School Wars: Return of the Nerdi

Hello again Florida. I’m glad to be “back” although still from a distance – a distance I hope that will continue to have a utility. I’ll get to that in a bit.

I’ve taken on a role as Editor of redefinED and I have been asked to introduce myself, which is not something I’m accustomed to or comfortable in doing. Bear with me.

Matthew Ladner, new Editor of redefinED.

Like a former Florida governor, I was raised by a proper Episcopalian family in southeast Texas in the late 20th Century. Also like this governor, I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin – he in 1978, me in 1990. The similarities trail off after that, however. Gov. Bush went off to a grandly successful career in politics, while I went on to study political science and became an obscure policy nerd, err wonk, no I mean analyst. Our family eventually moved from Texas to Arizona, where I happily remain today.

Random chance led me to an interest in K-12 reform in Florida. As an analyst at the Goldwater Institute, I was engaged in a debate about whether reformers should push choice-based reform or standards/testing-based reforms. At the time there seemed to be an easy answer to me – yes please. I remember thinking to myself, “If choice and transparency really are two great tastes that taste great together, I should be able to demonstrate that somewhere – but where?”


Gov. Bush had relentlessly pursued both a standardized testing system and school grades and K-12 opportunity policies like charter schools, virtual learning and school vouchers. I decided to take a close look at Florida’s scores on the Nation’s Report Card (aka NAEP) to see if there was evidence of forward momentum. I was familiar with Arizona’s scores, and blinked and double checked as I found Florida’s minority students outscoring the statewide averages for all students in Arizona at the time. Looking around a bit more led to the realization that Arizona was far from alone.

Arizona of that time did not score well on NAEP, and worse still had developed what I regarded as complacency – something along the lines of if you control for demographics we are kind of average! Subsequently I’ve discovered that most states have a story like this – about how their state is the one with the tough to educate kids. The story in Arizona involved kids coming across the border unable to read Spanish, much less English, yadda yadda etc. In Minnesota, the story involves Hmong students from what I can gather. Close your eyes and I’ll bet you can recall a version of this story from whatever state you’ve lived in.

This is a myth of the self-defeating sort; this story deserves our respectful critique and ultimate rejection. If State X has the tough to educate kids and you know honestly can’t do anything with them then why do we have a public education system at all? In real life you don’t get to “control for demographics.” You either educate the kids that show up in your schools, or you don’t.

The fact Hispanic Floridians were reading about a grade level above the average Arizona student at the time became a useful data point in a personal campaign against Arizona complacency. A victory in that (still ongoing) war came a few years later when Gov. Bush visited Arizona and testified to a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees. Arizona adopted several of Florida’s reforms – including school grades and funding incentives. One cannot draw any firm conclusions between policy and outcomes but I will note for the record that the Nation’s Report Card has given six state level exams since 2009 (4th and 8th grade math, reading and science) and Arizona is one of only two states to show statistically significant gains in all six. Not bad considering that the Great Recession drop kicked our state’s economy with a steel toed boot. We drew a lot of inspiration from Florida.

I had the opportunity to become a bit of a minor K-12 de Tocqueville to Florida during this period. As it turned out, Florida had not peered deeply into its own academic gains, and was not aware of things like this from the 2009 4th grade reading NAEP:

Which isn’t kind of cool but rather genuinely awesome – an accomplishment in which Florida students, educators and policymakers should take abundant pride. Florida Hispanic students tied Wyoming in a reading exam written in English – take that edu-fatalism! My role in this great feat was exactly zero – other than to note the scale of Florida’s success from a useful distance.

Later I went on to be a part of the original Arizona team that developed Education Savings Accounts (I’ll provide a Marvel-comics-like origin story post at some point); served for five years with Gov. Bush’s team at Excel in Ed; and then most recently worked at the Charles Koch Institute, helping to develop an organizational point of view on K-12. Most recently, I’ve joined the team at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, champions of educational improvement in my state, and become editor here at redefinED.

Just over a decade has passed since I first squinted at my screen wondering if there was some sort of mistake in Florida’s NAEP scores. I’m certainly older and grayer, hopefully wiser and still retaining an outsider’s eye. Orwell said that to understand London, one needs to live in Paris. Likewise it took a Frenchman to recognize the true greatness of American democracy. Every Floridian reading this post knows a great deal more about Florida than I do; my only advantage is one of a perspective enhanced by distance.

Florida is a grandly innovative state with a record in policy implementation that is far greater than average. It’s very hard to appreciate this when you are close to your own inevitable policy and political messiness, but trust me, it is very clear from over here. I’m proud, for instance, that Arizona originated both scholarship tax credits and education savings accounts. Both innovations have been successfully taken to greater scale, however, in Florida – in no small part due to the relentless attention paid to the details of implementation.

You’ve taken crucial first steps towards equalizing opportunity in schooling. The sky not only did not open with a rain of frogs or locusts, you’ve seen real tangible progress. Florida public education, despite much protestation from traditionalists, is not only still there, it is substantially improved.

Funding for public education is guaranteed in the Florida Constitution and is as close to a permanent institution as you get in American society. It’s here to stay. Florida, however, has the chance not just to practice the form of public education, but to fulfill its actual promise. Much divides our society, but Americans still unite on crucial issues, including education. We desperately want an education system that gives students the knowledge, skills and habits needed for success and to responsibly exercise democratic citizenship. We – left, right and center – commonly and fiercely desire a system of schooling which serves as an engine of class mobility. Florida has moved the needle in this direction by setting families free to pursue opportunities that would otherwise be denied to them. More of this is needed and the next step will be to develop a consensus around setting educators free as well.

More on that later.

Grim challenges lay ahead for Florida. I’ll lay out the latest on some of them in coming posts. We should never, however, make the mistake of underestimating human ingenuity – and especially of betting against a wildly inventive state in the world’s most creative nation. Your challenges will be great, but you have been more than equal to them thus far.

Go and amaze us. Where Florida leads, others will follow.


  1. Matt: One cannot ‘data-mine’ the same historical information to create AND establish hypothesis validity. Yet, that is what you did in creating and presenting a chart purporting to show/’prove’ charters have had a positive effect on public school pupil achievement in Arizona. Thus, the obvious questions I’ve previously raised about why specific contradictory data were included in and other contradictory data excluded from your analysis. This also explains why other data (eg. SAT, ACT, Arizona long-term NAEP trends) contradicts your conclusions – again, as I’ve also pointed out previously.

    A hypothesis may be formulated from data-mining, but then must be VALIDATED through back-testing USING OTHER DATA. Otherwise,

    Failure to do so creates false positives, and is not allowed in quality peer-reviewed research. Otherwise, simply by conducting enough tests, one is guaranteed to find a result that looks good (or bad – in medical diagnoses), even though there is nothing there. Even random numbers will provide supposedly valid findings. And that is why physicians discourage testing without a clear rationale linked to actual symptoms – lest patients be subjected to inappropriate treatments.

    I believe that SOME, but nowhere near ALL, charters provide considerably superior gains vs. their local public schools. However, objectively identifying which ones those are will require replacing Arizona’s embarrassingly inept/subjective criterion-referenced AZMERIT with widely norm-referenced tests – such as those already developed in support of Common Core. Unfortunately, for ideological reasons I don’t understand, large political donations to Common Core opponents from Charles Koch and Daniel Brophy have blocked this and significant other related education improvement opportunities.

    Hopefully you will join me in efforts to remove these barriers.

  2. Loyd-

    “Prove” would be a terribly strong term, even if we lived in a world of abundant opportunities to subject all theories to random assignment studies, and we don’t live in that world. As regards to Arizona here’s the evidence we have- statewide AZ students have made statistically significant gains on all six NAEP exams since 2009 (one other state has done this, 48 failed to do so). When you break down the AZ NAEP data by district and charter, you see positive gains for AZ district students but much larger gains for AZ charter students. When you break down the numbers by subgroup the charter scores are consistently higher for charter students.

    One sees the same pattern in AZMerit data- consistently higher scores across subgroups in AZ charters. Charter critics have always held an assumption that massive creaming by charters causes these higher scores, but the data have never been consistent with that hypothesis in that district scores have been improving over time as well in both AZMerit and NAEP. If there was substantial creaming occurring, with the brightest kids continually bailing out of districts and enrolling in charters, we would expect to see district scores declining, but they are in fact increasing.

    Now we have an analysis of transfer patterns from the AZMerit scores of 85,000 students showing that charters are not creaming- in fact quite the opposite. Kids transfering from AZ districts to AZ charters had below average AZMerit scores, the ones leaving from charters to districts have above average scores.

    So given the totality of the evidence it seems reasonable to conclude that some portion of the gains in districts are do to the fact that low performing students leave and attend charter schools, but given the scales involved I would guess that this is only a partial explanation. There is after all an abundant empirical literature on finding positive impacts from competition on district scores, Arizona districts face an unusually high level of competition, and their scores are improving. This however is well short of “proving” cause and effect- it simply represents a reasonable conclusion consistent with the available evidence. It could be the case that transfers/dropouts/nudge outs explain all of the district improvement, although there is no conclusive evidence to support such of a conclusion and I doubt it to be the case. Arizona charters for instance show their very high levels of achievement despite taking in kids from districts with below average scores- apparently those kids did well as a group given a change of scenery.