If Every Instinct You Have is Wrong…

April 9, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In the Seinfeld episode “The Opposite” Jerry discovers that he is “Even Steven” in that setbacks are quickly followed by gains and his life basically remains the same. Meanwhile, George slowly morphs from a loser living in his parents basement to getting hired by the New York Yankees after giving George Steinbrenner a dressing down about the poor management of the franchise. Meanwhile Elaine ruins a merger of her company and finds herself unemployed. “I’ve become George,” she glumly observes. I often think of this episode when reading odd summaries of Arizona’s K-12 which are opposite of reality. Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego for instance recently wrote a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos making a variety of claims about education in Arizona. The letter however makes a variety of claims about which are demonstrably mistaken. I’d like to address the following paragraph in particular:

Arizona public schools have improved performance over time rather than seeing performance decline. Student performance, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has improved both in the aggregate and across a variety of subgroups as shown in the figure below, which shows NAEP data from the first NAEP exam that includes all states (2003) to the most recent data available (2017) in 8th grade reading and math.

NAEP gains have improved Arizona’s subgroup rankings in overall proficiency by subgroup. For instance the chart below shows where Arizona Black students ranked compared to Black students in other states in 2003 on the left, 2017 on the right on 8th grade math. Moreover, as shown in the figure above, the largest Arizona gains were made by Black students in math (16 points), Hispanic students in reading (14 points) and American Indian students in Reading (16 points). Each of these student groups displayed a command of math and reading at 8th graders in 2017 that we might have reasonable expected their 2003 peers to have shown as 10th graders.


Here is the breakdown for Hispanic students:

Here is the breakdown for Anglo students:

If these levels of gains and proficiency represented the “fifth worst” school system,  the rest of the world would be looking at America’s international test scores with envy.  It seems profoundly unlikely that Arizona students would be making these enviable academic gains if choice harmed their education. Most Arizona students in Maricopa County attend a school other than their assigned district school. Students attending other district options however outnumber charter students by nearly two to one. Statewide charter student vastly outnumber private choice students in Arizona. Individual district schools both lose and gain students through family decisions. Choice is being done primarily by district schools rather than to district schools. Schools which fail to gain the confidence of families as the best option for their child do lose enrollment, but the positive academic trends show that Arizona schools are rising to the challenge rather than wilting under pressure.

Opponents of choice often conflate it with spending, which is misleading. A great many factors influence public school spending- the wealth of a state, the relative priority placed on K-12 compared to contending priorities like health care and higher education, local and state elections on funding and age demographics-states with lots of elderly and young people. One of the factors influencing per pupil funding trends is enrollment growth. Fast growing states have a harder time in accommodating growth and spending more per pupil at the same time. Arizona had the largest increase in per pupil spending among states with a 20% or more growth in enrollment between 2000 and 2015.

I will however agree with Representative Gallego to this extent: Arizona’s academic improvement is not a coincidence. They represent a huge amount of hard work put in by Arizona students and teachers and some very underestimated policies.  This is not to say there isn’t more progress needed (there is) but these gains don’t have “man-hands” or eat their peas one at time and shouldn’t be taken for granted.