September 30, 2007

Duct tape and sand

From Stanley Fish's blog today, disapproval for Lee Bollinger's comments last week at the Ahmadinejad speech: 

The obligation of a senior administrator is to conduct himself or herself in such a way as always to bring honor and credit to the institution he or she serves. Just what this general imperative requires will vary with the particular situations an administrator encounters, but at the very least we could say that an administrator who brings attention of an unwelcome kind to a university is probably not focusing on the job.... as a general rule what an administrator should do when a controversial speaker comes to campus is lower the stakes and minimize the importance of the occasion. Not minimize the importance of the issues, but minimize the role of the university, which is not a player on the world stage but (at most) a location where questions of international significance can be raised in an academic manner.

Duct tape and sand: this is the essence of Stanley Fish's vision for a university administrator, to go around afraid to speak for fear of giving offense and to establish the university as the equivalent of a generic public facility, no greater or worse environment for a public speech than a beach (except that university lecture halls have better sound reinforcement and considerably worse views). If followed faithfully, Fish's principles would reinforce the unfortunate tendency for administrators to fear standing up for principle. If administrators and faculty are better off silent than making mistakes, then what use is a faculty? If the best environment for a controversial speaker is an anaesthetized audience, what use is a university as a forum for public speech?

Fortunately for the Duke University English Department and Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Fish had no such external restrictions on his own actions as an administrator, frequently speaking about public discourse either in his debates with Dinesh D'Souza or in his columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Fish's outspokenness was an advantage for both institutions, even when he was being outlandish and even where many of us disagreed with him. He had a right to speak wrongly, and he still does!

A far healthier description of the key issues with administrators and academic freedom is in last Wednesday's blog entry from Dean Dad.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 9:24 PM (Permalink) |

September 29, 2007

If I had a million hours

My life this week brings the Barenaked Ladies song to mind:

  • Watching nervously over the state budget situation and engaging in various tasks around that
  • Finishing and submitting my promotion portfolio
  • Assigning and circulating manuscripts for Education Policy Analysis Archives... and receiving a bunch of yes and no responses that require some individual attention (without time for that yet)
  • Teaching for three classes (two in-person, one on-line)
  • Meeting with students I'm advising
  • Preparing for a meeting that was canceled
  • Getting called by a St. Pete Times reporter about NAEP results (getting the last word in the article was a surprise; I think the lesson is that I'm more likely to get a soundbite quoted if I make the reporter laugh).
  • After reading an article about USF's outsourcing some security operations Wednesday, I was very alarmed but had my long teaching day, so didn't get a chance to respond until late Wednesday night... the column was printed Friday. (Of the two grammatical errors I spotted, one was my fault, while the other was introduced by the student editors. No, you don't hear from me which was which: I'm responsible for it all.)
  • On Thursday, driving my son to his martial-arts class, driving my daughter to a "college night" at her high school, driving myself to Orlando for the Florida Education Association delegate assembly, and possibly driving myself nuts.
  • Being at the delegate assembly yesterday and today, doing some work simultaneously, talking with a student on the drive home, and spending time with my family this afternoon and evening.

How's your week been?

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Posted in Random comments at 10:02 PM (Permalink) |

September 26, 2007

Academic freedom and administrators

Dean Dad has an important dissent from the oft-expressed views that administrators ain't got no academic freedom, as Stanley Fish might claim. DD points out the legitimate restrictions on what administrators can say:

  • Confidentiality: What the rumor mill paints as “the administration knows about this, but is covering it up” is often really “the administration knows this rumor is crap, but can't reveal why it's crap without violating confidentiality” (the best sentence of the post).
  • Institutional discretion: ...the 'ambassador' or 'public face' function of administrators...To the extent that there's an argument in there, I think, it's that it can be difficult to separate, say, a dean's personal views from the views of the college for which he works..
Of those limits, the first is far clearer than the second. If something doesn't fall within the bounds of confidentiality imposed by one's role, an administrator should be free from that type of institutional restraint. The second question is trickier. I have a first slice at it, but not having been an administrator, this may not be realistic: if the issue concerns the welfare of the institution in a specific context, and if someone higher in the bureaucratic food chain has the authority to speak for the institution, then there is some obligation to refrain from speaking for the institution about an issue... and an implied obligation not to contradict the institution's position.

That first slice implies that institutional discretion requires a few components:

  • The question of a specific institutional interest: So while deans and chairs are bound not to contradict an institution's president when speaking publicly about things like state budget allocations for universities, someone is perfectly free to talk about all sorts of general issues with state budgeting.
  • The question of what constitutes "speaking for the institution." I suspect there are different methods to finesse a way out of saying, "I think my university president was bonkers to take this position," generally consisting of acknowledging internal debate and also ways of confirming the right of an institution's leadership to make decisions.

So what about whistleblowing? Regardless of legal issues (which vary by state and which I'm not competent to discuss), the following is my gut sense about institutions with even a modicum of shared governance: the administrator who resigns on a matter of deep principle will eventually return to administration, because institutions need people with conscience and because a critical mass of faculty will usually respect administrators who stand on principle even if individual decisions are matters of disagreement.


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Posted in Academic freedom at 7:31 AM (Permalink) |

On communicating math standards

Florida's Board of Education has recently approved new state standards in math, and I think it's the most constructive long-term decision the board has made in years. My judgment isn't based on the fact that I'm a friend and colleague of one member of the group that drafted the new standards. I looked at the standards before the FBOE approved them, and from my lay perspective, I just breathed a sigh of relief. The emphasis is on a few "big ideas" for each grade up through eighth (with plenty of connections to other areas of math), and while the "big ideas" are in line with current grade-level expectations, it should provide focus.

Moreover, I think these standards have a much better chance at being adopted sans controversy than the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics efforts over the past 20 years. While I know NCTM didn't intend to do so, I suspect the somewhat jargon-laden language of number sense, measurement, etc., turned heuristic curriculum concepts into reified categories, at least in the public ear. To be blunt about it, no adult goes around thinking about things like number sense or measurement. If you're buying new windows for a house, you get an estimate of the number of windows, the size of each window, the cost, the total, etc. I can point to number sense and measurement in the bidding process for new windows, but in everyday life, math doesn't break down into the terms that NCTM has used. When combined with the idea that calculators are useful instructional tools (read by some as "kids don't need to learn multiplication and division"), and because the math-education terms don't align with the way academic mathemeticians think about their discipline, NCTM has been swimming upstream with the rhetoric, even if many of the concepts are sensible.

The difference with Florida's new standards is that they're more easily understood.  For those who think about math as conventional arithmetic and algorithmic operations, they will read phrases such as basic addition facts and related subtraction facts,  grouping by tens and ones (two of the big ideas for first grade), or quick recall of addition facts and related subtraction facts and fluency with multi-digit addition and subtraction (from one of the big ideas in second grade), and with luck they will be reassured that kids have to learn conventional operations. But there's plenty of strategies language as well, and hidden in there are terms such as mathematical reasoning, conjectures, axioms, proofs, etc. In other words, the standards document is flexible enough in language to satisfy everyone without raising red flags.

I suspect that math education people could be even more effective in communicating their instructional and curricular ideas. The following is a restructuring of what I've read plenty of times, though I don't think I've ever heard math educators organize their arguments in exactly the following way. So this is a completely amateurish PR effort rather than a statement about math curriculum itself. A good education in math covers the following six areas (and credit my math-major wife with convincing me that there were six rather than five: guess which was her insistent addition):

  1. Learning conventional interpretations of math objects and concepts. Students learn at least one standard way of understanding terms such as whole numbers, adding, subtracting, multiplying dividing, fractions, decimals, negative numbers, etc.
  2. Recognizing math objects and concepts in concrete applications and instantiations. Students learn ways of thinking about the world in mathematical terms, from measuring length to calculating speed, etc.
  3. Becoming fluent in efficient algorithms for solving mathematical problems. Students learn the procedures of algorithms, the fact that algorithms are not unique, and the ways that people make choices among different algorithms (such as efficiency, ease of operation, etc.).
  4. Recognizing reinterpretations of known math objects and concepts. When advancing in math, students must learn new perspectives on old terms. Multiplying is not just repeated addition but akin to stretching a rubber band or calculating area and volume. From everything I understand (from outside both math and math education), flexibility in reinterpreting objects and concepts is critical to learning new topics in math, even if the curriculum appears sequential.
  5. Making and testing conjectures. In a good math education, students are encouraged to speculate about mathematical objects and concepts and are required to test conjectures about math, to figure out how they can confirm or disprove what they think they know.
  6. Making deeper connections among different areas of math. Middle-school, high school, and college math courses are not just sequential in the sense of adding material but also make connections among different topics. A solid math education teaches students to recognize the multiple connections among different areas of math, and a great math education teaches students something of how math has and continues to evolve as a field in part by changing the relationships among different areas of math.

Most of NCTM's concepts focus on areas 1-3 and 5, but I've also seen many of my colleagues focus on the practical teaching skills of #4. One poster session at AERA this spring discussed the different ways in which geometry teachers used visuals, and the fluidity convinced me that great teachers have to master the reinterpretation of concepts, if for no other reason than multiple representations of the same concept is both a way to reach students with different prior understandings and also a way for other students to grasp some deeper math.

I'm convinced that #6 is not hard at all: it should flow easily from the rest as part of the occasional hey, look at how beautiful math is mini-lesson. I'm convinced that what students find much harder is learning how to make and test conjecturing. Because the legacy math curriculum places proofs in geometry (9th or 10th grade), plenty of students have little experience with conjectures and the like until geometry, at which point they hear that they are to craft proofs like the perfect classics they are then exposed to.  It is much like taking students to an illusionist's show and then asking them to perform sleight of hand tricks without any assistance... or crueler yet, showing students a tape of Sandy Koufax and then asking them to strike batters out. "Hey, you've just seen it done. You can do it."

Yes, I'll admit that these divisions are as artificial as the ones NCTM or anyone else has crafted. But I think these are reasonably consistent with what I have read and heard from colleagues in math educaiton, and I think that these are easily communicated (or more easily communicated than NCTM's).

Comments and kibitzing are most welcome!

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Posted in Education policy at 12:53 AM (Permalink) |

September 25, 2007

NAEP scores out

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (2007) scores are out, and here's a quick response on reading for the country and Florida:

1) The U.S. Department of Education report focuses on feel-good comparisons with 2005, when looking back further gives a different picture. Yes, in fourth grade reading for the country's children, the average scale score has gone up 2 points in the past year, but the improvement was better in the four years before 2002 (4 points 1998-2002, vs. 2 points 2002-2007). And in eighth grade, the report claims improvement since 2005, but there's been a slight average scale score decline since 2002. In general, fourth-grade reading has been on a gentle upward slope for the past decade while eighth-grade reading is stagnant. In addition, in most areas there has been no closing of the achievement gap since 1992. (The only achievement gap to show a decline either since 1992 or 2005 was the White-Black comparison in fourth-grade reading.) The take-home story today is that the nation's reading achievement provides no clear evidence that No Child Left Behind has dramatically changed elementary and middle-school reading proficiency.

2) Florida's reading achievement is mixed. There appears to be a long-term improvement in reading in fourth grade but stagnant reading scores in eighth grade since 2002. (There was a decline between 2002 and 2005 and then an increase, so the average scale score in 2007 was 1 point below 2002.) There was a slight increase in the proportion of students excluded from testing, but it's hard to know how that might have affected scale scores. Today's report also gives no trend data by population subgroup, so we can tell nothing about changes in achievement gaps in Florida from today's report.

3) If you look at Florida scores by achievement levels, the conclusions you draw depend on which grade and level you pick. Fourth grade: In both the second (proficient) and third (basic) levels, there is a long-term increase in the proportion of students achieving that level, but the second level's upward trend started in 1998, while the third level's upward trend started in 1994.   Eighth grade: There's been stagnation since 2002 no matter which level you examine, after a four-year uptick.

I'd like to get inside the data more, but the NAEP Data Explorer server is now very busy.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 10:21 AM (Permalink) |

September 23, 2007

Hoover and Rumsfeld

According to a New York Times story, the recent Hoover Institute appointment of Donald Rumsfeld has brought a petition:

We, the undersigned members of the Stanford community, strongly object to the appointment of Donald Rumsfeld as a "distinguished visiting fellow" at Stanford's Hoover Institution. We view the appointment as fundamentally incompatible with the ethical values of truthfulness, tolerance, disinterested enquiry, respect for national and international laws, and care for the opinions, property and lives of others to which Stanford is inalienably committed.

Right now, there are a handful more than 3,000 signatures. I understand the disgust with which Stanford faculty view the idea that Rumsfeld would be accorded any respect, but I think they've dealt inappropriately with the Hoover-Stanford relationship, which has always been tenuous, in addition to the fact that the idea of un-hiring someone post hoc is inappropriate in most cases. In protesting the appointment as if it really were a Stanford matter, they are giving more recognition to the Hoover-Stanford tie than they should.  If I were at Stanford, I'd have written it differently:

When we heard of Donald Rumsfeld's appointment as a "distinguished visiting fellow" at the Hoover Institution, we immediately recognized the appointment as fundamentally incompatible with the ethical values of truthfulness, tolerance, disinterested enquiry, respect for national and international laws, and care for the opinions, property and lives of others to which Stanford is inalienably committed. On the other hand, as members of Stanford faculty, we prize due process and would generally disapprove of other groups who call for someone's un-hiring from such an appointment.

Moreover, there may be some value in inviting the arrogant architect of the Iraq war to a campus organization that is only tenuously tied to our teaching mission. We salute the Hoover Institute's director for transparency in making an appointment that mirrors his values, if not Stanford's.

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Posted in Higher education at 12:30 PM (Permalink) |

Icons and beacons

Eric Rauchway has the best short commentary on two recent University of California idiocies:

In the Chemerinsky case, UC threatened Chemerinsky's academic freedom; in the Summers case, UC threatened mine--and that of everyone else who teaches here.

Nice bon mot, but I wish Rauchway had explained it more clearly: UCI Chancellor Michael Drake was violating Chemerinsky's individual rights as the primary consequence of his attempt to un-hire Chemerinsky as the new law school's founding dean. There were certainly other consequences (chilling speech and doing inestimable damage to the reputation of the new law school), but the primary academic-freedom consequence was individual.

When the UC regents uninvited Larry Summers, they damaged the environment of the UC system as a forum for all sorts of ideas. By pressuring the regents to withdraw the invitation through a petition protesting the speaking engagement, some UC Davis faculty were violating the principle that a university welcomes a broad variety of voices. While you could argue that the regents damaged Summers's reputation in some way by the disinvitation, and they certainly damaged their own reputation, the greater violation is to the university environment writ large.

I am guessing that some commentators will jump on the actions over the last week as evidence of an institutional double standard. They are seeing Summers as some icon of academic rectitude from his battles at Harvard. I'm not sure it says anything other than the weak-willed nature of the UC regents as a body, something made evident by their inability to oversee the extravagance of two UC presidents. While they're not as incompetent and corrupt as Auburn's trustees, they're not exactly watching the store, and the UC system suffers in the meantime

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Posted in Academic freedom at 12:07 PM (Permalink) |

September 22, 2007

Andrew Meyer, disruptions, and free speech

The news has been flying on the tasering of Andrew Meyer at a University of Florida speech of Senator John Kerry. The best serious commentary is from former Florida Alligator editor Ron Sachs:

Stephen Colbert has his own take on events:


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Posted in Academic freedom at 4:04 PM (Permalink) |

September 21, 2007

"Beyond the Pale"

If you truly love or hate something, you spoof it. Thus the great mockumentaries This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind. Now we have a mockumentary on academe: Beyond the Pale.

It'll be shown next month at the Austin Film Festival. It will also be shown free next Thursday (September 27) 7 pm at the Natural Science Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

(Hat tip: Mark Bernstein, one of the actors in the film.)

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Posted in Higher education at 7:11 AM (Permalink) |

September 20, 2007

Vi8gra for ur tests

In response to the growing arguments over the Miller-McKeon Title II proposal (i.e., encouragement of performance pay), Eduwonk (Andy Rotherham) writes

... until education becomes a field that is comfortable with the idea of performance, it's a field that is in some trouble.

This may say something about my spam filter, but that phrase brought up images of all the potential spam about "your test score size," "plez ur schl brd," etc. Of course, neither schools nor teachers would ever spend money on charlatans promising to increase test scores...

Oh, wait.  Yeah.

Well, at least I've got another few lines for an accountability stand-up routine, and all I had to do was have a mild emergency yesterday and be away from my computer all day.

More seriously, in practice these performance-pay plans are complicated and often undercut the claims of proponents that they will reward teachers who work hard in difficult circumstances. Or, as the Orlando Sentinel reported September 9 about the Orange County (Fla.) plan,

...teachers at predominantly white and affluent schools were twice as likely to get a bonus as teachers from schools that are predominantly black and poor.

Finally, I'll repeat this until I'm blue in the face: Everyone else in favor of performance pay on principle or faith, please show me up and read the literature on goal-setting. I don't want to be better read on this than you.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 12:36 PM (Permalink) |

September 18, 2007

Unable to celebrate tomorrow

Tomorow's my long day this semester, which is darned unfortunately, because otherwise I'd be worshipping the 18th letter of the alphabet for Talk Like a Pirate Day (song) (lyrics). I'm sure that there's a good education policy joke in there somewhere, but it's too late for my brain to figure it out.

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Posted in Random comments at 10:04 PM (Permalink) |

September 16, 2007

Of promotions and cranberry wine

I just finished the draft of my promotion-packet narratives. The whole thing is due at the end of the month, and apart from proofreading, there are other tasks to complete:

  • Collect information on journals and my books' publishers for my chair
  • Collect and confirm grant information
  • Check for consistency between tenure packet and cv
  • Create a checklist for documentation (Yes, faculty up for tenure or promotion need to provide documentation. Loads of it.)
  • Decide what documentation is hard-copy and what is electronic (I'm tempted to just put copies of my book and coedited volumes, together with a vitae, and put everything else in my Blackboard collection, both as a statement of what's important and also so people don't have to sit in their office to read my materials. But I suspect people generally want to read things in hard copy, so I need to guess what they'll want access to in paper.)

This is only the list for my promotion materials. You don't want to see my full, metastasizing to-do list.  Really you don't. And I think before trying anything else on that to-do list, I'll have a glass of the scandalously-consumer cranberry wine I bought last night.

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Posted in Random comments at 7:08 PM (Permalink) |

September 15, 2007

Department of Something

I've wanted to respond to an early August post of Timothy Burke's for a few months, but I've been swamped with a number of other tasks, and it took an early Saturday morning of some other mundanities to justify my splurging on this reply.

This really started with Mark Bauerlein, so you can complain to him about having to read this. Back in July, Mark Bauerlein wrote An Anti-Progressive Syllabus as an IHE column, suggesting a rather eclectic set of conservative readings he wanted included in literary theory anthologies/courses (such as the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism). That column prompted a long discussion in The Valve, to which Bauerlein responded (in part):

Luther [Blisset] raises a significant point that goes deeper to the heart of what is and is not relevant in a Theory course. He says that this course should teach students the ideas and approaches that have prevailed in the discipline for the last 30 years or so. But what if the problem lies in precisely what the discipline has considered important? That's the real issue. For me, literary/cultural theory has traveled so far into itself, so far into advanced humanistic study, that it has lost touch with both the basic undergraduate classroom and with cultural policy decision-making in the public sphere.

Later in the thread, Adam Kotsko suggested that the problem with the items list was that they had not been used in literary theory:

English professors aren't using "conservative" figures as sources for literary theory. The syllabus of the Theory course is not the place to make this change--rather, [Bauerlein] should be arguing for the deployment of [Francis] Fukayama (or whoever) in literary scholarship. "Hitler Studies After the End of History: A Fukayaman Reading of White Noise." In fact, MB should be out there doing Fukayaman ... scholarship himself.

To which Tim Burke added in his blog,

So don't tell people they ought to make their students read Hayek or Horowitz. Explain what a hermeneutics that riffs off of Hayek actually looks like. Illustrate it. Do it.

Burke then riffs off of a comment in the original The Valve post about English morphing into a department of Everything Studies (an idea that also appears in Bauerlein's comment quoted above, albeit in the context of teaching and cultural policy decision-making in the public sphere, a term that's just a tad obscure), to argue that, in fact, there should be such a department:

I want to collapse all departments concerned with the interpretation and practice of expressive culture into a single large departmental unit. I'd call it Cultural Studies, but I don't want it to be Cultural Studies as that term is now understood in the American academy. Call it Department of the Humanities, or of Interpretation, or something more elegant and self-explanatory if you can think of it. I want English, Modern Languages, Dance, Theater, Art History, Music, the hermeneutical portions of philosophy, cultural and media studies, some strands of anthropology, history and sociology, and even a smattering of cognitive science all under one roof. I want what John [Holbo] is calling Everything Studies, except that I want its domain limited to expressive culture.

Burke is making an argument for something beyond interdisciplinarity; I've heard a colleague describe it as transdisciplinary. The nub of this argument is how Burke acknowledgmes that he has a limited set of skills, "But the limits on our research and interpretation of expressive media are provisional and personal. There's no reason to turn them into prescriptive claims about the nature of interpretative work for everybody else." Burke is arguing that disciplinary boundaries are constructed.

Well, that's not quite it. Burke is frustrated with disciplinary parochialism:

What I'm sick of is people who want a "conservative tradition" picking only the neo-Arnoldian parts of this list and then thumbing their nose at the rest as if it is self-evident that no self-respecting critic would want to talk about the cognitive, historical, economic, ideological questions that surround expressive culture, that all that crap is some social scientist's dreary business and get it the fuck out of my English Department. Just as I'm sick of a historicist refusing to take hermeneutics seriously, or some Franksteinian Frankfurter regarding the practical questions involved in actually doing cultural production as some sort of low-class consorting with the hegemonic beast.

I've written about academic parochialism and my own frustrations with it. I doubt whether that parochialism justifies the destruction of departmental boundaries, but let me focus on Burke's stronger argument, that we should be aware of how our disciplinary boundaries are institutionalized for practical or political reasons, not issues of fundamental divisions in knowledge:

The problem of course is to have world enough and time. We cannot write everything, read everything, teach everything. Scholars and publishers have to make decisions about what they value: which graduate student should advance or be rewarded, which work should be published, who makes the cut in a syllabus, which courses do we offer and not offer? Canons and disciplines are a pragmatic shorthand that keep us from having to rehearse our wanderings through Everything every time we set out to teach and research Everything. But that's all they are. They're not complete ontologies, not totalizing politics, not comprehensive philosophies.

I've heard arguments before in favor of some version of transdisciplinarity before, from vapid progressive educational philosophies to conversations with my campus colleagues. Burke's is the most thoughtful argument on this point that I've read or heard, and I don't think anyone who's aware of a smattering of sociology of knowledge would disagree with his basic point: disciplines are malleable entities, in theory and in practice. If playing along disciplinary boundaries is useful--what we call interdisciplinary work--then maybe destroying the boundaries would be even better.

Burke is wrong on several grounds, and I state my disagreement as someone whose academic work is necessarily interdisciplinary as a teacher (of an interdisciplinary field), as a researcher, as a member of several interdisciplinary communities (education policy, social-science history), and as a university employee (an historian in a college of education).  In my own career, I don't think I've behaved as a parochial academic.

Yet Burke is wrong from three perspectives. First, in colleges and universities, departments are essential to organizing the professional life of academics. Every so often, institutions attempt to abolish departments, and these are usually unhappy experiments (such as in Peabody College for Teachers in the 1970s, before its absorption into Vanderbilt University). There is a certain amount of support that faculty need in the practical life of running an institution, and beyond a certain size, large collections of faculty are unwieldy to support or administer. In a more practical sense, however, the peer relationships among colleagues that are part of evaluation, tenure, and promotion decisions require enough common understandings that decisions avoid the capricious quality inherent when you just don't understand someone else's work. As an historian in a department with a majority of psychologists, I've seen the hard work that such interdisciplinary structures require. My colleagues and I all putatively focus on education, but that doesn't eliminate the frictions that occasionally need to be smoothed about our research traditions, the different types of questions we raise, and the ways we answer those questions. I've worked in a Department of Everything Studies (Education Division), and Burke is glossing over the hard work required in such an arrangement.

Even if we could ignore the institutional needs for departmental structures, we should not ignore the importance of providing depth of experience in research education. What would a Ph.D. produced by a Department of Everything Studies look like? Even if disciplinary traditions are constructed, and even if disciplinary boundaries are movable, they are sufficiently coherent to provide a foundation for advanced research education. Graduate students need to focus on something, both in terms of interests and also in terms of scholarly tools.

I suspect that Burke would want people with different sets of skills and interests in his Department of Everything Studies, but they'd have to have graduate education in something, and I suspect that couldn't happen in a Department of Everything Studies, or a Ph.D. produced by such a department would carry enormous risks of having eaten a thin intellectual gruel rather than consuming something of substance. I often worry about that risk in colleges of education. (In our college, a formulaic program structure is the institutional answer to such concerns, with required courses in ed psych, social foundations, statistics, and research design, as well as a certain number of courses in one's specialization and in a cognate field. Of course that doesn't guarantee a coherent, sensible program; advisors still need to provide considerable guidance.)

Finally, if we could wish away the institutional need for departmental structures and a graduate student's need to study something, there is the question of whether undergraduate students should study something instead of everything. At least in one context, we can wish away those departmental needs: In a small liberal-arts college, where the problems of scale and graduate education recede, one could experiment with an undergraduate Department of Everything. Those who worry about students' ability to think critically and develop other generalizable intellectual skills might approve of such a department, and I suppose it would fit into the views of others who want some sort of universal assessment of what students learn from college (such as those who like the Collegiate Learning Assessment).

But I do not think that we learn anything as general as critical thinking or even subdivisions of that (such as essay-writing) absent studying something specific. Yes, our intellectual skills are generalizable, but we don't develop them absent topics. Each topic then invites its own set of approaches, including ways of categorizing the subject, raising important questions, and answering those questions. One of the reasons why Kotsko and Burke could call Bauerlein on the carpet for failing to show what a Fukuyamaesque literary analysis would be like is because there exists a mental model of what good scholarly tools for literary analysis should look like, and they have a sense that tossing off names doesn't fit the bill. Where did that mental model come from?

Maybe my point about needing to study something would be useful with a contrast. What makes history different from biology is a set of limits to the topic, the questions that historians and biologists raise, and the ways that they answer them. And while there are interesting overlaps between the two (such as how humans have shaped the environment, and vice versa), even in the overlap environmental historians such as William Cronon and Michael L. Lewis are going to ask questions different from the questions their biology colleagues ask and have different ways of answering them. Part of what we learn from interdisciplinary work is how to ask questions differently, something that can change our own disciplines, but that can only happen when there are differences in approaches.

Well, responds Timothy Burke from the Devil's counsel table, wouldn't an interdisciplinary area such as environmental studies then develop its own somewhat coherent set of topic boundaries, categorizations, questions, and tools, akin to the canonical disciplines? Yes, of course. Point granted. It could, and it does. Apart from the campus politics of interdisciplinary areas and new departments (such as the history of SUNY Buffalo's women's studies program/$JSTOR), there is nothing in what I've said that dictates what configuration of disciplines would be necessary. Disciplinary boundaries evolve, and there are plenty of undergraduate and graduate programs that live in the boundaries of two or more disciplines... or have evolved out of that interdisciplinary state into their own entities. My own program area and department are examples of such evolutions and noncanonical configurations.

But the fact of intellectual change and the constructed nature of disciplines doesn't mean that disciplinarity doesn't exist, isn't healthy, and isn't necessary for undergraduate curricula, graduate education, or academic institutions. Thus, my bottom line is not the current constellation of disciplines but some configuration, not a Collegium of What Exists Now but a Collegium of Somethings. In higher education, everyone needs a Department of Something.

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Posted in Higher education at 12:45 PM (Permalink) |

September 14, 2007

The b-word and education politics

Blogger KDeRosa calls George Miller "a Whiny Bitch" (hat tip), which makes me wonder where this performative name-calling came from (see Andy Rotherham's running joke about Rick Hess, though I don't know where that came from, either, and I thought it would be more appropriate to call him Rick "Baby" Hess, since that's the interjection he uses frequently).

Fundamentally, KDeRosa is trying to slap down Miller's rhetoric ($ after today), which in turn is an effort to pivot around Spellings's claims that the Miller-McKeon draft is too wimpy when Miller pointed out that the federal DOE isn't exactly clean on loopholes.

I never knew that education politics was a macho sport. Maybe we can get it on ESPN now, if we can get a little more trash-talking? Or will they be serving diabetes-sized buckets of cheap beer at the next Washington education think-tank gathering?

Take home message: Any day of the week, I'll take ideas over name-calling. What about you?

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 2:02 PM (Permalink) |

Five-Year Plans and Ed Trust flexibility

Trust it to AFT's Michele McLaughlin to find the hidden item in the Ed Trust statement on Miller-McKeon's draft Title I language. Like many others, I had focused on the more belligerent language earlier:

Although the staff draft creates an accountability fig-leaf by preserving the requirement that all students reach proficiency in reading and mathematics by the 2013-14 school year, the heart of the law has been hollowed out.

Sting! But McLaughlin notes the following:

"Additional funding may be included, but money is not the sticking point," says [Ed Trust VP Amy] Wilkins. "The 2013-14 deadline for proficiency is a powerful disincentive to raising standards. If we are going to ask states - and students - to climb a higher mountain, we need to give them more time to get there, and this bill draft does not do that."

McLaughlin correctly notes the hint at flexibility that I (and almost everyone else) missed. In testifying at Monday's hearing, Ed Trust's President Kati Haycock largely ignored Title I to focus on teacher issues. With the exception of data issues, the only pieces of Title I mentioned in her testimony were parts related to which teachers are where.


I'll ignore the positioning/politicking questions to focus on one thing: There appears to be one less visible supporter for the rigid Five-Year Plannish elements of NCLB.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 9:19 AM (Permalink) |

September 12, 2007

Center-right education fellowships

Two items of note regarding center-right education folks:

  • The Fordham Fellows blog has just started up. I expect it to have lots of interesting discussions.
  • The Education Entrepreneur Fellowship at Indianapolis's The Mind Trust. It's a two-year stint with office space, travel support, and networking opportunities for a few people with provocative ideas they want to try out/expand. If you want a multi-hundred-grand project, this isn't for you. But if you're good at turning networking opportunities into projects, it'll probably work.
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Posted in Education policy at 2:08 PM (Permalink) |

Call for papers: Politics, Activism, and the History of America's Public Schools

Forwarded from an e-mail, an opportunity for graduate students and new scholars in the history of education.

"Politics, Activism, and the History of America’s Public Schools"
A Conference Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of The Irony of Early School Reform, April 12, 2008
University of Pennsylvania

Upon its publication, Professor Michael B. Katz’s The Irony of Early School Reform (1968) underscored the possibility of using historical study to shed light on the contemporary state of schooling in the United States. This one-day conference aims to bring together emerging and veteran scholars whose work, like Irony, excavates the past to expose the present.

Conference organizers are soliciting papers from younger scholars—graduate students and assistant professors in the early stages of their career—whose work engages the history of America's public schools with an eye toward contemporary challenges and debates. The conference program committee will organize panels from submitted papers. During these panels, young scholars will have 15 minutes to present their papers, after which they will be discussed in a rigorous yet supportive workshop setting facilitated by a leading expert in the field.

With generous support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York City, the Spencer Foundation, and various departments and programs at the University of Pennsylvania, we have been able to secure the participation of some of the most eminent researchers in the history of American Education. We also will be able to offer a select group of younger scholars funding to offset travel costs. By bringing together junior and senior scholars for a day of critique, encouragement, and shared questioning, we hope to strengthen the community of scholars committed to studying the history of American education.

Submission deadline: December 8, 2007

Submission Procedures: Please send the following information as attachments to

  • A paper proposal of 350 words that identifies the topic, its significance, and preliminary findings.
  • A c.v. containing email and mailing addresses
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Posted in History at 8:20 AM (Permalink) |

September 11, 2007

Jack Jennings is right (part 1)

I didn't have my computer for part of the evening, but I did have a way to record my thoughts on Jack Jennings's testimony yesterday at the NCLB reauthorization hearing.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 10:22 PM (Permalink) |

NCLB hearing testimony

I'm trying to find all of the written statements for yesterday's NCLB hearing. Thus far, I have the following:

Correction: All of the testimony is listed on the committee's hearing page, which also includes a video archive of the day. Hat tip: Alexander Russo.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 6:57 AM (Permalink) |

September 10, 2007

Stalemate talk or spin?

Another bit from Alexander Russo today, stemming from an NPR story:

[This is the] first word I've heard of that Spellings is saying she'd rather have the current NCLB than the Miller draft. Saber-rattling? Maybe. But for those who are most worried about multiple measures and all the rest, it's going to be a serious consideration.

I can't believe that Spellings would play that game, because she'll be gone within two years (sooner if she's really looking for a university leadership position). Stalemate will give more time for parents to decide that test-based statistical judgments are a poor idea. Stalemale = greater likelihood of defeat, for Spellings at least. Or stalemate shoves the responsibility for defending the current structure onto Achieve and Education Trust.

Or maybe this is Spellings' way to set up a spin when/if reauthorization doesn't happen this year, much akin to a song a friend of mine wrote: I Meant To Do That.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 2:24 PM (Permalink) |

NCLB reauthorization hearing

Since he's a former Hill staffer, I'd pay attention to  Alexander Russo's comments on today's House NCLB reauthorization hearing.

By having everyone speak, the committee pretty much ensures a certain amount of cacaphony. And by putting Kati Haycock -- one of the draft's most vocal critics -- off in the teacher quality corner, the committee sends a clear message that it doesn't like being called out.

I'm more confident of Russo's first conclusion than his second one: NEA and AFT's representatives are on the teaching/school leadership (not teacher quality) panel. While analyzing a witness list is akin to reading tea leaves a la old-style Kremlinology, maybe that's appropriate for a law whose numerical goals seem awfully Five-Year-Plannish.

Update: podcast available! (Thank my poor ergonomic awareness last week for this one...)

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 9:20 AM (Permalink) |

September 8, 2007

NCLB "Shrinklits" spin

I've just finished a substantial detail-oriented task (took about a day or more spread over the past week), and I am just too tired right now to read and talk about the Miller-McKeon discussion draft sequel, esp. Title II. I'm far too tired now to analyze the various spins that people have tried out on the Title I part of the draft, let alone Title II. I'll offer a few Shrinklits versions, and you pick which one you want to use:

  1. It was the best of laws, it was the worst of laws.
  2. All happy reforms are alike; each unhappy reform is unhappy in its own way.
  3. Quickly, word got to the villagers and everybody in the village rushed to the newspaper to see Anansi's school listed under "needs improvement." It was such a shame for Anansi, he ran away and hid in a corner of his room. That is why he is always in the top corner of rooms and why he hides from us.
  4. As someday it may happen that a scapegoat must be found,
    I've got a little list. I've got a little list
    of overblown pol gasbags who might well be DC-bound
    and that never would be missed. They never would be missed!
  5. I am, indeed, mighty world-destroying Discourse,
    Here made part of U.S. Code for destroying the school.
    Even without Statute, none of the teachers here
    Arrayed within the foolish classrooms shall stay in their professions another 37 nanoseconds.
  6. It was a dark and stormy reauthorization.

Any others?

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 3:53 PM (Permalink) |

September 7, 2007

Crist's budget recommendations would violate Florida law

Governor Charlie Crist's budget-cut recommendations would cut $188 million from the state university system, the majority of that from existing programs; $45.3 million from direct community college support; and additional funds from specific programs in higher ed that aren't categorized in higher ed. While he would cut $120 million from recurring funds in the state's aid program to elementary and secondary schools (Florida Education Finance Program), he'd replace every dollar with nonrecurring general-revenue funds.

If enacted, this disproportionate slicing of higher ed (more than 35% of general-revenue cuts coming from higher education) would violate Florida Statutes 215.16(2):

If the state appropriations from the General Revenue Fund for the benefit of the uniform system of public free schools, state institutions of higher learning, and community colleges cannot be paid in full during any given year, they shall be diminished only in the same proportion that appropriations for all other purposes from the General Revenue Fund are diminished during such year. Additionally, any funding reductions to public free schools, state institutions of higher learning, and community colleges shall be diminished in proportions identical to one another. For the purpose of implementing this section, general revenue funds exclude the administrative budgets of the Board of Governors and the Department of Education.

If the legislature goes along with the governor's plans, it's very hard to see how it avoids violating Florida law.

This restriction on budget cutting didn't hit any of the stories thus far on Crist's plan. According to a St. Petersburg Times article this morning, SUS Chancellor Mark Rosenberg said, "It seems we have a governor who wants to protect K-12, but is willing to throw higher education under the bus." According to the Jacksonville Times-Union, Rep. Stephen Wise said, "What the governor wants would have a disastrous effect on community colleges, which are one of the engines that runs the state's workforce." And while other stories noted the cuts to higher education, reporters didn't dig to see if the cuts would be legal.

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Posted in Higher education at 8:46 AM (Permalink) |

September 4, 2007

Miller-McKeon draft thoughts

So how was your Labor Day? I spent part of mine combing through the NCLB reauthorization discussion draft made available a week ago. (My spouse and I agree that we don't engage in paid work on legal holidays, but we're allowed to do anything that's fun or citizenship oriented. So we're well-acquainted with various loopholes... call it 'gaming the system' if you wish. I called this citizenship, not fun. Yes, I did spend time with my family, with a good book, and in something creative.)

If you want to read my scribbles, you can look at my comments on the Miller-McKeon reauthorization draft (PDF, 12 MB). The first page is my attempt to cross-reference common criticisms of NCLB with pages/sections of the discussion draft that may address those criticisms. The rest are all of the pages of the draft (well, two pages per sheet) with my comments. The file is about 150 pages long, because I didn't scan the sheets I didn't have comments on. Please remember that I was (and still am) not happy with the short turnaround time for comments, so you'll find plenty of snark and a few comments that indicate I need to look up things to check whether the draft has changed language, etc.

I hope to have something more analytical within a day or three, but the first page shows my thinking that this draft attempts to address the vast majority of criticisms in different ways. That statement doesn't say anything about how well the draft addresses criticisms, but with a few notable exceptions, the draft does tackle the well-known gripes.

The exceptions (and these are important):

  1. How NCLB has been followed by the transformation of large numbers of schools into test-prep factories. (This is separate from the issue of curriculum-narrowing.)
  2. The mandate of a limited menu of fundamentally unproven restructuring options (made even more restrictive under the discussion draft).
  3. The failure to hold SES providers accountable in a timely way.
  4. The waste of the 20% set-aside provision for schools in the "needs improvement" category.
  5. The fundamentally arbitrary nature of defining levels of proficiency.

The discussion draft fails to address any of these five criticisms. These are all substantive problems, well-known to anyone who's dealt with NCLB, and the failure to even acknowledge #1 in any way shows how the Beltway conventional wisdom has its head in the sand on test-prep. But despite my somewhat cynical disappointment on these matters, to my surprise, my impression is that the discussion draft provides a reasonable basis for negotiating reauthorization. Of the items listed above, I suspect the only non-negotiable item from the inside-the-Beltway perspective is #4, and I think that is the least important issue to address in the short term (i.e., reauthorization).

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 9:11 AM (Permalink) |

September 2, 2007

Work dross

There is something about spending six hours in a chain cafe on Sunday that is either gold or dross. In the last year, I have occasionally knocked out loads of work when leaving my family alone to relax (I hope!) while I work. Today has been humbling in terms of the lack of concrete accomplishments on my to-do list.

That isn't to say I haven't been working. I've helped an EPAA contributor submit a manuscript, answered student questions, collected reviewer comments for several manuscripts, reviewed those manuscripts to prepare disposition letters, and worked on my promotion portfolio. I suspect I've done a bunch of other things as well, but there's nothing I can really point to and say, "Ha! See what I've done!" [Competing metaphor about partially-weeded plots deleted here to avoid the barbs of my favorite Scathing Online Schoolmarm.]

Fortunately, I can put such days in perspective, especially when I've had a succession of them as I have in the last week. I may get nothing at the end of today but the lump of impurities that has slowly coagulated since 9 am, but I'll get something later.

For those in the U.S., please accept my wishes for a great Labor Day. I won't be blogging tomorrow, at least here.

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Posted in Random comments at 3:02 PM (Permalink) |