Who Governs the School System?

December 27, 2019

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The best school accountability is parental choice, of course, but reforms to the public school system’s governance structure can also help. OCPA carries my latest, in which I explain why putting mayors and governors in charge of appointing schools chiefs is modestly helpful but not the cure-all it’s usually sold as:

Jurisdictions that have experimented with letting their chief executives appoint their schools chiefs have generally not regretted doing so. New York City’s experiment with mayoral control of schools, for example, is generally viewed as a modest success.

However, even positive results can be disappointing, if they don’t live up to expectations. And that’s what we’ve seen in New York and elsewhere.

More effective alternatives are a heavy political lift, but worth the heft:

Two simple (if politically difficult) reforms would greatly strengthen the accountability of public school systems to the voters who are its ultimate boss. One is to hold educational elections at the same time as normal elections. Typically, educational elections are held in the spring and/or in odd years. This ensures that few voters participate other than those connected to educational special interests. The people who ride the school system as a gravy train show up to vote in educational elections no matter when they are; everyone else misses out, and often people aren’t even aware the election is happening…

A second reform would be to shrink school districts. A century ago, there were over 100,000 school districts in the United States. Today, there are under 15,000. Meanwhile, the U.S. population has exploded.

This makes a huge difference to school governance. The smaller the district, the closer the school board is to the people it’s supposed to serve. Believe it or not, people used to actually know the members of their local school board. They saw them in the supermarket. Do you think that might have contributed to better school governance?

Let me know what you think!

Pass the Popcorn: Star Wars the Rise of Skywalker

December 19, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The critics liked Last Jedi more than the audience on Rotten Tomatoes.  Currently the critics are lukewarm on Rise of Skywalker but the audience is at 88%. I usually trust aggregated audience more than critics, but in this case I’m with the critics. “A victorious army wins and then seeks victory. A defeated army seeks battle and then seeks victory” said the warrior-sage. If Disney had a plan going into this trilogy it sure looked like “making stuff up on the fly” in this film.

Oh well, back to the Mandolorian and Baby Yoda, which is good fun thus far.


Pass the Clicker: College Behind Bars

December 18, 2019

If you’d like to see an inspiring example of the power and purpose of education, watch the documentary series College Behind Bars on PBS (available streaming from the PBS app).  For almost 20 years, Bard College has been running the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), offering AA and BA degrees to men and women incarcerated in New York.  The program is not especially geared for prisoners, with a focus on basic and vocational skills, other than the fact that it occurs in prison.  BPI is college — real college.  From the clips we see, the content and pedagogy are more rigorous than what I’ve seen in most college classrooms.

There is much to be learned from this series, including about the nature and purpose of incarceration, the meaning of losing one’s liberty, and the social and personal forces that lead so many young men to prison.  But the most important lesson I take is about the true purpose of education, which ultimately revolves around human dignity and purpose in a civilized society.  Without meaning, dignity, and civilization, vocational skills have little benefit.

It’s strange that it requires extreme circumstances for us to grasp the core purpose of many activities.  Only when we see education in prison, do we really understand what education is.  Similarly, 60 Minutes recently aired a two-part segment on music that was written and performed in German death camps.  What is the true purpose of music and art?  We gain greater insight by seeing what art does for people in the most horrible circumstances.

Also watch this extra segment on the story of Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who survived because she played cello in an orchestra the Nazis organized to provide them with entertainment and to calm and deceive people as they entered the camps to go to their deaths.  When Lasker-Wallfisch notes that these mass-murderers were cultured and “were not un-educated,” the interviewer asks her how she reconciles that.  She replies, “I don’t.”  Education and rational explanation can foster civilization but clearly also has its limits.

Pass the Popcorn: Anything Mentionable Is Managable

December 14, 2019


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

”Do you know what that means? To forgive?”

Adults only. I’m not joking.

Go see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood in theaters. It is a masterfully made film, using every inch of the screen and every decibel of the soundtrack to accomplish its nefarious purpose – to invade your defenses and subvert your cynical expectations. This is not so much a movie as a lived experience invoked by means of a movie. (No, they didn’t spend $100 million on CGI to make Tom Hanks look exactly like Fred Rogers. Get over it.)

But do not take anyone under 13 to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. And 13 is marginal. Not because of language, violence or nudity.

Feelings can be much more obscene than any of that.


”Someone has hurt my friend Lloyd.”

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a movie about death, betrayal, secrets, hatred and hand puppets.

It’s a movie about a man who is so angry at another man that he wants that man to die. So much that he still wants that man to die even as the man is actually dying, painfully, right there in front of him.

A man who must make a choice to release another man from his feelings of anger, but does not realize that he must do this, and does not contain in himself whatever it might require for him to come to that realization on his own.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a movie about what we can do with the mad that we feel. About what it takes to take the armor off.

But it’s also a movie about what kind of man it takes to help another man make a choice to release his feelings of anger.


“Until recently, my eldest son didn’t tell anyone about me. He’s a very private person. And that’s okay.”

In this movie we watch Fred Rogers do for a grown-up who is in a very (very) grown-up situation what he did for millions of children in their juvenile situations.

An investigative journalist is sent against his will to interview Fred Rogers. Rather than write a simplistic “puff piece,” he feels responsible to figure out what really makes Fred Rogers tick.

That requires the journalist to push Rogers to open up and be vulnerable.

And Rogers, with a divinely innocent cunning and ruthlessness that I can only describe as a good mirror image of Hannibal Lector torturing Clarice Starling for confessions, turns the reporter’s demand for vulnerability against him.

Rogers will reveal himself, alright – he reveals himself by compelling the reporter to reveal himself. Rogers could not reveal himself in any other way, because that is who he is.

Be careful what you wish for.

The singular mystery of Fred Rogers is not that no one but his wife seems to have known what he was really like. Plenty of great men are like that. They’re like that because they’re coy, they’re disciplined not to take risks, they’re always on stage – always have their armor on, lest a vulnerable moment damage whatever great work they’ve set their hands to.

The really singular mystery of Fred Rogers is that he was a completely open book – walking around all day with no armor, making himself vulnerable to other people, talking about things that nobody wants to talk about (“to die is to be human”). That transparency and vulnerability, taking the armor off and keeping it off, was the great work he set his hands to.

And even so, nobody but his wife seems to have had the first clue what he was really like.

Because it takes divine power for one man to carry the burdens of another man’s sins.


“Let’s take one minute and just think about all the people who have loved us into existence.”

Some right-wing culture-war morons have tried to farm clicks (I refuse to link them) off the fact that Fred Rogers’ Christian faith is only referred to obliquely, a couple times, in this movie. But that is of course the whole goddamned point here.

(Of course nothing that follows releases Christians from the obligation to express their faith verbally. But there is such a thing as a story, and such a thing as the point of a story, and such a thing as things that are beside the point of a story.)

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that the people in the fictional world of Lord of the Rings don’t have religions because that fictional world is itself an expression of religion. If Aragorn and Frodo and Eowyn and all the rest had religions, the story about them would become something other than religion.

Fred Rogers walked around all day taking on the burdens of other people’s sins, and never seemed to mind bearing the burden. And that made him a complete mystery, because nothing in natural human life is like that. No one who is living a natural human life is like that.

But Fred Rogers was like that. And I can think of another person who was like that.


“I can see that you are a man of conviction. You know the difference between what is wrong and what is right.”

The final image and sound of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – Rogers at a piano – suggests the price Fred Rogers paid for the life he chose to live. Even the greatest beauty must be disrupted to release the sad and mad feelings our human experience of suffering creates.

But it suggests, also, the price we have all paid for the sin of humanity. A world without injustice would be a world of uninterrupted beauty, a beauty that would never have to be disrupted to release the sad and mad feelings. And that’s just not the world we live in.

Sometimes people are good

And they do just what they should

But the very same people who are good sometimes

Are the very same people who are bad sometimes

Go see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. In theaters, where the divinely innocent cunning and ruthlessness of the filmmakers can do its work properly.

Leave the younger kids at home.

Leave your armor at home, too.

Are Test Scores as Meaningless as “Height Effects”? No, but Technocratic Misuse of Scores Is

November 25, 2019


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I’m already seeing this study being discussed as if it debunked all use of test scores. Four researchers used statistical methods usually associated with measuring teacher effect on year-to-year test score gains, and used them to measure teacher effect on student height. They found a substantial apparent teacher effect on year-to-year changes in height, which is obviously a false positive.

This definitely debunks one way of using test scores – the way commonly used by technocrats and central controllers of the Common Core type. If you use only one year’s worth of data (or, technically, use two years of data to track one year’s worth of change in the data) you are getting a lot of noise along with your signal. Multiple years of change must be tracked before you can sort out signal from noise to measure a teacher’s effectiveness.

But serious scholarship had already long since debunked the one-year way of using test scores. This particular way of showing that technocratic abuse of test scores is absurd gains points for cleverness. However, the finding itself isn’t new. People who really care about measuring effective teaching have been complaining for years about technocratic abuse of test score data!

The technocrats and central controllers have done a lot to make the use of test scores look worthless and even counterproductive. If they don’t want look ridiculous in the way this study makes them look ridiculous, maybe they should start listening to serious scholars about the responsible use of data. Of course, if they did, they’d have to give up being technocrats entirely because technocracy always abuses data.

My thanks to Jay for helping me think this through before posting; thoughts here are my own.

Why Ed Reform Needs Republicans

November 5, 2019

Rick Hess and I have a piece on National Review making the case, once again, that an ed reform movement that consists almost entirely of Democrats is doomed to fail and may help explain our lost decade of progress on NAEP results.

Some points to emphasize:

— We repeat our observation that the ed reform movement consists almost entirely of Democrats these days, but we note that this is dramatically different from 20 years ago. Back then, when we look at a similar sample of campaign contributions from employees at ed reform organizations, we see a partisan split that is closer to 50-50.

— We do not know and do not really care about who is to blame for this severe partisan imbalance. Our main goal in this piece is to get people to recognize how the current absence of Republicans in the movement is harming its political success.

— If you are not willing to set aside some tangential issues and compromise on others, you aren’t really seeking to advance education reform policy — you are choosing to lose politically for virtue-signaling. That’s a fine choice and some compromises may be too unpalatable to make, but be aware of what you are sacrificing when you do this.

Pass the Clicker: Joe Pera is the Greatest Thing on TV

November 3, 2019

I just discovered Joe Pera Talks With You, a series of short films appearing on Adult Swim, and I can already declare that it is the best thing currently on TV. As Joe himself says, “It’s not the Sopranos,” which I think is the whole point.  Instead, it is sweet and amazingly funny in a dry, northern Midwest style. Watching these shorts fits perfectly with our recent theme on JPGB of trying to find and emphasize the good, like Rice Krispie Treats or the publication of Blood Heir.

Since today is the Sunday after Halloween and the perfect time to go for a fall drive, I urge you to watch Joe Pera Takes You on a Fall Drive. After extolling the virtues of his 2001 Buick Park Avenue automobile, Joe learns that you place 1/16 of your soul in a Jack-O-Lantern when you carve it. To regenerate that portion of his soul, he goes for a fall drive to give his pumpkin a proper Michigan UP final resting place. Since WordPress will not let me embed videos from Adult Swim, I urge you to click on the hyperlink above to watch the entire episode, But if you need to see a clip of it right now, here you go:

In the episode, Joe Pera Reads You the Church Announcements, Joe can’t help but tell his Church about the wonder of hearing The Who’s Baba O’Riley. Despite being the choir teacher at the local school, Joe heard The Who for the first time Thursday night and hasn’t slept since. If this doesn’t capture the joy of discovering and sharing a song you love, I don’t know what does.  Again, I can’t embed the whole episode, but you can see it by clicking on the link above.  And here’s a taste:

Well, we are headed off on a drive for this beautiful fall Sunday after Halloween.  Enjoy Joe Pera.  And if you have any trouble falling asleep, watch Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep.