Innovators and Laggards in Southern Arizona

August 7, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Tucson Daily Star carried an (unintentionally) amusing vignette on education policy. Arizona has a growing teacher shortage. Baby Boomers retiring, fewer students going to Colleges of Education, etc. Old hat to long-time JPGB readers such as yourselves. So last session the legislature decided to show a bit of respect to “local control” and give school districts more flexibility in hiring. Arizona charter schools have been hiring non-certified teachers for 22 years now and it seems to be working just dandy on the whole, so why not give districts the same larger pond in which to fish for talent?

I must have seen my friend Janice Palmer, the former lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association who now works for the Helios Foundation, attempt to remind legislators that they believe in local control umpteen dozen times over the years. Moreover I am entirely confident that I saw but a small fraction of the total number of such appeals. Districts want local control-so here it is!

So what’s the problem? Nothing much, except most of the districts in Tucson either don’t want it or can’t quite figure out what to do with it. From the Daily Star:

The measure, approved in May, was designed to get more teachers into classrooms, yet weeks before the school year was set to begin, Tucson-area districts reported having nearly 200 openings to fill.

Tucson’s largest school district, TUSD, made up the bulk of those vacant teaching positions, with 120 as of Wednesday, July 26. Still, TUSD said it plans to place long-term substitute teachers in classrooms rather than hiring people with no formal training.

“We’re big advocates of teacher certification programs, believing that teaching kids is an art and you learn that in teacher education programs,” said TUSD interim Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo. “I don’t want to make the assumption that someone without certification would be bad for kids. There are a lot of wonderful adults who would do well by kids … I would say they wouldn’t be as effective as a teacher as somebody who is fully certified.”

Well then let’s check the research-paging Dr. Gordon. Dr. Robert Gordon of the Brookings Hamilton Project. Dr. Gordon? Oh here you are:

So certification path seems to have approximately nothing to do with student learning gains. Colleges of Education shouldn’t feel too bad as I am sure that medical schools in the Middle Ages also suffered from this sort of thing. And of course the “long-term substitutes” theory tends to often work out as “revolving door of instructors inflicted on kids” rather quickly in practice.

Ah well, not all is lost in southern Arizona. The district with the strongest reputation for innovation-Vail Unified to the south of Tucson-took a different approach. They decided to use their new freedom.

The Vail School District, recognized as one of the top achieving districts in the state, however, has decided to give noncertified teachers a shot, putting 40 people with no formal training into classrooms.

As a result, Vail started the new school year two weeks ago with no vacancies in a regular classroom.

“That was a huge accomplishment,” said Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker. “If you look at what’s happening in other school districts in the county, many have over the last couple years as the teacher shortage has become more acute, often students were starting the school year with a substitute teacher. We had to do that in the last couple years and we managed to avoid that this year and we did that because in part we had access to a larger pool of candidates.”

But the Vail School District isn’t just hiring anyone, Baker said.

Of the 24 elementary alternative certification teachers, 17 are Vail School District parents.

“I think that’s a really important statistic because it indicates that the alternative teachers we are hiring, most of them are not just somebody we met or just on a fluke decided to apply and we hired because we are desperate,” Baker said. “These are people we know because their children are going to school here and often their principal said, ‘You should apply.’ And these are people who know us and who have trusted their children to us and have a very strong commitment to making sure our schools are of high quality.”

Superintendent Baker was quick to add that liberalized certification is not a cure-all for the teacher shortage (I agree) but kudos to him for starting the year with a teacher for every classroom. And call me crazy but hiring people who have skin in the game and have already been volunteering and training them up sounds like a great idea.

Tucson Unified kids have been transferring to Vail schools through open enrollment in large numbers for many years. If TUSD parents find their kids getting the revolving door treatment, they should consider doing the same.


Choice 60, Default 0 in Southern Arizona National Merit Semifinalist Bowl

September 15, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So the Tucson AZ based Arizona Daily Star put out a story on 60 Southern Arizona students being names National Merit Semifinalists.  The author didn’t seem to notice what I found most interesting about the story.

For a little perspective, Arizona has five or so percent of students attending private schools, around 18% in charters. So about 70-75% of students attend districts.

A quick run down of the list of students and their students however reveals that about 49 out of the 60 National Merit Semifinalists attend choice schools: charters, magnet, private and home schools. Suburban districts and magnets earned all of the district semifinalists. No one attended a non-magnet Tucson Unified high-school, which is the by far the largest school district in the region.

This is usually the part of the conversation where my enthusiastic union affiliated Tucson friends will dust off their talking points about evil charters creaming students, etc. Note however that Arizona law requires random admission lotteries, a law that does not apply to magnet schools. Thus the school most obviously creaming students (read all about it here on their admission page) is University High, a magnet school run by Tucson Unified. University High had more National Merit Semifinalists than any other school, but you know that minimum GPA, admission test and other criteria just might have something to do with that.

Personally I don’t have a huge problem with an occasional magnet school with exclusive admission policies as long as parents keep the place afloat, but I certainly respect the views of those who do. I do however have a huge problem with people running the most blatantly exclusionary school in the state accusing others of doing covertly what they are doing openly without so much as a teaspoon of evidence.

Just as a thought experiment let’s assume for the moment that all of these charter, suburban district, magnet, private and home schools all represent some sort of student creaming conspiracy and this entirely explains their monopoly on National Merit Semifinalists. I don’t for a moment believe this to be the case, but if it were, er, why did the parents of these bright children choose to enroll them in choice schools? After all if you put these same kids in TUSD they would have done just as well right?

I’m guessing no, not so much. Parents know these kids best and have voted with their feet. If you take the position that a house in a well to do suburban district represents a form of parental choice (I do), the final score is Choice 60, Assigned 0 in the Southern Arizona PSAT Bowl. That goose egg represents a looming catastrophe for Arizona’s future btw- as the number of potential National Merit Semifinalists attending TUSD stood vastly larger than either zero or sixty. I have met some incredibly dedicated TUSD educators who practically kill themselves to effectively extend the school year for disadvantaged students. I don’t think that anyone wakes up in the morning, stretches, yawns and enthusiastically drives to work so that they can make sure that kids fail to reach their potential- that’s not how this works imo.

Every system however is perfectly designed to achieve the results it produces. This system needs a reboot.






October 24, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Idiocracy is a silly Mike Judge movie about an average Joe who finds himself shot into the future, where the world has suffered a catastrophic decline in mental ability over time. The protagantist, played by Luke Wilson, finds himself to be a relative super-genius, as the denizens of the future can barely speak a sentence and sit around all day watching mindless television programs. Our hero overcomes adversity to become President.

Every once in awhile, I see something that brings that movie to mind.

I’ve written about Arizona’s lowering of AIMS cut scores in order to game school accountability. AIMS however has four levels of achievement: Below Standard, Approaches Standard, Meets Standard and Exceeds Standard. The “Meets” category of course has been the focus of lowering cut scores.

Let’s take a look, however, at the more stable category of “Exceeds Standard.” Cut scores have been much more stable at the top. Figure 1 below presents data from the Tucson Unified School District Reading AIMS. The figure presents the percentage of TUSD 3rd and 6th grade scoring “Exceeds Standard” on the Reading AIMS for the Class of 2012.

For those without an abacus on hand, that’s an 88% decline in the percentage of children scoring at the advanced level between 3rd and 6th grade. Strangely, TUSD finds enough money to spend on a “Raza Studies” program in the midst of such catastrophic failure.

Any interest in running for Governor of Arizona?

Figure 2 presents the statewide figures for all public schools in Arizona for the Class of 2012 for the same grades and years.

Figure 2 presents an 80% statewide decline. Attendance in a typical Arizona public school seems injurious to the ability to perform high-level reading at grade level, at least according to the state’s own standards and measures.

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