Nominations Solicited for the 2016 Al Copeland Humanitarian Award

October 6, 2016

It is time once again for us to solicit nominations for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.  The criteria of the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award can be summarized by quoting our original blog post in which we sang the praises of Al Copeland and all that he did for humanity:

Al Copeland may not have done the most to benefit humanity, but he certainly did more than many people who receive such awards.  Chicago gave Bill Ayers their Citizen of the Year award in 1997.  And the Nobel Peace Prize has too often gone to a motley crew including unrepentant terrorist, Yassir Arafat, and fictional autobiography writer, Rigoberta Menchu.   Local humanitarian awards tend to go to hack politicians or community activists.  From all these award recipients you might think that a humanitarian was someone who stopped throwing bombs… or who you hoped would picket, tax, regulate, or imprison someone else.

Al Copeland never threatened to bomb, picket, tax, regulate, or imprison anyone.  By that standard alone he would be much more of a humanitarian.  But Al Copeland did even more — he gave us spicy chicken.

Last year’s winner of “The Al” was the internet humorist, Ken M.  Ken M did more to improve the human condition than just make us laugh by making idiotic comments on social media (although that would have been enough).  His humor reveals the ridiculousness of people trying to change the world by arguing with people on the internet.  Given how much time ed reformers waste on social media, especially the soon-to-be-sold Twitter, Ken M’s humor is a useful reminder that many of the people reading your posts are probably not much swifter or influential than the Ken M persona.  Ken M beat a set of strong nominees, including Malcolm McLean, Gary Gygax, and John Lasseter.

The previous year’s winner was Peter DeComo, the inventor of the Hemolung Respiratory Assist System.  To save a life DeComo had to trick border control officials to bring a model of his artificial lung machine into the US from Canada because the device had not yet been fully approved by the FDA.  DeComo won over a worthy field, including Marcus Persson, the inventor of Minecraft, Ira Goldman, the developer of the “Knee Defender,”  Thomas J. Barratt, the father of modern advertising, and Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen, wine-makers who improved irrigation methods.

The 2013 winner of “The Al” was Weird Al Yankovic.  Weird Al beat an impressive set of nominees, including Penn and Teller, Kickstarter, and Bill Knudsen.

The 2012 winner of “The Al” was George P. Mitchell, a pioneer in the use of fracking to obtain more, cheap and clean natural gas. Mitchell won over a group of other worthy nominees:  Banksy, Ransom E. Olds, Stan Honey, and Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes.

In 2011 “The Al” went to Earle Haas, the inventor of the modern tampon.  Thanks to Anna for nominating him and recognizing that advances in equal opportunity for women had as much or more to do with entrepreneurs than government mandates.  Haas beat his fellow nominees:  Charles Montesquieu, the political philosopher, David Einhorn, the short-seller, and Steve Wynn, the casino mogul.

The 2010  winner of  “The Al” was Wim Nottroth, the man who resisted Rotterdam police efforts to destroy a mural that read “Thou Shall Not Kill” following the murder of Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist.  He beat out  The Most Interesting Man in the World, the fictional spokesman for Dos Equis and model of masculine virtue, Stan Honey, the inventor of the yellow first down line in TV football broadcasts, Herbert Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical and subverter of a German chemicals cartel, and Marion Donovan and Victor Mills, the developers of the disposable diaper.

And the 2009 winner of “The Al” was  Debrilla M. Ratchford, who significantly improved the human condition by inventing the rollerbag.  She won over Steve Henson, who gave us ranch dressing,  Fasi Zaka, who ridiculed the Taliban,  Ralph Teetor, who invented cruise control, and Mary Quant, who popularized the miniskirt.

Nominations can be submitted by emailing a draft of a blog post advocating for your nominee.  If I like it, I will post it with your name attached.  Remember that the basic criteria is that we are looking for someone who significantly improved the human condition even if they made a profit in doing so.  Helping yourself does not nullify helping others.  And, like Al Copeland, nominees need not be perfect or widely recognized people.

More on the Failure of Technocracy

September 29, 2016

Education Reform has taken the counter-productive path of focusing narrowly on identifying the “scientifically” validated techniques to maximize  math and reading test scores.  The advocates of this approach imagine themselves as rational people, using the tools of science to improve others’ lives.  In reality, they have failed to grasp the limitations of science and the inability to centrally plan improved outcomes for all.  Rather than truly relying on science, they are abusing the authority of science to exercise control.

This abuse of science to wield power is also known as technocracy, the rule by self-proclaimed experts.  Greg had an excellent piece yesterday describing the problems of technocracy.  In this post I would just like to add two illustrations of the failure of technocracy in education — one from program evaluation and the other from the perspective of the humanities.

The program evaluation illustration comes from the results of a US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Evaluation study of “a 93-hour professional development program focused on deepening math content knowledge.”  Teachers were randomly assigned to receive this intensive math professional development or to a control group that did not receive any additional training.  Measures of math knowledge collected from the teachers show that those who received the professional development learned what the training was attempting to convey.  And independent classroom observations found that the “quality” of classroom instruction was higher for the teachers who received the training.  Again, the professional development intervention appears to have been properly implemented in that it changed the treatment group teachers’ knowledge and their classroom practice.

Despite successful implementation of this professional development based on what many experts believed to be the best practice for improving math instruction, scores on the NWEA and state math tests showed small declines (and the NWEA decline was not statistically significant while the state test decline was).

It is unclear what part of this effort failed.  We can’t simply conclude that this PD, like many before it, was unproductive.  To do so, we’d have to know that the measures of implementation — teacher knowledge and classroom instruction quality — are in fact capturing knowledge and quality.  And we’d have to know that the NWEA and state math test scores are valid predictors of later life outcomes.  So, even with a clear failure we have no idea whether the failure was in the PD, the measures of implementation, or the measures of the outcomes.  Of course, it is also possible (perhaps highly likely) that the math approach deemed the best by math education experts wasn’t actually the best for all.

This illustrates the trap of technocracy in education.  Experts may well be wrong and our tools for scientifically evaluating policies are very imperfect.  And all of this assumes that we do not differ on values and priorities which might lead to legitimate differences about what outcomes should be optimized and for whom.

My second illustration of the failure of technocracy in education comes from the perspective of the humanities.  Scott L. Newstok, who directs the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment at Rhodes College, recently gave the convocation address to the entering class of 2020 at that institution.  His entire remarks were published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and they are well worth reading in full.  To paraphrase Lincoln, I can do little to add or detract from what he said other than to highlight some of the key passages below:

Your generation is the first to have gone through primary and secondary school knowing no alternative to a national regimen of assessment. And your professors are only now beginning to realize how this unrelenting assessment has stunted your imaginations.

In response to the well-intentioned yet myopic focus on literacy and numeracy, your course offerings in art, drama, music, history, world languages, and the sciences were all too often set aside “to create more time for reading and math instruction.” Even worse, one of the unintended consequences of high-stakes testing is that it narrowed not only what you were taught but how you were taught. The joy of reading was too often reduced to extracting content without context, the joy of mathematics to arbitrary exercises, without the love of pattern-making that generates conjecture in the first place.

You’ve been cheated of your birthright: a complete education. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr. (at your age of 18), a “complete education” gives “not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”…

The most fascinating concept that Shakespeare’s period revived from classical rhetoric was inventio, which gives us both the word “invention” and the word “inventory.” Cartoon images of inventors usually involve a light bulb flashing above the head of a solitary genius. But nothing can come of nothing. And when rhetoricians spoke of inventio, they meant the first step in constructing an argument: an inventory of your mind’s treasury of knowledge — your database of reading, which you can accumulate only through slow, deliberate study.

People on today’s left and right are misguided on this point, making them strange bedfellows. Progressive educators have long been hostile to what they scorn as a “banking concept” of education, in which teachers deposit knowledge in passive students. Neoliberal reformers — the ones who have been assessing you for the past dozen years — act as if cognitive “skills” can somehow be taught in the abstract, independent of content. And some politicians seem eager to get rid of teachers altogether and just have you watch a video. You, having been born when Google was founded, probably take it for granted that you can always look something up online.

But knowledge matters. Cumulatively, it provides the scaffolding for your further inquiry. In the most extreme example, if you knew no words in a language, having a dictionary wouldn’t help you in the least, since every definition would simply list more words you didn’t know. Likewise, without an inventory of knowledge, it’s frustratingly difficult for you to accumulate, much less create, more knowledge. As the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante said, “There is no work … that is not the fruit of tradition.”

Tradition derives from the Latin traditio — that which is handed down to you for safekeeping. I think part of our innate skepticism of tradition derives from our good democratic impulses: We don’t want someone else telling us what to do; we want to decide for ourselves. In other words, you rightly reject a thoughtless adherence to tradition, just as you rightly reject (I hope) the thoughtlessness that accompanies authoritarianism. However, as the political philosopher Hannah Arendt insisted, education “by its very nature … cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition.” Educational authority is not the same thing as political authoritarianism.

Segregationist Neanderthal 1, Florida’s First Integrated School 0

September 22, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Make sure to catch this post over at RedefinED by Patrick Gibbons about the racist “founder of Florida public education” and his 18 year jihad to close a racially integrated private school.

You couldn’t make this stuff up, and even if you tried, no one would believe you, which is why Gibbons included a sources appendix at the end of the post. Very worth the read.


Texas Special Education Disgrace-“It Was All a Numbers Game”

September 13, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Houston Chronicle has delivered an expose on a covert and “successful” effort by the Texas Education Agency to create a defacto cap of 8.5% on the number of Texas public school students who would receive special education services. Successful gets air quotes btw if you define success as avoiding delivering special education services to hundreds of thousands of kids by keeping them cooped up a Section 504 no man’s land.

The process of identifying children for special education services is conducted by human beings and thus involves all sorts of error- children who do not actually have disabilities are often identified for services, students who do have disabilities do not receive services, students who do have disabilities don’t always receive the correct services. It’s a difficult process. The Texas Education Agency created an arbitrary target for special education enrollment in 2004 of 8.5% of a school population, effectively incentivizing districts to deny services to students. In theory the restraining of services could have come in the category most prone to over-identification: specific learning disability. If that had been the case maybe, maybe there would be a silver lining to this story. Instead the Chronicle found across the board reductions in all disability types. From the Chronicle:

Over a decade ago, the officials arbitrarily decided what percentage of students should get special education services — 8.5 percent — and since then they have forced school districts to comply by strictly auditing those serving too many kids.

Their efforts, which started in 2004 but have never been publicly announced or explained, have saved the Texas Education Agency billions of dollars but denied vital supports to children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, epilepsy, mental illnesses, speech impediments, traumatic brain injuries, even blindness and deafness, a Houston Chronicle investigation has found.

More than a dozen teachers and administrators from across the state told the Chronicle they have delayed or denied special education to disabled students in order to stay below the 8.5 percent benchmark. They revealed a variety of methods, from putting kids into a cheaper alternative program known as “Section 504” to persuading parents to pull their children out of public school altogether.

“We were basically told in a staff meeting that we needed to lower the number of kids in special ed at all costs,” said Jamie Womack Williams, who taught in the Tyler Independent School District until 2010. “It was all a numbers game.”

Perhaps someone could attempt to justify this practice by claiming that Texas schools did a fantastic job educating the 8.5% of students they provided services. Well, not so much:


Having the state effectively punish districts going over an arbitrary cap on the percentage of special education students at a minimum violates the spirit of federal special education law. As flawed as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the associated practices remain, the unmistakable intent of the law has been to provide special education services to all students who need it. IDEA, warts and all, stands as landmark civil rights legislation for children with disabilities and the practices adopted by unelected officials at the Texas Education Agency must be viewed as an attempt to subvert this legislation at the expense of some of the most vulnerable students.

The reader should note that while the Chronicle article places blame for the 8.5% policy squarely upon the Texas Education Agency, this practice could not have endured for so long without the active acquiescence of Texas school districts. If they had objected to this policy, as was their moral duty, we would not have learned of this a decade after formulation as a part of an investigative report. Texas school districts have long complained however of the costs associated with special education, and that state and federal funds fail to cover the full cost of providing services. Kudos to the school officials who spoke to the Chronicle’s investigators, but the number who quietly went along with this greatly outnumbered those who made any attempt to set things right.

The Florida approach of setting special needs students free to attend public and private schools with their state funding represents a profoundly more humane approach to special education. If the districts resent having to divert dollars from general education to special education, let special needs family seek out a solution with their “inadequate” state dollars. The Chronicle article represents another chapter in the long book of what happens when people are forced to rely upon the goodwill and sound thinking of soulless bureaucrats.

No one enjoys bragging on Texas more than me, but this is nothing short of disgraceful and needs to be made right.

Setting the Record Straight on Florida’s Tax-Credit Scholarships

August 30, 2016


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Opponents of school choice spend a great deal of time and energy perpetuating all sorts of easily debunked myths about choice programs. In Florida, the state teachers’ union has worked very hard to spread two such myths about the state’s tax-credit scholarship program, which Mark Pudlow of the Florida Education Association calls a “scheme”:

“It’s a scheme because this tax credit voucher [sic] was enacted by the Legislature to circumvent a previous state Supreme Court ruling saying that public money could not go to fund vouchers,” he said. “So the Legislature set up a scheme that would allow certain types of taxes to be ‘donated’ to the groups administering the voucher program. So instead of paying taxes to the state, they were forgiven their tax obligation if they donated the exact same amount of money to the voucher administrators.”

Fortunately, the Daily Commercial gave Ron Matus of Step Up for Students, Florida’s largest scholarship organization, the opportunity to set the record straight:

“The union kept saying the tax credit scholarships were done to circumvent the ruling,” he said. “Their timeline is off. The fact of the matter is the tax credit scholarship program was passed by the legislature and signed into law in 2001, five years before the Supreme Court ruling. The opponent keeps arguing the program drains money from public schools. Every single study that has been done over many years by multiple different parties that has looked at the fiscal impact says it does not harm public schools or drain money from public schools.”

The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability estimated the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program saved the state $36.2 million in 2008.

Government Accountability stated that while the program “reduces the amount of tax revenues received by the state, it produces a net fiscal benefit.”

This academic year, Step Up for Students will provide more than 90,000 tax-credit scholarships to students so that they can attend the school of their choice. Additionally, they will administer nearly 6,000 education savings accounts. Florida also has a second scholarship organization, AAA Scholarship Foundation, so it’s likely that more than 100,000 Florida students will receive tax-credit scholarships this year.

As Step Up demonstrates, scholarship organizations do much more than just cut checks. They also can provide parents with vital information about their educational options, help connect parents and schools, and–when necessary–they can organize to defend the scholarships from outside attacks. As Jay noted in a recent post, politically viable policies require “constituents who can then be mobilized to protect and expand” them. School choice policies generate those constituents, and as Step Up has amply demonstrated, scholarship organizations can mobilize them.

Pass the Popcorn: If You Need to Blink

August 25, 2016


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

If you need to blink, do it now. If you miss a single word of the blog post below, our hero will perish.

Do yourself the biggest favor you’ve done yourself in a long time and go see Kubo and the Two Strings while it’s still in theaters. This masterpiece demands to be seen on the big screen, so you can appreciate not only its oustanding story but its gorgeous visuals.

If you know Coraline, you know what greatness the offbeat animation studio LAIKA is capable of. LAIKA’s last few offerings haven’t been as well recieved, but let me assure you Kubo not only matches but actually surpasses the storytelling and artistic accomplishments of Coraline.


It would be criminal to reveal the plot of Kubo. Indeed, one of the many ways in which this movie shines is the perfect craftsmanship of its progressive plot revelations. These people know how to tell a truly epic story.

I will say this much, though, to motivate you to see it. Kubo is the son of a great samurai warrior who fought a duel with the moon. The plot is driven by this question:

Is it better to be a man, to live a life marred by suffering and then die, leaving behind deeds well done and the memories held by those who loved you?

Or is it better to be the moon, floating high above the world and immune to death and suffering, and have no story?

Don’t miss this gem. I’ll be going back as soon as I can to see it again.

Update: Saw it again, loved it more the second time. “It amazes me that creatures down here will fight so hard, just to die another day.” “Down here there are days worth fighting for.” Don’t miss your chance to see it on the big screen!