January 31, 2008

Higher education and the wrong battle

At Education Sector, Kevin Carey (a 4 out of 5 in my book) has an institutionalist lens that is sometimes incisive (4.5 out of 5) , sometimes frustrating (2 of 5), and occasionally both. Such as his complaint yesterday about the "Higher Ed Lobby" (my quotation marks, which are probably 1 out of 5 on style). Here's the gist in his complaint about accreditation agency politics:

But accreditation does a terrible job of creating or providing any kind of public, comparable information about institution-level academic quality.

I'd rate that comment as a 3 out of 5, and the post in general a 2.5 (in comparison with Eduwonkette, whose posts are averaging about 4.87 in the last few months). There are multiple arguments layered into that one statement, but let me focus on two:

  • Lax accreditation has played a significant role in letting the quality of (undergraduate) instruction be lower than it could be.
  • What we need to improve undergraduate instruction is predigested comparisons of quality between institutions.

Thus, yesterday's statement of principles by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation is unlikely to satisfy Carey's concerns because it resists the notion that creating quantitative comparisons of student outcomes is a necessary part of the accreditation process. Delving into the broader issue at length requires more energy and time than I have this morning, but I'll put out a few counterclaims:

  • As long as millions of parents and students perceive that they are buying a degree from a college, there will be an inevitable tension between credentialism and the "use value" of a college education. In this environment, accreditation has to answer the face-value "does this college provide an opportunity to learn, and is the degree legitimate?" question.
  • The most savvy students and parents want more than U.S. News rankings, but they're not going to give a hoot about what irks Carey and me about the rankings. Instead, savvy students and parents want to know what happens in the classroom, the lab, the studio, and the field. A case in point: last year, one teen acquaintance of mine was looking for colleges with performing arts programs. In the end, she was accepted to two schools with outstanding reputations, one with local connections that are unbeatable in this subfield, and the other that's in another region, perfectly reputable, but without those networking opportunities. She had the opportunity for one last visit to each place, and what made the difference was watching students rehearse and perform. There was no faux objectivity. My young friend watched students work and decided that the less-networked place had the better education because there was a pop to the work in one place that just didn't exist in the other.

My friend and her parents (whom I've known for years) cared about comparisons, but not predigested ones. They made their own ranking. Kevin Carey, Charles Miller, and others may want to see predigested measures, but they'll be swimming upstream against credentialism, against the needs of students and families who really do want information about educational quality, and against the professional judgment of faculty. Framing the issue as one of the White Hats against the Higher Ed Lobby does everyone a disservice.

One more thing: Last week I tried an experiment and allowed readers to rate my posts on a 1-5 scale. I tried priming the pump by rating a few of them (no, not all 5's), but no one else participated, and I pulled that option. I guess maybe some people are interested in ratings, but not my blog's readers.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 11:47 AM (Permalink) |

January 30, 2008

Need new brain. Or a walk.

I think I got a bunch of stuff done this morning, but my brain really is not working right now. Either I need a brain transplant or I need to get out of my office, walk somewhere for coffee or something else of sustenance, and revive.

I'll try the second, in hopes that I don't really need the first.

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Posted in The academic life at 2:07 PM (Permalink) |

Chemistry or test-prep?

In Palm Beach County, high schools are ditching real science for FCAT prep. And I thought the election results were the most depressing news of the morning!

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:02 AM (Permalink) |

January 29, 2008

Bad signs in Kenya

According to the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Kenyan Universities Remain Closed as Fighting Worsens. Universities had already delayed the opening of the current term, and when schools are closed in civil conflict, lots of other things are inevitably shut down as well. Coverage by PRI's The World provides more information about the conflict in Kenya generally, and on that site, there's an interesting story about cell-phone credit and the current conflict.

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Posted in Higher education at 12:28 PM (Permalink) |

Alfie Kohn and Diane Ravitch agree!

This week, the zeitgeist in education news is paying students for test scores, as in the Baltimore Sun article yesterday or the USA Today story, but so-called incentive programs have been in the news before and criticized before: See criticisms of Pizza Hut's "Book It" program or Barry Schwartz's column last July, which scored New York City's initiative to pay students for test scores. While they sound good in theory (reward kids for doing well!), it rubs a number of people the wrong way, including Elena Silva of Education Sector, Diane Ravitch, Eduwonkette, and even conservative Liam Julian, who criticized such programs last year (though I'm linking to my blog entry because the original column has suffered linkrot). And virtually the whole education world knows about Alfie Kohn's opposition to tangible incentives. So what could possibly bring folks from very different stripes together; after all, as Robert Pondiscio points out, isn't giving one incentive the same as giving any incentive, and all we're doing is haggling over the price?

First, a bit of disillusionment: while Kohn and Ravitch both talk about intrinsic rewards, I suspect only one of them will agree with the second half of the reasoning below.

There are two problems with paying students cash for achievement. One is that these programs are not finely calibrated. Whether they reward status achievement (straight As or a certain score on standardized tests) or some sort of growth/effort, there are going to be some rewarded students who did not work hard for the reward and other unrewarded students who probably deserve it. Two consequences flow from that fact. First, students will perceive it as unfair, once the money is doled out. Well, maybe we should be teaching teenagers that "merit pay" isn't always distributed on an equitable basis (see Robert Dreeben's work), but I suspect a program that doesn't pass the adolescent sniff test for fairness will alienate rather than motivate students, with the consequences magnified because of the money stakes. In addition to the fairness issue, there is the research question of whether rewarding students' focused effort and improvement is better or worse than rewarding status. Most program administrators probably make decisions based on seat-of-the-pants judgments rather than the research.

There is a second problem with paying students cash for achievement, and that is the question of the reward itself: will it promote continued effort, or will it be tangential to effort? A case in point from my own experience as a parent, and that of many other parents: you go to the library with your elementary-school child and borrow some books that the child chooses. You all return home. The child reads the book. What is the reward for the child's reading the book? My wife and I didn't think about it at the time in this way, but what our children chose was to return to the library to get more books. The reward was another library trip, which promoted reading. Many math teachers have bonus questions on tests to keep some occupied when they finish the main questions earlier than other students. But the bonus questions also reward completing the test by giving the students more opportunity to challenge themselves. Students of moderate means who work their tail off in high school should be rewarded by an opportunity to attend college at reduced cost (a scholarship), which promotes learning. And so forth.

From this, I'd argue that the more fundamental problem with rewarding achievement with cash is that such rewards do not promote additional learning. While Roland Fryer (the designer of NYC's incentives program) is obviously a very smart new scholar, he is thinking of the rewards from a fairly narrow perspective, assuming that all incentives are fungible and ignoring the post-award uses of rewards. We know that Pizza Hut is engaged in marketing rather than a promotion of reading because it rewards kids with pizza instead of with books. And we'll see appropriate incentives when their use is intimately tied to additional effort.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 11:00 AM (Permalink) |

January 28, 2008

"Productivity Junta"

I've been an admirer of Cal Newport's Study Hacks blog for a while, and today's advice has a basis in research and a catchy phrase: Form a Productivity Junta.

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Posted in The academic life at 10:51 AM (Permalink) |

How to mislead with charts

At the end of last year, I wrote a review of several Friedman Foundation reports that claimed voucher programs would increase graduation. You can read my full remarks from the link above, but let me focus on a graph that appeared in the South Carolina report:

Original-Gottlob-chart.JPG

For the moment, let's assume that the point estimates are correct (They'd be biased somewhat by the fact that the Current Population Survey does not survey military personnel or those who are in jails, prisons, and other institutional settings.) Look at the numbers to the right of each bar, and then look at the bar lengths.  You'll see that though the numbers indicate that there were fewer dropouts estimated than college graduates or those with some college, the bar for dropouts is longer.  And also look at the scale, which has equal intervals at the bottom for 0-100K, 100K-300K, 300K-600K, and 600K-900K. I have no idea how the author constructed the graph (despite the how in the title of this entry), but below is what a less misleading graph would look like (if with my spectacular-NOT skills in producing a clean JPEG from an Excel chart):

Revised-Gottlob-chart.JPG

The corrected chart shows that using the author's figures, high-school graduates far outnumber those in every other category. That fact doesn't mean that we should sit on our hands about the students who don't graduate from high school, but it does mean we should be skeptical of the rest of the report.

My favorite sites for discussing such things:

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Posted in Education policy at 10:45 AM (Permalink) |

Party trumps policy

Last night, Leo Casey hypothesized on Edwize that Kennedy's endorsement of Obama was related to NCLB. Like Scott Elliott (a reporter with the Dayton Daily News), I'm skeptical. While George Miller and Ted Kennedy have both endorsed Obama and are major figures in NCLB politics, they are also stalwarts in the Democratic caucuses in each side of Capitol Hill, and a significant obligation of such folks is to defend the Congressional majority. The defense of that majority will depend on how well Democratic candidates perform in historically Republican states. As Matthew Yglesias has pointed out, within the Democratic party, Obama is convincing officeholders in Republican-dominated states that he can not only win the White House but help Democratic candidates for lower offices.

That potential contrasts with one of the signal legacies of the (Bill) Clinton administration, a cannibalization of the party by the top of the ticket. While Bill Clinton's fortunes thrived, the Democratic party's did not. I don't think Hillary Clinton is nearly as egotistical as her husband, but downticket potential is probably more important to endorsements than the few inches that separate Clinton and Obama on No Child Left Behind.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:05 AM (Permalink) |

January 27, 2008

Active listening can be too active

When reading Profgrrrrl's account of two admiring students' comments, which left her in very different places afterwards, I had the same reaction as she did. Very briefly, one student projected a whole bunch of assumptions onto Profgrrrrl's life, while the other didn't.

Projections are dangerous, especially when you're doing it because you're trying to reach out to someone. I know that because of my own experiences having others project onto me when they're trying to be nice or solicitous. I try to keep my grumbles to myself.

And if I ever forget, my daughter will remind me that "active listening" can be too active. "You must be-" "No, you don't know what I'm thinking." And I don't.

So with all due respect for Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (whose books are otherwise wonderful for parents of young children), projecting psychological conclusions onto someone else's words or actions is pretty foolish.

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Posted in Random comments at 7:54 AM (Permalink) |

January 26, 2008

Punching through

This morning, I drove my son to a workshop with a ninth-degree black belt in tae kwondo. While he was learning how to punch more effectively, I was writing some critical paragraphs in the article MS I've returned to. Quite pleased, and I've set up the rest of the argument's structure reasonably well.  I need to add in some more relevant data, revise the last section and abstract to match the revisions, and then I think I can send it out.

And then create a new manuscript based on this technical work. I've never done that before (writing one manuscript that depends on another), but I juggle enough things now, why not add another.

(I originally wrote paragraphs in as paragraph sin. Hmmn...)

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Posted in Research at 6:05 PM (Permalink) |

January 25, 2008

No rest for the wearying

This morning was definitely the time to get work done early: meeting on the Lakeland campus at noon (an hour's drive from the Tampa campus), followed by two parental chauffeuring duties this afternoon. So after dropping the son off at school early this morning, I drove out to Lakeland and have spent three hours working, mostly polishing the next EPAA article.

This weekend is also busy, with chauffeuring Saturday morning and a union meeting in Orlando Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. And I'm partway through an article-manuscript revision I've started. Aaaarrghghghgh! That and the next few EPAA tasks will be shuttled back and forth across time and parallel universes, I think.

The Florida Board of Governors meeting yesterday was half a watershed: Charles Edwards proposed raising tuition 13% for each of the next 5 years (to bring it up to the 25th percentile in-state tuition, nationally, as of today's distribution of tuition), but the board eventually settled on a single-year's 8% hike. The politics here focus exclusively on tuition as student cost. That's an important marginal cost to students and families, though the main part of the cost of college is the opportunity cost of not working (or all the other things that go into working full-time and also attending college).

(Yes, I spelled the title deliberately...)

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Posted in The academic life at 11:17 AM (Permalink) |

January 24, 2008

Time warp

I slept in until 5:50 am and I decided to drive my son in to school before showering. I spent some time on e-mail this morning (which is in its own time warp after our tech problems at my college in the last week), and am listening to the webcast of the Florida Board of Governors meetings while catching up on blog-reading. So I feel incredibly lazy, its being 9 am without my having spent an hour or so on a focused work task.

I happen to be a morning person (or have been pushed to be a morning person by my children's school schedules), but I suspect my own habits reflect a change in the lives of faculty. While there may be pockets of academe where new faculty can survive without being organized, I suspect those pockets are shrinking dramatically. Hundreds of my USF colleagues are more work-focused than I am. That has consequences for the culture of an institution, both good in some ways and also unfortunate in others, in terms of providing time and opportunity to talk and be colleagues.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I need to ... mmm ... get to work. It's another kitchen-table day, I think. I've finally puzzled out why some educational attainment measures are less sensitive to migration than others. It's a fairly simple, obvious explanation, but there are some counterintuitive consequences. For example, almost no matter how you measure it, even a well-constructed graduation rate is going to be more sensitive to misspecification of migration than the proportion of school life spent in 11th and 12th grades. The two measures are clearly related, but one is far more vulnerable to migration measures than the other.

So I have an EPAA article to finish preparing, an old manuscript to rework, and a grant to revise. And if you think that will all be done today amid various other things,... well, at least I have some ambitions.

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Posted in The academic life at 9:06 AM (Permalink) |

January 23, 2008

President Bush nominates non-researcher buddy of Jeb to second term on the National Board of Education Sciences

I didn't catch this until the daily Fritzwire, but last week's nomination of four members to the National Board of Education Sciences included a second term for Phil Handy, former head of the Florida Board of Education, a businessman, and someone who never impressed me when he was the Board of Ed chair here. My understanding of the board is that it should serve as an advisory capacity for rigorous research. Handy's reappointment looks like a continued preference for ideology over research.

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Posted in Education policy at 12:39 PM (Permalink) |

Value-added, with botulism

Before Kevin Carey proclaims that value-added [method] comes of age, he might want to read the real true facts behind the New York City teacher value-added project, wherein we learn that the city's great statistical experts thought three children were enough of a sample on which to base a teacher evaluation, or maybe the ethical problems with the NYC project, or maybe even my comments on value-added or growth measures in Accountability Frankenstein.

No matter what else you can say about growth measures, NYC's project is about the worst example I can imagine to use if one wanted to push the approach.

Update I: Carey responds in his post:

It might [have methodological problems, in NYC], I don't know, I guess we'll find out. But, per above, methodological issues can be worked out, and anyone who thinks the hysterical reaction to the value-added initiative stems from a deep and abiding concern for statistical integrity is willfully not paying attention.

The claim that "methodological issues can be worked out" is evidence that Carey hasn't read the writings of professional researchers who point out that growth models are no holy grail. I am one of those who have written about the difficulties inherent in growth models, but certainly not the only one.

And my response isn't hysterical; it's simply disgusted with the latest shenanigans from Tweed. The title comes from a wordplay (when food "comes of age," you don't really want it).

Update II: Best comment in response to Eduwonkette: skoolboy, who writes, "I'd characterize the New York City Department of Education as loving data but hating research."

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 10:54 AM (Permalink) |

January 22, 2008

Working in the kitchen

I'm glad I decided to edit an upcoming EPAA article this morning, since my college's e-mail is on the blink again. Ouch. Our poor tech services director, on the job only a few weeks, and she and her staff have had to cope with a major systems collapse over more than a week. So instead of worrying about e-mail, I have spent much of my day thus far getting 80% of the way through line-editing the article. To be honest, I began on Sunday, and I'm now taking a break and will finish the job tomorrow morning. So while my brain would be dribbling out my ears if I had tried to edit all of a 45-page article in one swoop, I can almost think.

On the why does my brain do this? front, I think I may have found a link between my pondering of Green's theorem yesterday and a quarter-century-old synthesis in mathematical demography (see the simplified explanation by Ansley Coale in an August 1985 Asian and Pacific Census Forum newsletter (PDF), pp. 5-8). It may not help me explain what's going on with my research, but at least I'm not completely bonkers.

And now I have to get out of my comfortable kitchen and head closer to where I pick my son up from school in a bit.

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Posted in The academic life at 2:21 PM (Permalink) |

It was 20 years ago today, Green's theorem began to play... (oh, how WRONG)

I don't do paid work or shop on legal holdidays. (Today, I did a bit of civic duty and a bit of personal stuff.) Or I try not to. This story is of how my effort not to work on MLK day has succeeded, but also failed.

Not today, quite, but around 20 years ago, I was in the middle of my first year in college, taking the second-year calculus sequence (linear algebra, multivariate calculus, and ordinary differential equations). Except for linear algebra, it was a fairly smooth (second-order differentiable) experience. (Lame calculus joke, there.) Last night, I happened onto an online multivariate calculus text and the description of Stokes's theorem. I looked at it, thought, "Well, that's vaguely familiar, but what the heck is a curl again?" So I backtracked, and today I tried to follow the bit about line integrals and Green's theorem. (Both Green's and Stokes's theorems are generalized multi-dimensional versions of the fundamental theorem of calculus. That part I remembered.) I had to reread the explanation of how one can derive the formula for the area of a circle using different choices for P and Q, and then I saw a connection to one of the issues I'm working on for a grant proposal resubmission due in March. Briefly, can one take a Lexis diagram in demography and use Green's theorem?

So I brave Work Land, take out a piece of paper, draw a rectangle, and confirm that the line integral of N(a,t) (population at age a, time t), taken over the boundary of a Lexis-diagram rectangle, is the net number of deaths in the period and age interval. Yep, Sherman, you just re-defined the demographic balancing equation, and couldn't get any further. In reality, I think there is something more to be done here, especially since I'm working with a puzzle that I haven't yet solved (why estimates of the proportion of school life spent in certain grades is more robust with migration/transfer misspecifications than estimates of graduation).

But may be there is a lesson here in just letting the mind wander away from Workland when it should. It's just past midnight on the East Coast, so the holiday's over. With luck I'll be able to sleep without having this keep me awake, since I'm not capable of relearning this on the fly after midnight. (I suspect I never was able to do that, even in college.)

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Posted in Research at 12:02 AM (Permalink) |

January 20, 2008

Turn anything into a lesson, but will it stick?

A friend of mine has done something unusual with the celebrations of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday this year. She teaches young adolescents with moderate cognitive disabilities and behavior problems, and this year, she chose King's 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech as the basis for a series of lessons in reading, language arts, civics, etc. in the last week or two. She says she wasn't sure how basing a spelling test on a Nobel Prize speech would go over, but she did it anyway.

There's a test of what the students learned beyond the question of whether the speech taught the students some new words. She reported that when she asked the students if they agreed with King's arguments (in favor of "unarmed truth and unconditional love" over militarism), they all said yes... in a week where she had at least a handful of minor conflicts to break up. So perhaps we should say that their understanding of King's message, or maybe their own behavior, is a work in progress.

On the other hand, I'm not sure we're doing much better as a society than my friend's students. We're happy to give King his day, as long as we can ignore his ideas about justice and peace.

Maybe it's time we adults change.

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Posted in History at 3:06 PM (Permalink) |

Where does effective reform come from?

Thursday, Andy Rotherham challenged historians of education:

[H]ere's a question for the historians that might help explain why education does careen from one thing to the next. What are the most compelling examples of where the education system has reformed itself in ways that have demonstrably benefited students? Haven't most of the reforms, for good and ill, come from influences on the outside, whether higher ed leaders, business, etc...?

I'm not sure Rotherham was responding to Diane Ravitch's plaintive query fairly (I read Ravitch's argument to be that the content of Michael Bloomberg's and Joel Klein's reform ideas is nonsense), but let me answer the question as best I can. As David Tyack and Larry Cuban point out in Tinkering toward Utopia (1995), we sometimes confuse noise for reform.  Well, that's not quite their point: they argue in an early chapter that you have to distinguish between cycles of reform rhetoric and institutional trends. We can't look just at the visible reforms, the ones that have someone shouting from the rooftops about them. In other words, the only reforms that might pop up on Rotherham's radar screen would come either from outside reformers or from the louder inside advocates.

But "the most compelling examples of where the education system has reformed itself" might lie precisely in institutional trends that are tough to identify as coming from a specific set of pressures. I would argue that on the whole, elementary schools treat children much better than they did a century ago: only rare beatings (which provoke outright shaming if they become public), much less physical punishment, and a much higher proportion of teachers who understand better ways of motivating kids. That doesn't mean that everyone is perfect, just much better on the whole than teachers from a few generations ago.

One could make a pretty good case that the consistent rise in NAEP math scores in many states is the result of changing practice. As I've argued before, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics is not perfect, especially in how it communicates ideas, but my guess is that math instruction is slowly shifting, with more use of manipulatives and other varied repertoires in early grades and also in early childhood settings. Again, nothing is perfect, but as a child I never encountered the easy introduction to graphing that my own son had when he was in preschool in the 1990s. (It involved tasting fruits and vegetables, with children in the class putting up an icon of the food when they liked the taste. The result was a vertical bar chart of preferences by food.) I don't think that came from outside schools.

That doesn't exonerate school officials. I've criticized Tyack and Cuban's incrementalist framework, using desegregation as the obvious counter-example. But that history doesn't quite provide an argument in favor of mapping business rhetoric onto schools. Among other things, there's only one city I know where desegregation was supported by the business community: Charlotte. And where were today's advocates of high-stakes accountability in the 1980s and early 1990s, as Presidents Reagan and Bush were appointing federal judges who eventually undermined and reversed the pressures for desegregation? I think only Miller and Kennedy get credit there, and I can think of several who actively tried to undermine desegregation.

I'm not sure that Rotherham's question is even a relevant one: the fact that we can find a few examples of where outside pressure was absolutely appropriate doesn't mean that it's a panacea. Sometimes the "I'm an outsider" and "reform is inevitable" rhetoric trumps informed judgment. If "I'm a professional; trust me" is fallacious, so is "I'm a businessman; trust me."

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 2:48 PM (Permalink) |

January 18, 2008

If it's Friday, I must be in Orlando

Interesting day, almost by definition, with equal dashes of intrigue, frustration, possibility, and sheer chaos. I'm in a cafe right now, waiting for this afternoon's external advisory meeting on the state's assessment/accountability system. We're going to be talking with representatives of the Buros Center on Testing, and their reports for the state provide plenty of interesting material for questions. At the same time, because of continuing problem with my college's e-mail server, I'm cut off from my university e-mail account the morning after the scope of the budget crisis at USF became evident (and on the same day that our governor proposed increased funding; I have no clue what that's about or how legislators are going to respond). And I just sent out an e-mail to the bargaining unit (or the group of e-mails collected on a reasonable computer's expectation that they're members of our bargaining unit - long story on that). So I expect there will be HUGE e-mail loads waiting for me whenever the e-mail goes back online. Those who send e-mail to my USF account are going to be facing huge delays in responses (my colleagues who don't yet have private accounts have been scrambing to do so this week).

Oh, yeah, and our spam filter was taken off line earlier this week in hopes of reducing the server weirdness. Guess how much spam I received in the time the server was operating? So I have things to do and really can't, effectively, and I'm half out of touch. And when I do gain access, I'll be WAY behind. And I have no basis to complain in reality, because I have tenure, and we're facing massive staff layoffs.

The fog of war is nothing compared to the fog of e-mail.

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Posted in The academic life at 10:26 AM (Permalink) |

January 17, 2008

More from Bill Foster against evolution

Former St Petersburg city council member Bill Foster, last seen making silly claims about how Darwin caused the Holocaust, is at it again. Among other things, he writes, "What is also undeniable is that there is growing dissent in the scientific community." Er, um, no. Evolution is accepted as a theory that is perfectly consistent with the fossil record, experimental data from biology, and so forth.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:45 PM (Permalink) |

Florida budget environment degrades significantly

This story today from the Tallahassee Democrat makes clear how dire the Florida budget situation is, and the consequences for higher education in the state.

I have to head to a meeting in a few minutes, but I'll say the obvious very briefly: This is horrendous, both for people currently at universities (faculty, staff, and students) and also for the future of the state.

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

Ranking creates perverse incentives; ranking of lunchtime and liberal-arts colleges, doubly so

Inside Higher Ed has a  great article today, Potemkin Rankings, on how Washington and Jefferson College did everything you'd normally think is right to improve how they look to outsiders and still sank in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. The short story: W&J recruited like crazy to increase the applicant pool and managed to increase selectivity while starting to increase enrollment, hold down the full-price tuition, and still maintain a good faculty-student ratio. Because other liberal-arts colleges increased their endowments and tuition faster, W&J sank in the resources area and thus in the U.S. News ranking.

The problem here is not just with U.S. News. You can find that with almost any system that reduces a complex set of data to a simple ranking. Because the quality of any complex service is never going to be monotonic, there will be inconsistencies in any reductive ranking depending on the relative importance of different factors in the final (reduced) rating. This year, Education Week's Quality Counts report includes a weight your own factor feature, where you can re-rate an individual state based on your own idea of how important you find different elements in the Ed Week database. Well, not really: it looks like the mix within an individual subscale remains the same in the summary number, even if you can come up with different subscale scores. And there's no way to see how the rankings might change based on different weights. (I guess the Ed Week editors didn't really want people to look too closely at the rankings, or at how robust/fragile they might be.)

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 12:48 PM (Permalink) |

January 15, 2008

New desegregation lawsuit in Louisville... regarding teachers

My colleague Barbara Shircliffe is on sabbatical this year, researching teacher desegregation (after her book on the history of desegregation in Tampa). She just sent me a link to an article about a new lawsuit filed by a teacher in Louisville, objecting to Louisville's personnel policies designed to encourage integration by teachers (not students at this point).

If nothing else, her timing for her sabbatical project is on the nose!

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Posted in Education policy at 11:48 AM (Permalink) |

The body or the culture on teenagers' internal clocks?

Barbara from Las Cruces (NM) has the right question to ask in response to Nancy Kalish's wailing about the late clocks of teenagers:

I have contended for years with the inability of both of my sons to wake up any earlier than 7:30. However, it is not just the body's inner clock that contributes to the issue. Heavy homework commitments and late-night sessions at the kitchen table and computer are another factor in going to bed after 11 p.m.

... not to mention after-school activities, socializing, work, and so on. Maybe it's because I'm neither a physician nor a psychologist, but "it's the hormones" is not a very persuasive argument until someone does some solid experimental research (uh, yeah, who's going to participate in a RCT on this?) or otherwise filters out the effects of modern life.

That doesn't mean that bell schedules can't move. Maybe we should accommodate late-night schedules for teens by moving the start of school back. But let's acknowledge that part of this is to accommodate adult perceptions of priorities rather than some inherent biological clock.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:47 AM (Permalink) |

January 14, 2008

Teaching about what humans do

I've been tagged by Craig Smith, who asks, Why Do You Teach and Why Does It Matter? after reading Dr. Crazy's explanation of why she teaches literature. This comes on the heels of Stanley Fish's boldly hedonistic Epistle to Philistines and the expansion on this, last night's Epistle to Dumb-Ass Colleagues. (Okay, the posts were properly called The Uses of the Humanities, parts 1 and 2, but I agree with Margaret Soltan's reading of Fish Epistles I.) Fish's essays are in his typical eliding style, with just enough of substance to frustrate me when he misses the obvious.

And here is one part of the obvious: an academic education requires the study of a variety of disciplines, including science, math, and also what humans do. Understanding "what humans do" requires behavioral sciences, social sciences, and humanities. While the configuration of disciplines is not carved in stone, a student will get a pretty good education in the culture that humans produce within the humanities. One way to think about the value of any discipline or area is to think about the institutions that leave out the area.

Here is the other part of the obvious: you don't learn how to think in the abstract but in bumping up against ideas in specific contexts. That "bumping up against" phrase is important to me, because you don't learn anything if you are not challenged. Some subjects appear easier to you or me than others, but that perception is about subjects that are under a threshold of difficulty, not the absence of new ideas and challenges. Teachers can make learning easier, but that fact doesn't eliminate the need for challenge. And the specific context matters. As my favorite high school English teacher told us at the beginning of AP English, she taught writing, and she did it in the context of teaching about literature. She also taught us an enormous amount about literature in the course of that year. Even philosophers talk about topics. Care for a casual game of penny-ante Ontology?

In my case, I teach social-science and humanities perspectives on education, with a focus on history and sociology. The majority of my students come to me to fulfill exit requirements or in the midst of pre-professional training that reinforces psychological assumptions, and I have most of them for only one semester. I provide students with an additional set of views, humanities and social-science perspectives to examine schooling. When students leave my classroom, they should be able to explain how people fight over the purposes of schooling and the different models of how schools function as organizations (or don't).

In many ways, I am lucky to be in a field where I get paid for navel-gazing. My neighbors and fellow citizens should want me to teach students who want to teach that the world may not agree with their reasons for teaching or their view of the purpose of schooling; that the world's range of schools includes places that provide a very different education from their own experiences as they grew up; and that the job of teaching involves more than going into a room, shutting the door, and letting the gorgeous lesson plans unfold without interruption or difficulty. That's a fairly practical purpose. There is also the specific example of the argument above: Formal schooling is what humans do today, and studying the social context of formal schooling is a reasonable way to study what humans do.

In addition, when students are in my course, they have to write extensively and coherently about schooling. Over my career, I have taught over 2,000 students. I have taught most of those students at USF, where I have never written a multiple-choice final exam and where I have always required that students write papers. Before my colleagues and I agreed to craft a single paper assignment across all of the undergraduate social-foundations sections, I assigned a "perspectives" paper where I collected sources on two or three recent "hot topics" in education and told my students, "This is not a research paper. I've collected all of the background you should need. Your job is to apply the concepts you have learned in the course to these hot topics." (I gave students the ability to propose a topic of their own choosing, as long as I approved it in the first month of the course. Almost no students took me up on the offer, and as a result, I stopped having students propose topics that focused more on psychology than the topics in my course.) In most cases, the common readings for the course never directly addressed the hot topics, so they couldn't just regurgitate ideas. I was mean! (See the bit about challenges above.)

Some of these assignments were more successful than others. I am still aghast that a few years ago, the majority of students who wrote about the "intelligent-design" controversy in Dover supported teaching it alongside evolution in a science class. I graded them on the merits of the assignment (which is not synonymous with the question of what should be in the curriculum), and then explained my point of view in comments separate from the grading. But I challenge students' beliefs about education, no matter what they carried into the classroom, and I push students to  justify their conclusions with plausible arguments.

And to continue this meme, I tag...

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Posted in Academic freedom at 12:16 PM (Permalink) |

January 12, 2008

The value of structure

I've finished most of the tables in the article I'm working on, so I'll indulge myself with one last blog entry tonight. Primarily, I want to dissent gently from Timothy Burke's concerns about strategic planning in this blog entry (which is not currently available: I receive a WordPress database error, which I hope is remedied quickly!).

I like what they're trying to get to, but I guess this is why strategic planning per se often leaves me cold: it tends to end up with a long description of a process that the planners want to unfold point by point that ultimately has a lot of whistling-past-the-graveyard, e.g., it makes the difficult business of tranformation sound like something methodical and ordinary, and advises changes in generic terms that are ultimately going to have to be adapted to the very specific character of some individuals, departments, long-term patterns of practice, and so on within an institution. Better to go with a broad declaration of principle and then roll up your sleeves and grope your way through the messy business of change. Strategic planning of this kind tries to make an academic community into the kind of "legible object" subject to bureaucratic management that James Scott has written about. And mostly, academic cultures of use and practice just aren't.

"Grop[ing] your way" through change may be possible in an institutional context such as Swarthmore's, but it invites disaster at large institutions that don't have a culture of productive messiness. (That culture has a certain structure, inevitably, though explaining that would require a bit of space.) And moreover, faculty at the larger institutions are highly distrustful of ad-hoc processes, viewing them as an invitation to favoritism and fads.

That fact doesn't mean that deliberately-structured processes have to be straightjackets. In one committee I chaired a few years ago, I was lucky to have a group of thoughtful colleagues. I had a process-oriented structure, but it was pretty simple: figure out the key interests we had to address, brainstorm possible ideas, and then narrow the list down to recommendations. The only intervention I really needed as a chair was saying occasionally in the first meeting, "Okay, so we're not going to agree on a recommendation in this area today. That's fine: we can come back next week and see if we can come to agreement." And the next week, we did agree on everything that was still on the table at the end of the prior (one-hour) meeting. That speed was in part because of a well-defined task (not my responsibility to define), and a great deal because of the easygoing collegiality of the committee members. I added a bit of structure, and the recommendations precipitated out of the solution. (Or maybe the solution precipitated... oh, heck. Can I skip the chemistry metaphors?)

I'm not doing as well this year in running short meetings every two weeks as the USF faculty-union head. Partly that's the result of having too many issues to talk about every time. Part is the need to let people have a certain amount of air time because of the dynamics on USF's campuses right now. And finally, it's because we don't usually have discrete tasks that lend themselves to a (flexible but clearly-defined) structure. But structure is still useful! Yes, I know: some time ago I promised to explain "brute-force brainstorming," and I still haven't gotten around to it. Maybe I'll do it tomorrow while driving up to my mother-in-law's. Or, rather, while my wonderful spouse is driving...

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Posted in The academic life at 10:48 PM (Permalink) |

How do I get behind so quickly?

I'm preparing an article for EPAA right now, working on a Saturday night after just a week of the semester. (To answer those who'd like to nitpick: No, I'm not working on that article right now. I'm taking a break between formatting most of the text and inserting and fiddling with tables.) So much for my resolution to keep on top of everything.

In reality, I'm not that behind or haven't lost much ground in just 5 days, but I've had e-mails flying at me from about 50 directions, and there were at least three major things that happened this week that each took at least 3/4s of a day but then needed to be squeezed into half a day. (And this last paragraph was typed after the first bit of fast-editing magic on 4 tables. I'm going to need a stiff drink for the next part, which requires some tedious formatting decisions. By stiff drink I mean a double-caff split-tall decaf grande nowhip mini-short sugar-free cinnamon hot-chile double-shot espresso, skinny with extra whip, two raw-sugar packets, iced, and a spoonful of chocolate-covered grounds.*)

With another table behind me, I know that despite my crumbling patience and withering self-esteem (a joke, folks: no need to call emergency services), the medium-term picture is more important. In reality I had a short week given that my beautiful adolescent children weren't in school until Tuesday. So in four days I did ... lots of e-mail and other short writing tasks. But it's important to keep my eyes on the prize, which is ...

Yeah, what is the prize?

Time to move to the next table, I think.

* - I don't remember the Steve Martin movie where his character satirizes Starbucks ordering, so I had to make up my own impossible drink order. Add your own below!

Timothy Burke beats me to the punch on interesting learning objects

In his blogging on a conference this week sponsored by the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (or NITLE), Timothy Burke has raised the right questions to ask about electronic learning objects that are interactive, information-intense, and based on scholarship and the interests of great teachers:

  • How could they be crafted to change teaching? [W]e're also not pedagogically literate about how to use this kind of material and we don't often create them to be used as the center piece of a small liberal arts class. Suppose I had students look at the Palenque learning object. It's great for giving the students a vivid visual and experiential feel for the place. But ok: it's thus just a supplement to something else that's being used to create discussion-based learning for that session. That's part of the problem with some of these objects: they're supplemental, optional, not just because faculty don't work to enhance their teaching but because that's how they cast themselves. At least some of these objects have to have the character of scholarship, e.g., to have an argument, to enter into the conversation about a particular area of knowledge forcefully, to be knowledge rather than a supplement to knowledge.
  • How do we create/grant professional credit for this? [I]f you build this stuff, you're really building it for external use, as a gift to the world, and usually a gift specifically to institutions and users who are asymmetrically related to the faculty and institutions involved in building digital resources. E.g., to K-12 students, to community colleges, to universities in the developing world, to underresourced colleges. And no matter how much some of my colleagues in history and anthropology may talk the talk of social justice and digital divide, when it gets down to being involved in giving a digital gift, they ask: what's the incentive? Why should I, if that means I won't publish my next monograph in a timely fashion? Who will notice or care if I give a gift of this kind?
  • How do we build sustainable institutional support? Wesleyan has started creating a chargeable model for the activities of the Academic Media Studio, but as Burke notes from the presentation (or rather, as the presenters noted), Scholarly collaboration is not free.

I'm sure I'd be able to figure out at least a few possible answers to these problems, but I'm still struggling with the pedagogical questions, I'm not sure how I'd get credit for it in annual evaluations, and I'd need to write grants to support the time I'd need and the technical folks to implement the solutions.

That last sentence is a joke, dear readers. I'm fairly sure my colleagues would be supportive, and I do have a few ideas for support, but Burke has explained the key barriers.

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Posted in Higher education at 11:18 AM (Permalink) |

Former St. Petersburg city council member claims Darwin caused the Holocaust

The St. Petersburg Times continues to excel in its coverage of the politics of Florida's science standards. Today's story on Bill Foster is a case in point. He's a former members of the St Pete city council, and at least until today he was considered a leading contender for mayor in the next election.

The letter is a confection of factual errors, logical fallacies, and blunt misunderstandings of science. (As Brandon Haught reports on the Florida Citizens for Science blog, Foster's argument is a bit of confirming evidence for an extension of Godwin's Hypothesis to open political discourse.) Below is the body of his December 27 letter to the Pinellas County School Board (opened January 7 in the board offices and faxed to the Times on Thursday), copied in its entirety and followed by some analysis. I have tried to reproduce Foster's letter faithfully, down to every period and comma:


Thank you for your thoughtful discussion about the possibility of allowing presentations of alternative theories of creation in the Pinellas County Schools. I am a 1981 graduate of Northeast High School, and can still remember the scientific teaching of Darwin in class, wherein my teacher stated "There is really no scientific evidence to support this theory, but if you want to believe that you descended from monkeys, then feel free to do so". We were, at that time, allowed to discuss alternative theories of creation, and then allowed to make up our own minds. Nothing was presented as scientific fact, and freedom of speech was quite the norm. Discussions about other theories (ie. creation by a God or supreme being) were not quashed, but encouraged so that the well rounded student could make an informed choice. This is what has been lacking in our schools today, and the time has come to change that school of thought.

Whether a belief in the Genesis account of creation, or Darwin's "Origin of Species", both require a certain amount of faith. My favorite definition of "faith" happens to come from the Bible, but is consistent with secular meanings: Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. So true, as any belief in Darwin's theory of evolution requires a great deal of faith: faith in the reliability of the science, and faith in the explanations as to the significant gaps and flaws in the science. The scientific arguments for this Darwinistic religion are unsupported, and yet you allow it to be taught as absolute fact to the exclusion of other theories or debate. You say that creationism should be taught in the Churches and Synagogues, and I agree. However, you teach the antitheses of intelligent design as absolute scientific fact in the very schools which I support, with no room for argument of other theories, and this only serves to confuse and undermine the education of our children.

Evolution gives our kids an excuse to believe in natural selection and survival of the fittest, which leads to a belief that they are superior over the weak. This is a slippery slope. One of the Columbine shooters wrote on his website, "You know what I love? Natural Selection! It's the best thing that ever happened to the Earth. Getting rid of all the stupid and weak organisms." This sick young man wore a T-shirt with the words "Natural Selection" at the time of the murders, and carried out his killing spree on the birth date of Adolph Hitler. All of this took place at the very school where he was taught evolution and Darwin's theory of natural selection.

Darwin's theory led to the idea of "Eugenics", where social engineers could monitor and manage choices to marry and have children. Darwin's own cousin coined the term and campaigned for using human genetics as a means to breed a superior breed of humanity. Many people in American history and abroad adopted this belief, and 33 states created legal programs of forced sterilization to prevent the "feeble-minded" and "human weeds"This social engineering is at the core of Darwinism - just in fast forward.

Many Darwinists believe that nature or natural selection could use a little help from man, and through social engineering, we can produce a highly gifted race of people. By force, we can accomplish what nature does blindly and slowly. Man can engineer this process more efficiently and timely, and must direct its own course. If this sounds familiar, this was the basis for Nazism. Darwinism devalues man, and I believe helped to eliminate a moral compass in Europe that could have prevented the atrocities of the holocaust.

Adolph Hitler duped an entire generation using Darwin's evolution. He sought to preserve the "favored" race in the struggle for survival. First, he would eliminate those he deemed weak and impure as to protect his race (disabled, ill, deformed, deaf, blind, Jews, Gypsies). Second, he sought to expand Germany's borders in order to make room for the expansion of the favored race. Elimination of useless eaters - this is how the fittest survive. We all know how that turned out. Ultimately, some 11 million people, possibly more, were exterminated, all in the attempt to speed up evolution.

To be certain, racism is not a scientific theory, but it is a large part of evolution, and if allowed to go unchecked, we may be damned to repeat history. There is a place to discuss micro-evolution, in that people and species have adapted over time to their environment and circumstances. I choose to believe that this, too, is of God, but it is evolution none the less. When scientists look at the intricacies of cell structures, or the wonders of the human body, male and female, they simply cannot make a case that all of this occurred by happenstance or natural selection. Why not simply embrace the opportunity for a discussion that there may be some intelligent design to this process? Throw in the case that there is still no fossil record or evidence to support Darwin, and all you have left is a theory. If evolution were true, then there should be countless numbers of transitional forms (e.g., 100% reptile; 75% reptile - 25% bird; 50% reptile - 50% bird; 25% reptile - 75% bird; 100% bird and many transitional forms between each of those). Our science labs and museums are loaded with fossils, and yet, none support Mr. Darwin.

None of Darwin's theories can be replicated or proven in a laboratory, and yet, by blind faith, many still believe in evolution. The Religion of Darwin is the only one accepted in the public school, and the time has come to change that fact. Some people think that I am misguided to believe in the Genesis account of creation. I happen to share a similar view about people who believe that all species evolved or morphed from a single cell. The beautiful thing about this country is that we all have a right to believe in whatever we choose. I may disagree with your science fiction, and you may disagree with my Bible, but we should be free to discuss each others theories, and none should be excluded from the dialogue. Such discourse is not a violation of the Constitution, but rather is encouraged by the First Amendment.

Please consider allowing some discussion of alternative theories in the Pinellas County classroom. As any theory, one needs to investigate, discuss, and arrive at a conclusion based upon faith. I have no faith in Darwin, but do have an extreme amount of faith in each of you to do what is right for our kids. Kindly consider this, and if you have any questions or desire to discuss this matter further, then please feel free to call me.

I will let the National Academy of Sciences take care of the scientific blundering through its pamphlet Science, Evolution, and Creationism (free download!). Let me quickly dispose of the historical claim that evolutionary thought is at the root of eugenics and Nazi racism. It is true that from the late 19th century through WW2, plenty of people abused the metaphor of natural selection to argue for eugenics, but evolutionary theory was neither the starting point of such arguments nor responsible for it. Europeans and Americans had held racist and other prejudiced views for centuries before Darwin, and they had come up with various cockeyed theories to justify their prejudices long before. For example, the saw about the "Curse of Ham" came from Genesis 9:20-27 and had been used for centuries to justify race-based slavery. The abuse of evolutionary metaphors is neither unique nor early in the very long history of invidious prejudice.

Nor is it an accurate understanding of evolution. Apart from the ethics and a dozen other problems, one of the bigger flaws in eugenics theory is in the idea that evolution is about species "improvement," as if there is a unidimensional scale measuring the quality of a population. As many biologists would point out, humanity is not the pinnacle of evolution, its end product and the gold medal. There is no great chain of being or ladder of evolution "rising" from one-celled animals to us. Instead, homo sapiens is an accidental byproduct of millions of events that could have turned out differently. As you can find in dozens of books, humans comprise the remaining twig on a pruned branch of the very large bush we call life on Earth.

That accidental or contingent success of homo sapiens ties eugenicists to the religious opponents of evolution. Neither group is willing to give up the hubris of a humanity-centered universe. In retrospect, one should not be surprised that Darwin's The Origins of Species would spark both tremendous opposition by clergy at the time and also a deep misunderstanding by the advocates of eugenics. It's hard to accept that you're not at the center of the universe. What you do with that understanding then depends on one's ethical choices, and it's in the realm of ethics and morality that religion belongs. For example, I know environmentalists who stake their decision on the obligation to shepherd the earth that they think God imposes on humans. And I know environmentalists who make the existential argument that our meaning as humans is determined by what we do with our accidental status, including the consequences of our living on the Earth. Likewise, I know that defenders of pollution can make religious arguments (the Earth's resources are given to humans by God) and secular ones (we'll destroy the economy!). But while science should inform the discussion of policy, the ethical and political decisions are in the human realm. As Stephen Jay Gould argued, science and religion teach about different things. And the question of a science curriculum should revolve around sound science.

In short, the rise of Social Darwinism and the eugenics movement is certainly a blot on history, but it should have absolutely no consequence for whether evolution is at the center of a biology curriculum.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:49 AM (Permalink) |

January 11, 2008

One more for the distorted reading of course titles and descriptions

In 2006, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni wrote a screed, How Many Ward Churchills?, based entirely on superficial catalog analysis and ripped to shreds in many places, including Timothy Burke's blog.

It looks like the let's try to suss what happens in a course from hundreds of miles away "method" is live and well in the hands of Jay Greene and Catherine Shock. See the straightforward explanation of why this is wrong in the blog entry of Eduwonkette's friend skoolboy.

Isn't this what Matt Drudge does for a living?

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Posted in Academic freedom at 11:40 AM (Permalink) |

January 10, 2008

Bold constitutional proposals

In our state, we have an interesting mechanism for constitutional amendments, in addition to legislative action placing a proposal on the ballot or citizen petitions. There is also a rotating set of commissions. Ten years ago, a general constitutional revision commission placed several proposals on the ballot. This year another commission is looking at taxation and budget issues.

Thus far, two target education specifically and a third would significantly affect the tax base of the state.  One of former Governor Bush's policy directors, Greg Turbeville, has floated the 65-percent proposal, with implementation for 2009-2010. Former FSU president Sandy D'Alemberte has proposed raising state education funding at all levels to the national average, to be achieved by 2012-2013 (hat tip). And former Senate President John McKay has proposed scaling back exemptions to the state sales tax. Before any of these would go to voters, two thirds of the commission members would have to vote for them, and then 60 percent of voters would have to approve each measure.

My guess is that of all the proposals, beyond just these three, McKay's is the one that promises to change the state's budget the most. Depending on whether local property-tax cut proposals pass in the presidential preference primary later this month or later, McKay's plug-the-holes proposal may not raise revenues so much as shift them from local property taxes to the state level. Or McKay's proposal may go nowhere.

The 65-percent proposal will probably go nowhere, largely because there are a wealth of arguments that stakeholders can use to point out the flaws.

The raise-us-to-the-average proposal is interesting and bold, and my guess is that it will quickly draw support from the state teachers union, the universities and community colleges, and the school boards. The key is to see where the state's business community falls on this one. If it's part of a supporting coalition, the proposal or something like it can make it to the ballot. And given D'Alemberte's political instincts, I wouldn't be surprised if he sounded out the state Chamber of Commerce. Or maybe not. (Intrepid reporters: tell us what's going on!)

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Posted in Education policy at 2:15 PM (Permalink) |

January 8, 2008

Spellings kowtows to creationists

According to the Miami Herald's political blog, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was chicken on science today. In Florida's capital to boost NCLB (and Florida's high-stakes accountability system), the blog reported that Spellings won't speak the "e" word:

...when asked whether the nation's top education official has a position on whether evolution should be a part of science standards, Spellings replied: "No, I don't."

Florida's draft new science standards mention evolution and has drawn political fire from social conservatives in the state. The new Commissioner of Education has also demurred on the issue, and I guess Spellings is either truly noncommittal (something she hasn't shown any evidence of before) or is considering a run for office in Texas.

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Posted in Education policy at 1:19 PM (Permalink) |

Sixth anniversary present for NCLB

So the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has revived the 2005 "unfunded mandate" NCLB lawsuit, and here is where things get interesting, because the original complaint is an interesting argument about statutory limits to the power of the purse, tied specifically to NCLB language that lifted mandates that were not paid for. Given the language of the appeals decision, this is going to be a lot more interesting on reargument, and with the current composition of the Supreme Court, I refuse to hazard any prediction about ultimate disposition.

But it won't get to the Supreme Court, because NCLB will be rewritten before it gets that far. Here are the real consequences of the lawsuit: If the plaintiffs win at the lower-court level or if the Sixth Circuit steps in for the plaintiffs in a substantive manner (as opposed to the procedural decision this week), that victory would shift the initiative in reauthorization. On the one hand, those critical of NCLB provisions will be able to be patient, in contrast to supporters of most of the current structure. On the other hand, without the pressure ratcheting up on schools, NCLB critics may not have quite as much organizing energy behind their battle, and that energy may shift to those who support most of the status quo.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 9:08 AM (Permalink) |

January 7, 2008

Ted Kennedy and frames: 51 to go

Last Thursday, I recklessly created a set of predictions for major 2008 education stories and in the top item (on NCLB) wrote,

If I were a senior member of an education committee, I'd work throughout the year to establish some consensus that would hold at least reasonably well no matter what the results of the election.

Lo! and behold! Ted Kennedy has fulfilled my prediction in less than a week with today's Washington Post op-ed column. To be honest, that's only in the first week, but I suspect we'll see plenty of such efforts in the next 51.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 2:14 PM (Permalink) |

Public service academy debate

Wednesday, the American Enterprise Institute is holding a debate/roundtable about the need for a public service academy. If you live in DC and want an entertaining discussion, go register today.

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Posted in Education policy at 12:23 PM (Permalink) |

Credentialism, human capital, and ahistoricism

I recently had occasion to review a very small slice of the economic literature on the value of education, and it struck me that while both sociologists and economists struggle with arguments about the value of education in contrast with the value of a credential, they do so almost in mirrored ways. The economic argument about credentialism comes from some conservative economists such as Richard Vedder, who asks,


Can the strictly credentialing function be performed much cheaper through alternative approaches --examinations, IQ tests, etc.?... How much of "learning" in college is the attainment of needed skills (e.g., accounting, engineering skills) that are not readily learned on the job? And how much of it is merely an academic form of some endurance race, where the mere completion of the race denotes certain desirable character traits?

To Vedder and a few others, educational credentials signal employers about the inherent taits of potential employees. Thus, to Vedder, the Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971) case was horrible because it discouraged employers from using what he thinks is direct evidence of intrinsic personal value (IQ tests) and thus encourages the use of educational credentials as a proxy.

(Even apart from Vedder's misplaced faith in IQ tests, his interpretation of Griggs is a substantial misreading of the case on two important grounds. First, the Supreme Court also struck down the use of educational credentials by Duke at the time (in this case, high school diplomas) because they were not tied to bona fide job requirements. Second, Vedder ignores the important historical context: while the district court and appeals court decided that the plaintiffs had not demonstrated evidence of discriminatory intent of denying opportunities to African-American employees, the use of IQ tests and credential requirements maintained an uneven playing field: "Under the [1964 Civil Rights] Act, practices, procedures, or tests neutral on their face, and even neutral in terms of intent, cannot be maintained if they operate to 'freeze' the status quo of prior discriminatory employment practices.")

Vedder and some other economists are skeptical of the intrinsic value of education, seeing the use of credentials as a poor proxy or signal of some intrinsic values. In this story, people who enroll in and complete college essentially have the same value at the end of college as at the beginning, but the process performs a sorting function on traits that employers find valuable. Because of this argument, mainstream economists exploring the value of a diploma have spent enormous effort trying to disentangle the value of a degree from what they vaguely call ability.

Far to the left of Vedder, a number of sociologists (and some economists and historians of education) have also criticized the argument that education is primarily an investment in human capital. The social-reproduction argument claims that schooling is provided on an unequal basis, and these unequal opportunities essentially have confirmed a preexisting social hierarchy. Thus, for example, Sam Bowles and Herbert Gintis provided evidence that even within young adults with similar ranges of scores on IQ tests, those from wealthier families were far more likely to attend college. The history of tracking provided a wealth of evidence of unequal curriculum opportunities and low expectations for students from poor families, and the conclusion drawn by the mirror image of the conservative credentialists was, don't bother reforming education. To them, we should change the economic system instead.

At a retrospective panel at the Social Science History Association in 2000 or 2001 (I don't remember which year), Herb Gintis said that he saw no conflict between these mirror images. Gintis was referring not to economists but instead to structural-functionalist sociologists such as Robert Dreeben as the mirror of his and Bowles's argument. Yes, he said, his 1970s version of social reproduction was as determinist as Dreeben's argument that schools served primarily to inure students to their largely predetermined place in the social order. Gintis said he and Bowles had just turned Dreeben's argument on its head.*

Some writers on credentialism have used historical trends to make their case. Thus, Richard Freeman's The Overeducated American (1976) and Thomas Green's Predicting the Behavior of the Educational System (1980) wrote about the changing value of educational credentials. The classic sociological treatise on the topic is David Labaree's How To Succeed in School without Really Learning (1997). More recent is Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz's work, such as their recent NBER paper The Race between Education and Technology (2007). To Goldin and Katz, the relative value of educational credentials have changed in different directions over time, and the mid-20th century was the time simultaneously of rapidly increasing high school attainment and of both wage compression (lower wage inequality) and of low relative value to education.

This link between inequality and the growing value of education over the late 20th century should not be treated as a post-WW2 trends, though. At the beginning of the 20th century, Goldin and Katz argue that the relative value of a high school education was quite high. (In some ways, this mirrors Green's analysis, but with fundamentally different mechanisms. Among other matters, Green treats the economic value of a diploma as a credential function, while Goldin and Katz are talking about their estimates of the human-capital value of completing a high school education.)

So how do we treat the credential value vs. the non-instrumental value of education? It is not a simple human-capital issue, but students do learn stuff in school. It is not just credentialism, but there is a "sheepskin effect" to a diploma. Over the past few years, I have explained to my classes that there are different layers to the relationship between schools and the economy. One is human capital. A second is the use of schools as sites for sponsorship, either at the individual level (what James Rosenbaum has talked about as networking) or at the mass level (credentialing). A third is the more mundane, lay understanding of networking: learning about and with others in a way that extends beyond one's own skills. (For a variety of reasons, I am not going to lump this with cultural capital or Coleman's concept of social capital.) A fourth level is at the level of social and political beliefs about opportunity (or the connections that Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick describe between public schooling and the "American dream"). Cutting across these different levels are differences between the use of schooling for private purposes (individual or family competition) and the use of schooling for public purposes.

While this static sketch serves its teaching purpose reasonably well (and it's a lot easier to teach and more satisfying than Bourdieau's notion of cultural capital), it is not satisfying as a template for an historian. How did these different layers and purposes evolve?

And now, dear readers, I'm going to leave you in suspense, for I cannot answer that question to my satisfaction. Or at least not yet. But I'll take suggestions!

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

Insomnia and IHE

If you're here because of the IHE article, welcome! Look around, add comments, subscribe to the RSS feed, and come back often. Here's the story behind Scott Jaschik's piece: I was awake early Sunday morning (or in the wee hours between Saturday and Sunday) and in shape to do not much more than crawl through the overnight news online. I was going through some of the clips from Saturday night's presidential debates and realized that moderator Charles Gibson had faked some numbers about faculty salaries.

If you take a family of two professors here at Saint Anselm, they’re going to be in the $200,000 category that you’re talking about lifting the taxes on...

The Democratic candidates laughed at Gibson, and his comments struck me as representative of journalistic laziness on higher education. St. Anselm is known as a solid Benedictine (Catholic) liberal-arts college in southern New Hampshire, with about 2,000 students. It doesn't have the highest snob-marketing statistics such as average incoming SATs, but the college reports a four-year graduation rate of 74%. They don't do that with highly-paid faculty, and after a little digging, I wrote a brief release mostly for local higher-ed reporters to talk about faculty salaries at USF as well as St. Anselm.

But I also sent it to Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed, figuring he'd add it as a blurb to this morning's quick takes page, after stripping it of any material specifically from me.

I guess it was a slow news day (or a slow news week) at the beginning of the year: I've been quoted for ABC Thinks You’re Rich; ‘U.S. News’ Says Your Job Is Cushy. For the record, I think Jaschik had the newsworthiness judgment wrong: GWU's contract with adjunct faculty is more important than my comments (or Karl Steel's letter of complaint to U.S. News and World Report). And since Jaschik lumps the two issues together, I should note that at least in my case, the job is wonderful: I am overcommitted to too many projects that I've chosen, but at least I'm in the position of choosing them.

But I'm grateful for at least the factual correction of Gibson's glib comment in one of the (electronic) papers of record for higher ed.

January 3, 2008

U.S. education stories this year: 8 to watch in '08

Looking back on 2007 is easier for an historian than predicting the future, so I may fall flat on these:

  1. No Child Left Behind debates. I don't think reauthorization stands a snowball's chance in Key West for this year, so the key questions are whether the key players are interested in setting up the parameters of reauthorization for 2009 and how electoral politics interacts with that debate. If I were a senior member of an education committee, I'd work throughout the year to establish some consensus that would hold at least reasonably well no matter what the results of the election. And if I were the president-elect in November 2008, I wouldn't want to be told what to do by committee chairs.
  2. The presidential election. Even though education has largely disappeared during the run-up to the primaries, it will surely reappear in the fall general campaign. The character of that (mini-)debate will depend more on the Republican candidate than the Democratic candidate, largely because the policy differences among Democrats are much smaller than those among Republicans. If the Republican candidate is Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani, I suspect they will generally speak the language of human capital, accountability, and privatization. If the Republican candidate is Mike Huckabee, all bets are off.
  3. State budget cuts. My own state is on the cutting (bleeding) edge of a national economic "softening" at best and possibly the start of a recession. That always foretells budget cuts. Because education is commonly the largest slice of state spending, expect education budgets to be hit. Higher education is usually hit worse than K-12 schooling, but there may be a twist in states where the real-estate market is declining as well: if property taxes follow property values, a cut in state education budgets will be compounded by cuts in local contributions.
  4. More discussion of college costs. After Harvard's elimination of loans for students from families with income under $180,000, a small handful of other institutions followed suit (if not with precisely the same figures). This will continue to ripple out in the discussion of college costs (including in the presidential election campaign). There are two ways in which the current discussion is distorted: college costs are not just what parents and students pay, and for most students (who attend public institutions), the greater cost of attending college is not tuition and books but the income forgone from not working. I suspect the discussion will continue to avoid those facts, but I can always hope.
  5. Student rights in high schools and colleges. Greg Toppo's list of top education stories for 2007 includes one item (the Morse v. Frederick "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case) that I didn't and probably should have in my year-end review. So let me add it here: the Supreme Court decision will not stop debates over how far high schools can go in regulation and punishing behavior that happens off campus. And debates will continue over how far colleges can regulate student behavior as well, as the activities of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education indicate.
  6. Sex education. With December's report that 2006 had the first jump in U.S. teen birth rates since the early 1990s, arguments over the effectiveness of abstinence-only approaches to sex education will continue. That debate may feed into the general perception of the Bush administration's incompetence or ideological attacks on research. Will more states refuse federal funding and opt for sex education that includes contraception?
  7. Eli Broad and Bill Gates: philanthropists, bullies, or ghosts? Eduwonkette's guest skoolboy noted the rise of visible education philanthropy as a major story in 2007. But there are also questions about the billionaires' club for reform, from the intriguing way that the Eli Broad Prize in 2007 went to a school district that had received millions in aid from the Broad Foundation to the Gates Foundation's dilettante-ish attitude towards school reform (yesterday: small schools rule; today: who ever heard of small schools?) and the way that Ed in '08 apparently has fizzled in trying to raise the visibility of education in the presidential campaign. But there's a long-term strategy that is rarely discussed, the Eli Broad Foundation's investment in and sponsorship in a group of what it would like to be future superintendents.
  8. Data, with and without interesting questions. The march to state-level longitudinal system development continues, "formative assessment" is on the lips of everyone who waded through the dead Miller-McKeon reauthorization discussion draft, "data mining" is both a vague promise of research and a bane to those concerned with privacy, and "data-based" has not yet appeared on the Lake Superior University list of terms banned because of brazen overuse. The collection, documentation, and preservation of data is only part of the research picture. But without interesting questions, funding for investigator-initiated research, or respect from the Institute of Education Sciences for secondary analyses of large data sets, this stuff is worth precisely the ability to toss off phrases such as "longitudinal data systems," "data mining," and "data-based" without any commitment to serious long-term research.

I've never tried to make these calls at the beginning of the year before, and I'm aware that I am out on a limb for the last two. We'll see: shall I come back at the end of the year and score myself?

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Posted in Education policy at 9:41 AM (Permalink) |

January 1, 2008

8 in '08: Florida education stories to watch

From flubbed FCAT scoring to FAMU's woes and academic cheating scandals at FSU, 2007 was an exciting year for education reporters. 2008 may not have quite the same flair as last year, but there are certainly stories to watch. The following are stories that are certain to be in the headlines. There are a few others that may be prominent, but I'll be cautious in making predictions.


  1. Florida's science standards. Criticized for years because the state science standards failed to mention evolution, Florida's Department of Education has drafted proposed new standards that  put evolution front and center. The draft standards have become a magnet for political efforts to insert creationism in the state's public schools, as well as an organized effort to support the new standards. At least one member of the state Board of Education has publicly announced opposition to the new standards because they include evolution. Until the February Board of Education meeting that decides whether to approve the draft standards, this will be the top education story in the state.
  2. Tax politics. The state's January 29 ballot includes a constitutional referendum that would reduce property taxes. That ballot measure's passage is far from certain, but there are three ways that other proposals could get on a later ballot (especially November's): legislative action, a citizen's petition, or through the state's Taxation and Budget Reform Commission. Of those, the commission route is probably the easiest. Changed tax measures could either cut or boost education spending. If a property tax-reduction measure passes in January or November, that could slash K-12 taxes at the local level and put pressure on the legislature to reallocate state funding to K-12. If a measure gets out of the commission and passes to reduce the huge number of exemptions granted in the state's sales tax, that could boost education funding. Or at least stabilize it (see the next item).
  3. The state budget. The legislature has already had a special session in October to cut the state budget, and given continuing declines in the actual revenues collected when compared to predictions, the political question is whether the legislature will come back into special session before April to cut this year's budget again or whether it will dip into the reserve fund and wait until next year to enact Draconian cuts. In either case, there will be reductions for both K-12 and higher education. The state's university system chancellor has warned of even greater layoffs and problems offering students enough classes to graduate on time.
  4. FCAT and accountability. In 2007, the state acknowledged errors in the scoring of third-grade reading tests for 2006. In the aftermath of the errors, the interim commissioner for the state created a state advisory group that began discussing problems with the state's accountability system. There have been two concrete efforts to come out of that group, the hiring of the Buros Center (from Nebraska) to review the state's testing system (with a few reports now released) and some proposals to change the state's way of assigning letter grades to schools. But more generally, both the flaws in 2006's scoring and the external advisory group have opened up discussion about accountability, and I expect that debate to continue.
  5. Triple whammy for community colleges. In response to budget pressures, the state university system's Board of Governors voted in summer 2007 to cap first-time-in-college enrollment beginning in spring 2008. This enrollment freeze will shift more enrollment to the state's community colleges as the baby boom echo is hitting adulthood and when the state's economic woes are encouraging older workers to return to school for retraining. Florida's high school graduates have a right to attend community colleges, but that right to matriculate does not guarantee them seats in the classes they need. And unlike the state's university system, community colleges do not have a constitutional body to protect their interests.
  6. The Graham-Frey lawsuit. In the spring, the governor line-item vetoed a measure that would have given universities the authority to raise undergraduate tuition 5% beginning in the fall 2007 term. That line-item veto could have been challenged on technical grounds, but a bipartisan independent group decided to file a lawsuit instead on the whole question of who determined tuition... or, rather, who controlled the state university system. In the summer, the state's Board of Governors signed on, and the first real hearing on the lawsuit was held in the fall. This lawsuit could determine not only who sets tuition but who can approve or reject new universities, programs, etc. Most observers I have talked with expect this to go to the Florida Supreme Court, eventually.
  7. FAMU's accreditation. In 2007, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) placed Florida A&M University on probation for a variety of concerns, mostly financial. As new FAMU President James Ammons has tried to clean up the financial matters, SACS kept FAMU on probation during its late-fall meeting. While I am guessing FAMU will come off probation in the next half-year, that is a guess, and this is a major story for the state's universities.
  8. Standards for voluntary pre-kindergarten. In 2002, voters approved the creation of publicly-funded voluntary pre-kindergarten in Florida. The system that the legislature created was poorly funded, with minimal standards for quality. In effect, the legislature was creating a partial subsidy for parents who needed or wanted full-time child care for their preschoolers, as private preschools crafted packages where the morning was the state's VPK program, while the afternoon was privately paid. There have been continuing grumbles about the quality, even as the (relatively sketchy) measures of "kindergarten readiness" have improved. Will there be any stomach for revisiting the system?
There certainly will be other stories that will rise to prominence, but these are my guesses of relative sure bets for topics of education news stories in Florida this year. (Disclosure: I am personally involved in a few of these stories as a faculty union member and as a late-to-the-party member of the state's FCAT advisory panel. I'm also personally involved in stories that didn't get the cut, and I tried to play this straight, but you can be the judge of that.)
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Posted in Education policy at 10:37 AM (Permalink) |