The One You Want to Attend

June 6, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A former Al award nominee once sagely informed us:

So here it is-the After Party. I have continued to receive congratulations from JPGB readers all week on my humbling (Get a Life)time Achievement Award from the NEPC. Reactions include:

This is just awesome!! I’m so impressed!!!

Congratulations Matt!

Such an honor!


I couldn’t be more proud to know you!

I am so damn jealous – apparently we’ve all got to up our game to keep up with you!

The awards video is creepy. what a weird thing for them to do. congrats!

I have not been this vicariously proud since…..

Matt can die happy, knowing that he can never top this!!!

Our boy’s all growns up.


I think you are far from being able to ‘die happy’ as you said on Jay Greene’s blog as there are other awards to be earned. I’ve heard that you are in the running to be named in the Journal of Medicine as the leading cause of high blood pressure among NEA officials. Keep at it my friend…I know you can win this one.

Grand Prize Winner:

This is the equivalent of receiving the Bradley prize..just without the money.

Now this is a very perceptive comment indeed. The NEPC (Get a Life)time Achievement Award is in fact so profoundly opposite from the Bradley Prize in every way, so much so that they become strangely similar.

It goes without saying that we in the reformer tribe hold a deeply skeptical view of the policy preferences of teacher union leaders, but now comes word that their credibility has waned even among public school teachers and of course actions speak louder than words. This party just keeps getting better-when does Snoop Dog go on?

Ladner Celebrates Lifetime Achievement Award!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

May 31, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I feared that my career had peaked upon receiving a Bunkum Award from the NEA’s rent-a-reactionary academic shop, but today I learned that I can now die happy as the first recipient of a Lifetime Bunkum Award. The prestigious award reads as follows:

 NEPC has never bestowed an individual with a Bunkum Award. But we’ve never before had someone campaign for one, and we’ve never before found someone with an individual record of Bunkum-worthy accomplishments that cries out for recognition. This year, however, we are honoring Matthew Ladner, an advisor to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s advocacy organization, the “Foundation for Excellence in Education.”Dr. Ladner’s body of Bunk-work is focused on his shameless hawking of what he and the Governor call the “Florida Formula” for educational success.  As our reviews have explained, they’d be less deceptive if they were selling prime Florida swampland. One cannot, however, deny Dr. Ladner’s salesmanship: gullible lawmakers throughout the nation have been pulling out their wallets and buying into his evidence-less pitch for flunking of low-scoring third graders and other policies likely to harm many more students than they help.  See here and here for more analysis of Dr. Ladner’s body of bunk and its unfortunate reach.Our judges were particularly impressed recently, when Ladner attributed Florida’s “hitting the wall” drop in NAEP scores to a collapse in the housing bubble and other “impossible to say” factors. Bunkums have been awarded for far less impressive an accomplishment than this sort of “heads I win, tails you lose” use of evidence. So Matt Ladner – this Bunkum’s for you.You can watch NEPC’s award ceremony youtube here:

My reaction:

Honestly I can’t take credit for this great honor. It was Governor Bush and his team of fearless reformers who ignored the wailing howls of K-12 reactionaries and forced through a set of reforms that improved Florida education steadily over time. It is they who deserve credit for moving Florida from one of the worst performing states by ignoring the “expertise” of NEPC’s ideological tribe and drove their low-income literacy scores above statewide averages for all students.

My role in all of this has simply been to help document the progress, all of which happened over the howling objections of NEPC’s soul mates. NEPC has mounted a series of feeble attempts to muddy the water. Their first effort completely ignored a peer-reviewed article in the nation’s most influential education policy journal that fell directly on point to concerns raised in the article. Oh and it also contained an appendix that refuted its own central thesis. Undeterred, the next effort a “review” of a Powerpoint presentation that the critic didn’t see. All of this climaxed with sending out one of their scholars to claim that Harry Potter books may have caused the improvement in Florida reading scores. This is, you see, because Harry Potter books are seldom read outside of Florida, and no, I am not making this up. An audience of hundreds witnessed it with their own eyes.

I am thrilled to receive this Lifetime Achievement award. Reformers around the country have begun the process of making K-12 policy based upon things other than the political preferences of the special interests organized around the K-12 status-quo. If this grand undertaking were a play, I would have but a small role in it-this is far, far, far bigger than me and bigger than Florida. Notice for instance that both the Progressive Policy Institute and the Center for American Progress earned NEPC Bunkum Awards this year (congratulations!) which is a probable sign that those groups are doing good work and a certain sign of the political and intellectual isolation of the teacher union left.

I want to thank my family, my teachers and professors, my mentors and all the other people who helped me to win this unique and prestigious award. You know who you are and you hold my deepest appreciation. I want to thank those who fought so hard to produce the gains which NEPC is so desperate to obscure. Most of all I want to thank NEPC for revealing what they fear most, which we can infer from this year’s Bunkum ritual seems to be the success of reformers and their own isolation from their former allies in the morally and intellectually serious left, apparently in that order.

I will now redouble my efforts in the hope of becoming the first winner of a second lifetime Bunkum Award. Otherwise, I will have no worlds yet to conquer.

Grade Retention is Common Nationally but Effective in Florida

February 28, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I came across an interesting study from NCES recently concerning the practice of grade retention that creates yet another hole in NEPC boat regarding their Florida theories. In fact, here is a link to a study from the ASU precursor to NEPC by Columbia Teacher College Professor Chatterji (one of the NEPC critics) from 2003 calling on Florida to “rethink sanction and retention policies in light of new and past research showing that retention does not improve student achievement.” 

Now you can look at the below figure and ask yourself just who needs to reconsider what. The red line is FCAT 1 scores for Black students, the Green line is for Hispanic students, and the blue line is for all students.

The NEPC boat is already sitting on the floor of the ocean, but hey, why not drop a depth charge on it?

The main pet theory of the NEPC squad has been that Florida’s 4th grade NAEP scores have been profoundly warped by the state’s retention policy. This beats the daylights out of their Harry Potter theory, but there still is far less to it than meets the eye. Problems with this theory include a substantial improvement in 4th grade NAEP scores before the retention policy went into place, a substantial decline in retentions since the onset of the policy, and a substantial improvement in 3rd grade reading FCAT scores.  Oh and the advent of mid-year promotions and a few other things which NEPC has been either unable or unwilling to address. The peak of any aging effect would have come in 2005 and declined substantially, and yet Florida’s scores continued to rise.

An implicit assumption of this theory was that Florida is doing far more K-3 retention than other states around the country. After seeing this NCES study, I am no longer certain this is the case, especially now that Florida retention has fallen so substantially. Let’s dig into the data and find out.

State level data on grade level retention is very difficult to come by outside of Florida. However, NCES included a question about retention in their parent survey. Low and behold, 10% of parents in the NCES survey report that their child has been retained for one or more grade in grades K-8, more than 20% of low-income parents.

NCES: Students retained in one or more grade, K-8

So first off, this is quite a bit higher than I would have suspected and the trend has been rising. Given the hostility that many College of Education Professors have towards grade retention, it seems apparent that many of the teachers and administrators that go through their programs are not buying what they are selling on retention.

Now that we have a measure of retention nationally, we should explore the question of how prevalent the practice is in Florida. The Florida Department of Education provides this handy chart for the statewide numbers for retention for students in grades K-12. The technical term to describe this chart is “falling off a cliff.”

So if you rummage around in the spreadsheet provided by the Florida Department of Education on retention by grade level and add a few cells together, you can calculate that the total retention figure in Florida in 2009-2010 for Grades K-8 was 54,843.

That sounds like a lot, until you go over to the NCES Common Core Data (note to Jay, Greg and MWAB- not the academic standards, please call off the cruise missle strike :-) and learn that there were over 1.7 million students in the Florida K-8 system in 2009-10. When you do the math, it turns out that 3.9% of Florida K-8 students were retained during the 2009-2010 school year. What about the peak of Florida retention the year the 3rd grade retention policy took place in 2003-04? The total retention rate for that year was (waaaaait for it…..) 5.5%- a little more than half of the national rate that the NCES found in 2007.

We don’t have national data for K-3 retention, which is what we would need to do an ideal comparison, but the data we do have certainly establishes that there is a substantial amount of retention going on around the country, which will be having some impact on NAEP scores of states across the nation, not just Florida. Unless a state is doing far more than average, it retention is likely to be white noise overall- blips in the error term. Furthermore, it is not clear that Florida was doing more K-3 retention than the national average, even during the peak of the practice in 2003-04.

Mind you that I make no claim that retention is necessarily a good practice overall. I think there have been terrible retention practices, such as the practice of “redshirting” 9th graders in Texas back when the state gave a 10th grade exit exam. Redshirting was a widespread district level practice not mandated by state law and it was truly an awful policy basically designed to get students to drop out of school in 9th grade and thereby inflate the passing rate for the 10th grade exit exam.

There was nothing admirable about Texas redshirting. I would venture to guess that both a casual and a sophisticated analysis of data would have found it associated with higher drop out rates.

The Florida policy however is the opposite of the old Texas practice in that it is designed to set kids up to succeed rather than to fail. Not only have there been bad retention practices, there has also been a great deal of bad research done on retention that lacked the statistical rigor to establish causality. Do cancer drugs kill people, or is it the cancer? Most of the retention research doesn’t allow us to answer that sort of question.

Jay, Marcus Winters and the RAND Corp however have been applying sophisticated regression discontinuity designs to retention policies in Florida and New York City. They have found positive academic results. RAND found no self-esteem harm to students, and that NYC educators have generally positive views of the policy, to boot.

The question is not whether retention is “good” or “bad”- that all depends on how it is used. The evidence on the overall literacy effort in Florida-which includes retention as a centerpiece-is overwhelmingly positive.

Ladner Begins Campaign for a Second Bunkum

January 28, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Valerie Strauss put up a post from Anthony Cody denouncing the new ALEC Report Card on American Education, coauthored by your humble blogger. As unhinged screeds that any fair-minded reformer is happy to bank in their trophy case go, this one is pretty funny, so go check it out. Cody writes:

Under NCLB, it was schools that were declared failures. In states being granted waivers from the most onerous requirements of NCLB, it is teachers who will be subjected to this ignominy. Of course we will still be required to label the bottom 5% of our schools as failures, but if the Department of Education has its way, soon every single teacher in the profession will be at risk for the label.

This revelation came to me as I read the 17th edition of the Score Card on Education prepared by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), authored by Matthew Ladner and Dan Lips. This is a remarkable document. It explains where each state stands on the education “reform” initiatives that have become the hallmark of corporate philanthropies, the Obama administration and governors across the nation.

As revelations go, this one reads like a fever-dream. First there is a weak attempt to misconstrue a quote from Winston Churchill. For the record I graduated from public schools, my mother worked in a school district, and Dan and I both view the improvement of the public school system as vital to the success of the nation, which will be clear to any sensible person who reads the book.

Next there is a good bit of conspiracy theory babble concerning the American Legislative Exchange Council. This has become fashionable in Occupy Wall Street circles, but they seemed to have failed to notice that if ALEC really were a Shadow Conspiracy Illumanati-Trilateral Commission pulling the strings behind “like everything man!” why would they be publishing their agenda in public on a regular basis? When did conspiracies start operating out in the open? They’ll have to mull that over in the fever swamp and get back to us.

Finally, apparently everyone from Barack Obama on the left to Mitch Daniels on the right is a “corporate reformer” these days. I’m happy to place myself in that spectrum. In the previous edition of the report card, we put forward the position that the nation’s schools needed to view the process of adopting student test score gains thoughtfully and with the understanding that we have a lot to learn.

The fact that we have much to learn however does not mean that we should stick with the status-quo, which is utterly indefensible. The author however is obviously mourning the loss of the dark-ages practice of making no consideration of student learning gains at all. If so, he has much bigger problems than little ole me- perhaps he should be firing his diatribes at President Obama, who merely called for the end of unconditional tenure in the 2012 State of the Union address.

After wading through a fog of ideology, the author starts to level complaints about specific district policies. If these complaints have any merit, a very large if indeed, then Cody should take them up with the districts and states that formulated them.

These policies are not, after all, being secretly dictated from the ALEC Central Command Star Chamber but rather have been adopted by legislatures and school boards.  Reactionaries do not lack for representation in such forums. The NEA for instance enjoys a budget dozens of times larger than ALEC. If they were to actually match a sensible stance that could be squared with the best interest of students to go along with their political muscle, they would surely prevail.

Instead, we see them losing these debates, even in some deep blue states. Watching reactionaries cry in their beer about those losses while implicitly adopting a “we’ll start winning if we go completely unhinged” strategy is a satisfying, even delicious, bonus. I’m hoping that stuff like this will serve as a Golden Globe win as I campaign to receive another Bunkum from the NEPC ubber-reactionaries.



J.K. Rowling: The Jeb Bush of the NEPC Florida Fantasy

September 13, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona School Boards Association had their annual law conference last week, and had William Mathis from the Think Tank Review Project present on “Are Things as Sunny as They Seem in Florida?”

I went first, and presented charts like this, showing the vast improvement in Florida’s 3rd grade reading scores:

I have repeatedly asked the Think Tank Review Project people to explain why Florida’s 4th Grade NAEP scores continued to rise in 2007 and 2009 even as 3rd grade retention fell substantially. Or for that matter, why their 3rd grade scores have improved so strongly. Dr. Mathis made no attempt to address the issue.

I also presented charts like these:

Now, call me crazy, but when you are the state called “Arizona” in above chart, you might want to make a careful study of what the other state did to get their English Language Learners to read. This phenomenon  of course is not limited to ELL. Another chart I used showed the combined learning gains on all four NAEP tests for children with disabilities for the entire period we have data from all 50 states (2003-2009).

Just in case you are squinting that’s Florida in red with a gain of 69 points and Arizona in green with a decline of two points.

Dr. Mathis proceeded with his presentation unperturbed. He complained about the 3rd grade retention policy without any effort to explain why Florida’s 3rd grade scores had so profoundly improved, and why Florida’s 4th grade NAEP scores continue to increase even as retention rates have significantly declined.

To give Dr. Mathis’ presentation the fairest possible reading, I would say that he was trying to make the following points: that correlation is not causation, and that to use the terminology of Campbell and Stanley, I had not “controlled for history.” That is to say, there could be other possible explanations for Florida’s gains other than the reforms.

Now it is of course the case that correlation can lead us very much astray, and it is the case that “history” has a nasty habit of bedevilling our theories of causality. As I have noted in the past, however, the Florida reforms unfolded in the real world, rather than in a random assignment study. A great many things unfolded all at once. This is called “life” and there is nothing to be done about this but to gather as much data as possible to draw the best informed decisions we can.

Both Chatteriji and Mathis ignored the Education Next piece in which Dan Lips and I examined other possible explanations for Florida’s gains. Huge spending increases (nope), decline in the percentage of low-income or minority students (nope-increases in both), preschool voucher program (nope- students too young to have aged into the NAEP sample) and class size amendment (nope- implemented very slowly, gains already well under way, formal evaluations negative) and retention law (scores continued to rise even as retention fell). This sort of information might be unhelpful if you are simply trying to get the idea in that something other than a set of hated reforms drove the gains.

Mathis however posited other types of “history” and noted other ways that the world had changed after 1998. On his list of other parts of uncontrolled “history” with regards to Florida’s gains were Harry Potter books (kids reading more fiction) and the more widespread availability of personal computers at home.

Sadly, the format of the panel did not provide time for rebuttal. We had two other people on with us, and took questions from the audience. Had there been such time, however, I would have noted that while Arizona may seem backwards to outsiders (Dr. Mathis lives in Colorado) that we do in fact have Harry Potter books and even personal computers in our humble little patch of cactus. In fact, I am rather confident that Harry Potter books and personal computers became increasingly pervasive in all 50 states.

You never know, Harry Potter books could have powerful educational properties that only manifest themselves on massive peninsulas with high rates of humidity and large concentrations of alligators. The children of Arizona, landlocked in an arid climate, and with not much more in the large lizard department than the occasional Gila monster, may have been left behind. I can’t prove that this isn’t the cause after all.

Nevertheless I’m going to stick with my theory that Governor Bush’s success in implementing a varied and comprehensive set of K-12 reforms in 1999 served as the driver for the large increases in academic attainment seen in Florida’s NAEP scores since 1998. Dr. Mathis and his compatriots can continue to play their stategic nihlism game if they wish, ignoring the problems with their arguments and the studies most on point for the subject at hand (like the regression discontinuity studies of Florida’s retention policy).

Until they put forward a plausible explanation for Florida’s gains, I cannot for the life of me find any reason to take them seriously.

NEPC’s attempt at strategic nihilism

August 4, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In the American film classic Animal House there is a scene where students smoke marijuana with their English professor, played by Donald Sutherland, and speculate that it could be the case that the molecules in your fingernails each contain a microscopic universe.

You can’t prove that there aren’t microscopic universes in your fingernails, after all, so they might be in there!

A nice post from Mike Petrilli on the Florida NAEP score gains prompted a response from Kevin Welner from NEPC that shows that the spirit of Sutherland’s Professor Dave Jennings is alive and well at the University of Colorado.

Again there is no attempt to address any of the gaping holes in retention theory. These holes include the fact that Florida’s 4th grade reading scores had improved substantially before the retention policy went into effect, and that they have continued to rise even as retention has fallen off substantially, and that they have fallen off substantially because of a very large improvement in 3rd grade scores.

Welner attempts to tiptoe around this by noting that our EdNext article addressing these points were addressed to a previous Walter Haney paper on the subject rather than the NEPC stuff, which is a distinction without much of a difference. The Chatterji paper contains a carbon copy of the Haney analysis. Amazingly, Chatterji dinged Burke and I for not doing a literature review (not the norm in our tribe) and then cites neither the Education Next paper nor Haney’s analysis. At best, she employed a double standard and at worst, she owes Professor Haney an apology.

Welner’s broader project is to attempt to use the causation problem as a shield. We don’t know, after all, exactly what caused Florida’s remarkable learning gains. Florida’s reformers had to implement their reforms in the real world rather than in a petri dish or in an Intention to Treat Random Assignment study. Welner believes that this allows him the opportunity for strategic nihilism:

The truth might be: (a) there are not actual improvements (the current study is too weak to say whether or not there are), (b) there are improvements, and they’re caused by a combination of all these things, (c) there are improvements, and they’re caused by something none of us pointed to (perhaps the green shirts??), or (d) there are improvements, and they’re caused by some of the things we’re pointing to BUT some of the other things we’re pointing to are actually harming students (just not enough harm to overcome the benefits of the other things).

In other words, when it comes to understanding the FL package of reforms, we are flying blind.

Welner is flying blind all right, but it is by choice. Let’s take each of these little gems on one at a time:

A. The NAEP results show very substantial improvements, as do other indicators.

B. I have always held that the exact cause for the improvement is impossible to know, because Florida’s reformers enacted multiple reforms simultaneously. The logical response to this is not to do none of the Florida reforms, but to do all of them.

C. Florida lurked near the bottom on NAEP for many years, enacted reforms in 1999, and then enjoyed sustained gains over time. While it could be the case that some mysterious X-factor caused the improvement, I’ve yet to hear a plausible theory regarding this. Dan Lips and I addressed multiple possibilities in the Education Next article, including demographic change, spending, etc, and found no evidence to support them.

D. This could be the case, but I haven’t seen a single scrap of evidence to suggest that it is actually the case- return to B above.

Welner is of course correct that there is a correlation and causation problem to consider. As a practical matter, there is nothing else to do but to carefully examine the evidence and history and draw the best conclusions that we can. Dan Lips and I did this in the Education Next article. Florida’s reforms coincided with the student population becoming poorer and less Anglo. State lawmakers increased funding per pupil, but it wasn’t by much and is still below the national average. NEPC complains about a lack of mention of the preschool voucher program when those kids have yet to age into the 4th grade NAEP sample. The class size amendment was implemented very slowly, long after Florida’s scores had begun to rise.

If Dr. Welner would like to provide a plausible explanation for why Florida’s NAEP scores increased so much after 1998, I’d be very interested to read it.

If he prefers to attempt to continue to play games, NEPC’s credibility will go on double secret probation.





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