December 26, 2004

Thank you, Steven Ruggles

Sometimes, there are ways to conduct research that would be impossible without the internet. In the last few days, I've culled key data sets to get a better picture of 20th century graduation and educational attainment than I was able to put in Creating the Dropout (1996), from a collected set of data that one can simply download from the project generally known as the Integrated Public Use Microdata Sample (or IPUMS) group at the University of Minnesota.

Let me focus a bit on what I produced this evening, in a few hours. I've been struggling for years with how to put together a decent portrait of high-school graduation. For my dissertation and first book, I spent months getting access to public use microdata samples on mainframes, programming them, and waiting for the results, often for hours late at night in my first apartment. Looking for possible new or arcane techniques was fairly painstaking.

This week, while looking again at some mid-1980s techniques I've been pondering for about a year, I did a "citation search" to see who had cited a key article from 1985. Lo and behold, I discovered the following:

Carl P. Schmertmann, “A Simple Method for Estimating Age-Specific Rates from Sequential Cross-Sections," Demography 39 (2002):287-310.

Within a few minutes, I had found a copy through my library's electronic subscriptions, downloaded it, and puzzled out the key points. Then I went to IPUMS, downloaded census data from 1940 thorugh 1980 (I'll need to get 1990 and 2000 separately to get the right education variables), and did a first stab. Then, tonight, I turned to the Current Population Surveys done every year in March, which IPUMS now has available from 1962. Except for 1963, there is an educational attainment question for everyone 15 and up, and that's enough for me to take about 2 million cases, put them in a data set, get some simple summary measures by survey year and age, and then turn it into the following graph:

Graph of synthetic-cohort graduation probabilities at 18, 19, and 20 years old, 1962-2003

There are a number of things I need to check here, from the problems of estimating exact-age proportions by averaging the proportions in the surrounding intervals to the assumptions made by lumping GEDs and regular diplomas together. But on first glance, it appears that this data confirms my previous claims that high school graduation has plateaued since 1970, and that people are graduating on average a little later as teenagers now.

Now, to summarize how this five-hour analysis was possible: The federal government gave IPUMS money to make the data available to researchers all over the globe. I set up my data extract in about 90 seconds, downloaded it after waiting about 2 minutes for the extract to be set up, waited another 3 minutes on the download, and then processed it and set up the graph when all was said and done in about 2 hours of work. The longest step on my laptop was waiting for the computer to read the raw data, about 90 seconds. There are other things I'm not explaining, about recoding of variables, etc., but the larger point is that many of the things that would have taken months and enormous frustration were gone, letting me focus on key issues that do matter substantively.

No, I don't expect this graph to appear as is. This is, after all, a very first draft of work. But it's enormously fun to get this far this quickly on something.

Oh, and Steven Ruggles? He's the head of the IPUMS group, one of those changing how research gets done—and done more easily—with the internet.

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Posted in Research at 11:53 PM (Permalink) |

December 23, 2004

Religion and the public sphere

In Florida, Pasco County Commissioners may have stumbled into a reasonable solution on religious expressions in public places: an open forum where everyone's expression is welcome.

The arguments about nativities on public property—and then menorahs, wreaths, trees, and the like—have focused on the legalities. Does the First Amendment prohibit such displays as an impermissible "establishment of religion"? The ways that courts have split hairs on this matter has led to the sad irony that—like several briefs in the Newdow pledge-of-allegiance case in the last year—defenders of religious displays including Christmas trees often defend them as "seasonal" rather than religious, "ritual deism" rather than filled with meaning. How sad.

About three-quarters of the American population is Christian. But in a constitutional democracy, the majority does not get to impose its will on a minority in violation of the minority's rights. And whatever the arguments over the First Amendment, those who are nonreligious or are members of non-Christian religions have developed the reasonable political expectation that the government avoid marginalizing them through sponsorship of a specific religion, whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Jainism, Wicca, or Rastafarianism. (For more information on the demographics of religion, see the American Religious Identification Survey.)

I'm not going to pretend that there can be a meeting of the minds either about religion or the meaning of the First Amendment. Many, but not all, Christians would be happy with governments that clearly express Christian ideals. Many others, including Christians, see any such expression as violating a preferred wall separating church and state. But there can be a compromise that everyone can live with, even if no one is perfectly satisfied. As in Pasco County, governments can set aside space for any sort of expression by individuals or groups, and as long as the space is constructed and managed to welcome diverse perspectives, we don't have to worry if part of the space expresses religious ideals by private individuals, not governments. But there's a trade-off: no religious expressions elsewhere, put up by governments, including displays that are often argued are neutral because they are only "seasonal," like ... um, er, yeah: Christmas trees and wreaths. (Religious expressions in public schools are a separate matter that I won't take up here. OABITAR and the National Association for Music Education's position statement on music with sacred texts in public schools are good starting places for that subject.)

Our public spaces do not need to be antiseptic, as long as we agree that there can be a difference between government's maintaining a space for common use, on the one hand, and sponsoring religious displays, on the other. It requires some to give up their preferred ideal of a sterile public square, but it requires others to give up their preferred vision of a government that actively promotes religious expression. A government that welcomes but does not sponsor a wide range of expression is one that is consistent with the First Amendment and with a country whose population is majority Christian and yet diverse.

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Posted in Random comments at 10:10 AM (Permalink) |

December 17, 2004

Defensive Education

This entry is an experimental education commentary delivered over the web.

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Posted in Podcast at 12:59 PM (Permalink) |

December 10, 2004

First reviews

Yesterday, Gene Glass e-mailed me that he'd received reviews on the last of his manuscript backlog for Education Policy Analysis Archives.. So I sent the first manuscript I'd received out for review in the evening. (I'd prepared a few manuscripts so I could send them out during finals, while I'm madly grading—with "madly" referring to the urgency and not to my state of mind, I hope).

This morning, I received the first review back, about 12 hours after I sent it out. That response says something about the activism of the reviewers available on the editorial board, but it is also a feat that paper-submission journals cannot match. So, in some ways, the primary delay for authors is in my ability to prepare manuscripts for review, the pace at which I'm willing to subject reviewers to manuscripts, and any existing backlog.

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Posted in Writing and editing at 9:36 AM (Permalink) |

December 7, 2004

Will the international debates ever be Finnish'd?

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD')s Programme for International Student Assessment just released Problem Solving for Tomorrow's World - First Measures of Cross Curricular Competencies from PISA 2003. According to the latest international comparison, the highest-achieving 15-year-olds in problem-focused math appear to be those from the western rim of the Pacific and Finland. So, of course, the stories will start to ask what Finland is doing right. And then will follow consternation about why we're not doing what Finland is doing, or maybe counterarguments about why Finland is not comparable to the United States.

As an historian, this falls into a fairly typical pattern from the last few decades: an international comparison shows U.S. students performing in the middle of the pack, and then we wring our hands about what's wrong, what our competitors are doing right, why we're not like them, and so forth. But it goes back further. Horace Mann's seventh school report in 1844 reported on his trip to Prussian schools, discussing how advanced they were and how little they humiliated pupils. The implication, of course, was that Massachusetts schools were barbaric in comparison with the best European schools. (Lawrence Cremin edited a set of those reports in Republic and the School: Horace Mann on the Education of Free Man, which is still in print.) And then came the counter-arguments from Boston schoolmasters and others. Why should we trust the comments of this person who had never been a teacher, who thought that a European monarchy was the best comparison for American democracy, and who didn't understand the need for academic and social discipline and order as a foundation for social order?

More recently, the launch of Sputnik in 1957 gelled a set of views on education that had been building for the prior decade (that it should be helping to fight the Cold War, and that the federal government had an important role in promoting advanced teaching in math and science, among other areas). The international comparisons are interesting, but it's the response inside a country that is the Rorschach test of educational politics. How anxious are we about our national identity? How much are we looking inside or outside the country? Whether this most recent report sinks or splashes will tell us quite a bit about ourselves—and I mean our national education politics, not just the school system.

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Posted in Random comments at 9:41 AM (Permalink) |