Online Courses May Not Be the Way of the Future

August 12, 2016

Ed reformers, including path-breaking scholars Terry Moe and Paul Peterson, championed digital instruction as the way of the future.  Teaching courses online has enormous potential appeal.  Instruction could be better customized to match student needs, abilities, and learning-speed.  Online courses could achieve greater economies of scale, producing desperately needed efficiencies.  Online instruction could address critical shortages in quality teachers, substituting capital for labor.  And online instruction could politically circumvent and undermine the teacher unions and their allies by opening the door to multiple, competing education providers for each student.

Some of these benefits may hold true, at least for some students, but the dream of revolutionizing education with online instruction appears to have over-stated its prospects.  The edtechnophiles may have missed the central task in education: motivating students to learn by creating social communities in which failure to learn would disappoint people with whom students have authentic relationships.  The problem of learning is not how to provide information to students.  Almost all of human knowledge is available to students at virtually no cost — it’s called the internet.  Students could look up and learn anything they want right now.  The trick is motivating students to acquire that knowledge.

Online courses appear to be less effective in getting the average student to learn and I suspect the problem is that teaching online is less able to create social communities and authentic relationships that are necessary to motivate students.  Having a human being in front of students who would be disappointed if students did not learn the material seems important and something that online instruction has not been able to simulate.  Students appear to be better motivated to learn when they have an in-person, authentic relationship with a teacher and when they try to please that teacher by working hard to learn.  Digital instruction or a human being on the other side of the internet may not be able to create that same relationship and motivation.

There has been a fairly consistent string of studies with disappointing results from online instruction.  The most of these studies, which also contains a useful literature review of past research, is by   Cassandra M.D. Hart, Elizabeth Friedmann, and Michael Hill at the University of California, Davis. They examine the effects of online course-taking in California’s Community College system. Rather than summarize, I’ll let them describe their results:

Using a series of fixed effects techniques, we find patterns that are strikingly similar to those found in past literature. We find that online course-taking is negatively associated with contemporaneous course performance in terms of course completion, course passing, and the likelihood of receiving an A or a B. We subject our analyses to several novel tests to determine whether selection into online courses biases these fixed effect estimates, and find that the results are likely not biased….

We find that contemporaneous student performance in online courses is generally weaker than in [Face to Face] FtF classes. The results hold whether we use college-course fixed effects, student fixed effects, or instructor fixed effects. Our results are consistent across multiple ways of measuring student performance, for students with different characteristics, and across different subject Online Course-taking and Student Outcomes 29 areas. The consistency of these results across different methods of specification and for different groups adds credence to our findings. Our results are close in magnitude to results from similar studies conducted in multiple states (Xu & Jaggars, 2011; Xu & Jaggars, 2013; Johnson & Cuellar Mejia, 2014). In addition, the coefficients’ stability and the fact that the coefficients become more negative as we add controls suggests that the degree of selection on unobservables (Altonji, Elder, Taber, 2005; Oster, 2013) would have to be substantial and in the opposite direction from selection on observables to invalidate the fixed-effect results for our contemporaneous course-taking outcomes….

We find more modest evidence that online course-taking is associated with some negative downstream outcomes as well. Our findings that online course-taking is positively associated with course repetition and negatively associated with subject persistence are stable across a number of estimation techniques; like the contemporaneous course performance results, these are consistent whether we use student, college-course, or instructor fixed effects. The subject persistence results are largely stable across student subtypes, but are non-significant for AfricanAmerican students. There is more heterogeneity across subject types; while subject persistence gaps are negative for math, humanities, and social science classes, the gap is non-significant for business classes and is actually positive for information technology courses. In all cases, however, the subject persistence gaps are much smaller in magnitude than the estimates for the contemporaneous outcomes.


Political Science for Ed Reform Dummies

August 8, 2016

Despite the fact that they imagine themselves to be politically sophisticated, the leadership of the ed reform movement seems to be badly in need of some basic lessons in political science.  Political failures like Common Core, Portfolio Management in New Orleans, electoral defeats (like those recently in Tennessee), and repudiations of the entire ed reform agenda by Black Lives Matterthe NAACP, and the DNC despite extensive courting by left-leaning ed reformers suggest that ed reform might benefit from learning a thing or two about how politics works.

Lesson #1 — Concentrated interests have an advantage over dispersed interests

This is one of the most well-established and older insights from political science articulated most clearly in James Q. Wilson’s book, Political Organizations.  In education, the unions and others who benefit from the status quo system are concentrated interests.  They know how proposed changes would help or hurt them and they can easily be mobilized to donate, agitate, and vote to protect their concentrated interests.  Parents and taxpayers may be more numerous, but they are dispersed.  Each proposed change is likely to help or hurt them less than employees of the school system and parents/taxpayers (unlike school employees) do not all work in the same place and regularly share information.  This makes parents/taxpayers more dispersed and much harder to organize politically.

The political implications are that reformers will rarely be able to defeat the unions in a direct political assault nor can reformers expect to maintain control over boards or other centers of power over the education system.  Even with large campaign war-chests, as reformers had in the recent Tennessee elections, the unions and their allies will tend to prevail because they have a larger number of concentrated beneficiaries who campaign and vote.  Even with an army of DC organizations endorsing Common Core, the unions and their allies have more boots on the ground in each state to neuter or repeal standards-based reforms. Even with the financing and support of major reform foundations, the unions and their allies could hijack Portfolio Management in New Orleans, returning control to the local school board whose elections they dominate.  All of these failures could have been avoided if reformers understood this first lesson.

Despite the advantage that the concentrated interests of the unions and their allies have, reformers can achieve political victories if they keep two thing in mind. First, they shouldn’t build centralized institutions for controlling education because inevitably the unions and their allies will gain control over those institutions and use them to promote their own interests.  Don’t build a national system of standards with aligned tests because the edublob will gain control over it if they do not first block or repeal it. Don’t build Portfolio Managers governing all schools because inevitably  the unions and their allies will grab control over that. If reformers understand that they do not have concentrated interests on their side, they should prefer decentralizing control so that it’s hard even for the unions to seize all of the levers of power in one fell swoop.  If there are multiple authorizers, multiple and independent schools, and the revenue and policies of those schools are determined more by parents than bureaucrats, the unions and their allies can’t control all of it.

Second, reformers need to generate their own concentrated interest groups that have a better chance of competing politically with the unions.  The best way to do that is to expand choice so that the beneficiaries of those programs have an interest in protecting those programs.  And families at a choice school are more concentrated physically so that they can be better informed and organized for political action.  The way to fight the organized interests of traditional school employees is by creating organized interests of choice parents.

Reformers have had a bad habit of being attracted to policies that do not generate constituents to protect or expand those programs.  No one ever held a rally to test kids more.  No one ever held a rally to support test-based evaluations of teachers and schools. No one ever held a rally to increase the share of informational texts in reading standards or to ensure that uniform tests are aligned with a particular set of standards.  No one ever held a rally to regulate choice schools more closely so that the range of options is restricted or schools are more constrained.

Whatever merits these policies may have (and their merits are dubious), they are all political losers.  Eventually all of these policies will be blocked, diluted, or co-opted by concentrated interests. But the great political virtue of school choice is that it generates its own constituents who can then be mobilized to protect and expand choice.  Once parents have expanded choices it is extremely difficult to take that away politically and it rarely happens. The same cannot be said for top-down accountability and regulation reforms.

Lesson #2 — Higher income people have more political power than lower income people

As much as reformers may be motivated to promote equity, a basic lesson about political reality is that more advantaged people tend to have more political power.  Rather than lament this fact, reformers should try to use it to advance their goals.  The old political adage that programs for the poor tend to be poor programs is all too true.  Reformers have made horrible political mistakes in concentrating programs in disadvantaged areas, means-testing participants, and focusing on options that are mostly of interest to lower income families.  Not only do these program tend to be less-well funded, overly regulated, and generally of lower quality, but they are always highly vulnerable to being weakened further or eliminated.

To increase the odds of having better quality programs that are more generously funded and more reasonably regulated, reformers should be sure to include higher income families as potential beneficiaries.  And those wealthier families are more likely to be mobilized politically to protect and expand programs.  If reformers should seek to organize concentrated interests of beneficiaries, it would really help if they did not exclude higher income families that tend to have better resources, networks, and experience to participate more effectively in politics.

Lesson #3 — Winning requires 51% of the legislature

Most significant education reforms have been championed by Republican governors and state legislators with relatively little support from the other side of the aisle.  Reformers have invested an enormous amount of time, rhetoric, and money in trying to convince more Democrats to support meaningful reform, but these efforts have made few in-roads.  Reforms continue to be passed largely by Republican governors and legislators.

The problem is that elected Democrats continue to rely heavily on the concentrated interests of the unions and their allies for political support.  Reformers can’t peel away Democratic officials with targeted campaign donations because the unions and their allies can match or exceed those donations.  In addition, the unions can bring an army of campaign volunteers and voters to each election in a way that reformers generally cannot, especially in Democratic districts.  In addition, reform arguments about equity or social justice cannot shame Democrats into supporting their cause.  The unions have their own arguments about equity and social justice that, regardless of their merits, provide a sufficient fig-leaf to Democratic office-seekers.

Rather than chasing Democrats who mostly cannot be won over, reformers should remember that it only takes 51% of the legislature to win.  In states with Republican control of the legislature and/or governor’s mansion (which is currently most states), reformers can make policy entirely or largely with the support of Republicans.  Reformers should craft policies and adopt rhetoric that appeal to the Republicans they need to reach 51%.  Increasingly hyperbolic rhetoric about equity and social justice not only fails to win over Democrats, but it turns away some Republican reformers.  When Republicans are already the majority, reformers should concentrate on keeping all of them on board rather than chasing Democrats they don’t need or can’t get.

Lesson #4 — Helping your political enemies hurts you

This may seem too obvious to need articulating, but in an age where we ship $400 million in cash to the Iranians, this lesson apparently requires emphasis.  Certain groups are allied with the unions and their friends, so reformers shouldn’t provide them with money, a platform for advocating their ideas, or political rhetoric to support them.

In a fit of political naivete, the Gates Foundation actually gave money to the teacher unions in the belief that they could secure support from the unions for Common Core.  The unions happily took the money, made empty promises about support, and promptly betrayed Common Core as soon as it was convenient.  The New School Venture Fund gave a platform to Black Lives Matter at its national conference only a few months before that organization repudiated charter schools and the rest of the traditional reform agenda.

The Uber Model

The political strategy adopted by Uber provides a useful model for ed reformers.  Uber understood that taxi companies were concentrated interests in each market and therefore better positioned to block regulatory changes that would allow Uber to operate more freely.  Rather than attempting a futile direct political assault, Uber focused on creating beneficiaries of its services who could then be organized politically to fight against the taxi companies.  And while low income people are among the greatest beneficiaries from Uber’s services, Uber was determined not to exclude higher income people from its services.  They understood that once wealthier urbanites experienced Uber, they could be mobilized more easily and effectively to fight for it.  The poor benefit by having the rich fight for policy changes that benefit the rich and poor alike.

Uber does not chase the support of politicians who are determined to oppose them.  And Uber does not give money to taxi companies in the false hope that they will come around to seeing the virtues of greater competition with Uber.  In short, Uber seems to understand these 4 basic lessons of political science in a way that reformers have not.

If reformers adopted a political strategy more akin to what Uber is doing, they would enjoy far greater success.  Reformers should avoid building centralized systems of control that the unions will eventually dominate.  Reformers should focus on policies that generate their own constituents, like expanding school choice, rather than policies that only technocrats could love.  And  reformers should be sure that higher income families are among the beneficiaries of those choice programs so that their greater political power could be mobilized to more effectively fight to protect and expand programs.  Reformers should also craft policies and adopt rhetoric that appeal more to the legislators they are likely to get to reach 51%.  And it should go without saying that reformers should avoid providing support to groups that are are fundamentally opposed to the reform agenda.


How to Improve Alabama’s Schools

August 8, 2016

(Guest Post by Dr. Williamson M. Evers)

Improving education is a combination of (1) teachers effectively conveying to students certain essential information; (2) getting a better match between schools (with different strengths and teaching talents) and students (with different capacities, needs, and interests); and (3) creating learning environments where teachers are motivated to engage the students’ intellects and emotions and students are motivated to learn challenging subject-matter — and learning in a way that embeds it and puts it into practice beyond the level of learning facts that could be looked up on the web. The classroom should be a kind of theater of high-morale learning. In that shared theater of learning, the important components of civilization are passed on, teachers are role models for students, and students’ character is formed.

Curriculum should promote patriotic and liberty-loving citizenship (without ruling out exposure in high school to our country’s problems.) We should always remember that the family is the site and source of the most important education that a child receives. The public school system should avoid undermining the family and related social institutions like churches, charities, and voluntary associations.

There are steps that Alabama should consider to improve student performance:

Reading improvement. The Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI) was a professional development program (started in 1998) with school-level reading coaches. It took a few years to plan and put into place. It was based on the scientific research literature on the teaching of reading and therefore took a phonics-first approach.

By 2007, Alabama’s grade 4 reading score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a nationwide examination that tests a sample of students, had risen significantly – an eight-point jump from 2005 (almost a grade level). The grade 4 students made another four-point jump in 2011, catching up with the national average. In 2009, Alabama’s grade 8 reading score on NAEP rose three points, and in 2011, it rose another three points. The grade 8 gains were slower and less sharp than the gains for grade 4 and remained  five to six points below the national average. Even the less dramatic grade 8 gains did constitute considerable improvement.

The official history of the ARI says:

“From 2003 to 2011, with a state-funded reading coach in every elementary school, Alabama’s 4th graders made more progress in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than students from any other state in the nation. Alabama met the national average in 4th grade reading for the first time, and Alabama is one of only four states in the nation (second only to Maryland) to show increases in 4th grade reading from 2009 to 2011. The number of Alabama students reading below grade level has been reduced by half.”

Since the coming of Common Core, the State Superintendent has directed the funds for the reading initiative and the STEM initiative to coaches for Common Core. Subsequently, grade 4 reading scores on NAEP in Alabama have declined eight points, to below the national average. Grade 8 reading scores remain stagnant.

I don’t like to made pronouncements about policy issues without talking to a range of people and looking into the details of what changes could be made. But my working hypothesis would be that the reading initiative needs to be restored.

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) improvement. Alabama also had a long-running math, science, and technology initiative. In contrast with the reading initiative, it seems to have produced no noticeable effects on student achievement. I think it makes sense for Alabama to look into why there has been such a sharp difference in results between the two initiatives, and make appropriate adjustments.

In both STEM and reading, the Alabama State Department of Education should consider certifying Professional Development programs that are based on science – based on empirical research with control groups and the like. A State superintendent should seek to make sure that districts know about good Professional Development and should nurture the growth of such programs.

Graduation rate and academic attainment. To boost academic attainment, Alabama should put in place a 3rd grade test (Florida currently retains students who cannot pass its 3rd grade reading test) and a 10th-grade/graduation test. Alabama discarded its High School Exit Examination (AHSGE – Alabama High School Graduation Exam) in 2013 and replaced it with ACT/CCRS (College- & Career-Ready Standards).

The 11th grade ACT cut scores in Alabama are 18 for English; 22 for math and reading; and 23 for science. The ACT scores are the standard current national “college readiness” scores. So they are, in fact, quite demanding and above the 10th grade level.

ACT is basically used in Alabama for federal reporting purposes to comply with the federal Elementary & Secondary Education Act.  Graduation is currently based on area requirements and seat-time (measured in Carnegie units).

Alabama should restore its exit exam, but it should operate in a multiple second-chances way, with many opportunities to retake the tests and offering a variety of exemptions and special categories.  The idea is to create a focus and a shared goal, not to deny some large number of students a diploma.  Alabama should also reconsider its One Diploma policy.  Since there are a wide variety of students with different capacities, interests, and needs, there should probably be a variety of diplomas.

Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution estimates that all the prep time and all the millions spent on the Common Core national curriculum-content standards boosted achievement in the U.S. by only a tiny amount: one scale-score point. The new Every Student Succeeds Act does much to protect against future federal interference with curriculum. When it comes to testing, Alabama is not now with PARCC or SmarterBalanced, but has instead affiliated with ACT. Yet Alabama has a set of state standards largely based on Common Core. It is time, I would think, to revisit those current state standards to see what needs fixing. (I participated in California’s line-by-line review of the Common Core in 2010, and I participated in creating the late-1990s California State Academic Content Standards, judged best in the nation by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers.)

Career and technical education. Students, because they are different individuals, should have different educational pathways in high school. Blouke Carus — a leading children’s magazine publisher (including Cricket, Ladybug, Cobblestone), math and reading textbook developer, and chairman emeritus of the Carus Corporation (a company producing manganese compounds) — has said: “Our schools need to offer each student a choice among six or more challenging and rigorous high school curricula, as do other, higher-performing countries.”

As I and my colleagues wrote in a 2013 manifesto entitled “Closing the Door on Innovation”: “There is no evidence to justify a single high school curriculum for all students. A single set of curriculum guidelines, models, or frameworks cannot be justified at the high school level, given the diversity of interests, talents, and pedagogical needs among adolescents. American schools should not be constrained in the diversity of the curricula they offer to students. Other countries offer adolescents a choice of curricula; Finland, for example, offers all students leaving grade 9 the option of attending a three-year general studies high school or a three-year vocational high school, with about 50% of each age cohort enrolling in each type of high school. We worry that the ‘comprehensive’ American high school may have outlived its usefulness, as a [2011] Harvard report [Pathways to Prosperity] implies.”

Because vocational education has a reputation for being a dumping ground and a place where minority children were channeled because of racial bias, education policy has neglected vocational education and sometimes even eliminated it. Alabama’s “Essentials/Life Skills Pathway” is a separate vocational-education pathway.  For example, instead of English 9, the student would take English Essentials 9. This is intended to prep students for community college or the workforce, not for entry to 4-year colleges.

Alabama needs to avoid a situation which the only high school available for a student is a college-prep comprehensive or, alternatively, vocational-only.  The state should incentivize local districts (through waivers) to create a variety of career-tech program alternatives (including a variety of mission-oriented schools), but these should include an academic component (as they do now). In general, Alabama should look carefully at Arizona where the process of school creation is highly decentralized, and the results have been fruitful.

Teacher Quality. As the 1999 manifesto “The Teachers We Need” (of which I was a co-signer) says, “the surest route to quality is to widen the entryway [and] deregulate the processes.” This would expand the pool of potential teachers. It would open the doors to highly-qualified, but non-traditional recruits who want to become teachers and thereby improve overall quality. New York State currently has a relatively open process allowing alternative certification.  In Arkansas, almost half the incoming teachers come in under alternative certification.

But Alabama gets only a C- from the National Council on Teacher Quality for the extent to which the state’s teaching pool has been expanded by alternative certification and the like. Alabama should also be open to non-traditional teacher training programs like the Relay Graduation School of Education in New York City.

Michael McShane of the American Enterprise Institute has written:

“Recently, I have been influenced by the work of Northwestern University economist Kirabo Jackson, whose fascinating NBER working paper calls into serious question policy’s recent overreliance on math and reading scores as the primary measure of the ‘goodness’ of schools and teachers. As it turns out, teachers have important and measurable impacts on both the cognitive and non-cognitive development of students. While it’s certainly true that test scores can tell us something important about a teacher, what is troubling for the test-score types is that it looks like (1) non-cognitive scores are better predictors of later life success (completing high school, taking the SAT, and going to college) and (2) that it is not the same set of teachers that is good at raising both cognitive and non-cognitive measures.

“Such has to be the same for schools, right? If there are teachers that are increasing non-cognitive, but not cognitive skills, surely there are schools that are doing the same. As a result, trying to assess if a school is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ relies on a complex web of preferences and objective measures that, quite frankly, cannot be taken into account in a centralized accountability system. We need something more sophisticated, and something that can respect a diverse conception of what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ means.”

In citing Michael McShane and Kirabo Jackson, I am suggesting a goal for the future, while not saying that there should be no accountability. We should consider a change in providers of accountability because Alabama has a variety of school districts, localities, and other groupings. As Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute and Andrew Smarick, chair of the Maryland State Board of Education, have separately pointed out, accountability doesn’t have to be in conformity with One Best Way. School evaluation can be pluralistic and rivalrous and doesn’t have to be solely governmental. Churches could do it, neighborhood associations could do it, chambers of commerce could do it.   As Bedrick writes: “Parents can then evaluate the quality of education providers based on their own experience and the expert evaluations of appropriate external providers, and the entire system evolves as parents select the providers that best meet their children’s needs.”

Currently if a teacher is educated in Alabama teachers colleges and receives bad evaluations during the first three years, the teacher can go back to college for free. This seems like a smart program worth retaining.

Education Next magazine surveyed teachers nationwide and the teachers themselves said that about 5% of teachers deserve an “F” and 8% deserve a “D.” But we should be cautious about grandiose projects to improve teacher quality. The “highly qualified teacher” provisions of the No Child Left Behind law were never successfully put into effect. The elaborate new teacher-evaluation systems put in place (at the cost of millions) in about 20 states have reduced the percentage of teachers rated “satisfactory” from 99% to 97%.

Currently teacher-certification testing is under court supervision. Alabama has low passing scores on the PRAXIS II tests that it expects of teachers. When court supervision is over, the state could slowly raise passing scores (as Texas has). Teachers do need to know the subject-matter they are teaching. But the most important thing is to increase the inflow of good prospects into the teaching pool (from which districts and schools can select), rather than reducing the size of the pool.

Economic growth and student attainment. Both policymakers and the civically active public underestimate the economic gains from school improvement. The differences in rates of growth among states can be matched to the education of the workers in the various states. A multiplicity of causes affect economic growth, but nothing is more influential in the long run than school improvement. Although it is certainly difficult to improve schools, it is easier to improve schools than it is to change other factors that figure in increased productivity.

Equated to PISA international test results, Alabama is currently below Turkey.

Some people think that Alabama’s low results are because of demographics. But the only state whose whites do worse currently is West Virginia.

For Alabama, which is educationally at the bottom of the lowest quartile in the United States, the present value of bringing the state to the level of Kentucky – in the next quartile — would be three times Alabama’s current Gross Domestic Product (according to my Hoover Institution colleague Eric A. Hanushek). Other states at the Kentucky level are Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island. To get to the level of Kentucky would mean for Alabama over 6% annual growth in GDP and about 12% annual growth in salaries.

Conclusion: A State Superintendent should not be a Caesar, lording it over local districts and local superintendents. State superintendents should not act as if they are progressive technocrats with coercive utopian powers. It will be harmful to learning communities if state superintendents act that way.  Where sensible, they should devolve much of the responsibility over academic content, teaching methods, and instructional materials to the local districts. The different districts can – and should — try different things. Parallel learning communities will sometimes arise.  If districts and schools endeavor to conscientiously do their best, Alabama can climb out of the cellar and surpass states like Kentucky academically. The State of Alabama will prosper, and Alabama’s children will have more fulfilling lives.

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Williamson M. Evers, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development. He is a finalist for the position of Alabama State Superintendent of Education.


The Past is Never Dead. It’s Not Even Past.

August 3, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

One of my favorite trends I have spotted in reading history is when an author skillfully makes an allusion to current events without once making any explicit reference to contemporary circumstances. Or perhaps I am just reading too much into things, but try this quote on for size from the opening chapter of Max Hastings’ book Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War:

1.

‘A Feeling that Events Are in the Air’

1 Change and Decay

One day in 1895, a young British army officer lunched in London with the old statesman Sir William Harcourt. After a conversation in which the guest took, by his own account, none too modest a share, Lt. Winston Churchill-for it was he- asked Harcourt eagerly, ‘What will happen then?’ His host replied with inimitably Victorian complacency: ‘My dear Winston, the experiences of a long life have convinced me that nothing ever happens.’ Sepia-tinted photographs exercise a fascination for modern generations, enhanced by the serenity which long plate exposures imposed upon their subjects. We cherish images of old Europe during the last years before war: aristocrats attired in coronets and ball gowns, white ties and tails; Balkan peasants in pantaloons and fezzes; haughty, doomed royal family groups.

Only a man or woman who chose to be blind to the extraordinary happenings in the world could suppose the early years of the twentieth century an era of tranquility, still less contentment. Rather they hosted a ferment of passions and frustrations, scientific and industrial novelties, irreconcilable political ambitions, which caused many of the era’s principals to recognize that the old order could not hold. To be sure, dukes were still attended by footmen wearing white hair powder; smart households were accustomed to eat dinners of then or twelve courses; on the continent duelling was not quite extinct. But it was plain that these things were coming to an end, that the future would be arbitrated by the will of the masses or those skilled at manipulating it, not by the whims of the traditional ruling caste, even if those who held power strove to postpone the deluge.

Sound vaguely familiar?


The Next Accountability: What Do We Want from Schools?

August 3, 2016

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today the newly renamed EdChoice launches Part 1 of my series of articles on The Next Accoutability, previewed with an introduction a few weeks ago.

I argue that the education reform coalition is coming apart because we don’t agree about what we want from schools:

The movement was well served in many ways by its various edifying impulses: to “close the achievement gap,” to “put parents in charge,” etc. But it has been haunted for decades by a growing awareness that these moral impulses do not always cohere easily.

The question, “What do we do if putting parents in charge doesn’t, by itself, close the achievement gap?” has been debated at every education reform conference I’ve attended. Such debates were lively and interesting intellectual exercises, so long as not much hung on them.

We lack consensus on what we want from schools because in a pluralistic society with religious freedom, we want to respect diverse opinions about the highest questions in life. But this leaves us with an incoherent education policy:

Our freedom to disagree about transcendent things does not mean that public policy can escape the responsibility to ask what is good, true and beautiful. In fact, the very assertion that it is good to have the freedom to disagree about transcendent things is itself an assertion about what is good, i.e. about transcendent things.

The challenge of pluralism is also an opportunity for us to discover a fresh vision of human potential that embraces the freedom to disagree about the highest things:

School accountability should be grounded in an understanding of human potential aimed at building up free communities, open to pluralism under the rule of law and respect for human rights, where people achieve and appreciate the good, the true and the beautiful in the midst of their differences over those very things.

I outline how we can understand educational goals for the head, the hands and the heart in ways that point toward the possibility of coherence in a pluralistic society.

Coming in two weeks: Part 2, looking at how teachers and schools actually carry out the task of educating students in the midst of our uncertainty about the highest goals of education. It is here, I will contend, that we will find clues to how we can hold schools accountable more effectively. Stay tuned!

As always, your comments and feedback are greatly appreciated.

 


Pass the Popcorn: The Best Films of the Summer

August 3, 2016

The summer of 2016 did not have much to offer in terms of summer movie blockbusters.  We had another avalanche of super-hero sequels that are becoming mind-numbing in their predictable plots and exhausting action sequences.  It’s almost enough for you to root for the villain to finally destroy the world and save us from having to watch more of this dreck.  There were some cute animated films, like Zootopia and Finding Dory, but neither of these stood out as being significantly better than past summer animated movies.

I’d argue that the best films of the summer of 2016 were a trio of small, independent films: Sing Street, Maggie’s Plan, and Love and Friendship.

Sing Street comes from writer/director John Carney who previously made Once and Begin Again.  Sing Street is even better than those prior two, excellent movies.  All three films are about trying to capture the purity and innocence of making music, but Once and Begin Again are about trying to recapture those qualities while Sing Street is about discovering that purity and innocence for the first time.  The movie is set in economically depressed Ireland in the 1980s.  A teenager sent to a new school tries to find his place and (most importantly) impress a girl by forming a band.  The newly formed band tries every genre of 80s pop music, providing a nostalgic tour de force of the music of that era.  No school band was ever this good or versatile, but you just need to let go and enjoy the fantasy.  In addition to music, and youthful romance, the movie offers a touching picture of the relationship between brothers, a topic that deserves more attention in modern movies.  So grab your eye liner, synthesizer, and sensible brown shows and be sure to see Sing Street.

Maggies’s Plan by writer/director Rebecca Miller is like one of Woody Allen’s sophisticated relationship comedies, but even better.  The basic plot is that Maggie, played by Greta Gerwig, is a sweet and nerdy university administrator in New York City who is perhaps a little too capable at managing things.  She meets a fellow-academic played by Ethan Hawke who is a star in his field of ficto-critical anthropology but wants to be a novelist.  He’s already married to an even more accomplished academic, but is drawn to Maggie’s ability to manage his life and boost his ego.  At first Maggie is attracted to Hawke’s character, but eventually tires of him.  So, she comes up with her Plan, which is an even more elaborate attempt to manage everyone’s lives.  Maggie’s Plan exceeds its typical Woody Allen counterpart by more accurately capturing the perspective and voice of the women characters.  It also portrays the crappy apartments and chaotic lives of New York pseudo-intellectuals much more accurately.  It’s dry comedy but darn funny.

Love and Friendship is an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel by writer/director Whit Stillman.  Unlike prior films of Austen novels, this one departs severely from realism.  The characters and dialogue are so over-the-top that it comes off more as a farce.  And Whit Stillman’s direction and use of on-screen character descriptions really make this farce work.  Stillman’s earlier films, which include Metropolitan (one of my all-time favorites), Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco are all like Austen films in that they feature a declining upper-class. But I think some may misunderstand Stillman in those films and in this new one as pining for a return to those old, aristocratic days.  Far from it, I think Stillman is really a champion of the rising and enterprising bourgeoisie in all of these movies.  What may seem like the manipulative villain in this movie is actually the practical and enterprising new class, while the aristocrats are generally buffoons who are easily fooled and generally deserve the decline they are experiencing.

All three of these movies may be out of theaters, but should soon appear on the small screen via, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, or whatever.  Pop some popcorn and enjoy these small, indy hit of the summer of 2016.


Happy Friedman Legacy Day!

July 29, 2016

Friedman Day Tribute

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Milton turns 104 this weekend. Above is the tribute I contributed to the Friedman Foundation’s photo series. We should, indeed, never forget.

When he came on the scene, half the world was in slavery to totalitarian socialism, and he made a material contribution to their liberation. Here at home, both parties were deeply committed to statism, and he rightly advised the friends of freedom not to spend most of their time trying to elect the “right” side. He emphasized that all politicians are powerfully affected by self-interest while in office, so instead of trying to elect people who say they support freedom, we should work to change incentives for officeholders so it will be in their interest to support freedom. “Don’t change the players, change the game,” he wisely said. Words to remember.

I was honored to work for Milton in the last years of his life. I admired that he was so eager to help other people learn. One way you could see this was that he was always asking people questions – questions intended to help them notice their blind spots and become aware of internal contraditions in their thinking. He never talked “at” anyone. He asked you what you thought, in a way that made you think. That’s another thing we’d be wise to remember.

If you’re near Indy, join my Friedman friends for the main event. I’ll be spending the evening tonight with the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity, saying a few words about Milton’s legacy – and of course school choice.

However alarming things may be now, let’s remember that the danger to freedom was even worse in his time. Yet he didn’t lose hope that people could be enlightened and persuaded. And he didn’t let personal or factional hostility take over what was supposed to be a debate about ideas. Let’s carry that legacy forward, whatever comes!


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