Shuls Slays Dracula Again

November 3, 2015

[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

A few months ago, JPG regular James Shuls and Marty Lueken of the Friedman Foundation put a stake in the heart of the school choice myth that just won’t die. However, the vampire is back roaming the countryside, this time in the form of a report from the Center for Public Education.

Fortunately, James “Van Helsing” Shuls does not rest:

Recently, the Center for Public Education, an arm of the National School Boards Association, released a report on the merits of school choice. The paper claims to summarize “what the research says.” Interestingly, the report fails to include almost every analysis that has found benefits to private school choice programs.

When Anna Egalite, an assistant professor of educational leadership, policy, and human development at North Carolina State University, conducted a systematic review of the competitive effects of private school choice programs, she found 21 studies. She concluded that the results “unanimously find positive impacts on student achievement. Such overwhelming evidence supports the development of market-based schooling policies as a means to increase student achievement in traditional public schools.” Interestingly, the Center for Public Education did not cite any of these studies.

Similarly, there have been 12 random-assignment studies of voucher programs. These are considered the “gold-standard” in social science research because they are the best at determining causality. Eleven of the 12 studies have found positive effects from voucher programs. The Center for Public Education review only cites one of these studies.

The report cites plenty of useful statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics and other sources, but does not even attempt to cite the plethora of useful research on school choice programs.

Nevertheless, the report does get at least one thing right—private school choice tends to boost graduation rates.  This was highlighted in the evaluation of the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which showed a 21 percentage point increase in the graduation rate for voucher users.

Not surprisingly, given that they neglect to cite any of the ample evidence showing that school choice succeeds, the Center’s conclusion is that “In general, we find that school choices work for some students sometimes, are worse for some students sometimes, and are usually no better or worse than traditional public schools.”

The Great Gates Political FAIL

November 3, 2015

The Gates Foundation’s education reform strategy is in the midst of the most catastrophic failure since the Annenberg Foundation blew $500 million in the 1990s.  The wheels are coming off Common Core, the center-piece of the Gates reform strategy.  Today’s front-page Wall Street Journal article documents how states and districts are abandoning the standards and their aligned tests and/or backing away from making the necessary expenditures to implement the new standards.  At this point only 23 states are still using one of the two Common Core assessments, putting me clearly in the lead on the Greene-Polikoff Wager.  The WSJ article paints a devastating picture of Common Core’s collapse.

Even local efforts by the Gates Foundation to implement its teacher quality strategy are falling apart.  Gates pledged $100 million to the Hillsborough School District in Tampa, Florida to make it the model of its reform strategy.  As the district is running out of Gates money and discovering the unsustainability of its own financial commitments, the whole effort of using new teacher evaluation methods, mentoring, and merit pay is about to be dismantled.

Despite all of this investment, Hillsborough is getting lousy academic results.  As can be seen in the table below, Hillsborough has been doing very poorly on the US Department of Ed’s Urban NAEP over the last 2 and 4 years.  Hillsborough has even lagged far behind the generally disappointing national results.  Nor is this a Florida problem as Hillsborough lags far behind the trend in Miami.  Of course, one cannot attribute these aggregate trends to any specific policy, but political interpretations do not hinge on these methodological niceties.  The obvious conclusion policymakers are drawing is that the Gates effort in Hillsborough cost a fortune, is not financially or politically sustainable, and is an academic flop.

Hillsborough Average for Large Urban Districts
Math 2015-2013 2015-2011 2015-2013 2015-2011
8th grade -8 -6 -2 0
4th grade 1 1 -1 1
8th grade -6 -3 -1 2
4th grade 2 1 2 3

The question is whether philanthropists and ed reformers are going to learn the right lessons from the unfolding Great Gates Political FAIL.  Some seem to have mistakenly concluded that the problem was just poor communication and messaging.  Others seem to think we just need to try harder to succeed with implementation.  I’m convinced that a top-down strategy that falsely invokes science to identify “best practices” and then attempts to impose those practices on our highly decentralized education system is always doomed to fail, regardless of how it is “messaged” and no matter how earnest we are about implementation.

There are no indications as of yet that folks at the Gates Foundation or other major reform organizations have learned the proper lessons.  Vicki Phillips just announced that she is leaving as the head of Gates education efforts, but the Foundation’s public statements indicate no change in strategy.  It’s unclear whether Phillips is leaving because of perceived failure, because of the repeated mis-representation of research, or just because it is time for a change after 8 years at the helm.  And other foundations seem to be drifting toward more top-down, high-regulation approaches.

Effective philanthropy is hard and education reform is even more challenging.  But unless the major organizations change their approach they are doomed to repeat this failure.

More on The Al

November 3, 2015

Yesterday I announced Ken M as the winner of the 2015 Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.  In that post I didn’t do enough to explain why I did not select one of the other very worthy nominees, so I’d like to remedy that today.

Malcolm McLean is like several of Matt’s previous nominees — a business innovator who had to overcome entrenched interests to introduce a new and more efficient method that has improved the human condition.  McLean’s development of inter-modal container shipping is a great advance but it is also a bit too similar to our past honoree and Matt nominee, George P. Mitchell, who pioneered fracking.  Recognizing the variety of ways in which people can improve the human condition is a factor in selecting the recipient of The Al.

I nominated Gary Gygax, who created Dungeons & Dragons.  Gygax does highlight the variety of ways people can improve the human condition, but he still falls short.  The real contribution of D&D is giving permission to adolescents and adults to play pretend, not the development of a bunch of rules, books, and accessories.  Had Gygax spent more energy emphasizing the former rather than the later, he might have been a stronger contender for The Al.

John Lasseter, is a crowd favorite and Greg writes a brilliant post nominating him.  But The Al tends to recognize the un-recongized over the already famous.  Lasseter has a shelf full of accolades for his amazing work.  Honoring Lasseter would be like honoring Jonas Salk or Steve Jobs.  There is no doubt that they accomplished great things that improved the human condition, but those accomplishments are already well-known and not in need of further recognition.

I explained my reasoning for selecting Mike McShane’s nominee, Ken M, yesterday, but I’d like to elaborate on that a bit.  Ken M reminds me of The Lazlo Letters, a collection of correspondence between comedian Don Novello’s alter ego, Lazlo Toth, and a variety of public figures and major corporations in the 1970s.  Novello, better known for playing Father Guido Sarducci, wrote idiotic letters to these powerful people and companies to elicit their polite but often manipulative replies.  As he put it, “No matter how absurd my letter was, no matter how much I ranted and raved, they always answered.  Many of these replies are beautiful examples of pure public relations nonsense.”  PR letters in the 1970s were just the primitive ancestors of today’s perpetual social media campaign and flacking.

I’m pleased to report that Ken M contacted me this morning in appreciation of receiving The Al.  In fact, of the living recipients of The Al, we have heard from all of the individuals or family members with the exception of Weird Al (perhaps a sign that he was already so widely recognized for his accomplishments that he might not have been the best selection to win The Al.)  But to the rest of The Al honorees I can only say thank you for all you have done to improve the human condition.  In the words of Lazlo Toth to then President Gerald Ford: “Lean to your left — Lean to your right — Stand up, sit down — Fight! Fight! Fight!”

And the Winner of the 2015 “Al” is… Ken M

November 2, 2015

We had another strong field of nominees for this year’s Al Copeland Humanitarian Award, including Malcolm McLean, Gary Gygax, and John Lasseter.  All of them would be worthy of “The Al” at some time, but one of them — Ken M — is the Al winner the world currently needs.

Why do we need Ken M to win the Al? Because serious and powerful people have adopted the ridiculous idea that policy can be changed and the world can be made a better place by constantly communicating and arguing on social media.  This idea has infected virtually every policy issue, including education reform.  Intellectual discussion of policy has often devolved into a perpetual campaign, where the goal is to get as many “likes” and “hits” as possible.  There are conference calls to develop “messaging” and distribute “talking points,” as if they were orchestrating an actual election campaign rather than trying to better understand and improve public policy. This is why we see so much total b.s., half-truths, and distortions from people who should be more responsible.  They just want to win as many votes (hits, likes, etc…) for their policy as possible, credibility be damned.

Ken M has made a significant contribution to improving the human condition by revealing what a complete waste of time social media is for anyone who takes it seriously and thinks they are changing the world by tweeting, posting, and arguing on the internet.  Social media is filled with idiots, like Ken M’s persona, whose opinions can’t be changed and whose opinions don’t really matter anyway.

It’s amazing to me that people with a lot of resources and who imagine themselves to be politically sophisticated have absolutely no idea how policy change occurs.  Retail politics with mass communication have practically nothing to do with how policy gets made, most of which is determined by better-informed elites and interest-groups.  Mass opinion matters only very indirectly.

In addition, it’s amazing to me that ed reformers would be attracted to a perpetual campaign approach given that the unions and other status quo forces have way more money and volunteers than reformers can ever have.  In a brute force political contest the unions and their fellow-travelers will win almost every time.  The one thing reformers have going for them is the truth.  The unions are stuck with lousy ideas that produce miserable outcomes.  Reformers can beat them by remaining committed to telling the truth as faithfully as they can.  Messaging, spinning, and distorting only undermine the credibility of reformers and deprive them of the one advantage they have.

I write all of this in a blog post with a complete understanding that this post will not change the world for the better.  This blog exists mostly because I enjoy having a running conversation with a few friends and because doing this amuses us.  Ken M has the right idea.  Social media is mostly for socializing and having fun, not changing the world.  For that he is worthy of this year’s Al.

For the Al: John Lasseter

November 1, 2015


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Deserve the Al Copeland Award? John Lasseter practically is the Al Copeland Award.

Improve the human condition? This man has not only reinvented movie animation technology, not to mention Hollywood’s business model. He has proven the superior power of the transcendent – the good, the true and the beautiful – in the marketplace of culture. He beat the purveyors of schlock, and he did it in the only way that really counts – by putting more asses in seats than they could. He didn’t defeat the schlockmeisters by shaming them, but by selling so many tickets that he ran them out of the marketplace. He proved that edifying culture can sell, which is another way of saying it can survive and sustain itself. He and the circle of people clustered around him are almost the only people left in Hollywood who know how to tell an edifying story, and they are literally the only people left who can tell an edifying story that appeals to everyone across all our cultural boundaries.

As I recently argued at some length, they are in the process of saving American civilization.


Courtesy of the Onion

There are basically two kinds of Al winners – inventor/entrepreneurs and champions of unpopular causes. They’re either David going up against Goliath, or they’re Elijah calling down fire on the lonely altar. Lasseter is both.

Inventor/entrepreneur? Lasseter dreamed for all his boyhood of working for Disney, and by some miracle he got himself chained to a drafting table deep in the bowels of the Disney dungeon, slaving away as the tenth assistant drawer of left pinkies . . . and then promptly got himself fired from his dream job for taking an interest in computer animation just at a moment when (unbeknownst to him) one of his superiors had decided the future lay elsewhere.

Perhaps because computers would eliminate people like him and elevate people like Lasseter? Can’t have that! Just like any good Al winner, John Lasseter saw the future, and he didn’t care whose cushy job was threatened by it.

So, cast out of the only company he ever wanted to work for, Lasseter chased down the future and seized it by the throat, and made it sing so loud and so beautifully that twenty years later, Disney came crawling back to him and begged him not just to come back, but to take over all their animated movie making, oversee design of all their theme park rides, and direct a good chunk of their other stuff to boot.


Mr. Incredible, second from the right, poses with some less impressive heroes

Now, all that would be Al-worthy if Lasseter’s innovations were merely technical. And it is hard, now, to remember that back in 1995 the thing that everyone thought was revolutionary about Toy Story was the technology.

But Lasseter’s innovation is as much the way his movie studio runs. He has figured out how to run a team of creative people in such a way that it not only produces material that is simultaneously artisitcally and commercially successful, but does so with sufficient regularity and reliability that you can pitch it to investors. He has taken the Muses to the bank.

And they really are the Muses. Lasseter and his people are not just “artistically and commercially successful.” They are bringing the transcendent things – the good, the true and the beautiful – back into the center of American culture.

Lasseter is as much a deserving Al winner as the champion of unpopular causes as he is so as an inventor/entrepreneur.

And what causes they are! If some have won the Al by standing up for this or that cause which is unpopular, but is nonetheless one of the keys to maintaining our justice, virtue and freedom as a people, Lasseter has stood up for just about all of the causes that are unpopular, but necessary for our justice, virtue and freedom:

  • Do not make your own happiness the aim of your life (Inside Out)
  • Love means putting other people’s needs ahead of yours (Frozen)
  • Accept your mortality (Toy Story 2)
  • Honor the superiority of exceptional talent (The Incredibles)
  • Manhood involves fatherhood (UP)
  • Womanhood involves motherhood (Brave)
  • Let your children take risks and grow up (Finding Nemo)
  • Don’t envy your brother (Toy Story)
  • Legitimate government rests on justice and popular consent (Toy Story 3)
  • Those who live for nothing but pleasure are fit for nothing but slavery (WALL-E)
  • Work your ass off, and be content with a family and your daily bread (Princess and the Frog)
  • Beauty transcends both nature and custom (Ratatouille)
  • Technology is for solving problems, not imposing your will on others (Big Hero 6)

No one else teaches these things and is listened to receptively by all sectors of society. Without this man, what hope would there be for these values in the long term? No, seriously, tell me. I’ll wait.

Two more Al-worthy accomplishments:

Lasseter is almost single-handedly responsible for the English language translation of the beautiful works of Hayao Miyazaki, who was practically unknown over here until Lasseter introduced us to him.


And Lasseter would be, if he won, the first Al winner to outdo the award’s illustrious namesake in tasteful shirts.


Lasseter owns over 1,000 Hawaiian shirts and wears one every day.

You can’t ask for a clearer avatar of the Spirit of Al Copeland!

Pass the Popcorn: Kung Fury

November 1, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Where have you been all our lives Kung Fury? I mean I thought Iron Sky might hold the title for awesome/absurd low budget sci-fi romps with Nazi bad guys for a good long while. That is, until you judo-chopped every other movie ever into low-earth orbit with your totally 1985 video game awesomeness!

This Swedish kickstarter project is live streaming on Netflix. Go watch it. Like RIGHT NOW!!!!

Yo Adrienne! Context is crucial on early NVESA applications

October 30, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Early applications for the Nevada ESA program show that a majority of applicants thus far come from well to do areas, and 21% of applicants thus far qualify for the higher amount for low-income families.

Maybe Howard Fuller was right? Nope- at least not yet. Let’s keep clear of the panic button.

The program does not commence until January, and so these applicants represent the earliest of early adopters. Efforts have commenced to raise awareness of the program in low-income areas, but such efforts take time. Nevada’s private school sector has a small footprint and it should not shock anyone that most private schools are located in relatively affluent areas- which will impact interest in the program.

It’s worth noting that many suburban Nevada schools have overcrowding issues, and spots opening in suburban districts create open-enrollment transfer opportunities for non-residents. Most important of all- NVESA is not a fire it and forget it program. We will need the efforts of both philanthropists and innovators in order to increase the supply of private school space in under-served areas. Sadly the two lawsuits attacking the program will likely slow this process to the detriment of low-income families. Moreover parents have the ability to pursue education outside of private schools under NVESA, but again, we should expect this to unfold incrementally over time.

NVESA is not a magic bullet, and it will not instantly transform education, dry every tear or solve every problem. This is a marathon, not a sprint.



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