Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Good News and Bad News about Arizona Schools

The school year has officially begun across Arizona and the rest of the country. Discussion topics have shifted from vacations and summer camp to homework and new teachers. Parents have suddenly found new enthusiasm for carefully comparing notes on everything from math curriculum to testing policies. Parents agonize at length about whether their child's teacher is the best match to the needs of their children. No detail regarding the school, teacher or curriculum is left unanalyzed. We explain to anyone who will hear how great our school is and what a wonderful experience our children are receiving.

In my years working with schools, I have observed this “new school year” phenomenon with much interest. It seems that all parents believe that their school is above average virtually without exceptions. When I have conducted focus groups with parents in inner cities, they too exhibit a high degree of satisfaction in their local school as do parents from affluent suburbs. It seems that even the average school is, surprisingly, above average.

In most states the issue of which school is best is somewhat, well, academic. Unless you are willing to move or go to a private school, your school is your school. However in Arizona this is not the case. Arizona provides open enrollment (on a space available basis) to all of its schools. If you are willing to provide transportation, you have the opportunity to send your child anywhere you like to receive a public education.

This level of competition among schools was designed to improve schools. The thought being that if our enrollment (and thus our survival as a school) depended upon meeting the needs of students, then educators would work harder at meeting the needs of students. Opinions regarding the impact of this are, of course, mixed. But the general consensus is that more choice is better than less and so the system remains largely popular.

Since school choice in Arizona seems unlikely to go away it becomes much more that a measuring tool to determine which schools are best. Presumably many parents would drive 5 minutes (or even 10) past their current school in order to have their children attend a much better school. and in practice, many parents do. But on what basis? Parents often tell me that it “felt” right or that it just "seemed to click". Other conduct bonafide research on the internet reviewing school rating website. My own decision making required a somewhat more rigorous approach including (though not limited to) discussions with key staff and teachers, school walk-thru’s and classroom observations.

To provide a bit of objective information to assist prospective “school shoppers” in the Arizona “market”, we compiled a quick analysis of Arizona’s best schools. The list below represents the best 25 schools in Arizona among those with over 200 students. The results are based on the average Spring 2009 Terra Nova scores across all grade levels within a given school.

BASIS Scottsdale
Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies
University High School
BASIS Tucson
Gilbert Classical Academy Jr.
Arizona School For The Arts
Great Hearts Academies - Chandler Prep
Great Hearts Academies - Veritas Prep
Self Development Charter School
Cambridge Academy East
Tempe Preparatory Academy
GPS Traditional Academy
Cheyenne Traditional Elementary School
Great Heart Academies - Scottsdale Prep
Hamilton Prep
Keystone Montessori Charter School
Bright Beginnings School #1
Kyrene Altadena Middle School
Esperero Canyon Middle School
McDowell Mountain Elementary School
Orange Grove Middle School
Foothills Academy
Quartz Hill Elementary
Valley Academy
Cochise Elementary School

This list of the top 25 schools in Arizona contains a number of charter schools and traditional schools. We congratulate each of them as they represent the top 2% of Arizona schools. What follows in this article is not meant to detract from their accomplishments.

The Bad News About Arizona Schools

Arizona ranks 48th out of 51 (include the District of Columbia) in terms of per pupil expenditures. I am shocked that when I discuss this fact with parents they have no idea that this is the case. The State of Arizona simply does not provide its schools with as much monetary resources as other states provide to their schools. Is this reflective of a fiscally conservative voting electorate? I suppose it. More importantly, does the introduction of school choice and reliance on charter schools overcome this funding gap?

In an effort to explore this topic, one simply needs to take the next step in the analysis. The above list represents the top 2% of schools in Arizona. These results are based on the Terra Nova test which is a nationally normed test. How did this group of schools fare when compared with schools nationally? The answer is that they did fairly well. As a group they scored at the 85% percentile. Pretty good right? But wait. Shouldn’t they, all else being equal, score at the 98% or 99% percentile? Yes, but that would suppose that they were in the top 2% nationally. Unfortunately the top 2% in Arizona only equates to being at the 85th percentile nationally.

To explore the numbers further we broadened the scope of the "top school analysis" to encompass the entire top decile (in terms of Terra Nova test score performance) of Arizona schools. The top 140 schools, representing the top decile of school in Arizona scored, on average, at the 77th percentile nationally. Thus while this group of top schools scored on average at the 95th percentile within the state, they were only able to attain the 77th percential nationally. This represents an 18% gap on state-vs-national percentile ranking. This is even worse than the 13% gap represented by the top 2% of Arizona schools.

It is difficult to look at these very straightforward numbers and easily dismiss the issue of public education in Arizona. To be sure, this analysis does not represent an exhaustive review of educational issues in Arizona. But I suspect that the issues that Arizona has are very similar to the issues in other states. Despite this apparent relationship between funding and poor national test scores, I am not saying to throw money at the problem nor am I suggesting that the reasons are easily understood or addressed. But when your top schools cannot break into the top decile nationally, I think there’s a problem worth exploring.