Center for Educational Progress Newsletter – Dec. 22, 2011

1. Boldly, Nobly … and Independently

By Daniel E. Witte

Sports has always has been saturated with symbolic significance. Sports trends often reflect parallel underlying changes in general society. For better or worse — usually worse — general society often takes cues from the behavior of prominent sports figures and sports institutions.

The tie between athletic and educational trends is especially strong. By popular demand, most educational institutions sponsor athletic opportunities and entertainment for their students. Athletic programs exert an impact upon the cultures of their sponsoring academic institutions, and vice versa. In some cases, alumni and prospective students care more about athletic programs than any other aspect of school activity. The political and economic power wielded by a successful football coach can exceed that of a university president or high school principal.

Given the impact athletics exerts upon American education and a large swath of the populace — and Utah is no exception in this regard — it is worth pausing to consider the symbolic impact of the decision made by Brigham Young University to go independent in college football.

The current college football scene stands as a dispiriting reflection of our society’s current state of affairs; it is permeated by greed, fear, uncertainty, instability and corruption. As the dog-eat-dog environment has intensified its hold, conferences are realigning, relationships are being abandoned, loyalties are fraying, and longstanding traditions are being abandoned for short-term financial gain. The most powerful athletic institutions seem intent on suppressing competitors, perhaps even to the point of economic extinction. There is tremendous pressure to conform to super-conference norms.

The ultimate practical success of BYU’s experiment in the midst of this chaos remains to be seen. The long-term symbolic impact of BYU’s choice thus remains uncertain as well. Many of the preliminary signs are encouraging. BYU has escaped the stifling restrictions imposed by the Mountain West Conference and secured a self-sufficient revenue stream through a long-term ESPN contract. BYU is now able to gain far more exposure and leverage BYU’s own media facilities. BYU’s far-flung alumni are ecstatic to finally enjoy convenient access to sports broadcasts and road games. Over the long term, BYU seems poised to participate in televised games with prominent teams all across the nation, including new rivals such as Notre Dame. All of these factors should also help with recruiting efforts.

Critics complain BYU will have to schedule some “patsy” teams to fill out its schedule each season. Furthermore, BYU will have no conference championship to win, and an undefeated season will be required to secure an invitation to a BCS bowl game. But this ignores the fact that BYU will always need to play some “easy” games, whether as part of a conference arrangement or otherwise; the probability of going undefeated as an independent is at least as good as the probability of winning a top-tier conference title; and most fans care more about bowl victories (or success in a hypothetical future playoff) than a conference championship.

Moreover, the critics’ arguments overlook the extremely successful model once used by former independent teams such as Miami, Florida State, Penn State, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. This model contemplates that each season will include three or four difficult opponents, four average opponents, and four or five easy teams; players will keep healthy though the football season rather than getting pounded each week; other tough teams will knock each other off; and the independent will achieve a championship or high ranking by winning a big bowl game at the end of the season. In the banner years, such a team will win all of their games; in the down years there will still be enough victories to go to a bowl game and maintain alumni interest. Rather than a conference championship, the success metric focuses on the number of victories: 10 or more victories and a bowl win is a banner year; a winning season with less than 10 victories and a bowl game is adequate; and any record at 50 percent or less is considered a failure.

Turning to the symbolic implications, I believe that BYU’s experiment in football presents a potential general inflection point in the educational and political culture of Utah. BYU’s choice to become independent is an assertion of cultural self-confidence in a state hampered by many decades of external political suppression. BYU’s strategy implicitly embraces the importance of uniqueness, high standards off the field, self-reliance, a sense of history, institutional tradition and modularity. BYU’s choice says that athletics is subordinate to the mission of the university, not vice versa. The cost of conformity for conformity’s sake is too high.

To stand up, stand out, or stand alone is always a risk. Whenever someone important chooses to do so, the consequences are carefully watched by everyone else. If BYU is able to thrive with an independent program, such a result may embolden others. BYU’s success may portend a more general change toward diversity not only in athletics, but in private education generally. Anyone who favors educational choice and private school options for academics and athletics should pull for BYU, Notre Dame, the U.S. service academies, and all other institutions contending against the forces of mega-consolidation. Similarly, organizations such as the West Coast Conference fulfill a vital role by allowing private religious schools to afford a full range of experiences to their students while simultaneously maintaining independent institutional identities.

From an educational choice standpoint, BYU’s effort carries a high potential reward coupled with high potential risk. If the elite super-conferences should succeed in imposing their agenda upon BYU and Notre Dame, thereby suffocating independence as a viable option, such a development could lead to a similar counterproductive cultural momentum in other arenas of educational activity. Some of the education and media elite — both in Utah and in the United States — would prefer that there be no private religious schools, athletics or athletes of any kind, at any level. If total elimination cannot be accomplished, the next best thing from their perspective would be to create a coercive environment of rules and accreditation standards that force private institutions to conform in order to survive.

If BYU and Notre Dame prove unable to stand fast against this tide, who else can?

The author, Daniel E. Witte, J.D., is director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Educational Progress. Mr. Witte has an extensive background in issues related to parental liberty, educational choice, and organizational reform. He has worked with the Utah Supreme Court, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Utah, the Tenth and Seventh Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal, the U.S. Senate, law firms in Korea, Puerto Rico, and California, and as associate general counsel for an insurance company.


2. Blended Learning: Integrating Technology and the Classroom

By Matthew Piccolo 

Sutherland Institute has been working to promote digital learning (also called “virtual” or “online” education) as one way to improve schooling in Utah. It’s common to assume that traditional learning, typically done in a classroom, and digital learning are mutually exclusive, but that’s not the case.

Many schools now offer “blended learning,” an option that integrates both approaches. The video at the link below uses animation to provide an overview of how blended learning works:

To read this post on the Sutherland Daily blog, click here.


3. Education Savings Accounts Offer a Way to Reward High Achievers

By Derek Monson

A few months ago I wrote about the game-changing potential of education savings accounts (ESAs), an education funding proposal that Representative John Dougall (R-Highland) plans to introduce during the 2012 legislative session. As it turns out, Sutherland is not alone in seeing the possibilities for innovation in public education that ESAs create.

One such innovation lies in the opportunity to use ESAs to encourage and reward a student’s personal responsibility and academic excellence. …

To read more of this post on the Sutherland Daily blog, click here.