March 29, 2006

My letter to Jay Mathews

Last month, Jay Mathews wrote an op-ed, Let's Teach to the Test, wherein Mathews defined teaching to the test as not drilling. That struck me as rather odd, so I wrote him. I didn't make this letter public until now because I wanted to give him a chance to respond and because, well, I've been rather busy. But Mathews responded with a brief kind note, so here's what I wrote (on the continuation):


Mr. Mathews,

As usual, your column today made me think ... about how malleable language is, in particular. To you, inappropriate drilling doesn't come under "teaching to the test." I'm not so sure, though I agree with your conceptual argument that there's a difference between teaching to a curriculum that's the putative basis for a test, on the one hand, and distorting that curriculum to game the system, on the other.

Let me start with where I agree with you. Next week, my 10- and 13-year-old children and their million closest friends will be taking the Florida state tests. As I've told them for some years, I don't care whether a homework assignment has the word "FCAT" in it. I know that enough pressure pushes teachers and principals to call lessons FCAT related regardless of whether it's drilling. The key question for me as a parent is whether it's legitimate instruction if you take the word FCAT off the whiteboard or the worksheet.

But I disagree on a few points. First, I have seen and heard about curricular narrowing to test subjects in ways that not only is teaching to the test in the way you discuss (and Lauren Resnick, too, if you remember her arguments on that point about 15 years ago), but that violate the state's own curricular framework. Schools aren't supposed to deemphasize history or ignore art and music so they can teach the tested subjects, but they do.

Second, the pressure to raise test scores in Florida has distorted other practices in a way that can firmly be called teaching to the test. Let me identify the shifting of the school year as a clear example. You may or may not know that most Florida schoolchildren start the year in early August—August 4 in Tampa, I think. And my wife, who teaches in the Tampa schools, returned to work the last week of July. There is one legitimate reason for doing so and one illegitimate one. The legitimate reason for shifting the schedule is to have a full semester for high school students before winter break so they can take the finals before the midyear break. Of course, high school students have asked for that change for years, but it wasn't until the current regime put pressure on educators that superintendents and school boards realized that they wanted as much of the school year before the late-winter testing as they could manage. The school year has shifted three (and for some districts four) weeks in the last decade. I suppose the reductio ad absurdum schedule would be to adjourn schools in mid-March, right after testing, and then resume in mid or late May. In reality, I hope you'd agree with me that shifting the summer vacation around (as opposed to having interventions during the summer) does not really change what children learn. (My wife thinks that having the long vacation in August and September would make more sense in hurricane-vulnerable Florida, especially after St. Lucie County's schools were closed for five consecutive weeks in 2004-05.)

Third, and perhaps most importantly, excluding inappropriate drilling from teaching to the test is misleading, because drilling is the main technique abused by schools in response to high-stakes testing. Publishers—sometimes the same publishers as produce the tests—sell millions of test-prep booklets to the schools every year. My children do have a legitimate beef when they complain about the weeks of drilling before the state testing, and it's become worse every year. To omit drilling from your discussion of teaching to the test ignores what upsets children and parents most, I'd gather.

If you think I'm wrong on this last point, I'll challenge you in two ways here that I think are decent rule-of-thumb tests of how much test-prep cheats kids of a real education and how many resources test-prep absorbs:

1) Find two sets of test-prep booklets sold as specific to any single state that has any redeeming values as main instructional tests when measured against that state's published standards;
2) Find five public high schools or middle schools anywhere in the country this year which spent more money buying class sets of Shakespeare than it spent on test-prep booklets. [And now, blog readers, you know the origin of the challenges.]

You may be able to meet these challenges, but I suspect it'll take you quite a bit of time. Consider it a gedankenexperiment, at the very least.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:35 PM (Permalink) |

The $100 Shakespeare challenges

Since voucher enthusiast Matthew Ladner has reissued his steak dinner challenge on voucher outcomes (I'll let others criticize the ground rules), I think a parallel challenge is now in order from the other side, and here it is:

In a speech earlier this year, Margaret Spellings claimed that there was no teaching to the test as a result of high-stakes accountability systems. Last month, Jay Mathews said teachers should teach to the test, or more properly, that he had never seen a teacher address tests in ways that were instructionally inappropriate. But there's pretty good documentation that high-stakes accountability policies are distorting instruction. Yesterday, the Center on Education Policy issued a report on NCLB implementation that, among other things, documented that the clear majority of surveyed districts were cutting back on subjects other than math and reading.

So here are my two challenges: First, I will give a $100 gift-certificate to Powells.com or Amazon.com or some other store to the first person who e-mails me with the name of a single public secondary school this year where the school had been subject for at least five years to high-stakes testing policies and where there were more students using copies of Shakespeare's plays in classes than using test-prep booklets (or their electronic equivalent) this year in reading or English. If you are a principal of a school and you're the first person to show me that your school did a better job of exposing students to Shakespeare than test-prep this year, I'll pop for a $250 gift certificate (and let's assume you'll buy your English teachers some good novels for the summer, okay?).

Second, I'll give another $100 to the first English teacher who can document the extreme reverse— that far more students were exposed to test-prep than to Shakespeare. Let's go for a specific ratio: a four-to-one test-prep-to-Shakespeare ratio. If there were at least four students in your secondary school who had test-prep for every student who cracked Julius Caesar or Hamlet, you've got $100 in a gift certificate.

Simply for sanity's sake, I have to set a deadline, but I'll run this challenge through the end of the school year in most jurisdictions—I'll close this June 20, 2006.

Definitions and expected documentation on the continuation.


Definitions

Public secondary school
Any local public school whose taught grades includes any grade 7-12. But if you're in a K-8 school, please only count students for grades where Shakespeare would generally be appropriate (7-12).
High-stakes testing policy
A state policy that ties resources to test-results, as in Florida, North Carolina, or many other states.
Students using ... Shakespeare's plays
Any of 'em. Really. A class set of 35 copies of Romeo and Juliet used in 3 classes with a total of 100 students counts as 100 students. Watching a movie, incidentally, doesn't count.
Copies of test-prep booklets
Copies of booklets targeted for preparation of a specific high-stakes test (i.e., commercial off-the-shelf tests such as the SAT, Terranova, etc., or state-specific or regional tests such as the FCATs here in Florida or the New England compact tests), in any subject related to English or reading (i.e., literature, reading, language arts, or writing). Official booklets of less than 30 pages whose primary purpose is to familiarize students with the format of a test do not count.
electronic equivalent
Test-preparation software geared to or purchased with the intent of preparing students for a high-stakes test, and where children are assigned to use the software for more than two hours in the school year. Example: If a school's teachers assigns or otherwise clearly expects eighth-graders to use the FCAT Explorer online software every evening for two weeks, that counts. If the school's teachers simply tell students about the FCAT Explorer but neither assigns nor asks students to use it, or assigns students to use it for one or two days solely for the purpose of familiarizing students with the test format, it doesn't count.

Documentation

You can just send me an e-mail, but I reserve the right for the first challenge to know the name of the English department head or the curriculum supervisor (often an AP) and a phone number, and I may ask for some minimum records regarding the inventory of class sets and the numbers and sizes of classes assigned the plays as well as a list and count of the types of test-prep booklets purchased for use this year, and I may follow up with your district's business manager. For the second challenge, go ahead and e-mail me, but know that if you're the recipient I will ask for formal class-set inventories and a list of English classes, as well as an official record of test-prep purchases for the year. (Understand that any defender of high-stakes tests will insist on firm documentation of very high test-prep:Shakespeare ratios.)

Thanks to Jim Horn for pointing out the article on Spellings' claim.

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Posted in Education policy at 2:28 PM (Permalink) |

I like memory

I was able to swing by my campus's computer store this more and install a GB chip in this laptop. Whooeey! Going from 512 MB to 1.25 GB makes a big difference in working with several complex programs open (for me, typically Outlook and Adobe at the same time starts slowing things, but not right now). Okay, time to recharge the batteries before the plane trip, and then work through to Albuquerque. I'm guessing I won't get a chance to recharge there, though. Too bad...

I was going to pick up Joe Williams's book today, for when my laptop had to sleep, but I have a Chain Bookstore coupon whose open period starts tomorrow, so I'll reserve that as a reward for finishing the next batch of grading on the trip. Incentives for me work best in terms of my identity (in this case, as a reader and education policy junkie), not my self-interest. No, that's not an incidental comment, given what I know of Williams's book. Education policy is always about the adults, though in different guises.

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Posted in Random comments at 1:22 PM (Permalink) |

March 28, 2006

HB 1427 dead—long live HB 1427

Well, I testified today in the Florida House PK-12 committee on HB 1427, the Democratic caucus' alternative to Governor Bush's accountability policy. (Update a bit later: The consideration of the bill starts 1 hour, 11 minutes, and 45 seconds into the video, and my testimony starts at 2 hours 21 minutes in.) It was a fascinating process, to see the bill killed. But that was foreordained—the key thing was raising several issues. Unfortunately, the legislative website doesn't include the substitute amendment (also known as a "strike-all" amendment in Florida), which fixed a number of obvious flaws in the bill originally filed. I'll have to find time to explain all of this in more (but not gory) detail, but I'm in the Tallahassee airport, waiting for my flight back to Tampa (where I turn around tomorrow and head out to LA).

My goal in this is to start changing the debate in the state. We'll see over the next year or two how successful today was in that.

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Posted in Education policy at 6:32 PM (Permalink) |

March 26, 2006

Caring and teachers

See my contribution today to the new group blog The Wall. See also Leo Casey's note in a similar vein, which I only ran across in preparing the entry.

Update (3/29): Read the comments on the post, now, which discuss whether my observations are new at all and whether we should be teaching caring as a relational skill in teacher ed. Go add more!

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Posted in Random comments at 10:45 AM (Permalink) |

March 24, 2006

The schedule has fallen apart. We apologize for the inconvenience.

The 7.49 loyal readers of this blog may have wondered at the hypothetical story that appeared on my blog last week. Well, some things aren't hypothetical. I've been invited to address a committee of the Florida legislature next week about the state's education accountability policies (or, more specifically, address HB 1427). So, this throws a whole bunch of things into a whirl:

  • I have just notified my students of the change in plans and what they will be doing next week instead of coming to class
  • I have to prepare an online presentation for my students
  • I need to make arrangements so my spouse's life isn't Single Parent Hell for the time I'm gone next week (which includes the conference in L.A.)
  • I need to prepare the testimony
  • I need to finish the materials for the conference
  • I need to finish grading a set of papers for my classes
  • Probably a whole host of other things that aren't coming to mind right now, but I'll wake up in the middle of the night with it.

But the invitation is an opportunity to address the public debate about accountability in the state, and that's good. I appreciate the invitation from the Florida House leadership and the efforts of staff to schedule this for a few moons. And I will very much owe my family some serious quality time when I'm not out of town next week.

And I'm now very glad I'm not scheduled to go to AERA's annual meeting the following week in San Franscisco.

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Posted in Random comments at 3:04 PM (Permalink) |

March 23, 2006

PAA poster

I've gone and committed a poster for my presentation next week at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America. I decided to create a generic explanation for the poster (which is 5x3') and then smaller side panels for more details, the examples, and references. It's my first use of the copy shop in my college, which creates them all the time for my colleagues, and a good use of some residual funds in the internal mini-grant that runs out at the end of the year. I should get some good feedback on what I'm trying, which I'll use in revising a grant proposal and writing another one (the fourth this year with this idea). Maybe I'll hit on one of the grants!

Note: I've just caught a technical (not grammatical) error in the poster. I'm going to use this to my advantage—get a small-denomination Starbucks gift card and give it to the first person who catches the error. Maybe it'll get people coming over and giving my stuff a very critical eye (which is what I want).

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Posted in Reading at 3:58 PM (Permalink) |

March 22, 2006

Funding fudges

As CNN reports, state funding for higher ed has continued to decline as a proportion of total revenues. This is why claims about "educational inflation" being higher than general inflation is misleading—it's true for tuition costs but not all costs; it's true for some elite institutions but not the bulk; and it neatly avoids the public disinvestment in higher education. Fortunately, the students at yesterday's open hearing of the Spellings Commission gave the members an earful on that front.

Here in Florida, the governor's budget proposed virtually no increase in state higher ed funding despite a record revenue windfall for the state and enrollments that are bursting the seams of both the universities and the community colleges. I forget who first told me the quip that universities are the first to be cut and the last to be helped, but it's certainly been true in our state.

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Posted in Random comments at 12:18 PM (Permalink) |

March 19, 2006

Academic freedom report in Florida

Florida's legislative research service (Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability or OPPAGA) has just issued its report on academic freedom, requested by Rep. Dennis Baxley after his version of the Academic Bill of Rights died in the last session.

Community Colleges and Universities Have Academic Freedom Policies: Relatively Few Grievances Filed (PDF) is a 10-page report. It says all university and most community colleges have academic-freedom language in its policies, more specific to faculty than to students, they have grievance provisions, and that student-initiated academic-freedom grievances comprise less than 1 percent of all student grievances. A higher proportion of formal faculty grievances (9 percent) is related to academic freedom, at least in the documentation that institutions sent OPPAGA.

Some in Florida may have hoped that OPPAGA's report would justify Baxley's bill. It doesn't.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 9:37 AM (Permalink) |

Misconstruing schools of education

Peter Wood, the provost at King's College, has abolished the college's school of education, something that Joanne Jacobs and Margaret Soltan have noted.


Wood had some criticisms of the (non)intellectual curriculum in schools of education, which Jacobs quoted:
Schools of education mis-prepare would-be teachers in many ways. They deprive those would-be teachers of the opportunity to learn more important, substantive things during their undergraduate years; they require students to take hugely time-consuming courses of dubious intellectual value; and they inculcate would-be teachers in the educrats' pernicious ideology....
But Jacobs missed the earlier explanation of Woods for that curriculum:
These [state] regulations mandated that we offer dozens of intellectually vapid courses far below the College’s standards for the rest of the curriculum....
And then, after Woods decided to close down the school:
Then New York State officials got involved. At first, they couldn’t believe that we would just walk away from their precious undergraduate education major — a major they had perfected through long years of careful cogitation.... I still sense incredulity on the part of a lot [of] the New York educrats, who can’t imagine anyone having a principled objection to preparing would-be teachers according to their recipe.
There are a number of ironies here, primarily the fact that this is the same department that is in charge of the state's high-stakes testing program (albeit one that botched the testing by bowdlerizing reading passages some years ago). Maybe the department has multiple personalities. But more fundamentally, it points to the bind that many institutions find themselves in if they wish to offer certification programs.

Those binds don't completely explain the problems of teacher-ed curricula. I see some of those problems (or their symptoms) every semester. I'm a little chagrined that many students think our undergraduate social-foundations course has too much work—not that I don't want them to work but that they think it's a lot of work in comparison to other classes. They read the equivalent of three books in a semester (two books and eleven shorter pieces), when they really should be reading six to have a truly critical mass to absorb and think about.

Schools of ed are criticized when they focus too much on techniques (not intellectually rigorous!) and also when they don't teach enough techniques (our kids can't read, and it's your fault!). Fundamentally, a teacher-ed curriculum is a compromise, trying to provide a professional and intellectual education in four years—or two years in our case, when many students transfer to USF from Florida's community-college system.

(What Woods does not explain is the fate of the faculty in the school and whether the faculty of the college as a whole concurred with his decision. It's legitimate for an institution to close down a program, but ideally that should be a decision of the faculty as a whole.)

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Posted in Random comments at 8:35 AM (Permalink) |

March 18, 2006

Another double standard

It must be nice to be a big honcho in a publishing company that runs standardized tests. Your company earns millions from accountability laws, and with the exception of New York State's Truth in Testing law, you're pretty much scot-free of accountability yourself. And when asked...

But some in the industry say regulation is unnecessary and will raise the price of testing. "When something like this occurs, you want to make sure you don't create regulations or ways of doing things that increase costs and don't improve the quality of service," said Gaston Caperton, the College Board president. (from the New York Times article on the subject)

Gee, why didn't teachers think of this language when accountability became the rage—"We'd like to be accountable, but we don't want to overregulate teaching and increase costs without improving instruction"? I don't think that would have flown, had it been run up the flagpole.

My prediction: there will be regulation, because of states' legal obligations to oversee contracts appropriately, and most state departments of education don't have the resources to have a broad view of things. And because of that double-standard issue.

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Posted in Education policy at 6:22 AM (Permalink) |

March 17, 2006

What didn't happen this week

If I had been approached by a state's minority legislative caucus staff earlier this year about whether I'd be interested in being asked to participate in a forum on ed policy, but they hadn't been able to convince the sponsors to allow in those with views different from the state's governor, then something like the following may have happened this week: I would have gotten a call from the staff contact Wednesday, asking if I'd be free to speak at a hearing on a bill that was just filed; I'd have looked at the filed bill and suggested changes that really were necessary, even though I was aware that the bill was expected to be squashed like a bug; been contacted several more times in the past few days, as the staff tried to secure a hearing for the bill and slot for me (and possibly others); had a conversation with a senior staff member about the need to be formally invited by the committee chair given state rules about public employees' speaking at hearings; been told the chair was inviting me; been bcc'd an e-mail from one minority legislative leader to the chair regarding the implied invitation; contacted my chair about the invitation and made reservations; wondered how much effort I'd go through over the next few days to prepare a statement and record online lecture material for the day I'd be gone (I teach Tuesdays), as well as tackle the other items on my to-do list; e-mailed a blogging friend to see if we could meet in real life for the first time; been called while I was at dinner with my children and told that while the chair had invited me, the chair had later disinvited me (saying there wasn't enough time to hear witnesses, given the laundry list of bills on the agenda); e-mailed my chair and fellow blogger about the cancellation (I hope with humor!); and been able to cancel the travel reservations. I'm not saying that all really happened, but it would be plausible.

I'm somewhat experienced with tilting at windmills, but I'd like to know if I'm really scheduled to suit up, y'know?

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Posted in Random comments at 11:16 PM (Permalink) |

March 15, 2006

Summers, teaching, and history

NYU historian of ed Jonathan Zimmerman has penned an article on Larry Summers that's really about college teaching, and then University Diarist responded.


A few thoughts: The hook's wrong. I don't mind an essay on college teaching, but surely there was a better connection to current events in higher ed, such as the Spellings Commission. This one left me with minor mental whiplash. Why did Zimmerman think that Summers' exit had much to do with teaching at all? I thought Summers left because he pushed Cornel West out, or maybe because of last summer's comments on women and science, or maybe because of Harvard's $26+ million payout for an economics professor's follies, or maybe because he shoved out the FAS dean, or maybe because Summers was simply inept at interpersonal relations.

Note: Zimmerman e-mailed me after reading this entry to note that his original column did have the Spellings Commission hook, but the editors wanted a shorter piece and something they thought was better (i.e., Summers). So this is the Monitor's fault...

More substantively, Zimmerman is on target in terms of the rewards of teaching. I love teaching, and I feel its time squeezed by so many other obligations. Yet I do know of good scholars who were denied tenure because of teaching. More common is the "good fit" push—a scholar whose research is great and whose teaching style just doesn't fit for the institution (i.e., students gripe about the workload or the lecturing). The faculty member is taken aside, explained subtly that there are just a few options available, and within a year or so there's often a lateral move inside academe or the person leaves the field.

More subtly, Zimmerman implies (probably unintentionally) that there was some golden age of teaching: How did we arrive at this strange state of affairs? The story begins about a century ago, with the creation of the modern American research university. It's hard to see evidence that teaching at four-year-colleges has declined in quality over that time, or that there was some golden age in the past when professors were real professors, students were real students, and student athletes were also real students. The disincentives for paying attention to teaching exist but may not be impeding the improvement of teaching over time, and they may be relatively mild at many institutions or departments.

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Posted in Random comments at 8:30 AM (Permalink) |

March 14, 2006

Victory on academic-freedom grievance

The last agreed-upon changes to the USF computer network user agreement were completed yesterday, so I can now explain that even though the university took more than nine months (285 days, to be precise), USF's computer network guidelines no longer have speech codes embedded in them. I'm very surprised it took this long, but I was willing to be patient because there was only one outcome possible, and while this was pending no faculty member could really be punished without quite a bit of embarrassment on the part of the administration. And since the USF chapter of the United Faculty of Florida has been successful in putting public pressure on the administration in several different cases over the past few years, I felt no need (and others in the chapter didn't try to dissuade me from this lack of desire) to embarrass the administration just for the sake of the political pressure. Sometimes when you know you're going to win and people aren't hurt at the moment, you can be patient.

To recap my concerns: USF blog server's "user agreement" had some odd language about banning offensive language, referring to anything other than coursework, and I realized the general network user agreement had some similar problems, so I raised concerns with the head of academic computing and, when that produced nothing, filed a grievance last June under the academic-freedom article of our collective bargaining agreement. When I met later that month with the president's representative on union matters, we agreed that the network administrators probably didn't understand the academic-freedom consequences of the user guidelines, and before he retired, he offered to refer all of the issues to our faculty senate. But he never responded to questions I had about his proposal, and it was some weeks after he retired before I heard anything from his replacement, and there wasn't a meeting until January, and ... (but my concerns about dilatory treatment of grievances is a different matter)

So when I sat down with the new president's rep on union matters (and a few other items), a staff member from academic computing, and a member of the university's general counsel's office, we immediately agreed on a few changes (to delete all references banning the use of computer network stuff like e-mail for religious or political organizations) and then came time for education and dickering on a few matters:

  • Offensive language. Back in May 2005, the university lawyer had recommended changing the ban on offensive language to discriminatory language, a change I thought meant nothing in terms of academic freedom. I explained this again in the January meeting, said I had no problems with user guidelines that banned illegal acts, and just explained the inadequacy of a few proposed alternatives until the university staff present in January said, essentially, okay, we'll delete that. And so it was deleted. The new language is a prohibition against Publish[ing] information that is threatening, harassing, abusive, defamatory or libelous, which generally have definitions in a legal context, and while I'm a bit concerned about overly vague uses of "abusive," think it'll stand pretty decently.
  • The private profit clause. University staff explained that they just didn't want computers used for staff or students who started up side businesses with university resources. I said I agreed with the university's interest in preventing the abuse of university equipment but explained that there was frequently a legitimate purpose for activities that would "generate private profit" but still served the university's mission. I then cheated by giving an example from the class of a former faculty member whom I knew was well-liked. They couldn't say that our erstwhile colleague's class violated the university's interest, and eventually the president's rep suggested the addendum "not related to university activities."

A few notes about this:

  • In this case, the faculty union contract benefitted students and other staff as well as those in the bargaining unit. Everyone won because faculty rights were used as a lever to change general university policy.
  • Administrators showed they were educable in these matters with a little bit of effort and considerable patience. If someone's livelihood were at stake, I would've been a bulldog and pulled out all the tools at my disposal to get a faster response. But for many purposes it's important to think of the defense of academic freedom as an educational process, and one that's eternal.

Yes, I'm satisfied. Is USF's environment perfectly friendly to academic freedom? No. I'm sure the folks at FIRE could comb through USF's policies and find other speech-code-ish things embedded in the thousands of pages of paperwork. But computer use is a trigger for considerable oversight of what happens on campus (or off!), and this successful grievance significantly reduces the chances of problems down the road.

(Later on the 14th): I need to thank the chapter grievance chair Mark Klisch for his help with the grievance and him and several other officers for their support. Mark handles most of the grievances on campus, few of which are as visible as academic freedom but most of which affect individual faculty far more.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 7:40 PM (Permalink) |

Where creationist battles are fought

An interesting little piece on Daily Kos today about the tendency of intelligent design creationists to target small towns—and the fiscal pain of the towns who agree to carry the banner for creationists. This has a long history, going back to John Scopes' test of Tennessee's anti-evolution law in Dayton, Tennessee, as a town boosterish sort of thing (See Edward Larson's Summer for the Goods for what I gather is now the standard history of that trial). But what happens if the game makes the town (or school district) pay?

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Posted in Education policy at 9:06 AM (Permalink) |

March 10, 2006

Media mayhem in Miami

Today's Miami Herald tells the story of Miami Sunset Senior High business and technology teacher Donna Reddick, whose anti-homosexuality comments in a student-journalist video series have sparked discussion of whether out-of-classroom remarks by school employees in a student-journalism project is protected speech or makes it difficult for her to teach gay students (or, more properly, difficult for them to trust that she'll treat them in a non-discriminatory fashion).

Her comments were in the last segment of a video series shown at the school, on a topic the students chose (views towards homosexuality). Previous segments had included views of students and other staff that were positive or neutral, and according to news reports Reddick's statement was part of a segment featuring comments critical of homosexuality. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sexual sins, which included homosexuality, she told the student journalists.

More on the jump...


If the reporting is accurate, here are the salient facts:

  • Reddick's comments were not made in class.
  • Reddick's comments were in response to a request by the student journalists and helped them fulfill an assignment.
  • Reddick did not address or attack the integrity of individual students.
  • The series sparked plenty of discussion in the hallways of the school.

First, it's clear that the student journalists succeeded spectacularly in prompting discussion on the topic. I suspect that most gay students at Miami Sunset will learn that their peers support their rights to an equal education and life outside school, as do a majority of teachers (if less flamboyantly than students). Might some feel uncomfortable around Reddick? Yes, but I don't think discomfort is a reason to punish a teacher for comments made in response to a direct request by students. (Apparently, school district administrators haven't ruled out disciplinary action against Reddick.) Teenagers are old enough to know about "sticks and stones."

Second, the context is important. I could see far greater grounds for concern if the comments had been in her class, directed at specific students, or in environment with preexisting anti-gay violence where similar remarks might be a red cape for those bent on hate crimes. Her comments were not made in class, were not in a context to elicit or provoke violence (or even discrimination), and were made where refusal to grant an interview to students by all of the teachers with similar views would have made the students' assignment impossible to fulfill: How do you illustrate diverse opinions on a topic if people holding one perspective silence themselves?

(Tip from Andrew Rotherham. Also see a local CBS station story.)

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Posted in Academic freedom at 7:03 PM (Permalink) |

Performing masculinity in academe

Some time ago, a colleague of mine called another colleague (one I respect for several good reasons) a "number one asshole." This wasn't to his face but to me, at the tail end of a discussion about something my colleague (the insulting one) is rather stressed over (unrelated for the most part to the insulted one).

Pardon the vulgarity, but it's necessary to quote to make a point about academic men: almost no one illustrates the perfomative nature of gender better than male professors. In part, academic culture socializes graduate students into a culture of peacocking, as Emily Toth explains in one "Ms. Mentor" column. And while many disciplines have had a critical mass of women as senior professors, others don't, or don't in a particular department or college. These legacy old-boy network(let)s operate to maintain a semi-bitter rhetoric of what a true academic man is, or how one performs. When one is whinging, griping, or staving off career disasters or a campus-political faux pause, attacking others isn't a queen-bee thing at all. The men know a thing or two about internecine squabbles and the snarky comment.

There are solid reasons to be distressed about the comment just in itself—it distracts my colleague from what he should be looking at, and it's just plain manipulative (I work closely with the insulted colleague)—but in another sense there's something incredibly signal about the casual vulgarity. It's something you can recognize in the White House tapes of the Nixon White House—vulgarity as assertion of manhood. For some reason, backstabbing vulgarity is an even more pungent performance of masculinity in academe, as I've witnessed it.

What ran through my head—though I wouldn't say this to someone who is upset about other things and who I didn't want to distract further from more salient points—was, "Oh, you're so cute when you're performing masculinity in that way." Yeah, I can think snarky thoughts with the best of them.

There's another, more subtle and academic point I'll make in a few weeks on a new group blog I've joined, The Wall of Education. It has less to do with gender than character attributes and colleges of education, but there's a loose connection here that I'll tie in after the post is public.

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Posted in Random comments at 4:40 PM (Permalink) |

Arizona SB1331 dead

The Arizona Senate defeated Senate Bill 1331, what I called the pederast's academic bill of rights, on a 17-12 vote yesterday. (Tip of the hat to Inside Higher Ed on that.)

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Posted in Academic freedom at 6:31 AM (Permalink) |

March 8, 2006

Chug chug chug...

SafeAssignment (the plagiarism-checking software my institution uses) is back to checking papers, albeit slowly. I suspect their client list grew more quickly than their capacity, but the problems are irritating to me as a faculty member.

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Posted in Teaching at 7:20 AM (Permalink) |

The 'Wild West of entrepreneurs'

In today's New York Times, a report on the borderline ethics of NCLB-funded tutoring companies. This is on top of the failure to hold tutoring companies accountable for actual instruction. So when will accountability stop being a double-standard game where private players are assumed to be above accountability?

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Posted in Education policy at 7:13 AM (Permalink) |

March 7, 2006

Transparent aluminum bargaining

For some reason, a little spat has erupted in the ed policy blogule (blogospherelet? blogosphericle? ) over how transparent unions are when bargaining. Andrew Rotherham operationalized this wonkishly into whether contracts are online, at which point John at NCLBlog said there were plenty of teachers union contracts online, Rotherham said most of those are on school-district websites, not on union sites where reporters would look for them, John replied that they're still available publicly, and NYCEducator said he didn't want Rotherham negotiating for him.

A few points about this spat:

  • The existence of a collective bargaining agreement online is a good thing but only one tiny slice of the issue. Unions have a duty of fair representation to educate employees about the contract, so having something online helps fulfill that duty. But public bargaining isn't the same as public decisionmaking by a union. Both management and union typically reserve the right to go into private caucus sessions, even in states (such as mine) where collective-bargaining sessions fall under open-meeting laws. And because school boards will always reserve that right to private caucuses, so will unions.
  • Whether reporters can find everything they want on a union website is a matter of effective web design, not openness. (Most reporters are far more irritated, I gather, by not having accurate contact information on a website when they're working on deadline, but I may be wrong about that.)
  • The call for transparency by devotees of postliberalism rings hollow when most of the rhetoric concerns what stands unions eventually take, not the process involved.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:28 PM (Permalink) |

March 6, 2006

The pederast's academic bill of rights

Arizona SB 1331 has generated quite a bit of discussion in the state and elsewhere for its proposed mandate of alternative readings and coursework in case a student objects to curriculum on grounds of belief. It passed the state senate's higher-ed committee 5-2 on February 15 and is currently on today's agenda in the senate's rules committee. The motivation apparently came from one student upset with the assignment of the book The Ice Storm, which includes wife-swapping. Never mind that the novel points out the destructiveness of such behavior, but those who want to censor Lolita probably never get the point of its end, either. So here's the bill text:

Each university under the jurisdiction of the Arizona board of regents and each community college under the jurisdiction of a community college district shall adopt procedures by which students who object to any course, coursework, learning material or activity on the basis that it is personally offensive shall be provided without financial or academic penalty an alternative course, alternative coursework, alternative learning materials or alternative activity. Objection to a course, coursework, learning material or activity on the basis that it is personally offensive includes objections that the course, coursework, learning material or activity conflicts with the student's beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion.

Let's think about the consequences of this. I'm sure that the bill's sponsors assumed it was crafted for conservatives squeamish about various topics, or maybe wanting to pass a biology course without having to learn about evolution. But let's see what other students it might empower...

  • Pederasts could insist on social-work classes that encourage predatory sex (because existing courses violate the students' beliefs or practices).
  • Tarot-card enthusiasts could insist on psychology classes that endorse occult theories of personality and fate.
  • New-age believers could insist on physics classes that acknowledge the power of pyramids.
  • Budding terrorists could insist on ethics classes that talk about the glory of suicide bombing.

Apart from the reductio ad absurdum argument here, this legislation is just awful. I can't imagine Governor Napolitano signing such a bill into law, so the parlor question today is whether Arizona legislators recognize the problem and extricate themselves from national ridicule. Since its passage in one committee, objections have been raised by a community college board, faculty, and letters to the editor, as well as several columnists.

Update (later on the 6th): The bill status page for the Arizona legislature indicates that the rules committee judged the bill "proper for consideration" and it's now on tomorrow's caucus calendar. I don't know the terms of art for the state legislature and hope this means it's just been cleared to be looked at and can still be killed quickly. Anyone know for certain?

(Welcome, everyone who's arrived here from Inside Higher Ed's link. After finishing this post, browse the site.)

3/08 note: Catching Flies was on this before I was.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 10:16 AM (Permalink) |

March 4, 2006

Spellings commission chat

This morning I'm in the heart of Disney at the joint NEA/AFT higher education summit. In contrast with last weekend, I really only need three extra days this weekend to get things done (I wanted six extra days last weekend), but I'm here. And before I exercise and head out to today's sessions (no, I'm not doing the Disney Thing—I grew up 30 minutes from Disneyland and Did That quite enough, thank you), I'll cut and paste my notes from a session yesterday afternoon on the Secretary's Commission on the Future of Higher Education (i.e., the Spellings Commission). Brave enough to come present and listen to all the commentary was Vickie Schray, the deputy director for management and planning for the commission (in other words, one of the two or three staff members who will probably be really writing the report)...


My operating assumption is that she's talking to groups right now to try out different rhetorical points, and there were a variety of themes in the ones she used yesterday:

  • Human capital requirements. “Industry partners” tell the commission staff that higher education is the key and engine to innovation, which drives the economy. The comparisons in the talk were to South Korea (which graduates as many engineers as the U.S., she said) and India.
  • Student change: age. Another emphasis is demographic change, to “non-traditional” students
  • Student change: mobility. Students who transfer frequently between institutions are not being served well.
  • Affordability: source. “Cost” was the keyword used. “The cost of higher education is outpacing inflation.” Here, she clearly meant tuition.
  • Affordability: consequences. She spoke about the debt burden of graduates.
  • Affordability: support. Here, Schray spoke about many adult learners’ ineligibility for financial assistance.
  • Accountability. “I can’t say that we have a higher-education system in the United States—we don’t have a system.” ACE pres calls it a mosaic. “And that’s not necessarily a flaw. It was designed that way.” “Every year, we provide… hundreds of billions [sic] of dollars annually to higher ed, and from the federal perspective—we provide a third of that money—we know less on the return on that investment than any other investment.”
  • Consumer rights: information. For parents and students, she said, it’s difficult to get one's hands on information and to understand it.
  • Disappointing evidence about outcomes. Here, she cited the recently-published results of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

The panel had three respondents:

  • Barmak Nassirian, Assoc. Exec. Dir., External Relations, American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, made a few general remarks. Commissions can break from the status quo rhetoric, but they may not be able to grapple with the scale and end with platitudes. He then turned to for-profit entities, and said that the most salient feature (and danger) of a quarter-century of waste, fraud, and abuse. There needs to be regulation of the financing system, because right now it’s run on an honor code, which encourages predatory practices. The largest expense is not typically for teachers. His concern about the commission is that it has omitted that record. “We don’t do a good enough job protecting our most vulnerable taxpayers” from the predatory practices of for-profit institutions. Later in the panel, Nassirian followed up and argued that one problem with aggregating credits (addressing the student-transfer issue) is that transcripts are like unaudited financial statements. The only way to assure that is to have faculty governance, he said. In for-profit higher ed, the at-will nature of employment “is held out to be a virtue, … and I say to you, … education is a process. It is habits of the mind.” A serious danger with HEA reauthorization is the federalization of transfer of credit. “Someone who took a course twice has been ripped off, but it may have been the first time.”
  • Ken Buckman, a philosopher at U.T. Pan-American, spoke next. Buckman is concerned that the direction of the commission’s work had predetermined that standardized testing was necessary in higher education. But such a consensus doesn’t appear to be coming from faculty or students. Everyone is concerned with critical thinking, writing, and problem-solving. “Embedded in the question of standardization,” he said, “is, ‘what is the nature of the academy?’” Buckman saw assumptions that focused on standardization, business-like, etc. What is lost, Buckman said, is the fact that education is a process. “Philosophy is a hard sell,” he said, because “many people look for Wal-Mart outcomes. But in philosophy, what you get out of philosophy isn’t the point. It’s what it does to you.” There are already standardized tests in Texas, he noted—TAAS and TAKS do not reflect what really happens in students’ heads.
  • Sandra Schroeder, an AFT VP (and president of the Washington Federation of Teachers), asked that the commission address the academic staffing crisis in higher education. The commission addressed many things but not the proportion of faculty who are contingent. Part-time and adjunct faculty have increased by 130%, while full-time regular faculty grew about 20-something%. Nationwide, about 540,000 of 1.2 million faculty are part-time. In community and technical colleges, the majority are contingent faculty. Nationally, part-timers earn $2200 per course, tenure-line faculty earn about $5300 per course, while tenured faculty earn on average $7800 per course. There are both human consequences of that enforced poverty and real educational consequences with an institution relies on part-time and contingent faculty.

(I am shrinking down their comments dramatically, but I think I got the gist.) Then there was a long set of questions and comments from the audience. Most were critical of the commission's work, or what they thought the commission's work was, and Schray repeatedly said that nothing had been predetermined with the commission, that the commission's work is still in flux, and that the commission's and staff's current task is working on "problem statements." So I think I was right in seeing what she was doing in the initial presentation.

In the general-audience discussion, I spoke for about ten seconds and made two points: to talk about higher-education inflation without pointing out the difference between expenditures and tuition is highly misleading, because the reason for the tuition hikes over the past few decades is the public disinvestment in higher education. I suspect that the expenditures per student in the majority of institutions have been below the general inflation rate (anyone know the details on this?). The second was that the National Assessment of Adult Literacy may be a decent snapshot of the country, but given the changes in the age distribution of students, you can't make any trend conclusions unless you disaggregate by age. I had the impression that the survey didn't collect age data (something that seemed odd to me), perhaps because neither the report nor the coverage mentioned disaggregation by age. But fortunately my impression is wrong. Someone can disaggregate by age (and institutional characteristics) with the NAAL data files, and someone should. Update (3/5): I've requested disaggregation for college student scores by sex and age interval via the table request form, and with luck NAAL staff will respond promptly.

In general, it was a civil and largely substantive discussion. I heard quite a few cynical comments in the audience afterwards about Schray's claim that the conclusions hadn't been predetermined, but most credited her with panache, poise, and courage for coming to a forum where she knew the commission's work (based largely on the public reporting) would be criticized. She gave out a basic fact sheet and her business card, and I'm sure she'll be receiving plenty of e-mail as a result of the session.

Today, I'll attend a session on national security and higher education with Ellen Schrecker as a presenter, as well as a session where Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, will be speaking. That should be fun.

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Posted in Education policy at 7:51 AM (Permalink) |

March 3, 2006

Warning on plagiarism software

For anyone who teaches at a university contracting with Safe Assignment's plagiarism-detection service, please note that those of us at USF have had several serious problems with the service in the past week, from the failures to pass off cookies smoothly from Blackboard to Safe Assignment's server to far more serious problems, a corrupted database for one of my courses (where some of the students were sent the papers and my feedback for other students [and, yes, I double-checked that I hadn't made the mistake myself]) and the failure of Safe Assignment's software to do any checking before pronouncing papers perfectly clean (0% overlap, even when there's a bibliography with titles you can find online). I hope these problems are fixed soon, because it wouldn't be a good thing for Turnitin to have a monopoly.

Back in the old days, before plagiarism-checking services, back when we only had Google, I had to recognize the style of a passage as not quite fitting the rest of it and, lo and behold!, often enough (but not always) there was plagiarism. Back to that, I suppose. I've had a few cases of outright internet plagiarism over the years, and in one case, the student looked completely dumbstruck, as if he weren't aware that the paper was plagiarized. So, after he meekly exited my office and the course, I tried to figure out why he had that deer-in-a-headlight look. Maybe because it was ... someone else had written it? So I speculated on the honor of thieves and wrote a mediocre song about why such things may occur.

I still regret three cases in my years of teaching when students did not get what they earned as a result of plagiarism. One was my fault—a student had plagiarized, and I foolishly decided to talk to the student before deciding whether it was a failure on the paper or on the course. Then what the she told me was that, as in my speculation in the case described above, someone else (not a student at the institution) had written that passage. Well, right. Yeah. If so, that's awful and the student really should've been kicked out of the program. But was that true, and would a panel of my peers want to punish a student for volunteering such damning information herself? I decided that a panel might not side with me and went only with failure on the paper (and the student passed the course). Wrong decision, and as a result I've since decided on consequences based on the observable facts rather than talking to students, so I'm not put in that position again. The other cases involved two students at one of my first teaching spots who each plagiarized for two paragraphs in an open-book final exam, and the hearing officer for one student—a housing official at the university—decided that wasn't too much, and failure for the course was too harsh a punishment. My colleagues at the time were horrified, but an administrator immediately decided that the two students couldn't be treated differently and so reversed the punishment for the other student.

For an interesting (if problematic) site on plagiarism in academe, see Famous Plagiarists and then subsequent comments by Scott McLemee and Miriam Burstein.

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Posted in Teaching at 9:13 AM (Permalink) |