The Kind of Control You Are Attempting…

May 11, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Is there much at stake in the fight over academic standards? Studies from no less than Hanushek and Loveless basically show that the standards movement has largely been pushing on a string. There is some evidence that suggests that states that were doing absolutely nothing on testing before NCLB saw above average math gains, but the fact is most states were testing before NCLB, the gains may have been a one time step increase, and evidence linking the quality of standards and/or tests to academic gains is in short supply.

NCLB’s attempt to test the nation’s kids to 100% proficiency (or as Andy Rotherham insists something more like close to it if you read the fine print, which few outside of Andy did) by a date certain ended in tears waivers.

My impression is that the standards movement basically hangs its hat on the Massachusetts experience. Massachusetts has the highest NAEP scores and thus is a good example to study. Massachusetts however introduced a multifaceted reform strategy in the early 1990s, but scholars seem remarkably incurious about which policy changes helped to drive how much improvement. Of course, like the Florida experience, we can never know what policy changes drove aggregate level improvements, but we have a great deal of micro-level evidence on the impact of individual policies. If any of this exists for Massachusetts, I’ve not seen it discussed. Even if we did have a good sense of this based upon a large body of studies, the question of external validity must be considered. Last time I checked MA was one of four states with an average family income for a family of four in the six figures and I’d wager draws an unusually high number of teachers from selective universities.

Why has the standards movement been pushing on a string? No it is not just that states set the test cut scores at incredibly low levels, although they did that:

It’s not just that states held a repulsive 35% of schools responsible for the scores of their special education kids scores in 2009-10, although they did just that:

After all of those things and others most states took the further step of obscuring the results behind a set of fuzzy labels, like Texas:

Some states have pulled this off much better than others, and a high quality system of transparency should be every policymakers goal. The idea that the country has meaningful, widespread “accountability” through state testing is a demonstrably simplistic notion. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was conflating minimal skills testing in math and reading with robust accountability. While this is obviously absurd given a moment or two of reflection, it is also deeply ingrained in people’s thinking that you can do things like show a legislative committee a chart like the one immediately above, only to have a member of that committee berate you a mere few minutes later that private schools “lack accountability.”

Er, lack accountability compared to what? I may have missed it but I’m putting the number of people in Texas having been held responsible for the state’s 28% reading proficiency rate over/under at zero unless you want to blame it on the kids themselves, most of whom have been labeled “proficient” on state tests that the Wall Street Stock Picking Chicken might pass on a good day (see Figure 1).

Well yes, but the Common Core will fix all of this. Except of course it won’t. If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that states all over the place have been adopting their own tests and cut scores and discussing withdrawing all together.  Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

The current chaos shares an origin with the wrecking of the NCLB-era state tests. It is the same reason your tax dollars get used to pay farmers not to grow food so that you can pay higher grocery bills.  Agribusiness is organized and politically active, while eaters are disorganized and politically inactive.  Organized/active beats disorganized/inactive 99 times out of a 100.

So in theory, the state sets out grade level academic standards, and then tests children against those standards. Schools thereby follow a coherent flow of content such that you do simple addition before complex addition etc. In theory teachers and schools that fail to teach the standards get held accountable. In theory, there is no unauthorized breeding on Jurassic Park, but…

As long as you are going to have academic standards and tests, you ought to fight not to have horribly deceptive systems. You should rather fight for informative tests and clear labels, but with the full knowledge that the dinosaurs on your island will constantly be breaking out of your fences in any number of ways. They may even convince some people in the leafy suburbs that the substitution of one set of standards and tests for another constitutes oppression, er, somehow…how? I’m not entirely sure but…ah…stick it to THE MAN!

Bureaucratic accountability, in short, will always face severe political limitations, and even under the best of circumstances is no substitute for parents possessing an exit option. Even under the best theoretical systems there will always be kids who would be better off somewhere else for both academic and non-academic reasons. Decentralized accountability works best with transparency to inform choices, but centralized accountability without choice will inevitably face the gravity well of regulatory capture.

The level of control you are attempting is not possible.



How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Demographic Time Bomb

May 22, 2014

Ladner Orlando

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Yesterday I had the opportunity to present at the American Federation for Children conference in Orlando along with Pat “PDiddy” Wolf, Lance Izumi, refereed by our main man Ed Kirby.  Lance busted out depressing “Not as Good as You Think” evidence on suburban public schools  in California and Illinois.  PDiddy used Bud and Sissy from one of the greatest really bad movies of all time to tell us that school choice research is looking for love in all the wrong places, and even included the great Scott Glenn:


Make fun of my transparent muscle shirt and I will put you in the hospital…

I batted clean up with a talk on age demographics. Someone told me that you can save a power point as jpg files, so I gave it a try. Here is the first slide:

Slide1Here is the most relevant middle slide, showing that a number of states are set to get hit with a double challenge of large increases of young and old people by the year 2030 according to Census Bureau estimates, causing all kinds of health care, pension and education challenges:


So some of you are wondering what your state looks like. Let me just tell you- it is bad. Stay tuned for a Friedman Foundation with the gory details by state. Oh by the way, the people who will be in their prime earning years in 2030 are in the public school system right now, and only a minority of them are being educated to a high level. Ergo the conclusion:

In short, everything we’ve done up to this point needs to have been baby steps towards what comes next.  What comes next needs to be a far deeper and more powerful policy interventions than incremental policies like our current charter and voucher programs. In an earlier panel, Derrell Bradford related that we used to buy our music at Tower Records, used to buy whole albums in order to get a single song, but that Napster and then iTunes had changed all of that for the better. Gisele Huff then made the point that too much of what we are doing in the school choice movement is dedicated to setting up new record stores.

Or perhaps in getting public funds to add a new wing on to the existing Tower Records.

I don’t want to pick on my friends in Indiana too much, as this idea of using public funds to add existing space onto participating private choice programs would doubtlessly have a higher ROI than much public K-12 spending in Indiana and would provide a better opportunity for thousands of disadvantaged children.  Having said that, it strikes me as a troubling idea. In my opinion the focus should clearly be on how to get many of the 2/3 of Indiana private schools who do not participate in the voucher program to change their minds (**cough**less regulation **cough**).

Next, let’s get the scholarship amount up to something decent, let the colleges and universities into the K-12 space, have blended learning make the jump into private schooling, see if you can get a private tutoring sector to flourish (it worked out really well for Alexander the Great and many of the founder fathers btw) etc.  In other words, let’s give parents control of the money and an incentive to consider opportunity costs and see what they come up with.  This could resolve a number of vexing questions.  For instance, how should technology be used to improve learning? I’m not sure, and if you are sure then you may need to work on humility. Perhaps we should let the parents figure that out through a system of voluntary exchange, let them change, customize and improve it over time.  How much should a digital course cost? I have no idea but we have these demand and supply curves that have a really strong track record in figuring questions like that out.

Right now we have an incrementally expanding charter school sector and few private choice programs capable of spurring new private school creation. Even if we improve our choice programs to spur new private school creation, it will essentially resemble a second charter school program incrementally adding new space year by year. This is both highly desirable and nowhere close to where we urgently need to go.

We need to be in this for the kids and the parents, not for a tiny preexisting stock of private schools. Don’t get me wrong private schools- I do deeply love you– but choice funding is the entitlement of the child not of any system of schools.  Private schools need to be a bigger part of the solution, but we should never mistake them for the entire solution.

“We’ve squeezed everything we can out of a system that was designed a century ago,” Marc Tucker, vice chairman of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce told the Christian Science Monitor in 2006. “We’ve not only put in lots more money and not gotten significantly better results, we’ve also tried every program we can think of and not gotten significantly better results at scale. This is the sign of a system that has reached its limits.”  Personally I can think of some ways to squeeze more out of the current system, but their political sustainability will always have limits and Tucker is basically right in his assessment. “I think we’ve tried to do what we can to improve American schools within the current context,” Jack Jennings told the CSM. “Now we need to think much more daringly.”

Time to change the “current context”

Here is my version of daring- let’s give parents complete control over our K-12 funding within a system of financial oversight and academic transparency and incentives to economize and sit back and marvel as they figure out solutions of how to make the best use of limited resources.  We are going to have far fewer resources to provide in the future due to the looming battle between health care and education spending. We must go faster towards increased return on investment and customization. The Economist magazine said it better than I can after it reviewed the evidence on choice and concluded:

In rich countries, this generation of adults is not doing well by its children. They will have to pay off huge public-sector debts. They will be expected to foot colossal bills for their parents’ pension and health costs. They will compete for jobs with people from emerging countries, many of whom have better education systems despite their lower incomes. The least this generation can do for its children is to try its best to improve its state schools. Giving them more independence can do that at no extra cost. Let there be more of it.

Lots and lots more as fast as possible.



Random Pop Culture Apocalypse: Bon Jovi Touring Comes to Film?

April 25, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Loyal Jayblog readers may recall our last episode of Random Pop Culture Apocalypse round about the turn of the decade, which dealt with popular music. In that exciting episode we touched on how iTunes had made Alice Cooper big in Europe and how Bon Freaking Jovi and AC/DC were the top grossing musical touring acts of 2009.  Musical tastes have fractured into micro-genres, making the emergence of a new Monster of Rawk type Rolling Stones/Police/U2 type position almost impossible.  Alice Cooper said he feels sorry for acts trying to come up today because they have to compete not only against each other, but also against the past and that most of them are simply not up to it. Dinosaurs in effect have come to rule the Earth in music.

Could the same thing eventually happen in film? Hmmmm…

There is no doubt that services like Netflix are doing some iTunes to television, but I was thinking about this quote from Alice when it occurred to me that the last 5 films that I paid to see up on the big screen in a row (from first to latest) were:

Hippies had no idea what a disservice they were doing for humanity in teaching Texas rednecks to smoke dope, but at least it makes for a funny movie. Next up:

Ah, the 1990s. How we miss you. Next:

Covered this one already, great to see it on the big screen again. Next:

Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear= priceless. Finally:

I had to trek to Prescott to a film festival for the Matrix, but it was worth the trip to let the Ladner boys see it on the big screen. They seemed suitably impressed.

It remains to be seen whether or not there will be a 2013 release that I enjoy as much as the least of these flicks. Thus far-not so much. Let’s see how the summer goes. In the meantime we can hope that continued improvement in technology will make it more difficult for the studios to continue to push out mostly drek. It seems to have worked for television, which many claim has entered into a new Platinum Age, but then again maybe not.

I don’t know whether the great Jon Bon Jovi was describing the movie industry when he wrote “an Angel’s smile is what you sell/you promised me heaven then put me through hell” but he could have been- hairspray was known to inspire some far-out lyrics back in the 1980s. Rather than lament film drek and/or strike a poseur pose by pretending you liked Terrence Malick’s self-indulgent mess The Tree of Life (someone exclaimed Thank God it is over! at the screening I attended and the audience laughed out loud) the best way to deal with drek is to celebrate it when possible-and it is frequently possible.

So for now the past is beating 2013 5-0. Good luck 2013.

Jurassic Schools

June 16, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The ending sequence of Jurassic Park represents one of the great cinematic thrills of the 1990s. For those of you who couldn’t bear to watch, Drs. Grant and Sadler, et al, found themselves running for their lives inside the Jurassic Park compound, followed by a nasty group of foolishly resurrected velociraptors. The raptors had our heroes surrounded, when suddenly a Tyrannosaurus-Rex appeared to chomp one of the raptors, allowing our human protagonists to slip away. The T-Rex and surviving raptor battled it out. After disposing of the raptor, the triumphant T-Rex bellows out a roar so loud that the overhanging “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” banner to dramatically flutters to the floor.

Now, for you incurable skeptics wondering how the T-Rex got into the building, how it approached with such stealth despite being large enough to shake the ground from far away earlier in the film, etc.- just stop it. It’s a popcorn movie, after all. You didn’t even realize you wanted to see T-Rex vs. velociraptors, but Steven Spielberg did and he delivered the goods.

It’s exciting to watch the future of education unfold, made all the more so by an appreciation of just how dysfunctional our schools are in the present. In 2006, a blue-ribbon panel delivered a scathing indictment of the American public education system. The panel, called the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, included a bipartisan mix of the great and good, including two former secretaries of Education and an assortment of other grandees.

“If we continue on our current course, and the number of nations outpacing us in the education race continues to grow at its current rate,” the report states, “the American standard of living will steadily fall relative to those nations, rich and poor, that are doing a better job.”

The commission has come up with a variety of (IMO) ideas of varying quality, some of which sound misguided (expanding pre-school to 3 year olds) and others that sound outlandish but deserve a hearing, with still others falling into the “no-brainer” category (merit pay).

“We’ve squeezed everything we can out of a system that was designed a century ago,” Marc Tucker, vice chairman of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce told the Christian Science Monitor. “We’ve not only put in lots more money and not gotten significantly better results, we’ve also tried every program we can think of and not gotten significantly better results at scale. This is the sign of a system that has reached its limits.”

“I think we’ve tried to do what we can to improve American schools within the current context,” Jack Jennings told the CSM. “Now we need to think much more daringly.”

The Jurassic angle on all of this has been the reaction of the T-Rex of the education policy world: the teacher unions. T-Rex was none too fond of the report.

Antonia Cortese, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers told the New York Times that the report contains “some seriously flawed ideas with faddish allure that won’t produce better academic results.” My favorite line, however, came from Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association, who urged “caution in calling for drastic changes.”

Hello failed status-quo, meet my pal- the future!

Given the huge percentage of American 4th graders who can’t read, and the large percentage of high-school students dropping out, by all means, let’s be very, very cautious in making any drastic changes.

Don’t get me wrong: caution in making policy changes is a good idea, an underlying principle of conservative thought. Caution in the face of extreme and blaring need for change, however, moves one from the realm of being a conservative to the realm of being a full blown reactionary. The latest NAEP test of reading shows 59 percent of African American and 56 percent of Hispanic 4th graders scoring “below basic” on reading in 2005. Unable to read their texts, huge numbers of these same students will begin to drop out of school within the next five years. We haven’t exactly achieved great return on investment for spending beyond the dreams of avarice for a school administrator from the 1960s.

Unfortunately, the report did not emphasize school choice. It should have. Chubb and Moe had a pretty decent explanation for the failure of public schools: their monopoly on students promotes and enables them to away with it.

Just for fun, go to and call up a list of every high school within 30 miles of the 85028 zip code. This zip code is in North Central Phoenix. You’ll get a list of 200 high schools from all over the greater Phoenix area. Next rank the schools according to their performance on the Terra Nova reading exams. Charter schools comprise nine of the top ten schools. Rounding out the top ten is a magnet school. In other words, all of the top ten high schools are schools of choice. Not a single traditional district school makes the list despite the existence of plenty of wealthy suburban schools.

This is progress my friends, and we need much, much more of it. Dinosaurs have ruled the education earth for too long.

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