American Families Rebel Against K-12 Standardization with their Pocketbooks

September 27, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Research from Sabrino Kornrich and Frank Furstenberg tracks enrichment spending by family decile income. The above chart tracks trends in enrichment spending by the top and bottom deciles of income over time. As you can see, upper income families are enriching with increasing gusto, while lower-income families have flat enrichment expenditures.

Enrichment- coming in various forms such as tutors, club sports, Kumon, Mathnasium etc. has become increasingly ubiquitous among the posh. It seems entirely normal, but we should recognize the significance of this trend. In addition to the equity issue staring back at you in this chart, there is also something else worth noting in the data: upper-income America continues to put their children into public schools in high numbers but they are solely relying upon those schools less and less. It’s always been the case that all American families should know better than to entirely rely upon any school to provide the totality of the education of their child. Upper income families have the ability and increasing willingness to act. Jay refers to this trend as hybrid homeschooling. I think of it as a better American version of Japanese cram schools.

In places like Japan and South Korea university admission is highly selective and competitive, and families routinely send their children to what are called “cram schools” after their regular school to prepare for admission exams. Andrew Coulson made a convincing case in Market Education that these private after school programs were more responsible for Japan and Korea’s high PISA scores than their public school systems.

To which America says “I see your obsessive preoccupation with standardized test prep mania and raise you a hackerspace for kids!”


If that’s not your child’s cup of tea don’t worry because there are many other options. On the academic side you can get Advanced Placement coursework and textbooks for free, and take the AP exams for a shot at college credit for approximately $85 per course. That however is just academic stuff, albeit academic stuff that can earn you college credit at an amazingly low price- how about something fun like animation camp? Or museum programs? If you go to you can find all kinds of stuff- from art, music, wood shop to ethics classes.

The trend towards enrichment may in fact be in part fueled by the overreaching of standardization in public education. Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman for instance noted in Education by Choice:

To the extent that schools of choice must conform to state imposed curriculum requirements, the principle of family control is compromised. Each centrally imposed curriculum prescription or prohibition tends to shrink the proportion of families that can be satisfied. If the state demands too much the effect will go beyond simply adding or eliminating certain courses; entire schools will be excluded. For example some preexisting private institutions would refuse to participate if sex education were required, others would refuse if it were forbidden. It seems sensible for us for the state to impose very few restrictions or mandates. In general schools should be free to please themselves and their customers.

Coons and Sugarman go on to say that in a choice system we should allow individual public school campuses to decide upon their curriculum as well. Such freedom is far more plausible in a liberal system of choice, and in the absence of that freedom local control was largely abandoned in a largely futile effort to improve outcomes through centralization. In many ways Coons and Sugarman arrived a place similar to John Stuart Mill, who had warned presciently:

All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.

American families have deep misgivings about the conduct of public schooling, especially the modern practice of standardized testing. We should aspire to a schooling system that is a good deal more than providing test-prep custodial care for the advantaged before they move on to more genuine educational experiences after school. Likewise, the equity issue in the above chart deserves to be addressed but realistically must be addressed within a context of increasingly constrained resources. The trend towards top-down standardization in K-12 has predominated in recent decades and produced too little at too great a cost despite good intentions. It’s time for a more liberal approach that gives opportunities to educators to create schools and educational experiences, and families the opportunity to select among them. The last 40 years has gone mostly wrong, some bold states should see if Mills, Coons and Sugarman had it right.



Arizona Gains and the Orbit of Mercury-Wrecking Balls for Flawed Paradigms

December 21, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

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.

Arizona 8m NAEP

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.

AZ charter vs. district

Arizona’s AZ Merit exam demonstrated even larger gaps between charter and district scores than the NAEP, providing external validation for the NAEP scores.

Moreover Arizona charters, like districts, have been operating in a very tough environment. Back in my Goldwater Institute days, I would go to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee website as a rich source of for refuting complaints about public school spending. As it happened, the districts were getting more students, and the spending per pupil was climbing. Cry me a river. The Great Recession however clobbered the housing dependent Arizona economy and the same document now shows that the Great Recession shot Arizona school funding in the arm, punched the gunshot wound, and then threw us out through the front windshield.

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.

AZ Mercury 1

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).

Arizona Mercury 2

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:

Arizona Mercury 3

The differences in the above charts only display direct impact of charter school scores the statewide average. We have substantial reason to believe however that the growth of charter schools has indirectly raised Arizona scores as well through competition. In other words, charter schools almost certainly deserve some of the credit for the blue columns in the above chart rather than merely the difference between the red and the blue.

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. 


Gloom and Gloomier

February 1, 2011

The editors at Education Next have two essays on the state of education reform that remind me of Woody Allen’s never-delivered university commencement speech:

More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

In one essay, Paul Peterson, Marci Kanstoroom, and Chester Finn reject my rosy assessment of progress in the war of ideas about education reform, saying “It’s way, way too early to declare victory. Atop the cliffs and bastions that reformers are attacking, the opposition has plenty of weapons with which to hold its territory…. It’s dangerous to think a battle is over when it has just begun.”

In the other essay, Frederick Hess, Martin West, and Michael Petrilli go even further in their gloom, arguing not only that the war has hardly begun, but that the reform warriors are really the enemy:

First, reform “support” resides with a mostly uninformed, unengaged public—one that isn’t especially sold on their ideas and that, in any event, is often outmatched by well-organized, well-funded, and motivated special interests. And second, and more unfortunately, many reformers are eagerly overreaching the evidence and touting simplistic, slipshod proposals that are likely to end in spectacular failures. In short, some forces of reform are busy marching into the sea and turning notable victories into Pyrrhic ones. To quote that wizened observer of politics and policy, Pogo: We’ve met the enemy, and he is us.

That’s funny.  I thought the enemy was a monopolistic, bureaucratized 19th century school system propped up by teacher unions and their allies who place the interests of adults over the needs of children.  I guess I was wrong in not understanding that it is really the opponents of that system who are the problem.

In truth, I don’t really disagree with much of what either essay has to say.  It is all just a matter of emphasis and framing. In my declaration of victory I was careful to acknowledge that the war over policy has barely begun and reformers have a long and difficult road ahead:

We won!  At least we’ve won the war of ideas.  Our ideas for school reform are now the ones that elites and politicians are considering and they have soundly rejected the old ideas of more money, more money, and more money.

Now that I’ve said that, I have to acknowledge that winning the war of ideas is nowhere close to winning the policy war.  As I’ve written before, the teacher unions are becoming like the tobacco industry.  No one accepts their primary claims anymore, but that doesn’t mean they don’t continue to be powerful and that people don’t continue to smoke.  The battle is turning into a struggle over the correct design and implementation of the reform ideas that are now commonly accepted.  And the unions have shown that they are extremely good at blocking, diluting, or co-opting the correct design and implementation of reforms.

Rick Hess correctly demonstrated how important design and implementation are almost two decades ago in his books, Spinning Wheels and Revolution at the Margins.   And it is always useful for him and others to remind reformers of the dangers that lurk in those union-infested waters.  But for a moment can’t we just bask in the glow of our intellectual victory — even if our allies are a new crop of naive reformers?

Yes, there is a danger in thinking that the policy war is over when it has barely begun.  And yes, there is a danger in over-promising and over-simplifying reform ideas.  But there is also a danger in reform burn-out.  The struggle over school reform has been going on for decades and will almost certainly take several decades more.  Donors have grown frustrated and advocates have jumped to ill-conceived quick fixes that would set the cause of reform back significantly, like adopting national standards and assessments.  If we don’t periodically note our policy progress and intellectual victories, we will have great difficulty sustaining the reform movement.

My view does not really differ substantially from the two essays in Education Next except that they see a greater danger in over-confidence and I see a greater danger in burnout.  And I don’t mind being used as the straw man for their arguments.  The Straw Man had a brain.

Lefty? You Take that Back!

June 25, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Mike Petrilli has completely misunderstood my response to his and Checker Finn’s NRO piece last week.

I would let it slide, but the man also called me a “lefty,” so now my honor is at stake. (And even while delivering this shiv to the ribs, he calls me “our friend Greg Forster.” Beware the smiling mamba!)

Pistols at ten paces being illegal, I must content myself with another blog post.

To recap:

1) Mike, writing with Checker, claimed that in the NCLB era the kids at the bottom had made good progress while the kids at the top remained unchanged.

2) They said this meant that NCLB had sacrificed “excellence” in order to promote “equality.”

3) I responded that if it’s true the kids at the bottom are getting better while the kids at the top are staying the same, it sounds like we’re making progress toward both more equality and more excellence.

Well now Mike throws this at me:

Is the whole population getting “more excellent”? No, the whole population is making incremental progress. That’s surely good. But excellence is something else entirely. According to Webster’s, it’s the quality of being “superior, eminently good, first-class.”

So the improvement in learning among the lowest-performing students is “incremental progress” but it is not an improvement in excellence. Well then, incremental progress toward what, exactly, if not toward excellence? If they keep making incremental progress until they’re all as smart as Einstein, wouldn’t that be excellence? And doesn’t that mean that the progress they’re actually making now is progress toward excellence? So if that’s not an improvement in excellence, what is it?

Then he delivers the shiv:

Greg’s definition equates “excellence” with a narrowing of the achievement gap. That’s breathtakingly radical. Who knew that Greg had become such a lefty!

Mike, I said we were making progress toward both equality and excellence. I didn’t say that progress toward equality was progress toward excellence. If I say that my daughter is getting both taller and smarter at the same time, does that mean I equate height with intelligence?

If we want to parse definitions, I would define narrowing the achievement gap between groups as an improvement in “equality,” and any raising of the level of achievement – whether across the board or in a particular group – as an improvement in “excellence.” And obviously you can have both of those at the same time without collapsing the distinction between them.

Meanwhile, by Mike’s definition, if some students improve while others stay the same, we have made no progress toward excellence. I don’t think that’s the way the word “excellence” is normally used.

If I wanted to respond to Mike’s final paragraph in kind, I could say this:

By Mike’s definition, no matter how much improvement the other kids in the class make, only the kids at the top of the class can ever be capable of “excellence.” That’s breathtakingly reactionary. I had no idea he was such an elitist!

But I would never do something like that to a friend.

More Equal and More Excellent? Yes, We Can!

June 19, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

While I’ve been debating the merits of the DC voucher study with Matt this morning, I’ve also noticed Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli have a colunmn attacking NCLB on NRO. They cite John Gardner’s question “Can we be equal and excellent too?” and argue that NCLB sacrifices excellence for the sake of equality – neglecting education for the top students in order to raise those on the bottom.

Their evidence? Students in the lowest decile have made big gains in the NCLB era, while those at the top have flat achievement scores.

The broader question of the tradeoffs made under NCLB I’ll leave for another day, but it seems worth pointing out that Checker and Mike’s evidence doesn’t back their argument; in fact, it backs the reverse.

Pop quiz!

Question One: If the kids at the bottom are doing better while the kids at the top stay the same, is the whole population getting more equal or less equal?

Question Two: If the kids at the bottom are doing better while the kids at the top stay the same, is the whole population getting more excellent or less excellent?

I’ve always agreed with NCLB critics that universal excellence is an unreasonable goal. But if it’s unreasonable, why are Checker and Mike holding that out as the goal by which NCLB should be judged?

On the other hand, if the current system is badly dysfunctional, then by correcting its worst flaws it may be possible to increase equality while also increasing excellence. Eventually we must reach a point where the two goals will start to diverge and we have to make tradeoffs. But that doesn’t mean we’re already at that point – as Checker and Mike’s evidence suggests.

Can we increase equality while increasing excellence? Yes, we can!