Arizona’s colored maps and the empire of the mind

In November, David Lujan and I referenced Stanford University research showing that the combination of district and charter schools operating in the Phoenix Elementary District are among the nation’s leaders in academic growth—at the 99th percentile. We also noted that the Phoenix Elementary district/charter combo was one of several in Arizona that scored very high in growth.

Data from this same study just gets better because the good news is statewide rather than merely localized.

Stanford professor Sean F. Reardon created the below map of the United States by school district, combining district and charter school scores for third grade students and colored district boundaries by average third grade math and reading scores. Dark purple scores are below average, while dark green represents above average scores.

Average Third Grade Test Scores (Math and Reading Averaged) U.S. Public School Districts with Charters, 2009 to 2015 (Source: Dr. Sean F. Reardon)

Arizona, along with the other states/regions along the southern border scores below average, and thus is purple. Early scores correlate strongly with student demographics—notice all the green scores up near the border of Canada, and the purple down south. Given achievement gaps firmly established by generations of researchers, this is an expected pattern. The next map however becomes delightfully unexpected.

Academic gains are a better measure of the quality of a school system than proficiency rates, particularly in elementary school. Student demographics strongly influence early scores, but high-quality schools can make up for those deficits with time. In making judgements about average school quality, we have far more interest in how much progress students make over time than the point at which they started out if we wish to judge school systems. Dr. Reardon’s next map colors district/charter combined scores by improvement between fourth- and eighth-grade. This map measures not where kids start but rather the amount of academic progress made over time. And again, purple is below average progress, while green is above average progress.

Average Test Average Score Growth Rates (Math and Reading Averaged), US Public School Districts and Charters, 2009-2015 (Source: Professor Sean F. Reardon)

Just like that, Arizona loses the deep purple and turns mostly various shades of green-denoting strong academic progress. This is because students learned more in Arizona district and charter schools than most other states. Arizona learning gains can also be visualized using data from the Nation’s Report Card. Below tracks eighth-grade math and reading improvement between 2009 and 2017, the most recent data available, by state.

On these tests, ten points approximately equals an average grade level worth of progress. So in 2017, Arizona eighth-graders scored about what we would have expected ninth-graders to score back in 2009. Arizona students also made substantial progress on reading.

Arizonans should feel proud that our students are leading the nation in academic gains, but by no means satisfied. With the recent gains, Arizona’s eighth-grade scores have moved into parity with the national average, overcoming a variety of challenges to do so. It is, however, vital to the state’s future to continue these gains, and financial rewards for academic excellence represent one of the tools employed by Arizona policymakers to do so.

We should appreciate exactly what this progress means and what it does not. It does not mean that there is nothing to disagree about in K-12 policy. It does not mean that Arizona’s academic achievement is “good enough.”

What it does mean is that we are heading in the right direction in terms of outcomes. If you have even the slightest inclination to take that for granted, go ahead and stare long and hard at all the purple (slow academic growth) on the second map.

Historian Paul Johnson noted that European empires never made financial sense, as the net financial costs of empire often equaled and/or exceeded the net financial benefits. Johnson posited that in the end the age of colonial empire was about psychic benefit in the form of “colored maps.” In other words, having a map of the world with territories colored in was viewed as jolly good fun for an imperialist to hang on the wall of a London government office just above the leather furniture.

Winston Churchill, an old-school imperialist if ever there was one, said “the empires of tomorrow will be empires of the mind.”

I’ll take a “leading the nation in gains” map over a “bossing other people around” map any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Although deeply countercultural these days, it just might be okay to give our students, educators and policymakers credit for leading the nation in academic growth during an extraordinarily difficult period. Well done Arizona-let’s keep it up!

Matthew Ladner

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