The High School Musical Attracts a Broader Audience

April 6, 2015

High school musicals used to attract parents and friends of the cast and crew, but as the Wall Street Journal tells us, the audience has expanded.  The entire article is worth reading, but here is a taste:

With high-school musical season under way, moms and dads are cheering for their favorite Pippins, Annies and Tevyes in auditoriums across the country.

Buried in the crowd, trying to blend in, is a different sort: the adult with no connection to the school whatsoever….

Long a springtime ritual, the high-school musical has never been known widely as must-see entertainment. But high-school shows have become increasingly elaborate—with Broadway-worthy sets, local competitions for best actor and actress and R-rated choices like “Rent.” Fans seek out the student performances for cheap entertainment or a chance to see a musical that otherwise might not be performed locally. Some even follow the teenage thespians as though they were A-list stars….

How good are these shows?

It doesn’t really matter, said Scott Delman, a tough critic in his normal life. He has won four Tony Awards for producing such Broadway hits as “The Book of Mormon” and “Death of a Salesman” and sometimes attends secondary-school interpretations with business associates who want to show off a son or daughter. When he goes to a high-school show, “I don’t even focus on the quality,” he said. “I am swept away by the energy and the enthusiasm.” Occasionally he congratulates performers after a show, disclosing his day job so they know it is more than just a parent’s biased view.

So, don’t worry if you don’t know anyone in the upcoming Fayetteville High School production of Little Shop of Horrors.  Just go to enjoy fun and reasonably priced entertainment.

It’s Time for “The Higgy”

April 3, 2015

William Higginbotham

It is time once gain to solicit nominations for the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award.  Below I reproduce portions of the first announcement of “The Higgy” in 2012, so you have an understanding of the historic significance and criteria for this dishonor.


As someone who was recognized in 2006 as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, I know a lot about the importance of awards highlighting people of significant accomplishment.  Here on JPGB we have the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award, but I’ve noticed that “The Al” only recognizes people of positive accomplishment.  As Time Magazine has understood in naming Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Ayatullah Khomeini as Persons of the Year, accomplishments can be negative as well as positive.

(Then again, Time has also recognized some amazing individuals as Person of the Year, including Endangered Earth, The Computer, Twenty-Five and Under, and The Peacemakers, so I’m not sure we should be paying so much attention to what a soon-to-be-defunct magazine does.  But that’s a topic for another day when we want to talk about how schools are more likely to be named after manatees than George Washington.)

Where were we?  Oh yes.  It is important to recognize negative as well as positive accomplishment.  So I introduce “The Higgy,” an award named after William Higinbotham, as the mirror award to our well-established “Al.”

Just as Al Copeland was not without serious flaws as a person, William Higinbotham was not without his virtues.  Higinbotham did, after all  develop the first video game.  But Higinbotham dismissed the importance of that accomplishment and instead chose to be an arrogant [jerk] by claiming that his true accomplishment was in helping found the Federation of American Scientists and working for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.  I highly doubt that the Federation or Higinbotham did a single thing that actually advanced nonproliferation, but they sure were smug about it…

I suspect that Al Copeland, by contrast, understood that he was a royal jerk.  And he also understood that developing a chain of spicy chicken restaurants really does improve the human condition.  Higinbotham’s failing was in mistaking self-righteous proclamations for actually making people’s lives better in a way that video games really do improve the human condition.

So, “The Higgy” will not identify the worst person in the world, just as “The Al” does not recognize the best.  Instead, “The Higgy” will highlight individuals whose arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will outweigh the positive qualities they possess.

We will invite nominations for “The Higgy” in late March and will announce the winner, appropriately enough, on April 15.  Thanks to Greg for his suggestions in developing “The Higgy.”

Research Finds: Learning Styles are Bunk

April 3, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Another widely held belief bites the dust when put to the test.

What Passover Can Teach Us About Education Reform

April 2, 2015

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

This week, Jews around the world will celebrate Passover, the Festival of Freedom.

Part of the genius of the Jewish tradition is its recognition that sustaining a free society requires education. “Freedom begins with what we teach our children,” wrote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi emeritus of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. And nowhere is the centrality of education in Judaism more evident than on Passover, “when the entire ritual of handing on our story to the next generation is set in motion by the questions asked by a child.”

The Jewish tradition has much to teach the world about education, and Jews who seek the peace of the city and land in which they dwell would be doing their neighbors a disservice by keeping it to themselves. Fortunately, America is a society that welcomes a diversity of views and religious traditions. In their wisdom, America’s Founding Fathers created, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “a high wall of separation between church and state.” But while religious groups and institutions were appropriately denied power, the constitutional right to freedom of religion guarantees them the space to influence public policy.

Citizens should be skeptical of religious (or secular) figures who make specific policy recommendations without any particular expertise in those areas. However, while we should not turn to clergy to devise economic or tax policy, they have an important voice in the discussion of the ends which public policy should seek to achieve. Religious traditions can help society orient its goals—respecting the dignity of every person, seeking the welfare of the poor and downtrodden—while economists, social scientists, and policy experts debate how best to achieve those goals.

With its rich and enduring tradition, Judaism has much to offer society, especially in the realm of education. Jews are, in the words of Rabbi Sacks, “a people whose passion is education, whose heroes are teachers and whose citadels are schools.” The ideal education system, in the Jewish view, provides universal access and individualized instruction while placing the needs of students above all.

Universal Access

Any discussion of the Jewish view of education policy must begin with one man: Yehoshua ben Gamla. The Talmud exhorts us to remember him favorably, “for were it not for him, the Torah would have been forgotten by Israel.” (Bava Basra 21a)

Ben Gamla served as the Kohein Gadol (High Priest) in the first century B.C.E., a period of turmoil when the Jews lived under Roman occupation. Concerned that the children of poor families—particularly orphans—did not have access to a quality Torah education despite a series of education reforms by the sages, Ben Gamla mandated that every Jewish community hire teachers to educate every child from the age of six or seven on up.

Ben Gamla’s vision—heartily endorsed by the sages—was universal access to education. As the late Rabbi Aaron Levine explained, “The objective of [Ben Gamla’s] ordinance was that Torah education for the youth should reach the rich child, the poor child, and, especially the child who has no father to worry about his spiritual needs.” A child’s family circumstances should not determine his or her access to education.

Individualized Instruction

Universal access, however, does not imply uniform instruction. Rather, the guiding principle of Jewish education is chanoch l’naar al pi darko. (Proverbs 22:6) The full verse is often translated as “Teach a child the way he should go, and even when he grows old he will not depart from it,” but Hebrew grammar allows another translation: “Teach a child according to his way…” implying individualized instruction for each child. Indeed, this understanding of the verse is so widespread that Jewish day schools ubiquitously invoke it in this manner.

There is no greater example of the chanoch l’naar approach to education than the Passover seder. The entire ritual—the use of symbolic foods, ceremonial dipping and leaning, etc.—is designed to provoke questions from the children in attendance. Central to the seder is the concept of the four different types of children, whose personalities are reflected in the types of questions they ask. There is the wise child, the rebellious child, the simple child, and the child “who does not even know how to ask.”

As the Passover Haggadah details, each child’s question (or lack thereof) requires a different response, an answer tailored to his particular temperament and level of maturity. The wise child’s thoughtful question merits a discussion of the laws of Passover. The rebellious child’s passive-aggressive question is met with a rebuke. The simple child’s earnest question elicits a retelling of the Passover story. The final child’s inability to formulate a question at all requires the tender and patient assistance of parents to stir his curiosity.

Even the seder itself is a cholent of different rituals reflecting different pedagogical approaches. The wise child might be stimulated by the Haggadah’s biblical exegesis while the simple child is confused. The simple child may enjoy the storytelling while the child “who doesn’t know how it ask” is bored. That child may nevertheless enjoy the singing, while the rebellious child is annoyed. And even the rebellious child may enjoy the food. At the seder table—Judaism’s ultimate classroom—there is something for everybody.

Prioritizing Students and the Role of Competition

On the very page following Yehoshua ben Gamla’s universal vision, the Talmud discusses whether an established teacher could prevent a newcomer from teaching in his vicinity. Though Jewish law generally favors competition, in certain circumstances it empowers an established business to block a would-be market entrant, if it were likely that the entrant would put it out of business. However, the sages never restricted competition among educators because, they said, “kinat soferim tarbeh chokhmah” (“jealousy among the scholars increases wisdom”).

Two aspects of this ruling are worth highlighting. First, the sages’ primary concern was that students receive the best possible education, even if that meant that one teacher lost his livelihood because his students flocked to a superior teacher. In the realm of education, the needs of students came before the needs of adults.

Second, the sages recognized that competition among teachers proved beneficial for students. In a competitive environment, each teacher was motivated to perform as well as possible because his students had other options. The sages saw choice and competition as stronger guarantors of educational quality than the good will of the teachers alone.

Contemporary Education Policy and the Jewish Tradition

Jewish tradition provides three guiding principles for designing an education system: there should be universal access to a quality education; instruction should be tailored to meet the particular needs of individual students; and the needs of students should take precedence. The sages also believed that competition among educators was a means to ensure quality—a testable hypothesis discussed more below.

So how well does America’s contemporary education system live up to these principles? Unfortunately, not very well.

America’s system of district-based public schooling was designed to provide universal access to education. Every child is guaranteed a seat inside a classroom in his or her community, no matter their race, religion, or parents’ income. However, the guarantee of a seat is no guarantee of quality. And since students are assigned to schools based on the location of their homes, their access to schooling depends on the home their parents can afford. Students from low-income families often have no financially viable options besides their assigned district school—and those schools tend to be the lowest performing.

Moreover, even a generally high-performing school might not be the best fit for all the students who just happen to live nearby. District schools are designed to meet the needs of the median student. These schools often struggle to meet the needs of students who don’t fit the typical mold.

Likewise, while students of all religions and creeds are guaranteed a seat at a district school, those schools are not necessarily aligned with the values and beliefs of all the families who happen to live in a given district. When schools are held accountable to elected officials, education policies are subject to political decision-making. A zero-sum political system creates winners and losers, forcing citizens into conflict with one another. Accordingly, the schools tend to reflect the views of the majority, leaving minorities in the untenable position of compromising their values or paying for both the “public” school and schools for their children. District schools promise universal access in theory, but fail to provide it in practice.

Unfortunately, too many district schools also fail to put the needs of students first. Last year’s Vergara v. California decision highlighted how district policies and union rules protected low-performing teachers at the expense of students’ education. Most of the rules were likely enacted with the best of intentions—protecting teachers from capricious administrators or political payback. But many of the rules—such as guaranteed permanent employment or “last-in, first-out” policies—have long outlived their usefulness and have even become counter-productive. As the judge found in the Vergara case, there is compelling evidence that such policies “disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students” in such a negative manner that it “shocks the conscience.”

A Better Way Forward

A substantial body of evidence suggests that the best education system yet devised to achieve the sages’ preferred ends employs the very means that they favored: choice and competition. Educational choice laws—such as school vouchers, scholarship tax credits, or education savings accounts—provide universal access to education while empowering parents to choose the provider that best meets their child’s particular educational needs. That in turn creates an incentive for educators to seek to meet those needs.

A 2009 global literature review of within-country studies on the effects of different types of school systems found that the freest and most market-like education systems performed the best. Out of more than 150 statistical comparisons of outcomes including academic achievement, efficiency, parental satisfaction, student attainment, and subsequent earnings, private schooling had a statistically significant advantage over government schooling in about 10 to one. In addition, market-like education systems—in which parents chose their child’s school and bore some direct financial responsibility and educators were free to determine their own curricula and pedagogy, set their own wages and tuition, and to earn a profit—beat monopolistic, government-run systems by about 15 to one.

Likewise, 11 of 12 domestic randomized-controlled trials—the gold standard of social science research—found that educational choice laws produce positive outcomes for scholarship recipients, including improved academic performance, higher high school graduation rates, and greater college matriculation. One study found no statistically discernable impact and none found harm.

Additionally, 22 of 23 empirical studies found that educational choice laws had a positive impact on the performance of students attending their assigned district schools—implying that competition spurs schools to improve. Once again, only one study found no statistically discernable impact and none found harm. These findings provide compelling evidence the sages were correct: kinat soferim tarbeh chokhmah. In modern parlance: competition among education providers improves student outcomes.

Passover teaches us that education is required to sustain a free society, and social science teaches us that educational freedom is required for a well-functioning education system. Those who share the Jewish vision of universal access to education, individualized instruction, and the prioritization of student needs would do well to heed the evidence. A free society should have an education system that respects and reflects that freedom.

Jason Bedrick is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

Arizona Legislature Sends ESA expansion to tribal lands bill to Governor

April 2, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Arizona Senator Carlyle Begay succeeded today in passing SB 1332, which will expand eligibility to the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program to all children living on tribal lands. Senator Begay bravely faced a great deal of hostility from his own party on this issue, but correctly noted in committee testimony that the state ought to be seeking every possible way to get better results in Arizona’s tribal schools, and there was no reason to expect a mass exodus.

NAEP backs this position up completely:

Az American Indian NAEP

Congratulations to Senator Begay for leading on an important and difficult issue for the children in his district.  Congrats also for the Arizona choice coalition that worked very hard through an especially trying legislative session.

UPDATE: Senator Begay stated the following in a recent column“Serving in the Arizona State Legislature is not a popularity contest, nor is it a platform for grandstanding. I am here to serve my district, serve my state and uphold the progressive values that keep me moving forward.”

Two additional Democrats in the Arizona Senate joined Senator Begay in voting for final passage.


Raising the Bar on the Forster-Mathews Bet

April 1, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Thus far I am aware of a tax-credit improvements in Alabama and Arizona, new special education scholarship programs in Arkansas and Mississippi, and many other measures pending in many other states. I think it is safe to say that Greg will once again defeat Jay Mathews in the over/under of 7 enactments.

WSJ choice


While we celebrate yet another Greg victory, it may be a good time to pose a different question for ourselves: how many states have enacted a choice program or a combination of choice programs sufficiently robust to see a growth in private education in the face of a strong charter school law? A Rand Corp study found private schools will lose one student for every three gained by charter schools in Michigan.  We would not expect to find an exact match for this nationwide, but charter schools do by definition draw upon the universe of would-be choosers: parents who are looking for alternatives outside of their zoned district school. It makes sense that they would have a larger impact on private education.

If we assume the Michigan finding to be roughly equivalent to a national average, then we can proceed to check the tape. First charter school enrollment by state:

Charters school enrollment

Next private choice program enrollment by state (from the Alliance for School Choice Yearbook):

Private choice students 1



Private choice students 2

So how many states have one-third or more as many private choice students as charter school students? Indiana is matching private choice students with charter school students despite a strong charter law thus far, and so is the leader in the clubhouse. Florida barely met the 1 private choice for 3 charter school students standard between the combination of the corporate tax credit program and the McKay Scholarship program. Without new revenue sources however growth in the Florida tax credit will stall in the next few years even as statewide student growth continues. Moreover Florida charter schools have almost certainly drawn a relatively advantaged group of students from private schools (charter schools have universal eligibility). The private choice programs have been aiding only low-income and children with disabilities and providing significantly fewer resources than those students receive in public schools (smaller tax credit scholarships in the case of low-income children, no local top-up funds in the case of McKay students).

Florida lawmakers have been busy improving the ability for high quality charter operators to open new schools (as they should) but balked last year at providing new tax credit revenue sources. Absent some large policy changes Florida will soon slip below the 1 to 3 ratio.

Iowa met the standard because of a healthy and growing tax credit program and a weak charter school law (3 total schools), so give them an *. Wisconsin meets the bar with the combination of private choice programs and a charter school program that (last I heard) is still bottled up in Milwaukee, so kind of an * too.

The Illinois and PA programs would require some sort of estimate regarding the price elasticity of demand for private schooling, but I’ll just heroically guess that charter schools have the better end of the deal in those states. Arizona and Ohio have more than three charter students for every private choice student. Other states like California, Michigan, New York and Texas seem content to watch their charter school sector batter their private school sectors into gravel.

Bear in mind that this comparison would look even more lopsided if we counted dollars rather than students. For instance the average tax credit scholarship in Arizona runs around $2,000 while the average charter school receives around $7,000 per pupil. Very few of the private choice programs come near to matching the per pupil level of subsidy provided to charter, much less district schools. Emblematic of this failure was the choice of 12 Catholic schools in Washington D.C. to give up the ghost and convert to charter schools after a (poorly designed) voucher bill had passed.

The goal of the private choice movement should not be to preserve a preexisting stock of private schools per se, but rather to allow parental demand to drive the supply of school seats. Those District of Columbia Catholic schools did not convert to charters because the parents were clamoring for it, but rather because the Congress had offered almost twice as much money per pupil to do it. States like Texas invest hundreds of millions of dollars per year into a charter sector that draws disproportionately from private schools while providing parents who would prefer a private education for their child nothing but the prospect of struggling to pay their school taxes and private school costs simultaneously.

Seen in this context, many private choice victories seem worthy but incremental. Incremental change is the equilibrium point of American politics, but the choice movement needs more Indiana style successes. Once more unto the breach dear friends…

Arkansas About to be 25th State with Private School Choice

April 1, 2015

After passing the Arkansas House with a 90 to 0 vote, the state’s Senate approved HB 1552 offering vouchers to students with disabilities to attend a private school of their choice.  Governor Hutchinson is expected to sign the bill into law, making Arkansas the 25th state to offer private school choice.

Just think… We will soon have more states offering private school choice than participating in Common Core assessments.

You can find an excellent summary of the bill and its provisions by Leslie Hiner on the Friedman Foundation web site.


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