Remain Calm. All is Well!

January 22, 2018

Paul Peterson has an excellent interview of Mo Fiorina on Education Next regarding Mo’s new book.  This new book, like several earlier works by Fiorina, makes the case that America is not coming apart at the seams, despite appearances.  Based on a careful analysis of public opinion polls and his extensive knowledge of American politics, Fiorina argues that Americans are no more divided on political issues now than they have been for many decades.  Most Americans remain moderate in their politics and rarely embrace extremist views or movements.

The reason things feel more divided is that political parties have become more homogenous internally and more distinct from each other.  Gone are the Southern, conservative Democrats, like George Wallace or even Sam Nunn, and the liberal, Northeast Republicans, like Nelson Rockefeller and Edward Brooke.  The Voting Rights Act ended one-party rule in the South and other regional issues have given way to parties with uniform, national agendas.  Parties have also become more responsive to national donors, who fund campaigns and drive the agenda in local races throughout the country.  This has made the country more partisan, but not more divided, since people have just been sorted more clearly into distinct parties.

Paul asks Mo an excellent question: how come one of the parties hasn’t moved its positions closer to the middle to capture all of those moderate voters and ensure greater electoral success?  Mo answers that parties are no longer primarily about winning elections.  They are primarily concerned with articulating and promoting the more extreme views of their donor and activist bases.  Paul and Mo were my graduate advisors and I served as a teaching and research assistant for both, so I am always inclined to believe them.  Despite my prejudices, however, I think Mo makes a persuasive case that has implications for the ed reform movement.

What if ed reform foundations and organizations are not, for the most part, really concerned with winning?  What if, like political parties, they are just trying to articulate and promote the worldviews of their donors and activist bases?  Thinking about ed reform foundations and organizations like Fiorina thinks about political parties would explain a lot.  It could explain why foundations and the organizations they fund have pursued a series of reforms whose failures were easily predictable, from Measuring Effective Teachers to Common Core to Portfolio Management to reforms that focus narrowly on the most disadvantaged.  It could also help explain why people at foundations and reform organizations almost never experience consequences when the ideas they back fail.  Ed reformers are so far removed from accountability that Tom Vander Ark was even pushed out of Gates for backing a strategy that succeeded.

Maybe many ed reform foundations and organizations are not actually about reforming education as much as they are about appearing earnest in support of things elites consider to be good.  This would help explain the disproportionate amount of energy devoted to posturing on social media and making speeches to each other at conferences.

Of course, it’s easy to become too cynical about ed reform, just as it is too easy to despair about the nation’s political divides.  But Mo offers a parsimonious theory that not only explains why parties have not moved more to the middle but also why ed reform appears stuck with a string of political failures.


Crocodile Tears of Unfathomable Sadness

January 22, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

While some of us continue to CeleNAEP good times, Arizona’s spending lobby continues to inexplicably lament because Arizona spent more money during the housing bubble. One might, as Cartman, even refer to it as unfathomable sadness. Dana Naimark of the Children’s Action Alliance provides an illustrative example of the genre:

Ducey likes to brag about moving government at the speed of business. He says economic growth will take care of our public schools.

But for three years, he has put his foot on the brake for public school funding while directing more of our state’s precious resources to cut taxes for corporations, grow tax credits with no accountability, and support private and religious schools with tax credits and vouchers. 

The vast majority of parents who choose public schools have already waited a decade for funding to be restored. Arizona can’t afford to wait another five years without a clear financial plan. We expect reinvestments we can count on, with funding that is permanent and equitable and not built on gimmicks.

Governor, it’s time to answer that call.

I could provide links showing AZ spending per pupil spending increasing over the last three years (could someone please put their foot on my personal finances like this?) but that is just too easy. The genre features either an explicit or implicit assumption that spending is tightly tied to academic outcomes. The folly of this assumption is easily demonstrated. The National Center for Education Statistics for instance pegged current (not total) spending per pupil in Arizona at $7,562 in 2013-14 and New York at $20,440. Delightfully however Arizona students closed the academic gap with New York students.

Just in case you suspect some sort of Math fluke:

If you are a New Yorker, your sadness is entirely fathomable. Data like those in the above charts ought to have people rioting in the streets of Albany demanding to know just what is being done with their tax dollars?

If you live in Arizona, sadness looks unfathomable indeed. If you can’t be happy leading the nation in academic gains then you either have very odd K-12 priorities or else just lack the necessary talent for living happily ever after. Neither problem here!





Pass the Popcorn: Powers that Cannot Be Harnessed

January 19, 2018

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I know, I owe you a review of Darkest Hour – which is so great on the big screen, you should go out and see it before it leaves theaters. I’m working on that review! (At least I don’t have to worry about spoilers.)

You know what else you should see before it leaves theaters? Mary and the Witch’s Flower, a worthy successor to the Studio Ghibli legacy producd by the fledgling Studio Ponoc, and helmed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, director of the outstanding Secret World of Arietty.

So, yes, this movie has credentials. And it lives up to them.


Some have unfortunately attempted to describe it as “Harry Potter meets Spirited Away.” That is accurate as to subject matter. It’s about an ordinary kid who gets swept away to a magical alternate world, and spends most of her time in a magical school. But the magic in this movie is the weird and dangerous magic of pagan animism, not the rational and orderly – the essentially Christian – magic of Harry Potter. So that description is technically correct.

Actually, you could have made a pretty interesting movie out of “What if Hogwarts were pagan?” But that movie is not Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

This movie has a point, and a good one. It’s not actually about magic – ancient or medieval. It’s about the corruption of good causes and ambitions into bad ones. In particular, it illustrates the tendency of well-meaning people to seek to harness and control the whole universe in the name of their high ideals and aspiration to progress. What disappears in this mental world of total control is any kind of standard – nature – that is outside our control and to which our efforts at progress and reform are supposed to conform. We set out to produce order and beauty, we take control of the world to produce order and beauty, and by taking everything under our own control, we lose any standard outside ourselves for what counts as order and beauty. And so we destroy even the imperfect order and beauty that was already in the world before we took control of it, and we produce only monsters.


Those who remain morally awake, who don’t lose their heads under the influence of grand ideologies, are those who combine a love of adventure and a love of ordinary life. Paradoxical as it seems, this is actually a very normal and logical combination. The dream of total control kills both the awe of an uncontrollable world that is the essence of adventure, and the unselfconscious, purely natural domestic affections. Adventure and comfort must both be spontaneous and unplanned. And of course it is the contrast with being at home that makes the road romantic. As G.K. Chesterton puts it, the boy at the center of the fairy tale must be ordinary for the tale to be extraordinary; Jack must be small for the giant to be gigantic.

As a wise person says to Mary, “there are powers in this world that cannot be harnessed.”

I can’t get much more specific than that without spoiling things. Like Kubo, this is a movie you want to discover as you experience it.

Just go!

Organizations Can’t Disrupt Themselves

January 17, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’ve been hearing through the grapevine for a long time that Denver’s much ballyhooed portfolio strategy was in deep trouble. Robin Lake calls it out today in Denver’s Storied Portfolio District is Starting to Act Like Just Another City School System.

It might be more useful to think of this as: the Denver district has acted like just another city school system for almost its entire history, flirted with the idea of being something different, but then yielded to political gravity in an entirely predictable fashion.

Clayton Christensen explained years ago that organizations don’t disrupt themselves. Mainframe computer manufacturers did not deftly transition to making personal computers rather than die- they just died. Every other brand in General Motors took every opportunity to slip their knives into Saturn’s back- sure enough GM eventually squandered an enormous amount of public goodwill for Saturn before it eventually died. School districts don’t willingly hand over empty buildings to outside operators. All of this falls somewhere on the water is wet, objects fall to the ground, you don’t fight a land war in Asia spectrum of the self-evident.

Jay noted years ago that you can call your district Superintendent a “harbor master” but in the end it is a tomatO tomAto exercise, especially if they are still hired and fired by boards elected in single digit turnout elections dominated by incumbent interests. Building new rather than attempting to reform the old remains the best strategy.




New Faculty in the Department of Education Reform

January 16, 2018

I am pleased to announce that the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas will have two new faculty members.  Both Jonathan Wai and Albert Cheng will be joining us in August 2018 as Assistant Professors in Education Policy.  Jonathan Wai will also hold the title of Endowed Chair in Education Policy.  The current holder of that endowed chair, Gary Ritter, will be leaving in August to become the Dean of the School of Education at St. Louis University.

Jonathan received his B.A. in Psychology and Mathematics from Claremont McKenna College followed by an M.A. in Psychology and Evaluation from Claremont Graduate University.  He then earned his Ph.D. in Psychology from Vanderbilt University.  Following that, Jonathan was a post-doc at Duke University and remained there as a Research Scientist affiliated with Duke’s Talent Identification Program (TIP), which strives to identify and offer enriching opportunities to gifted students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Jonathan’s research covers a variety of topics, such as gifted programs and the role of intelligence in educational success, and has been widely cited.

Image result for albert cheng harvard

Albert received his B.A. in Mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley followed by an M.A. in Education from Biola University.  He taught math in a school in California before enrolling in and completing his Ph.D. in Education Policy from the University of Arkansas.  Following that, Albert was a post-doc at Harvard University in the Program on Education Policy and Governance.  Albert’s research covers a variety of topics, including path-breaking ways of measuring non-cognitive or character skills and the role of mission in school success.

We are sad to bid farewell to Gary Ritter but extremely excited about these new additions to our faculty.

The Houston Almond Dome?

January 16, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

California’s drought riddled Central Valley produces 80% of the world’s almonds, but each nut takes a gallon of water to produce. Hmmm.

By spraying mineralized water on plant roots, vertical farming techniques have succeeded in reducing agricultural water use by 91% in some crops. You need enclosed climate controlled space, and the price of real estate is a key consideration.

Now comes word that scientists have succeeded in increasing crop yields by keeping plants under lights 24/7.

Which leads us to…the Astrodome.

The so-called “8th Wonder of the World” when it was built became antiquated. The Houston Oilers moved away to become the Tennessee Titans in search of a modern stadium, and the Astros eventually moved to their own space as well. When the NFL put an expansion team in Houston, a new stadium was the price of poker. The Houston Texans modern stadium sits right next to the Astrodome.

There was a city referendum on turning the old dome into some sort of park. It failed. It was said that they would tear the thing down if it didn’t pass, but perhaps because of the expense of hauling away the rubble it is still sitting there.

So…anyone see where I am going with this? Houston would be better off selling the dome for a dollar than spending millions to demolish it and haul away the remains. Especially if you could, you know, steal another California industry in the process. The Astrodome is dead, long live the Almond Dome!

But conscience asks the question,  ‘Is it right?’ 

January 15, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

JPGP reader Charles Miller, a great Texas education reformer that we lost in 2017, authored one of my favorite guest posts back in 2010, reprinted below. Miller rose to the defense of the DC Opportunity Scholarship program during the days in which the Obama administration was attempting to kill it. Miller quoted the great Martin Luther King Jr. in defense of the program, making it an opportunity to remember both men. Happy trails Charles, and thank you for taking time to share your wisdom to the next generation:

Early in the Obama administration I was surprised and deeply disappointed by their decision to kill the “DC Voucher” Program.  I wrote most of the piece below at that time and the decision brought me back into the public K-12 debate.  The U.S. Senate recently voted 55-42 to confirm that decision, essentially on a party line vote, so I am sending this to go on record about something I think is horrendously wrong. –Charles Miller
April 4, 2010

What Martin Luther King Said About Speaking Out

“Our Lives Begin to End the Day We Become Silent About Things That Matter”
(Martin Luther King)

The Obama administration, through stimulus funding, the Race to the Top program, its presentation of budgets and proposals for reauthorization of NCLB/ESEA , has moved fast and furiously in the public education policy arena.  It seems very unlikely to me that high aspirations—and hasty action— equate to effective public policy.  In fact, these efforts seem to amount quite clearly to an overreach–strategically, systemically, politically, and culturally

However, what bothers me the most personally is what I consider the most unprincipled action in public education policy since the existence of segregated schools:  The willful decision by the Obama administration, supported by the Democrats in Congress, to kill the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, also called “D.C. Vouchers”

The Obama administration has tied its education policy declarations to a mantra of being non-political and non-partisan, choosing instead a policy focus only on “what works”.  This principle has been repeated incessantly.

However, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) is a successful program.

The Department of Education’s official evaluation using rigorous “gold standard” experimental evaluations determined that the OSP has produced significant achievement gains.

The OSP is serving those families and children most in need in one of the worst school districts in America.  Average income of participating families  is less than $24,000 annually and more than 85% of participating students would otherwise be attending a failing school under NCLB guidelines.

D.C. residents polled by three unaffiliated firms in ’07, ’08, and ’09 showed between 66 and 75% support for the OSP.  The D.C. superintendent and the Mayor support the program.

The decision to kill the program is contradictory to anything the administration claims to be its guiding principle.   The cost of the successful OSP is financially very small by comparison to any K-12 standard while at the same time there has been a gigantic increase in education spending nationally— to support status quo systems which are widely considered failures. Strong evidence of success, academically and financially, clearly makes the decision to kill OSP unprincipled.

The reason for killing OSP is the intense opposition of national teachers unions to a voucher program of any kind, anywhere, anytime—even if it is academically successful, financially responsible and so popular with the community served that there are long waiting lists.

If this successful program had been able to be replicated—a fear obviously driving the decision to kill OSP—the number of students from the most disadvantaged families whose life prospects could have been enhanced could be quite large.  This consideration makes the decision to kill OSP even more egregious, although even helping a small set of students is the principled thing to do.

Notably, from the Washington Post, “Duncan had the temerity to admit that OSP students ‘were safe and learning and doing well…but we can’t be satisfied with saving 1 or 2 percent of children and letting 98 or 99 percent down’.”

The effect of the decision to kill OSP on the lives of the students who could have benefited from its continuation is extremely negative.  There is no way to avoid this conclusion. If a social scientist extrapolated the trends of two sets of students, one in OSP and one in a typical DC school, the loss of life opportunities would be stark for the typical set of students.

The inescapable conclusion I reach is that killing OSP is a despicable and unconscionable decision made for political purposes and with cynical disregard for the lives of the children affected.  “Obama could have stood up for these children, who only want the same opportunities that he had and that his daughters now have.  Instead his education secretary, Arne Duncan, proffered an argument that would be funny if it weren’t so sad:  Scholarships for poor students aren’t worth supporting because not enough of them are given out” (Washington Post, 3/8/10)

This when joblessness for 16-to-24-year-old black men has reached Great Depression proportions — 34.5 % last October and estimated to having exceeded 50% by last year end.

The other conclusion I reach is that policy advocates or officials who turn their face away or avoid taking a strong stand against the decision to kill OSP because it is not pleasant or not convenient to their own activities have a hand in the ignoble results of the decision.  “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends” (Martin Luther King)

So, for me personally, I can’t justify supporting such an administration or its policy makers even if some of their other policy choices are more productive, nor can I see believing anything they say or trusting anything they do.  It can no longer be acceptable to be principled just some of the time.   No Mas.

“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’  Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’  Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’  But conscience asks the question,  ‘Is it right?’  And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”  (Martin Luther King)

Charles Miller