Competition and Core Knowledge-Let’s Keep an Eye on a North Phoenix Neighborhood

June 3, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So I have been reading with interest the comment section discussion on Jay’s missed the point piece, which inspired me to follow up on a post I wrote in 2012. Your humble author took the above photograph of Shea Middle School in Arizona’s Paradise Valley School District. This was the neighborhood I used to live in, and I was zoned to send my children to this school (they were elementary age at the time). In the 2012 piece I relate circumstantial evidence that leads me to believe that the 9000 pt font banner you see in the photograph was prompted by the announcement of both a BASIS and a Great Hearts school opening in the area.

The following chart, making use of the AZ Merit results, gives a flavor of why long before the banner hung that my wife and I had already decided that we would explore other options for middle and high school.

MM Shea SM

Mercury Mine Elementary School feeds into Shea Middle School, which in turn feeds into Shadow Mountain High School. These schools are all within easy walking/biking distance from each other, with the middle and the high school being literally next door.  Mercury Mine had a larger number of open enrollment transfers attending when my children attended, which speaks well of the school’s reputation (the neighborhood had a larger number of empty nest residents so transfers were welcome.)  These schools operate in a relatively advantaged area overall, but the slippage over time from elementary to middle to high school scores is evident in both the AZ Merit and the older AIMS data. An examination of parent reviews in Great Schools failed to convince me that my lying eyes were leading me astray in examining test scores. I cast no aspersions here-I’m entirely confident that these schools have a great many dedicated people working very hard in them, but as a parent the trend you see in the chart above was gravely concerning.

So in 2012, BASIS opened a new school within walking/biking distance. What does that look like?

MM Shea SM Basis

BASIS has a dedicated band of internet detractors who complain that BASIS does this/that/and the other thing to pick and choose their students. Some of the enormous difference in scores you see here may indeed be due to factors other than great instruction and hard work by students, but as you can see there is a lot of room to give. Such arguments are ultimately moot without a random assignment study (which we lack) and the discussion is off mission. My intention in showing you this chart is to suggest why neighborhood school leaders seemed to be freaking out in the email to parents referenced in the 2012 post. Er, wouldn’t you?

Now this brings us back to Shea Middle School, which proudly and loudly adopted Core Knowledge starting in 2013.  Due to changes in the testing regime during this period, it is difficult to assess the overall direction of scores, but let’s stipulate that neither Core Knowledge nor the advent of competition proved to be a wonder cure than instantly transformed Shea Middle School overnight. That is not how the real world works after all. It could be the CK and competition will lead to incremental gains over time. Alternatively, maybe the losses to competition come to be viewed a sunk cost and the district schools fail to realize the potential of the curriculum.

Have a good summer- I’ll update this next year with new data and we’ll see how this little neighborhood experiment goes.

Disclosure: your humble author formerly served on the board of BASIS, and sends two of his three children to Great Hearts schools (although not the one mentioned in the post).