Let’s “Put on a Show”

November 5, 2014

Below is a piece I wrote for Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids blog.


It was a staple of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movies that kids from the neighborhood would get together to “put on a show.”  Someone would get the curtains, someone would build the set, and – after some practice – they would perform a play.  Of course, these movies were works of fiction, but they were based on a kernel of truth.  Kids do like to get together, dress up in costumes, and put on shows.  They tend not to be as good as those in the movies, but kids will organize theater performances by themselves if left to their own devices.

But because kids aren’t left to their own devices as much these days, it is remarkably rare to find young people organizing theater performances by themselves.  Instead, these tend to  be part of a school or youth theater activity organized and supervised by adults.  Those can be very positive experiences, but kids don’t learn the responsibility and creativity they could from putting on shows themselves.

Happily, theater organized by young people has not disappeared entirely.  In the middle of America’s heartland, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a group of adolescents have formed New Threshold Theatre, which is run completely by young people without adult sponsorship or supervision.  My youngest son has joined the group and I’ve been incredibly impressed with the professional quality of their productions.

This year they performed the Broadway musical Into the Woods, and have four more shows planned, including two original works written by kids.  Last year they produced the Broadway musical 13, and had a live sketch comedy show on local television.  They’ve also started a film production company, Archway Productions.

They have done all of this by themselves.  They’ve secured their own performing spaces, sometimes using unused business spaces or renting an auditorium.  They find their own costumes and build their own sets.  They select the works to be performed, cast the actors, and direct the shows.  They even have their own dramaturg.

And all of this is being done by young people.  No one told them to do it.  It is not a school club.  They don’t get grades or class credit.  There are no adult advisers.   It is simply a group of kids who have gotten together to form a theater and video company completely for the fun of it.

I don’t think there is anything else quite like New Threshold Theatre out there these days.  Maybe if we structure our kids a little less, we might open up more opportunities for them to organize amazing things for themselves. That would be something to sing about!

And the Winner of the 2014 “Al” is… Peter DeComo

November 2, 2014


This year’s nominees for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award were a strong group, but one of them clearly stood out as especially worthy — Peter DeComo.

Yes, Markus Persson (nominated by Jonathan Butcher) has done something amazing by developing Minecraft, a game that millions of people enjoy.  But that accomplishment is widely recognized and praised.  The Al tends to recognize the unrecognized, or even reviled.  For some reason video game developers tend to be praised while spicy chicken developers do not.  We’re more interested in the spicy chicken kind.

Lindsey Burke’s nominee, Ira Goldman, developed the Knee Defender, which prevents airplane seats from reclining to preserve leg room.  This nominee is not widely recognized, but falls short for a different reason — the effects of the Knee Defender are zero-sum and do not make a net contribution to improving the human condition.  The device benefits the user by preserving legroom but does so at the expense of the person who cannot recline.

My nominee, Thomas J. Barratt, is generally not recognized and greatly improved the human condition by developing modern advertising.  But many others made significant contributions to the development of advertising.  As beneficial (and wrongly reviled) as advertising is, we cannot properly credit one person for this improvement of the human condition.

Matt’s nominees, Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen, are strong contenders.  They are not widely recognized.  Their introduction of scientific irrigation methods into the winery business does significantly improve the human condition.  And while French nationals themselves, they face French wine-snob opposition.  As fans of The Higgy and Indiana Jones know, everyone loves a French villain.  But how tough could these French wine-snob villains really be?  They have no legal or regulatory power to block the adoption of scientific irrigation methods.  Only tradition and snootiness stand in the way.  Scholasch and Payen will hardly need more than 6 weeks to overcome this Maginot Line and conquer all of French wine-making.

Greg’s nominee, Peter DeComo, faces a much more formidable set of foes — the FDA and the Department of Homeland Security.  DeComo’s Hemolung Respiratory Assist System might save people’s lives while they wait for lung transplants.  But if DeComo’s company, ALung, fails to fill out the equivalent of a 27B/6 Form, you’ll have to die rather than risk using an unapproved device.  By overcoming the FDA and Border Guards from Central Services to save a life, Peter DeComo has significantly improved the human condition, done so with insufficient recognition, and succeeded in the face of powerful opposition.  That makes him worthy of “The Al.”

As Matt likes to remind us, the movie Brazil is increasingly looking like a documentary rather than a work of fiction.

Gone Trick or Treating

October 31, 2014

You’ll have to wait to learn the winner of “The Al” until this weekend.

Narrowing Education

October 22, 2014

Some people seem determined to narrow education.  I’ve been trying to make the case for a well-rounded, liberal education, but that idea has less support than I realized.  In their effort to maximize math and reading test scores, schools have sometimes narrowed their focus at the expense of the arts and humanities.  I’ve tried to document some of the benefits that students receive from art and theater.

And today Dan Bowen and I tried to defend the role of sports in schools in the New York TImes‘ Room for Debate forum on the issue.

One of the main critics of sports in school is Amanda Ripley, reprising an argument she earlier made in The Atlantic and in her book.  In today’s forum she writes:

Here, school is about learning, but it’s also about training to compete in games that the majority of kids will never get paid to play… The problem is the dishonesty. By mixing sports and academics, we tempt kids into believing that it’s O.K. if they don’t like math or writing — that there is another path to glory. Less obvious is that this path ends abruptly, whereupon they get to spend 50 years in an economy that lavishly rewards those with higher-order skills and ruthlessly punishes those without.

Let’s leave aside that her argument ignores the systematic research demonstrating the benefits of sports in schools.  And let’s leave aside that her book and articles rely on deeply flawed “selection on dependent variable” approaches that try to infer what to do to be successful by looking only at successful places.

I think we can easily see the flaws in her argument if we consider how the same logic she employs can be used to argue against schools having orchestras, theaters, and a host of other activities.  I’ll change just a few words to illustrate how her argument can be used against music instruction in schools.  I’ve bolded the changes so you can see how her argument could be used against any effort in school other than focusing on math and reading instruction:

Here, school is about learning, but it’s also about training to play an instrument that the majority of kids will never get paid to play… The problem is the dishonesty. By mixing music and academics, we tempt kids into believing that it’s O.K. if they don’t like math or writing — that there is another path to glory. Less obvious is that this path ends abruptly, whereupon they get to spend 50 years in an economy that lavishly rewards those with higher-order skills and ruthlessly punishes those without.

Or here is how her argument could be used against having school plays:

Here, school is about learning, but it’s also about training students to act in theater that the majority of kids will never get paid to do… The problem is the dishonesty. By mixing drama and academics, we tempt kids into believing that it’s O.K. if they don’t like math or writing — that there is another path to glory. Less obvious is that this path ends abruptly, whereupon they get to spend 50 years in an economy that lavishly rewards those with higher-order skills and ruthlessly punishes those without.

See how easy this is!  The real problem here is the unwillingness to appreciate the breadth of experiences that should be part of a well-rounded education.  Yes, not every student will benefit from music, theater, or sports.  And very few of them will go on to careers in music, acting, or sports.  School is not entirely about vocational training focused on math and reading skills.  Those of us who support a broad education recognize that all of these activities have important benefits for many students and should be part of schools.  And Ripley, like most supporters of efforts that narrow education, would deny that she fails to support a broad education.  She just wants to get rid of the thing she doesn’t like.  But her logic would get rid of everything other than math and reading instruction.  And that would be a very poor education indeed.

(edited for typo and to elaborate argument)

Risky Business

October 21, 2014

Some of my current and former students, along with a colleague from the Economics department, have a new article in Education Economics called Risky business: an analysis of teacher risk preferences.  Daniel H. Bowen, Stuart Buck, Cary Deck, Jonathan N. Mills & James V. Shuls used techniques from experimental economics to measure the risk aversion of graduate students seeking degrees in education, business, and law.  They found that people training to become teachers are significantly more risk-averse than those seeking careers in business or law.

The greater risk-aversion among prospective teachers was a function of two forces.  First, women make up a much larger proportion of prospective teachers and women tend to be more risk-averse across all graduate students.  Second, the smaller group of men seeking to become teachers are significantly more risk-averse than men pursuing other professions.

This article captures the first part of Dan Bowen’s dissertation.  Dan followed-up this experiment by using the same technique to measure whether teachers drawn to schools after merit pay plans are adopted tend to be more risk-prone than the teachers previously working at those schools.  He found that they were — merit pay attracts more risk-prone teachers.  He then linked these measures of risk-aversion to test score growth achieved by the students of each teacher.  Somewhat unexpectedly, he found that the more risk-prone teachers attracted by merit pay tended to be less effective in producing student test score gains.

Dan’s dissertation raises important questions about the composition of the teaching workforce and what is likely to be effective in motivating them.  In general, his work casts doubt on the appeal of merit pay given that generally risk-averse teachers are not attracted by merit pay and risk-prone teachers who are attracted by potential bonuses may not do well in a workplace where non-monetary goals appear more prominent.  This work is consistent with an earlier article that Stuart Buck and I published on how merit pay is not a promising reform strategy.

Dan is currently a post-doc at Rice University and is on the job market.  In addition, to his work on teacher risk-aversion and merit pay, Dan and I have collaborated on research on the effects of field trips to art museums and the effects of sports programs on student achievement.  At Rice Dan is continuing to work on merit pay evaluations and is assembling a study of the effects of student field trips to a Holocaust Museum.  Dan has a variety of rigorous and innovative studies that are generating grant support. He would make for an excellent hire.

Nominated for the Al Copeland Award: Markus Persson

October 20, 2014

(Guest Nomination by Jonathan Butcher)

I’ve never played Minecraft. My son and daughter play enough for the three of us, though, and I haven’t even bought the computer version of the game for them. I bought the iPad edition, which, I’m constantly reminded, is completely inferior to the computer version.

Despite most parents’ ignorance of how to play it, and in spite of graphics that look better suited to a first-generation Atari console, Markus Persson sold Minecraft and its parent company to Microsoft for $2.5 billion last month. And then he walked away.

Persson told the New York Times, “I don’t want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don’t understand, that I don’t want to work on, that keeps coming back to me. I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not a C.E.O. I’m a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter.”

Persson created a video game that doesn’t rely on eye-popping graphics or bloody combat scenarios. Yes, in survival mode you can fight zombies, and there are “mobs” to avoid (loosely defined as anything that can harm your character). However, the game revolves around the player’s imagination. In Minecraft, you create your own world, complete with buildings of any shape and size and then go on adventures, with or without players from other worlds.

What are most impressive are the add-ons that make the game interesting. Your creations can be as real or fictitious as you choose. In one YouTube how-to video, a player created a Home Depot, complete with supplies to build things. In another, a player created a replica of Disneyworld. You can change the weather, add minions from Despicable Me, drive a dirt bike, or swim in the ocean.

Schools are using the game to teach subjects like math, architecture and science. Minecraft is simple, versatile, fun (or so I’m told), and the creator shows no intention of making a sequel.

“Basically, Persson is tired,” says Wired magazine. Persson says that he wants to work on smaller web projects, and he says that if any of them become as popular as Minecraft, “I’ll probably abandon it immediately.”

Minecraft can be as unique and player-centric as a player can make it, and its creator is just fine to leave it at that and do something else. Yes, $2.5 billion is plenty to be content with, but the Copeland award doesn’t penalize for making a lot of money. Time will tell if Persson is true to his word about leaving well enough alone, but for now, he’s created something that allows others to use their imaginations the way they want to, made his money, and gone on his way.

Nominated for the Al Copeland Award: Ira Goldman

October 20, 2014

(Guest Nomination by Lindsey Burke)

Americans prize personal space. And nowhere are infringements upon personal space more insufferable than 30,000 feet above Earth, in an airplane in which the confines of your chair – and heaven forbid if you’re in a middle seat – and your armrests, and the miniscule amount of “legroom” in front of you, are the only things that separate you from your neighbor and his delusions of airline Manifest Destiny.

Until recently. In 2003, Mr. Ira Goldman recognized this injustice, and invented the Knee Defender.

The concept is simple. You simply slide the Knee Defender, which fits in the palm of your hand, onto the arm of your lowered tray table, then slide it down the arm of the tray table until it fits flush against the seat in front of you. As one website selling the Knee Defender explains:

“Whether you are intent on protecting yourself from being crunched, want to maintain enough leg room to do some in-seat exercises because of health concerns – such as Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), sometimes called “economy class syndrome” – or you just want some warning so you can move your notebook computer out of the way before the seat is reclined, Knee Defender™ works ‘like a charm’.”

The product even comes with a Knee Defender courtesy card, which the user can hand to the passenger in front of him to let him know he’s using the leg-saving tool. “If you would like to recline your seat at some point during the flight, please let me know and I will try to adjust myself and my Knee Defender so that it can be done safely,” the card reads.

Had Ben Franklin lived during the time of aviation and been able to fly to Paris, he would have surely invented the knee defender.

This humble piece of plastic has been the cause of derision from opponents and cheers from proponents. “The person who wants it most will end up owning the rights, but the person with the recliner button holds an advantage. The Knee Defender reallocates the rights. Now I can claim the four inches in front of my face,” wrote Damon Darlin recently in the New York Times.

Indeed. Is there nothing more callous than a passenger who chooses, without any regard to the poor soul behind him, to recline his seat, without the slightest regard as to what pain and inconvenience he might be bringing upon his fellow traveler? Is nothing – kneecaps, lap tops, small vodka tonics – sacred? For the person bent on reclining – because a modest change in the angle of his spine is more important than every aspect of the flying experience for the person behind him – nothing is.

And for us lowly folks who ride coach to spread the word about education reform – Mr. Goldman, we salute you. Indeed, it’s the little things in life that make the biggest differences.

Like Al Copeland, Ira Goldman surely invented the knee defender out of his own 6 foot 3 inch necessity. But in so doing, has made the flying experience that much more comfortable for thousands of long-legged travelers.


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