Arizona is the “Rudy” of K-12 improvement

Election seasons tend to emphasize what divides our society, but it is very useful to remember the much larger number of things that we all treasure. One thing that unites Americans-we love scrappy underdogs.

If K-12 policy wonks had drafted states in a fantasy football of academic improvement in 2009, Arizona would have been picked near last. Arizona, however, had a “Michael Jordan got cut from his high-school basketball team” level surprise in store for the wonks.

Arizona is an underdog for several reasons, but like Rudy we never let those reasons become excuses. Arizona has an unusually small working age population (many retirees and large average family size) which precludes us from winning spending per pupil competitions. Arizona typically ranks just below Idaho in per pupil funding and above Utah. All three states have large average family sizes, which limits per pupil spending.

Unlike Idaho or Utah however, Arizona is also a border state. Arizona’s K-12 population transitioned from majority Anglo to majority-minority back in the 1990s, making Arizona’s student demographic profile more challenging than most.

If that weren’t enough, the Great Recession hit Arizona earlier and harder than the country as a whole. Times were very tough. Arizona’s only path to leading the nation in academic gains after 2009 was to increase the bang for the education buck while doing far more than average to close achievement gaps despite a relatively difficult student demographic profile.

Sensible people would have reckoned that to be utterly implausible-but Arizona students and educators went and did it.

The Nation’s Report Card has given six academic exams (4th and 8th grade Math, Reading and Science) at the state level since 2009. Highly respected by education researchers, the Nation’s Report Card gives these exams to representative samples of students in all 50 states, providing an apples-to-apples comparison.

The United States (grey) made very modest improvement during this period. Arizona students (blue) consistently made gains larger than the national average. Arizona was one of only two of the 50 states whose statewide gains were significantly higher than the national average on all six exams. This is both impressive, given our circumstances, and crucially important, because a large majority of Arizona students attend district schools. Arizona could not lead the nation in gains without district improvement. Fortunately, the gains for district students (yellow) are also consistently above the national average as well.

Arizona charter school students (orange) made truly remarkable academic gains. Arizona’s charter schools, which educate a majority-minority student population, demonstrated levels of achievement comparable to the highest scoring statewide averages, which are concentrated in New England.

Crucially these gains did not come at the expense of district student achievement. If Arizona charters were having a negative impact on district achievement, you certainly would not expect district students to exceed the national average in gains.

No single policy reform can take all the credit for Arizona’s improvement, and we still need more gains. There will be plenty of things to debate going forward. Arizona students and educators however deserve to be recognized for their never say die accomplishment of leading the nation in academic improvement despite a sea of troubles. Rudy’s grades weren’t high enough to get him into Notre Dame until he got them up. He was too small to even walk on to the football team, but they couldn’t keep him off the practice field. He was never going to actually get into a game, until his teammates and fans forced it to happen.

Likewise, the states expected to do well on NAEP are near the border of Canada, not Mexico. A modest ranking in spending is supposed to stop progress but it didn’t. We aren’t supposed to see majority-minority school systems outscoring old money states, but we do.

Arizona is the working-class hero of American K-12—always underestimated but ultimately unstoppable. We have faced severe challenges in the immediate past and we will face still more in the years ahead. Arizona educators and students, however, have emerged from the Great Recession with the highest performing system in state history, nation-leading gains, and more resources on the way. Don’t make the mistake of betting against them.

Dr. Matt Ladner is an education policy expert and has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform.

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