The Next Accountability: What Do We Want from Schools?

August 3, 2016


(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.

The Best Pound for Pound Math Education by State in America

August 2, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The deeper you look into the NAEP the better things look for my home state.  Earlier I showed you that Arizona led the nation in overall academic gains in both 2013 and 2015. Today let’s take a close look at math, and student subgroups- both in terms of gains and overall performance.

Starting with Anglo students- how did their gains look in 2015? The chart below subtracts the 2011 NAEP 4th grade math scale points from the same cohort’s 2015 8th grade math scores for Anglos.

Anglo math gains

Ok so they led the nation in gains- but that might not matter because their scores could still be low. Except they aren’t:

Anglo math scores

Arizona is in striking distance of everyone but the absurdly gentrified right side of the tracks sections of DC. So moving on to non-Anglo students, the NAEP can also track Black students- here were gains by state in 2015.

Black math gains

Well would you look at that? Number one again. Hmmm.  Well but it still might not mean much because the overall scores……….low?

Black math scores

Hispanic students gains/scores are merely spectacular rather than absolute tip of the spear:

Hispanic math gains

Ah well it gives us worlds yet to conquer, as do the scores:

Hispanic math scores

You don’t have to trust me- look the numbers up for yourself. Ok and then there is this to consider:

Ok so someone try to make a case that a state other than AZ deserves to be considered the pound for pound mathematics champion of the United States. I’ll have my gloves laced up and will be ready to give you a canvass nap in the comments section (unless you have a decent case to make) but I’m declaring Arizona to be the pound for pound state math champion.

P.S. (almost forgot…)


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!

Debunking a Brazen Lie about Education Savings Accounts

July 24, 2016


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

An article in the Texas Tribune regarding the push for education savings accounts contained an incredible whopper from the state teachers’ union lobbyist:

Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said education savings accounts are worse than vouchers because there is no good way to control how parents spend the money. The states that have implemented such programs have included no provisions that allow them to reclaim money if parents spend it on “a flatscreen TV or a bag of crack,” he said.

“Who’s to say that a laptop isn’t an educational expenditure, but who’s to say that it is? Who is going to police that?” he said. “Are we going to pay someone at the state level to monitor this program, and how much is that going to cost?”

Frankly, he should be embarrassed to be peddling a lie that is so easily debunked.

*All* of the existing ESA laws in Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee contain financial accountability provisions to ensure that parents are spending the ESA funds only on approved educational expenses, which are clearly defined in law.

Like any government program (e.g., district schools), there is bound to be some amount of fraud. Fortunately, due to the tight financial controls, Arizona (the first state to enact an ESA law) has been able to recover misspent ESA funds. Moreover, an independent auditor recently determined than less than one percent of Arizona’s ESA funds were misspent, as the Goldwater Institute reports:

Last year, the state deposited nearly $26 million in families’ education savings accounts. The auditor uncovered misspending that totaled less than 0.8 percent of the distributed funds—an unacceptable amount, because any fraud involving taxpayer money and children is unacceptable. But it’s a manageable amount. The department of education should follow through on the auditor’s recommendations, as the agency stated it would in its response letter, and continue to improve the ways parents and students find quality learning opportunities with education savings accounts.

Arizona parents have spent more than 99% of ESA funds on approved educational products and services, and 100% of ESA parents surveyed in 2013 reported being satisfied with their child’s education.

The Texas teachers’ union needs a new talking point.

Colorado Faces the Future

July 22, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This week I’ve been writing about Colorado’s charter school sector’s delightfully high NAEP scores. To wrap this up, I’d like to put this success in a broader context of Colorado’s present and future.

So if you’ve been to Denver in the last few years, it is hard not to notice that the place is booming. The Big Bird construction cranes kind of give it away.  Growing up in oil-boom Texas, I was told about an old saying that held that if you see more than two Big Bird Cranes in a downtown area get ready for a crash. Denver seems to be defying this old nostrum comfortably. So far.

Favorable age demography stands as big if subtle factor in favor of Colorado’s boom.  The state has an unusually large working age population vis-a-vis the elderly and youth populations. Demographers quantify this through age dependency ratios- take the number of working age people (18-64) and dividing that by the combined number of 17 and younger and 65 and older. The basic idea is that at any given time working age people are pushing society’s cart, while young people are drawing upon public services such as education (for the young) and healthcare (for the elderly) at high rates.

Colorado age dependency


In 2010 Colorado had an age dependency ratio similar to that of the United States as a whole in the 1980s and 1990s.  Lots of working age people with relatively few elderly and young people worked wonders for the United States back then as the Baby Boomers entered their prime working, earning and taxpaying years.  We even had these quaint things called “budget surpluses” at the federal level in the 1990s while the Republicans and Democrats locked each other up and the tax revenue continued to pour in.

Ooops almost got drawn down the 1990s nostalgia event horizon. In any case with one of the nation’s lowest age dependency ratios, le bon temps continuer à rouler dans le Colorado! Perhaps Colorado will make better use of the current boom than the country made of the 1990s in education, as you see from the figure above that the Census Bureau does not project favorable age demography to last.

Colorado youth and elderly

Colorado is currently advantaged by a large middle-aged population, but middle-aged people have a funny way of becoming old.  Elderly people typically move out of their prime earning years, thus paying fewer taxes, and represent some of the most expensive patients in our health care system, some of which state taxpayers foot the bill. A growing elderly population creates strains on all other state spending priorities.

Over the next 15 years, through a combination of an expanding youth population and (mostly) through population aging, the Census Bureau projects Colorado’s total age dependency ratio to move from one of the lowest in the nation in 2010 (55) to a number that is far higher than any state in 2010 (72).  The Colorado of 2030 will have greater age demographic challenges than the Arizona or Florida of today.

One of the few things you can do about this now- world class education results. The United States largely squandered this opportunity in the 1990s, and the consequences seem ever more obvious and ominous.  The American economy may or may not be “rigged” but it seems terribly likely to seem that way to those who did not acquire the knowledge and skills to succeed in life in school. Is there any aspect of American life more rigged than K-12 education?

Colorado’s embrace of charter schools has rewarded the state with a highly effective system of schools producing globally competitive results.  A survey found that 66% of Colorado charter schools had wait lists, and they average size of the wait lists was larger than the average student enrollment of a charter school. Wonderful though it is, one can infer from this that the charter sector alone cannot satisfy parental demand for options. Colorado needs as much improvement as it can get from any and all available sources. More effective and more cost effective education is precisely what Colorado needs and what charter schools have delivered, but the pace needs to quicken.

Much of the Colorado working age population of 2030 will be going back to school in a few weeks. A slowly growing but still minority of these students show globally competitive academic achievement. The clock is ticking- Colorado has the opportunity not to repeat America’s mistakes from the 1990s, but it is far from a given. Unless you succeed, you’ll live to regret it. Colorado has however a record of success to build upon- fire up the Big Birds!



Mississippi ESA Update: The Magnolias Are Blooming

July 21, 2016


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Back in February, opponents of educational choice criticized Mississippi’s new ESA program for attracting fewer than half the number of students with special needs as there were slots available, claiming that this showed that the program was a “failure.”

Well, surely they will now issue a press release declaring the ESA program a success now that it is oversubscribed for next year. Empower Mississippi has the details:

Yesterday the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) conducted a lottery to award the remaining 175 scholarships for the Special Needs Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program. This year a total of 425 scholarships will be awarded to students in Mississippi.

The lottery drawing, held at MDE’s temporary headquarters at the South Pointe Business Park in Clinton, utilized a random number generator to determine the 175 recipients. There were 304 approved applications in the lottery competing for the available slots. Those that did not receive a scholarship, along with those that continue to apply, will have their name put on a waiting list for future openings.

Last year, in the first year of the program, 251 of the 434 available scholarships had been awarded by the beginning of the school year. Because of the rolling application process, and the available slots, that number increased each quarter last year. This year the program will be at maximum capacity of 425 students at the beginning of the year.

Enrollment in the program has grown by 70 percent over a one-year period and the number of approved applications has increased by more than 120 percent during the same time period.


Source: Empower Mississippi

Next step: raise the cap on participation!


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