The Lego Movie’s Think Tank Captures PLDD Perfectly

November 24, 2014

I finally got a chance to watch The Lego Movie and it was great fun.  I particularly enjoyed the movie’s description of a “think tank.”

The villain, President Business, has imprisoned almost all of the Lego Universe’s master builders, including Superman, Green Lantern, William Shakespeare, and Shaquille O’Neal, in his think tank.  In the think tank the captured creative heroes are forced to “come up with all the instructions for everything in the universe.”  That is, they are supposed to develop a plan for how everything is supposed to done from which no one may deviate.  And the perfect order of the plan will be made permanent once Preisdent Business can use the Kragle (Krazy Glue) to freeze everything in place.

I’m glad the folks at Lego are aware of how the scourge that is known as PLDD has infected many of the nation’s leading think tanks.  And if this is the impression that popular culture has of think tanks, no amount of web hits, Tweets, or donor dollars will restore their policy influence.  Think tanks had better find the Piece of Resistance before it’s too late.

SNL brings back School House Rock

November 23, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Congratulations Bill…now you are irrelevant!



King of the Road

November 21, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’m on the plane back to Arizona having spent the entire week in Austin and then at the Excel in Ed National Summit.  I had the opportunity to provide invited testimony to the Texas Senate Education committee, chaired for the last time by Senator/Lt. Governor-elect Dan Patrick.

The focus on the hearing was on the crushing enrollment growth in Texas. Texas adds a Wyoming public school system sized number of students per year. The percentage of total spending going to capital outlay and debt service has doubled since the turn of the century up to 20%, and there is no end in sight.

For instance, the Austin Independent School District passed an almost $500m bond issue in 2013. The district has approximately 76,000 students, 20,000 of whom spend at least part of the day in a portable building. The district estimated that passage of the bond would reduce portable building use by 16%- at least for a while.

I may or may not have used the technical term “boogeyman story” to describe the fearful narrative that removing charter school caps, creating voucher, tax-credit or ESA programs would leave the Texas public school system in ruins. The truth of the matter is that they don’t have spaces or teachers for the kids they already have, and far more arrive every year than would ever wind up going into any combination of private choice programs.

You can’t stop Texas enrollment growth, you can only hope to contain it.

You can’t stop Texas enrollment growth, you can only hope to contain it.

Next on the agenda was a stop over in DC to present at the Excel in Ed National Summit on ESA programs. The conference had 900+ attendees and some outstanding presentations, all of which will be available on the interwebs soon. It is always energizing to get to spend time with my colleagues and with K-12 reformers from across the country and the world. I always come away from these meetings exhausted and energized (yes it is odd) but the energy is still there after some sleep dispels the exhaustion.

Finally, I was honored this week to join Arizona Governor-elect Doug Ducey’s transition team along with reform champion Lisa Graham Keegan and Great Hearts Vice President Erik Twist. We will be looking for outstanding candidates to fill critical K-12 policy roles.


How is a Portfolio District Different from a School District?

November 14, 2014

[The music festival, day 6. The crowd has grown so big the camera has to pull back a loooong way to get it all into view. The boys are again present with the college hippies. The band is playing reggae music.]
Driver: Wow, this band is so crunchy. Dude, I need more weed.
Stan: So it seems like we have enough people now. When do we start taking down the corporations?
Man 1: [take a deep drag from his joint] Yeah man, the corporations. Right now they’re raping the world for money!
Kyle: Yeah, so, where are they. Let’s go get ‘em.
Man 2: Right now we’re proving we don’t need corporations. We don’t need money. This can become a commune where everyone just helps each other.
Man 1: Yeah, we’ll have one guy who like, who like, makes bread. A-and one guy who like, l-looks out for other people’s safety.
Stan: You mean like a baker and a cop?
Man 2: No no, can’t you imagine a place where people live together and like, provide services for each other in exchange for their services?
Kyle: Yeah, it’s called a town.
Driver: You kids just haven’t been to college yet. But just you wait, this thing is about to get HUGE.

The Ed Next article by Robin J. Lake, Ashley Jochim and Michael DeArmond on the challenges facing school choice in Detroit has led to a resurgence of chatter about Portfolio Districts.  The authors write:

Detroit is a powerful illustration of what happens when no one takes responsibility for the entire system of publicly supported schools in a city. Parents struggle to navigate their many, mostly low-performing options, and providers face at best weak incentives to improve academic quality. As a result, large numbers of failing district and charter schools continue to operate.

And in an accompanying blog post Lake concludes: “What Detroit needs is a portfolio manager…”

The idea that we need a Portfolio District to decide which schools of choice are allowed to open, which must shut-down, and what regulations should govern all of them has gained some traction in reform circles ever since New Orleans adopted this approach.  Now folks want to bring that same idea to Detroit and choice systems everywhere to make sure bad actors don’t get to operate schools, that failing schools are forced to close, and that a heavy regulatory framework avoids other problems.

I’ve never understood how Portfolio Districts are expected to perform these regulatory functions any better than regular old school districts.  The whole thing reminds me of the exchange quoted above from the South Park Hippie Drum Circle episode.

Portfolio District Advocate: “Yeah, we’ll have one guy who like is a Portfolio Manager, who like can close down bad schools.”

Me: “You mean like a superintendent?”

Portfolio District Advocate: “No, man, this guy will work for an independent board that makes rules for schools to make sure they don’t do bad things.”

Me: “You mean like a school district?”

Portfolio District Advocate: “You don’t get it, dude, the Portfolio District is there to make sure that only good schools open and to provide information and reduce chaos.”

Me: “Isn’t that what school districts are already supposed to do? How is a Portfolio District any different other than that you gave it a new name and believe that good people will be in charge?”

Ed reform is plagued by people not thinking like social scientists.  School districts have institutional incentives to prevent new good schools from opening, propping up bad schools that too few parents want, and imposing an excessive regulatory framework on the entire system.  Those same institutional incentives will inevitably come to dominate Portfolio Districts.

If you want to create real change, you have to change the system of incentives — not just create new institutions that will be governed by the same perverse incentives.  Choice and market competition can accomplish the same goals without being subject to the same destructive incentives as school and portfolio districts.

Yes, I know that Robin Lake and her co-authors find continued low achievement in Detroit schools and quote several people who complain about a lack of information and other challenges.  But keep in mind that the big expansion in choice in Detroit is only a few years old and that the city is starting from an extremely high level of dysfunction.  Lake and her colleagues have not used a rigorous analysis to determine whether charter schools are having a positive effect in Detroit, they just show trends in urban NAEP scores.  And the few studies on Detroit charters they do cite — the CREDO and  Mackinac studies — both find positive results for Detroit charters.  It just isn’t fast enough and dramatic enough.

Beware ed reformers in a hurry.  Real and enduring improvement takes time.  Happily it is possible, if we have the patience to let it happen.  A new study by Patrick L. Baude, Marcus Casey, Eric A. Hanushek, and Steven G. Rivkin examines the evolution of charter school quality in Texas over time.  Here is their abstract:

Studies of the charter school sector typically focus on head-to-head comparisons of charter and traditional schools at a point in time, but the expansion of parental choice and relaxation of constraints on school operations is unlikely to raise school quality overnight. Rather, the success of the reform depends in large part on whether parental choices induce improvements in the charter sector. We study quality changes among Texas charter schools between 2001 and 2011. Our results suggest that the charter sector was initially characterized by schools whose quality was highly variable and, on average, less effective than traditional public schools. However, exits from the sector, improvement of existing charter schools, and positive selection of charter management organizations that open additional schools raised average charter school effectiveness over time relative to traditional public schools. Moreover, the evidence is consistent with the belief that a reduction in student turnover as the sector matures, expansion of the share of charters that adhere to a No Excuses philosophy, and increasingly positive student selection at the times of both entry and reenrollment all contribute to the improvement of the charter sector.

Rather than imposing a Portfolio District that is likely to re-create the dysfunction and failure of traditional school districts, let’s change the system of incentives and allow choice and competition to improve school quality over time.

Welcome to Weimar!

November 14, 2014


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

It’s been a while since we had a post on union goons shutting down debate by force. It happened again yesterday at AEI.

In other news, the central bank has spent years flooding the economy with cheap money, and fascist imagery is now cool and transgressive.

Willkommen . . . bienvenue . . . welcome!

The Walls of Gold Entomb Us, the Swords of Scorn Divide

November 13, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

If you are in the mood for a quick and handy reminder about why most of the country despises the limousine liberal set, this video should do the trick. The media is paying the most attention to the fact that this guy holds the American public in contempt (the feeling is mutual) but the far bigger story emerges from this video. In it, one of the architects of the President’s signature domestic initiative more or less admits that the “Affordable” part of the “Affordable Care Act” was a deliberate fraud of the “yeah, yeah- we’ll get to that later” sort.

Given that we live in a nation with trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities related to preexisting entitlement programs and 10,000 new baby-boomers qualifying for these programs a day, this represents recklessness on a stunning scale. William F. Buckley once sagely noted that he would rather be ruled by the first 1,000 people in the Boston phone book than the faculty of Harvard. It’s time to add MIT to the list.


Obamacare supporter Ron Fournier turns in a must-read critique in the National Journal. Money quote:

And so even I have to admit, as a supporter, that Obamacare was built and sold on a foundation of lies. No way around it, unless you’re willing to accept a political system that colors its lies—the reds, the whites, and the blues.




Surowiecki on Teacher Training

November 10, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

James Surowiecki takes his time getting to the punchline in this sports/education analogy and makes a loose assertion or two of the journalistic sort, but is still worth a look. Cliff Notes version: sports training has vastly improved in the last 40 years, most everything has done the same, but our training of teachers still stinks.

One thought that occurred to me in reading this article. Let’s assume that teacher training is a rotten as this and many other articles assume. The former dean of Columbia Teachers College laid out in painful detail the shortcomings of American teacher training in a series of searing reports, so I can’t see much reason to believe otherwise.

Having said that, I’ve always been a bit mystified by the Finland narrative. If someone brought the Finnish Minister of Education over to the United States to run the show with the imperial power of fiat, it seems to me that the first thing he or she would do would be to close the nation’s Colleges of Education and start over. What am I missing here?

I’m all for attempting to improve teacher training, but the system we send new teachers into has plenty of other problems. It would be great to be able to train people to overcome all to often dysfunctional district systems of schooling marred by low-turnout elections heavily influenced by organized employee interests, but that sort of immunization sounds a bit far-fetched. Best to train teachers well and give them a reasonable system in which to thrive imo.





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