April 30, 2006

John Kenneth Galbraith

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith died last night in a Boston-area hospital. He was 97. I started reading him as a teenager, one of my aunts became an economics major because of his writings, and we will miss the voice of one of the best public intellectuals in the U.S. in the 20th century. He was shrewd, sharp, funny, and humane.

As with so many things, I learned about the news from Ralph Luker.

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Posted in Random comments at 8:49 AM (Permalink) |

April 29, 2006

On writing tics and mental kits

I've written before on writing tics, such as the horde of whereases that used to appear in my student writing. (I wonder how many of them knew that the conjunctive whereas is a contronym, a fact that caused a few problems in their essays.) Tics are easy problems to solve: you point them out, and a writer either pays attention to the advice or doesn't, but it's easily digestible information.

More on the jump...

What's much harder is giving advice when the internal organization of a paragraph is wonky. Some ideas that occasionally flit through my head in reading essays (and, no, I don't use any in comments on papers):

  • No, that idea doesn't flow naturally from the prior one, and please don't expect me to be telepathic (because you don't really want me to know what you were doing over the weekend instead of reading the book).
  • Next time you get a volume discount on ideas, please keep some to yourself instead of offering all of them to me in a single paragraph.
  • You cherry-picked that quotation and plopped it down where it had no relevance just to cite course material—and didn't expect me to notice?

Unfortunately, while I assign plenty of writing (too much, if you ask my students) and provide as much feedback as I can, given my other commitments, I can really do no more than provide a reader's perspective: this makes sense, this doesn't, I think section A belongs after section B, and so forth. For some students, that's enormously useful, but I'm guessing that those students usually have the necessary skills and either forgot them or were lazy didn't leave themselves enough time.

But suppose you've never learned how to organize ideas clearly. Where do you go to learn that skill? I learned them years ago in a summer speech camp. High school speech events, especially extemporaneous speaking and team debating, require extraordinary organizing and prioritizing skills, and I had explicit instruction in both macro-level organizing (how to outline a 7-minute speech in the first minute of your 30 minutes of preparation) and also micro-oganizing—explaining a single argument in 15 seconds. I was never as fast on my feet as my debate partner for two years, Jeffrey Sklansky (also a social historian), nor as verbally quick as my siblings. So those skills didn't turn me into a champion extemp/impromptu speaker (which my two brothers and the eventual-Professor-Sklansky were at various levels) or a great debater (I was rather dragged along by my partner when unanticipated situations came up). But they were enormously helpful in writing.

But I'm at my wit's end when I need to provide suggestions to students. I can go through a paragraph with a student and point out the crazy jumps in topics, and I can swiftly show how I would reorganize it, but that doesn't really help the student become flexible in organizing paragraphs and see multiple ways of leading the reader by the nose. That's not always part of a student's academic equipment, and I'm not sure I have the supplies that students need. Ideas?

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Posted in Teaching at 7:25 PM (Permalink) |

April 28, 2006

Florida ed news: Class-size cap repeal killed

Surprisingly, the Florida senate vote on the Republican leadership's attempt to repeal or soften the constitutional class-size cap failed to muster even a majority, let alone the three-fifths supermajority needed in each house to go directly to the ballot.

More Florida ed politics on the jump...

If the class-size softening referendum were on the ballot, it would have been the first test of the 65-percent proposal in a large state. I think the combination would have sunk the initiative, because of the different ways the 65-percent proposal can be attacked in a referendum campaign. That wasn't the intent of attaching the 65-percent proposal, but it would have been inevitable... and that's not even considering the fundamental philosophical inconsistency of such a combination. (Let's lift some of the rigidity of the class-size caps, because we should give more flexibility to school districts to use resources in the way they know best. Oh, yes, and let's make sure they don't spend more than 35% on air conditioning, nurses, libraries, and buses.) The contradictions wouldn't have been of much political interest, but everything else would have.

Next up in the Florida Constitutional Roulette: vouchers. After the January state court decision killing the failing-schools voucher program, Governor Bush is keen to place a referendum on November's ballot to ask voters to let the legislature create voucher programs. Even if the state senate approves the referendum, I doubt voters will go for it. And given the surprising margin in today's vote on class-size caps, I'm skeptical it will even get to the ballot.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:07 PM (Permalink) |

April 27, 2006

Books: accountability or academic freedom?

Well, no publisher thus far has bitten on my proposal for an academic-freedom book. I guess David Horowitz's self-inflicted publicity wounds plus the existing books have made it less appealing. But I have some interest in a book on accountability, so I may tap that one out over the summer.

My first stab at explaining the basic argument of one chapter—the tension between democratic and technocratic issues in accountability—appeared to go over the heads of my undergraduates today. Hmmn... time to regroup and see how to present it a bit differently.

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Posted in Research at 4:32 PM (Permalink) |

April 25, 2006

Test-prep as steroids

NY Times reporter Samuel Freedman now suspects what I wrote just three weeks ago.

Me: "I'm afraid that test-prep works, if only in the sense that steroids work in sports, with the short-term results."

Freedman: "Under the pretense of fair competition, tens of thousands of high school students and their families employ the scholastic equivalent of steroids—test-prep courses, private consultants, Internet mills for massaging if not entirely creating their essays, exaggerated or cynical accounts of their community service."

I'm afraid that I can't claim incredible soothsaying powers or the ability to mind-control NY Times reporters. This analogy has been floating around in the ether, and some reporter was bound to latch onto it. FairTest guy-in-Florida and publicist Bob Schaeffer used it last year when interviewed by Northwestern journalist students.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:15 PM (Permalink) |

April 24, 2006

Dueling grad rates

A Jay Greene dropout/graduation report, and then comes Lawrence Mishel's counterargument! Then Edwize gets into the game! And then the AFT NFTBlog says there will be a debate between the primary authors hosted by the Center on Education Policy. It sounds a bit like a WWF match, but I need to confirm the existence of this debate with CEP staff.

I've been crazy-busy for about a week and haven't had time to read either one, especially the Mishel/Roy book. I have my own approach to measuring graduation, but I'm a little concerned this is becoming the Jay-and-Lawrence show, when I think neither has published their graduation-rate research in refereed journals. (I haven't and won't tout my stuff as anything but exploratory at the moment.) I hope CEP calls on a few more people, such as Jing Miao, Rob Warren, or Robert Kominski, to provide commentary.

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Posted in Research at 10:22 PM (Permalink) |

April 23, 2006

I am not a caring teacher

While I'm grading this afternoon, I'll borrow one of my entries from The Wall of Education, a multiblog I'm participating in. It's my foray into an interdisciplinary discussion of ethics and caring, a critique of some notions from a cynical historian's perspective. And since it's our accreditation/review visit over the next few days, it also fits in with reflection on institutional obligations and commitments.

. . .

Some days, I think that Nel Noddings is the most dangerous person in America, or rather, because others abuse her ideas, the common image of Nel Noddings is the most dangerous (imaginary) person in America. I don't mean dangerous as in David Horowitz's Dangerous Professors (though perhaps Noddings avoided being on the list merely because she's retired), nor dangerous as in Michael Bérubé's parody, International Professor of Danger.

Instead, I'm thinking of the implications some draw from her work on caring. More on the jump...

From what I understand as a mere historian of education, her work (going back to her 1984 book Caring) argues that a relational ethic of caring is an alternative to the deontological arguments of Kant or the utilitarian ethic of Bentham and that ilk. I'll return in a moment to the contribution she and other feminist philosophers make towards ethics and justice in a minute, but what concerns me is how others misread her. The most studious misreading I know of is by virtue ethicists such as Michael Slote, who argues that one must turn her relational argument into virtue ethics because to do otherwise would be unfair to the person who is caring (since caring may not be worth anything unless received as caring by the other person). (See Nodding's response.) That's an interesting argument (though I think it gives considerable privilege to paternalism), but I will leave the proper categorization of Nodding's caring to the professional philosophers.

What concerns me is the more casual transformation of Nodding's caring notion into a rougher virtue, especially in teacher education programs. Those taking inspiration from Noddings often write about a "caring teacher," including the characteristics a caring teacher might have (e.g., Concordia College, 2003; Lewis-Clark State College, n.d.; Nowak-Fabrykowski & Caldwell, 2002). Mentioning the characteristics of a "caring teacher" (or dispositions, in NCATE lingo) instantly turns caring into a virtue.

But virtue ethics have no place in professional education, especially in teacher education. I say this from an historian's perspective, not a philosopher's. There are a number of reasons why virtue ethics are inappropriate in professional education—the way that it can lead to litmus testing (as in LeMoyne College), or the psychologization of evaluation and the presumption that faculty in a professional school can somehow evaluate (or worse, intuit) what's inside someone's head. This search for some sort of a professional soul tempts faculty to think of professional education as a process reconstructing the self, something with which I am highly uncomfortable.

More insidious is the way that this transformation of caring into a virtue feeds into the historical rhetoric denigrating teaching as an intellectual occupation. Two hundred years ago, the primary qualification for teaching was virtue, not academics. When Mann and others encouraged the hiring of women as teachers, it was from the essentialist argument that women are more nurturing. While that was a shift from the predominance of men in teaching, it dovetailed with changing sex roles (Strober & Tyack, 1980).

We retain this legacy of seeing teachers as role models, with virtue and morals more important than skill. People assume my wife must be patient because she teaches special education, but whether she can think about her students is ignored. And then there are the old chestnuts: Women who care and teach don't need to be paid decently, because that's just what women (and teachers) do. It's a service profession, after all, like nursing and social work. Who goes into teaching to make money? So pardon the sound of my teeth grinding when I hear about "caring teachers." Regardless of the philosophical arguments, writing and talking about teacher virtues feeds into some of the worst historical legacies for teachers.

That conclusion doesn't mean that Noddings isn't important. She is, but in a different way. In my mind, her work falls within a literature on reconstructing (liberal) philosophical arguments from relational assumptions. Rawls' (1971) original position was the ultimate end-point of liberal philosophy, focusing on the logical consequences of assuming that people are isolatable individuals: take that individual outside of reality, behind the veil of ignorance, and see what the logical person-in-a-vacuum would conclude is just. As many others have noted, that assumes the existence of the person-in-a-vacuum. Communitarians have taken one counterposition to liberalism, arguing that we must see the community in itself as an important unit of society.

Others have taken a different approach, seeing relationships as the source of self (Guignon, 2003) and of a network of obligations that have ethical consequences, including public policy (Kittay, 2001). In this regard, I find Kittay's work more satisfying than the others, because she recognizes the way that there are multi-level dependencies, where those who care for a dependent are themselves weaker and dependent. Kittay argues that welfare reform of the 1990s privatized the act of caring, placing it in the bounds of family, outside public policy. Leo Casey's argument against the "caring teacher" language echoes Kittay's criticism of the privatization of dependency: when teachers are assumed to be the sole ones who care for kids' minds, then the network of support that teachers themselves need is neatly placed on the shelf.

Thus, Noddings' work is better seen as tentative, raising interesting questions about the extent to which we can (re)construct notions of ethics and justice from a relational starting point. Those in education have much to offer in this regard, from the relational nature of teaching to the implications of disability for our notion of the self. Instead, too many of our colleagues see her work as the caring gospel, a reification that does far more harm than good. Do I care for my students? I try. But don't call me a caring teacher, ever.


Concordia College. (2003). Conceptual framework. New York: Author.

Guignon, C. (2004). On being authentic. New York: Routledge.

Kittay, E. F. (2001). A feminist public ethic of care meets the new communitarian family policy. Ethics, 111, 523-547.

Lewis-Clarke State College. (n.d.). Conceptual framework. Lewiston, ID: Author.

Noddings, N. (1984). Caring: A feminist approach to ethics and moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nowak-Fabrykowski, K., & Caldwell, P. (2002). Developing a caring attitude in the early childhood pre-service teachers. Education, 123(2), 358-364.

Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Strober, M., & Tyack, D. (1980). Why women teach while men manage. Signs, 5, 494-503.

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Posted in Teaching at 3:14 PM (Permalink) |

April 22, 2006

Mental whiplash

Hint to student writers: don't suddenly switch topics in the middle of the paper. My brain's too old for that.

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Posted in Teaching at 6:02 PM (Permalink) |

I'm not "for the children"

I've just finished reading a fine student paper, but it's one one where the obligatory purple passage at the end spoke of the need to keep the children in mind—in this case, the student was skeptical of the value of vouchers. Just yesterday, Matt Ladner opined about the Oprah series, "But U.S. schools can get much better once we put the interests of students and parents before those of the special interests." In his case, he's in favor of vouchers.

I need to address this framing of education policy at length in another forum, but I can quickly explain why such rhetorical appeals make me uncomfortable. There's both a certain sleaziness and a logical slipperiness in making this appeal for the children. Spend time at home for your child. Call up your state representative to argue for a program for your child. Go to the ballfield and yell at the ump for your child. Spend your moolah on Mozart CDs for your child. Spend thousands of dollars on dresses and makeup for your child in a 4-year-old beauty pageant.

In reality, while we can all be altruistic about what we push, we're doing so based on adult values. That's why we make kids do things they may not like (at least at first). We're the adults. That's also why most of us are repulsed by choices of some parents. Referring either to one's own choices in parenting or to public policy as "for the children" is both non-specific in terms of results and also an abdication of responsibility for one's choices in terms of values.

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Posted in Education policy at 8:29 AM (Permalink) |

April 20, 2006

My "to blog about" list

At the end of the semester, I put off plenty of voluntary things because the urgent items are, well, urgent. So commenting on passing ed policy debates is delayed, and I now have a long list of saved blog entries I'll get back to in May. Case in point: Ed Sector's interview with a Denver union activist who negotiated Procomp. It's a fascinating interview, and there are some important bits of context (and omissions). Here in Florida, our governor and political appointees are trying to shove through a mandated formula-driven merit-pay program called E-Comp that almost certainly violates the constitution's guarantee of collective bargaining for public employees—with the county school board, not the state. Why does that matter, you ask? Well, part of collective bargaining is this odd notion of due process. When merit-pay provisions are bargained with the school board, there are two ways that employees have due process—through the bargaining process (representation) and through grievances if they think there's been a mistake in pay.

Well, I guess I'm wordy enough to need an extended entry...

But what happens in a formula-driven pay scheme that depends on test results and algorithms calculated at the state level, say, if a teacher thinks there's been a mistake? Currently, in Florida a school board can appeal the assignment of a letter grade for a school; staff pore through the details given them by the state (which students counted, and so forth). But you can't have an employer conduct the appeal for an employee. And you can't expect schoolteachers to spend an inordinate amount of time checking statistics (as they should have the time to focus on students). Usually that means a volunteer grievance rep or a staff member prepares the grievance. But in this case, that would depend on test scores; so do union staff members get to look at confidential student information to prepare a grievance for a state-mandated formula? You'd have a conflict between the right to representation in employment here and the reasonable expectation that only families and school-system employees look at confidential student data, and employees only have access on a need-to-know basis. There are other problems with this scheme, but I need to wake up now and head to campus for my classes.

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Posted in Education policy at 6:52 AM (Permalink) |

April 19, 2006

Usefully erroneous assumptions

One of the 'baristas' at Chain Café has just brought me a drink. I wonder why, apart from the fact that I've been a very loyal customer over the past n months. I wonder if they think my marriage is on the rocks and I come here as a respite from home. It isn't—I'm working here to be nice to Elizabeth and the kids because it's the tradeoff for letting my son come home instead of go to day care as many days as I can manage. And it does none of us any good for me to be grouchy not getting work done while my children are, well, children. I'd much rather work a decent day and be home in the evening.

But I don't mind the minor perks of being a loyal customer.

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Posted in Random comments at 9:58 PM (Permalink) |

Al-Arian muddle

With the plea agreement (PDF) approved by the judge this week, it looks like the criminal proceedings against Sami Al-Arian are winding down (barring weird stuff that is actually somewhat likely). From the coverage in the local newspapers (St. Pete Times and Tampa Tribune), it may end the legal situation in as clear a case as either side may wish: guilt on one count of conspiracy, with deportation to follow a relatively short sentence from this point on.

However, the end of the criminal case doesn't leave us with that much greater knowledge of the facts. Al-Arian admits to having lied in material ways about his relationship to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad before the 1995 declaration that it was a terrorist organization and about others in Tampa. But it's still not clear how much the PIJ exploited his presence in Tampa versus Al-Arian's exploiting the PIJ to boost his own ambitions with a think tank. Both are likely.

I may have more to say on the aftermath of the case after the semester winds down. Not now, though: I owe students a batch of papers returned.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 4:56 PM (Permalink) |

Book review of Willinsky's The Access Principle

Thanks to A.G. Rud for noting the online publication in Teachers College Record of Gene Glass and my review of John Willinsky's The Access Principle (which you can download for free).

April 16, 2006

Details count for graduation rates

You ever realize belatedly that you should have paid more attention to something when you were distracted? I'm definitely getting that feeling today, as I've been working on projects that don't require the data-that-with-luck-is-in-recovery from the hard disk crash Thursday morning. One of those is an article manuscript that will be up at Education Policy Analysis Archives in a few days, and another is a closer look at Florida's official graduation-rate calculation.

More on the jump...

When Florida changed its method of calculating graduation rates in the late 1990s, I didn't pay too much attention, largely because these measures are a dime a dozen, because I was focusing on other projects at the time, and because the first few numbers seemed in line with other figures at the time. But now, Florida's measures is the model for the National Governors Association-approved measure (see p. 18), and because a sharp rise in the graduation rate between the late 1990s and 2003 (the latest published rate) is being touted as evidence of success in Governor Bush's education policy.

The empirical question observers have noted about the official rate is that it is considerably higher than the other measures researchers have proposed, whether the Boston College simple methods, Jay Greene's, or Rob Warren's. I'll illustrate this with one of the standard measures used for years, and one that doesn't depend on counting students in each grade: the ratio of high school graduates to the older-teen population that one might expect would graduate that year. I've calculated these measures in four different ways for Florida: with and without private-school graduates included, and compared both to the 17-year-old population estimate in Florida for the graduating year and also to the average of the 17-year-old poulation the year before and the 18-year-old population in the graduating year (in other words, an estimate of the number of 18th birthdays in the academic year of graduation). More details after the image (a larger version behind the thumbnail0:


A comparison of different graduation rates for Florida, 1989-2003

The figure above shows four trend lines for Florida from 1989 in contrast to the higher ratio for the U.S. as a whole (including private-school graduates) and then, starting in 1998-99, the official Florida graduation rate.

The trend-line for the graduate:teen ratio has been heading up for Florida and the country for the last few years, so the upward trend in the official rate isn't surprising. What is notable is the implicit claim from the official rate that the class of 2003 was about 9 percent more likely to graduate than the class of 1999, and that dramatic multi-year trend is inconsistent with every other data source available.

Looking at the official manual for the state, I can see a few troubling issues:

  • The inclusion of alternatives to standard diplomas in the graduation numbers, with no public disaggregation
  • The exclusion of alleged transfers and movers from the base (creating an adjusted cohort) without any data quality checks to ensure that transfers really show up at a private school or in another state
  • The exclusion from the base (adjusted cohort) of students who drop out and immediately enroll in GED programs (as transfers to adult programs)

The last one is especially troubling and highly misleading. Note: I am not claiming that there is deliberate fraud involved in either the construction of this definition (which was piloted before Jeb Bush became governor) or in schools' manipulation of student records. But I think I need to follow up on this and see if the state has kept decent records on what adjustments have been made, precisely, on which basis.

(Gory details for the chart: Public-school details from Common Core of Data; private-school graduates for various years from the Private School Survey, with other years interpolated with a spline function and extrapolated before 1992 and after 2001 with linear trend lines; estimates of 17- and 18-year-old populations from the Census Bureau.)

Update (4/17/06, 3:40 pm): Andrew Rotherham takes a few minutes from caring for babies to comment on things, but gave the subscription URL for the Greene, Winters, and Swanson piece in Ed Week, a column which is also available for free at the Manhattan Institute site (yeah, at that link above with their names). More stuff at the Ed Week forum on dropout rates and stuff, something to which I contributed just now, almost three weeks later. Pay attention to the remarks of Cliff Adelman—while I disagree that he's made a convincing case that NELS shows that the CPS figures are correct (and he doesn't actually say that, though a sloppy reader might assume it), it's important to note what type of documentation NELS's staff had available. Neither the CCD nor CPS has such a check on data quality.

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Posted in Education policy at 8:47 PM (Permalink) |

April 15, 2006

New ed policy journal

Congrats to David Figlio and David Monk for the first two issues of Education Finance and Policy, which both became available online over the past month.

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Posted in Education policy at 4:59 PM (Permalink) |

April 13, 2006

Disk crash

It's not a good thing when my work laptop wouldn't load because of a corrupted systems folder. It's probably a good thing that I know what to do at this point (download the latest version of Knoppix, transfer essential files, and then turn the laptop over to our college computer gurus), but this is the second hard-disk problem I've had to deal with in the last six months. Not fun. Slows work down considerably...

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Posted in Random comments at 7:09 AM (Permalink) |

April 10, 2006

Paper malaprop

Maybe I'm too tired, but I had to laugh at the misspelling of a 1980 article's title: Myra Strober and David Tyack's Why Do Women Teach and Men Mange?

I'll admit I'm getting itchy just thinking about it.

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Posted in Teaching at 9:51 PM (Permalink) |

April 9, 2006

65 Percent and charter schools

Just a thought after reading a story on high profit margins of so-called EMOs (private companies that manage charter schools or public schools under contracts): What would the 65-percent proposal do to private management of schools? The great irony of Florida Governor Bush's attempt to resurrect vouchers in Florida is that attaching the requirement that 65% of funds be spent in the classroom, as the item designed to draw voter approval for whatever is attached to it (last week the lifting of cap sizes in Florida but this week Gov. Bush's favored voucher program), would make private management of any school virtually impossible without further stripping services.

Already as it is, I suspect the 65-percent solution would easily fall in Florida, either because Florida voters generally disapprove of the vouchers to which it'd be attached or because there are a few non-classroom expenses that parents really value (some especially in Florida): air conditioning, buses and bus drivers (hey, wait a second—don't you need transportation to have a public-choice program?), security officers, janitors, nurses, and so forth. Imagine the first line of several radio ads this fall:

  • Your child's classroom may not have air-conditioning when classes start up next August, if Amendment 3 passes...
  • Your child's school may lose its campus security officer next August, if Amendment 3 passes...
  • Your child may have to wait for a bus for three hours every schoolday next August, next August, if Amendment 3 passes...
  • Your child's teacher may have to stop teaching and clean up the floor if someone gets sick next August, if Amendment 3 passes...

I think the odds are against the state senate's approving any constitutional amendment along these lines, anyway. But no one has considered the way that the 65-percent proposal would affect privatization efforts.

Tip of the hat to Jim Horn for the story link.

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Posted in Education policy at 7:18 PM (Permalink) |

Massachusetts and high-stakes accountability policies

I've had a few responses to my Shakespeare challenges, all from Massachusetts, which raises an important question for my challenge: When did Massachusetts policy become high stakes for schools in terms of resources (providing rewards to high-scoring schools or taking funds away from low-scoring schools) rather than for reputation (labeling), for organizational control (the threat of a state takeover), or for students (in terms of the graduation exam or other consequences of test scores at the individual level)? Amrein and Berliner describe the stakes as high beginning in 1999 but non-monetary (see the chart on p. 10). Technically, I think one could say that there were definitely resources attached to test scores beginning in 2002 (No Child Left Behind), but since I stated the challenge referring to high stakes for five years or more, I need to know whether Massachusetts had such resources attached to test results before NCLB's passage.

Yes, I'll contact the MDOE, but if any reader knows independently, please clue me in!

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Posted in Education policy at 3:12 PM (Permalink) |

April 4, 2006

PAA conference handout

The PAA conference handout (PDF) is cryptic and dense, but it captures the methods side of what I'm doing right now. I don't think it replaces the other attempts to measure graduation, in part because few states can produce age-based statistics at the moment. On the other hand, the explicit modeling can show the sensitivity of graduation measures to migration/transfer rates (considerable), and it's a way to get at other issues (including good measures of retention and possibly dropping out, though that's also sensitive to migration/transfer rate misspecification).

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Posted in Research at 3:17 AM (Permalink) |

On narrowing the curriculum

While I'm still unable to get to sleep from caffeine (I promised students a batch of grades tomorrow in class), I thought I'd take a few minutes to wind down the growing spin story on the Center on Education Policy report on the 4th year of NCLB implementation. Now that Andrew Rotherham has kindly asked people to take my money (via the Shakespeare challenges), I owe him and other readers a brief explanation of what I'm doing, and it's definitely not research, though I suspect some serious research will eventually delve into the narrowing of the curriculum. More on the continuation...

As Ed Toch points out, the Center on Education Policy report on NCLB does not mean that there was some recent Golden Age when schools' attention to the content areas was fabulous, and somehow that got ruined by NCLB. And I don't think the report said it, though the New York Times story last Sunday hyped that section of a much longer report (which discussed the mixed record of NCLB pretty fairly, as I think the Center's reports have generally done, at least those I've read).

Yet the Times story gives us an opening to talk about what has happened with the narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test. Is the CEP study definitive or at the classroom level? Absolutely not. Yet I haven't seen anything between that level and the type of close observation that Linda McNeil and others have done. (Search this week's AERA meeting schedule, but I haven't found anything specifically on the narrowing of the enacted curriculum.) You'd need a project funded in the $200-$400K range to have a broad range of classrooms observed in the types of settings to pick up the difference between a reasonable intensification of instruction, on the one hand, and obvious narrowing of the curriculum and bloody-minded test-prep, on the other. I suspect the federal DOE won't fund that type of study, and the foundations may not, unless there's considerable more push from researchers who have the capacity to do it (and I'm not the person for that job).

One other perspective: while there may not have been a Golden Age, you have to start improving the curriculum somewhere. I think of all the good stuff that the test-prep booklet cash could have bought and wince. That's really what the challenges are about (as well as to tweak anyone who thinks test-prep doesn't go on): what business do schools have purchasing booklets to help prepare for tests when too many schools don't commit time to good literature or have decent texts or enough class sets of good literature to begin with? The retired head of Florida's testing program, Tom Fisher, and I disagree on a number of things in ed policy, but we both have agreed that test-prep is unethical. To him, good everyday instruction should be sufficient to prepare children for any test. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that test-prep works, if only in the sense that steroids work in sports, with the short-term results. But at some point, that's an abandonment of a commitment to use school time wisely.

Finally, the narrowing-the-curriculum argument will swing either way (or multiple ways) depending on the grade level of the school. One can certainly make the case that one can infuse other subjects into reading at the elementary level, because elementary teachers are generalists. But once you get to grades where the clear expectation is that subject teachers are content specialists to some degree, can an English teacher be expected to put historical documents into context? I think you can either emphasize the content knowledge of secondary teachers (and be concerned about the lack thereof) or claim that content infusion is hunky-dory over sixth grade. But not both.

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Posted in Education policy at 2:44 AM (Permalink) |

April 2, 2006

The real entry on the conference

In case you were wondering, the last item was an April Fool's joke. I saw my mom and the family of one of my sisters. The Population Association of America conference was great. While no one had the energy or concentration to vet my stuff in the poster session (gee, why wouldn't people be able to think about integral equations in a room with several hundred people?), I did give away most of the handouts and had a bunch of people interested in it. I found the work of several others working on education (esp. since I guess the PAA serves as a spring outlet for sociologists). I found a bunch of sessions and resources on migration I need to pass on to my colleagues who specialize in it. I saw Susan Watkins, fertility specialist whose course I took at Penn. And the person who sponsored me through Penn's demography masters, Sam Preston, won the PAA mathematical demography award for his work in variable-rate modeling—which most people assumed he would have a long time ago, as the presenter noted.

Incidentally, it's that work I'm exploiting. I need to clean up the poster and handouts and upload it here as well as to the PAA conference website.

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Posted in Research at 8:07 AM (Permalink) |

April 1, 2006

Terrible conference

Well, I'm back in Tampa after a 14-hour journey that you really don't want to know about. (Hint: Southwest shouldn't ever try to fly to Cancun.) The Population Association of America was an awful conference where I didn't learn anything, where everyone who visited my poster session ripped it to shreds, where there was no one else really interested in work similar to mine, where I didn't see any of my demography profs from grad school at Penn (where I earned a masters at the same time as my history Ph.D.), and where I didn't have a chance to see any of my family in the L.A. area.

And I've come back to too much work. I've decided to chuck all writing assignments for the rest of the semester for my undergraduates and replace it all with multiple-choice tests. At least as of this date.

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Posted in Research at 8:10 PM (Permalink) |