July 26, 2004

The 'multiculturalism'/'diversity' tantrum

At least once a semester, at least one of my colleagues or I hear the following complaint from a student: "I've heard enough about diversity and multiculturalism!! Why can't we just treat each other as human beings?" I'd hazard a guess that anyone who's taught a social-foundations course in education or other classes where this topic pops up gets a similar complaint. It's a minor vent/rage against the topic itself as well as a response to disturbing views that someone might be reading. And until recently, I didn't understand it except as someone resisting the analysis required by the topic.

And then, in a committee meeting this spring, when we were discussing something (I can't remember what) and another member talked about the need for tolerance, I responded in my usual way to caution against that word—probably something like "You may not be aware that I'm not tolerant of racism"—when I felt something I usually don't on the topic: this small blurb of rage, a totally irrational spate of livid thoughts. I don't think I said much based on this, but afterwards, I realized that I was most angry at the assumption that mentioning tolerance was sufficient to paper over deep differences in power and philosophy. I was pissed that the popular language of diversity had replicated structural-functionalist language precisely over issues that generated conflict. "As long as you talk about it, and I tell you that I tolerate your views, that's enough." Aaaiiiii!

As my colleague Barbara Shircliffe has pointed out, the language of multiculturalism and diversity can be absorbed and coopted into the curriculum in a variety of ways, and this may be a reflection of its success. Like so much other reformist language, diversity is a malleable concept. Why do students need to learn about diversity? Beware that word "need," because it prompts a functionalist response—to be able to fit in as an adult in different workplaces. Now, I know that's true, but it's such a shallow explanation, and it shrinks the issues tied to diversity into the social psychology of the workplace. I guess we don't have to discuss affirmative-action policies, since you don't need to know that to "fit in" at work. And I guess we don't have to discuss anything else related to public policy, either.

So the next time I hear a "diversity tantrum," I'm going to probe a bit more deeply. Maybe it's a healthy response to rhetorical pablum that effaces conflict. That doesn't mean I'm going to agree with the speaker, necessarily, but it's another lever for discussion.

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Posted in Teaching at 8:54 PM (Permalink) |

July 15, 2004

Classroom use at USF

Today, the Oracle, USF's student newspaper, printed a guest column I sent a few days ago. The electronic version is cleaner than the column that appeared on p. 5 of the printed version (the link which will only show the relevant issue in PDF through mid-August 2004), but neither is precisely what I wrote:

There are two problems with the recently-floated trial balloon to radically change class schedules at USF. (If you haven't read about it yet, the July 24 memo to department chairs asks for most 3-hour classes to meet three times weekly and for more classes to start at 8 am and to meet on Fridays.) One problem is untenable assumptions about the facts at hand. The other is a deeper problem with decision-making at USF.

First, the "classroom utilization crisis" may be an illusion. We shouldn't assume there are huge numbers of empty classrooms on Friday, just because there is no scheduled use. The fact is that many classrooms are in use on Fridays. They just don't appear in use officially, because students are using rooms without reserving them.

Last Friday, I met a group of students in a classroom that was scheduled for a faculty meeting. They explained they had grabbed the room that appeared empty because they needed to study. The library doesn't have enough study rooms, they explained. One student showed me her dry-erase markers and said she and her classmates could write formulas and diagrams on the room's dry-erase board for each other while they studied for a biochem exam. They couldn't do that in the library, she said.

This is a common event, at least in the College of Education. Several times a semester, I get to a room early for a Friday meeting and find students studying together. Some colleagues in Arts and Sciences report that whole classes are sometimes meeting in rooms without reserving them. In other words, many students are working hard on Friday, using university space in an absolutely legitimate way, but they're not being recognized for it officially.

What USF needs is an accurate survey of how faculty and students already use space when a class is not in a room. A random check of rooms during the semester would show what proportion of rooms are actually empty and unused on Fridays. The university could also implement an online space reservation system to encourage more use of open classroom space.

But the proposed policy is more than a panicked response to incomplete data. It shows once more that the administration habitually ignores collegial governance. A USF assistant vice provost issued a memo June 24 demanding that almost all 3-credit courses meet on a MWF basis and threatening to schedule classes randomly when they didn't meet his guidelines.

A week later, Provost Renu Khator backed away from her colleague's threat when pressed by department chairs. Is that result any surprise, when my colleagues and I saw no evidence that her staff had consulted with the faculty senate, student government, or the United Faculty of Florida? There was, at best, a small hand-picked advisory group, which is neither genuine consultation nor joint decision-making. And, according to staff in the provost's office, that committee truly was "ad hoc," with no minutes or reports they could find to document what happened inside the meetings.

Once again, actions have undermined the administration's previous promises to respect collegial governance. Working with the elected representatives of faculty and students, USF administrators should be able to assess space use accurately and find a university-wide consensus if something needs to happen. This issue need not start a crisis (again) in university governance.

But this incident is a symptom of the long-term habits of university administrators, avoiding collegial governance unless pressed. When awkwardly-worded, unworkable ideas pop out apparently from nowhere, I wonder, "Are administrators just paying lip service to collegial governance? Do they really get it?"

When will administrators learn that making decisions in a closet has consistently undermined morale and trust across the university in the last five years? There is no reason for the habitual insulation of decisions, in any case. Faculty and students generally do not bite, or at least they won't when administrators back up statements about collegial governance with consistent actions and collaborative habits.

I'm quite proud of the Oracle editors for not introducing too many grammatical errors and nonsensical phrases while editing my piece. I've heard from one staff member who has scheduling responsibilities, thanking me for the column. These opinion pieces generally sink without a trace, so any reaction is pleasant to hear.

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Posted in Random comments at 2:04 PM (Permalink) |

July 8, 2004

When you don't have all grades...

One more idea: what to do with districts that aren't unified—do not have students in all grades? There are bunches of districts in Texas and Massachusetts, for example, that have only elementary or only secondary grades. The iterative process for estimating student net flows relies on the whole grade span in two different ways—you need the upper grades to estimate the lower grades properly, and you need the lower grades to have a baseline net-migrant rate against which to compare the net-flow rates for high-school grades.

So the inverse (or converse) of a jackknife approach is called for.

The jackknife is a statistical procedure that allows one to capture how robust a summary measure is by selectively removing points and recalculating the measure without different points. If that set of jackknife measures clusters around the estimate for the whole sample (or population), then it's a fairly robust measure. (There are other uses for the jackknife, but that's beyond the point here.)

Here, we can use a jackknife-like procedure to get at the reverse—what is the measure for the deleted population? If we can find the net flows for a large area (like a state) and then the net flows for the state with an limited-gradespan district deleted, I think we can then find the net flows for the district. That takes care of the first problem. I'm still not sure how to get at the baseline net-migrant rate, though I suspect that in most places, a secondary-only district will have some elementary or unified districts clustering around it geographically, and one can probably use those figures as a reasonable baseline for the secondary district.


Efron, Bradley. 1982. Nonparametric estimates of standard error: The jackknife, the bootstrap and other methods. Biometrika 63: 589-599.

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Posted in Research at 2:28 PM (Permalink) |

Net-flow SAS test files

After talking with my colleague John Ferron, I've tried to use the SAS DATA step to calculate the net-flow rates and then to vary the retention-rate estimates randomly around the official figures, to see how that changes the results.

I'm not surprised that the most fragile estimates are net flows at 8th and 9th grades, because retention rates are typically highest in 9th grade and it's in 8th and 9th grades when students start to drop out of school in larger numbers. The retention rate affects the net-flow estimates most for that grade and the grade below it. (The algebraic expressions for the estimates only include data from the grades surrounding the grade in question, but the iterative process creates a larger influence down the grades from a specific retention rate. Regression on the Monte Carlo data sets strongly suggests that the influence is highest on the grade below, then on the same grade, and then the retention rate's influence on net-flow estimates sharply decreases for other grades.)

The most surprising feature for the Florida 2000-01 case is the estimated net in-flow during 8th grade. I suspect that's an artifact of the data to some extent—an underestimate in 9th grade retention would boost the implied net in-flow for 8th and increase the implied net out-flow for 9th. But the official retention rate for 9th graders in Florida for 2000-01 is 25% (calculated from end-of-year rolls to the beginning of the next year). Could it be higher? The other moderate influence could be the distance between promotion time and enrollment-counting time. I've been assuming that Florida's August start time is about 85% of the way through an October-to-October enrollment-counting cycle (which is what the federal government wants for its Common Core of Data, my source for enrollment). But if the enrollment is a beginning-of-year count, the figures are a little less anomalous.

The files

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Posted in Research at 7:15 AM (Permalink) |

July 7, 2004

No comments (administrivia)

Since there's only been one legitimate comment on about 120 postings, and a lot of my traffic is from spammers attempting to comment (but generally hidden), I've removed the comment capacity from these posts. It's a matter of practicality.

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Posted in Random comments at 11:47 PM (Permalink) |

July 6, 2004

More on student net flows and dropping out

Sometimes it's hard to sit on the sidelines during a public-policy debate when an ongoing research project is relevant. I've seen that twice this year, first as arguments developed in Massachusetts over whether student dropout rates had increased after the creation of a graduation test and more recently when the Florida Department of Education gave the St. Petersburg Times erroneous figures on the ages of students taking the GED tests. From the first figures produced by Florida's government, the Times wrote an article implying that the new graduation test had pushed a large number of teenagers to drop out of school and take the GED instead.

I've said nothing other than to tell a few people about my project and say, "I'm pretty confident, but it's still in development." And sometimes I'm quite happy not to have overpromised things. Over the weekend, I discovered a notational error in the working paper I previously posted and a substantive error in something I sent a colleague, the latter a modification of that paper to adjust for mid-year promotions (or, rather, promotions between the end points of enrollment-count intervals).

This adjustment is important because students move into a new grade at the beginning of a school year, which can range from early August to September, depending on the state and district. But the fall enrollment data sent to the U.S. Department of Education is from October. I'm assuming that the absolute net-migrant count is evenly distributed over a year, and then all that's necessary is to provide a scaling factor and an additional term in one equation. I'll put something up sometime in the next week or so to fix the notational error and add the adjustment factor.

I also have been thinking about one bit of advice I received in May, about the stability of these estimates. Can I come up with maximum likelihood estimations of the net flows and then look at key figures (the diagonals in the information matrix, if anyone's interested)? The colleague I needed to apologize to about the substantive error volunteered to see if he could help me with that. But can I also use some Monte Carlo or bootstrap procedures? The key thing is to think about where an estimate might be wrong. There might be some errors in the assigned grade level or some missing students (or those who have dropped out but are still on the rolls). I suspect the biggest source of potential error is in the retention rate, so that should get the closest attention.


Ron Matus. 2004. State: FCAT may fuel big GED numbers. St. Petersburg Times, June 14, 2004. Retrieved July 6, 2004, from http://www.sptimes.com/2004/06/14/news_pf/State/FCAT_may_fuel_big_GED.shtml.

From FCAT to GED [editorial]. St. Petersburg Times, June 18, 2004. Retrieved July 6, 2004, from http://www.sptimes.com/2004/06/18/news_pf/Opinion/From_FCAT_to_GED.shtml

GED article based on inaccurate state statistics. St. Petersburg Times, June 28, 2004. Retrieved July 6, 2004, from http://www.sptimes.com/2004/06/28/State/Article_on_GED_based_.shtml

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Posted in Research at 6:35 PM (Permalink) |

July 4, 2004

Happy Birthday, U.S.A.

Today is generally reckoned as the 228th birthday of the United States of America. Some good wishes are therefore in order.

  • May you display the best ideals you've always put forth to the world. They're older now, but they're still good ones: equality under the law, freedom of thought and conscience, and the rule of law over the rule of might. You don't always remember them in the heat of the moment, but they are your abiding strengths.
  • May you use your diversity as another strength in its many guises.
  • May you use your military and political might with humility, because your mistakes will have more severe consequences that the mistakes of other nations.
  • May your people see their neighbors as another source of strength, especially when they disagree about the affairs of the nation, for without disagreement there is no correction.
  • May you have many more birthdays to celebrate.

Your friend—

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Posted in Random comments at 9:20 AM (Permalink) |