August 29, 2005

KC Johnson, law profs, and intellectual diversity

Two stories in the last few days have popped up about intellectual diversity in higher ed. One is KC Johnson's story in Inside Higher Ed and the other is a story in the New York Times describing a study of law professors' political contributions.

It's the first week of classes and I'm still far behind where I need to be right now—I have weeks of work on Education Policy Analysis Archives waiting for me, let alone the end of an edited book manuscript, classes, and a union membership drive—so I'm going to let these pass without extensive comment, at least for now. See Ralph Luker's compilation of responses to the Johnson column.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 8:09 AM (Permalink) |

Dropout statistics in political use

Diane Cardwell's story this morning in the New York Times discusses the political uses of graduation and dropout statistics in the New York City mayoral race. As is common, the use of educational statistics here implies normative judgment: a 44-percent graduation rate must be awful, according to Fernando Ferrer (one of the challengers of Bloomberg), in comparison to the 54-percent rate Bloomberg's campaign cites as evidence of improvement. Assuming accuracy, context is everything: Both are much better than 100 years ago and still absolutely unacceptable in comparison to the country as a whole.

Keep the limits of dropout and graduation statistics in mind, though: There is no universally agreed-upon method of measuring graduation and dropping out. Even skipping the old method of measuring dropping out (divide counted dropouts by total 9th-12th enrollment), you'll find many problems with what I call quasi-longitudinal methods of looking at enrollment in 9th grade one year and graduation numbers three years and nine months later. Such quasi-longitudinal methods need to adjust for migration paths to have any chance of accuracy. Of the three ways I've seen in the last few years—Jay Greene's, John Robert Warren's, and Haney et al.'s—Warren's is the soundest methodologically. Miao and Haney argue that the Greene stats and theirs show similar results in terms of trends, and that may well be true for recent years at large scales (i.e., states).

However, I am reluctant to trust correlation statistics to judge the soundness of measures that are amenable to demographic analysis. Those correlations will likely not hold for extremely low levels of graduation and for small scales, such as individual districts and schools. Unfortunately, Warren's approach which adjusts for migration is only usable at large scales.

Some aspects of the technical debate are political and accessible to anyone, though: Should graduation rates include GEDs (which leads to higher graduation rates)? Should we exclude expelled students and students with disabilities from the calculation (which would lead to lower graduation rates)? These questions are not technical at all and go to the heart of what we expect from schools.

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Posted in Education policy at 8:01 AM (Permalink) |

August 12, 2005

Plagiarism disorders

Just a brief entry: Margaret Soltan today discussed the plagiarism by Judith Kelly in her "memoir" Rock Me Gently:

Again with the uncontrollable memory! What shall we call this? Incontinent mnemonism?

Ah, yes, the "I wasn't aware I was copying words" excuse I've heard a few times from some of my enrollees (which is different from the "I wasn't aware that copying words was plagiarism" excuse). (I wouldn't call a plagiarist a student.) I think I have a slightly better term: eideticitis.

  • Hint to the budding enrolled plagiarist: you might get away with explaining that half a sentence just stuck in your memory. Half a page? Nah...
  • Hint to the budding professional plagiarist: If your excuse wouldn't pass muster with a college professor, don't think it'll sound better coming from you.
  • Hint to the caught-red-handed professional plagiarist named Judith Kelly: Getting your representative to say that you are "rewriting those passages for the next edition of the book" sort of puts the lie to the claim that the book is a memoir, doesn't it?

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Posted in Teaching at 2:02 PM (Permalink) |

Online OED

Thanks to Piers Cawley: there's an OED gateway that Tarrin Wills has set up at the University of Sydney. From the entry on drop-out, it's clearly from the older edition (not the OED online for which you need a subscription). But it's still fun.

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Posted in Random comments at 9:32 AM (Permalink) |

August 11, 2005

Introduction drafted for Citizen-Scholar

In response to one reviewer's comment, I've drafted an introduction to put a broader frame around the other chapters. The following is from a passage on the policy feedback of greater educational attainment:

The majority of adults have sat through college lectures, both good and bad. They know that college students have to study on their own. They know that college classes tend to be larger than high-school classes, except in a minority of colleges, and that many classes have several hundred students attending at once. Millions of adults remember applying for loans and scholarship and combining work and study (and, on the rare occasion, sleep). Millions are still paying back college loans. In other words, the majority of adults have direct, personal experience with both good and weak college teaching and, moreover, are familiar with the overloaded, institutional life of colleges.

The consequences of this experience for the politics of higher education are subtle but important. The majority college experience of the nation's adults has laid the foundation for non-ideological criticism of colleges. The troubles of most college students have little to do with the political leanings of faculty. First, consider what happens in classes. College students are familiar with both good and bad teaching, and their experience tells them that most bad teachers are painful to watch and work for because they are disorganized or do not know their subjects. While many have some experience with a teacher or two whose lectures consisted of ideological rants, from a common student perspective the problem with most such ranting is that it wastes their valuable time. (From a faculty perspective, I have greater concerns about ranting, beyond the time wasted.) But, for the most part, students are concerned with the effectiveness of teachers, not their political inclinations.


Part of this comes from my thinking over a key chapter in Hersh and Merrow's Declining by Degrees, a companion book matched with the documentary. I've commented elsewhere on the book, a set of first impressions. I still think the book is uneven, but if a book changes my thinking significantly, there's something important of value there.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 2:16 PM (Permalink) |

August 8, 2005

Low-stakes testing promoted by high-stakes advocate

A guest blogger at the Progressive Policy Institute's Eduwonk proposes that all students in AP courses take the AP tests as an incentive for teachers to focus on the official Advanced Placement curriculum. Let me get this right, according to the author:

It's no shame to fail: for kids, they learn what college rigor is really like; for schools, teachers work together using the AP data to make adjustments on how to improve their classes.

In other words, because kids who take the tests have their grades based on their work in the class, rather than the test, the tests shouldn't be shirked. And the tests should be used for internal evaluation purposes by the teachers and schools. Hmmn... that sounds like low-stakes testing to me.

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Posted in Education policy at 1:56 PM (Permalink) |

August 5, 2005

Eduwonk

The DLC-affiliated Public Policy Institute has a blog, Eduwonk.com. Unfortunately, they're not letting anyone else in on the conversation with comments. Come on, folks: what are you afraid of? Comments are a significant part of what distinguishes a blog from a rant. Okay, many blog entries are rants. But intellectual life requires openness to dialog, criticism, parry, thrust, etc.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:46 AM (Permalink) |

August 3, 2005

Liars at ACTA

This morning's Inside Higher Ed has an op-ed by Anne D. Neal, executive director of the American Council of Trustees & Alumni, who complains that the American Council on Education's Statement on Academic Rights and Responsibilities is vague, paying only lip service to ideals of academic freedom and intellectual diversity. I won't rehearse ACTA's hypocrisy on this point, the November 2001 report claiming that faculty are the "weak link" in American patriotism—there are plenty of online discussions about that execrable document that ACTA's staff then tried to whitewash.

Instead, I want to point out that, while criticizing the statement endorsed by ACE and others for its vacuity, Neal did not once propose anything concrete. As John K. Wilson points out in his comments (at the end of the column, not on his own site), Neal is at least as vacuous as the statement she decries, except perhaps she adds a bit of gratuitous bile. The point of the op-ed column is not to convince anyone reading IHE. Neal recites the hoary cliches about a monolithic campus culture and says little new or responsive. Instead, she is playing the time-honored tactic of an advocacy organization, invented along with the oldest profession and well before modern politics: playing to one's base.

Through 2003, ACTA received about $2 million in grants from conservative foundations, including Olin and Scaife. I should state up front that I have no problems with advocacy organizations receiving funding from anyone they choose to. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education receives funding (and employs staff) from across the political spectrum, and the origins of their funding doesn't prevent them from defending students and faculty whom their staff concludes have been denied their rights. So I am not surprised that despite the inclusion of several moderates in its founding group, ACTA's politics align with their funding (or, rather, those who fund ACTA's activities do so because they are comfortable with ACTA's politics). But let's take a closer look at the mission of ACTA:

ACTA is the only national organization that is dedicated to working with alumni, donors, trustees and education leaders across the country to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives a philosophically-balanced, open-minded, high-quality education at an affordable price.

So far, so clear (whether or not you agree with this). Given this statement, I wouldn't be surprised at some of ACTA's activities, such as the call for a general-education curriculum that isn't a smorgasbord of courses. One can have a productive debate over what a general-ed curriculum should look like, and that's not my focus today—and, again, I'm skipping that small problem of hypocrisy with academic freedom and instead focusing on the nuts and bolts of that first claim, to support liberal arts education.

As an historian, I'd love some solid support of liberal arts education, especially as I teach within a college of education. (I'm one of six liberal-arts faculty in my department of twenty-some colleagues.) But while ACTA talks a good game about the importance of liberal arts, and they take in money from folks for talking the talk (and for training trustees), what has ACTA done about the fairly hard conditions of liberal arts education in the country?

  1. The reliance on contingent faculty for teaching liberal-arts courses, especially introductory courses in composition and math
  2. Lower salaries in liberal arts
  3. The proliferation of vocational majors with little academic content, such as "hospitality management"
  4. The corruption of education through big-campus athletics

I have never seen ACTA address any of these issues (please correct me if I'm wrong!) and have seen ACTA turn a blind eye to the violations of its principles by supposed friends. For a case in point, I use Florida's state universities, whose trustees were all appointed by Governor Bush after the breakup of the old Board of Regents and then trained by ACTA. So does ACTA claim any responsibility for these trustees who turned around and gave exorbitant salaries to presidents, who created programs like hospitality management and tried to create a school of chiropractic, and who have taken no steps that I've seen to raise the status of liberal arts? I will have a lot more respect for ACTA when it does more than pay lip service to liberal-arts education.

And if you're a supporter of ACTA, you might want to ask its staff what it's doing with your money. Trust me, the title for this entry isn't about Neal lying to me or the general public.

(P.S. I'm aware that Erin O'Connor is writing for the ACTA blog. She seems to be a pretty thoughtful conservative on her own blog, and I'm surprised she's willing to blog for ACTA, given its record. In this case, the blog is better than the organization.)

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Posted in Academic freedom at 10:48 AM (Permalink) |