July 31, 2006

Grading doggerel

profgrrl inspired me, even though I'm not teaching this summer:

In grading some are at their best
but others can get quite depressed
when marking "wrong" and sometimes "right"
and eat and grade all through the night.

(Halvah's great, but M&Ms
feed the brain cells and the stem.
What helps read mensch or plain mean jerks?
For me, just theobromine works.)

For those who come from overseas,
culture gap's far from a breeze,
they must think U.S. students nuts,
all pupils who think with their... lower spines.

(I exaggerate, of course.
Who work as hard as a horse
will earn high grades and my respect,
becoming close to the Elect.)

The homesick blues I've seen in peers?
The folks who all dissolve in tears?
The stuff most prone to gradingology?
Yep, it's paleontology.

Six TAs in a lecture hall
thought it all was just a ball
until they had to grade the final.
Then they learned the screaming primal.

Six TAs from overseas
who though that grad school was a breeze,
who hadn't met their match, quite yet,
But horrors waited, you can bet.

They fought through hundreds of exams.
They read Sue's, Al's, and even Sam's.
They marked some unreadable text
and purple pictures of T. Rex.

They X'd some here , and cross-hatched there,
and slowly they pulled out their hair.
Green pen for wrong and blue for right.
And red their eyes half through the night.

When all was graded, all was done.
They squinted at the rising sun.
Four were left as psych-job wrecks,
the other two were just blue Czechs.*

Please treat your TAs kindly, peers,
and don't ignore the flowing tears.
Their organizing's not a sin,
so show the grad school union in.


*—profgrrl's poem refers to "blue checks."

(And now I'll flee with rapid run
for writing such an awful pun.)

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

July 29, 2006

Thumb drives up for mobile students

One of the serious concerns for parents who are mobile—whether they carry arms in the military or pick vegetables in the fields—is the discontinuity of education for their children. One bureaucratic nightmare for parents is getting records transferred, which can take weeks depending on the systems involved. (See the advised checklists for military parents for leaving a school and entering a new one. One of the key tips for school officials involves accommodating the slippage of records—e.g., providing a 60-day waiver for immunization records.) For teachers, too, there are practical problems with missing records, especially when the needs of a student are complicated (such as migrant students with disabilities, whose individual education plans convey legal obligations as well as are based on student performance). The in-the-works Migrant Student Records Exchange Initiative is a promised substitute for the older federal Migrant Student Records Transfer System, which reached about a third of districts but died in the 1990s.

The Migrant Student Records Exchange may be web-based, but it's not yet up and running. What worries me is one news story that the formatting might be proprietary, limiting what districts and states might be able to do on their own. (I'll say that I know very little about this and hope my reading of the article is dead wrong.) Surely, the Student Records Exchange might create a workable XML definition that would accommodate other files to include IEPs, various assessments, and even everyday classroom assignments as well as transcript information, school-related health records, etc.

But parents and school districts shouldn't have to wait for such a system. There's an easy way to provide exiting students with at least enough unofficial information to provide for a smoother transition. With the price of small-capacity USB drives dropping below $10 (and those are prices for single USB drives—imagine what bulk purchasing could do), it seems there would be a pretty simple solution. Schools could easily have a fast scanner in the front office and be able to scan a student's cumulative folder and transfer all records (electronic and scanned versions of paper records) into the thumb drive. Even in a family whose property is whatever fits in a car or truck, a child can carry her or his essential academic records (at least until an official transfer of records) at the end of a lanyard.

Oh, and Nicholas Negroponte? Your One Laptop Per Child initiative might want to consider children of migrant farmworkers. A robust machine might be especially valuable for them.

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Posted in Education policy at 2:03 PM (Permalink) |

July 28, 2006

Another attempt at professionalization

Think teaching is the only field with calls to professionalize with more rigorous studies? Check out the Inside Higher Ed article today about engineering and the proposal by one emeritus engineering professor to make a graduate degree the entry to the field. See especially the historical perspective provided by Jane Robbins in her comment at the end. Go Jane!

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Posted in Education policy at 7:39 AM (Permalink) |

July 27, 2006

Students get on the case in California

Today's San Jose Mercury-News reports on a student march demanding that the Williams settlement money go for teachers, texts, and toilets.

I am betting that this will get significant play in California. It should in other areas, too.

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Posted in Education policy at 6:25 PM (Permalink) |

Responses to Stanley Fish

The New York Times today published six letters to the editor responding to Stanley Fish's column Sunday. On writer agreed with Fish, one wish he had gone further, and the other four disagreed. Margaret Soltan has more.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 7:19 AM (Permalink) |

July 26, 2006

Claudio Sanchez says "HLM"

Todays' the day that NPR education reporter Claudio Sanchez said hierarchical linear modeling on air. This story was really about the public brouhaha over the did-she-or-didn't-she-downplay-the-study controversy on the public/private analysis of NAEP, but it's nice for the phrase to be out in public. Maybe this means that Sanchez will report on Jenny D.'s dissertation? Maybe we'll have comic books with Harvey Goldstein as multilevel superhero, meta-methodological wrestling matches between Larry Hedges and Robert Slavin, or poetry slams about evaluation perspectives with Michael Scriven, Michael Q. Patton, and Patricia J. Rogers.

Probably not, but one can hope, right?

But since Claudio Sanchez came out of the closet as a multilevel-modeling fanboy, I need to get cracking on the section of chapter 2 that covers growth models.

And, yes, I did look after my wonderful 11- and 14-year-old offspring while Elizabeth was at work today. Why do you ask?

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:06 PM (Permalink) |

More on the politics of thresholds

Just a few days after I wrote about cut scores or thresholds, uber-conservative Charles Murray criticizes NCLB for relying on them for proficiency labels (subscription required), accountability nihilist Susan Ohanian praises him, and Ford Foundation staffer Michael Petrilli talks back at Murray. (Hat tip: Andrew Rotherham.) Update: Manhattan Institute's Jay Greene and Marcus Winters have also responded to Murray.

The most fascinating part of Petrilli's column is the bit at the end where he entirely eschews closing the achievement gap:

Sure, there will always be a bell curve, but couldn't better instruction, higher expectations, and well-prepared teachers move the entire curve to the right, getting most or all students past the "proficient" line? That's exactly what NCLB is aiming to do, rhetoric about closing the achievement gap aside.... schools [do not] have to close the gap in the average performance of subgroups. And for good reason. No one would support a policy that gave schools an incentive to hold down the performance of white students in order to show gains in closing the achievement gap.

Retired philosopher Tom Green wrote about this phenomenon in a 1980 book, Predicting the Behavior of the Educational System, and his argument went roughly like this: Any education system is pushed by external forces to make sure that the vast majority of the middle class (or the equivalent in a particular society) get a certain normative level of education. At some critical point, the normative level education rises to the next system level. Richard Freeman took this up a few years earlier from a different perspective and an argument about credentialism, The Overeducated American (1976).

I think Green underestimates the relationship between labor markets and secondary/tertiary schooling, but I never expected an accountability jingoist make his argument as if it were a good thing. Petrilli essentially transfers Green's argument about attainment to achievement: to Petrilli, we want the existing achievement gaps to continue, just as long as achievement generally increases.

This is what we call a shell game, folks. NCLB has been (and continues to be) advocated for on the basis of closing the achievement gap, ending the "soft bigotry of low expectations," as President Bush is wont to say. Now we get a different story, and it's as ugly as you can get in education: Inequality's okay. It's good. It's politically necessary to preserve it.

And this fascinating twist by a Fordham staff member makes the politics of such mundane things as cut scores so important. After a bit of reflection (11:40 pm): Will this shift be noticed by folks like Andy Rotherham, who wrote last year about the importance of putting equity over the conventional wisdom about giftedness? Petrilli's stance doesn't count as progressive in my book, except in a minimalist sense. The big picture, however, is that there are always underlying tensions behind the statistical choices made for accountability. Sometimes, they erupt into public view, as with complaints in New York City last December about the priorities of the Bloomberg administration. I'd rather have the battles out in public, to be honest, rather than obscured by pseudo-technocratic babble about proficiency levels. Isn't accountability about transparency?

(Incidentally, Petrilli's wrong about NAGB's great wisdom, but that's a different question. The best you can say about NAEP's or anyone else's different levels is that they're ordinal at the macro level.)

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 7:15 PM (Permalink) |

July 25, 2006

Lightning education politics analysis

Two items across the transom today, with a brief response each before my son kicks me off the computer to play a MUD (or is it a MOO?):

  1. Yesterday's Title I Online article on NCLB politics seems mostly on target, as AFT's NCLBlog and Andrew Rotherham point out. There are several dynamics interfering (in the wave-like fashion), and so I'd expect some choppy sailing for whoever's interested in regulatory implementation over the next year. One issue the article did not discuss: increasing signs that the Democrats will take over at least one house of Congress next year, something that will increase the hostility of Congressional oversight, especially in areas with political implications. One possibility for ED's apparent capriciousness in its sanctions threats (and here I refer to crossed signals with state governments): This year may be the last point at which ED can "get tough" without an immediate hearing in one or both houses on Capitol Hill.
  2. I'd stayed out of the fray on the Joe Williams piece on NEA funding of like-minded groups on NCLB, even though I thought the phrase "front groups" sounds awfully 1950s-ish. There's a solid historical reason for the development of what David Tyack called "interlocking directorates" in education politics, beyond Tyack's analysis, and the whole topic could have used a lot less outrage and a little more perspective. See the AFT NCLBlog commentary, Kevin Carey's rebuttal, and Rotherham's blurb for the gist of claims and counter-claims on whether the report is anti-union. My initial impression was that it was semi-heavily spun (welterweightly spun?) and missed opportunities for deeper discussion about the role of teachers unions. So I was inclined to ignore the mini-tiff, because even though I'm not teaching or being paid to reseasrch this summer, my plate is completely full.

    On the other hand, however, comes Rotherham's response to Mickey Kaus's mini-punditry over the weekend about Democratic officeholders' willingness to criticize teachers unions:

    [I]t seems to me that the whole teachers' union issue wouldn’t have the resonance it does if Democrats were not frequently so entirely tethered to them. Put another way, I don’t think [the Center for American Progress] is in the union busting business but because there is frequently so little daylight between the teachers’ unions and Democrats any effort to do much of anything interesting on education policy almost inevitably runs afoul of them...

    There's a myth there about tethering, and this time it's less to do with unions than the misnomer of a monolithic Democratic party. It is true that the relationship between local unions and Democratic legislators is usually warmer than with Republican legislators, but that's not uniform and there's an additional difference between legislators and executives at the local and state level. (In Florida before Jeb Bush, wags said that we had a two-party state: there's the legislature, and there's the governor.) Unions didn't particularly care who was in charge of a city or suburban district in the 1960s and 1970s (when teacher union activism became a major force in local and state school politics): They wanted recognition and negotiation of working conditions. The end result is that while Democratic politicians have more of a reason to negotiate policies with teachers unions (see L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the fate of his takeover as the primary extant example), they have different motives, and you're always going to see differences between teachers unions and politicians of either major party as long as there's a political reason for an officeholder to address education policy.

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

Quick work...

I did get in at least one letter to a MS's authors before leaving for Ocala. Have fun and don't get into too much trouble while I'm away! More tomorrow...

July 24, 2006

Inefficient but necessary journal work today

I've mostly prepped the next article to appear at EPAA—I am waiting to hear back on a few things—and am now on the one for early August. There are the usual tedious issues, and it's taking a little more time than I expected (or maybe my brain is being inefficient today and needing frequent breaks from editing duties). Yes, that's right, faithful readers—any entertainment you've had from my entries on academic freedom are largely because I can't stand the next step in the process, whether it's hunting for hyphens to be replaced by en-dashes or whatnot. Better to work on this now, still. Tomorrow I'm off to Ocala for family reasons and then have child care teen and preteen entertainment duty starting Wednesday while Elizabeth starts back in "pre-planning days" for the K-12 school year, which begins for students August 3.

I had hoped to get a few disposition letters written, but that will have to wait until Wednesday evening.

Frederick Mosteller, 1916-2006

ASU educational researcher and statistician Gene Glass just distributed a notice by Gale Mosteller of her father's death yesterday. Fred Mosteller was truly one of the giants in 20th century statistics, right along with John Tukey (Mosteller's frequent collaborator). My friend and former fellow history grad student Tim Hacsi was at Harvard several years ago on a postdoc and met Mosteller, who was still active and still generous with his formidable intellect.

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Posted in Random comments at 12:13 PM (Permalink) |

Defending Ward Churchill??

A group of academics have now started signing a petition defending Ward Churchill, calling themselves Teachers for a Democratic Society. Essentially, the petition makes the argument both that the process leading to Churchill's dismissal has been flawed (and presumably will be flawed even though Churchill is in the middle of an appeal process with the third peer group that has looked at the case) and that the substance of the research-misconduct report is wrong:

In addition to these misgivings about context and process, the report contains other substantive problems. These include (1) an unreasonably broad and elastic definition of "research misconduct"; (2) a near-obsessive interest in dissecting a small number of paragraphs and footnotes from an otherwise "impressive" and "unusually high volume" of academic work, an analysis that virtually guaranteed the discovery of errors, misrepresentations, and inconsistencies even as it reaffirmed the validity of several "general points" and a core of "historical truth"; and (3) a failure to fully appreciate the "scholar activist" and "public intellectual" roles—roles that, on balance, expand and enrich the academic and journalistic enterprises—that Professor Churchill was clearly expected to fill when hired by the University of Colorado.

Let's skip over the misplaced modifier (a report doesn't have misgivings) and get to the fundamental issues:

  1. What was the definition of research misconduct used by the committee? Maybe I misread the report, but I think it was plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification. That also happens to be the standard definition used in federal regulations, which is narrower than an older definition. Pray tell, what definition would be less broad and still have some basis in reason?
  2. Can one find research misconduct in the details of footnote use? Maybe it's my bias as an historian, trained in linking arguments to primary sources, but I have to say yes. There are two issues here, one of substance and a second of proportionality. As an historian, I should be insulted that someone calls a methodological interest in references "near-obsessive," but I simply find it sad. How else should we work? The second issue is one of proportionality—was there enough "misconduct" given the scope of Churchill's writings? I'm not sure if we read the same report—the scholars' description of errors went to the heart of Churchill's argument about the behavior of the U.S. military, among other things. Nor is this a matter of ordinary mistakes (which we all make) and which most of us are willing to acknowledge. When confronted with the errors, Churchill could have come clean and said, "I was terribly wrong in these instances." But that was not his response.

    To excuse the misconduct as being on the margins of the work, moreover, is to suggest that we only need to be accurate and careful when we're at the core of our argument. Plagiarism doesn't matter if it's not our central thesis? Falsification is irrelevant when we're only misstating someone else's work? And, even if this outrageous claim of disproportionality were accurate, it would not excuse the conduct given everything else we know (especially Churchill's failure to acknowledge error). Incidentally (or maybe not), this disproportionality claim was the same argument Jon Weiner used in Historians in Trouble—that Bellesiles was unfairly brought down by a few footnotes. Maybe some research-misconduct committees decide to act in a way similar to a careful prosecutor, focusing on a few slam-dunk incidents. That doesn't clear the person involved, especially if they have had plenty of opportunities to issue errata. (See Timothy Burke's take on Weiner.)

  3. Should scholar-activists be excused from research misconduct because they're politically active? Er, um, no. Someone who's a self-respecting academic could even entertain this argument?

Things start to look bad when Timothy Shortell is organizing this. What's especially embarrassing about the list of signatories is that it includes Mona Baker, who has been at the forefront of the loony side of British academe who want a boycott of Israeli academics. We should be worried about her views of academic freedom? Sheesh.

More at Inside Higher Ed's coverage. Update: My USF colleague Kathleen de la Peña McCook has signed the petition and explains her reasoning in the comments. Kathleen's actively defended academic freedom as a faculty member, inside the union, and as a member of the American Library Association. I suspect some of the other prominent signatories (not Shortell or Baker) are fairly close to Kathleen's position. Noon update: Definitely an interesting thread in comments. Join the fray!

Errata: In the IHE article comments, I erroneously referred to Timothy Shortell as the organizer of the webpage for Teachers for a Democratic Society. I assumed that from the fact that all of the blog entries on the front page were by him. Mea culpa. (See, Ward, it's not that hard to acknowledge errors...)

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Posted in Academic freedom at 7:29 AM (Permalink) |

July 23, 2006

Spanking Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish is perfectly entitled by academic freedom and our more general freedoms in this country to believe that There's No Such Thing as Free Speech... and It's a Good Thing, Too, but he's not entitled to misstate the record on Kevin Barrett without expecting some criticism. Fish claims that there is a dichotomy of views on Barrett's adjunct teaching at U. Wisconsin this fall, with supporters who

insist that it is the very point of an academic institution to entertain all points of view, however unpopular. (This was the position taken by the university’s provost, Patrick Farrell, when he ruled on July 10 that Mr. Barrett would be retained: “We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas.”)


In the rest of the column, Fish argues that the primary determinant of Barrett's future should be whether he would focus on teaching, not propagandizing—implying throughout that there was no such question raised. Bzzzzt! Thanks for playing, but that's a clear misreading of Farrell's statement, according to the U. Wisconsin press release from July 10:

"There is no question that Mr. Barrett holds personal opinions that many people find unconventional," Farrell says. "These views are expected to take a small, but significant, role in the class. To the extent that his views are discussed, Mr. Barrett has assured me that students will be free—and encouraged—to challenge his viewpoint."

Maybe I'm not the postmodernist reader that Fish is, and there may be some hidden differance that redistributes power somehow in those words, but I think Farrell said that he asked Barrett if he'd spend his time propagandizing or teaching, and Barrett promised that he'd be teaching. In other words, Barrett met the criterion Fish established.

So where did Fish pull the quotation from? There's a passage at the end of the press release where Farrell does discuss the pressure exerted from the outside based on Barrett's ideas. In most of the world, we call this context. Was Farrell factually incorrect that the pressure was politically motivated or based on Barrett's ideas? Should a university resist such pressure? Put simply, Fish cherry-picked a quotation, ignored what didn't fit his theory, and wrote the column.

One shouldn't be too surprised by Fish's larger argument, since his thesis fits with his other writings on academic freedom: To Stanley Fish, there is no such thing as free speech, academic freedom has nothing to do with our society's system of political freedoms anyway, and faculty should keep their politics out of their jobs.

This perspective on the politics and history of academic freedom leads Fish to a convoluted definition of academic freedom as the right to define one's area of study or teaching.

But in fact, academic freedom has nothing to do with content.... Rather, academic freedom is the freedom of academics to study anything they like; the freedom, that is, to subject any body of material, however unpromising it might seem, to academic interrogation and analysis.

Miraculously, this definition is entirely divorced from what one may conclude from study, which Fish doesn't consider to be covered by academic freedom. Fish's redefinition is the immaculate conception of academic freedom, somehow removed from the potential taint of actual ideas.

Not only does it cut colleges and universities off from a rich source of political support—viewing faculty as society's whistleblowers—but Fish's redefinition is ultimately a sterile view of faculty. As Timothy Burke has noted many times, we shouldn't strip faculty of the passion that motivates them in teaching or research.

Hat tip to Keith Hoeller, an AAUP member from Washington State, for pointing me and others on the AAUP list to Fish's column. See my earlier comments about Barrett if you want more of my blather on this topic. Update: Ann Althouse has more. ACTA blog takes 70% of Fish's article to say that, yes, by golly, we need to uphold academic standards, and aren't we glad Fish finally recognized the limits of academic freedom.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 11:08 PM (Permalink) |

The Little Professor whomps on the CHE anonymous columns

Miriam Burstein (aka The Little Professor) whacks the anonymous dyspeptic column for 6. Best academic snark I've seen in a while (and I have access to high-quality academic snark).

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Posted in Random comments at 8:34 AM (Permalink) |

July 22, 2006

Cut scores and democracy

This evening, I've been trying to boil down the controversy over cut scores (jump-started by Gene Glass in 1978, in the first wave of minimum-competency tests), and I've been trying to pay close attention to the counter-arguments. The one that pulls at me most is one advanced separately by Michael Scriven and James Popham in the same issue of the Journal of Educational Measurement where Glass lambasted the techniques used for standard-setting: the use of arbitrary cut-scores is justified not by their technical merits but by their use to improve education.


I'm not sure that's exactly fair as a characterization of their common position—Popham was saying that the possibility of a defensible cut-score definition should be magnified by the potential loss of educational benefits from going without (in the case of minimum competency tests), and Scriven was doing his Scriven-ish (or maybe Scriven-er) thing of discussing alternatives in the case of admissions tests (i.e., that the predictive validity of the underlying measure was minimally sufficient to make decisions).

On the other hand, there was a common assumption behind both remarks—the case for the use of cut scores depends on consequences. If the use of a cut score improves education, then the process used to set the cut score does not need to meet high professional standards. I have heard the same argument from many others. Why quibble with test scores, if it gives a kick in the pants to schools? These are advocates of a scarlet-letter policy, to shame schools into improvement.

There are a number of problems with this kick-in-the-pants approach to accountability and the glossing over technical problems. Fundamentally, it sees the ranking as the purpose of testing, completely unconnected to information about student performance. Using the ends to justify standardized tests and cut scores for high-stakes purposes displays a profound distrust of democratic processes. If this argument is correct—that the pressure applied to schools is more important than the basis for such pressure—then we can only reform a critical government institution through deception, deception practiced by an expert profession.

This is a chilling thought.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 12:29 AM (Permalink) |

July 21, 2006

Spellings Commission draft report, redux?

The second draft of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education is now out, and the reactions are much more positive, with a few exceptions such as ACTA and its head, Anne D. Neal, who lament what she claims is the disappearance of curriculum from the second draft: "The only thing the Commission's latest draft ensures is that the academic establishment will not squeal too loudly." It's the work of the Establishment! she cries. (She's obviously a great loss to the militant revolution.)

I have news for you, Anne: You can't regain a focus that was never there. The second draft may be the result of pressure from the academic establishment (whatever that is), but there never was much about the curriculum in the first draft, either. The great themes in the first draft were human capital and the market, and they remain the themes in the second draft. And, as far as I gather, human capital and the market are the domains of the Establishment, too.


Is the second draft kinder and gentler? Yes. Importantly, the new draft acknowledges the cost-shifting away from state coffers and onto students and their families. Does the second draft retain the basic weakness I noted earlier this month? Yes, it still pretends that the market will solve problems that the market created. It still pretends that somehow technology will result in lower per-student costs than hiring faculty, and it still fails to acknowledge where the attempts of colleges and universities to lower costs with contingent faculty may be playing a role in lower quality.

There are also some quaint and romantic notions about innovation: Oh, if only colleges and universities were willing to be flexible. If only someone were willing to think outside the box! (Note to the reader: The phrase "outside the box" is now inside the box, as I've mentioned before.) My favorite is the shibboleth about academic calendars and empty classrooms:

For existing institutions, the traditional and limited use of the physical plant—traditional work hours and a rigid institutional calendar year and schedule—result in programs designed to meet the needs of faculty, not students.

On the one hand, I understand some evidence of this: One sister-in-law was frustrated because the nearby public university could not get into its thick head that teacher education courses might want to be scheduled at night, so those who wanted to move into teaching mid-career might get some education before entering a classroom. But that's the exception. Especially for public colleges and universities, higher-ed generally tries to bend backwards to schedule courses in different configurations during the day and week. Sometimes this is counter-productive, as in six-week summer courses on topics that require a longer time for students to digest, such as Milton or Joyce.

Apart from the failure to ground that accusation in reality, the reason why it brought a laugh to me is because helter-skelter scheduling would decrease the efficiency of space use. It would increase student confusion if some of their courses were six weeks long, others started partway through those six weeks and lasted ten, and others started a few weeks later and lasted fifteen, by which time they'd have started other courses. Regularity is in the interests of everyone, to some extent. If there is a "dead time" during the week, it's Fridays, because faculty generally need some travel time to get to conferences (many of which start late Thursday), and institutions need time to have meetings. There are some workarounds and ways that academic schedules can be improved, but those involve tweaking and not the destruction of regularity.

Of the "unit records" controversy, I think most of it could be avoided with a non-longitudinal approach: simply record matriculation, transfers, graduations, and other key events by age and a few other key demographic variables, without individual tagging. We can still learn a great deal from that.

My prediction: the final report will be very similar to this second report. The recommendations will be DOA, but this commission was never about policy setting. It has always been about agenda setting. And the great irony is that this draft report essentially sets higher ed on the same path it's currently on.

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Posted in Education policy at 8:49 AM (Permalink) |

What is fair use in blogging?

I just winced again—a blogger with plenty of witty, sharp things to say quoted 74% of an article: out of 1,047 words from the original source, 771 appeared in the blog. There were, in addition to the massive quotation, 57 words written by the blogger.

Is this fair use?

I ask because we seem to be in the middle of an epidemic of block-quoting, and this example is only one of dozens I read every week. Every time, I wince, because according to one of the standard online references I refer students to (the Stanford Copyright and Fair Use website), the amount and substantiality of a quotation is key, and in addition, the guide suggests, "Your copying will not be a fair use if the portion taken is the 'heart' of the work." Quoting 74% of an article, excluding only the first few paragraphs and the last sentence, seems to violate this guideline.

Overquoting seems to me to be a misuse of the internet. You don't have to quote 74% of a piece—paraphrasing with a link is enough. We have immediate access to the original, after all. Maybe some bloggers who overquote think their readership is too lazy to click on a link. I don't know, honestly. But I'd like to wince a little less in the future.

Clarification (11 pm): No, I'm not going to be a fair-use cop. There are better uses of my time.

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Posted in Random comments at 8:06 AM (Permalink) |

July 20, 2006

A bookstore provides the secret to standardized testing

I've been working today in the air-conditioned comfort of a bookstore café, eating and drinking my way through the next few pages. My task today: finish the description of standardized test characteristics key to accountability. Two of them—comparability and consistency—set the stage for test preparation. Because tests sort students either explicitly or implicitly, and because they do so on a consistent basis (which I consider to be broader than the technical reliability of test scores), someone can predict test construction and figure out how to beat the test. Princeton Review has used Adam Robinson's "Joe Bloggs" approach to make millions off middle-class families' test anxieties for a quarter-century now. The existence of test-preparation both reinforces the belief that one can game the system without actually teaching students more about a subject and also creates a certain problem with test scores: how much is the test score a reflection of what students know (which we'd like to measure—wishing away a bunch of other test issues), and how much is it a reflection of test-wiseness (which we should expect to be distributed unequally in society)? Whoops.

I've known about the Joe Bloggs approach since the 1980s but was curious how Princeton Review modified it for computer-administered "adaptive tests," where you can't rely on a paper-and-pencil progression of difficulty. I wrote most of the passage, and then I took a break and walked around the books. Are there any Princeton Review books targeted at adaptive tests? Yes! And it turns out that while the Joe Bloggs technique is a little less useful for adaptive tests, it still personifies error as Joe Bloggs's answers, the relative attractiveness of different answers in the context of item difficulty.

A quick trip back to the café and a sentence or two more, and the passage was complete.

On the multiblog The Wall of Education today is my entry on another subject, Russ Whitehead Doesn't Know Daniel. Unfortunately, Jack wasn't available to be ignored by Dr. Whitehead.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 4:21 PM (Permalink) |

July 19, 2006

On compromises and bedfellows

A cautionary tale today in the NYTimes today on how federal abstinence-only sex education mandates warp state policymaking. Here is where the Clinton-era Welfare Reform Act in 1996 shows the worst side of political compromises: because the 1996 act created federal support for abstinence-only sex education as a categorical program, it created a foothold for the exclusion of comprehensive sex education (where you tell the teens not to have sex then, why not to have sex then, how to resist pressures for sex, and also give them information about contraceptives and disease prevention).

That doesn't mean that compromises are always bad. Far from it. But Clinton's signing the welfare reform act was done for the worst reason (an unnecessary political calculation), and because of that, a bunch of bad things were included in that bill. The other really bad part of the law is the inability to follow up on families and children cut out of support. So we cannot say with certainty whether the so-called welfare reform actually improved people's lives on balance!

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Posted in Education policy at 10:12 AM (Permalink) |

July 18, 2006

Post-Bush education reform politics emerging

So what's with Morton Kondracke's column, which appeared in today's Detroit News (and presumably elsewhere)? Andrew Rotherham thinks the combination of financial reforms with performance-pay for teachers is the germ of a Grand Coalition on reforms.

Maybe.

Me, I notice there's nothing in there about school-level accountability, the heart of NCLB. Change in topics? Maneuvering room for the post-Bush years? What is true is that there are a number of organizations around the country who have an institutional stake in coming up with education policy proposals, so you're going to see education policy proposals floated on a regular basis (the policy stream bit that John Kingdon's model predicts).

So I see a few trial balloons floating up there. We'll probably see different trial balloons floated for different reasons (such as the House GOP's Grand Voucher bill that's DOA for 2006). Whether any stay afloat is a different question.

Update (7/22/06, and you don't want to know when): Rotherham responded, describing my point as that none of the ideas in play are very new. That wasn't my point (though I suppose it's true if Andy Rotherham says so). But it's too late at night/early in the morning for me to figure out if I am talking about the message or the messengers, and I suspect the answer is both: the spread of various ideas, regardless of who sponsors them, is an indication of the policy proposal process, not the politics that also comprise the broader context for policymaking.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:45 PM (Permalink) |

Boiling down the stratification literature

With a new doctoral student this fall, I advised that we arrange an independent reading course on stratification and institutions, because there is no doctoral-level course right now that fits the bill, and the breadth of topics pushed me to figure out the essential introduction to stratification (as one of four topics for the semester). I know the student has read Foucault and has independent ideas on inequalities, so the key thing is enough of an introduction so that anyone having completed the readings would know about structural-functionalist, conflict (including reproduction and resistance in education), human capital, signaling, and networking models. We get into new institutionalism later in the semester, but I think this is a reasonable stab...


  • Ralph H. Turner, “Sponsored and Contest Mobility and the School System,” American Sociological Review 25 (1960), 855-67.
  • Randall, Collins, “Functional and Conflict Theories of Educational Stratification,” American Sociological Review 36 (1971), 1002-1019.
  • Henry Giroux, “Theories of Reproduction and Resistance in the New Sociology of Education: A Critical Analysis,” Harvard Educational Review 53 (1983), 257-93.
  • James E. Rosenbaum, Takehito Kariya, Rick Settersten, and Tony Maier, Market and Network Theories of the Transition from High School to Work: Their Application to Industrialized Societies,” Annual Review of Sociology 16 (1990), 263-99.
  • Charles Tilly, Durable Inequality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

Though Foucault's Discipline and Punish is commonly read as his work most obviously relevant to education, A History of Sexuality (the slim volume) has a more digestible discussion of power in general. The readings head off into other territories later in the semester.

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Posted in Teaching at 11:28 AM (Permalink) |

In which I mention John Lombardi, Philip Kotler, and Ernest Boyer in the same paragraph

Today's John Lombardi column at Inside Higher Ed continues a discussion of the tensions of higher education that I had described a week before. Lombardi uses a marketing metaphor to explain how tuition cost-shifting over the past generation has pushed colleges and universities to cater more to students. He does so far more effectively than the facile uses of "marketing" that all of us are familiar with. Then again, as an historian who belongs to the Social Science History Association, I'm a sucker for someone who uses social-science concepts to explain change. Lombardi's central conceit—the notion of multiple consumers—is not new; an early edition of Philip Kotler's basic marketing-management text made the same point years ago. But it's useful to have the idea put into language some will find easier to digest. And it's always nice to have someone refer to my column as "helpful commentary." In the selfish career part of my brain, this episode gets categorized as the "scholarship of application," a la Boyer (1990).

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Posted in Education policy at 7:17 AM (Permalink) |

July 16, 2006

Making sense of expertise

I'm back to rolling on the book today—deleted some outline stuff, but I added about 5-6 pages, the organization is much more clear (I hope!), and I know much more clearly where I'm going with the rest of the chapter.

Most of what I added today concerned the birth of a testing industry as part of the growth of expert professions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One notable trait of professions, as many have observed (and I'm racking my brains to think of a few I might link to), is that professionals often have more of an affinity to their peers in other organizations than to immediate coworkers or their workplace. So historians think of themselves as historians and gather together with historians in other universities rather than gather with engineers. This is an oversimplification, of course, but there is one functional truth to this conventional wisdom: expertise is helpful in both managing and controlling inter-organizational tasks.

And that's one of the open secrets of education: public schools are often as much about their relationships with contractors as about what happens inside a classroom. This set of relationships includes the test industry. I know that David Tyack disparaged it as an "interlocking directorate," and he had a point, but I think he could have gone further if he had looked at that phenomenon a little more analytically. It sounds remarkably like the classic "iron-triangle" relationship popular among political scientists (or that was popular among them a few decades ago).

And now... off the laptop for a bit.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 5:16 PM (Permalink) |

The politics of composite scales

The logjam is gone now, at least for chapter 2, thanks to a discussion with a classroom teacher (my wife). Talking the ideas over last night made me realize I had been dancing around the central dilemma of relying on tests: The same qualities that satisfy technical requirements for psychometrics distance us from knowing concretely what children do. As someone with statistical training, I know all the advantages of test construction that leads to a composite scale that ranks individuals in a consistent fashion. (Here, it doesn't matter particularly whether we are ranking individuals against each other or against a particular standard.)

Yet such a composite scale cannot be the basis for a transparent accountability system. As far as I am aware, no test currently used by any state—nor NAEP—can tell us how many 9-year-olds know their multiplication tables. We can quibble all we want about whether such a statistic captures what we want of children's knowledge of math—thus, the advantage of a composite scale—yet turning achievement into a composite scale creates a distance between what children do and what we know about their skills. Imagine for a second if we did have such knowledge: we'd probably debate whether knowing multiplication tables is a reasonable goal for 9-year-olds, where we should want automaticity in arithmetic, whether multiplication tables say anything about math as a more complex subject in general, etc. That debate would be raucous, splintered, and absolutely appropriate for a democracy. That we don't have such a debate about expectations impoverishes us and our schools.

Focusing on different aspects of testing—the sociology of knowledge (e.g., Noel Wilson's critique of psychometrics), how test construction provides an opening for test-prep, the political legacy of IQ tests, etc.—is important, and I will address several in the chapter, but I needed someone to push me on the central issues. Thanks, Elizabeth!

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:42 AM (Permalink) |

July 15, 2006

John Kingdon and accountability

John Kingdon's Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (1984) is now a classic in political science and policy analysis, arguing that issues attain policy salience when the streams of publicly-recognized problems, policy solutions, and politics intersect. My colleagues Larry Johnson and Kathy Borman used Kingdon's framework to analyze higher-ed politics in Florida (and the temporary absence of a statewide governing board for our universities here).

Kingdon's contribution to policy analysis is the framework he provides for analyzing contingency in policy creation and the adept way that his argument handles the existence of policy entrepreneurs. I've been trying to figure out why Kingdon's approach still doesn't appeal to me with long-term questions such as the shape of high-stakes accountability, and I think I have it (though I should look in the poli sci literature to see who has more sophisticated critiques): Kingdon's framework alone cannot easily explain long-term patterns in a political system. Why doesn't the United States have a European-like welfare state? Theda Skocpol's classic Protecting Soldiers and Mothers has plenty of contingency, but I don't think she cited Kingdon at all. You think about problem, solution, and politics streams and ... rrrrrgggggg. Nothing there on the long-term radar screen. There certainly have been policy entrepreneurs, as the new-institutionalism literature points out, but Kingdon's analysis doesn't necessarily point in a single direction for the long term. There's nothing wrong in that, of course, but it's a limitation.

Time to read Julian Zelizer's 2004 article on political science and history, I think. There are plenty of syllabi with both Kingdon and the new institutionalists (e.g., a 2000 policy course syllabus at the University of Illinois at Chicago), so I suspect the relationship between the two hasn't been ignored.

Practically speaking, for me the question is the degree of contingency in the development of high-stakes accountability systems. Kingdon's approach doesn't quite ring true here, but I should be able to wring something useful out of it, and I can't quite yet.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:29 AM (Permalink) |

July 14, 2006

Las Vegas graduate bets on a change of opinion(s)

Brittany McComb, this year's valedictorian at a Las Vegas-area high school, has filed a lawsuit againt Clark County school officials for shutting off her microphone when she started a part of her draft speech that the principal and other officials judged to be proselytization.

From a 2000 9th-circuit opinion, Cole v. Oroville Union High School, and a U.S. Supreme Court decision the same year, Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, I suspect this case will be thrown out, but it will be one of those situations where where understandable reasoning results in an unfortunate result.


The relevant 2000 decision from the 9th circuit court involved two students, one selected to give a nondenominational invocation who clearly wanted to proselytize, and another selected to give a full speech who school officials inferred would give a proselytizing speech. The 9th circuit decided that the case had been mooted by the students' graduation but wrote on the merits anyway. In both situations—the invocation and the student graduation speech—the court decided that the context of a graduation conferred official recognition on whatever a student might do, and it was a reasonable use of school authority to vet the content of speeches.

I agree with the reasoning for the case of an invocation, but not with general student addresses. There is in such ceremonies one invocation, and it really does represent an official viewpoint. But there are two reasons why the "implied imprimatur" conclusion doesn't hold for graduation speeches: a ceremony is not restricted to one, and no one could possibly assume that school officials approve of everything an adolescent might say at the microphone.

First, the sole-speech assumption. If the valedictorian is going to say something controversial, a school official can either decide to censor it or to invite someone else to give a speech with a decidedly different perspective. The graduates and others in the audience might even learn something from the exchange.

Second, the silliness of the assumed benediction of a graduation speech. Typically, graduation speeches are either fluffy (recalling silly activities that the students will remember) or full of platitudes and a set of gratitudes longer than Academy-Award winners. Surely, no one can assume that a principal approves of giggling over recollections of minor pranks. And in the rarer cases when students say something unusual and provocative, one again would not assume that the principal approves of anything other than letting the chosen graduate air a set of thoughtful views.

I generally bend towards a strong wall separating church and state, but I don't see the need to sanitize graduation speeches. What censorship says to students who are entering adulthood undermines virtually everything that we're supposed to be teaching them in school. There are reasonable precautions that one can take to avoid the implicit official imprimatur of religion without censorship.

In this case, the Cole case is binding precedent, because Nevada is within the 9th-circuit jurisdiction. Surely the lawyers helping Ms. McComb know that, and so this case is either a long-shot suit or to be used for political purposes—and probably both.

(Hat tip to School Me.)

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Posted in Education policy at 6:54 PM (Permalink) |

Rice University breaks the mold in university publishing

I'm delighted to hear that Rice University is restarting its refereed university press as an online-only enterprise with print-on-demand options. I hope this provides a demonstration of the enormous stability of online publishing costs—no worries about printer costs to force presses to figure out what they can publish. The primary costs will be in the reviewing process and the compositing. And those are not negligible, certainly, but they're rationally related to what should be the priority of university presses (finding the best monographs to print).

July 13, 2006

The welfare state includes the military

I had a discussion with a doctoral student this afternoon about a directed-reading course for the fall, and I was explaining that the welfare state reached across different organizations and sectors. When financial advisors explained about the three-legged retirement support structure (Social Security, pensions, and private savings), they're talking about welfare. When we say that education is a way to address poverty, we're talking about a welfare state.

In many ways, the military has functioned as part of the welfare state. Patrick Kelly's Creating a National Home: Building the Veterans' Welfare State 1860-1900 (1997) lay the groundwork for that analysis after Theda Skocpol's work, Penn State historian Jennifer Mittelstadt is researching the All-Volunteer Force as a welfare-state component, and Barbara Ehrenreich has critiqued the military from a welfare-state standpoint, and there's Tristram Coffin's The Armed Society (1964, I think?), which discusses militarism as a welfare state.

But I don't know of anyone (other than Ehrenreich, and she only in a cursory way) has raised the question of how the attack on the various parts of the American welfare state has affected the military. As Joel Spring argued 30 years ago, military policy from WW2 through the late 1960s was a de facto national education policy, given the structure of deferments, G.I. benefits, and the changing training and education requirements. But G.I. benefits are no longer as generous as they once were, the activation of the reserves for the last few wars and the Iraqi occupation has drained the resources of thousands of families, and I wonder how many soldiers' families are eligible for food stamps. A great study for someone who wants to take it on: How have the last five years reshaped the military's role in the American welfare state? And for the rest of the citizenry, it's a fairly important question, too.

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Posted in History at 5:36 PM (Permalink) |

RAND researchers estimate Pittsburgh graduation, call for confirmed/audited withdrawal codes

John Engberg and Brian Gill's new study of Pittsburgh graduation rates estimates a longitudinal 5-year graduation rate by assuming that transfers have the same risk of graduation/dropping out as those who stay in the system. They also repeat my call for documentation and auditing of transfer exit codes. And their report is getting flack from the Pittsburgh board.

Hat-tip to Andrew Rotherham.

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Posted in Research at 3:30 PM (Permalink) |

Increasing graduation, part III

I've discussed in-school issues in two earlier entries on increasing graduation (part I, part II). This morning, I'll write a bit on the historical push-pull relationship between schools and labor markets. To focus entirely on what happens inside a school does not fully explain the trends in high school attendance over the past century. Teen attendance and graduation rose over the first two-thirds of the twentieth century with two exceptions (the two world wars), and then graduation with a standard diploma hit a plateau sometime in the 1960s/70s (though we're not exactly sure when that plateau began). While many things changed about schools, the best fit with that data is not what happened inside schools but how the teen labor market changed. The reciprocal relationship between schools and work has real consequences for increasing graduation, though few talk about it.


Here's the gist of the story: as teenagers found full-time work more scarce in the first half of the twentieth century, high school absorbed their time. The only exceptions were wartime labor shortages, when that general trend was temporarily reversed. (High school attendance dropped for girls as well as boys in the early 1940s, so the drop is not explained well by enlistments.) At the same time, the increasing labor-market rewards for high school attendance increased incentives to remain, first for girls seeking clerical jobs and later for all teens. The result was a fairly clear message: stay in school because you can't get a full-time job anyway and you have a better chance at one later.

But in the last third of the century, teens found increasing opportunities in part-time labor. The data on this is not crystal clear, but it suggests that the reorganization of work in the U.S. began to exploit or maybe "work with" the targeting of teens as consumers. Retail outlets and fast-food joints became the management of revolving-door employment. To teens, "dead-end jobs" provided cash for cars, dates, and consumer goods. What's not to like about that, in the short term?

There are two obvious concerns. One is a matter of ideas: what looks like the proliferation of part-time work broke the message that had been created in the first half of the twentieth century. With jobs available in high school, there wasn't the most visible choice anymore of the world of school vs. the world of work. Yes, such a tradeoff was a creation of the early 20th century and not true for everyone. But today, a significant number of high-school students work: 17% of 16-year-old students, 30% of 17-year-old high-school students, and 36% of 18-year-old high school students worked in the spring of 2005, according to the March 2005 Current Population Survey. Technically, that's the proportion who were reported as working the week before the survey, and so the actual percentages are going to be a bit higher if you asked what proportion worked at some point during the academic year. The message my parents told us when growing up—your job is school—isn't the modal view when a good chunk of students are working in a single week in March. (Incidentally, if you want to get quick tabulations from the various Census Bureau surveys, I highly recommend the Data Ferrett program, which is free.)

The second concern we should have is the real tradeoff between substantial work and schoolwork. The small literature on work during school hours suggests that there is a benefit to a limited number of hours: Up to about 15 hours of work per week has tangible benefits for teen students. I suspect this benefit is related to the need to be a little more organized when you juggle school, work, and other commitments. But beyond 15 hours, the studies I've read suggest there are real harms—work hours crowd in on schoolwork, exhaust students, and begin the process of disengagement. All of those complaints about high-school students who sleep through morning classes? Some of that may be teens who party or IM through the wee hours, but a good chunk are students who are trying to work.
Of all 16-year-old students reported by the March 2005 Current Population Survey, 6 percent had worked more than 15 hours the prior week. That proportion jumps to 13 percent of 17-year-old high school students and 24 percent of 18-year-old high school students—who are in the senior year if "on track" for graduation or who may be edging away from school if not.

I don't know of any data source for the hours that teens work, but there are relatively few restrictions on teens' working late at night and trying to go to school early the next day. The variety in state regulations on schoolnight working hours show some of the absurdities of labor regulation for high-school students. Some states have no regulations on when 16- and 17-year-olds can work before a school day. Even those who do have some restrictions only have lax regulations, allowing teens to work until 10 or 11 at night. Pennsylvania allows 16- and 17-year-olds to work until midnight; Louisiana allows 17-year-olds to work until midnight; Massachusetts allows restaurant workers to stay until midnight; and Wyoming allows girls to work until midnight and has no time-of-day restrictions for boys (I guess boys don't need their beauty rest?).

When looking at this data, one is tempted to say one way of increasing graduation would be to restrict the hours that 16- and 17-year-olds can work, both total in a week (no more than 15 hours, if one would follow the existing research) and how late they can work at night (and as a parent, I'd put 9 pm as a reasonable end-point). But there are some problems with such measures, as crudely stated. First, the enforcement of child-labor laws target employers, not the teens—and I could easily see a teen evading a 15-hour restriction by working 14 hours for one employer, 10 hours for another, etc. Second, a 9 pm working limit for 16- and 17-year-olds could harm students who work to get away from gang cultures in their neighborhoods. The call from the National Research Council (1998) for more data collection on teen employment is especially important for disentangling such complicated situations. Unfortunately, I don't know of any actual implementation of those recommendations, so I don't know of better data sources.

I could imagine some tweaking of things like curfews and child-labor laws to minimize overworking teens, but the tweaking needs to be clever. Some not-very-clever ideas with putative but admittedly speculative theories of action:

  • Regulation of child labor should focus more on parents, who should know when and where their children are working. Employers do have to report wages to both federal agencies (Social Security and income-tax withholding) and also to state agencies (unemployment-insurance records), and there easily could be a system to report to parents simultaneously information about work hours along with how the student is doing in school. If you want parents to act based on information, make the feedback as connected as possible: grades along with extracurricular-activity time and work time. (I'm sure some enterprising company is going to sign a few "helicopter parents" up for GPS-and-grade reports.)
  • Graduated driver licenses for minors (such as hours restrictions on when 16-year-olds can drive, restrictions on driving with teens, maybe even raising the license age to 17) might reduce the incentive to work for car expenses and make teens think a little more carefully about working late at night, in addition to saving lives.
  • There could be a more generous minimum-break requirement for employers who hire teens to work after 8 pm. I suppose a reasonable requirement (from a school perspective) would be that employers need to provide an unpaid break of one hour studying time for every two hours of work, and there would also need to be space at the worksite where teen workers could study. The main cost to employers here would be providing space for studying, but I suspect many would be happy to support teens' schooling (and I really don't care about those who only want to exploit teens).

But those are just initial ideas. Unfortunately, the connection between teen work and school performance is largely ignored. That obliviousness has to end if we're to move beyond talking about a graduation-rate crisis, no matter what its magnitude.

Selected readings:

Apel et al., A Job Isn't Just a Job, Crime & Delinquency (2006). This article addresses the possible flow of teens into the informal labor market if there are more restrictions in the formal labor market.

Greenberger & Steinberg, When Teenagers Work: The Psychological and Social Costs of Adolescent Employment (1986). This is the classic work on teen employment.

National Research Council, Protecting Youth at Work (1998) (Executive Summary). Many of the recommendations here parallel the reasoning above—and have been largely ignored, as far as I'm aware.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:17 AM (Permalink) |

The subtler points of charter schools and teachers unions

So I'm coming late to the "party" on the firing of Nichole Byrne Lau from a New York charter school. (More discussion by Leo Casey, AFT's NCLBlog, Andrew Rotherham, Joe Williams, and Sara Mead.) There are a few aspects here that haven't been covered yet, I think:


  • Conversion charter schools that were unionized before conversion should remain unionized afterward. We had a similar case in higher-ed a few years ago in Florida, and the courts ruled firmly that the attempt to break up a union by reorganizing the system is not legitimate. My colleagues and I did the same work, with the same job titles, as before. If teachers are still in the classroom, in the same building, but the name on the front changes, that doesn't eliminate the teachers' prior decision to be represented. I know this doesn't affect the case in question, but there are states with substantial numbers of conversion charter schools.
  • It is not entirely clear whether unionization rules in charter schools come under state public-employee laws or the National Labor Relations Act. They're quasi-public entities, after all, receiving public funds, and in many states they're treated similarly to public schools in some aspects (if not all). For example, teachers in Florida charter schools have to be certified (something that is not true for private schools).
  • There is a danger in charter schools that either side could outpower the other. I could imagine a strong union sending staff to help out with the first set of negotiations in some areas that could overwhelm a small management negotiating team, but I could also imagine a chain of EMOs sending union-busting lawyers to diddle away time at the negotiating table. My recommended solution:
    • Card-check path to automatic recognition, set at 55% of the bargaining unit.
    • The first negotiation for a collective bargaining agreement should automatically bring a mediator, to eliminate any power differentials.
    • To prevent distractions and a waste of time, there should be a time limit on the first set of negotiations, with binding arbitration after that deadline.
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Posted in Education policy at 12:08 AM (Permalink) |

July 12, 2006

The trouble with Kevin Barrett

So after considerable pressure by politicians and talk radio, the University of Wisconsin-Madison will not be summarily dismissing religious studies adjunct Kevin Barrett, who believes that 9/11 was a conspiracy of non-religious, Machievellian-Straussian cynics who believe that hatred and hostility are what move the world. After the provost's statement, Barrett appeared on Fox News's Hannity and Colmes, which I suppose shows that the best way for someone with a Ph.D. to get air time is to be a total nutter.


The analysis of this case is made harder by the fact that 9/11 is a marginal part of the course Islam: Religion and Culture but not entirely outside it. According to Inside Higher Ed, his doctorate is in "African language, literature, and folklore," which overlaps with the course he's teaching, but it's not as though either Islam or terrorism is in his area of expertise. But it's also not exactly true, as Ann Althouse claims, that Barrett's hiring was as "if we [UW-Madison had] found someone hired to teach evolution was a young earth creationist planning to devote a week of his course to his theory."

Some, including Althouse, have raised questions about whether Holocaust deniers, rabid White supremacists, etc., would be allowed to teach. There is the occasional racist whose academic freedom is protected—for example, Glayde Whitney, the late psychologist at Florida State University whose writings were clearly supremacist. However, those situations are usually about statements made outside the classroom. If the whole course were about 9/11, then conspiracy claims would constitute incompetence in one's area of supposed expertise. Someone who teaches European history is incompetent when they claim that the Holocaust never happened. But 9/11 isn't the core of the course.

I think the fundamental problem, as Ralph Luker has noted, is that Barrett is teaching outside his area of expertise. He should not have been hired as an adjunct to teach something that's tangential to his training, which is the case if the reporting is correct. If he were teaching a course in African culture, he wouldn't have a reason to talk about 9/11 in class and who cares what he said on Hannity & Colmes in that case.

What's very troubling, and unremarked, is that the UW-Madison provost engaged in an ad-hoc investigation primarily to address the embarrassment factor, and if UW-Madison had fired Barrett, it would have been for embarrassing UW, for the most part. I don't care that the provost decided not to take further action; his choice was foolish from the start. The better course, by far, would have been to say something like the following: "We have a contract with Dr. Barrett, and unless there is clear evidence that he intends to breach his contract, it's not a wise use of university resources to engage in an in-depth investigation of his teaching. It would also be a problematic step for any administrator to interfere in classroom teaching at a university without extraordinary evidence of irreparable harm to students or their education. On the other hand, there have been concerns raised about the expertise of Dr. Barrett with regard to the course, and we have an obligation to our students and accrediting agency to make sure that adjunct instructors truly are experts in the courses they teach. My office will shortly begin a review of university procedures to make sure that all adjuncts have the appropriate expertise and meet our accreditation standards."

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

July 11, 2006

Increasing graduation, Part II

Last week, I did not include one important idea in discussing ways to increase graduation with in-school steps: credit-recovery programs, to allow students to earn high-school credits in a more intensive environment. Unfortunately, while the idea sounds good in abstract, I haven't seen any substantive evaluative research, just anecdotal stories or research in a credit-recovery environment that doesn't address the value of the program. I'd be very curious to see solid research on it.

And now, back to being a galley slave—or transferring the editing changes from one set of galleys to the master galley set to return to the publisher. This is for the edited volume, Education Reform in Florida, which will be out later this year or early next year (just in time for the inauguration of Florida's next governor). There are a few points where I've winced from the "I can't change this phrasing at this point" phenomenon, but I'll mention such errata in a separate post.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:34 AM (Permalink) |

July 10, 2006

Spam translated into Valley Speak

While I'm recovering from a weekend camping trip, I'll provide a translation of info-service spam e-mail into Valley Speak (my high school cohort's putative SoCal lingo) via the inevitably flawed but fun internet filter:

After readin' your blog, fer shure, it is clear that education is like wow! an issue you care about. As your commentary becomes a part of history, oh, baby, you are well aware that it is like wow! intrinsic to stay informed and up to date. Like, ya know, this is where we come in.

Now, don't you wish all your spam came translated thusly?

Note: My only high school acquaintance who spoke true Valley Girl lived in Tustin, far from the Fernando Valley. And today, that is far removed from the early 80s in demographics and culture. The Sherman Oaks Galleria closed before the century's end, and the mall rats are now middle-aged.

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Posted in Random comments at 12:46 AM (Permalink) |

July 6, 2006

IHE column on the Spellings comission draft

If you followed the link to my blog after reading my Inside Higher Ed column, How To Succeed in Report Writing without Really Making Sense, welcome! Feel free to continue debating the ideas in the comments here. And look around—I write blog entries on education policy, academic freedom, my own research, and various other matters. There's an Atom RSS feed available (and other feed flavors a few screens down on the left).

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Posted in Academic freedom at 12:53 AM (Permalink) |

Increasing graduation rates, Part I

I've written enough recently about measuring graduation—as others have noted, it's time to talk about improving it. My perspective is that one must understand the difference between in-school and out-of-school pressures on students. Students are both pushed out of school in different ways and also pulled into other things. With that in mind, the first section (today's) focuses on steps schools can take to improve the odds of teens' graduating (and doing so with some academic skills).


  1. Graduation requirements: from the research, it looks like course requirements are at least as big a barrier as graduation exams, and the best way to handle that is professional development, professional development, professional development for middle-school and 9th-grade teachers. I have serious concerns about states with graduation exams, and the evidence of what such a test actually does is unclear, but trying to get rid of it is like swimming upstream in the Columbia River: a challenge at best. I suspect it's better to spend one's energies elsewhere.
  2. Pregnancies and kids when in school: obviously, preventing teen pregnancies is best (though teen pregnancy rates have gone down fairly regularly over the past 40 years, paralleling declining fertility in general). Schools can help with on-site day care, though it's best to pitch that as a way to attract and retain teachers and staff, not just as dropout prevention. (The word "dropout prevention" puts a death sentence on almost any school practice. If you have grant money for it, it survives, and then it dies.)
  3. Behavior issues in school: Kids lose enormous time when they're pulled out of classes or are suspended for their behavior. Some districts have shifted the response from out-of-school suspension to in-school suspension, which is one good step. Bottom line: when behavior is dangerous, and students must be removed from the regular classroom, education cannot stop. Schools should and can also take preventive steps, which will vary by grade level. Elementary schools can have fairly simple school-wide behavior plans that emphasize a lot of explicit education about specific social/behavior issues, a lot of praising good behavior, and a little bit of individualized plans for students who have the most troubles keeping their behavior appropriate. For elementary schools, especially, all adults in the school should have the power to reward students whose behavior is especially thoughtful. For older students, being praised by the principal on announcements just isn't enough, and pencils (or similar concrete rewards) will be seen as a cheap gimmick. But older students can help design social-behavior education, especially in schools with multilingual populations.
  4. States should identify and end all gaming-the-system incentives for schools to kick students out of school—the odd ways that school funding or accountability encourages triage and pushing students out. Students whose actions indicate that they are a danger to themselves or others are one thing. (See the education should not stop point above.) But most suspensions are a little different.
Of course, the personal connections that some adults make with students can help, but you can't really bottle that. Policy ideas that I don't think help with graduation (regardless of other potential merits):
  • Vocational education. Here, I am not going to address other arguments about vocational education (or career education, tech-prep, or other synonyms one may have heard or read), but there is an argument that's about a century old, the claim that kids leave school because they're not offered a practical education. That argument confuses what happens inside schools with what happens outside schools. If a teen thinks that she or he can make a living by dropping out and taking a full-time job immediately, then a shop, cosmetology, or other program will be largely irrelevant, because the main consideration is the perceived opportunity cost of staying in school. To address that issue, one must reduce the visible opportunity cost of staying in school, by acting outside the school's walls.
  • Dropout-to-GED programs. This idea is about 15 years old, and I think I saw the first reference to a NYC school program. This idea never made sense to me—you tell a student, "Drop out. Get a GED." If you convince the student to leave, your school is no longer responsible for that teen. In Florida, the school graduation rate goes up in two potential ways, by removing the dropout from the list of those the school's responsible for, and then potentially adding a GED. I don't know if there are any published statistics about the GED success rates of dropout-to-GED programs in general. In any case, there's clear economic evidence that GEDs are not true equivalents for standard diplomas. (Caveat: this argument does not address the social meaning of GEDs or the small number of teens who may be using a GED to accelerate college admissions. I am concerned with the belief that taking a student in trouble and convincing her or him to drop out is somehow a way to increase graduation rates.)
  • Creating something explicitly labeled dropout prevention. In more than 40 years of policies aimed at dropout prevention, I have seen several waves of such dropout prevention programs, and in every case, I know of too many programs that had no constituency with political leverage because they were labeled as dropout prevention. Somehow, the budget cycle at both the state and national levels winnow out such programs with regularity. Repeatedly in the last 40 years, programs labeled dropout prevention have grown up on the margins of school systems, remained marginalized, and died on the margins. You don't usually keep a program running by saying, "Let's design something for the students in trouble, with no secure funding source, and where there is no one with political power to defend it."
But those are my bullheaded thoughts. Tell me what you think schools can do! (What policies outside schools might help is the second half of this discussion.)
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Posted in Education policy at 12:23 AM (Permalink) |

July 5, 2006

Helping Reg Weaver break the rules

Monday, I played a very small part in one of those parliamentary procedures that you usually think is a block to action—a point of order asking the chair to correct a mistake. But it turned out to be a way for a minority of delegates at the NEA Representative Assembly to dissent from the majority decision to press for a reform of No Child Left Behind.


Remember for a moment that the Representative Assembly is probably the world's largest deliberative body, more than 9,000 educational employees operating according to Roberts' Rules of Order. For that to happen, there is a complex system of communication inside the hall allowing the proper priority to be set. For the last three days, I sat about 7 feet away from a telephone on a speaking podium. When someone wanted to speak from that podium (microphone 34, in the California delegation on the bleachers), they filled out a green form indicating their location, name, state, and details regarding what they wanted to do. I was one of the volunteers who called the stage from these microphone locations, and a set of volunteers was on the stage, copying the information as I and other volunteers read it to them. Then, based on what the delegate wanted to do, the relevant slip on the stage was sorted, resorted, and presented to Reg Weaver in the proper order.

Monday, there was a bit of miscommunication because there were two items for discussion about NCLB. One was the "ESEA Positive Agenda," and the other was the "ESEA Strategy." But many delegates didn't know that there were two items and just wrote "ESEA Report," or would have unless we reminded them of the two items and asked for clarification. I was away from the microphone, and a delegate from California (Carol) wrote down that she wanted to speak to the ESEA report, and my fellow volunteer at the microphone called it in as written. We're supposed to do that, generally, and what should have happened is that the person on the stage answering the call should have asked for clarification. But that didn't happen, and although Carol (and two others) wanted to speak against the positive agenda (i.e., what NEA wants to happen with reauthorization), all of the con-speaking slips were put into the strategy pile (i.e., how NEA would enact its agenda for reauthorization).

So when debate closed on the first, Carol was quite upset. She received advice to fill in a form to make a point of order, and I called it in. After discussion started on the strategy, suddenly Reg Weaver's voice boomed out, "microphone 34, Carol [last name], point of order," bright spotlights flooded the podium in front of me, and Carol had to think on her feet. After hearing the point of order, Weaver said that there were three con-speaking slips at the podium, and that while he normally shouldn't do this, he would allow those speakers to talk for the regularly-allotted time (2 minutes each for delegates speaking as individuals). (Technically, he wasn't breaking the rules, since he was correcting an error, but he said he was, so I suppose I played a small part in helping him break rules.)

The relevant point is this: Carol and the others were arguing against any reauthorization of NCLB at all, not just a reform. A number of NEA members had been circulating petitions to that point and sporting stickers that read Eliminate NCLB. (I had wondered at the origin of the stickers for the first day of the meeting, but no one I asked connected it to the petitions.) In other words, they were accountability nihilists, and this was their chance to talk. And when the vote came on the second part of discussion (the strategy), the nihilists had their chance to demonstrate numbers. There certainly were several hundred delegates voting no on the strategy, but the vast majority voted for it. And when Carol proposed an amendment to the NEA's legislative plan yesterday (Tuesday), to call for the limination of NCLB, the nihilists once more had an opportunity to explain their viewpoint and demonstrate their strength, and once more the clear majority voted against accountability nihilism. The tenor of the response to the nihilists was captured by California Teachers Association President Barbara Kerr, who explained Monday that while she thinks NCLB has sucked the joy out of teaching, she wanted a constructive response, not whinging. (Okay, she didn't use the word whinging, but she was being polite.)

So, on the whole, I'm glad Reg Weaver broke the rules and Carol had a chance both Monday and yesterday to present the accountability nihilists' POV, because it allowed the view of the majority to become clear. And the majority of NEA delegates were not accountability nihilists, despite their frustrations with the law.

While there are quite a few other discussions, I'll just say that the other excitement at microphone 34 was yesterday afternoon, when California delegates Adia and Jeff, and Florida delegate Christine, pointed out that the NEA was not providing closed captioning on all screens. Technically, that failure violates NEA's own rules, but I think the staff was having a hard time putting the captioning on the huge projection screens in the hall. At the beginning of the meeting Sunday, closed captioning was only on a few monitors near a separate section for delegates with disabilities, and Adia's informal complaints brought closed captioning to all regular televisions used around the hall as monitors. But not to the huge screens.

And the shuttle launch briefly interrupted proceedings, as many delegates had wanted to watch it on the screens. Yes, meetings such as this one is one part organizational stuff, one part pageantry. (Other pageantry bits: speeches by the national teacher of the year, national educational support professional of the year, and a commemoration of the NEA-ATA merger 40 years ago. In past administrations, the president or at least education secretary has spoken to NEA, but not in recent years.)

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Posted in Education policy at 12:21 AM (Permalink) |

July 2, 2006

NEA Representative Assembly, day 1

It'a after 10 pm, and I'll be kicked out of this café in about ten minutes, so my ideas about improving graduation will have to wait. The day at the NEA representative assembly was long, whether you were a volunteer who woke up in Tampa at 5:15 am and stayed in the convention center until 7:30 pm or so, or a delegate who went to a state caucus at 7 am before coming to the convention center. I discovered there were even more caucuses than I had seen before (both major parties, a peace-and-justice as well as a veterans caucus, etc.). And the mostly K-12 crowd knows how to be rowdy. (Let's just say I was glad I brought earplugs for a few interludes.)

Not much earthshaking in terms of public policy was discussed. Oh, NEA President Reg Weaver's address was fiery at points, but nothing was new in terms of NEA positions. (Yeah—he switched positions entirely and announced that he loved the current version of No Child Left Behind, and the delegates were entirely with him on that. Joke, folks! Please clean up that keyboard, okay?) It was part ceremony, part organizational business, and part affirmation of existing values for NEA.

There is an underlying current of hostility towards NCLB, though—and the big surprise is that Weaver didn't talk about AYP at all. The notion of expertise-managed reform struck a resonant note, and that was a definitely surprise (that it was emphasized over AYP and the teacher-quality standards). That's... very interesting. I'll have to see what I can tease out of that over the next few days, in terms of observation.

And now, back to the hotel. Have a great holiday, everyone!

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Posted in Random comments at 10:19 PM (Permalink) |

July 1, 2006

NEA Representative Assembly volunteering

I drove about 3-1/2 hours today, back and forth to Orlando for my orientation session at the National Education Association Representative Assembly, which starts its official sessions tomorrow. I'll be at a microphone station tomorrow through Tuesday, but it seemed silly to go to a morning orientation session and spend the night there when I could as easily drive back home, turn around, wake up at 5:15 tomorrow morning to drive back, and have half a day more with my family.

After the orientation session and lunch, I walked through the exhibit hall. There are the usual booths you'd expect—on insurance, on different disciplines, on various gadgets good and bad (the most clever simple idea: a hard-plastic cover to go over a flat desk and that can take dry-erase marker), as well as the sponsors' booths (such as a satellite-TV company, where about a dozen others and I watched the overtime and penalty kicks of the England-Portugal game). There were a bunch of empty booths (in terms of no teachers being interested). And there were the consumer-item booths (massage recliners and foot stuff seemed popular, as were clothing and jewelry). Then there were the affinity-interest groups, such as the women's interest caucus, the NEA Democratic caucus, and a bunch of others—and, lest you think the NEA is one-sided, there's the Educators for Life caucus and a Creation Science caucus (the latter of which makes me wince).

The most interesting, which I'm not sure enough appreciate, is the booth commemorating the 40th anniversary of the merger of the NEA and the American Teachers Association, the former Black teachers association in the years of legal segregation... and for 12 years after Brown v. Board.

I don't know if I'll have internet access there... I'm sure I'll have to pay for it unless I go somewhere with either my particular cell-phone company's hotspot. Maybe there'll be a cybercafe for the convention. (There is at the Florida Education Association delegate assembly.)

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Posted in Random comments at 5:59 PM (Permalink) |

Semipenultimate thoughts on graduation rates (includes Losen response to Mishel)

I'm acting one more (and last) time as a messenger/archivist for the discussion over graduation rates. Attached is a response by Dan Losen to Larry Mishel, after both of them (and Joydeep Roy) had commented extensively on a prior entry on graduation rates.

Now that we've come to the end of this round of debate, let me separate the different issues and lay out my judgment. (And, I promise, I'll discuss practical solutions tomorrow.)


  1. National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS) as a data source. Mishel and Roy use this as evidence that high-school graduation is likely to be higher than what Greene, Swanson, et al., have been saying. As any data collection would be, it has some flaws. I'm more concerned with the exclusion of students with disabilities and others in the baseline than others are, apparently, as well as the possibility that there were some cohort effects, with this group more likely to graduate than the next half-decade or so of eighth-grade cohorts. But I think that budges the graduation rate for NELS:88's cohort by 5-6%, maybe a bit more, in general, but not dramatically. Disaggregating by population group is more hazardous, I think. Big picture: Using NELS is counter-evidence of dramatically low graduation rates nationally from grade-enrollment-based data, not a substitute for keeping tabs on graduation more recently. So in the end, NELS:88 doesn't tell us much about graduation rates in 2003.
  2. Current Population Survey (CPS) as a data source. Because CPS does not survey institutionalized populations (biggest sources: prisons and the military), it's difficult to tell how that restricted universe biases data for subpopulations (most for African-American males, as Mishel et al. acknowledge, much less for most subgroups). The questions that CPS has asked about graduation have changed over the years, as have the sampling frames, making comparable estimates across long stretches of time more difficult. CPS could not get at geographic areas smaller than states, and the within-state subpopulation groups—eeek. Don't bet your life on their accuracy.
  3. Common Core of Data as a data source. As I've discussed before with the example of Detroit's 2002-03 enrollment data, the Common Core of Data is an unverified, unaudited database. Enough said, right?
  4. Using ninth-grade enrollments in graduation-rate formulae. As Rob Warren's 2005 article (PDF) and Larry Mishel and Joydeep Roy (2006) each explain, using ninth-grade enrollment in the rate formula conflates first-time enrollment in high school with ninth-grade retention. The direction of that bias is unclear. On the one hand, a large amount of retention might lead to an overestimate of the first-time ninth-grade population and thus a downward bias on graduation rates—when the preceding cohort(s) either had higher retention rates or higher cohort sizes. But there are certain conditions when retention might lead to an upward bias in graduation—when there is substantial eighth-grade (or earlier) retention and when the preceding cohorts had lower retention rates or lower cohort sizes. Essentially, it's a question of where the "lagging" part of the cohort is accounted and the relative sizes of those lags.
  5. Longitudinal graduation rates. In theory, they're better than the quasi-cohort measures proposed by Greene and Winters, the Boston College/Harvard group, or Warren or the quasi-period measure proposed by Swanson. But that's in theory. As I explained Thursday with regard to Florida, there are plenty of ifs in the trustworthiness of attempts at true cohort measures, from the definitions of what "transfer" codes count to the confirmation/auditing of records.

The whole thing is making folks like Miami Herald reporter Matt Pinzur cry AAAARRRRGH!!, but there are some solid statements we can make:

  • The current system of data collection is inadequate right now to providing a trustworthy graduation rate. (This should, incidentally, make us very nervous about relying on school statistics in general for high-stakes decisions. In theory, a graduation rate should be among the easiest statistics to calculate.) Even in states with student-level database experience, such as Florida or Texas, there are problems.
  • Using ninth-grade enrollment data is a poor decision. Even using eighth-grade enrollment, such as Warren does, needs to be checked with evidence about eighth-grade retention. I favor using birth year rather than first year in ninth grade as the cohort basis.
  • The whole ball o' wax (statistically speaking) goes down the drain if you don't have accurate migration statistics for the student population. This hasn't been part of the debate thus far, but it's something at the heart of the article manuscript I submitted last week. And the bias can go either way, incidentally: dropouts reported as transfers will inflate the graduation rate, but students who move in the summer without ever having the receiving school request a transcript (possible for ninth-graders who fail every course) would artificially deflate the graduation rate.

The best system would be an individual student-level database with built-in editing and confirmation steps as well as an annual system-wide audit of accuracy and surveys for population migration. From that, you can build almost any accurate rate and account for various things. Because people will disagree whether GEDs and other non-standard diplomas should count, states should provide multiple rates (including and excluding non-standard diplomas).

As I promised, either tomorrow or at the end of the NEA Representative Assembly (where I'm volunteering at microphone 34, in the middle of the California delegate seating in the bleachers), I'll talk about solutions—what we can do to improve the likelihood of teens graduating, without waving a magic wand.

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Posted in Research at 5:05 PM (Permalink) |