Pass the Clicker: Cults of Various Kinds

May 20, 2020

Like many of you, we at Casa Verde have been watching our share of streaming entertainment.  We are watching the entire Star Wars canon, in chronological order within the Star Wars Universe.  We have our Israeli/Jewish shows, like Fauda and the Plot Against America.  But in case you are looking for something different to try, let me recommend a few series we’ve come across about cults of various kinds.

The first is a fictionalized limited series on the Waco stand-off and assault involving the ATF, FBI, and followers of David Koresh.  The series is remarkably sympathetic to Koresh’s followers and to the efforts of the FBI negotiator who attempted to avert bloodshed.  It raises interesting questions about what, if anything, distinguishes a cult from other religious movements, and about the dangers of getting on the wrong side of government force.

The second is a documentary about followers of Baghwan Shree Rajneesh who settled in a rural area of Oregon, coming into social and political conflict with the nearby town of Antelope and the broader political establishment of Oregon.  Things escalate rapidly and in unexpected ways.

The third is a documentary about a completely different kind of cult — the sunny optimism of post-war corporate America.  A writer for the Letterman show comes across records and footage of Broadway-style shows created and performed for industry conventions and corporate retreats.  They’re hilarious, but also endearing.  The musical is the American art form and musicals about how to improve corporate profits is the most American of that American art form.


What Have You Spun for Me Lately?

May 18, 2020

Who is Dance Dance Dance judge Tina Landon? What videos did she ...

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Look, I know Jeb did one important thing for school choice over twenty years ago, but at some point when you turn in stuff this dumb, it no longer cuts it to say, “hey, I did you a favor in 1999.”

Jeb is the nominal author of an article on NRO about how states should use funds from a new $3 billion federal education bailout. It’s adapted from a big policy report produced by his organization, which he links to.

Let’s leave aside for a moment that the article calls on states to use this cash to push really big, “transformational” changes, whereas $3 billion cut fifty ways doesn’t actually add up to much as a share of the public school budget (over $700 billion a year nationally). We spent $6 billion on Reading First and got nothing to show for it, and Jeb is now pushing early reading intervention and radical new use of digital learning and a big new “workforce preparedness” somethingorother and payouts to private schools for only $3 billion. Someone said something fifteen years ago about the uselessness of the “buckets into the sea” approach to education reform, but people who have the wrong goals just can’t see past the dollar signs in their eyes.

Where was I? Oh yeah, let’s leave all that aside.

In this article, Jeb once again drops school choice. Last time, at the height of his all-in, head-first dive into Common Core (Hey, remember Common Core? Good times!) Jeb dropped choice from his list of four must-have reforms. But he at least mentioned choice in the article, in a way that sort of suggested it might be a good idea, so long as it bent the knee to Common Core.

This time, Jeb drops choice from the list even when his own organization was trying to put it back on. And he doesn’t even mention it in the article.

The policy report, in one of its four recommended items, specifically recommends protecting, expanding and creating school choice programs. But somehow, between the report and Jeb’s article, this item on support for choice magically transmogrified into “stabilizing private schools.”

A government subsidy for private schools is not school choice, any more than a government subsidy for grocery stores would expand people’s food choices. On the contrary, it would narrow them. Just look at how government subsidies for higher education and medical care have fantastically empowered people with more and more access to more and more viable choices!

And what is Jeb’s argument that government should subsidize private K-12 schools in the same way it has so successfully subsidized universities?

Finally, governors could help to stabilize private schools, which are responsible for roughly 10 percent of America’s K–12 students. Private schools, especially faith-based schools, often operate on shoestring budgets, yet in many cases their students are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college. With the impacts of COVID-19, many of these schools are at a breaking point. Families may have less money to pay tuition, and financial aid will be stretched thin. It’s worth a reminder that these schools are part of our education system. They employ teachers, buy textbooks, and educate students who would otherwise fill desks in public schools. They provide alternatives to parents whose needs aren’t being met by the public schools. Helping cash-strapped parents who were paying out of their own pockets to send their child to a great school seems like a simple way to invest in education — and it would keep a vital and successful part of our education system going well into the future.

Why, they’re part of the status quo! How could we possibly not subsidize them?

He even specifically says that his goal is to support families who were already paying for private school – “parents who were paying out of their own pockets” – as opposed to creating new choices for parents who need them!

The point is not parent empowerment that would incentivize better education. The point is to subsidize the status quo forever.

The real head-scratcher here is that school choice programs are a superior way to preserve private education, even if that’s really all you care about. That shouldn’t be what you care about; you should care about better education, which comes from real accountability, which comes from giving power to parents – and not from any other approach. But if what you care about really is just floating the status quo in private schools, why not argue for school choice programs? Why advocate direct subsidies to private schools that will only kill the one thing that private schools really have going for them to make them attractive and keep them vibrant – the fact that they answer to parents?

I can think of one possible reason.

PS Figuring out why “subsidize private schools to serve students already enrolled there!” would be a huge political loser, where “empower parents with new choices!” has been the only – the only – long-term political winner in the history of the education reform movement is left as a Political Science for Ed Reform Dummies exercise for the reader.

California’s Common Core Apologia

May 14, 2020

(Guest Post By Ze’ev Wurman & Williamson Evers)

His first point goes to the fidelity of NAEP as a measuring tool, since it is not perfectly aligned with Common Core. Indeed it is not—purposely! NAEP was not designed to be aligned with any particular state standards and that has been true for decades. This hasn’t blocked states from exhibiting improvements over time, sometimes smoothly, sometimes in spurts. But the results on NAEP almost never—never!—declined.

Under Common Core, in the 2015, 2017, and 2019 administration of NAEP scores broadly and significantly declined across most states, including California.

Then Dr. Kirst turns to argue that California has made significant improvement since Common Core.  His evidence? A 10% improvement in grades 3 and 4 over four years of SBAC administration. What was politely glossed over is the fact that half of this change occurred between the first administrations, when young students first confronted new ways to answer computer-based items with new formats and a new interface, and the second administration when they had an opportunity to practice and adjust to them. If we remove the first SBAC administration, the change from 2015 to 2019 are rather unimpressive 5-6% in early grades that declines to essentially zero or even slightly negative by grades 8 and 11.

Independent Institute
Source: Independent Institute

Yet this raises another question. Is SBAC test even valid, both facially (do its items sample actual subject matter content?) and psychometrically (does item format allows us to reliably interpret the results, give the new fancy and untested formats introduced by it?). The answer is nobody knows, as no external experts were given access to validate that test.

Here is the little we do know–since California abolished under Common Core almost any continuous measure of achievement.

During Common Core, California students taking Algebra I in grade 8 dropped from 54% in 2013 just before Common Core started, to 18% by 2019. A two thirds drop in six years!

And here are California NAEP scores for that period. With the exception of fourth grade reading, the results are flat or negative.

Independent Institute
Source: Independent Institute

Incidentally, we also know that successful Black AB Calculus takers dropped by almost half between 2014 and 2018, and successful Black BC Calculus dropped by one third. That is what we know about California achievement from objective sources since Common Core took over in 2014.

We don’t know how many students successfully took Algebra 1 in middle and high schools—that test was eliminated in Calfornia under Common Core. We don’t know how many students successfully took Geometry or Algebra 2—those tests were eliminated under Common Core. We don’t know how many students are truly ready for the California State University System—that customized test for CSU was replaced by some arbitrary passing score on SBAC.

So we don’t know a lot. The public can no longer track what is really occurring in California education. Clear test-based accountability has been replaced by meaningless colorful dashboards based on the single unvalidated test: the SBAC.

So this is California reality, rather than the tiny improvement sliver Dr. Kirst attempts to present as the whole picture. But what about the future? Kirst promises that things will just get better, instructional materials exist (well, they existed at least since 2014, many of them free), and the future is bright.

Is it?

In 2011, the authors of this article talked with Dr. Kirst to make sure he understood the problems with the Common Core validation by David Conley, and that the previous California standards were judged superior. Nothing was done.

In 2013 Kirst was informed by us in detail as to why the New Generation Science Standards were inferior to the then-current California science standards. This was at the time of a scathing report in June 2013 from the Fordham Institute showing the NGSS to be, effectively, content-empty. Kirst assured us that he was aware of these drawbacks and that California would not adopt NGSS.

In September 2013 Dr. Kirst presided over the adoption of NGSS for California.

Today in California, after 8 years of Dr. Kirst’s state board presidency, we have a system that has no external accountability, where everything is being based on an internal secret test. We have inferior science standards and a system that has seemingly declined in performance. Denigrating NAEP, the only external measure left, is not a very good argument.

Ze’ev Wurman is a former senior adviser at the U.S. Dept. of Education.  Williamson Evers is a senior fellow at Independent Institute and director of its Center on Educational Excellence.

How Many Employees Does a DOE Need?

May 9, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

My latest for OCPA asks why Oklahoma needs one state DOE employee for every four schools:

What do Oklahoma schools get in exchange for all this? Not funding. The state legislature appropriates funds for public schools according to formulas written into the law. Indeed, state funding for education is one of the very few places left in American governance where legislatures still make their own decisions instead of delegating all the hard choices to the administrative state. Oklahoma could fund its public schools with no more than a handful of state employees involved, to gather data and program the check-writing machines.

And before you ask, no, they didn’t make life easier for schools during Coronavirus. They made it harder.

My favorite bit:

It’s not 100% clear to me that schools ought to expend any portion of their scarce labor and budget bandwidth on the vital task of monitoring how many calories are in the diet soda their students drink. But it is clear to me that if there is any question—any question whatsoever—that ought to be settled at the local level in our constitutional order, this is it. If states can control this, we should give up on pretending we still have a constitutional division of powers; it’s diet soda all the way down.

Let me know what you think!

Coming This Fall with an All-Star Cast: It’s the New Gates Foundation Follies!

May 6, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

File this under big-budget franchise reboots nobody was asking for. Reuters:

New York will work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to “reimagine” the state’s school system as part of broader reforms in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo told a daily briefing on Tuesday…

While he did not provide specifics, Cuomo suggested a fundamental rethink of the classroom was on the table.

“The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom and the teacher is in front of that classroom, and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms – why with all the technology you have?” Cuomo asked.


There must be somebody whose word Bill Gates would trust, who could sit him down and explain what’s being done to him.


If not for his sake, for the sake of all the rest of us who have to watch this crap when there’s nothing else on.

If some good Samaritan does decide to take Gates to class, here’s the reading list.

We Interrupt This Communist-Caused Pandemic to Bring You an Important Bulletin

April 29, 2020


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Chinese Communist Party’s national computer system for managing surveillance is actually called Skynet.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled communist-caused pandemic.

Coronavirus Isn’t Ushering in the Cool-Kids Future or the Homeschooling Past

April 17, 2020


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

My latest for OCPA considers whether digital learning or homeschooling will see big boosts from the current public health emergency, when millions of parents suddenly found themselves thrust into both these alternative modes of education. Admittedly, it’s a unique moment:

Oklahoma’s largest virtual charter-school organization, EPIC Charter Schools, even offered free training to teachers and schools in traditional school districts. Despite their rhetoric about how “everyone in public education must come together,” it’s a little like watching Nixon sell grain to the Soviets.

But having to do this under emergency conditions is not necessarily giving people a representative experience of what digital learning and homeschooling are normally like.

With a callback to a classic Matt Ladner meme, I argue that while digital learning has long-term promise, techno-futurist hopes for a quick digital-learning revolution remain as overblown as they were ten years ago:

Today, we can see that the edu-futurists—Matt Ladner dubbed them The Cool Kids—were right about the direction, but wrong about the scope. Or, if you prefer, you can say they were wrong about the timing; perhaps technology really will revolutionize the whole education landscape, but if so, it didn’t do it on the timetable The Cool Kids predicted…Models that explain how people behave when they buy copper wire—“the market is a huge bubble right now, it’s about to burst”—turn out not to explain how people behave when it comes to the rearing of their children.

Homeschooling has more to gain from the current crisis, because it will no longer feel weird and abnormal in the same way – people will have looked in the closet and found out there was no Boogeyman in there. But don’t get your hopes up for radical change here, either:

Institutional schooling was not imposed upon American society by some kind of totalitarian regime. Homeschooling is the right choice for some, and perhaps the right choice for more than choose it now. But radicals who view institutional schooling as a false consciousness that everyone will suddenly wake up and realize they never really believed in are a little like the “heteronormativity” theorists who think people are only attracted to the opposite sex because society programs them that way.

Bottom line, education policy is still political, and politics is still the same as it was.

Franchise movies in summer 2021 and street signs in St. Petersburg on Dec. 26, 1991 are also part of the story. Let me know what you think!