Ed Shorts

A few thoughts from recent Arizona education news.

Writing about U.S. News' Best High Schools rankings: When in doubt, read the instructions. The story that BASIS dominated the U.S. News & World Report high school rankings got lots of press in Arizona, but few reporters bothered to look carefully at how the ratings were calculated. The four steps are neatly laid out on the website. The first three are hurdles schools have to jump over—state test scores, achievement by disadvantaged and minority students, graduation rates—to make it to the final round. Over 20,000 schools made the cut. Then the actual judging is all about the percentage of seniors who've taken Advanced Placement courses and how well they did on the tests. The first three steps don't figure into the final results, contrary to the impression left by most articles on the topic. BASIS long ago decided to require a slew of AP courses in high school, and part of the reason was so the schools would score high in national rankings. You don't get that many schools at the top of the heap without figuring out how to game the system. Any reporting on the rankings that doesn't understand and explain the ratings system is doing BASIS a big favor while it misleads readers.

BASIS believes it costs more to educate low income students. BASIS is planning to open a few new Arizona schools in low income areas to see if its educational model will work with a less academically select group of students, but it says it needs more money to do it.
[BASIS.ed CEO Peter] Bezanson said the Basis model can be replicated to teach more diverse students, and his team would like to be the one to do it. But they can only do it with adequate funding. 
Elsewhere, Bezanson said he's planning to look for outside funding to make the new schools work. I find that fascinating. I'd like to see him testify up at the Capitol to ask for extra funding for all schools in low income areas. If BASIS thinks it can't teach those kids with the same amount of money it gets for its wealthier, more academically prepared kids, maybe that would help Republican legislators understand it takes more money, not less, to give low income kids the extra enrichment they need. Other industrialized countries understand that. Apparently BASIS does too.

Will the state's new school grading system penalize schools with high income kids? We don't have all the details about how the new state A-F grading system will work, but it may have unintended consequences which would delight me but might not go down so well in some of the high rent districts. The students' actual scores on the state test will only count for 30 percent of the state grade, meaning schools filled with high achieving students won't get A grades simply because of the economic well-being of kids who walk through their doors. Now, 50 percent of the grade will be based on the students' improvement over the previous year. My question is, how much room do high scoring schools have to improve? Will kids at BASIS and Catalina Foothills schools, to name two examples, be able to top their already high scores? Ironically, it may be easier for lower performing schools to boost their scores and move up the state grading ladder, which could mean their state grades could go up while the high rent schools move down a notch. Or it may mean that schools in wealthier areas will have to waste spend more time on test prep than they do now to add a few points to their standardized test scores.

The best way to counter the argument that schools are underfunded: Change the subject. This could turn out to be a very big deal. A Republican operative is working to get two initiatives on the 2018 ballot. One would mandate that 60 percent of school funding go into the classroom. The other would cap pay for school administrators at twice the average pay of the district's teachers. The point isn't to pass those initiatives. It's to stop people from focusing on how Ducey and his co-conspirators are underfunding schools, which is likely to be a big talking point for Democrats this election cycle. If you can get people talking about how money is being misspent outside of the classroom, especially on all those high paid administrators, you can neutralize the talk about needing more money for schools. "If they spent their funds wisely," they'll say, "schools would have plenty of money!" Here's how you can tell for sure this is a serious, premeditated political move. It's being pushed by Sean Noble, a top flight political operative and a national player in the Dark Money games which have dominated the political landscape since the Citizens United decision. He shouldn't have any trouble raising money to get the measures on the ballot, and he can pull together as much cash as he needs to push the initiatives during the campaign season. If Democrats don't see this coming and are caught flatfooted, it could cost them dearly in the state elections. I'll be writing more on this later.

UPDATE: Sen. Steve Farley clearly gets it. He writes about Sean Noble and his proposed initiatives in some detail in his latest Farley Report, about halfway down. I hope the message gets to the rest of the Democrats.