April 29, 2008

Reading the literature fairly?

In his blog entry today, Jay Greene announces a Manhattan Institute study he and Marcus Winters wrote on special education vouchers and Florida. Since I'm running between meetings today, I haven't read it and won't comment on the substance, but there's an odd bit at the end of Greene's entry:

Like the bulk of previous research, including Belfield and Levin [and several other studies], ... the new study finds that student achievement in public schools improves as vouchers expand the set of private options.

Greene is referring to a 2002 review by Belfield and Levin in Review of Educational Research. I remembered it differently and went to the source, where the abstract says the majority of studies show positive effects. So far, so accurate. But here's the next sentence:

The positive gains from competition are modest in scope with respect to realistic changes in levels of competition. The review also notes several methodological challenges and recommends caution in reasoning from point estimates to public policy.

Was Greene's link appropriate in that context? I give leeway on blogs, but Belfield and Levin is far more cautious about voucher programs than Greene is, or rather Belfield and Levin's article has far more cautious conclusions than Greene implies.

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Posted in Education policy at 1:16 PM (Permalink) |

April 27, 2008

My graduation-rate regulatory comments

I finally had some time tonight to read the proposed regulatory changes for NCLB and focus on the graduation-rate piece. I decided to comment, and here's the substance of my comments on the graduation-rate definition (below the cut):

This comment focuses entirely on aspects of 34 CFR 200.19 concerning graduation rates (esp. 200.19(a)). There are several strengths of the proposed definition and two weaknesses in the proposed regulations (one in the definition of a permanent standard rate and one in the proposed transition option of the Averaged Freshmen Graduation Rate).

In addition, the proposed regulations would require additional discussion around minimum cohort and subgroup sizes (and alternatives for very small cohorts/subgroups), they also would require technical assistance around documentation of transfers, and there should be a follow-up technical study on differences in measures depending on whether a cohort is grade- or age-based.

Strengths of proposed changes to 34 CFR 200.19:

Strength 1) The move to a longitudinal rate based on ninth-grade entering cohorts uses the most accessible and publicly understandable option of several valid ways to measure graduation. (An alternative would be to use an age marker, such as students' 14th birthdays--for several reasons, using age cohorts would be superior to a grade cohort, but the technical improvement probably does not justify changing the regulations, at least until we see what differences arise.)

Strength 2) The definition of a cohort eliminates several loopholes that states have been documented to use (e.g., students who drop out to join a GED program are removed from a cohort, and students who are retained in grade are moved to a later cohort--both of which are events that would not trigger removals from the cohort under the new 200.19(a) definition). Of particular note is the definition of a confirmed transfer as requiring official documentation that the student has moved to a program that ends in a standard academic diploma.

Strength 3) The disaggregation of graduation rates (in 200.19(e)) is absolutely appropriate.

Weaknesses of proposed changes to 34 CFR 200.19:

Weakness 1) The definition of a four-year graduation measure is intended as a proxy of an "on-time" graduation rate. It is not entirely clear what the difference between graduation rates means, with a single indicator: does the fact that one school has a 70% on-time graduation rate and another school has a 73% on-time graduation rate means that the second school has higher overall graduation or that its students tend to graduate earlier... or even that they are more likely to be retained in 8th grade (something not accounted for in the draft regulation's definition)?

While there is no formal analysis I am aware of on this point, I strongly suspect that an on-time rate will be more sensitive to on-time/lateness issues than the overall level of graduation. Large, 20-30 point differences with large cohorts are going to be the result of substantial differences in the overall level of graduation, but smaller differences with large cohorts, or larger differences with smaller cohorts, might well reflect a slight delay in graduation rather than differences in overall graduation rates if one were able to look at completed-cohort experiences.

For policy reasons, I strongly advise against using such a restrictive definition with subgroups and smaller cohorts. In a cohort of 30, if all graduate but 10 graduate in their fifth year of high school, the four-year graduation rate will be 67%. Is that an accurate picture of the cohort experience if the rest graduate in the next year? Moreover, a four-year-or-bust measure gives schools no incentive under NCLB to keep students in school past the fourth year, and our national experience of the past 5 years has shown that many schools respond to the mechanical parts of NCLB in perverse ways.

A better regulation would require reporting of the four-year graduation rate but the calculation of three different measures and the ability of the state to craft an index that combines the three different measures:

a) A four-year cohort graduation rate
b) A five-year cohort graduation rate
c) A longer-term cohort graduation rate

If the regulation were to define a legitimate graduation index as "a weighted combination of the three cohort graduation rates where the four-year cohort graduation rate has no less than a 70% weight," that would serve the public interest in emphasizing on-time graduation without unduly penalizing schools that graduate high proportions of students, if some of them are not "on time." (While there are ways to model such measures with two years' worth of data using synthetic cohorts, there are a variety of ways of constructing the longer-term rates.)

Weakness 2) The Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate is an inadequate substitute for a true longitudinal rate. It is NOT true that "It has been shown to be a reliable, accurate estimate of the high school graduation rate" (Federal Register, p. 22025). Seastrom et al. 2006 (the reference used for AFGR) was written and submitted to the internal USDOE review process before the publication of John Robert Warren's 2005 article in Education Policy Analysis [Archives], which demonstrated several technical flaws in AFGR and other commonly-used graduation measures. (A note in Seastrom et al. acknowledges that it does not include or respond to Warren's analysis.)

There are two primary weaknesses in AFGR, in practicality. One is the tendency for any measure relying on aggregate data to be vulnerable to unmeasured migration/transfers. Without auditing, this first weakness is very difficult to remedy. The second is the lack of any explicit modeling to connect the average of 8th, 9th, and 10th grade enrollment in successive years to first-time 9th grade enrollment in the middle year. For a variety of reasons detailed in Warren 2005, the better alternative is to use the prior year's 8th grade enrollment as a proxy for the next year's first-time 9th grade enrollment. This does not eliminate the problem of unmeasured migration/transfers, but it is a more sound measure from a modeling perspective, and its elements are as readily available to calculate as AFGR.

Additional considerations:

1) Minimum cohort and subgroup sizes (and alternatives for very small cohorts/subgroups). In the Federal Register notice, there is no discussion of the numbers in a cohort that is a minimum to be reported for graduation rates (either as a subgroup or as a cohort size). Because graduation rates are highly vulnerable to misspecified transfers/migrations, it is especially important that there be alternative measures available for small group sizes and graduation rates. The Federal Register notice does not indicate whether the graduation rate changes come under the same averaging rule as other measures for AYP. If so, it may be necessary to issue nonregulatory documents on whether such averaging (or smoothing) has to be either weighted or unweighted. I would recommend that such changes be left open to states, since it is unlikely that either weighted or unweighted smoothing would clearly give an advantage to states in "gaming" the system. (I would recommend some simulations, though, to check.)

2) The USDOE will need to provide technical assistance around documentation of transfers. SIFA and the CCSSO EIMAC projects are currently in (what I think are) the formative stages of providing useful technical guidelines, and the requirement to confirm transfers for cohort-adjustment purposes should push those types of projects to the front burner on both funding and also USDOE support to resolve potential political issues among states and between different sectors of education (public and private).

3) The need for a follow-up technical study on differences in measures depending on whether a cohort is grade- or age-based. The proposed graduation rate definition for 200.19(a) is based on first-time-in-ninth-grade cohorts. This comports with common understandings of a high school graduation rate and with several existing measures. It is not entirely clear, however, that this is appropriate, both because of the numbers of students who are well over the age 14 when entering high school (because of grade retention below high school) and also because of the ninth-grade "bump" that has led Warren and others to recommend 8th-grade enrollment as the base number for cohorts in aggregate-data estimates.

One alternative would be to use an age rather than a grade as the starting point -- thus, one could use birth years as the natural cohort, with the students in a school/district as of their 14th birthdays as the start of the cohort (with adjustments after age 14). This age-based cohort measure would fit better with standard demographic analytical models. But it is not clear how much difference the two measures would make. For this reason, I recommend that USDOE or NIST call a workgroup together no later than 2010 or 2011 to examine the practical and theoretical differences between age- and grade-based cohorts.
For those who care about such things, the comment tracking number is 80537727.

Kudos to Corey; tomatoes for NY Times reporter

Corey Bower gets this week's award for careful reading with his blog entry, Limitations of Research and the Headlines that Ignore Them. He went beyond the New York Times article on a recent study and read the article. Something that reporter Kenneth Chang downplayed is the setting: college students.

Our findings suggest that giving college students multiple concrete examples may not be the most efficient means of promoting transfer of knowledge. [emphasis added]
Chang was lazy in one other way: he accepted at face value (or misinterpreted) the researchers' claims that there is no solid research on manipulatives for K-12 students: "Dr. Kaminski said even the effectiveness of using blocks and other 'manipulatives,' which have become more pervasive in preschool and kindergarten, remained untested." But there is a 1989 Evelyn Sowell meta-analysis on manipulatives in math in K-12 (JSTOR $). Also see a more recent meta-analysis by Evelyn Koresbergen, Mathematics Interventions for Children with Special Educational Needs ($).

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Posted in Education policy at 10:08 AM (Permalink) |

"We can never have too many resources"??

In the Times article on Rockefeller's $100 Million donation to Harvard, Harvard President Drew Faust said,

To outsiders, our bucket may seem full, but at Harvard, we so often see aspirations we hope to fulfill that we can never have too many resources.
That's chutzpah. The question is not whether Harvard can have too many resources but whether other colleges and universities have too few. (For the record, I like the proposal others have made, that such wealth should flow to small underfunded private institutions.)

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Posted in Higher education at 9:04 AM (Permalink) |

April 25, 2008

Graduation rate regs

I will need to read the proposed regulatory changes in NCLB more carefully when I have the chance, but it looks like there are several good things and a few odd things in the uniform definition of a graduation rate:

  • Good: The proposed regs propose a longitudinal graduation rate as the long term, preferred measure of graduation.
  • Bad: The proposed regs allow the "averaged freshman graduation rate" as a transitional measure until 2012. AFGR has little empirical basis for its estimate of the ninth-grade cohort size.
  • Good: The proposed regs eliminate several loopholes I've seen states use to inflate graduation rates, including shifting a student's cohort when the student is retained in grade, removing the student from any cohort if they drop out to enroll in GED programs, and so forth.
  • Odd: the only graduation measure proposed is a four-year cohort rate. While I disagree with Leo Casey's claim that the cure is worse than the disease, the four-year-only rate fails to acknowledge or credit schools for promoting graduation on any schedule other than a strict four-year schedule. It makes much better sense to report a four-year rate, a five-year rate, and an any-time rate.

And anything more will have to wait until I'm back home, have caught up with other things, and have had a chance to think about this some more.

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Posted in Education policy at 4:35 PM (Permalink) |

Delaware symposium

I've had a wonderful time in the past two and a half days in Newark, Delaware, as a presenter at a University of Delaware symposium on the past, present, and future of special education. I had the chance to catch up with several friends I hadn't seen in a few years, make some new friends, meet a whole bunch of people, and talk about special education. I was a postdoctoral researcher in the department of special education at Peabody College of Vanderbilt in the mid-1990s, my wife is a special education teacher in the Hillsborough County schools here in Tampa, and my family has had plenty of friends with and without disabilities over the years. So I'm aware that I'm invested in this. (Even if you don't have the professional connections with special education, you almost certainly have parallel personal connections, at the least, and we are all temporarily able-bodied at best.)

In addition to the perennial issues with special education, there was somewhat more focus on two topics: the Responsiveness to Intervention (RTI) policy initiative and concerns several presenters had about personnel preparation. There was an interesting range of views on RTI, with some disagreement about where special education fits on the levels/tiers and what proportion of students would be in the chronic non-responder category. Mary Brownell effectively made the point that no matter what teacher education and personnel preparation models you want to use, there are uncomfortable dilemmas. There was plenty of other discussion, and there will be follow-up to turn the papers into something more.

And I received some nice comments on the style of my slides as well as the substance. When I get home (I'm working in the grad-student office at the U. Delaware school of education), I'll upload a few of them.

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Posted in Education policy at 2:45 PM (Permalink) |

April 21, 2008

College graduation

The new Ed Sector report by Kevin Carey, Graduation Rate Watch, summarizes some of the material available from the IPEDS 6-year graduation measures for four-year colleges and universities. The main point is that there are vast differences within different higher-ed sectors not only in 6-year graduation stats but also Black-White differences in graduation. He correctly points out that some institutions such as Florida State have programs that appear at first glance to provide substantial support to first-generation college students, support that increases the likelihood of graduating.

Kudos: the interesting slice of IPEDS rates, with the appropriate hedges/caveats; the nod to Vincent Tinto's work; the acknowledgment of Cliff Adelman's suggestion for improving the IPEDS measures; the observation that U.S. News & World Report rankings largely diss graduation rates as ways to distinguish institutions; the recommendation that financial aid be shifted away from its merit-based emphasis today and back towards means-testing; the observation that funding enrollment does not provide a strong incentive for retention programs.

Kumquats: the continued push for a national unit records database. I think that's the only DOA suggestion in a compact, complex report. I may disagree with some other ideas, but the report on the whole is thoughtful and presents issues in a clear way. I might want a bit more use of the current college-retention literature, but I can't point to specifics because that's outside my area of expertise.

Some broader issues that complicate efforts to increase undergraduate graduation:

  • A large proportion of college students are in community colleges, and programs that focus on first-time-in-college students at universities are great... and limited to that sector of higher education.
  • Part-time students are a serious puzzle in terms of retention and even measurement. In many states, part-time students have a much harder time getting aid (in part because they are often older, and in part because of minimal-credit requirements). They also have competing obligations, are on campus less frequently, etc. I love older students in my classes for very selfish reasons (they are more mature, they help teach their classmates simply by being there and talking about their lives), but I'm not sure who has cracked the practical challenges that part-time students present for themselves and for their colleges.
  • Health crises can turn a student with marginal success into a student who has dropped out, and young adults are among the least likely Americans to have adequate health insurance.
  • Institutional pecking orders are hard to pinpoint, and they can shift rapidly: witness Florida, where reduced funding is pushing most of the state's public universities into being far more selective. My guess is that graduation rates will rise in 4-5 years, but while some institutions (including mine) are figuring out how some concrete steps to increase student success, some part of that will be a selection effect. So making comparisons with "peer institutions" may be a difficult enterprise.
  • Measures focused on undergraduates make it somewhat more difficult for graduate-focused institutions in any incentive system. States need to be flexible and negotiate the systems with institutions, or they are likely to provide odd advantages to some institutions over others, advantages that will only be discovered after the fact.
And those are the issues that are apparent to me without knowing the higher-ed attrition/retention/graduation literature. There is one faculty colleague at USF who focuses on higher-ed attrition, and there are IR gurus for whom this is an occupational focus, so I do have local resources... now I really need that Time-Turner. But for now, it's 11:30 pm, and I still need to provide feedback on a student thesis...

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Posted in Education policy at 11:31 PM (Permalink) |

April 20, 2008

The Indiana Jones response to philosophy-of-research blogging

Kevin Carey has his say on a preponderance-of-evidence standard on policy propositions (in response to an Eduwonkette discussion of growth measures). Skoolboy responds. I wouldn't go all ad-lib-for-convenience on you all if it weren't 11:20 at night, but I'm tired, and since this is a meta-discussion about judging teachers based on test scores, I'll just say this: It already happens (firing educators based on test scores), it's called reconstitution, and the evidence of its success is mediocre at best. We don't need to go all meta- when there's experience at hand... or specific proposals such as New York City's (which Skoolboy points out fails the sniff test of basic algebra).

If anyone were tempted to go meta-, I'd point out that there is no such thing as a monolithic social scientist's frame for policy. Then again, I'm not only an alleged social scientist, I'm a card-carrying member of the Social Science History Association and have a degree in one of those odd number-crunching realms (demography).

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

Head-scratching time on another "teacher sex scandal" news story

I know that newspapers sometimes dig for stories, but the story today in the St. Pete Times, Does the rise in alternatively trained teachers spell trouble?, is just bewildering. The reporter is asking if the fact that two of the six came through alternative-certification programs is an indication that alternative certification programs are magnets for pedophiles, miscreants, felons, and those who still listen to ABBA. There's a pretty substantial gap in logic there. The questions about the quality of alternative certification is about the value of skills imparted in different programs, not the character of the people who go through the programs. Yes, being in a bricks-and-mortar program for several semesters gives faculty a chance to spot people who should not be in classrooms (and we do spot some of them), but school-district employees go through background checks and ethics-training seminars no matter where they were educated and in what major. You can't draw any conclusions from six wayward teachers other than that they deserved to be fired and arrested.

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Posted in Education policy at 7:02 PM (Permalink) |

Sketching a course 6

Habits and experience
Today I'm trying desperately to finish a paper that is far too late. Part of the delay is the craziness that is my professional and union life, but another part is that I am delving into two subjects that I have not been diligent in keeping up with. I am keenly interested in them, but they are on the margins of my main research interests, and when one's time is short...

The consequence is that I now have to play catch-up. If I weren't pressed for time in other ways, I would enjoy this process more, because over my life I have repeatedly been required to undergo a "drink from the firehose" experience in reading. It is an exhausting short-term experience, and it challenges me to engage all sorts of skills simultaneously, with the mental effect nothing quite so much like keeping a number of balls in the air at the same time. No, not juggling balls: more like a lit torch, a chef's knife, a soap bubble, and a ceramic bowl filled with yogurt. All of them. If you can keep them up there, it's quite a thrill.

Usually, graduate students have these experiences in high-stakes environments, as major papers at the end of a course. Or, rather, if they do have drink-from-the-firehose feelings, they're not likely to be successful. Is there a way to give them that experience in a strongly positive sense, with far lower stakes?

In more mundane news, I've been suckered into a new exercise regime. No, not suckered: quite enjoyable. But it's another thing I need to schedule. Anyone have a working Time-Turner I can borrow?

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Posted in Research at 1:49 PM (Permalink) |

April 19, 2008

Silence on AT&T Aspire an "Ed in '08" parallel?

Is it my imagination, or has there been a deafening silence in both news outlets and the blogosphere after the AT&T Foundation's announcement Wednesday of a $100 Million Dropout Prevention Program? I wrote about the initiative Thursday, but given the lead-in publicity (the America's Promise report with Ed Week about low graduation rates?), I expected more commentary than just my note about the history of outcries about and responses to dropping out.

I know that $100 million is a drop in the bucket compared to public-school spending, but it's a big splash in philanthropy and usually gets more attention than the Ed Week article (linked above) or the Chronicle of Philanthropy note on the announcement.

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Posted in Education policy at 6:34 PM (Permalink) |

Sketching a course 5

Framing questions as stuff, habits, and experience
Probably the most powerful intellectual experience I had as an undergraduate... or rather the most powerful explicit design of a course I took in my major (history) ... was a course on late medieval/early modern Europe taught by Susan Stuard. She structured the entire course around a single question: what accounts for the rising economic and political power of western Europe by the end of the Renaissance? Each week's reading was a famous piece of European historiography that had a different answer: technology, a reaction to Muslim control of the Mediterranean, an early industrial attempt that failed, the Hanseatic cities as a crucial cluster of merchants, etc. As we accumulated a critical mass of readings, the members of the class began to have much more extensive, in-depth debates about European history, historical explanations of change, what constitutes sufficient evidence, how to shape strong arguments, and so forth.

As I think back on this course and a few others with similar designs, the intellectual experience was a shared one. In other courses, I had my epiphanies and wonderful moments, but this particular class became a cohesive group. Sometimes that's just the dynamic of the particular collection of people involved, idiosyncratic and unrepeatable. But Susan Stuard's framework of the course (as well as the way she ran discussion) was absolutely integral to the development of the class dynamic.

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Posted in Teaching at 5:13 PM (Permalink) |

April 18, 2008

Sketching a course 4

Stuff to expose students to

  • Street-level bureaucracy/loosely-coupled systems
  • Arguments over what the links between education and democracy are
Habits etc.
  • Grasping POV within nonfiction
  • Staying with a the development of a complex idea through its nuances
  • Multiple-resolution understanding: Seeing the flowers (details) and the landscape (10,000-foot view) at the same time

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Posted in Teaching at 5:41 PM (Permalink) |

Think, then blog

I'm occasionally embarrassed when a typo appears in a blog entry, and I'm frequently learning from comments here, but I'm surprised at Mike Petrilli's simplistic argument that "bad ideas flow from academia into our K-12 system ... (... moral relativism, the decline of the core curriulum, dubious pedagogical approaches)" and that "one of public education's worst features" is "its hyper-unionized workforce." I'm not sure when I've seen Petrilli this shrill.

Taking the claims one by one...

  • The arguments about moral relativism and the decline of civilization appeared ... let's see: "Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book." That's Cicero. Today, everyone's writing blogs (PDF), including Petrilli. In any case, I don't think Cicero could blame either TV or higher education.
  • If one wants to blame higher ed for the decline of the core curriculum, when should we pinpoint it? Harvard with its elective system in the late 19th century, or when institutions stopped requiring Latin and Greek for Ph.D.'s? Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses.
  • To claim that higher education is at fault for standard pedagogy, one would have to accumulate evidence that it was substantially better at some point. And that evidence is...?
  • Public education's worst features... unionization? So Mississippi and Alabama schools are perfect, because they don't provide collective bargaining rights for public employees?
Incidentally, is there any evidence that graduate-student unions are horrors visited upon public universities that have them?

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Posted in Education policy at 5:15 PM (Permalink) |

April 17, 2008

$100 million... how will it be used?

Looking at today's New York Times story on AT&T Aspire, the $100 million effort to reduce dropping out. In reality, $100 million is a visible splash and not chump change, but it's a small amount compared to all the money spent on high schools every year. That effort to get a visible splash to serve as a lever is common with educational philanthropy these days. After all, Bill and Melinda Gates's entire fortune is only a few billion dollars more than what California taxpayers spend every year on education.

There's very little information about this on the AT&T Foundation website, other than working with Colin and Alma Powell's organization America's Promise to create local partnerships through "dropout summits." At that level, it looks remarkably like the early 1960s efforts I chronicled in Creating the Dropout. It doesn't have to be as ineffective as those efforts, and I hope this time around, it works out better.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:57 AM (Permalink) |

April 16, 2008

Open-source textbooks

This morning, Inside Higher Ed has a good article on faculty who write open-source texts. In the end, it'll be faculty decisions that determine whether this is a viable alternative to expensive texts.

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Posted in Higher education at 7:56 AM (Permalink) |

In memoriam

It's been one year after the shootings at Virginia Tech. No great thoughts here, just thoughts.

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Posted in Higher education at 7:50 AM (Permalink) |

April 15, 2008

The difference between being wrong and being fired

Aaron Barlow has it on the nose when he discusses Academic Freedom and Yoo. Fundamentally, once UC Berkeley's law school hired John Yoo as a tenured faculty member, it owed him due process in any disciplinary proceeding, both substantive and procedural due process. The fact that his actions as a government lawyer are obnoxious and antidemocratic does not change that obligation.

One of the arguments against torture is that the United States needs to operate even a war on higher moral grounds, and torturing prisoners injures that national interest. So how would violating John Yoo's academic due process be gaining the higher moral ground by those of us who think he was wrong?

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Posted in Academic freedom at 7:35 PM (Permalink) |

Fordham v. Fordham

Congrats to Fordham for writing more entries in the first day of its new blog Flypaper than I've written in about 7 years... On the other hand, it looks like the blog that the Fordham Fellows started last year has been taken over by others, especially when an entry is named Argan Oil, a Nutritional Novelty.

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Posted in Education policy at 7:19 PM (Permalink) |

April 14, 2008

Funding in higher ed

Kevin Carey's column on unequal funding of higher education makes the obvious but important point that states' public higher education systems are often skewed in favor of spending more in institutions with better-prepared students. Carey uses per-student (FTE) instructional expenses calculated using the Governmental Accounting Standards Board numbers (i.e., numbers that institutions reported using GASB definitions), and because I don't know the details on the relevant definitions, I can't comment on the methods in terms of his back-of-the-spreadsheet estimates that California institutions spend more than $10K per student when students' entering SAT scores are higher. I suspect somewhat different measures would come up with different numbers.

But the larger point is still true: community colleges spend less on instruction per student, in large part because they receive less per FTE than universities and because their tuition is lower. In turn, they pay full-time faculty less than in universities, and they rely far more on contingent faculty. At the same time, community college students are far more likely to be told to take developmental (remedial) courses.

The historian in me wants to know how this inequality in spending (however calculated) has changed over the past three decades, as states have disinvested in higher education. And also what the relationship is between general higher-ed revenue structures in a state and the inequality within the state. The easiest way to equalize spending in higher ed is to cut revenues back for every public institution, and that inevitably reduces the range in instructional spending. We're trying that here in Florida, but I don't think anyone is going to like the outcome.

(A note to Carey and to the editors of Inside Higher Ed: the word is methods, not methodology. Methodology is the study of methods. A little later: That word probably caught my eye because I'm in the midst of journal-editing stuff today, and I regularly have to change "methodology" to "methods" in that role.)

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Posted in Education policy at 8:02 AM (Permalink) |

April 13, 2008

Legislative rolling and the New York budget language on tenure

One more thought on the New York state budget's language placing a moratorium on using test scores to deny teachers tenure: I'm wondering how much of the ire directed at the legislature and the calumny aimed at NYSUT (the state teachers union affiliate) is about the process of how this happened—i.e., without the "right" people in control or at the table.

I suspect the substance of the language is all about the waiting game going on with the end of Michael Bloomberg second term as New York mayor. The use of value-added measures as the sole or a primary tenure criterion is now blocked until after Bloomberg is out of office (and after Joel Klein is also likely to be gone as schools chancellor). Whatever decisions are taken after the moratorium ends will be taken by other people, in other political circumstances.

And it's that fact that makes me wonder about the undiscussed process issue. For the last seven and a half years, plenty of players were ignored in education policymaking. That's why the legislature approved mayoral control: to remove large bunches of stakeholders from the decision-making, in hopes that putting power in the hands of one person (Mayor Bloomberg) would aid significant reform. The political regime that followed that decision is something I'll leave to others to describe (and I suspect it would make a great dissertation for someone in the New York area), but the whole point of mayoral control was to remove people from the policymaking process.

So what happened in Albany? According to the critics of the decision who blamed NYSUT, the teachers union used every lobbying trick at their disposal to hide this provision in the budget while it was being drafted/finalized, while others (Bloomberg and allies) were left out of the process. The tone used by DFER head Joe Williams is one of anger and surprise, a "we was robbed" attitude. One informal term for being robbed and beaten up in the process is "being rolled," and that's much the impression I get from the critics of the language, especially the New York Daily News's referring to Albany as in the midst of a "legislative crime wave." No one likes to be rolled politically, but the irony here is that many of those who disapprove of being rolled in Albany haven't said boo about others' being rolled in NYC.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 7:03 AM (Permalink) |

April 12, 2008

Sketching a course 3

Habits etc.

  • Reading at multiple levels: for information, for a story, for perspective
  • Evaluation at multiple levels: consistency/logic, newness, accuracy, relevance of questions
  • Writing through multiple drafts
  • Revision with an audience in mind
  • Reading for wonder
  • Writing as joyful
  • Writing as intense
  • Writing to sort through ideas and then present them

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Posted in Teaching at 6:43 AM (Permalink) |

Organizational psychosis?

Yesterday's New York Times article on 'credit recovery' puts the Bloomberg-Klein years in New York in perspective, as one Manhattan principal explains:

I think that credit recovery and the related topic independent study is in lots of ways the dirty little secret of high schools. There's very little oversight and there are very few standards.

The NYC Department of Education said one decent thing in its defense (that the plural of anecdotes is not data), but it would be relatively easy to look at the students who earn credit through credit-recovery and look at other data about their achievement... that is, if the Department of Education will release information about it.

I see the same thing in Florida to a lesser degree, in Florida's calculation of graduation in a way that calls it a success when a student drops out of school and immediately enrolls in a GED program. That's why I am not celebrating Margaret Spellings's announcement that regulations to define graduation rates are in the works: the devil's in the details.

Even more broadly, there's something fundamentally at odds with reality to create a system that keeps ratcheting up pressure on both students and educators and then addresses one of the resulting problems in a facile way. When individuals experience a substantial gap between their experiences and reality, we term that experience psychosis (which I know is a broad range, and plenty of people have psychotic experiences such as hallucinations without being mentally ill).

There is no organizational term to capture a gap between what we would consider reality and institutionally recognized reality, but maybe there should be something akin to organizational psychosis. And at least according to the Times article, the credit recovery system is one likely candidate for that category.

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Posted in Education policy at 6:36 AM (Permalink) |

April 11, 2008

Sketching a course 2

Stuff to expose students to

  • The difference between the rhetoric of federalism/local control and the (maybe chaotic) reality of education reform (multiple sources)
  • Politicization and education as part of citizenship (multiple sources)
  • Curriculum as projection of values (Kliebard)
  • Finances and reform rhetoric (multiple sources: need an argument more than pat descriptions)

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Posted in Teaching at 8:40 AM (Permalink) |

April 9, 2008

There it ain't -- a rap on The Quick and the Ed's knuckles

In The Quick and the Ed today, Kevin Carey boldly overclaims:

The Times is reporting that, at the behest of the teachers unions, last-minute language was snuck into the New York State budget providing that "teacher[s] shall not be granted or denied tenure based on student performance data." There's really not much one can add to that; it's hard to imagine a more unambiguous declaration of the union's total disregard for student learning when its members' jobs are at stake.

I suppose there really isn't much to add except that the Times article clearly states that the provision in question is not a ban but a two-year moratorium. It's hard to imagine a more unambiguous declaration of the union's caution about buying into rash schemes, and it puzzles me why Carey would make such an obvious omission in a way that undercuts his argument. See Eduwonkette for more links.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 2:40 PM (Permalink) |

Sketching a course 1

In the next few days I need to carve out time for journal editing responsibilities as well as writing a symposium paper I'd promised to be finished by Friday but probably won't be done until next Tuesday or so. (There, Laura! I've made that commitment publicly.) But since I'm waiting for a student to show up in my office, I'll blather a bit about a course I'm creating for the summer on school reform.

Stuff to expose students to
I want to focus on the historical and policy literature on school reform, which overlaps but not entirely. There are a few obvious books to assign (Tyack and Cuban to start off the course, and a choice of DeBray, Manna, or Mcguinn somewhere towards the end: see the Amazon recommendations box on my home page for those), and then I have to figure out how much I want to delve into the contemporary policy literature vs. history. I need to think more about the concepts and less about books... but it's also inherently a reading class.

Habits etc.
One shift I want to encourage in graduate students is to rely less on the mental shortcuts they've accumulated from their experiences and try to use different questions to probe the issues in the class ... and their experiences. This is probably unfair of me, since I teach in an area where I'm using all my own mental shortcuts, but it is my course. Maybe I can challenge them to provide me an experience where I have to give up my mental shortcuts. Hmmn...

The course has a bit of an odd schedule--four day-long classes on Saturdays in June, followed by a day-long Saturday late in July. I need to think about the experience of a complete day in a heavy reading class. And the several weeks' gap in the end. What opportunity does that gap provide?

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Posted in Teaching at 2:33 PM (Permalink) |

April 8, 2008

Should schools borrow the best or the worst from business?

Today, Florida TaxWatch issued a set of recommendations for cost cutting in education (hat tip), and one quotation put in a separate box stood out for me, from Florida TaxWatch's Center for Educational Performance chair David Mann:

Education should borrow from business practices:...
As Good to Great author Jim Collins might ask, that's all fine and dandy, but do you want schools to borrow from good business practices or bad business practices? It strikes me that we're in a recession because of a bunch of pretty lousy business practices. Should schools follow down that path?

In particular, the report focused on the proportion of school spending that goes towards food, transportation, air conditioning, and other expenses, noting that in Florida, 19.7% of funding is reported for these categories, in contrast to 17.8% for the U.S. as a whole. Maybe we're higher than average on those categories because a higher proportion of children in Florida are poor, plus we have county-wide school districts and choice programs that involve busing, plus we have higher air conditioning costs because we're in Florida. For goodness' sake, it's well known in the state that our governor has a fan with him at all spots because he doesn't want to be shown sweating. (I don't want to know what temperature his offices are kept at. Wait a minute: I'd love to know, but maybe his office wouldn't want us to know. Any reporters out there, my guess is that thermostat settings are public records...)

Then there are recommendations that make little sense, such as one to maximize economies of scale. Florida has county school systems, a centralized system of data warehousing, etc. I view that recommendation as hand-waving. Or the proposal to outsource more; haven't we had enough scandals with Florida's privatization in the past decade?

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Posted in Education policy at 3:45 PM (Permalink) |

April 7, 2008

So I'm on a list... welcome to Washington Post readers

Welcome to those who are visiting after seeing Jay Mathews and Ken Bernstein's Favorite Education Blogs of 2008 column. As you'll see from the entry made earlier today, it's a wonderful irony that I'm on a selective list the same day that I criticize such lists. Heh!

In any case, Mathews's blurb is better than any ranking: Dorn is among the great original thinkers of education wonkery. I won't disillusion him if you won't.

U.S. News rankings

Like many faculty, I'm of two minds about the U.S. News rankings. On the one hand, it can bring recognition to the work of colleagues. In particular, there are three programs in my department that have had successful grant writers, and they all contribute to the rankings of my own college in the graduate-school issue from a few weeks ago. My dean celebrated that ranking, and properly so. While U.S. News is a limited slice of research life, it's one slice.

Then I look north a few hours, to colleagues in Gainesville, where the University of Florida ranking among colleges of education dropped. That's not due to anything that faculty did (or didn't do) but how the University of Florida has changed its reporting of extramural grants.

And if we look even more broadly, we all know that the limited slice of U.S. News rankings doesn't address the quality of our graduates. Like my fellow blogger Kevin Carey (of Education Sector), I think large swaths of higher ed's mission are ignored by U.S. News. including student accomplishments. Unlike Carey, I am skeptical that quantitative rankings are much good here. Someone scoring dissertations for their conformity with standard psychological report formats (which colleges of education have inherited as the default) would have scored my own dissertation miserably, because I wrote a history dissertation. Someone looking for nuances of archival analysis would probably find many education dissertations lacking, because few are historical.

I hope others would acknowledge that one cannot honestly score dissertations by themselves in any meaningful way. If so, what about undergraduate work? Hmmn...

... and that's where the column in Inside Higher Ed today came from. Welcome to readers who have traipsed over here from the column. Look around, subscribe to the RSS feed, and enjoy yourself!

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Posted in The academic life at 12:23 AM (Permalink) |

April 5, 2008

The third grading turning point and other myths

A few weeks ago, Sara Mead wrote about Combatting The Third Grade Slump in the Early Ed Watch blog, and she repeated a phrase that always bewilders me a bit:

We know that third grade is a major transition point in children's education. It's when they make the switch from learning to read, to reading to learn. [emphasis added]
Mead's link is to an article for teachers coauthored by Jeanne Chall, which reiterates the common adage. While there is a nugget of truth in it (if you can read complex text fluently, you're more likely to understand or at least wade through poorly-written textbooks), there's a developmental reasoning there which surprises and disappoints me. It surprises me because Chall is definitely not a developmentalist in the classic sense, and it disappoints me because it implies some significant divide between early childhood education and the "real" curriculum.

Wrong isn't quite the word for it. Maybe distracted is the better word. Or maybe my ear is too sensitive to cute phrasing and pat edubabble formulae. Is there any evidence that the curriculum suddenly changes in third grade? Or that there are accelerated demands on reading in the best reading materials that one could choose? if there is a "third grade slump," it's that third grade is where many struggling readers are identified with learning disabilities. I haven't checked the stats recently, but my guess is that you could infer that from the grade distribution of students receiving special education services.

So is third grade where the curriculum changes or where school systems finally intervene with children?

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Posted in Education policy at 11:26 AM (Permalink) |

April 4, 2008

When your definition of rigor depends on the market

The news in this morning's Washington Post that the College Board is cutting several AP programs should make educators think at least a second time before tying their curriculum to an outside entity's financial fortunes. While it is non-profit, the College Board made decisions to cut French and Latin literature, Italian, and one of the computer science AP exams based on demand. Essentially, if the number of schools and students don't reach a certain threshold (enough to pay for exam development and whatever overhead the College Board calculates on that), the College Board has to subsidize the low-demand exams with high-demand exams. I am sure that the College Board will say that the finances do not absolutely determine whether they continue to offer courses, but it plays a role: who can credibly say that we should discourage students from learning French and Latin literature?

According to the Post's article, the three foreign-language courses have demand concentrated in the DC area. It'll be interesting to see if the schools involved create a consortium to continue the exams. And it'll be even more interesting to see how colleges and the public respond. AP and IB programs have instant credential value because of institutional longevity. But does rigor count if it's the same curriculum but without that credential?

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Posted in Education policy at 9:00 AM (Permalink) |

April 3, 2008

A dozen questions for an official graduation rate

When the OMB clears the draft regs on counting dropouts, we can expect another wave of stories on graduation rates and what they all mean. Sharp reporters and other observers will ask the following questions of the draft regs:

  1. Does the definition of graduation include or exclude non-standard completion categories such as GEDs and "certificates of completion"?
  2. How does the definition of graduation handle students with disabilities with a modified curriculum (that is, with an emphasis on functional rather than academic goals)?
  3. Is the mandatory measure a longitudinal statistic such as the NGA compact or a synthetic measure such as Chris Swanson's Cumulative Proportion Index? (I will assume until proven wrong that it is a longitudinal measure.)
  4. Regardless of the measure proposed, how many states have data systems that can produce the statistics required?
  5. How does the measure address transfers, homeschooling, migration, and mortality?
  6. For the adjustments proposed for transfers, homeschooling, migration, and mortality, are there any requirements that states audit the corresponding codes in their data systems?
  7. How does the proposed measure handle grade retention (e.g., multiple years in ninth grade)?
  8. Does the proposed measure forbid a state from using the Florida tactic of calling a dropout a transfer if the dropout immediately enrolled in a GED program?
  9. How does the proposed measure handle students who graduate in five years?
  10. Do the proposed regs require that school districts and schools must meet benchmarks in graduation in the same way that they must meet benchmarks with % 'proficient'?
  11. If there are such required benchmarks, is there any supporting research to suggest that the status or improvement benchmarks are realistic?
  12. In crafting the draft regs, did the Department of Education consult with more than two of the researchers recognized to have published in the relevant area, such as Chris Swanson, Rob Warren, Melissa Roderick, Russell Rumberger, Bob Hauser, Michelle Fine, or Gary Orfield? I'm an historian, and we're generally trotted out as mantel decorations for such affairs, if at all, but there are plenty of solid researchers in the area who could be consulted. And if you're a reporter, you need to line up a few of those folks to be ready to respond to draft regs.
I'm exhausted from a third straight fragmented day, looking forward to a fourth one... but I suspect the above set of questions covers much of the ground on the anticipated raft regs defining an official graduation rate.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 10:12 PM (Permalink) |

Is Bush the worst?

I agree with K.C. Johnson: James Buchanan was a worse president than George W. Bush. I don't agree with him on why historians are inclined to judge Bush worse than anyone else, but it is a bit disappointing to see a clear majority picking Bush. I mean, there are so many bad presidents from whom to pick,...

Disclosure: I never voted for Bush. Then again, I never voted for Buchanan, either.

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Posted in History at 4:57 PM (Permalink) |

Jim Anderson retrospective, part 2

A few days ago I described the 20th-anniversary Jim Anderson retrospective at AERA. Now it's my turn to address some of the topics raised in that session, in a personal historiography, or my reading of The Education of Blacks in the South, originally published in 1988.

For me, the thesis of the book was not particularly a surprise, for several reasons. First, my undergraduate advisor Paul Jefferson had exposed me to a broad variety of historical arguments from the very first course I took with him, which used Herbert Aptheker's documentary collection, to a seminar course where I wrote an historiographical essay on W.E.B. DuBois's Black Reconstruction. Bryn Mawr College sociologist David Karen had exposed me to both structural-functionalists and radical education critics in a course I took with him when I was a junior (or at least I vaguely recall its being spring 1986). Then in grad school I had Michael Katz as an advisor.

But probably the teacher who lay the groundwork the most for Anderson was Bob Engs, for whom I read C. Vann Woodward's Origins of the New South. Because Engs and Anderson use the same material to arrive at very different interpretations of the role of foundations in Southern education, it says a great deal about Engs as a teacher that he made Anderson make sense for me even while he was telling me that Anderson's book was polemical. I like both men a great deal, so perhaps a broader explanation is in order.

Engs and Anderson were both pioneers as African American historians in elite majority-white universities in the same time (the early 1970s), Engs at Penn and Anderson at Illinois. I wish I could say they were part of a continuous record going back decades, but in an case they've become part of diverse faculties for the past several.

Engs turned his first research project into a book ten years before Anderson's, with Freedom's First Generation about the Hampton, Virginia, community. Anderson took a decade and a half to write his first book (something Vanessa Siddle Walked called "lingering with an idea," but I thought of as "a darned good example of a leader in my field who didn't write 7 articles a year before tenure"). And they are different books: While Anderson writes only of education, Engs writes a local history, focusing on the contingent conditions that allowed Hampton's African American community to thrive after the Civil War and hang on to wealth in the very late 19th century even while the curtain of segregation and disfranchising was closing in from all sides.

Engs saw the Hampton Institute as one of those contingencies, and Samuel Chapman Armstrong (Hampton's first leader) as a friend of the Hampton African American community. Where Anderson saw a conspiracy to undermine equality, Engs saw irony with Armstrong's showing one face to the white community and another to Hampton's African Americans. Where Engs saw opportunity that some grabbed in the midst of oppression, Anderson saw structural limitations that were covered up by a tamed education system. Let me make clear that their views of the Southern political economy and educational structure are similar; the great interpretive differences lie in the role of the foundations.

Despite those deep differences in the interpretation of late 19th century Southern education, Engs laid the groundwork for my "oh, yes, of course" reading of Anderson in several ways. First, he made me and other graduate students read Willie Lee Rose's Rehearsal for Reconstrution and C. Vann Woodward and Jacqueline Jones and Exodusters and several others in a way that raised important questions about the South's history after the Civil War. I was also his teaching assistant one semester for his Southern postwar history class (that's postwar as in post-Civil War), and apart from his tolerance for the awkward naive grad student I was then, I figured out how he could say the most outlandish things in a lecture and get the southern white male students to recommend that all of their friends take his classes. With a light baritone, he stood at the front of class, uttering outrageous interpretations in a quiet, patient manner, as if they wouldn't ruffle anyone's feathers. The students loved him (and I presume students still love him at Penn).

So in many ways, I bought much of Anderson's argument because of Engs. If it's any comfort, Bob, it's because of Anderson's discussion of communities that I bought your argument, too. Ultimately, the best scholarship in each book is about different levels of action. Anderson effectively demonstrates that white philanthropists did conspire to impose a certain type of education on the South. Yet in his work on community efforts, Anderson bolsters Engs's argument that at the local level, there was a lot more going on. I'm not sure we have to establish the moral worth of Samuel Chapman Armstrong to evaluate either book. (Some years ago, Engs wrote a biography of Armstrong, and it's much more sympathetic than I expect Anderson's version would be.)

I have both learned from Anderson's work and also failed to give it credit in one case. It was because of his book that my own dissertation research on graduation in the 20th century involved looking at the extent of high school availability in the 1950s and 1960s. And like John Rury, I am returning to the scope of high school education in the 20th century South. In Schools as Imagined Communities, Deirdre Cobb-Roberts, Barbara Shircliffe, and I could have enriched the introduction by discussing Anderson's work. Mea culpa.

As those at the AERA panel said, Anderson's book helped open up the history of Southern education after the Civil War, giving the subject the gravitas that it deserves and momentum that has served many other historians well. The rest of us in the field can only hope to leave an intellectual legacy as significant as Jim Anderson's.

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Posted in Notable posts at 4:54 PM (Permalink) |

Speedy animation

Done in about two minutes of downtime with K-sketch:

Yes, I'll keep my day job.
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Posted in Random comments at 2:56 PM (Permalink) |

An NEA member at the head of AFT?

In all the discussion about Randi Weingarten's imminent rise to the AFT presidency is one small detail that hasn't yet been discussed: UFT's state affiliate NYSUT is now merged and affiliated with both NEA and AFT. Which makes Weingarten an NEA member.

I have no clue whether Weingarten is a delegate to the NEA convention this summer, but that would be interesting.

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Posted in Education policy at 2:09 PM (Permalink) |

April 1, 2008


So U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings Announces Department Will Move to a Uniform Graduation Rate, Require Disaggregation of Data (the true title of the press release today announcing imminent-but-not-published draft regs defining a graduation rate and only a few words away from the type of book title that would cure almost any insomnia). And George Miller huffs some that it wasn't bipartisan (hat tip to David Hoff on the Miller statement). So what's the buzz about?

  1. Spellings is channeling Adlai Stevenson's approach to governance and proudly announcing bold action on issues that are almost consensual and would happen without her intervention.
  2. Especially for this particular issue, the devil is in the details. Florida has a longitudinal graduation measure, but that doesn't mean it's accurate. If the regulatory language released in draft form would allow Florida to keep doing what it's doing officially, you won't see much in the form of transparency (and at least with two issues, you may see things get worse).
  3. Spellings is hoping the gravitas and charm of Colin Powell rubs off. Admittedly, Powell hasn't (yet) been on NPR's Wait, wait, ...

Maybe this is more evidence that Spellings will run for elected office in Texas and claim that she created growth measures, differentiated consequences, and airtight graduation rates. At least she's not claiming to have invented the Internet...

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 3:13 PM (Permalink) |