July 31, 2008

Oh, wait: maybe the unions aren't responsible for everything

About the NCTQ report released recently and my observations about alternative explanations of interstate similarities, maybe the new Achieve report on the development of similar academic expectations in math and English is the best counter-example, since Achieve takes credit for convergence of standards documents. Well, they goofed, too, since their only evidence comes from American Diploma Project (ADP) states, and I suspect that states are slowly converging in similar content areas. Essentially, state academic standards documents are becoming part of the script of "real school" (or "real education policy"), to borrow from Mary Metz's paper some years ago.

How this translates into better teaching in middle and high school is not clear to me, since most of the "core" standards that the report identifies are fairly old expectations (probably why it's easy to achieve consensus on them). Wasn't distinguishing fact from opinion a basic task in your elementary-school classrooms?

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Posted in Education policy at 5:57 PM (Permalink) |

Waiting for one last paper... and panicking about the end of summer

I'm almost at the end of reading/grading for my summer class. I have one student's paper left to receive, and then I'll be done. In the meantime, I'll upload the rest of the material in a secure part of Blackboard hidden from students for the moment and then work on an article manuscript that should have been published yesterday (mostly my fault) and should be up today or tomorrow, with luck. I have another entry I've been working on late at night or early in the morning that I'll finish soon, but it will have to wait.

In the next week I need to write/submit AERA proposals, turn to a few writing projects I've been promising colleagues, other matters ... yikes. I need a to-do list, and I haven't had a chance to breathe/reflect for a few weeks. I've got a bunch of things starting August 9 as well, including the back-to-school stuff with my children. My brain wants to think about other matters (I think I know where the shopping bug comes from), but I need to return it to logistics.

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Posted in Teaching at 11:56 AM (Permalink) |

July 30, 2008

Glaring error in new NCTQ report

This is relatively unimportant in terms of the broader argument of the new National Council on Teacher Quality report, Invisible Ink in Collective Bargaining, but my jaw dropped when I read the map on p. 10 that claimed Florida was one of the states with no class size policy. The class-size policy of Florida is embedded in the state constitution. One would think that being in the state constitution would be sufficient to call it official policy.

In terms of the report in general, NCTQ is making a very broad assertion that teachers unions have enormous power in state legislatures, without sufficient evidence. There are several weaknesses in the argument. First, there is variation in the lobbying authority (and relative success) of different teachers unions depending on which party controls the legislature, the question of which national affiliate has a stronger state federation (or whether the state federation is merged), the strength of state federations, and so forth. The NCTQ report makes no mention of that variation.

In addition, the report doesn't look at when various state provisions were enacted. Certification and teacher salary schedules were often subjects of state law long before the postwar rise of collective bargaining in schools or the maturation of teacher union political/lobbying skills, and I expect other matters were, too. A legal provision in many states that is decades old can't be attributed to unions.

Finally, the report fails to consider alternative explanations for why some legal provisions are common across states. Maybe it's the political might of teachers unions, as the report claims. But there is also a "we gotta do what our neighbors are doing" competition in state policy matters. Parsing out which policy provisions are the result of lobbying and which are the result of states following the lead of each other is important and absent from the NCTQ report.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:00 AM (Permalink) |

July 29, 2008

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education jumps the shark

Twice this month I've agreed with National Association of Scholars head Peter Wood, but when NAS organizes what looks like a Horowitzian ideological witchhunt, they've lost my sympathy. I'm also at a loss to understand why the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's blog applauded NAS. There's a pretty large gulf between FIRE's support of and education around individual rights, on the one hand, and NAS's engaging in an ideologically one-sided hunt for people to complain about college campuses, on the other. (Hat tip.)

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Posted in Academic freedom at 8:50 PM (Permalink) |

Strata game development: it's my family's fault

For the record, all I did was create a game to engage students in talking about education policy. But my daughter suggested we play it, even in draft form. Here's what I learned from that first round of playtesting:

  • The basic game is playable.
  • Everyone started inventing stories for their families, and my son (who was given the poorest family) complained about how unfair life was... until his family's children did well in the first round.
  • Game pieces exist for a reason: it's a headache to keep track of a game's state-space on a notepad
  • More generally, do not create a board game that requires a calculator or a spreadsheet
  • I now understand the role of Monopoly's chance and community chest cards -- to introduce shocks into the gameplay without having to change the regular rules.
I've simplified some of the rules and added a set of "change-agent" cards to be drawn each round. Half of the cards do nothing. Some of the other cards determine economic circumstances (long boom, boom-and-bust, depression), a few change the circumstances of either the wealthiest or poorest families, there's a forced vote on a tax cut (everyone gets a bit more money, but with a tradeoff in educational quality for the next turn or two), and a few cards give players the option to propose rule changes for the entire game. Oh, yes, and one of my children suggested a card for a social revolution and purge, with players exchanging families (the poorest and wealthiest players change families, then the 2nd poorest and wealthiest, and so forth). They've enjoyed games like Guillotine, my son has played nation/culture-strategy games such as Cyber Nations, and they may have come to the table expecting some dramatic turn of events. So for the record, the idea of a revolution and purge is not my idea.

While thinking about and drafting the game in the last week or so, I've come across a number of discussions about using nation/culture-strategy games in history classes, such as using historical war tactics games, Civilization modifications (or mods for short), or other teacher-selected/created simulations, or requiring that students create simulation games. Civilization or SimCity are good in thinking about resource limits, but I'm wondering if there are other structures for the type of history class I would teach (specifically, history of education), where decisions are in between the individual/family and the society-wide. (Strata is for an interdisciplinary class.)

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Posted in Teaching at 12:45 PM (Permalink) |

Apologies to Liam Julian

Mea culpa. Yesterday, I linked to a Flypaper blog entry (see Google cache of the page, since the original entry is gone) that had pointed to a Wall Street Journal editorial with an ad hominem (and silly argument) asserting that Barack Obama was a hypocrite for opposing vouchers while using his own money to send his children to private schools. I am not sure why I assumed Julian had bought into the entire WSJ line of reasoning when he quoted the core policy point instead of the ad hominem, but the fault is mine. The Google cache shows I was wrong regarding what Julian had written.

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Posted in Education policy at 12:06 PM (Permalink) |

July 28, 2008

Ocala rethinks high grade-retention rates

In the late 1990s, Florida instituted a requirement that third-graders reach a certain test threshold in reading or be held back in third grade. Now Marion County schools (which includes Ocala) is rethinking grade retention where it can (hat tip), once they realized they had several hundred middle-school students who could legally drive.

The research on retention is fairly clear: if you have the choice between holding a student back a grade and praying they somehow improve, on the one hand, and advancing the student a grade and praying that they somehow improve, the better long-term choice is to promote the student and pray. Then again, my colleague Sister Jerome Leavy would point out that while plenty of Catholic schoolteachers believe in the power of prayer, you gotta do some teaching, and that's a poor way to frame public policy questions. Retention/promotion questions are an administrative distraction from the need to identify children who need help and intervene early.

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

Not hypocrisy

Liam Julian is chiming in with the Wall Street Journal today in implying that Senator Obama is hypocritical for sending his children to private schools while voting against voucher programs. I suppose you could claim that Obama would be hypocritical if he had used a voucher program and then voted against them, but he and his wife are using their own money.

I'm a little bewildered by this accusation, since it's nonsubstantive, but, hey, we're in an election season. Ad hominem attacks have been a tradition since John Adams.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:36 AM (Permalink) |

July 27, 2008

Strata, the game

Today, I'm in limbo: I finished my summer class with an all-day session yesterday, but the papers aren't due until tomorrow at noon, so I have a day to recuperate from being on my feet for 8 hours. (I also picked up my daughter from the airport, and we waited around for a while because the ground crew isn't allowed on the tarmac to unload luggage if there is lightning within a few miles, so I didn't get home until about 8 pm or so.)

I have a few odds and ends I can get off the table today, until the rush hits. I need to prepare the next EPAA article, though the next one shouldn't be too hard, and I could finish the basic prep work tomorrow morning. I also have a few mini-projects for the fall classes: the basic story for our undergraduate social foundations case (each year, we create a new dilemma for teachers in the fictional town of Anchovy), the historical case for my undergrad history of ed class, and something I'm going with my online class: a game.

The point of this is less the gameplay than the discussion around the game -- since the class will be asynchronous, I need to generate discussion about education policy that gets students well out of their comfort zone. This has been a consistent concern of mine since I first taught the class some years ago. The idea is to create gameplay that includes several key topics in the class (the roles of schools, meritocratic assumptions, stratification models, etc.--all familiar in social foundations) but is flexible enough for (a) me to run it as a minor part of my teaching time and (b) people to imbue the gameplay with different meanings (and thus generate open discussion).

The storyline is simple: small groups of students will control the key decisions of families (one family per group), and I will tell them that their goal is to maximize the wealth of their familly. Every round, they'll be voting as a class on basic education policy (distribution of educational opportunity in a very simplistic manner), and then the families will make decisions about additional investments (if they can afford it -- each family will begin with different amounts of wealth and the proportion of family members with high school or college degrees). I'm not yet sure how to translate education policy and the additional investments into the next step, but students will then have to perform some task (probably a quiz on that week's reading), which will be translated into the families' new adult educational attainment. And then, depending on the economic environment, the families' prior wealth and cumulative educational attainment will translate into each family's assets at the end of the round.

And then the next round begins...

I've figured out the hard part mechanically: coming up with formulas for different economic conditions (a boom, a bust, steady growth, and stagnation). I suspect education policy and family investments in "tutoring" will translate into certain conditions on the reading quiz, but that will take care of itself. After 4-5 weeks, I will probably offer the class a chance to change a number of rules by vote... but with the possibility that wealthier families could bribe the GM to veto the class choice. And then a little over halfway through the semester, I will restart the game and give the entire class an opportunity to rewrite the rules before they know what families they're in or what the initial conditions are. (Yes, there's an explicit parallel to John Rawls here.)

I hope this is the right structure: students make two decisions each week (voting on one policy question, making a family decision about additional investments), take a quiz, and then see the family's attainment and wealth status at the end of the week. That's not much in terms of game play, deliberately, but the outcomes are unpredictable (in part because of their actions and in part because the economic circumstances will change every week). The vote and the investment decision will be an opportunity for discussion, and the quiz should encourage members of a "family" to help each other. And then the opportunities later to change the rules... well, we'll see.

In looking for a name, I thought about the layering involved here: the way that initial conditions (distribution of wealth and educational attainment) have consequences for later rounds, the deliberate stratification of initial conditions, and the layering of discussion on top of gameplay (I hope). For some reason, I looked at food. I first thought of strudel, but the twists... nah. Just not layered. Kugel is more of a pudding and lasagne: no. Just not "lasagne" as a title for a social foundations game. Then my wife told me of the bread-and-vegetable layer baked dish called strata. Even the name fits the meaning!

So Strata, the game, it is.

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Posted in Education policy at 1:09 PM (Permalink) |

July 23, 2008

Review of "Accountability Frankenstein"

As far as I'm aware, Teachers College Record recently published the first review of Accountability Frankenstein. From the comments by Dick Schutz, "If you are in any way concerned with the status and future of US el-hi education, you owe it to yourself to read this book." You can read the review to see where he thinks I got things right and wrong.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 5:24 PM (Permalink) |

Transportation and education

While Andy Rotherham and Greg Forster are battling it out over school transportation policy, I'll use that opening wedge to talk about the "hydrogen economy" and similar piffles. Yes, there's an education policy angle here; just wait for it. (In fact, there are at least two.)

As far as I can tell, there are two goals of seeking alternative ways to run cars: reducing energy consumption and reducing emissions. Hybrids are somewhat more efficient than internal combustion because the batteries can suck up energy on braking, and as you reduce energy consumption, you inherently reduce emissions. Biodiesel can be efficient if the conversion of used vegetable oil is cheaper than the prevailing fuel costs, so you could reduce total pollution by recycling vegetable oil even if the consumption of the specific vehicle is the same. On the other hand, a hydrogen fuel-cell car inherently does squat to reduce either emissions or energy use because of some basic physics: the energy has to come from somewhere. Unless you can find a clean source for hydrogen (whatever generates the electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen), all a hydrogen fuel-cell car does is change the origin of emissions for the energy.

On the other hand, there is a very specific type of vehicle that I'd love to see go to low or zero emissions: garbage and recycling trucks. Diesel pollution from trucks tends to be concentrated in poor neighborhoods, and there is considerable evidence of a link between diesel particulate pollution and asthma. While it appears that childhood asthma rates may have plateaued recently after a sizable uptick in the 1980s and early 1990s, asthma is still a substantial public health risk for poor children, and my guess is that an effort to switch garbage trucks to less-polluting fuels or even zero emissions will change the lives of children, reduce absenteeism, and... yeah, probably increase student achievement over a generation. No guarantees, but if you don't think it's worth it, travel in a line of garbage trucks on their way to the local dump, with the window open, and tell me afterwards what the experience was like. (Oh, yeah: reducing emissions will also help the health of truck drivers and the folks who sling your garbage every week.)

And it doesn't even require hydrogen fuel-cell trucks. Apparently there's a concerted effort to develop and push natural-gas trucks, and if I had known about yesterday's G-Word show, had a television, had cable, and didn't have several draft papers I needed to respond to last night, I might've watched a segment about it. Then again, such video segments typically feature perky 20-something hosts talking about how to save the world if you only watch more television about how to save the world. I suspect what's really needed is local grassroots organizing to get the worst mobile point-source polluters (i.e., local diesel garbage trucks) out of neighborhoods.

The other education angle is the issue of measurement, or why miles per gallon is probably the worst engineering measurement we use in public policy today. If you teach upper elementary or middle-school math, there's probably an interesting discussion out of the following: which of the following saves more fuel if you drive all vehicles the same distance: replacing a 10-mpg vehicle with a 12-mpg vehicle, or replacing a 35-mpg vehicle with a 60-mpg vehicle? The last Carnival of Mathematics didn't have that, but I'm waiting for all you math teachers...

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

Crisis rhetoric, attention seeking, and capacity building

Berliner and Biddle's The Manufactured Crisis was the independent reading choice of several students in my summer doctoral course, and as they have been writing comments on the book in the last week, I have been thinking about the split retrospective view of the 1983 A Nation at Risk report, produced by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The report has been on the receiving end of a tremendous amount of criticism by Berliner, Biddle, Jerry Bracey, and many others.

Of the various criticisms of the report, two stick fairly well: the report was thin on legitimate evidence of a decline in school performance, and the declension story is ahistorical. First, the report relied on a poor evidentiary record, using problematic statistics such as the average annual decline in SAT scale scores from 1964 to 1975, statistics the report's authors claimed were proof of declining standards in schools. (Why this was flawed is left as an exercise for the reader.) Using this evidence, the report claimed that

... the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur--others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

Where do I start with the problems here: the war-like rhetoric, the implication that we don't want the rest of the world's education to improve, the bald assertion that there is any solid evidence of student achievement gains post-1958 that can be attributed to Sputnik, or the assumption that if there were low expectations observable in the early 1980s it must have been a decline from previous times instead of a generally anti-intellectual culture?

But 25 years after the report's release, it is easy to poke holes in and fun at the hyperbolic rhetoric. What the last few weeks have brought home for me is the very different perceptions of the report. Berliner, Biddle, Bracey, and other critics are absolutely right that the report is factually and conceptually flawed. And yet there are many people involved with the commission who not only thought they were factually correct, they thought that the report's purpose was to help public schooling. If you read various accounts of the commission's work, it is clear that they thought the report was necessary to build political support for school reforms.

Part of the report's creation lies in the campaign promise of President Ronald Reagan to abolish the federal Department of Education. In this regard, his first Secretary of Education Terence Bell brilliantly outmaneuvered Reagan, and within a few months of the report's release, it was clear that the report had resonated with newspaper editorial boards and state policymakers. Even without it, given the Democratic majority in the House and the presence of several moderate Republicans in the Senate, it was unlikely that Congress would abolish the department. After it, the idea was largely unthinkable.

But the motives of Bell and the commission members were clearly not about saving an administrative apparatus. They were true believers in reform, and if all of the recommendations had been followed, today we would have a much more expansive school system. (The recommendations included 200- or 220-day school calendars and 11-month teacher contracts.) Some of the recommendations were followed, primarily expanding high school course-taking requirements and standardized testing, as well as the experiments in teacher career ladders in several states. But the guts of the implemented recommendations were already in the works or in the air: I remember that California state Senator Gary Hart had been pushing an increase in graduation requirements, a bill that passed in 1983. (This is not the same Gary Hart as the famous one from Colorado.) While I could have graduated from high school in 1983 with one or two semesters of math (I forget which), students in my former high school now must take several years of math. (As others have pointed out, one of the unintended beneficial consequences of raising course-taking requirements was dramatically reducing the gender differences in math and science course taking. Richard Whitmire, take note: Terence Bell is the villain!)

Lest some people not know or have forgotten, A Nation at Risk was not the only major mid-80s report on public schooling. Others were written from a variety of perspectives: Ernest Boyer's High School, Ted Sizer's Horace's Compromise, Arthur Powell et al.'s The Shopping-Mall High School, and John Goodlad's A Place Called School. All were published in 1983 or 1984. All were earnest. All were more thoughtful than A Nation at Risk. I suspect that if Two Million Minutes had been made and released at the same time (if with different non-U.S. countries and different students), it would have fit into that cache of reform reports very well.

Those other reports did not gain the same attention as A Nation at Risk, and I am not certain that any of the reports dramatically changed the policy options discussed at the state level. Changed course requirements and testing were prominent parts of the discussion before the reports, and they were the primary consequences of state-level reforms in the 1970s and 1980s. What the body of reports did instead was push the idea that schools needed reforming. On that score, I think they succeeded, even if several of the report writers (Sizer and Goodlad) became horrified at the direction of reform policies.

Today, we have a new set of actors making similar claims about the need to reform schools: did you receive the e-mail from Strong American Schools/Ed in '08 that I did yesterday? If you didn't, here's the text:

We are only as strong as our schools, and our schools are failing our children.

Consider:
  • Almost 70% of America's eighth-graders do not read at grade level.
  • Our 15-year-olds rank 25th in math and 21st in science.
  • America showed no improvement in its post-secondary graduation rate between 2000 and 2005.
We know that the nations with the best schools attract the best jobs. If those jobs move to other countries, our economy, our lives and our children will suffer.

For that reason, Strong American Schools launched a new campaign this week to combat the crisis in our public schools.

Click on the image below to view our television advertisement:

Please join us. Tell your governors, your state and national representatives and senators that you want a change for stronger schools.

Make your voice heard.

The ad's rhetoric is definitely in line with A Nation at Risk, down to the tagline: "As our schools go, so goes our country." It's tired rhetoric at this point, and I think it's important to understand why the folks behind Strong American Schools are keeping at it, though they've made no traction in making education a highly visible part of the presidential campaign thus far: as with the major figures in A Nation at Risk, they are true believers in reform to increase the capacity of regulators.

But Strong American Schools has now become a shadow of A Nation at Risk, itself the least substantive of the mid-1980s reports on American schooling. Instead of making specific claims or recommendations, they're pushing "a change for stronger schools," or rather attention. To do so, they claim a crisis, though this is probably the worst time to claim that weak education is the cause of what Phil Gramm calls our "mental recession": to anyone who looks at the current state of the world, our economic woes are the consequences of the subprime mortgage crisis and energy prices (which themselves are driven by the growing Chinese and Indian economies). In 1983, the economy was out of recession. I just don't think the world will realign itself in the same way as in the 1980s. That doesn't mean that there isn't a tie between education and the
economy in the long term, but it's diffuse rather than mechanical.

And there's another question here: is it ethical or even helpful to claim that a long-term problem is an acute crisis, just to gain public attention for an issue? We've gone down this road many times before, and I just don't see where it helps in the long term.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 9:15 AM (Permalink) |

July 21, 2008

The higher-ed split among conservatives

One could probably have predicted today's Inside Higher Ed article describing how several conservative academics criticized the current push for quantitative assessment of higher ed. I didn't, but if you did, give yourself a pat on the back.

The article describes a panel on Friday sponsored by the American Academy of Distance Learning (more about that later) where the former head of Margaret Spellings's Office of Postsecondary Education and the executive director of the National Association of Scholars ripped Spellings and her allies for pushing standardized tests in higher ed to the detriment of liberal arts. According to the article, Diane Auer Jones was more diplomatic than Peter Wood, but both complained that the push for accountability was turning reductionist. In this regard, I think Wood's reported comments are on the money: today, the policy rhetoric on higher education is vocational, and that threatens to make the defense of a liberal-arts education more difficult. He ties it to the push for accountability in higher education, and I've had similar concerns about calls for standardized testing as the primary accountability mechanism for colleges.

The predictability comes in the split among conservatives, one that Wood ties back to a "practical"/"classical" distinction in the late 18th century. The Spellings Commission report ignored fundamental tensions in American higher education, and one interesting feature of the report is the invisibility of the curriculum. The report's rhetoric was tied closely to economics, and I suspect that Jones's resignation in May on a matter of principle was the result of a long-simmering frustration among some conservative academics, not an isolated event. No party or political coalition is monolithic, and I've heard several current and former Capitol Hill staffers from Democratic offices who were far closer to Spellings on higher-ed accountability than either Jones or Wood. And I'm closer to Jones and Wood at least on this issue, though I'm a Democrat.

And now the coda: The building frustration among some conservatives that I'm inferring here may explain why Jones and Wood were willing to use the sponsorship of a proprietary university's president's shadow accreditation office: I've tried to look for the "American Academy of Distance Learning," which seemed to be an odd outfit to sponsor a talk about standardized testing and the liberal arts. I found an American Academy of Distance Learning (or at least a reference to its tax-exempt status) headquartered in Denver, but Dick Bishirjian runs the proprietary Yorktown University, which is in Denver... at the same address as AADL, down to the same suite number. But the media advisory for the panel lists AADL with a Norfolk post office box. Bishirjian also appears to be the president of the American Academy of Privatization, a proponent of "privatization training for public officials." I'm not sure what that means, precisely, but the P.O. box for it is the same as that given in the media advisory for AADL. In other words, it looks like Bishirjian has a mail drop in Norfolk and office space in Denver. That's an amazingly slim infrastructure to run a university and two other organizations... or at least to claim so. A July 10 Denver Post article gives a little more information about Yorktown, at least in relationship to Republican Senate candidate Bob Schaffer, who served on Yorktown's board of trustees for several years. Yorktown apparently has a single graduate program and only a few dozen students. Given the plaudits for Bishirjian by Paul Weyrich earlier this month on David Horowitz's website, it looks like Bishirjian had enormous difficulties gaining accreditation. So... is his sponsorship of the forum for Jones and Wood something that's tied to his proprietary institution's interests? I don't know if either Jones or Wood is aware of Bishirjian's background or the disconnect between his proprietary institution's curriculum and their arguments, but this is definitely one of the odder set of bedfellows I've seen in higher education.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 10:11 AM (Permalink) |

July 17, 2008

Florida's 931 draft social studies standards: half a mile wide and two inches deep

Here's a look at the draft Florida social studies standards and benchmarks as a whole.

By the numbers

Let's first look at the scope of the standards, or rather the specific benchmarks in the draft (the more specific expectations of what students are supposed to be learning). By grade:


GradeBenchmarks
K 28
1 34
2 35
3 32
4 76
5 79
6 118
7 80
8 101
9-12 348

By subject:


SubjectBenchmarks
Civics 49
Economics 123
Geography 163
American History 293
World History 188
Civics and Government 115

What is apparent is that the drafting committee stuffed too many benchmarks into each grade and subject. The standards may not be vague any more (with some exceptions I'll note below), but it appears to be impossible to teach or learn any of these benchmarks in depth. A total of 931 benchmarks at the level of "Evaluate the impact of U.S. domestic and foreign policies on international relations, both past and present, such as economic actions, military intervention, human rights, and humanitarian aid"? (That one is a draft civics/government benchmark for high school.) If this is an improvement on the "mile-wide, inch-deep" nature of the current standards as criticized by others, it is scant improvement. The number of specific benchmarks more than doubles in fourth grade (which has "Florida studies" as the theme), up to 76, or roughly one benchmark every 2.4 days if one assumes a 180-day school year calendar. The allowable time per benchmark doesn't improve in later grades, as the following table shows:

GradeSchool Days per Benchmark
K6.4
15.3
25.1
35.6
42.4
52.3
61.5
72.3
81.8
9-122.1

While there is some natural overlap among topics, and teaching important methods issues (such as handling primary sources) should happen in the context of lessons about something specific, there is something unreal about the number of specific benchmarks, as if middle-school children studied nothing but history, economics, and geography. Many of the benchmarks provide an opportunity to some wonderful teaching, but I fear that the sheer number of them will lead to texts deadened even further than they are now, and if there is anything like a social studies FCAT based on the number of standards in this draft, it will simply be awful. We have gone from "three big ideas per year" in the new math standards approved in the last year to "the kitchen sink" approach in the draft social studies standards. I know why that's happened (the drafting committee spent an enormous amount of time trying to be inclusive), but it's still a problem.

Choices made in the draft

Any curriculum structure has to make choices, and while the presence of 931 benchmarks give the appearance that the drafting committee tried hard not to make choices (something Jonathan Zimmerman would certainly have predicted), the larger framework shows that there are important choices made, some of which are good and some of which are odd. While many of the public comments on elementary-level benchmarks submitted before yesterday focused on concerns that the benchmarks in younger grades were not age-appropriate, I have different concerns. (Some of the concerns about age-appropriateness are correct, but not all of them. More broadly, concerns about age-appropriateness miss some of the issues that a disciplinary specialist would notice.) I read the history standards/benchmarks in more depth, in part because... well, I'm an historian. Some patterns I noticed:

An "infusion" approach to the relationship between history and (other) social-science disciplines

In most grades, the benchmarks try to focus on everything at once (or everything the committee chose anywhere in the K-12 curriculum): history, economics, geography, civics/government. In fourth grade, the drafting committee focused on Florida studies, and it is only in fourth grade that the infusion approach appears to work. Everywhere else, it appears primarily scattershot. Infusion is very hard, and there are alternatives: pick one or at most two social-science disciplines to pair up with a history topic for a year, or at least one or two adjunct foci from a social-science discipline. Since second grade focuses on migration, geography would be appropriate. Third grade appears to be for ancient civilizations, where anthropology would be useful, ... and so forth. Infusion is very hard to accomplish in practice, and it tends to drive everyone nuts unless done very well. Twenty years ago, the Bradley Commission report expressed frustration that social studies watered down history. On the other hand, one geographer friend of mine is consistently upset that social studies short-changes geography (or so is his impression). Maybe the truth is that infusion is a risky way of teaching anything by attempting to teach everything at once.

An absence of anthropology

Though the standards have substantial and appropriate mentions of prehistorical societies and differences among cultures, there is nothing in the standards about either physical anthropology or cultural anthropology. (There is also nothing from sociology, but given the emphases already in place, anthropology seems the obviously-relevant missing subject.)

The insertion of primary sources in some grades but their omission in intermediate and middle grades

The presence of primary sources in the benchmarks is definitely something to make an historian smile. On the other hand, "primary sources" appears in only the kindergarten, first-grade, and high-school benchmarks. Are students supposed to ignore their existence in other grades?

The absence of writing

As far as I could tell, none of the benchmarks require that students master an argumentative/interpretive essay in history or any social science discipline. Given the emphasis on writing in fourth, eighth, and tenth grades, I am absolutely startled that the fourth-grade benchmarks in Florida studies completely omit writing. This is also a serious concern for me as a college professor, since I would like students to enter my classes already having written argumentative history essays.

Inclusion of social history

The benchmarks for history, and especially U.S. history, do a much better job of incorporating social history than in many other states or in the older standards in Florida. The emphases in the draft standards are in political, military, economic, and general social history.

The absence of cultural history, the history of childhood and youth, or other newer subfields

In contrast, some other areas are emphasized far less: cultural history (including intellectual history outside political philosophy) and the history of childhood and youth are the omissions that I found startling. Another possible choice not taken is to have more on the history of science and technology.

Ahistorical benchmarks in elementary history

One benchmark from first grade reads, "understands that history tells the story of people and events of other times and places," and the third-grade benchmarks on several classical civilizations ask students to "describe daily family life and social classes that existed in ancient" Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Mali. In none of these benchmarks is change central to the description of history as a field. I'm wincing at the idea that we should teach history as cultural tourism. A friend in graduate school realized that was a good part of his own motivation, but it shouldn't be the core of a history curriculum. Unless children understand that the study of history is the study of change, there is nothing that distinguishes history from other disciplines except that it's about the past.

Compartmentalized history benchmarks/absence of driving questions

Throughout the grades, most of the history benchmarks are compartmentalized by country/region and era. There are some notable exceptions that encourage comparative history, such as the following from world history standards in high school: "Describe the 19th and early 20th century social and political reforms and reform movements and their effects in Europe, Japan and the United States (e.g. Meiji Reforms, abolition of slavery in the British Empire, expansion of suffrage, and labor laws)." But the comparative questions are all cross-sectional (not crossing time periods), and the broad macrohistorical topics that cross time periods only appear in benchmarks in non-history areas (usually civics/government, at least by my impression).

Why should we care that "big picture" issues are overwhelmed by compartmentalized benchmarks, especially given my concern over the 931 benchmarks? Most of the high school history benchmarks are fine, if students had more than 2.1 class periods in which to explore each one. Since the metastasizing of benchmarks is already threatening to turn any Florida K-12 history course into the "one damn thing after another" framework that Elbert Hubbard's quip ridicules, why am I arguing for even more? I'm not arguing for more benchmarks: I'm arguing for more coherence, which the standards can accomplish by framing central questions to drive an entire course. (Framing central questions would also allow a logical choice of a social science disciplinary focus for a semester or year.) Great teachers will do wonderful things with the draft standards, but weaker and inexperienced teachers may well take these standards and figuratively drive nails through the skulls of their students with the attempt to "cover" this curriculum. If one purpose of a curriculum is to assist new teachers, or teachers with less expertise in a topic, with the exception of fourth grade, these draft standards fail to assist inexperienced teachers. Important overarching questions can dramatically improve these standards.

Options for redrafting Florida's social studies standards

Given the timeline, are there feasible fixes without having to rewrite the draft benchmarks entirely? There are some relatively easy steps that the drafting committee can take:

  • Write interesting, important history questions that can drive the high school curriculum for an entire semester or year. Since most of the high school history benchmarks are reasonably well written (even if someone is addicted to using "impact" as a transitive verb), it is the overall structure that can be tweaked with some interesting cross-period themes. (Figuring out how to write a good question on the political and cultural uses of the Declaration of Independence over time is left as an exercise for the reader. The same homework is assigned for other possible overarching questions.)
  • Match (other) social-science disciplines to a year's theme so that there are no more than two non-history disciplines per year. This may require rearranging some benchmarks, but for fourth grade and above, minor rearrangements will more than reward themselves in better coherence.
  • I would take the comments about age appropriateness of K-1 benchmarks at face value in terms of concepts (e.g., when to introduce timelines) but less so about topical substance (whose reception depends on the teaching).
  • Rewrite a number of elementary history standards to emphasize change and contingency.
  • Add writing to the methodological benchmarks/standards, and make sure primary sources appear more consistently across the grades.
Then there are the more difficult tasks:
  • Adding anthropology as a discipline.
  • Rewriting K-1 history standards to be coherent. (This is especially problematic for first grade.)
  • Deciding how to slim down the benchmarks so that the benchmarks that appear to demand in-depth study have enough time to allow in-depth study of each.
The last task is the hardest one of all, because it requires admitting that schools cannot cover everything we love in our own disciplines. But good grief, folks: 931 benchmarks? If that's not a mile wide and an inch deep, it's half a mile wide and two inches deep.
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Posted in Education policy at 4:03 PM (Permalink) |

Teachers and the public sphere

Partially drafted in Chicago Sunday evening, July 13, and revised July 17:

I'm listening to Susan Ohanian at the moment, talking to a group of about 50 AFT delegates and others. Ohanian is a well-known opponent of NCLB and academic standards and was invited to speak at an event sponsored by the AFT Peace and Freedom Caucus (which should sound familiar to NEA national delegates, who can sign up for an NEA Peace and Freedom Caucus as well). As I've written elsewhere, Ohanian is right in several things and wrong in others. (Go read our books to figure out where we agree and disagree; I like her as a person, and she raises important questions about the purpose of education and high-stakes testing.) But I'm more interested this evening in the audience after she and the other speaker (the leader of an independent teachers union in Puerto Rico) finish. The AFT crowd neither applauded nor booed this morning when Barack Obama talked about merit pay in his live-feed speech to the convention floor. (The crowd went to its feet and cheered loudly when he first appeared and cheered again loudly at the end, and applauded at various points in the 10-minute speech. As Mike Antonucci has noted, it's essentially the same speech he gave to NEA, the one that had NEA California delegates booing, so we have an interesting comparison point.) But since a strong positive reaction followed Ohanian's statement that it was wrong for Obama to claim that teachers are the most important influence on children, I'm fascinated.

Part of the reason why I'm fascinated is because I think Ohanian's arguments are inconsistent. Ohanian worried about the statement by Obama that "the single most important factor in determining a child's achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from; it's not who their parents are or how much money they have. It's who their teacher is." Ohanian argued that this statement is rhetoric that sets up blaming teachers for all sorts of problems they are not responsible for. A few minutes later, she claimed that the real danger of high-stakes accountability was the destruction of children's imaginations and the creation of a compliant workforce. But there's a logical inconsistency here: how can schools create worker robots if they are not powerful in shaping the lives of children?

I worry (and I said towards the end of the event) that Ohanian's criticism undercut arguments about the importance of the public sphere. You can say that teachers are not crucial to children's lives, but then it's hard to argue that schools should be well-funded. You can say that teachers are not crucial, but then it's hard to argue against all sorts of problematic policy proposals that take authority away from teachers or that position teachers' professional judgment as irrelevant. Ohanian was nodding in acknowledgment at the time, so I think (or I hope) she knows that her impromptu remarks were not consistent with either her deeper views of schooling or that of most teachers.

As it turned out my initial impression of the crowd was wrong: there was a lively discussion after the speakers finished, with plenty of dissent with Ohanian's arguments. So in one sense, I never had my question answered: what drew some of the delegates to agree with the remarks by Ohanian that concerned me the most?

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 9:30 AM (Permalink) |

July 15, 2008

Know what union membership means before you write, Ray

Ray Fisman wrote a laudatory article released Friday by Slate about NYC's P.S. 49 principal Anthony Lombardi, an article with themes remarkably similar to what Robert Kolker wrote for New York Magazine in 2003, even down to quoting Randi Weingarten calling Lombardi a tyrant without crediting Kolker. Fisman links to an Inside Schools page summarizing P.S. 49 data and using Kolker's quotation, again without credit. C'mon, Mr. Fisman: if I can find the source by Googling, why couldn't you? (Given that flaw, I am doubtful of Fisman's claim that Lombardi was ever "at the top of the teachers-union hit list" (evidence of any such list or just colorful language to cover up a reporter's lassitude?)

But the passage that had me laughing was the following bit of ignorance:

Currently, New York City teachers get their union cards their first day on the job. In theory they're on probation for three years after that, but in practice very few are forced out. Lombardi suggests replacing this system with an apprenticeship program. Rather than requiring teaching degrees (which don't seem to improve value-added all that much), new recruits would have a couple of years of in-school training. There would then come a day of reckoning, when teachers-to-be would face a serious evaluation before securing union membership and a job for life.

Here is a fundamental conflation of tenure and union membership, or union membership with the legal protections of a collective bargaining agreement, or "serious evaluation" with something. I'm not sure where the root of the error lies, but I do know one thing that's true everywhere, as far as I know: union membership does not change your legally recognized rights under a collective bargaining agreement. It does other things that are important (greater chance of gains at the bargaining table through solidarity, access to specific benefits provided by the union beyond CBA protection, etc.), but Fisman just doesn't know what he's talking about here.

And then Joanne Jacobs repeats the error. Wince time...

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 6:20 PM (Permalink) |

July 12, 2008

My AFT convention

Being a Florida delegate at the AFT convention is much easier than being a delegate at the NEA convention: NEA delegates must be at the Florida Education Association daily caucus at 7 am (which is still easier than the FEA leadership, who have a 6 am meeting before the state's 7 am caucus). Here in Chicago, I can luxuriate until the caucus breakfast starts at 7:30 am. Too bad for me the breakfast is designed for meat-eaters who have no family history of cholesterol problems. But it's one of the few times in the year when I can talk with people from other locals, and there are plenty of folks from other parts of Florida whom I very much appreciate as people, fellow educators, and fellow activists.

I also won the hotel-room lottery, having arrived at the hotel late Thursday night. When the desk clerk asked me if I preferred two double beds or a queen, I said, "Any bed that I can sleep on is fine with me." She looked at her computer and said, "Well... I have a king bed in a very nice room," and passed over a room key. I went up to the room, let myself in, and had the relatively unusual experience of feeling my jaw drop to the floor. I left my stuff, returned to the front desk, and asked (another) clerk if I had the right room. (I didn't want to pay for this room's rack rate or have my local on the hook, either.) She explained that sometimes when people with low contracted rates arrive late, the desk clerks only have the... er ... very nice rooms left, so the patrons get them at a much lower rate. I'm not complaining, though I suspect I'm just not the type of person who's going to enjoy this room as much as some others. At least I can finish a complete shoulder roll on the floor and shake my head at the state of the world.

In terms of AFT business, I think I learned the essential ropes in terms of resolutions committees and the AFT's internal politics (organized through the decades-old Progressive Caucus, something very different from NEA caucuses). My one concern on the higher-ed resolutions have been addressed, my state affiliate's president will probably still be on the AFT executive council, and I'll be happy to tell members back in Florida what passed at the AFT in terms of higher ed. Others I know are still actively politicking on various matters, but I've done what I set out to do, and the rest is participation for me in the official affairs of AFT, as a voting delegate.

Oh, yes, and I've met or seen several people from other states, some national staff I've come to know over several years, and walked around the neighborhood here in Chicago. I hope to catch up with at least one friend in Chicago, but I wasn't sure of the convention schedule (in terms of non-general session stuff), so I decided to underschedule. So now you know what I do on a Saturday night during a union convention: get away from the crowds, have dinner on my own (Elephant & Castle, where I haven't eaten in more than 20 years), and hide away in an internet cafe to blog. How sad, eh?

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Posted in The academic life at 9:50 PM (Permalink) |

Weingarten on eve of the AFT elections

I've now seen Randi Weingarten speak three times in the last 30 hours, to different audiences and for different purposes. I can see how articulate and comfortable she is in different settings, including when challenged by one AFT delegate on an issue close to his heart. My (admittedly incomplete) judgment is that she is whip-smart, energetic, and definitely ready for prime time.

I don't know how the press will portray her election, though reporters have had several months to write the story in advance. (She's unopposed, and one union friend in another state told me his political judgment earlier this year that she essentially had no choice but to lead the AFT.) For some reporters, the lead will be a continuation of UFT dominance in the AFT leadership. For others, it'll be her shrewdness (or contrariness: take your pick) in leading the UFT towards charter school operations and somehow working with a schools chancellor many NYC teachers hate with a passion (and from my vantage point, for some good reasons). For yet others, it'll be her status as the first openly-gay leader of a major national labor union in the U.S. I don't know if reporters will write about retiring AFT President Ed McElroy's career or the speech by Senator Clinton this morning or Senator Obama later in the weekend.

As she takes over the AFT, the national union is in healthy shape, with a number of successful organizing campaigns over the past few years and growing membership. Internal debates seem focused largely on organizational matters (and relationships between state affiliates and the national), not on issues of (public) policy. Those internal debates are an important part of union democracy, but I suspect that the relative emphasis internally leaves Weingarten plenty of room to make AFT a major player in national policy debates.

One bit of trivia that I think has not appeared outside this blog: the NEA and AFT state affiliates in New York merged recently, so the new AFT president will also be an NEA member (and an NEA local leader, since she'll remain UFT president).

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Posted in Education policy at 9:29 PM (Permalink) |

July 10, 2008

Off to Chicago

My flight is delayed 40 minutes, so I have a few more seconds of free Tampa airport wireless. I'm a delegate to the AFT national convention this weekend, and I have no idea how much time I'll have online. I've brought some work with me in case I get bored (ha!). I return in the wee hours of Tuesday morning... if the flight is on time.

Have fun this weekend riding the internet tubes without me, okay?

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Posted in The academic life at 6:30 PM (Permalink) |

July 9, 2008

Can reporters raise their game in writing about education research?

I know that I still owe readers the ultimate education platform and the big, hairy erratum I promised last month, but the issue of research vetting has popped up in the education blogule*, and it's something I've been intending to discuss for some time, so it's taking up my pre-10:30-am time today. In brief, Eduwonkette dismisses the new Manhattan Institute report on Florida's high-stakes testing regime as thinktankery, drive-by research with little credibility because it hasn't been vetted by peer review. Later in the day, she modified that to explain why she was willing to promote working papers published through the National Bureau of Economic Research or the RAND Corporation: they have a vetting process for researchers or reports, and their track record is longer. Jay Greene (one of the Manhattan Institute report's authors and a key part of the think tank's stable of writers) replied with probably the best argument against eduwonkette (or any blogger) in favor of using PR firms for unvetted research: as with blogs, publicizing unvetted reports involves a tradeoff between review and publishing speed, a tradeoff that reporters and other readers are aware of.

Releasing research directly to the public and through the mass media and internet improves the speed and breadth of information available, but it also comes with greater potential for errors. Consumers of this information are generally aware of these trade-offs and assign higher levels of confidence to research as it receives more review, but they appreciate being able to receive more of it sooner with less review.

In other words, caveat lector.


We've been down this road before with blogs in the anonymous Ivan Tribble column in fall 2005, responses such as Timothy Burke's, a second Tribble column, another round of responses such as Miriam Burstein's, and an occasional recurrence of sniping at blogs (or, in the latest case, Laura Blankenship's dismay at continued sniping). I could expand on Ernest Boyer's discussion of why scholarship should be defined broadly, or Michael Berube's discussion of "raw" and "cooked" blogs, but if you're reading this entry, you probably don't need all that. Suffice to say that there is a broad range of purpose and quality of blogging, some blogs such as The Valve or the Volokh Conspiracy have become lively places for academics, while others such as the The Panda's Thumb are more of a site for the public intellectual side of academics. These are retrospective judgments that are only possible after many months of consistent writing in each blog.

This retrospective judgment is a post facto evaluation of credibility, an evaluation that is also possible for institutional work. That judgment is what Eduwonkette is referring to when making a distinction between RAND and NBER, on the one hand, and the Manhattan Institute, on the other. Because of previous work she has read, she trusts RAND and NBER papers more. (She's not alone in that judgment of Manhattan Institute work, but I'm less concerned this morning with the specific case than the general principles.)

If an individual researcher needed to rely on a track record to be credible, we'd essentially be stuck in the intellectual equivalent of country clubs: only the invited need apply. That exists to some extent with citation indices such as Web of Science, but it's porous. One of the most important institutional roles of refereed journals and university presses is to lend credibility to new or unknown scholars who do not have a preexisting track record. To a sociologist of knowledge, refereeing serves a filtering purpose to sort out which researchers and claims to knowledge will be able to borrow institutional credibility/prestige.

Online technologies have created some cracks in these institutional arrangements in two ways: reducing the barriers to entry for new credibility-lending arrangements (i.e., online journals such as the Bryn Mawr Classical Review or Education Policy Analysis Archives) and making large banks of disciplinary working papers available for broad access (such as NBER in economics or arXiv in physics). To some extent, as John Willinsky has written, this ends up in an argument over the complex mix of economic models and intellectual principles. But its more serious side also challenges the refereeing process. To wit, in judging a work how much are we to rely on pre-publication reviewing and how much on post-publication evaluation and use?

To some extent, the reworking of intellectual credibility in the internet age will involve judgments of status as well as intellectual merit. To avoid doing so risks the careers of new scholars and status-anxious administrators, which is why Harvard led the way on open-access archiving for "traditional" disciplines and Stanford has led the way on open-access archiving for education, and I would not be surprised at all if Wharton or Chicago leads in an archiving policy for economics/business schools. Older institutions with little status at risk in open-access models might make it safer for institutions lower in the higher-ed hierarchy (or so I hope). (Explaining the phenomenon of anonymous academic blogging is left as an exercise for the reader.)

But the status issue doesn't address the intellectual question. If not for the inevitable issues of status, prestige, credibility, etc., would refereeing serve a purpose? No serious academic believes that publication inherently blesses the ideas in an article or book; publishable is different from influential. Nonetheless, refereeing serves a legitimate human side of academe, the networking side that wants to know which works have influenced others, which are judged classics, ... and which are judged publishable. Knowing that an article has gone through a refereeing process comforts the part of my training and professional judgment that values a community of scholarship with at least semi-coherent heuristics and methods. That community of scholarship can be fooled (witness Michael Bellesiles and the Bancroft Prize), but I still find it of some value.

Beyond the institutional credibility and community-of-scholarship issues, of course we can read individual works on their own merit, and I hope we all do. Professionally-educated researchers have more intellectual tools which we can bring to bear on working papers, think-tank reports, and the like. And that's our advantage over journalists; we know the literature in our area (or should), and we know the standard methodological strengths and weaknesses in the area (or should). On the other hand, journalists are paid to look at work quickly, while I always have competing priorities the day a think-tank report appears.

That gap provides a structural advantage to at least minimally-funded think tanks: they can hire publicists to push reports, and reporters will always be behind the curve in terms of evaluating the reports. More experienced reporters know a part of the relevant literature and some of the more common flaws in research, but the threshold for publication in news is not quality but newsworthiness. As news staffs shrink, individual reporters find that their beats become much larger, time for researching any story shorter, and the news hole chopped up further and further. (News blogs solve the news-hole problem but create one more burden for individual reporters.)

Complicating reporters' lack of time and research background is the limited pool of researchers who carve out time for reporters' calls and who understand their needs. In Florida, I am one of the usual suspects for education policy stories because I call reporters back quickly. While a few of my colleagues disdain reporting or fear being misquoted, the greater divide is cultural: reporters need contacts to respond within hours, not days, and they need something understandable and digestible. If a reporter leaves me a message and e-mails me about a story, I take some time to think about the obvious questions, figure out a way of explaining a technical issue, and try to think about who else the reporter might contact. It takes relatively little time, most of my colleagues could outthink me in this way, and somehow I still get called more than hundreds of other education or history faculty in the state. But enough about me: the larger point is that reporters usually have few contacts who have both the expertise and time to read a report quickly and provide context or evaluation before the reporter's deadline. Education Week reporters have more leeway because of the weekly cycle, but when the goal of a publicist is to place stories in the dailies, they have all the advantages with general reporters or reporters new to the education beat.

In this regard, the Hechinger Institute's workshops provide some important help to reporters, but everything I have read about the workshops are usually oriented to current topics, providing ideas for stories, and a matter of general context and "what's hot" rather than helping reporters respond to press releases. Yet reporters need the help from a research perspective that's still geared to their needs. So let me take a stab at what should appear in reporting on any research in education, at least from my idiosyncratic readers' perspective. I'll use the reporter's 5 W's, split into publication and methods issues:

  • Publication who: authors' names and institutional affiliations (both employer and publisher) are almost always described.
  • Publication what: title of the work and conclusions are also almost always described. Reporters are less successful in describing the research context, or how an article fits into the existing literature. Press releases are rarely challenged on claims of uniqueness or what is new about an article, and think-tank reports are far less likely than refereed articles or books to cite the broadly relevant literature. When reporters call me, they frequently ask me to evaluate the methods or meaning but rarely explicitly ask me, "Is this really new?"My suggested classification: entirely new, replicates or confirms existing research, or is counter to existing research. Reporters could address this problem by asking sources about uniqueness, and editors should demand this.
  • Publication when: publication date is usually reported, and occasionally the timing context becomes the story (as when a few federal reports were released on summer Fridays).
  • Publication where: rarely relevant to reporters, unless the institutional sponsor or author is local.
  • Publication why: Usually left implicit or addressed when quoting the "so what?" answer of a study author. Reporters could explicitly state whether the purpose of a study is to answer fundamental issues (such as basic education psychology), applied (as with teaching methods), attempting to influence, etc.
  • Publication how: Usually described at a superficial level. Reporters leave the question of refereeing as implicit: they will mention a journal or press, but I rarely see an explicit statement that a publication is either peer-reviewed or not peer-reviewed. There is no excuse for reporters to omit this information.
  • Content who: the study participants/subjects are often described if there's a coherent data set or number. Reporters are less successful in describing who are excluded from studies, though this should be important to readers and reporters could easily add this information.
  • Content what: how a researcher gathered data and broader design parameters are described if simple (e.g., secondary analysis of a data set) or if there is something unique or clever (as with some psychology research). More complex or obscure measures are usually simplified. This problem could be addressed, but it may be more difficult with some studies than with others.
  • Content when: if the data is fresh, this is generally reported. Reporters are weaker when describing reports that rely on older data sets. This is a simple issue to address.
  • Content where: Usually reported, unless the study setting is masked or an experimental environment.
  • Content why: Reporters usually report the researchers' primary explanation of a phenomenon. They rarely write about why the conclusion is superior to alternative explanations, either the researchers' explanations or critics'. The one exception to this superficiality is on research aimed at changing policy; in that realm, reporters have become more adept at probing for other explanations. When writing about non-policy research, reporters can ask more questions about alternative explanations.
  • Content how: The details of statistical analyses are rarely described, unless a reporter can find a researcher who is quotable on it, and then the reporting often strikes me as conclusory, quoting the critic rather than explaining the issue in depth. This problem is the most difficult one for reporters to address, both because of limited background knowledge and also because of limited column space for articles.

Let's see how reporters did in covering the new Manhattan Institute report, using the St Petersburg Times (blog), Education Week (blog thus far), and New York Sun (printed). This is a seat-of-the-pants judgment, but I think it shows the strengths and weaknesses of reporting on education research:


CriterionTimes (blog)Ed Week (blog)
Sun
Publication
WhoAcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
WhatWeakAcceptableWeak
WhenAcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
WhereN/AN/AN/A
WhyImplicit only
Implicit only
Implicit only
HowAcceptableAbsentAbsent
Content
WhoAcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
WhatWeakWeakWeak
WhenAcceptableAcceptableAcceptable
WhereAcceptable
AcceptableAcceptable
WhyWeakAcceptableWeak
HowWeakWeakWeak

Remarks: I rated the Times and Sun items as weak in "publication what" because there was no attempt to put the conclusions in the broader research context. All pieces implied rather than explicitly stated that the purpose of the report was to influence policy (specifically, to bolster high-stakes accountability policies). Only the Times blog noted that the report was not peer-reviewed. All three had "weak" in "content what" because none of them described the measures (individual student scale scores on science adjusted by standard deviation). Only the Ed Week blog entry mentioned alternative hypotheses. None described the analytical methods in depth.

While some parts of reporting on research is hard to improve on a short deadline (especially describing regression discontinuity analysis or evaluating the report without the technical details), the Ed Week blog entry was better than the others in in several areas, with the important exception of describing the non-refereed nature of the report. So, education reporters: can you raise your game?

* - Blogule is an anagram of globule and connotes something less global than blogosphere. Or at least I prefer it. Could you please spread it?

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 12:15 PM (Permalink) |

July 8, 2008

300 v. 10,000 and the broader discussion of performance pay

A bit more on Obama, performance pay, and the NEA: I commented yesterday about the Mike Antonucci video of Obama's speech to the representative assembly and the light round of boos when he mentioned performance pay (or merit pay or differential pay: take your pick, it doesn't change the substantive matters). Antonucci responds with more about his impression of the response (whether boos or cheers were louder for Obama, for which segments, etc.). I wasn't there, so I'll take his word that I miscounted from the spectacular audio on Youtube. I'm not sure that matters much either for the politics (which is that Obama is popular among teachers, but he and union leaders disagree most about performance pay) or for the substantive policy.

Charles Barone updated his entry on the matter twice, and here's the relevant matter:

I and many of the people who were passing this around are a little more skeptical than Sherman about what is needed to effect the kind of change Obama is talking about. The teacher quality problem is national. And urgent. It requires a national solution, which is frankly long overdue

Here we see what I explain to my undergraduate students: NCLB and education politics more generally have created a vicious circle of distrust. Because of how states respond to NCLB (some of which is pushed by the law and some a matter of state choice), teachers and parents at the local level have an increasingly negative view of NCLB and states. And because of the same choices, national policymakers and the Beltway view states and local actors with even more distrust.

The argument that Problem X "requires a national solution" is more a reflection of this distrust than a result of serious research or policy perspectives about the role of the federal government. (See Manna, Mcguinn, DeBray-Pelot, Kaestle, and others on federalism in education policy.) The federal government can do many things, and some things it must do, but federal education law is pretty blunt. It has never been a policy scalpel. And everything we know about performance pay and merit pay is that the details matter a great deal, a situation where federal mandates would be disastrous and eventually undercut any transient support for merit pay.

I know that the details matter from my observations of a cudgel-like mandate in my own state and also from my own experience with merit pay in higher ed: my colleagues generally like merit pay because departments are in control of the procedures and vote on them. Test scores play no role, and support for merit pay would evaporate if any of the K-12 schemes involving those were floated here. The most quantitatively-oriented department chair I know is least confident about evaluations of teaching and most confident on research, for a variety of reasons. Even so, my colleagues also support across-the-board raises (salaries at USF are in the fourth quintile of research-extensive universities, in terms of the national distribution) and compression-inversion remedies.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 3:05 PM (Permalink) |

Mike Rose kicks ----

Tired of Professor X's dissing students who "don't belong" in college? Read Mike Rose's post about Teaching Remedial Writing, and then you'll understand a tiny piece of why I find his writing engaging and exciting. And this is the pedestrian version of Rose's writing, the relatively uncooked blog entry that even uses utilize. To see his polished prose, try his website.

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Posted in Higher education at 2:18 PM (Permalink) |

July 7, 2008

300 booing is somehow more important than 10,000 delegates

Former Hill staffer Charles Barone wrote early this morning that a video of Barack Obama's speech to the NEA Representative Assembly last week was being watched closely by "Congressional staff and education policy folks." Barone highlights a point in the speech where Obama says he is in favor of performance pay and where you can hear some booing in the background. "Pretty striking, booing a plan to give teachers who do more work, attain certain skills, or take tough assignments more money."

Barone is taking that moment far out of context, and so is anyone who draws a similar conclusion: what sounds like several hundred people booing is in a hall of about 10,000 delegates, and the cheers at other moments easily outweighed the booing. Even the laughter at Barack's comment after that moment was far louder. Bargaining performance pay is a hot topic among teacher union officers, and it should be clear that many union leaders are highly skeptical of any and all performance pay plans. I don't want to paper that over. There are plenty of reasons for union officials to be skeptical, given the history of arbitrary administrative evaluations before unionization, pay plans that have been imposed without bargaining, or pressure tactics that can undermine local bargaining. On the other hand, I can think of several locals (including those in the NEA) who have bargained performance pay when they have been part of its development.

In the end, Barone's comment is sad evidence of a Beltway mentality: Hill staffers know best. Neither members of Congress nor local school board members nor union leaders inherently know best. Where that type of arrogance rears its head, it undermines what should be happening: discussion.

(Disclosure: My own faculty union was the first to propose merit pay many years ago in the statewide contract, and of all the locally-derived money at USF for collectively bargained raises since our first local contract in 2004, two thirds has been for merit pay.)

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:37 AM (Permalink) |

July 6, 2008

Sunday cartoon

Stick figure drawing of teacher and students in  class
"Because of the outcry from the public, the superintendent has stopped pushing us to focus on so-called bubble kids. The fad now is uniforms for all children. Star Trek is this year's theme. Johnny, Sue, and Gene, you'll be wearing the red shirts."

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Posted in Education policy at 5:53 PM (Permalink) |

July 5, 2008

Plodding as a survival strategy

There's something about work-related socialization: after being sick earlier this week and the holiday, something in my brain told me I had to spend at least half a day working. I am sure that within 20 or 30 years, a neuropsychologist will be able to tell me why I have this impulse. (And I am equally sure that a psychodynamics-oriented therapist will be able to speculate today on that, entirely absent evidence.) But it's less the impulse than what I do with that impulse that interests me. Today, it was poking away at small things. Clearing away a small packet of tasks; nothing big happened, but I have fewer Things hanging over me at the end of the day. And given my energy level during the week, I'm quite happy with that result.

I am not going to claim that I am the Tortoise in some metaphor for career paths; I can churn projects out when necessary and when the conditions are ripe. But I've been successful thus far combining an occasional frenzy with the long-term poking away at projects. The instinct to get out of bed and do something works.

In other words, I probably could plot my career better than I do now, but I plod along fairly well.

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Posted in The academic life at 4:07 PM (Permalink) |

July 4, 2008

Sara Goldrick-Rab keeps things in perspective

So what do you do when your new career as an assistant professor lands you on the front page of the New York Times as an icon of the "moderating" professoriate? If you're Sara Goldrick-Rab, you laugh a bit about the article's oversimplification and then enjoy the attention. And hope for a bit of time this weekend with your family.

That strikes me as just about right.

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Posted in The academic life at 12:45 PM (Permalink) |

Hair-ripping time in standards review

It's a legal holiday, so no paid work is on the agenda. On the other hand, I feel that it's my duty as someone trained in history to review the draft social studies standards for Florida, so this falls under citizenship, not work. I'm looking at the third-grade benchmarks in world history, and this appears to follow the Core Knowledge Foundation approach to teaching ancient civilizations. "Identify the cultural characteristics of" ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and the Kingdom of Mali seems ambitious on the surface, but as an historian, my skin is crawling.

The fundamental problem is not with wanting to study ancient civilizations in third grade. I know that this is a fetish of E.D. Hirsch and his acolytes, but it's not an inherently bad thing for elementary school. The problem is that the benchmarks in the draft standards are all about cultural tourism and ignore historical thinking. The benchmarks imply that these societies were static and monolithic. (Among other things, they assume that there was such a thing as a single classical Greek culture... and polis.) Nothing in these benchmarks will help children develop skills in explaining change, weighing different explanations for history, or understanding that our views of history change as additional research occurs.

If the benchmarks for either world or U.S. history are consistently about factoids, I'm going to have a very long day (or several days, depending on how long this takes me). The deadline for public comments is the middle of the month (I think July 14).

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Posted in Education policy at 9:51 AM (Permalink) |

July 3, 2008

Minor thoughts on teaching

Minor peeves (and solutions):

  • utilize (solution: use)
  • impact used as a transitive verb (solutions: influence, shape, affect, etc.)
  • in order to (solution: to)
  • When authors, to follow their own train of thought, including every tangent they traveled, such as when I tried Walgreens a few days ago when I couldn't find what I wanted at Target, split up clauses with parenthetical comments. (Most common solutions: delete the offending comments or move them to the front of the clause.)
(Douglas Adams has a permanent waiver from the interrupting-parenthetical-comment peeve, but his mid-sentence tangents are a stylistic choice in his fiction, not a default habit.)

I keep several questions in the back of my head to turn student challenges into teachable moments. Some of those which I haven't used recently (thankfully!), but have cropped up (or popped into my head) in conversation with colleagues:

  • I know you meant to write something different, but I had these words and only these words in front of me. Do you really want me and my colleagues to be telepathic?
  • I could lose more sleep and finish reading these papers earlier. But there are some logical tradeoffs. Can you tell me the latest you'd like me to be awake when I get to your paper?
  • I can, but you don't want me to. Can you see what would happen if I said yes?
  • In the classroom you expect to be in (or in which you are now), you might be asked the same question by students. How will you respond, and why? (This last one is for students who are either educators or want to be teachers.)

Ambitions derailed...

It's about 6:30 p.m. on July 3. I think I'm over the cold, but I'm still snowed under, right before a holiday weekend. Tomorrow is for citizenship, but I think I'll have to dig myself out from under the backlog over the weekend.

As a result, blogging is likely to be either light over the next week or particularly light-headed as I use the better working hours (for me) for... uh, work. One light post, and then I'm headed out of here for the day.

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Posted in The academic life at 6:28 PM (Permalink) |

July 2, 2008

Goodbye, Edison Schools

A few days ago, I was invited to a phone conference with Edison Schools, the former Chris Whittle/Benno Schmidt operation that would be an "educational management organization" and operate hundreds of schools by the end of this decade. A few years ago, the state of Florida's pension fund bought a stake in a private-equity firm that purchased Edison, a move that rubbed public-school teachers the wrong way given that the strategic goal of Edison was to take over public schools. Given the recent rejection of private management in Philadelphia's public schools, I wasn't sure if this was going to be a defense of private management or an attempt to distract bloggers from the bad news.

I wasn't feeling well enough to participate in the phone conference yesterday afternoon, and I was intensely curious. It turns out that, according to Thomas Toch, Edison is rebranding itself as edisonlearning, and it will focus on virtual schooling. So I suppose this counts as both distraction from the failures of Edison's private school management in Philadelphia and also an attempt to get into what Edison's managers must hope is the next growth market in education.

The practical problem for Edison is that the field is already pretty crowded, and I suspect Edison (or maybe edisonlearning) will have to rely on political connections to get vendor contracts in an environment filled with other companies (including the higher-ed giant Blackboard). I'm surprised that Dean Millot hasn't yet chimed in on this...

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Posted in Education policy at 2:14 PM (Permalink) |

Summer colds

Sign of a head cold: when you get about 20% of what you expected done in the morning. So I took the afternoon off and for the first time in more than a year, took sick leave. That's rare for faculty, since we have flexible schedules. But I figured that if I was going to be useless for work, and given the holiday on Friday, I should legitimately eat the hours. (I'm on 75% FTE this summer, for coursework and union release.)

It was the right decision. I had to miss a teleconference and slept for a good part of the afternoon and early evening. Since I had a dissertation defense the next day (later this morning, technically), I knew which day was more important for me to be conscious and alert.

So for those who are waiting for things from me, please accept my apologies: you didn't want me to work on your stuff this afternoon.

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Posted in Personal at 12:29 AM (Permalink) |

July 1, 2008

SREB report on college funding may be outdated

On page 46 of the Southern Regional Education Board's report on the region's education system is a graph on Florida's public four-year funding, and it purports to show a 14% increase in per-student state funding (an 11% decrease after adjusting for inflation) from 2001 to 2007. According to the SREB's page on the state data exchange, the last update for appropriations and tuition funding for higher education was in December 2007, before the second round of midyear cuts in Florida.

Correction: It appears that the report's endpoint was the 2006-07 fiscal year, not 2007-08. So the figures are outdated in a different way, by having an endpoint that does not include the last year's decline in education funding in Florida.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:01 AM (Permalink) |

No doubts

I don't think there is any reasonable doubt among the relevant historians that the killing of Armenians in 1915 was genocide. And now, it looks remarkably like a defunding threat from the government of Turkey pushed Donald Quataert out of the position of board chair at the Institute of Turkish Studies.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 9:16 AM (Permalink) |