February 28, 2008

Is the blind spot on higher-ed accountability that big?

In all the kerfluffle over the senior theses of Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, I hope I am not the only person asking the other question that I think is obvious and to the point: What do the theses tell us about the state of undergraduate education for Princeton and Wellesley students at the time?

Similarly, all those who huff and puff about higher-ed accountability are ignoring a huge source of information on the quality of graduate education: dissertations. Want to know what the expectations of students are really like? Go read what students create, when they know it's going in the library, going to be microfilmed, or going to be available electronically to the world.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 11:30 AM (Permalink) |

February 27, 2008

Human tendencies to think in hierarchies

This is the follow-up to my earlier entry on Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives and our very human tendency to think in hierarchies, even where inappropriate or misleading. (The great chain of being or evolutionary ladder metaphors are other examples.) It's frustrating to me as a teacher, but as an academic, it's a fascinating phenomenon.

After talking with a few clever adolescents (my children and a limited selection of their friends), we developed a few hypotheses:

  • Humans are social animals, and our history of seeking and defining social pecking orders reinforces hierarchical thinking.
  • Humans have all sorts of ways in which we make distinctions: two easy examples are taste and scent preferences, which are often very strong. Those preferences establish and reinforce hierarchical thinking.
  • Humans already have spatial metaphors we use for abstract concepts, such as time (which we move through, or sometimes time passes by us; we move meetings up, or sometimes back; life is a journey, etc.: see Steven Pinker's book The Stuff of Thought for a lay explanation). Our hierarchical thinking may well be a carryover from whatever gave us those spatial metaphors, or possibly the converse.

This is all speculation; any evolutionary psychologists are welcome to contribute some more rigorous thinking and possibly sources of evidence... anyone want to check with experimentation whether those with stronger senses of taste or smell are more likely to think hierarchically?

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Posted in Random comments at 11:26 PM (Permalink) |

Sometimes selfish evenings...

Sometimes selfish evenings,
when you serve your own needs.
When you serve your own needs and find some energy...

Yes, that scans to "Some Enchanted Evening." One of the risks of both blogging and being overly committed to various tasks is that those who would like you to address their current requests (many of which are overdue) see you blogging and... well, I can imagine it from their perspective. Why am I spending time blogging and ignoring what I need to do?

On Monday, I wrote what is probably an unprecedented six entries in a single day, or at least it's probably unprecedented for me. I'm not Matthew Yglesias; I don't get paid for blogging. What happened behind the scenes Tuesday was that I had a bunch of small tasks, one meeting, and deadlines, plus evening chaffeur duty. I'm not sure why the morning entries have time stamps that are about an hour off, but I got to the office a bit before 7:30 a.m., worked on various tasks with breaks for short blog entries until I headed to a 9:30 meeting, did some more work in the afternoon, took my daughter to an evening event, took shelter in a local bookstore while a line of storms moved through the area, drove my daughter back home, and then headed to a cafe to get some more work done and wrote a few more entries. Not a bad day's work.

Today was all meetings, and a few longish phone conversations, plus more chaffeuring. I am therefore desperately in need of some time just for myself. I'm going to do some fun work, write another blog entry, and then head to bed. I know there are people who would like some things from me yesterday, but you really want me to recharge and get to it tomorrow. Trust me.

(No, this entry was not prompted by any specific complaint.)

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Posted in The academic life at 9:00 PM (Permalink) |

Wherein we become cranky about Bloom's taxonomy and accidentally teach our sharp-tongued son some math

I will admit that I am one of people who grind their teeth when hearing the umpteenth time about Benjamin Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives in the context of planning instruction. In my experience, most people point to it as a source of heuristic advice: how do you design assignments that push students to do more than they thought they could?

But I've also seen people view the taxonomy as Truth Incarnate about Instruction, as a hierarchy of thinking, and that drives me up the wall, as I have written before. Last week, I read something that relied on a Bloom-as-truth assumption, and I began to think, why do humans think in hierarchical terms, even where it is inappropriate? I'll speculate on that in another post, but when I tried to set this up with my adolescent son, he had an interesting counter-argument (apart from trying to argue with me about Bloom, just because he wanted to argue):

Any scheme that is not hierarchical can be converted into a hierarchical scheme.

I tossed out a few examples, such as a circle, a random array, etc., and he handled them all with aplomb, explaining how he would pick a path through each scheme and declared (roughly paraphrased), "If I can pick a path from first to last, then I've created a hierarchy." I didn't argue with him on the difference between an order and a hierarchy, because what he'd just discovered for himself is the notion of a change of variables.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:59 AM (Permalink) |

February 25, 2008

In the zone-out facing multiple deadlines

Let me preface the remarks below with a simple fact of working in a huge university: There are hundreds of colleagues who are better read than I am, hundreds who work longer hours, hundreds who are more organized, hundreds who are wiser, hundreds who are more clever, hundreds who have published more, hundreds who have taught more, hundreds who are better cited, and hundreds who have a much better sense of humor.

That doesn't mean that I'm a slouch. Far from it: I work hard, and I don't mind working hard. As I write this sentence, it's about 10:30, and I'll still be going for a while. I don't think one can survive as a tenure-track faculty member hired in the past decade at many universities these days without either working very hard, being very organized, or being damned lucky (and possibly all three). (I was hired in 1996... I'm stretching "the past decade" a bit.)

My point right now is that I'm in the multiple-deadlines-hitting-at-once zone, which is an inevitable coincidence if you have multiple and often competing obligations over time. They're just going to pile up, and once in a blue moon (or the week after a lunar eclipse, right now), everything hits at once. At this point in my career, I just have confidence I can get done what I need to. I think anyone who survives grad school has at least several moments when they read prose with the density of a neutron star and just repeat to themselves, "I can get through this and get the gist." My first moment was the day in high school I was visiting my sister in college, visited her intro to women's studies class, heard the prof mention Paulo Freire, and had the very foolish idea that I could buy Pedagogy of the Oppressed and read it.

A few hours later, I was sitting in a car, halfway through the prefatory material, getting a headache, and exhausting the rest of my faith on the belief that I could understand Freire. You've probably had that type of moment, and I hope you bulldozed your way through it and came out the other end with the type of understanding you needed.

In college, I had several other experiences writing papers between 10 pm and 5 am, this time a little more confident that I'd get through. The first time is an adventure, and the fourth time you have enough confidence (and caffeine) to get through it. And I had a few sour-lemon readings to compete with Freire: Talcott Parsons is what I recall most.

In grad school, I had a few moments that approached the Freire sensawhatthe? feeling, first with Hayden White's Metahistory and then a few others. But Foucault was accessible by then, and a few book-a-week courses inured me to effective reading. And after several semesters of TAing courses, grading was less anxiety provoking. It's a growth process (or maybe a synaptic-death process: take your pick).

One could view the postdoc and tenure-track years in a similar vein, except adding multiple job and personal responsibilities and eventually deciding that it is better to trust that one can get through it in the long term than to juggle multiple deadlines by the panic method. Generally, an hour later everything looks better, or at least you're exhausted enough that you can just get along.

So I've handled multiple oncoming deadlines today, and I'm fairly confident that I can handle the next ones coming up. Or at least, whatever I do will be good enough for Microsoft. No: I can do better, I have, and I will continue to. It is less arrogance than a temperament of confidence in the long-term bet. Friends of mine have nominalized cope as referring to one's capacity to handle the unexpected, the demands of life, the energy drains that are inevitable.  After all these years, I think I have enough cope. It is perhaps too much confidence, but we need that to get through Paulo Freire, Talcott Parsons, Hayden White, a linear algebra proof without the details, mathematical demography, titration in a shaking building or with shaking hands, grant-writing in a program with a 5% hit rate, and the uncertainties of academic politics.

Those of us in higher education trust that we have enough cope for our role in the world, in our students' lives, and in our research community. It is a belief in the future, for ourselves, for our disciplines, and for knowledge. We may not be enough to save the world, but we are necessary. So yes, we believe in our ability to handle multiple deadlines, unreasonable demands, and have enough humor to get through the semester.

It is the audacity of cope.

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

NCLB and where we sit

In my undergraduate social foundations class, I spend some time explaining the politics of accountability. For the last few years, a critical mass of students (either a majority or a vocal minority) have consistently opposed accountability, taking on the mantle of professionalism, and it's my job to rattle their cages and make them see things using at least one other lens.

I usually explain things in words something like the following:

Views of accountability depend dramatically on where you are. At the classroom level, teachers trust what they do and would like to trust parents but aren't exactly sure. Parents may want to trust teachers, if their children's experiences have generally been decent, or may be entirely untrusting if not. Principals generally trust their own judgment and would like to trust teachers but have a supervisory responsibility (and the level of supervision they exercise will depend rather dramatically on a variety of factors).

Once you get above the level of the school, each level tends to want to impose some accountability on the level below it. For NCLB purposes, the key issue is the state/feds split: in a number of states, officials in the state capitol don't trust local districts and feel that it is their responsibility to regulate the districts, while a number of federal officials are skeptical that states will do the right thing unless there is a federal level of accountability.

NCLB forced states to define a variety of measures and set targets for those measures. At the local level, the state plan is often viewed as onerous, unreasonable, and inflexible. But the state plans are inherently compromises, and so various parties in Washington have looked at the state plans with skepticism.

For example, let's take a look at graduation, which states often defined to mean one minus the proportion of high school students identified as dropouts. That too-easily-falsifiable "dropout rate" is very low in many places, for reasons largely unrelated to the actual proportion of teenagers who graduate from high school, and the official graduation rate if defined as the complement will be wildly inflated.

To local residents and some educators, it looks like the state is hiding a sizable dropout rate, which many view as a consequence of out-of-control accountability systems. That's the type of local or educator-centered view many of you have described.

But you also need to look at it from a federal perspective, from those who see state plans and state commitments with enormous skepticism. To them, what would be the logical conclusion drawn about such graduation rates?

Linda McNeil et al.'s recent article on high-stakes accountability in Texas and Charles Barone's entry today, The Games States Play: Graduation Rates, are Exhibits A and B the next time I have this discussion.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 9:31 PM (Permalink) |

Wrong incentive structure for community colleges/technical training

George R. Boggs and Marlene B. Seltzer describe Washington State's incentive structure designed to encourage community colleges to push completion:

Washington's community and technical colleges will receive extra money for students who earn their first 15 and first 30 college credits, earn their first 5 credits of college-level math, pass a pre-college writing or math course, make significant gains in certain basic skills tests, earn a degree or complete a certificate. Colleges also will be rewarded for students who earn a GED through their programs.

On the one hand, focusing on proximate measures on the way to degrees makes enormous sense, at least if we trust Cliff Adelman's work. On the other hand, I worry that such an incentives structure will affect standards in institutions with weak faculty governance and protection of academic freedom: "We need these students to pass these credits, or we lose money."

Better incentive structure: if public funding plus current tuition is sufficient for an institution's operating expenses (a rather big if, as I'm aware in Florida), keep the hands off the potentially perverse incentives inside the curriculum and give students an incentive to do well by keeping tuition stable for students as long as they make steady progress towards degrees. In other words, tuition stability (or a cap on rising tuition) is guaranteed if students are doing well.

The institutional incentives then can be geared towards summary graduation measures, to some extent. Florida's universities are having their first bite of outcome incentives this year, but the budget cut is swamping the effects of it. (Here's the motivational undermining: You don't starve people and then tell them they can earn a little bit of pin money if they work harder. At this point, at least for the universities, it's a matter of looking to the future and probably a system negotiation about formulae.)

There's a lot more to be said about higher-ed accountability, including Gerald Graff's commentary on assessment and Erin O'Connor's response, but I have to chair a proposal defense in 10 minutes...

Update (2/27): Kevin Carey responds:

I'd like to propose that people be more judicious and precise in their use of the term "perverse incentives" by not applying it to any incentive that could theoretically cause someone to act in bad faith.

I'm not going to split hairs by pointing out the adverb potentially up in the original entry (okay, originally potential and then changed to potentially); if I understand it correctly, Carey's argument is that we should not say something is a perverse incentive unless we can really point to the evidence of strong corrupting influences. In this case, my argument is about the pressures on instructors, not students (something different from what Carey inferred). Are colleges susceptible to such corruption when institutional stakes are tied to individual course grades? The scandals each year tied to athletics (e.g, FSU and tutors who helped athletes cheat) tell me the answer is yes.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 9:49 AM (Permalink) |

The Latin Declension Song

You always knew you wanted a Latin I song (hat tip).

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Posted in The academic life at 9:39 AM (Permalink) |

Did Stanley Fish really have to bring the truth into it?


The truth is that there are no perfectly straightforward senior administrative searches. They are all a bit cooked, and often they serve more as window dressing than as genuinely deliberative processes.

The larger point he made in the column makes sense: institutional leaders are as important for reaching out as for directing what happens within. And the point he made at the end is also true: maybe institutions could be led by people with solid academic credentials, management acumen, and political skills. The fact that I love reading books, researching, writing, and teaching shouldn't excuse mismanagement.

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Posted in Higher education at 8:48 AM (Permalink) |

Teacher performance-pay distributions in Tampa

Yesterday and today, the St Petersburg Times has been covering the distribution of performance pay among different schools in Hillsborough County (one of the few in Florida where the union and school board agreed to the state's merit-pay provisions). See the main story from yesterday and also a tale of two teachers, a basic Q&A sidebar, and then play around with school-level statistics.

What the Times has documented is that teachers were more likely to receive the bonuses in schools where students are more likely to be from well-off families. The district says they'll tinker with the formula for next year. While I love David Tyack and Larry Cuban's book with tinkering in the title, I'm skeptical that tinkering will work in this case.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:39 AM (Permalink) |

Students Blog

Here is why I'm delighted to have the NYC Students Blog on my list of must-reads: when Bronx Science Students Walk Out, you'll get a student perspective responding to the NY Sun article.

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Posted in Reading at 8:17 AM (Permalink) |

February 23, 2008

Stocks for the plagiarist?

Margaret Soltan argues for public punishment of plagiarists, most recently in the case of Madonna Constantine of Teachers College (Columbia University):

UD sees no reason to keep the nature of the sanction private, and many good reasons to make sanctions public. These people should serve as examples to other professors tempted to plagiarize.

I'm not sure Constantine is avoiding public scrutiny, especially with the New York Times article yesterday on the case. Nor do I think her public comments are doing anything other than undermining whatever case could be made. I suppose one could say that anyone disciplined on any job for serious misconduct should have the details spread on the table like a crime blotter, but there's a reason why we term one a criminal arrest and the other a civil matter.

There are a few problems in making all disciplinary matters public. First, doing so would raise the stakes tremendously inside an institution and eliminate all incentive for faculty who have screwed up from either owning up to mistakes or going away without a fight. Second, making all sanctions public would penalize the first institution that does so by making all their faculty misdeeds an open book; who would go first? Third, it would reinforce the double standard that already exists with K-12 teachers, who are often assumed to be more moral than the general population instead of held to a reasonable standard of competence and decent behavior.

Besides, didn't we do away with putting criminals in stocks a long time ago? So why we should do it with plagiarists and not convicted criminals seems an odd proposition to me.

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Posted in Higher education at 10:36 PM (Permalink) |

Bright Futures: an out-of-control entitlement program that conservative Republicans created

For probably the first time in my life, I had perfect timing: My column on Florida's lottery-funded scholarship program (Bright Futures) appeared in the Jacksonville Times-Union newspaper today, the same day the St. Petersburg Times reported on a poll about university tuition, a day after the Tampa Tribune reported on problems with the Bright Futures program and two days after a Palm Beach Post editorial on the subject and the state's Board of Governors discussed the isssue.

It's a tough argument to make, especially with students creating Facebook groups to defend the current structure of Bright Futures, but it's an important point: when Florida tied a merit-based scholarship program to lottery funding in the last decade and promised full funding of college in the program, without any caps to the students involved, ... and then has failed to fund all of the students universities have admitted in the past ten years ... something had to give. The lottery hasn't paid for all of the program costs, and so the legislature has had a huge incentive to cap tuition and to fight the Board of Governors when the Board wants to set tuition. The result is that universities cannot admit all the students they would like to. In essence, Bright Futures is no promise if not all students eligible can be admitted to universities, and if it pits the interests of students in getting the cheapest possible degree against the interests of universities in running institutions that are solvent.

In addition, Bright Futures is the vast majority of financial-aid funding in the state, and it goes disproportionately to families who can afford the rock-bottom tuition we have in Florida. The students who really need the help with tuition have a much smaller pool of funds available to them because of Bright Futures. The irony (noted in the title): here's an entitlement program created by a Republican former governor (Jeb Bush) and conservative leaders of the state legislature, when most of them have probably criticized other entitlement programs. There's nothing wrong with Republicans (my oldest sister is a Republican officeholder in California), but here's a case where the political dynamics have led to a clear philosophical inconsistency.

The chancellor of Florida's university system has the right idea: cap current costs, don't affect the students who are currently in the universities on Bright Futures, but in future raise eligibility requirements and shift spending over to needs-based financial aid. I don't know if that'll fly this year, but something has to bend, or the university system's integrity will break.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:21 AM (Permalink) |

February 22, 2008

No excuses

I'm exhausted after a week of only eight meetings, but more than half were important meetings. I wish I had pithy thoughts, but I think the last pithy thought I had was on Tuesday, when I drafted a bunch of items for the union e-mail newsletter.

Adieu, cruel week. No, it wasn't cruel: just there in a way I wish I had been free from, a bit more.

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Posted in The academic life at 10:52 PM (Permalink) |

February 19, 2008

Wake up and go to sleep with AERA

This says nothing about my personal life but instead about my often-fragmented day: I started work early this morning at the auto dealer's working on a paper I'm co-presenting at AERA with Stephen Provasnik, and I'm closing out my local coffeehouse by... working on the paper. I only wish I could have spent hours and hours of consecutive time on it. It's a fun analysis that no one else looking at teacher attrition (not Richard Ingersoll nor anyone else) appears to have thought of, and if you're free Monday, March 24, between 2:15 and 3:45, head to the Soho Room on the 7th floor of the New York Times Marriot Marquis Times Square (Soho Complex), and you'll learn some very interesting stuff about entrances into and exits from teaching. The key finding is...

Ah, heck, that would be giving away the show. Come, listen, and learn. We'll even pass around some very cool tables and figures.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:56 PM (Permalink) |

Florida Board of Education members earn a B on science standards, and their spines earn a C in principled decisionmaking

The Florida Board of Education approved science standards with evolution, but if still appending the words "scientific theory of" before the word "evolution." The department staff earns enormous credit for giving the standards-writing project to a large team of scientists and science teachers, who firmly put evolution in the center of the standards, only to have the process jeopardized by a politicized attack on teaching evolution. I'll let others spin the news and just give some impressions

My slim observations about the hearing and debate

My car was getting its 30,000-mile checkup early this morning, so I started up the live webcast for the state board hearing on science standards about two-thirds of the way through. One of the most disheartening things to observe is how several speakers against the standards took the writings of Stephen Jay Gould and Karl Popper out of context. As one example, Gould's idiosyncratic views on the pace and path of evolution (I'm guessing the quotation I heard was from his writing on punctuated equilibrium) were twisted to become part of a criticism of natural selection's central position in evolution (certainly not Gould's position). The misleading nature of the anti-standards speeches today convinces me that the issue for those speakers is not one of different frames of looking at the universe, not of culture (as some of the comments on my prior entries on the subject state). Instead, there were outright misstatements of the writings of scientists and scientific philosophers. To my ears, they sounded like debating points made by taking statements out of context, or out-and-out lies about what Gould and Popper meant.

After the break, the FDOE staff focused on economic competitiveness and the need to teach to science standards that are in common across the world. That was also the argument of board members Ashkay Desai, who voted against the alternative wording along with Roberto Martinez. The group who drafted and revised the proposed standards overwhelmingly opposed adding the term "theory" in fears that the popular misunderstanding of what a scientific theory is would undermine the teaching of evolution in the classroom.

General comments on "theory"

In science, the word theory is a term of art, referring to a well-tested broad model rather than a speculative hypothesis. In the broader world (and in the social sciences), theory is used more casually ("I have a theory about parking on campus"), and the institutional opponents of teaching natural selection often rely on the popular definition to undermine the teaching of the neo-Darwin explanation of evolution.

To what extent is this partly a consequence of scientists failing to educate the public about that term of art, or failing to pick something like confirmed model? Hmmn... ask Daphne Patai and Wilfrido Corral about theory in the humanities context. Or ask parents or patients irritated by the slinging of jargon by professionals. To the extent that terms of art serve a distancing function, they cut both ways; live by expertise and you can also die by expertise in public debate. In the long term, the maintenance of a term like theory may be a strategic mistake (much larger than qualitative education researchers' claiming that they have exact parallels to reliability and validity, but that's a separate topic). At this point, I suspect it would take a huge job to shift the discourse away from theory. We're stuck with explaining its special meaning in science.

Having said that, I am still concerned by the Board of Education's decision, which may signal permission for local boards and teachers to claim that the serious scientific debate in biology is over the general validity of natural selection instead of the paths and variations in natural selection. In this way, the terminology may be different from the symbolic meaning of adding those words at this point.

Commissioner Eric Smith recommended that the board approve the alternative wording. The board members are politically appointed, and Commissioner Smith was hired by them, but I'm still disappointed. He knows the problems with the previous batch of standards, and he should know the dangers of the wording that the board approved today. I may be wrong-and I hope I am wrong-but I share the standards-writing group's and Florida Citizens for Science's concerns about this. I hope these concerns don't pan out in Florida's classrooms.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:14 PM (Permalink) |

February 18, 2008

Gorillas split on teaching of evolution in Florida

CAMEROON--The Cross River Antievolution Primate (CRAP) organization announced today that it was splitting from the Western Lowland Coalition Mediating Evolution (WeLCoME) in the controversial topic of science standards in Florida. While it is not clear why western gorillas are arguing about the curriculum standards of a geopolitical entity thousands of miles away, they are clearly invested in the topic.

"We want nothing to do with Florida if they teach evolution," said the silverback representative of CRAP. "Gorillas have never had problems with hanging chads, hurricanes, horrid designer tastes, harangued sharks, or harried nursing homes. Frankly, we'd like that link to remain missing for as long as possible."

WeLCoME's leaders, a group of blackbacks who have risen suddenly in the leadership of the Western Lowland gorillas, immediately issued a press release condemning the CRAP decision. "We suspect the Cross River gorillas are just hoping to become economically competitive," said one in conversation with a reporter. "Certainly, they must know that we're all primates and have common origins a few million years back."

He added, "We haven't had any feelers from high-tech industries, but maybe they're hoping to parlay our very low wages into some development. If they can suggest that Cross River gorillas are better educated than Florida's high school graduates, maybe they're hoping to get a factory or two."

Biologists have pointed to the commonalities between gorillas and humans for a long time, but evidently the Cross River group wants to disassociate themselves from Florida humans, at the very least. As documented by naturalists, gorillas in Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo have been known to use tools, such as a stick to gauge water depth, a tree stump as a bridge, and a rock to turn off the television during President Bush's last State of the Union address in January.

Update: Someone just suggested to me that the title of this entry should have been Gorillas in the MST3K. Hmmn...

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Posted in Education policy at 12:08 AM (Permalink) |

February 17, 2008

On eprints at Harvard and Full Monty open-access

I'm still trying to figure out the consequences of Harvard's Arts and Science faculty voting last week to push open-access publication of faculty work. This is fundamentally different from the occasional individual boycott of subscription-based journals. Harvard's faculty move is closer to Congress's push for a mandate that all grant-funded articles etc. be accessible to the public within a year of original publication. It is from these institutional moves that the publishing world will change. There is a simple, digestible explanation for the open-access moves related to grants (the public pays, so the public should be able to read) and the Harvard A&S faculty (we're established enough not to have to worry about the reputational economy of subscription journals). What flows from that is not necessarily clear, but we can reasonably assume that something will flow.

Reputational economies and the refereeing process

There are two broader issues here that need to be untangled. One is the reputational economy of academe, which is partly tied to the referee process and partly to post-publication reputational measures, such as citations. As physics has shown with arXiv, a discipline can survive quite nicely with a much fuzzier boundary between working paper and publication. But maybe that's because of the established reputation of physics. Similarly, I think history, classics, math, and other disciplines that have relatively high intellectual status (if not in resources) have nothing to fear from loosening up the refereeing process.

But what about other disciplines, including education? Education research already has a number of unrefereed publications that receive a lot of attention, largely because of differential access to publicity. Unlike medicine, where the top-reputed journals have publicists that distribute press releases (and you will see those regularly reported in the press), education has a different distribution of publicity. If you look at the indispensable Fritzwire, you'll see oodles of announcements for think-tank-based research symposia, and the ability to hire publicity folks does have an impact on what gets reported. As one colleague in another institution explained, when I asked why his work received far less attention in his area than the think-tank-based work of X and Y, which I thought was of lower quality, "Sociology departments don't usually hire publicists."

This is not to say that all think-tank-funded research is of poor quality, or that articles in refereed journals is of high quality: you don't know until you read the stuff. Nor am I suggesting that think tanks fire their publicists or stop doing the legwork to get attention. My point is rather that given the existing visibility of nonrefereed work in education, in addition to the status issues in education already, I suspect that faculty in education will be far more reluctant to let go of a peer-refereed model. Even though the notion of peer refereeing is historically and geographically bounded (see Einstein versus the Physical Review for one example), it is wrapped up in status issues. For Harvard's A&S faculty to vote for an open-access preference is one thing. For even Harvard's education faculty to go the same route? We'll see.

Economic models for open access

Since EPAA is described by John Willinsky as a "zero-budget journal," I'm living the tensions involved in open-access.  We don't charge either readers or authors for anything, though I have no compunction about asking authors to review other manuscripts as part of a reviewing ecology, and I've shifted the submission checkoff to alert authors that very long manuscripts or manuscripts with a number of tables may involve some paid preparation of an article post-acceptance. (I haven't yet asked authors to pay for such preparation, but it's a recent move.) Apart from the administrative issues involved, I am not philosophically inclined towards allowing advertising on EPAA. Maybe I should, but I and many editorial board members would be uncomfortable with that. But as a result, the burden of making the journal work is largely on volunteer labor, or labor borrowed from other tasks. Even if I were to accept advertising into EPAA, I suspect that we would not receive much revenue from it, and it may not be worth the headaches involved.

The most visible open-access journal system, the Public Library of Science, relies on publication fees charged to authors, starting right now at $1250. Here is the PLoS explanation of publication fees:

It costs money to produce a peer-reviewed, edited, and formatted article that is ready for online publication, and to host it on a server that is accessible around the clock. Prior to that, a public or private funding agency has already paid a great deal more money for the research to be undertaken in the interest of the public. This real cost of "producing" a paper can be calculated by dividing your laboratory's annual budget by the number of papers published. We ask that-as a small part of the cost of doing the research-the author, institution, or funding agency pays a fee, to help cover the actual cost of the essential final step, the publication. (As it stands, authors now often pay for publication in the form of page or color charges.) Many funding agencies now support this view.

For largely grant-funded disciplines, that's doable. For others? Not possible, either because an institution will not pay publication fees or because an author may be an independent scholar.

Here's the bottom-line concern: For journals in non-grant fields that are currently subscription-based and where there is paid staff who work on the journal, the transition to subscription-free work is fraught with risk, and I suspect that forcing all currently-operating journals to go subscription-free would result in the closure of hundreds of journals. I don't think anyone wants that to happen, but there is no secure economic model for open-access journals right now. We'll see the development of hybrids for some time (such as the Teachers College Record in education research), and that will work to some extent. And my guess is that a number of journals would have no problem with open-access for a substantial number of country-specific domains, to help scholars in countries that do not generally have institutional subscriptions to expensive journals. But that's different from the "Full Monty" open-access journal.

Where to go from here

Of the two issues, my guess is that the reputational-economy question is easier to answer. I suspect citation harvesting will be the basis of future reputation economies in academic publication. Google Scholar is incomplete and inaccurate, but so is ISI's Web of Science, and as long as academics don't treat bibliometrics as carved in stone, things should work out (or at least the problems are of a much lower magnitude than other problems we face). Unlike David Rothman, I do not see online comment forums and rating algorithms working, in part because few researchers can afford the time to invest in such forums or devices. For institutions that care about research, they will still use external reviews at promotion gates, and that will supplement other information.

The economic model of "full Monty open-access" is going to be harder to achieve. Maybe I should state what I would love, as an editor: for someone to figure out how to provide me great copyediting and compositing. Make it so I don't have the headaches of economic administration and post-acceptance detail work, and I'll probably swing towards accepting advertising or a sliding-scale manuscript-processing fee. That's going to be a bit of a challenge, since I have very particular ideas about how an article should look. But a clearinghouse that manages advertising, moderate manuscript-processing and publication fees, copyeditors and compositors, and has a quality-control mechanism for the copyeditors and compositors would do me a huge favor. And if this finicky editor will accept it, and if you can make it work economically, you just might make open-access work on a sustainable basis.

February 16, 2008

Publication stats for EPAA

Logistical chugging along tonight: I'm afraid I didn't get to any serious manuscript thought in the last few hours, but I did figure out how to analyze about 10 months' worth of manuscripts, after excluding repeated submissions and other errors:

  • 86 total manuscripts
  • 18 still in review (about 21% of this batch)
  • 55 declined (64% of all manuscripts, 81% of manuscripts with decisions)
  • 13 manuscripts either accepted or in revise-and-resubmit cycle (15% of all manuscripts, 19% of manuscripts with at least initial decisions)

In general, I only request revisions if I am confident that the manuscript is likely to be accepted at some point, after rewriting. (I do not request a revision if one of the problems is that the data collection is insufficient.) I am not pleased right now with the speed of reviewing, but that's a combination of three bottlenecks, and since one of them is my own time crunch from last semester, it's beginning to ease, and another bottleneck is getting some lubrication thanks to some tricks in the new OJS software (the submission package we use). This will never be perfect, in part because we are what John Willinsky calls a "zero-budget journal," but it should get better... at least until a tree falls on me and interrupts the flow again.

(The last is a reference to the editor of the weekly physics- and general science-politics e-mail newsletter What's New, Bob Park, whose public-education work really was interrupted when a tree fell on him. He's doing much better, now, and the tree never got a shot as his sharp tongue, which remains.)

Steady work, if you can do it

Woke up at 5:20 this morning (the usual setting for weekdays), went back to bed for 10 minutes, then up to exercise and shower. Out to a cafe something after six, did some logistical editing tasks, write a disposition e-mail, answered a few e-mails, thought about the future, and now it's time to head back home before coming back to meet with a doctoral student here at 11. Then swing back home, pick up my son for a martial-arts session in the early afternoon, and I'll probably come home and do some work afterwards. Given the weekend's schedule, I probably won't get stretches of time to concentrate, but there's plenty of stuff on my plate to do.

Yes, I'll get some leisure time, but my internal sense of things is that I need to poke away at things this weekend. There is nothing magical in this except in trusting that persistence pays off in the long term.

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Posted in The academic life at 8:22 AM (Permalink) |

February 15, 2008

Just awful

7 Killed in Northern Illinois Shooting (IHE coverage).

I have no pithy comments today.

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Posted in Higher education at 9:26 AM (Permalink) |

February 14, 2008

Mail inadequacy

  • I should not have left the checkbook at home: I've finished an article manuscript I'm pleased with, but I need to send in a small check for submission processing. So the manuscript copies will sit on my desk until tomorrow morning.
  • Someone wanting to be admitted to USF must have found the faculty union website, confused the union with the university, and wrote my cell phone and the union office # on an envelope.  So this morning I received my very first application to be admitted into the engineering program. I'd like to know more about engineering, but I think I'm not the right recipient. After a bit of thought on my part and on the part of a department staff member, the envelope is now on its way to the graduate studies office.
  • After some grumbling and the persuasion of her advisor in the fall, my daughter took a "practice PSAT" (which stands for practice practice SAT), and she is now receiving envelopes from colleges around the country that want her to apply. This is driven in part by the U.S. News & World Report ranking, partly derived from selectivity; so if you can attract a lot of applicants and reject more, your rankings rise (or fall less). (The same dynamic is true with the American Educational Research Association's divisions and special-interest groups.) She's amused by this, for the most part. Thus far, she has not received any brochure with an awful pun, the way a friend and I did many years ago from the University of Puget Sound, whose brochure title was How Does Puget Sound?
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Posted in The academic life at 9:56 AM (Permalink) |

AP participation and passing data

For a good summary of the College Board data just released on the AP program, with some journalistic follow-up, see Scott Jaschik's story at Inside Higher Ed. Odd factoid alert: highly skewed AP subjects by gender include computer science (not a surprise) and French literature (more of a surprise).

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Posted in Higher education at 8:17 AM (Permalink) |

Helen Ladd's common-sense approach

I'm biased because I've made the same recommendations: In a late January Ed Week commentary I should have pointed to earlier, the Duke University professor says we should be Rethinking the Way We Hold Schools Accountable.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:04 AM (Permalink) |

February 13, 2008

Zokol: for when you've read too much Kozol

It's obvious what's the great line to take from Sandra Tsing Loh's review of Kozol's latest. But you need to read past the first paragraph. Loh's writing is a bit stream-of-consciousness but forceful, vivid, memorable.

Oh, yeah: and the other very important bit of information I gleaned: Loh was a viola player. I should've guessed.

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Posted in Education policy at 3:33 PM (Permalink) |

How to ask questions of faculty

Once again Cal Newport has solid advice for college students:

Don't be afraid to ask questions when confused in class. Use the following format: <this is my interpretation> + <this is what confused me> + <this is what I want to be clarified>

Yes, yes, yes: don't ask a vague question such as Can you tell me again <topic>? Instead, explain your best understanding, which will help me or my colleagues figure out if you've nailed it, if you're in the ballpark but need some guidance, or if you're out of the ballpark.

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Posted in Higher education at 2:15 PM (Permalink) |

February 12, 2008

On excuses for unintended consequences

Oh, my: I head out of town for a week, and when I get back there's a trail of tears blogs on curriculum narrowing:

While there is some question about the extent of curriculum narrowing that followed NCLB (see: no causal language there), the basic argument in these entries is over whether NCLB creates incentives to narrow the curriculum and the extent to which the variation in curriculum narrowing shows that schools don't have to narrow the curriculum to do well on tests.

(...except for Eduwonk's red herring about low bars, which essentially is that because states can set relatively low thresholds for proficiency, that eliminates the incentive to narrow curriculum, stuff test-prep into the kids up the wazoo, etc. No economist or behaviorist would accept an argument of "hey, the marginal change required is low, so that doesn't create an incentive for changed behavior." Either would reply that's a question that should be left to evidence, not speculation. I'm not an economist or a behaviorist, but I don't buy the hand-waving about low bars, either. And, as 'kette points out, isn't NCLB supposed to change behavior? You can't simultaneously say NCLB is changing some behavior you like without acknowledging that it has the potential to provoke behavior we don't like.)

If we agree that thousands of schools are making poor decisions in response to the pressure of test-based accountability, then the operative question is, How do we help schools and educators make better decisions? Charles Barone and others suggest we hold up exemplars and say, "Follow them." That's the effective-schools-literature strategy, and we've paddled that boat since the late 1970s without getting where we want, so we know at least that it's not enough. Robert Pondiscio and other core-knowledge or other-curriculum standards folks would say, "Build the curriculum, and they will follow." That's a step towards regulating input more than outcomes, which I suspect will not be politically viable, but I may be wrong. George Miller, Ted Kennedy, and others propose to increase the number of measures used, with legislative language that assumes that AYP can be finely tuned. I don't buy that argument: test-based accountability is a cudgel, not a scalpel. My instinct is to say, Watch the decision-making, but that's because I distrust black-box handwaving, and I know it's hard to operationalize a procedural standard within a test-prep culture.

The meta-political question is deeper and one that I think most people understand in spots if not generally: you either own reform or you lose the reformer label. If you do not acknowledge problems through implementation and own them, you give up a huge chunk of credibility. Whether I agree with them on an issue or not, I give credit to Ed Trust for occasionally identifying problems with implementation and deciding to own the issue (e.g., growth models). They haven't done that with 100%-proficiency goals or test-prep (yet), but it's a healthy dynamic where they have done it. You could say the same with Fordham and curriculum-narrowing (or Diane Ravitch with the same issue plus test-prep). Or Miller and Kennedy and 100% proficiency (though their concrete ideas on those points are Rube-Goldbergesque).

I haven't seen that nearly as much with Barone, Eduwonk, or some others, and the failure to own problems with NCLB ignores the fundamental fact of post-NCLB politics: Parents of public-school children are far more skeptical of test-based accountability than they were 5 years ago. Own the problems or lose control.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 11:38 AM (Permalink) |

A warning to college teachers


I'd like to thank you all for doing away with the education of the past that encouraged thinking, and for signing on to a new style that's more formulated for today. My future boss will really appreciate the robot qualities you have instilled in me. After all, it's a cubicle world, and we're going to need lots of cubicle boys and girls to fill it.

Hat tip.

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Posted in Higher education at 9:29 AM (Permalink) |

February 11, 2008

Huge conferences are inherently dysfunctional

This is not unique to the American Educational Research Association, but I was part of three sessions or papers submitted to AERA, one of which was accepted (par for the course), and I agreed to serve as chair of another, on condition that I not have to stay in the conference city (NYC) for the whole week.

Well, the schedule is up today, and my submitted (and accepted) paper is scheduled for Monday, while the session I agreed to chair is on Thursday. Aaarrrghghghgh! The program chair for that division is not responsible for the scheduling, and to some extent, when you have a cast of thousands, no one will be happy with scheduling, but this means I had to back out of the session I'm slated to chair.

The fact that we really do not have travel support this year (thank you, budget cuts) doesn't help. Nor does the fact that the conference city is New York.

So if you read this, know me, live in the New York area, haven't committed heinous crimes such as murder, pederasty, or wearing chartreuse, and want to put me up for Sunday and Monday night and get dinners out on me, please e-mail me. (Alternatively, if you're a nonsmoking male headed to AERA and are staying Sunday and Monday nights and want to share a room, send me an e-mail.)

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Posted in The academic life at 10:39 AM (Permalink) |

Probably not what Tallahassee or Beltway policy wonks intended

So some Florida teachers were fired because they were abusing students, letting a classroom get out of hand, not being prepared ... but the state has forced the reinstatement of the teachers because the districts did not rely on test scores to make the personnel decisions.

Can someone explain to me how this makes sense?

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 9:17 AM (Permalink) |

February 10, 2008

Notes on a college visit (sort of), days 3-4

I'm lagging behind on the college visit notes, because we had to get up early for yesterday's flight, and I've been too tired today to write until now.

Friday, we did not tour a college but instead toured the area. I incurred the justifiable irritation of my daughter for not having planned where to go but just picking a direction. We found a (lost-)tourist information center and while I engaged the very friendly employee in a discussion of the area's history, my daughter planned a state-park visit using the center's maps. So we headed out again, found the state park, spent some time tramping around and getting a bit cold (or I did), and then drove back to the hotel where we collapsed. "Why am I tired from sitting in a car for a few hours?" she asked. Well, at least she didn't do the driving.

A few hours later, we walked around the center of the college's town with its very college-town-like boutique stores. She had dinner makings in the hotel room, but I didn't, so I bought a sandwich from a local bakery (very good bread), we window-shopped and laughed/cried at some of the fashions, and then crashed (after eating dinner). (No, I am not an abusive father: I asked her to eat out, and she declined.)

Yesterday, we spent far too much time in airplanes and hotels. Today I've been very inefficient at almost everything, so I volunteered to shop so I could at least be useful without too much of a brain. But...

The January 29 This Week in Science podcast has a shout-out to our zebra finches at the end of it. Thank you, Dr. Sanford! (Earlier in grad school, Kirsten Sanford worked in a lab researching the memory of zebra finches.) Yes, I'm a sucker for science podcasts. TWIS has the same AM morning-drive feel to it that the Fordham Foundation's The Gadfly podcast has. It doesn't work for me when it's a standard AM radio station, but for topical podcasts, I like it better.

I'll probably have the brains for a post mortem tomorrow, or the day after.

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Posted in Random comments at 7:27 PM (Permalink) |

February 8, 2008

Notes on a college visit, day 2

My teenaged daughter and I visited a College of Potential Choice yesterday, and it was fascinating watching the process from another angle (as parent, not faculty member and not student). There were four families at the basic orientation, two from the college's region and two from outside the region. One of the families left a few minutes before the campus tour, and I think my daughter was the only one who visited a class in the afternoon. The basic orientation was by an admissions officer who had just graduated, and the tour by a senior. I kept having thoroughly faculty-ish thoughts, while trying to stay at least a little in the background.

  • With this student-centered description of the academic program, what does that require of faculty? (a few calculations in the head) So that's the likely tradeoff here...
  • Yes, that's a very parent-like question,... and there's the grand-slam response. And that's the inevitable follow-up... with the solo home run. The other parents are sold, or at least they've decided not to call the bullpen.
  • The tone of her answer to my question was in the style of, "Oh, I forgot to say that. Thanks for asking!" The admissions officer's casual style hides a lot of preparation/rehearsal.That next question stumped her, not that I was trying to, in part because it was a request for personal perspective on how she answered the first question. She regularly talks about some parts of her academic experience, but not about this. Maybe it's not as central as she suggests, or maybe prospectives or their parents don't regularly ask.
  • Ah, so the senior is not a math or science person, but we're headed to the part of campus with labs because of the weather and because it's a great show-and-tell.
  • With that poster, they must have a large plotter somewhere in the building.
  • With that description of the equipment and with the flyer on the lab door to my left indicating the multi-hundred-thousand-dollar grant, my guess is this place has its share of NSF REU  (research experience for undergraduates) awards. The student tour guide is probably not aware that REU grants would be more impressive than access to the equipment she described. My daughter or I can probably search on the NSF website to check, if it seems important.
  • And as we pass through this exit door, here's a campus police department flyer on a recent sexual assault (both an alert and a request for assistance). Later in the tour, another parent asked about campus security, and the student describes the regular security walk-throughs at night on each floor of each dorm. I don't remember if the incident reported on the alert happened on campus or near campus; not everyone lives where security walks through the dorms.
  • My gosh, this studio is cold! I know you have to alert parents that a college might have drawings of nudes in a drawing class, but that's not the question I have. Why is every drawing studio in a temperate climate under-heated: do they want the students to learn how to draw goose-pimples, or is freezing student models the secret plan to fight weight gain?
  • This lecture room is definitely built for a wired generation. I suspect I'd like it as a faculty member; much more theater-in-the-round style than the rooms I usually get, and that fits with how I like to run class.
  • I suspect that equipment is available on a lot of campuses. But you don't have the comparative experience to know, and it's clear you love your college. That's probably more important to know.
  • That didn't surprise me, but it feels like an afterthought, as if you have the answer prepared for students who ask, but few ask. Most who come for campus tours probably expect the answer and don't even think about asking.
  • Ah... that answers the question I had when walking on campus. It makes sense, but it sure defines the character of the place in a unique way, far more than the "stop the war" posters I see in a handful of office windows.
  • Why are frosh all housed in concrete? I think that's universal, and I'm sure anthropologists would have a field day with it.
  • Well, I'm very surprised you didn't mention that without the question. It strikes me as something that would be a selling point. As a senior, you've probably been socialized so thoroughly into the culture that you forgot how the structure supports it.
  • No walk-through in the dining hall? Ah, the food may be better, but the environment isn't the restaurant-like atmosphere of some large-university dining halls. I'm surprised the tour doesn't show that off explicitly as a reflection of the college's values; you'd be surprised how many parents and students would be relieved.
  • Not even a quick peek into the bookstore? I wonder why.
  • Not a research library, but since so much is available electronically or via interlibrary loan, that's not too much of a handicap.
  • This computer center isn't very crowded. I bet today it's more popular for printing than for using computers... ah, and apparently that's true enough, according to the tour guide's experience. I wonder how many of those experiences were last-minute printouts right before class.
When my daughter was in a class visit, I went back to the dining hall, to sample the food, and as expected, it was better than in most college dining halls, if with ugly 70s-ish decor. (It's probably really early 90s-ish decor, but the point is that decor is less important than decent food, and that's a priority I appreciate.) I then headed to the bookstore to browse the shelves for classes. One of the faculty members wrote stuff that my colleagues or I have assigned over the years, and I found a class the faculty member is teaching this term; the books are pretty much what I expected, or in one case a book I want to read. (No, I didn't e-mail the faculty member in advance to meet. The college visit is for my daughter, not me.)

Browsing through the texts section of a bookstore is telling; what's the typical number of books a student would be expected to purchase per semester, and what proportion are textbooks, monographs, or classic books? While the reading load here is a bit lighter than places like Swarthmore or Wellesley, the books are still intellectually weighty: the majority are from the accessible end of monographs or interesting syntheses, not $200 textbooks. I'm quite surprised that the tour doesn't end right in the classes section of the bookstore, leaving parents and students to browse through a slice of the assigned readings. It's reasonably impressive, by itself.

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Posted in Higher education at 7:32 AM (Permalink) |

February 7, 2008

One more follow-up on Kennedy/Miller endorsement and NCLB politics

Just one more datum on speculation about the Kennedy and Miller endorsements of Obama mean for NCLB (little, I've said before). Let's suppose for a moment that all this is true, and that the stars are lining up behind Obama from the Democratic Forces for NCLB. If you believe that and the bundling hypothesis about donations to campaigns, and if you know where Bill Gates stands, where do you think the majority of donations from Microsoft employees would be going?

Wrong: Clinton.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 9:45 PM (Permalink) |

Notes on a college visit, day 1

Signs on a trip to a place 1000+ miles from home with teenaged offspring:

  • Teen offspring says she loves the weather
  • Wearing a long-sleeved turtleneck and a sweater (if an L.L. Bean sweater), teen offspring doesn't appear to be cold in the weather you need a parka for
  • Teen offspring repeatedly thanks you for the trip
  • Teen offspring explains why the city is much better than the city where you currently live
  • Teen offspring lauds the architecture of Huge University She Won't Consider, saying "I want the buildings, but not the university."
  • Teen offspring says at least a few times, "My friends will kill me when I get back" with a huge grin.
We arrived last night. This morning, we woke up, walked around downtown, took a bus to Huge University She Won't Consider so I could have lunch with a friend, and then tootled around a bit on our way to nearby small-town where we'll visit College of Potential Choice tomorrow.

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Posted in Higher education at 2:06 AM (Permalink) |

February 4, 2008

The college visit gig

This week, I'm going to be on the other side of the fence, as the parent of a high school student visiting a college. Wednesday, my daughter tags along with me as I have lunch with a colleague on a campus she's not interested in, but when we're at the college she is interested in, it is most definitely Not My Show.

As happened when my daughter entered elementary school, this will probably make me a better observer and critic of higher education. Or so I'd like to believe.

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Posted in Higher education at 10:34 PM (Permalink) |

An even more twisted mind under the influence (of a rhinovirus)

Evidently, Michael Bérubé's state of mind can be very interesting, especially after a great Super Bowl.

For the record, I have never been under the influence of anything more serious than Benadryl, though when I was in high school my debate partner and I argued in favor of legalizing marijuana and decided that if we were ever asked in cross-examination if we had ever smoked pot, we'd say, "No, but we like broccoli after dinner," and figure out some way to light up a floret in the room. (This was in the days before no-smoking rules in public buildings.) We never did figure that out, unfortunately.

Oh, wait. One horrid evening in college, the infirmary solved my excruciating earache with acetaminophen-and-codeine. I think that beats Benadryl, though it doesn't beat the Lakers in the late spring of 1985.

Hmmn... either I'm heading out of town early tomorrow morning, or I have a cold. There is the definite possibility of both.

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Posted in The academic life at 10:07 PM (Permalink) |

February 3, 2008

All-American dad... sort of

So here I sit, a few seconds from the end of the Super Bowl, rooting for the Giants to pull off a miracle, with beer in hand... but with no television... and the beer is gluten-free* ... and in a mug, not a stein or the bottle. I knew the Giants should have gone for it at fourth-and-one with 8 minutes left. But did they hear my advice?? No!

At least the mug has pictures of grape bunches on it. Properly bacchanalian, but I don't think my kids will believe it. My daughter is practicing violin and starts with a speedy folk tune.  I suppose that's appropriate somehow.

So this time, when forced to, the Giants went for it on 4th and won the first down. They're alive, still, but Eli Manning is not the quarterback I'd want in this situation. This is torture even for a relative nonfan like me. 3rd and 5 on the Giants' 44.

Tyree! First and 10 on the Patriots' 24.  Maybe this isn't quite so hopeless... but they always raise your hopes before dashing them. This is a great ending, no matter the result.

One-yard loss. Damn. Incomplete pass, and now it's third down. Several hundred million are now in sports agony.

First down on the Patriots' 13.  The next three plays determine the game.


The rest is denouement, and rather sad for Tom Brady, to get sacked at the end. I feel sorry for Patriots fans. They had a perfect season, or thought they did.

* - No, not because of my health. And I should've put the other variety in the fridge, since the bottle I drew is less well hopped than I'd like.

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Posted in Random comments at 10:08 PM (Permalink) |

Matt Miller's fallacy

I must have had a busy month to wait several weeks before correcting the record on Matt Miller's Atlantic article, First, Kill All the School Boards. The real problem, he says, is all of those selfish, parochial school board members and the unions who manipulate them. He paints a romantic picture of Horace Mann, repeats both the truthful and the hoary cliches of the past quarter-century of school reform, and calls for nationalizing education.

To put it briefly, Miller falls into the standard "let's fix the governance structure" fallacy of a certain chunk of education reform wannabes. I just don't buy it. If school-board parochialism were the main problem, then we'd find Hawa'i's schools outdoing the rest of the country because of its unitary system. Or we'd find Southern states outdoing the north because many of them have mostly county systems, in contrast to Northern and Western states with tiny, fragmentary districts. Or New York City's system would be perfect today because of the elimination of the elected school boards through mayoral control. I'm sure that there are governance changes that would matter, but this one? It's bold, provocative, simple, and not very helpful.

Miller refers to a comparative study of education policymaking by economist Ludger Woessmann, and I need to track that down, but I suspect it will support Miller's argument less than he thinks, at least from other writings of Woessmann that I've come across. We'll see.  In the meantime, here's a bit of cold water on the everyone-has-national-standards argument, taken from Accountability Frankenstein:

[N]ot all industrialized countries have a national curriculum framework: Spain and Hungary have a common core, but regions have the authority to adjust the core curriculum or add to it. Italy's and Argentina's curriculum planning has become less centralized in the past decade. Australia, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland have federal systems, like that in the U.S., where there is no central curriculum authority (Chisolm, 2005; Gvirtz & Beech, 2004; Jansen, 1999; O'Donnell, 2001). Even among countries with a centralized curriculum, the focus varies widely (Holmes & McLean, 1992). The United States is not out of step with the world, because there is no international consensus on the appropriate control of curriculum and expectations (or standards), let alone the content.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 12:14 PM (Permalink) |

A thoroughly bad idea: public schools with opt-out on core curriculum

I suppose I do believe in the existence of some core subject matter. Lakeland, FL, columnist Cary McMullen has proposed an opt-out option for parents who disagree with public schools' teaching evolution. While he sees no conflict between teaching the neo-Darwin model and respecting people's religions, he argues in favor of letting parents remove their children from science classes when evolution is taught, because he thinks that will be politically acceptable while assessments still require that students learn about evolution.

There are some policies and practices that have opt-out provisions related to religious beliefs and conscience, including sex education and uniforms. But none of the opt-out provisions I am aware of get at what a school teaches in what we normally consider core academics. I know what you may be thinking: what about dissections? The arguments of students (and parents) who do not want to participate in live dissections have often focused on what bona fide expectations are. So a decade ago or so, I know some compromises have required students to observe dissections they did not participate in actively, and more recently, students who do not want to dissect frogs have argued that virtual models of anatomy is more accurate and detailed than a dissection of a formaldehyde-soaked animal and set of drawings that result from that. But as far as I'm aware, students and parents opposing participation in dissection have not argued that the content is wrong or unimportant.

And that's the problem with allowing opt-outs on evolution: it allows parents to trump the curriculum and signals that schools are not serious about a subject. Could a student get a waiver from studying complex numbers because she or he cannot conceive of imaginary numbers? Could parents pull their kids out of literature classes because it's "just fiction"? Could white-supremacist parents get opt-outs when U.S. history covers the civil-rights movement?

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Posted in Education policy at 11:37 AM (Permalink) |

Pacing: when adrenaline is not enough

Bad head cold time today, involving sinuses and other stuff you don't need to know about. I'm heading to western Washington state on Tuesday for most of a week, so I have to get some things done before then. Yesterday was shot, so today requires getting stuff done (priority: editor stuff).

I'm sitting here in ChainCafe, having reread referee reports and getting ready to reread the submitted manuscript. It's a revise-and-resubmit decision, so I need to go through this carefully to identify priorities for the author(s) to spend time on. (Rejections are much faster to write in practice, though in theory the need to provide feedback in a sensitive way could require more time.)

The problem is that I have just run out of energy to immerse myself in a manuscript (which is how I operate in friendly-criticism mode). Normally, I can somehow access adrenaline or some other internal chemistry to focus, but I'm wiped out. Time to rest and write an inconsequential blog entry.

Maybe I should have chosen something caffeinated instead of African Red Bush, but for me caffeine affects attention, not energy.

So this is going to be a long day of paced work. The most important and urgent tasks will happen, but nothing else.

February 2, 2008

Bill Clinton's Ego, redux

I think Leo Casey is wrong about the politics of Bill Clinton's slamming Ted Kennedy. Since I agree with Leo on a large swath of education policy, including the effects of NCLB, I should explain a bit. For the most part, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama share significant rhetoric on education and quite a bit of fuzziness on the details. They've both said NCLB has serious flaws, but it hasn't been a focus of their campaigns. That's not much of a surprise, because, despite the efforts of Ed in '08, education is not a huge issue in the campaign. (Bill Gates, get behind in line the folks who want a presidential debate around science.)

Over the past few weeks, both George Miller and Ted Kennedy have endorsed Obama. Has Obama said he agrees with Miller and Kennedy about NCLB? No, not to my knowledge. Maybe he did a backroom deal with both of them about reauthorization, but I've already explained why I think that's not the likely reason for both endorsements.

After being chastised for going after Obama directly and crudely in South Carolina, Bill Clinton did his best to undermine the endorsement of a liberal icon, by linking Kennedy to Bush:

No Child Left Behind was supported by George Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy and everybody in between.
Let me make this clear: I don't think Bill Clinton gives a hoot about NCLB right now, but if he can use it to smear Kennedy and undermine that endorsement, he will. To that end, I think Charles Barone's line-by-line response is tangential. The only phrase that Bill Clinton wanted to get out was "George Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy." Yeah, he can spin a policy tale out of that, but that's not the point.

I know that Hillary Clinton freely acknowledges that she cannot carry a tune in a bucket, but in this case, it's Bill Clinton who's tone-deaf.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:56 PM (Permalink) |

February 1, 2008

At least Timothy Leary chose to drop out...

I think I understand Leary's choices, or at least the temptation: It's the end of two very tiring days, when I had a chance to talk for a few hours with one of the folks who tore down Florida's old Pork Chop Gang. Short story: an undergraduate I've been mentoring for a few semesters had an internship with the law firm of this Florida political hero, and after e-mailing back and forth, he needed some questions answered about the background of his senior thesis. So he proposed a joint meeting, first scheduled at the law firm and then moved to my office. I was expecting it to go about 90 minutes. It lasted 150 minutes instead. So we got off on various tangents, since he had the personal experience and I had the history, but the student said it was worth it. I had several meetings today (some planned, some impromptu, some deferred). Lots of things delayed, which is my life these days.

But even if deferred for a few days, the new English-language article of EPAA is out: Avoidable Losses: High-Stakes Accountability and the Dropout Crisis. Its authors combined interview work with following students in Texas as they were left behind in 9th grade and then dropped out. This is very difficult work to do, and the findings are provocative. Two stand out for me: that principals know that they are choosing between education and satisfying the test-score gods, and they reluctantly choose to satisfy the gods; and that to students, there is no distinction between accountability and all the practices that alienate many of them from high school. To the students in this Texas school district in the late 1990s and early 200s, there is a single massive bureaucracy that held them back, denied them opportunities in part to game the system, and never told them that their education was being sacrificed in the name of pressure whose putative goal was to ensure that they were not denied educational opportunities.

Whether you agree with the article's authors or not, I suspect it will be discussed vigorously, which is all to the good. A few years after Jennifer Booher-Jennings' article on triage in Texas, one of the models for NCLB continues to be a focus of criticism and debate.

(No, I've never taken illegal drugs, nor have I ever been tempted to, in reality. But I live on antihistamines when I have a cold...)

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 11:08 PM (Permalink) |

Evaluating college teaching

Since my energy is now sapped, I'll address Eduwonkette's four questions from yesterday:

1) How should learning be evaluated in college?

There are two separate questions (what did individual students learn? and what did groups of students learn?), though I think Eduwonkette is asking more about personnel evaluation. The first two can be evaluated using similar questions and data (including student work!), as long as you acknowledge that classroom dynamics can change things quite a bit. Usually, the first question is tied to students' individual grades, and the second is water-cooler (or coffee-urn) talk among colleagues: how was your class in HVN 101 this semester: better than HLL 666 last semester? Faculty rarely get to ask the second question in more systematic ways.

2) Are course evaluations a fair and comprehensive measure of college teaching?

Eduwonkette is either asking a trick question or conflating the end-of-course surveys that students take with either course evaluation or personnel evaluation. Students are evaluating their own experiences throughout a term, so the survey is more a chance for them to express the conclusions they have already reached, in some fashion, at least if the survey items are at least tangentially related to their concerns. Evaluating a course should involve student feedback but also something about what students learned, not just what they felt or expressed. And evaluating faculty as employees involves additional layers involving their contributions to a course, other information and context often unknown to students, let alone research or service assignments.

3) What should universities do with student course evaluations?

See above on my desire to ban evaluation as the term used for student surveys. But to answer the substantive question: they should be written with input from faculty, include an item on how much effort the student expended on the course (for a few reasons), be available to students (except for graduate students, who are students as well as employees and thus should have some privacy protections), and be part of program and personnel evaluations.

4) What are the potential risks/benefits to students and profs of making them public?

When I was a student, I found the comments far more telling than the numbers. But I suspect that this doesn't have to be theoretical or based on anecdote: there have to be institutions where the survey responses are public, and where one could study the consequences. See above on the graduate-student privacy concerns I have.

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

John Merrow - The Influence of Teachers

Your assignment for the weekend: Read Merrow's piece in Independent School Magazine (hat tip). Extra credit: craft a humanistic essay that opposes Merrow's central argument about the role of teachers (you'll find that quite a challenge).

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Posted in Education policy at 10:38 PM (Permalink) |