January 29, 2007

Travel and Blogging

Some folks can blog (or expand their blogging) while traveling. Me? I've just finished my second of three consecutive traveling weekends: one for an academic conference, one for the faculty union, and one for family. There are things happening during the travel that I'll blog in the near future (as well as the usual attractions to blogging), but for now I'm catching up on all the things I didn't do while traveling.

The main difference between now and work stress two years ago is that I have a few more coping/prioritizing skills. Unfortunately, gaining more experience does not expand the day, and extensive blogging will go by the wayside.

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Posted in Random comments at 6:23 AM (Permalink) |

January 26, 2007

Reasoning-free journalism/blogging

Wednesday's story by Pauline Vu, Lake Wobegone, U.S.A., and this afternoon's blog from Alexander Russo, States Not All Lowering AYP Standards, make a common enough blunder that one might expect from newbie state legislators, arguing that North Carolina's proficiency thresholds must be easy because you don't need to answer a high proportion of questions right to be proficient.  According to Vu:

By the state's yardstick, students had to answer correctly fewer than half the questions to pass. In some grades, they can flub two-thirds of the questions and still be marked "proficient."

While Vu's story is about the larger public-relations discrepancy between state judgments and AYP judgements (which are also state judgments passed through the AYP filter), the reasoning here is specious. Doesn't the judgment of the test's difficulty depend greatly on the difficulty of the items? Consider the Putnam Competition, the challenging college math exam where getting one or two problems right is wonderful. I'm not saying that NC's exams are that hard, but this writing is sloppy journalism.

Bad Vu and Russo. No cookie. (Update: Russo begs for cookie in comments and as an addendum to his blog entry.)

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Posted in Education policy at 7:28 PM (Permalink) |

January 25, 2007

The "Not Ready for Prime Time" NCLB proposal

Diana Schemo's article, Bush Proposes Broadening the No Child Left Behind Act, is a sequel to the many front-page stories about how the president spent half of his State of the Union address Tuesday talking about education and ...

Oh, yeah. 

I'm not sure what to make of the Bush trial balloons. (Better to try balloons than Scooter Libby, maybe?) Probably the most irrelevant was the proposal for a rewritten NCLB to allow the trumping of collective bargaining agreements. It's irrelevant not only because the Democrats control Congress but also because some states have constitutional provisions protecting collective-bargaining rights of public employees.  (No, I don't know which, though Florida is one of them.) And I don't know if the U.S. Department of Education has any lawyers on staff these days, but my best understanding is that the federal government can't use the power of the purse to rewrite state constitutions.

Vouchers are also dead for this session, and if anyone in the White House cared about charter schools, they wouldn't have mentioned the charter-cap issue, since they should know darned well that anything possibly smacking of privatization would be tainted by White House endorsement at this point.

My complete gut-level instinct here, which is probably wrong? The White House staff doesn't care a whit about education, and after writing a few lines in Tuesday's address (and nothing about higher education), they told Margaret Spellings that she could push whatever she wanted to.

And I think she just dropped the odds of NCLB reauthorization this year down to longshot status.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 1:18 AM (Permalink) |

January 24, 2007

Does honey attract more gadflies than vinegar does?

Having a better MP3 player these days, I've been dipping into the ed-policy podcasts available, such as John Merrow's and The Gadfly.

When those on the Gadfly podcast (notably Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess) say outright that others have described the banter as fraternity-like, ... well, they said it. But what I've noticed beyond the segmented format they use (intro-'debate'-interview-'weird ed news'-end) is that the telephone interviews definitely have low audio quality. So I'm going to experiment a little bit with their production values by trying The Levelator (which tells you everything you need to know about the program, or at least everything you'll know). I've made an original-and-corrected set of clips from the Hug It Out episode of the podcast series.

The first clip is from the studio recording of Mike Petrilli, original from the MP3 and after processing. The second clip is from Mike Petrilli's end of the interview (I assume recorded with either a phone jack output or one of the Tandy phone microphones), original form and after processing. The third clip (or third and fourth clips)? Alexander Russo on the other end of the line, original and processed. I'm at a disadvantage having turned the mp3 into wav files to get into the program, but I think the difference in the last chunk is notable. (Altogether, the file is a little over a minute long and less than 1 MB.) I suspect that working with an original .wav file would end up sounding less "crunchy," and then adding a tiny bit of reverb would warm up the voice and eliminate much of the electronic distortion.

Is there another education policy podcast that might be starting up? Hmmn... Strange that you ask. I have no time to do it right now. None at all. It would be absolutely ridiculous. Hmmn....

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Posted in Education policy at 11:32 PM (Permalink) |

January 20, 2007

Who's horrified by Charles Murray?

In response to Charles Murray's three-part series of op-eds on intelligence and education in the WJS (part 1, part 2, part 3), plenty of bloggers have been quick to distance themselves from the knuckle-dragging portion of the center-right portion of the political spectrum: Jenny D. links to several. Who agrees with Murray is telling:  Richard Vedder and Russ Minnick are all I could find in the first few screens of a Technorati search. My favorite comment on the various blogs I've perused:

Does anyone see the irony in Chuck's argument...he is living proof that intelligence-deficient people can succeed with a modicum of knowledge!

Murray's argument here is essentially a rehash of his claims in Bell Curve (1994), which prompted a number of critical books in response, including The Bell Curve Wars and Measured Lies. (If I remember correctly, The Bell Curve Debate is a solid anthology that includes historical material.) Murray's argument is a seductive one that pampers the sloppy reader: It's not because you're lucky but because you're smart that you're sitting there, reading the Wall Street Journal. The subtext of virtually all Murray's writings on the subject is You're special.

That argument may work in a few quarters these days, but I think the time at which Murray would have appealed to a few people beyond David Brooks has passed, and only part of the reason is because the racist assumptions of our past are disappearing because, unfortunately, they aren't. (That fact doesn't mean social prejudices have changed; certainly they have, and far more people want to live in a racism-free society. But racist assumptions still exist.)

The dominant reason why Charles Murray's views will find fewer and fewer adherents is because his you're special argument only works if successful or wealthy people think their success is due to their innate intelligence instead of hard work. If you worked your tail off in school and in your various jobs, you're likely to be offended by Murray's view. And as people work more hours on the average, and as we're all stretched by our obligations, both loved and unloved, we are all likely to attribute any success we have to hard work in addition to circumstance, but definitely hard work. Whatever you think of Bill Gates, lazy isn't one of the adjectives you'd use. So Murray no longer flatters the super-wealthy and the chattering classes.

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Posted in Education policy at 7:08 AM (Permalink) |

January 17, 2007

Shoe blogging

I won't blog about the video ipods that the dean helped distribute today for the faculty who are participating in the podcasting program for the college, except to say that I'll figure out how to use the Belkin TuneTalk to record spontaneous material for podcasting, and I managed to get a decent acrylic cover for the thing before I scratched the screen deeply. Whew! (I watched one of John Merrow's NewsHour segments while waiting for something this afternoon, so it really is a professional tool, or at least I'll use it for that most of the time.)

So what will I blog about?

I'm one of six faculty in my program area who are banding together to produce a series of podcasts for the mega-multi-section undergraduate class, so that students get more than one faculty member's perspective on the major assignment for the course and to tie together the different sections together. In some ways, I suppose we're using the podcasting project to guest teach in a virtual sense, so we don't have to schedule going to each other's classes. For the all important transitional music clips (from ccMixter), my colleagues preferred the 19th century Spanish composer's piano piece to the techno-Goth selection I preferred (or at least am guessing the students would prefer). But thanks to a sound booth in the college and the Audacity program, we have three podcasts in the can, one up already, and we'll continue rolling. (We're doing short podcasts, less than 5 minutes apiece, but they have scripts so students with hearing impairments or who have dial-up connections still have easy access to the content.)

Finally, to the shoes. No, not yet: I'm still working on the next article for Education Policy Analysis Archives. In many ways, I'm now paying the price of having worked furiously on the book manuscript (revision) over break. The article should be mostly prepared sometime tomorrow morning or early afternoon.

Now to the shoes. Oh, wait: I had to go buy a printer cartridge for our home computer, because the old one had died out, having saved the youngest child from the raging stream behind the house. Wait a second. Maybe that's from another story, because the dead printer cartridge's name isn't Farley.

In any case, after all of that, I realized that just a few painful steps' walk away from the Chain Office Supply Store (where I had just purchased the replacement for Farley the Printer Cartridge—we'll call the new toner cartridge Farley II), there was a Chain Shoe Store sandwiched between two Chain Clothing-though-I-wouldn't-let-my-daughter-wear-any Stores,* and my old work shoes have now been so late for a resoling (if they can be resoled) that my right heel is on a first-name basis with the sidewalk. So I figured, "I'm so glad I went for the dorky socks-with-sandals look tonight!" and walked right in (to the shoe store, not the clothing-though-I-wouldn't-let-my-daughter-wear-any stores).

So here we get to the shoe-shopper's version of The Divine Comedy. You see, I tried on more than 20 pairs of shoes. Before we go further, I should note that I am one of those people who walk into a store, grab four pairs of identical trousers, try one on to make sure it fits, and walk out with the purchase in 10.32 seconds. I'm not finicky, and what's more, I don't like shopping. But shoes are a serious matter, especially when I am on my feet for several hours on teaching days this semester.

How does it feel to try on 20 pairs of shoes when you'd rather the first one do? That's Inferno. About halfway through the trying-on-shoes stage, I found one that I thought worked (hallelujah!) until I realized that an instep was hurting when I walked. 'nuff said, I assume.

Finally, after the 63rd pair of shoes, I discovered one that worked. Finally! At least until I needed to buy shoes again. That's purgatory.

Fortunately, I took a step that I don't usually take when shopping for shoes: I looked at the shelf where my pair came from and noticed another box with the same shoe size. After a quick check, yes! they were the same model and size, and my feet liked both. So we are now a happy contractual family from one of those Heinleinesque SF novels, where you shack up with multiple pairs of shoes. I don't now what the shoes think of this, but I need to find them a chaplain, even though we're nonobservant. I knew two on USF's campus, and they just have the skills to address our needs.

Why clergy when I'm agnostic/nonbservant? Maybe it's a traditionalism. But I think we're doing right here, for one important reason: Shoes have soles.**

* - The Clothing-though-I-wouldn't-let-my-daughter-wear-any Stores were not negligee stories, incidentally. I just saw mannequins in the store window wearing gold lamé. That's enough for me, as a parent!

** - 2 points if you recognize the television show, the episode, and the character who says that line, 1 point if you can guess 2 of the 3.

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Posted in Random comments at 11:20 PM (Permalink) |

Report: Three of every two government statistics are flawed

Okay, I'm joking. The real headline from the Guardian newspaper is One in five Home Office statistics are unreliable, says department head.  Maria Farrell at Crooked Timber makes the point that non-neutral claims of facts degrade public discourse. But I wonder whether even a putatively  independent body can create trustworthy facts when they're subject to subtle pressures (budgetary, etc.). Those who look for such independence are correct to criticize obvious warping of data, but those who think that nominal independence is great (as opposed to better) have never read political theory from the iron triangle forward.

Even at the level of shaping a study, negotiation can often decide what is studied. The National Reading Panel is a case in point. The report trumpets the extensive public hearings that shaped the priorities of the panel. There are two conclusions one can draw from that fact. Either the panel had decided in advance what would be studied, and the hearings were a sham, or the panel was sincere in letting the public input shape the substudies. If the first is true, the definition of research was political by exclusion. If the second is true, the definition of research was political by inclusion.

(This conclusion about the negotiability of research is true whether or not you agree with the NRP conclusions.)

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Posted in Education policy at 8:44 AM (Permalink) |

January 15, 2007

Martin Luther King, Jr., birthday

Here are some things you could do to use today for a day on, not a day off:

  • Check out the MLK Day of Service website
  • Join the NAACP, American GI Forum, or another organization that works on behalf of equal rights
  • Donate to the United Negro College Fund or other scholarship organizations
  • Donate to your local legal-services organization
  • Schedule time to do something for your community, block it out on your calendar, and say no to other commitments during that time
  • Talk with your neighbors about how to make your community a more humane, welcoming place

Anyone want to add other ideas?

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Posted in Random comments at 8:57 AM (Permalink) |

January 14, 2007

Figlio and Kenny paper on merit pay

David Figlio and Lawrence Kenny's paper Individual Teacher Incentives and Student Performance (NBER, restricted) has been reported by Ed Week and discussed by Joanne Jacobs and at NCLBlog. Howard at AFT (F. Howard Nelson?) lists a number of caveats.  Some more information (thanks to David Figlio for permission to crib from our e-mail correspondence):

  • Because the measure is from 12th grade, a logical question is about selection effects from differential dropping out. Figlio and Kenny did check for sensitivity to graduation.
  • The questions on merit pay were worded carefully to exclude bonuses for AP teachers, etc. (something that would otherwise make merit pay measures a proxy for the proportion of teachers who teach AP or do other service).
  • Something I brought to David Figlio's attention was something they hadn't considered: distribution of teachers within a school. Some administrators spend some effort to recruit teachers who work well with 9th grades. Others distribute teachers' assignments evenly. Others assign the teachers perceived to be most skilled in their content areas to 12th grade (and advanced) classes. The result is that we don't know if 12th grade teachers are selected for certain qualities, and those qualities (especially if they're seen as high-academic content specialists) may make them more responsive to individual pay incentives. (Howard at AFT noted that the measure may be a long-term indicator, but it may also reflect short-term changes. We just don't know.)

Because David Figlio is on sabbatical in England, he didn't have immediate access to the data to answer my most important question: what's the distribution of schools' mean test scores? Without that information (which isn't in the NBER working-paper version), we don't know the effect size.

I'll repeat what I've said before: discussions of compensation systems often (mis)portray the issue as a dichotomy: either incentives or no incentives. That's a oversimplification, and despite the data limitations that led to Figlio and Kenny's approach, it's a serious problem with generalizing from the research (which I'm sure people will do in abusing the Figlio and Kenny article). Again, I'm not an industrial-organizational psychologist, and if key people who are talking about merit pay know less than I do about the relevant research, there's a problem.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:40 AM (Permalink) |

January 13, 2007

John Winn resigns

Yesterday's surprise announcement that Florida Education Commissioner John Winn was resigning was not a great shock—Governor Charlie Crist had rescinded two Bush appointments to the state board of education, and two others worked with his campaign, so he was about to have a majority of friendly board members—but the timing was interesting.

Of all the stories I've seen, I think the award for the best headline goes to the Tampa Tribune: State, Crist In A Lose Winn Situation.

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Posted in Education policy at 2:42 PM (Permalink) |

January 10, 2007

Harvard's presidency

As I've said before, I don't think higher ed discussions should revolve around Harvard, but I happen to know one of the apparent finalists for the top spot, and I know that this person would be absolutely fantastic and exactly what the institution needs.

(If you know a few things about me and the other person, you could probably piece it together, but this is more of an observation than a campaign, which wouldn't work anyway, so I'll have to wait to see if the person gets the job.)

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Posted in Random comments at 2:26 PM (Permalink) |

Merit pay and what everyone knows that ain't so

This isn't an analysis of the Ed Sector report Frozen Assets, since right now I'm still borrowing time from next week.  But given the back and forth about the report from Leo Casey and Kevin Carey, I'll provide a minor gloss on that conversation (or a reading of the readers' reading of each other) in terms of subtext:

Leo: "This report is so general it doesn't consider specific circumstances such as the one in New York. And there's a logical flaw in this that's so obvious, I wonder if it's deliberately misleading."

Kevin: "There goes Leo, not taking the ideas seriously. The whole world does merit pay, and I just don't get why union leaders make these obviously specious arguments in favor of a single salary schedule."

Brief observation: Of course a union activist is going to be upset if an academic paper both has significant logical flaws from a where-the-rubber-meets-the-road aspect and also is presented as polished research. And of course a think-tank staff member/co-director is going to be upset (or maybe disappointed or disgruntled) when he thinks the union activist doesn't take the paper's ideas seriously.

Substantive comment: the discussion about merit pay is still superficial. The more vociferous advocates of merit pay assert that schools are entirely unlike "the real world" where pay is determined by the market and performance.  I'll skip over the flaws in "the real world" (such as compensation of CEOs and fired NCAA Division I-A football coaches) and get to the deeper matter:

  • Compensation systems in private industry are complex, and reducing them to a monolith (it's not the public schools) does everyone a disservice.
  • Compensation systems in education are not quite as complex, but they're also not a monolith.
  • No one talking about merit pay is relying on industrial-organizational psychology research about goal-setting. Not even Odden and Kelley (who refer to the literature, but not acknowledging the subtleties or important recent research).

Note: I'm not an I/O psychologist, and if key people who are talking about merit pay know less than I do about the relevant research, there's a problem.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:39 AM (Permalink) |

January 9, 2007


Right now, the teachers who work at Boise Senior High School have to be some of most anti-formula individuals in the whole country. First, they're dinged on AYP because the school missed Idaho's targets for one population group (students with disabilities). Now, their beloved local Boise State Broncos are the only undefeated Division I-A football team in the country, but they're not the recognized national champion because the BCS formula gave the University of Florida (and several other BCS-conference teams) a statistical advantage, leaving the University of Florida as Ohio State's matchup in the national championship game last night. Florida trounced Ohio State, and Boise State ended up ranked 5th or 6th (depending on the poll).

So what's the connection with NCLB?

Here's the money quote from Dan Wetzel:
There is no way, no formula, no mix of opinion polls and computers that ever consistently can select the top two teams... No matter how hard it tries, this championship system turns up paper contenders as often as not (Oklahoma 2004, 2003; Nebraska 2001).

As every college football fan from 5 to 95 knows, the BCS formula is not only rigged for certain conferences but inherently arbitrary. The defenders of the system pretend that having a statistical formula means that the system is objective, and it certainly puts out a number. But the existence of a set of numbers does not mean that the formula is the best way to resolve a national championship in a fair, independent manner.

That fact is why most sane individuals—those who aren't tied to the most powerful conferences—favor a playoff, because in sports the way you have an independent judgment of which team is better is to play the game. Only in chess tournaments and Division I-A football do you decide who is the best by asking your TI-93.

One of the problems with formula-based accountability systems is the conflation of statistics with independence from conflict of interest. There is a tremendous need for mechanisms to hold schools accountable in ways that systems would not be unless someone is looking over their shoulders. That's a requirement for accountability independent of the political and other interests of school systems as organizations and collections of people.

Currently, high-stakes accountability addresses the need for independence through formulae: insert numbers, retrieve judgment. The argument in favor of such an approach is that it removes the inherent conflict of interest in having educators judge their own work.

The problem with this argument is that it assumes that statistics are the only way to fashion an independent judgment of school effectiveness. In other walks of life, though, we don't require statistics to remove the conflict of interest from judgments. In sports, you play a game, and the referee or umpire is the neutral dispute-resolution mechanism. (Unless you're into Fantasy Baseball, but I'm not talking about cults here.) In law, you go to court, and a hearing officer, arbitrator, or judge makes a judgment.

The key word here is judgment, that sometimes ineffable quality that allows humans to synthesize information and make a decision. In sports and courts, statistics are tools but not trump cards. Baseball managers have a wealth of statistics at their command, but I will take the late Billy Martin's judgment over any crude number-cruncher today. Judges will hear testimony from experts wielding tables and graphs, but the decisions tumble from their computers as a stream of words, not charts.

I have not only a history degree but a masters in demography, and I am not denigrating the value of well-crafted measures (not that most high-stakes test statistics deserve that description). But statistics cannot replace thought, and I am afraid that we have seen that in school accountability policies.

At least football is just a game. But No Child Left Behind's adequate-yearly-progress standard, a brain-dead mechanism that analysts knew was a problem in 2001? That's federal law.

What is it about the beginning of my semester that a Kappan article by Rick "Tough Love" Hess and Andy "Eduwonk" Rotherham is dangling in front of me while I have a gazillion things to do? World, will you stop putting these temptations in my path?

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 5:39 PM (Permalink) |

The week's menu for Sherman Dorn

My week's to-do list (PDF image file) is full. It's the first day for my classes. One done, one to go. It's chugging-along time for me...

Missing from the to-do list: the blogging topics I noted yesterday and now the end of Michael Bérubé's blog.

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Posted in Random comments at 11:43 AM (Permalink) |

January 8, 2007

Bewildering misinterpretation of union position on merit pay/incentive pay

I'm confused: Kevin Carey identifies an off-the-wall statement of the Nashville teachers union leader in an article on an incentive-pay experiment in the district and interprets it as outright opposition to incentive pay: to get a sense of just how much some local teachers union officials hate the idea of merit pay... But the article makes clear that the same leader approved the experiment at issue now (and noted the Denver teachers union approval of ProComp), and the quotation may have reflected a history of problematic pay-out promises in the district (assuming that the reporter quoted the union activist accurately and in context).

Joanne Jacobs correctly noted the union support of the program at issue.

Larger point here: unions are not unalterably opposed to differential pay, as long as it's constructed collaboratively.

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Posted in Education policy at 8:45 PM (Permalink) |

A Celtic love spoon for No Child Left Behind?

I know that the traditional fifth anniversary gift is wood, but do you really think a Celtic love spoon is right for NCLB, and what would be a better gift? (Update: One colleague's suggestion: a baseball bat.)

With the fifth anniversary of the law's signing in 2002 (but it's called the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001... hmmn...), there are plenty of news stories from major and minor publications, and here's a smattering this morning:

Interestingly, the New York Times doesn't have anything this morning on the anniversary, though it does have a story about schools' measuring student BMIs (body mass index), nor does the Washington Post, which had a story on Education Sector's new report on union contracts (the Post coverage by Jay Mathews implied there was going to be a lot of slamming in public over this one). Part of the difference in coverage between the "hinterland" and some of the national papers of record (but is the record James Brown, Tony Bennett, or Aretha Franklin?) is that the major stories today are about the Iraq war and other foreign-policy matters. So NCLB gets swallowed by the majors, while it's an obvious coverage requirement for many regionals and locals.

Then there's today's insider confession of Michael Petrilli. It's nothing he hasn't said before (at least recently), but it hangs out there and will be interesting to see who pays attention.

Yes, I'm going to get around (someday) to commenting on the Ed Sector report as well as the Figlio and Kenny piece on pay incentives. But it's the first day of the semester and even though I don't teach until tomorrow, that first class is at 8am and I have to be ready...

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Posted in Education policy at 7:47 AM (Permalink) |

January 7, 2007

Lack of perspective at the American Historical Association

Yesterday was eventful at the third day of the American Historical Association annual meeting in Atlanta but not in a good way.

  • Police arrested Tufts faculty member Felipe Fernandez-Armesto for jaywalking and put him in jail until the prosecutors dropped charges, embarrassed.

  • The AHA business meeting failed to approve a strongly-worded measure opposing campus speech codes and approved only a watered-down resolution "free speech zones."

So it looks like Atlanta police think jaywalking is a worse crime than murder and those who attended the AHA business meeting think that the only type of speech restrictions they needed to take a stand on yesterday were so-called "free speech zones."

Is there something about Atlanta this weekend that saps one's judgment? I have friends there this weekend for various events, and I just hope everyone's judgment returns by the time they hit the highway.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 9:29 AM (Permalink) |

January 6, 2007

EdWeek and marketing

Michael Kirst's analysis of this year's Quality Counts from Education Week seems absolutely on target: they wanted to do something more ambitious, partly because they now have Chris Swanson and partly because they didn't want to do the same ol' analysis of K-12 policies. The clincher on the marketing gig is the tagline at the top of the website right now, "Open House, January 4-18: Complete, Free Access to edweek.org."

Then there's the other kicker that Kirst mentions: This new focus by EdWeek will be a challenge to the Chronicle of Higher Education which does not have as much of a education policy orientation. Given that CHE is now having its mind focused by competition from Inside Higher Ed, I'd say that's an interesting claim, but Quality Counts is an annual supplement and not a regular focus of reporting.

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Posted in Education policy at 7:46 AM (Permalink) |

January 5, 2007

Situational attention deficit

In the last day, I've had the worst problems concentrating on any task for more than about 10 minutes at a time. Part may be a bit of a cold: I have the standard slight bone-weariness I associate with a cold, plus a touch of congestion. Part may be induced by lack of sleep: I wrote into the wee hours on either Tuesday or Wednesday night (I forget which). Part may be idiosyncratic interruptions: this morning I stopped by a rental car agency to switch my rental (while I'm waiting for collision repairs to my car after last month's hit-and-run rear-ender: don't worry, I'm fine, as is my son, and that's the important thing), and then I was called to a meeting on a regional campus once I got to my office (the reinstatement of an expected meeting that had been moved, since it was moved back).

I suspect the larger picture is that I spent a good part of the winter break revising a book manuscript, and my brain is just depleted of extended concentration stamina. I can breeze along fine in a well-known area, but ask me to think in a different way and pow! I'm easily distractible.

So I have my long to-do list and will chug along, switching tasks when I find my attention lagging. I have a bunch of tasks that really do require more than an hour of focus, and so I hope it returns soon.

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Posted in Random comments at 3:06 PM (Permalink) |

January 4, 2007

Collective bargaining database: accurate?

There's been some chatter in the edublogule about the National Council on Teacher Quality collective bargaining database, which claims to summarize key provisions of collective bargaining agreements in the largest 50 school districts. (Hat tip: Eduwonk.) But is the database accurate? I quickly found one goof with reference to the Hillsborough school district in Florida (which includes Tampa): the database claims that the contract does not refer to the frequency of lesson plans' being turned in to administrators ("How often does a teacher have to turn in lesson plans to a school administrator?").  (Update: In comments, Emily Cohen from NCTQ notes that they've fixed the error in the database, something I confirmed.) From article 3 of the contract:

3.2.1 The principal or his designee may request teachers to submit a copy of their lesson plans or outlines used for the teaching week at the end of the last day of that teaching week. The principal may request the copies at the end of a particular unit. Teachers shall use the county elementary lesson plan or secondary lesson plan outline format. The teacher's plans are to be used as a guide in order to fulfill the county's instructional objectives and to assist the teacher in conducting a planned instructional program. Current lesson plans shall be available in the classroom for inspection at all times. Teachers shall not be routinely required to submit a copy of their lesson plans or outlines to the site administrator.

Whoops. This clause contains considerable discretion for administrators, but that doesn't mean that the frequency isn't stated; it's essentially "could be weekly when the administrators want to look at them, as long as it's not a serious nuisance," and in practice (from a non-random sample of one) I think administrators are asked to look at a week's worth of lesson plans for tenured teachers a few times a year.* As Michele McLaughlin of AFT notes, a number of variables aren't yet coded, and I'd hope that the NCTQ staff takes some time and adds a verification process, because this sort of error can be embarrassing if it's frequent.

A side note on lesson plans and paperwork, since we're talking about it: This topic sprang to my attention because my spouse works with students with moderate developmental disabilities who are not in the academic graduation program. She therefore has to document that students are meeting the state's alternative-diploma requirements at the same time that she has to document student performance on their individual education plan (IEP) goals. A few years ago she went to a workshop where the developers of the state's evolving alternative-diploma framework talked about the framework and documentation. My spouse came home with a 40-pound binder.  (It wasn't that heavy, really; it only looked that bad.) The binder was full of guidelines, examples, and documentation templates.

That was just a bit overwhelming. I helped in combining the data collection with the lesson planning to create a single-page form that contained both a lesson plan, the skills that were observable in the activity, and space for taking data on all of the students for each such skill. Each activity thus has its own sheet, which may seem like a nightmare to some teachers, but it works. (She has a combination 3-ring binder/clipboard for this.) Documentation is not her problem! Of course, she spent a number of hours over winter break finishing the synthesis of data for second-quarter grades, and if you multiply 40-45 student days by 6 sheets per day and 5-6 skills per sheet (though some skills are only relevant for a few students), you can get a sense of the task. As she says, "It's a heck of a lot of data."

* Lesson plans are probably not the best way to find out what the received curriculum is, during a year. Given the difficulty of finding enough time to observe, a retired NYC principal told me her secret: She called in a collection of students to her office regularly and asked them what they were learning in class that week. That combined evidence from students with an opportunity to reach out to students. (I don't know if she had a system for inviting students to her office, let alone whether took notes or followed up in an organized fashion.)

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Posted in Education policy at 7:47 PM (Permalink) |

A national service academy could boost the public sector

Chris Myers Asch and Shawn Raymond's idea of a U.S. Public Service Academy has a chance of being considered seriously in this session of Congress. Very briefly, they have proposed creating a civilian undergraduate academy sponsored by the federal government for students who would be willing to serve in the public sphere for five years after graduation. In the way parallel to the military service academies, the public service academy would take a limited number of highly-qualified applicants from each state and combine an intense undergraduate experience with internships in different fields throughout the four years. In the words of Asch and Raymond,

With four years in a structured, service-oriented undergraduate program and five years of hands-on public service, these young leaders will have the experience, skills, and commitment to become strong leaders in their communities. By allocating spots by state, the Academy will attract a geographically diverse student body and will avoid the trap of many top universities, which tend to be stocked primarily with high achievers from the seaboard cities and suburbs. By offering a competitive academic program tuition-free with a post-graduation service requirement, the Academy will not become the exclusive province of the privileged. By structuring its academic program around a commitment to public service, the Academy will create a corps of patriotic leaders dedicated to helping fulfill the ideals of our nation. This is a winning idea.

There are a number of reasons to support this venture, but one reigns supreme: We need the best leadership possible in the public sector. After more than a generation of politicians bashing "the government," it's time to recognize that the public sector is here to stay, and it deserves the same long-term investment in leadership as exists in the military.

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Posted in Education policy at 6:14 PM (Permalink) |

January 2, 2007

Boundaries, agendas, and meta-narratives

Kevin Carey has an interesting discussion about policy perspectives and POV boundaries in the context of a broader discussion about the role of teacher unions. (Minor point here: to his good, bad, and good and bad perspectives on unionization, I'd add look at the d***ed specifics. Also see Michele McLaughin's response, which I'll just respond to as editor of Education Policy Analysis Archives: Hey, submit stuff for peer review here! Disclosure: I'm a union member affiliated with both the NEA and AFT as well as an education [and maybe even an educational] historian.)

Carey's looking at it from a policy wonk's (and think tank staffer's) perspective: how do you move ideas?  In the long term, you try to reshape political agendas, and Carey's argument about pushing perspective boundaries around is about agenda shaping...

... which brings me to two political books on NCLB published in 2006, Paul Manna's School's In and Patrick McGuinn's No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965-2005. Despite the fact that schools are part of the unrecognized welfare state in the U.S., education politics have gotten precious little attention from grand(ly)-theorizing political scientists. I'm an historian, not a political scientist, but I think Jennifer Hochschild's The New American Dilemma (1984) and Ira Katznelson and Margaret Weir's Schooling for All (1985) were the last books that took school politics as important, serious evidence about American political structures. Manna and McGuinn's books should end that drought and spark interesting dialog.

To put it briefly (and do great violence to their arguments), McGuinn's and Manna's books are part of ongoing arguments about what shapes agendas, something that has been challenged/reworked by Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones's Agendas and Instability in American Politics (1993). McGuinn argues that NCLB came about with a change in policy regimes, which I read as a dominant meta-narrative about policy. To him, federal policymakers were finally fed up with state intransigence on accountability in the late 1990s, and members of both parties were happy to jump on board the NCLB bandwagon, an event that would have been unthinkable 7-8 years before. To McGuinn, the underlying story about education policy shifted over 7-8 years, a change that involved partisan politics as well as the arguments of key players in Washington. McGuinn's focus is at the national level, and most of his evidence is there.

In contrast to McGuinn, Manna explicitly focuses on the interrelationship of federal and state actors, and as a result his story is different. To him, states were active in the 1990s, and they were willing to borrow strength from the federal government  in building an agenda and let the feds borrow it from them as well, either in the political rationale for action or the capacity for action. So to McGuinn, NCLB represents the hidden strength of governors, subtly letting the federal government claim all sorts of honors as long as it served their purposes. The reverse is true, at least in theory, but McGuinn tends to write his story from a state POV, while McGuinn's POV is clearly at the federal level.

Each book has some strengths in terms of detail. McGuinn's interviews with selected key federal actors provide retrospectives that I don't think you'll get anywhere else. The description of the AYP-definition train wreck in 2001 is Manna's surprise contribution. But the larger clash is one of levels of government and emphasis on meta-narratives vs. initiative. McGuinn's eye is on the federal level, while Manna's is on the interplay between federal and state. McGuinn focuses on policy regime (what I think of as meta-narrative), while Manna's is on who has the initiative in agenda-setting.

There are some irritating flaws that I found discomforting in each book. For McGuinn, the national teacher union affiliates are shadowy figures who are recalcitrant, anti-reform, anti-accountability, but he never provides any details though he had an NEA lobbyist as an informant. For McGuinn, Shanker's activism in the late 80s and most of the 90s was invisible, Bob Chase didn't exist, and he must not have asked his NEA interviewee any hard questions. For his part, Manna relies for the depiction of the importance of education at the federal level on one of the more trite types of political-science evidence, mentions of words in presidential speeches. Someone looking at both books would wonder why Manna failed to look at legislation (which McGuinn at least touches on in some depth, even if he ignored the issue of classroom space from the 1950s). In a book devoted to the interplay of different levels, that odd reliance on symbolic speech is... well, odd.

One last thing: Neither discuss the other's ideas much, though I suspect they know of each other's work (McGuinn had read Manna's dissertation, at least). I would love to get both of them in a room, have them talk about the issues, decide what things they really disagree on and why, and get the recording online. But both books should be required readings in education policy programs, in part for the substantive background on NCLB and in part for their very different and interesting uses of federal education policy to illuminate political dynamics.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 7:40 PM (Permalink) |

January 1, 2007

Happy new year!

May your 2007 be peaceful, productive, personally fulfilling, and [adjective of choice here]. For us thus far in Tampa, the adjective of choice is "wet," since it's raining. And in our household, the air is filled with zebra finch song (on Friday, we acquired two companions of our older finch). The adults are up with vegetarian hoppin' John on the stove, but the children are still in bed.

Since I had spent much of the last week frantically finishing the book manuscript revisions, I caught up with my to-do list yesterday, did one side of household finances (paying bills!), and wrote a few thank-you notes to my mother-in-law, who took us to a local bookstore when we visited her recently, and to my mother, who sent the household a DVD of pictures from her and my father's trip to the Galapagos Islands in 1998 and pictures from her and my daughter's trip to Newfoundland in 2005. She also sent us Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld (2003), which is one step above The Wit and Wisdom of Spiro T. Agnew (1969): The Rumsfeld book has some words in it.

Today brings some organizational tasks at home and some relaxation. Tomorrow, Elizabeth has her teacher workday, and then the students (including our 11- and 14-year-old) return Wednesday.

Embarrassing quotation of 2006: "this very ingenious way." But I probably did say it to a reporter working on a Jeb Bush education legacy article.

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Posted in Random comments at 8:52 AM (Permalink) |