioned way- they earn it.


What Does Florida Tell Us About Broader/Bolder?

September 4, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I have several times noted the vast improvement in Florida’s 4th Grade Reading NAEP scores on this blog. Figure 1 below demonstrates just how large that improvement has been between 1998 and 2007. For those who don’t have an excel spreadsheet open, that is  a 32% increase in students scoring Basic or above, a 54% increase in those scoring Proficient or better, and a 100% increase in the percent scoring at the advanced level.

These results make the so-called “Broader and Bolder” approach seem all the more absurd. There hasn’t been any outbreak of “Socialism for the Children” in Republican dominated Florida, but there has been substantial improvement in the percentage of children learning to read.


Lucky thing too, as state budgets are being consumed by out of control Medicaid spending that it taking an increasingly large bite. Society has several other priorities besides K-12 education, such as criminal justice, higher education, transportation and social welfare. Bottom line: there isn’t the money for the Broader and Bolder approach anyway. This is just as well, as the track record on spending increases fueling academic gains stands as a dismal failure.


Given that we can’t spend our way out of our K-12 problems (and it wouldn’t work if we tried) we should instead seek ways to improve the bang we get for our existing bucks. Fortunately, Florida shows that it can be done.

Demography Is Not Destiny

August 22, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Pacific Research Institute has put out a new study co-authored by PRI Senior Fellow Vicki Murray and some guy from Arizona comparing trends in academic achievement in California to those in Florida. Among the findings: Florida’s Hispanic students outscore the statewide average for all students in California on NAEP’s 4th Grade Reading Exam. Also, Florida’s Free and Reduced lunch eligible Hispanics outscore the statewide average for all students in California. After a decade of strong improvement in Florida, Florida’s African-American students are within striking distance of the statewide average for all students in California, and have already exceeded the statewide averages for all students in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Oh, and Florida’s free or reduced lunch eligible students attending inner city schools outscore the statewide average for all California students.

The point of all of this is not to bash California public schools, but instead to show just how much entirely plausible room for improvement exists. The question isn’t whether disadvantaged kids can learn. Yes they can! The question is whether we adults can get our acts together for the kids.

Another Order of Florida Reforms, Please

July 3, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In 2007, a family of four needed to earn less than $20,650 to qualify for a free lunch. In Arizona, the median family income for a family of four is over $65,000.

Here’s the surprising news: Low-income students in Florida—namely, those who qualify for free lunches—outperform all students in Arizona. That’s the insight to be gleaned by sifting through the treasure trove of data generated by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the Nation’s Report Card.

Figure 1 shows fourth grade reading scores for Florida students whose family income qualifies them for free lunch compared to all students in Arizona.

Figure 2 shows the percentage of Florida’s low-income children scoring basic or above on fourth grade reading and all Arizona students scoring at the same level.

You don’t need to take my word on these scores. You can go to the National Center for Education Statistics website and see them for yourself.

The point here is not to bash the underperformance of Arizona schools. Sadly, they have plenty of company. Rather, these data point to the enormity of the opportunity for improvement which we can and must achieve. Florida has found a way to significantly boost the performance of low-income students. Others should examine how and borrow everything we can.

What’s the Matter with Oregon?

May 28, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)



So, true story, last year I turned 40 near the end of a Phoenix summer. My fantastic wife, who I don’t deserve, told me that she had bought me a mystery trip for my birthday. “You’re leaving Thursday, I’m not telling you where you are going, but the high temperature there is around 78 degrees. You will be staying in a nice hotel and meeting an old buddy. Your pal has all sorts of fun things on the agenda.”



I said, “You had me at 78 degrees!”



So that Thursday I got on a plane for Oregon. I met my old pal Kevin, my partner in crime from my hipster-doofus days in Austin. We hit the Northwest Music Fest and sampled the local cuisine. We rented a car in downtown, and the kid behind the desk informed us that they only had a Jaguar.



Kevin and I looked at each other, and said “Usually we hate Jaguars, but if it the only one you’ve got…”


Twenty minutes later we were going 100 miles per hour headed out of Portland to see the wine country. I told Kevin “You can hit on the Asian women, I’ll be neurotic about merlots…”



Anyway- I noticed two things about Oregon while I was out there. First- the kids all have tattoos. Second, the place is very Anglo.



All of this is a prologue to wondering: why is a place as well to do as Oregon score so poorly on the NAEP?

Florida’s K-12 population is majority minority (50.4%) while Oregon is not (26.4%). According to the Census Bureau, they spend about the same amount per pupil.

One of these states is making substantial progress, and one of them is not. So, what’s going on Oregon? Where is the progress part of being progressive?

I’ll Have What Florida is Having

May 18, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In a recent article for the Goldwater Institute, I found that Florida’s Hispanic students outscore Arizona’s statewide average on fourth grade reading exams. Some readers emailed and wanted to know if this could be attributed to the fact that Florida’s Hispanic population is predominantly Cuban. The short answer is no, because the Hispanic population was also predominantly Cuban in the 1990s when scores were much, much lower.

Other inquiries involved questions about student poverty. Statewide averages for low-income students for Arizona and Florida are broadly similar, but I decided to investigate using the NAEP data. What I found was extraordinary.

Using the data analysis features on the NAEP website, you can get fourth grade reading scores broken down by both race and income. It is not only the case that Florida’s Hispanic students outscore the statewide average in Arizona, Florida’s low-income Hispanic students outscore the average Arizona student.

Arizona is not alone in this. Florida’s Free and Reduced lunch Hispanics also outscored the statewide average for all students on 4th grade reading of California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada and New Mexico. They tied the statewide average for Alaska and South Carolina, and fell one scale point below Oregon and West Virginia.

In 2007, a family of four needed to earn $20,650 to qualify for a free lunch, $38,203 for a reduced price lunch. Nationwide, approximately 80 percent of free or reduced lunch children qualify for a free lunch.

Median family income in California, by comparison, is $64,563.

I appeared on a conference panel recently, and a fellow panelist noted the difference between a problem and a condition. A problem, she said, was something you tried to fix. A condition was something you had given up on and just grown to accept.

Low academic achievement for low-income and minority children is a problem not a condition. Florida under Jeb Bush put in testing and accountability with real consequences, implemented parental choice, reformed reading instruction, curtailed social promotion, liberalized teacher certification, and put in merit pay.

The results speak for themselves. To paraphrase that famous line from When Harry Met Sally: I’ll have what Florida is having.

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal weighs in on the historic vote by Florida Democrats to expand the Step Up for Students tax-credit program.

Florida’s NAEP Scores

April 21, 2008

(Guest post by Matthew Ladner)

Like Greg, I have also been looking at Florida lately. My interest was prompted by Sol Stern’s notion that we ought to give up on school choice and focus on instructional reforms. In City Journal’s debate on Sol’s article, I and others essentially argued that we could walk and chew gum at the same time, pushing both incentive and instruction based reforms. Florida under Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist in fact did this, and the results are breathtaking.

In 1998, the year Bush won election, a stunning 47 percent of Florida fourth-graders scored “below basic” on the NAEP reading test, meaning they couldn’t read at grade level. By 2007, 70 percent of Florida’s fourth graders scored basic or above — a remarkable improvement in less than 10 years.

Best of all, improvements among Hispanic and African-American students helped to drive the overall results. Florida’s Hispanic students now have the second-highest reading scores in the nation; and African-Americans score fourth-highest when compared to their peers. Both groups have a great deal of momentum on their side.

The average Florida Hispanic student score on NAEP 4th grade reading tests (conducted in English mind you) is now higher than the overall average scores of all students in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. Florida’s African Americans outscore the statewide average for Louisiana and Mississippi, and are within striking distance of several of these others.

Free and Reduced lunch eligible Hispanics in fact outscore the average for all students among some of these states, including California.

I can’t tell you precisely how much of these gains can be attributed to testing and other such reforms, and how much to choice and other incentive based reforms. What is very obvious is that some of these gains are the result of choice- that much is clear from Jay’s study, Greg’s new study, and from the Urban Institute study. There are also a number of states that have instituted testing and have flat NAEP scores.

The lesson of this is clear- far from being in competition with each other, tough minded testing and choice reforms are quite complimentary to each other.