Unfortunately a large majority of the nation’s K-12 students are in the tight cluster of meh and sub-meh in the stagnation cluster. Judged by 8th grade math and reading gains 2003 to 2015, Arizona, Hawaii and Tennessee are having the best improvement. New York is still alright if you like saxaphones academic stagnation.
The 2017 NAEP will be released on April 10. Anyone else believe in any of these blue dots enough to dare a prediction?
Lisa Graham Keegan takes to the pages of Fordham to talk about lessons learned out here in the Wild West in When Regulating Charter Schools Proceed with Caution. Lisa raises the point that other policies, including A-F school grading, may have contributed to our success. I suspect that she is entirely right about that, but to me this is the money quote:
Moreover, Arizona’s “wild” charter journey led to many low-income, highly performing charter management organizations that can only be found in the Grand Canyon State. Many are community-focused and community-developed, which we all say that we want, but their first priority was on stabilizing the communities they grew from. In other words, they weren’t very good academically to start—but they did transform their neighborhoods, and parents trusted these new schools with their precious children over many other options that went out of business due to lack of enrollment. Years later, many of them, like Academies of Math and Science, Mexicayotl Academy, and Espiritu Schools, are now among the top performing schools in not just the state, but in the country, and were highlighted in last week’s Education Equality Index. The thing is, it took a decade to do that. And we Arizonans let it happen.
Translating this into Ladnerese- if Arizona had five year charters and default closures we might have arbitrarily closed some schools which blossomed into very high performing operations that now do a great job with disadvantaged kids. I use the word might because even if the Arizona Charter School Board had gone hillbilly nuts technocrat (Hey man- hold my beer while I close this school- this gonna be AWESOME!) the schools in question would have got their parents riled up, hired lawyers to engage in delaying actions, etc. I for one am happy that the schools LGK mentions could focus their energies on improving academics rather than fighting a bureaucratic guerrilla war.
Meanwhile these schools faced a much harsher form of accountability- from Arizona parents. Hundreds of Arizona charter schools have closed, and their average length of existence is 4 years, with an average of only 62 students in the final year of operation. If you live to see year 5 as an Arizona charter school, you are probably doing something right because everyone wants your students- your home district, fancy school districts like Scottsdale, Madison and Chandler are playing the open enrollment game, the other charter schools, and the private schools with the assistance of choice programs.
Frontier justice does not allow for parents to appear at a hearing to vent their anger, or for lawyers to file motions, or allies to lobby their political contacts for reprieve. The parents simply never enroll and/or walk away, there are private efforts to explain the reality of the situation to those institutions needing hospice care to wind down, and meh and sub-meh bleeds out on a dusty street full of hot lead. Some of you don’t believe this. Some of you don’t want to believe this. Well…just maybe…
So Lisa Graham Keegan and I finally had the opportunity to collect on our bet with Mike Petrilli on the 2015 NAEP. You may recall that Mike bet us before the release of the 2015 NAEP results for Reading and Math that Arizona’s NAEP scores would decline. Using our spidey-sense, LGK and I bet Mike that they would be going up, not down. Arizona’s NAEP scores did go up. Mike was a good sport and quite appropriately paid his debt to us in copper cups (one of the state nicknames is the Copper State).
Depending upon how you examine the data Arizona is either near or else is at the actual top on gains. Measured by student cohort over time, Arizona’s 4th grade class of 2009 made more progress on Math and Reading between 4th and 8th grade scores in 2013 than any other state. Arizona’s 4th grade class of 2011 achieved the same pinnacle in their 2015 scores as 8th graders. (NAEP Math and Reading exams are both scaled and timed to allow such comparisons). The gains for Arizona charter school students dwarf those of Arizona as a whole, or any other state.
So anyhoo, the term “Wild West” is being thrown around as if it is a term of derision by some of those uncomfortable with the selection of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Here in the actual Wild West we wear the term with pride. The Arizona charter school sector has a majority minority student population, scored like a New England state on all six NAEP exams, and shows consistent results on the state PARCC exams.
Let me know when your state pulls something like that off, because I will be happy to celeNAEP with you. In the meantime, NAEP will be giving state level exams in Reading, Math and Writing in just a few weeks! Let’s see what happens next…
Barry Manilow’s classic song Copacabana is a very catchy upbeat tune with a sad underlying story about a person living in the past:
Her name is Lola, she was a showgirl But that was thirty years ago, when they used to have a show Now it’s a disco, but not for Lola Still in dress she used to wear Faded feathers in her hair She sits there so refined, and drinks herself half-blind She lost her youth and she lost her Tony Now she’s lost her mind
For reasons that may become apparent if you read it, this column responding to one published by myself and Lisa Graham Keegan in the Arizona Republic brought the unfortunate image of Lola to mind. Our opponent’s column is a pretty standard recitation of anti-choice talking points, but there is an underlying sadness to it in my opinion.
Arizona lawmakers passed charter schools in 1994 and the first private choice program in 1997. So thirty years ago districts were effectively Arizona’s only show. We had parental choice back in those days, but it was the old-fashioned kind. If you could afford to buy a house in Scottsdale etc. or to pay for the tuition at Brophy Prep, you had choice in the lost near monopoly era of Arizona K-12. Otherwise, it was unfortunate to be you.
I’ve written on this blog previously just how awful the results were from this era. The NAEP gave us state level data from 1992 and 1994 before our policymakers began any effort to broaden the ability to exercise choice. Only 28% of Anglo 4th graders read proficiently in, er, English in 1992. Arizona still has a lot of work to do, but at least has been trending in the right direction.
I’m not going to bother to point by point this column, but rather to simply focus on a few faded feathers in its hair. Approximately 3,000 children participate in the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account program, and the majority of them are children with disabilities. Arizona has a great many individual high schools with more than 3,000 students, and yet in the fever dreams of opponents these kids should be made into scapegoats for all the problems of public education. It’s sad.
Arizona has been leading the nation in 4th to 8th cohort gains on NAEP, but rather than celebrate this fact and seek more, some would rather wallow in learned helplessness, convinced that they can’t do better unless they receive money that the state does not have. It’s sad.
Part and parcel of this complaint is to claim that districts take “all comers” while charter do not. Arizona charters however must conduct admission lotteries while district open enrollment decisions are left entirely to the schools. Fancy district schools are open to “all comers” if you can afford to purchase housing in their attendance zones, otherwise they all to often resemble Aspen vacations or shiny new German sports sedans- wonderful things if you can afford them. We started the process to democratize the opportunity to choose, but some prefer to keep choice as a privilege for the few rather than the birthright of all. It’s sad.
Some (not all by a longshot!) spend their efforts yearning for a near monopoly era that is never coming back. In my youth growing up in the South I can remember a few old people who would babble about the “War of Northern Aggression” and whatnot. It’s a bad look to live in the past. There are real and very deep issues to debate when fashioning choice policy but to engage in them seriously one must broaden beyond stale talking points. Quite frankly Arizona districts deserve better advocacy strategies than complaining about the disco ball while yearning for what was more of a stone than a golden age. This “strategy” is unworthy of the dignity of the great many outstanding educators working very hard in Arizona’s improving district school system.
Mr. Education: Matt Ladner. Dr. Ladner’s blogs on NAEP scores and the outstanding performance of Arizona’s charter schools, which put us in a statistical dead heat with top-performer Massachusetts, were must-reads for education wonks and those of us tired of reading only the bad news about Arizona’s K-12 system. Dr. Ladner offers readers a welcome and needed national perspective. We are lucky he is based here in Arizona. He’s the Paul Goldschmidt of education policy: he’s a gentleman, generous with his time, and produces the equivalent of quality at bats every game.
I have not felt so honored since being awarded the first (and as far as I know only!) Lifetime Bunkum from NEPC, and after that Mrs. Ladner had to my post bail and then drive me to the hospital. I mean who could have possibly suspected that Caesar’s Palace suites could catch fire? Jay and Greg tend to point fingers at each other. Or maybe it was Holly Madison and those tigers that are really to blame. Enlow just had to invite them back to the suite. In the end we all know that all roads of suspicion ultimately lead back to the Barbarian.
In any case it was a heck of a week until that happened.
But I digress…any time someone who could not jump rope to save his life gets compared to the great Paul Goldschmidt it’s time to celebrate, or better yet to CeleNAEP, just a little calmer this time! My sincere thanks to my great partners in reform at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and A for Arizona.
Recently I made an off-hand comment about Arizona NAEP gains being like the problem with the orbit of Mercury. I decided that it would profit from some further explanation. Newtonian mechanics seemed to have everything figured out, with that nagging problem of the orbit of Mercury doing something it shouldn’t. The “problem” with the orbit of Mercury of course wasn’t really a problem at all. It turned out to be a problem with our incomplete understanding of how the universe works- as illustrated in the above video.
So just how do Arizona NAEP scores resemble the orbit of Mercury? The 2015 NAEP shows that Arizona charter school students scoring in the range of New England states. Arizona charter schools serve a majority minority student population and spend only $8,041 per student- about a thousand less per student than Arizona districts and far less than the average spending in New England states.
Arizona’s AZ Merit exam demonstrated even larger gaps between charter and district scores than the NAEP, providing external validation for the NAEP scores.
Look at those guys! Their NAEP scores are going to collapse!
A little before the release of the 2015 NAEP, Mike Petrilli offered a friendly bet of a beer to me and Lisa Graham Keegan that Arizona’s NAEP scores would go down between 2013 and 2015 based on economic difficulties. We both instinctively thought they would go up, and they did. We are thirsty Mike! Taking a longer term view of the entire Great Recession period however proves more revealing.
Arizona scores have improved at six times the national rate on 4th grade math, 7 times the national rate on 8th grade math, five times the rate on 4th grade reading and 2.67 times the rate on 8th grade reading. How did a state that saw a decline in inflation adjusted spending per pupil drop from $9,438 in 2007 to $7,828 in 2014 (see JLBC doc link above) manage to outpace the nation in progress by such a wide margin? District interests here have a non-stop mantra about Arizona’s relevantly low ranking in per pupils funding but, er, why are we outpacing the nation by such a wide margin even as our funding declines?
Whoa- that’s unpossible!
Something is wrong here- but it is not Arizona’s positive score trends. What is wrong is some very common assumptions about K-12. I’ll get to that below.
The reality of Arizona K-12 improvement is of course complicated and defies any single explanation, with big changes going on at the same time. One factor that obviously contributed and that we can quantify charter schools. The next figure shows the NAEP gains by subject/grade for Arizona students for districts and charters (2015 scores minus 2007 scores).
Some may attempt to dismiss the difference between charters and districts as a product of differences in student populations. Only a random assignment study could definitively test this assumption, but a large amount of evidence suggests which way such a (sadly non-existent) study would fall. Arizona charter students rank well when compared to statewide averages when compared to a wide variety of subgroups (general ed, White, Hispanic, etc.) While differences in student populations could explain some of the differences between Arizona charters and Arizona districts, they can’t be put to similar use in explaining why Arizona students outscore similar students in New Hampshire. Arizona law also require random lottery admissions, serve a majority-minority student population and the improvement we see in the district scores does not exactly sit comfortably with a massive brain drain to charters story. If all of Arizona’s brightest students were fleeing to charters, it would put a substantial drag on district scores. Instead we see district scores improving.
Arizona has a higher percentage of students attending charters than any other states, but that still only falls in the teens– 13.9% in 2012-13. Even so these gains are large enough to make a noticeable difference the aggregates:
The reason I was willing to take Mike’s friendly bet on 2015 NAEP scores- I believe that by far the greatest opportunity to improve K-12 lies in making more efficient use of existing resources. In the opening pages of his 2004 book Hard America Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation’s Future the astute observer Michael Barone noted the following:
Public schools for example may be the most notable example of a predominantly Soft institution-which helps explain why American children are confined mostly to Soft America. But as we will see, our schools have not always been so Soft; they have contained corners of Hardness, and there are signs they are getting Harder now.
“Coddling” is not a term one would use to describe Arizona public education during the 2007-2015 period. Declining spending forced both district and charter leaders to seek efficiency. The state passed a law forbidding schools from making reduction in force decisions exclusively on length of service- this was very wise. Ineffective/expensive workers should be the first to go in a reduction in force- the alternative being to RIF a much larger number of young employees regardless of their effectiveness. Federal stimulus and a temporary sales tax increase delayed the need for these adjustments-but only temporarily. During this period Arizona lawmakers began grading schools A-F, and the combination of (mostly) recession related slow population growth and expanded competition halted what had been a non-stop process of student population growth for districts. Charters continue to gain market share against districts- and now both a more rigorous state test and NAEP show a substantial academic advantage for charter students.
None of this is easy for district leaders. It’s not exactly the cold howling wind of market competition, but it is a much higher level of competition and transparency than that to which the K-12 folks feel accustomed. Their world has become less stable and more competitive-Harder to use Barone’s phrase. To their credit, many district leaders have embraced the challenge.
It’s very difficult. It’s also very good for children.
NAEP has given 40 exams on mathematics and reading to representative samples of Arizona students in various years since the early 1990s. As a low-income state with more than its share of student challenges (high poverty and non-native English speaking rates), Arizona has never met or exceeded the national average score – until now.
Arizona’s eighth-graders edged out the national average in mathematics and only narrowly missed doing the same in reading. Therefore, Arizona’s Class of 2019 carries a special distinction in state history – one that future classes can both match and exceed. Achievement has improved substantially since the last pre-recession measures in 2007.
Of notable attention are Arizona’s charter-school students, who matched the scores for the highest-scoring states on the 2015 NAEP. On eighth grade mathematics, for instance, Arizona charter students scored in a statistical dead heat with Massachusetts, the highest scoring of the 50 states.
So we’ve had a little drama out here in the cactus patch.
Arizona has a State Board of Education appointed by the Governor and a Superintendent of Public Instruction elected by the voters. Per the Arizona Constitution, the Superintendent is a member of the Board. The previous Governor appointed all of the current members of the board. The board has a small staff, and we are five or so weeks into the terms of the new Governor (Ducey) and Superintendent (Douglas). Some of the current members of the Board participated in the decision for Arizona to join Common Core. Governor Ducey campaigned on replacing Common Core while keeping high standards. Opposition to the Common Core served as the animating issue of the Douglas campaign.
A few days ago one of Douglas’ subordinates appeared before the two top staffers of the State Board of Education, announced that they were fired, and had an officer escort them out of the Department of Education building (the Arizona Board’s meeting room and staff inhabits the Department of Education building). The Board chair immediately stated that the Superintendent lacked the legal authority to take this action.
Governor Ducey’s team studied the matter over night and in the morning sided with the Board. As it happens, there is a directly on point advisory opinion from the Arizona Attorney General on the subject from 1985. The underlying statutes are clearly murky. Officials routinely follow Attorney General opinions in preference to having office holders sue each other- a sort of intergovernmental arbitration but formally lacking the force of law or a court decision. It would likely take an incredibly erroneous advisory opinion to have a court reach a different conclusion quite frankly because courts are busy with real cases and aren’t likely to want to jump into the quagmire of endless minor disputes. Advisory opinions are the fast solution to this with strong incentives for officeholders to abide by them.
This AG opinion examined the relevant statutes and clearly sides with the Board on the question of who has the authority to hire and fire board staff.
So why are you reading this tedious story? For the fun part, the epic press release from the Superintendent. Her reading of the relevant statutes is very different than the advisory opinion. The press release accuses Governor Ducey of seeking to short change schools “to give his corporate cronies tax cuts.” This is a reference to an ongoing lawsuit by public schools against the state, but that lawsuit is currently in settlement talks, the state is broke, and only modest tax changes have been placed on the agenda this year.
A little further down she states that “Clearly he has established a shadow faction of charter school operators and former state Superintendents who support Common Core and moving funds from traditional public schools to charter schools.” This is an overt reference to my Ducey transition K-12 co-chairs (one works for a prominent charter school outfit and the other is a former Superintendent of Public Instruction who supports Commn Core) and well, anyone who wants to know what any of us think about K-12 policy can either ask us, or gather intelligence through “google.” I mean I guess there is some way to be more transparent on the subject than writing columns, studies, blog posts, books and giving public talks, but I just don’t know what it is yet.
No, no, NO! #shadowFACTION! Not you!
Common Core as a plot to drive more students to charter schools is an innovative theory, but one that fails to withstand a moment of scrutiny. Charter schools are subject to exactly the same testing requirements as district schools. Unless the charter school folks have somehow stolen the answer key this seems fanciful. Did I mention that Governor Ducey does not support Common Core? Yes, that again.
Anyhoo, later down the press release makes a rather strident complaint about the need for lay-persons and African Americans on the board. This is odd in that Governor Ducey has yet to make any appointments to the Board and has been in office for all of five weeks and has pressing matters like a very large budget deficit and other issues with which to contend.
Just to be clear I personally am comfortable with the position Governor Ducey articulated in the campaign on state standards-high but not common. Arizona has had them in the past but lacked the fortitude to keep them. The state will have academic standards for district and charter schools for the foreseeable future, and Arizona’s old system jumped the shark many years ago. Having said that, the state is scheduled to give a test in a little over two months and has yet to do little things like set the cut scores, a task for (you guessed it) the Board, who could use, well, a staff.