August 31, 2008

Maybe Nagin's "900-mile-wide storm" wasn't that much of an exaggeration

I started the day with some menial tasks and will continue that for a little while more before donating blood. We'll see if I'm good for anything tomorrow (often, I'm completely wiped out the day after donating).

In the obvious news, there's nothing like a tropical-storm windfield as large as Louisiana to get your attention on a lazy Sunday. In Tampa, we've had cloud cover for almost a day from the upper-atmosphere outflow cirrus clouds of Gustav (the very northern and northeastern fringes, but still). This is not as large a storm as Katrina was at its most powerful (category 5, sucking up the heat and water in the central Gulf), but good grief. We don't really need another monster to help physics and environmental-science teachers explain how hurricanes redistribute heat around the globe. I just hope everyone in New Orleans started packing and moving before Mayor Nagin's evacuation declarations.

If this storm batters the Big Easy, I suspect we may see the population drop another 30-40%, leaving almost nothing but the French Quarter and the suburbs. Institutions like schools could see another catastrophic loss of built capital if the levees are breached, and I have no idea what's going to happen to the colleges and universities, especially Xavier and Dillard. I hope this is all needless fretting. But if you're in the path of Gustav, get out and stay safe.

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Posted in Personal at 1:40 PM (Permalink) |

August 27, 2008

Two interviews to read today

A few shout-outs while I'm still juggling a few hundred tasks the first week of classes:

I can now bury my head in my own details, knowing that the education blogule is going strong without me.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 10:32 AM (Permalink) |

August 25, 2008

First day of the semester

One piece of writing today made me want to scream. Another made me want to cry. Others just left me indifferent. While things could go downhill from here, the semester is far more likely to improve.

As soon as my spouse gets home, I'm going in search of better writing.

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

Eduwonkette is a graduate student

Who says that students are powerless? Eduwonkette is Jennifer Jennings, a doctoral sociology student at Columbia University. In retrospect, it makes an enormous amount of sense, and "grad student at Columbia" was one of the categories Leo Casey and I tossed around this spring as a possibility for Eduwonkette's identity. Jennings has worked with demographer Andy Beveridge of Queens College, and on the blog she's used maps to illustrate the relationships between social class and various measures of educational opportunity in New York. Her first article (several years ago) was about focusing on the "bubble kids" in Texas, and she's written consistently with the same concerns on the blog. (It's a very good article, and I cited it in Accountability Frankenstein.) I suppose I could say, "Yes, of course I knew it was her! I was just being polite by not mentioning it!" But that would be stupid.

For a variety of reasons, her becoming public/non-anonymous now is good timing. She's poked at the soft underbelly of the Klein et al. publicity/power machine, and I don't think there's anything the machine can do to her. And if it tries, it'll look very silly. Welcome to public blogging, Ms. Jennings. I think you'll find you enjoy it as much as being the caped crusader.

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Posted in Writing and editing at 6:32 AM (Permalink) |

August 24, 2008

On sampling error and troubling year-to-year jumps in the data

Phi Delta Kappan's Bill Bushaw responded to my entry Thursday on the sample distribution of the Kappan poll:

For clarification, the Gallup Organization ensures that the poll sample is identified through a truly random process. This means it's possible to oversample one portion of the population. In order to correct for this, the responses are matched and balanced against the U.S. Census population parameters. That balancing process ensures that the sample reflects the U.S. population. Of course, in all polling, there remains a sampling error, in our case, +/-3%, standard for a national sample.

Bushaw is partly correct: The last page of the report describes in general the reweighting of the final interviews. But there's still a lot missing and some troubling data in the results. The specifics of weighting matter, and they are not described on the last page. In addition, the oversampling of parents of school-age children is not described (how many of the 1002 interviews were with parents of public-school students? how many of those public-school-parents sample were men?), and depending on the size of individual cells, the underrepresentation in the sample may skew the results.

What worried me when skimming the questions was a set of large jumps between 2006 and 2007 and then back again in 2008, moves greater than the margin of error for either the national or parent sample. For example, in Table 10, PDK reports that in 2006, 21% of public-school parents thought that funding was the worst problem for local publi schools. In 2007, PDK reported a jump up to 26% reporting that funding was the worst problem (a change barely within the margin of error), and this year it's down to 19%. In Table 13, PDK reported that in 2006, 21% of parents thought that they'd give the nation's schools an A or B and 51% would give the nation's schools a C. In 2007, PDK reported what looks like a big shift: 16% for A or B and 57% for C (changes at the edge of the MoE). Comes 2008 and here's another shift, reversed: 22% for A and 44% for C.

That up-and-down quality for other questions (32, 41-44) made me wonder about the sample, and as followers of national political polls are aware, the population models used for weighting can skew results one way or another. With political polls, we KNOW that pollsters make certain assumptions about the proportion of the population that belongs to different parties. With the PDK poll, the weights/models are not explicit, and there's something about the jumps in the results that raise red flags for me. Maybe public and public-school parent opinion changed between the summers of 2006 and 2007 and back again in 2008. But color me skeptical, and I think PDK isn't being entirely fair with its readership in focusing on the point estimates from the poll.

Then again, I have the same complaint when there is an obsession with the point estimates from test score data. So does Eduwonkette (on test scores).

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Posted in Education policy at 8:12 AM (Permalink) |

August 21, 2008

The 2008 Kappan poll of older, white, wealthy college-educated women east of the Rockies

The most important news to come out of today's Kappan poll release is not the responses to any of the questions but the sample composition: 65% women, 84% white, 50% aged 50 and older, 44% college graduates (and 71% with some college experience), 43% with incomes $50K and above, and 19% from the Census West region of the country. I skimmed through the questions with some interest, and then my jaw dropped on the last page.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:35 AM (Permalink) |

August 19, 2008

The Project Method zombie

The NCTAF blog calls it "a 21st century education system." Steve Lohr admires it as "the drive for technology-enabled reform of education." The New Technology Foundation calls it "a fully proven model." While I have some hopes for how technology might be used to change instruction, calling project-based learning new is something that raises alarms in my internal History Warning System(tm). I suppose I could point back a few years to Ted Hasselbring et al.'s Jasper Project, but let's nail this puppy to the wall. If you just read a bit of William Heard Kilpatrick's The Project Method (published in Teachers College Record in 1918), I think you'll discover that project-based learning isn't new.

Kilpatrick's version of project-based learning was torn apart in the Progressive Era by John Dewey and Boyd Bode, among others, as vapid, content-free pablum. That's not necessarily the case with well-designed anchored instruction, but the devil's in the details. From my own experience, there is an enormous amount of work that goes into designing anchored instruction that works. Neither technology nor the existence of an interesting case guarantees valuable instruction, and I hope we stop believing in education panaceas, whether you call them project-based learning, vouchers, or anything else.

Again: the existence of anchored instruction isn't bad. It's the idea of any panacea that we need to watch for, else the zombies of long-dead promised panaceas will rise and eat your brains. Or they'll eat our children's brains.

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Posted in Education policy at 6:31 PM (Permalink) |

August 18, 2008

We now return to our regularly-scheduled panic

Last week I was in California helping to surprise my mother for her 75th birthday, and despite fears of her finding out in advance (mothers tend to suss out these things), she swears up and down she had no clue. It's been about 14 years since we all got together in the redwoods and pines of the Sierras. It was wonderful to see almost all of my nephews and nieces, my maternal uncles and aunts, all my siblings, and a bunch of cousins, including one I hadn't seen for several decades (as well as her husband and daughter). Great place, especially as the early-morning temperatures in the 50s beat out Tampa's 76 F. lows. And I was the only relative who thought to buy my mom a brand new car. Sheesh. Unfortunately, the main customers of Matchbox and Hot Wheels are still into gas guzzlers these days, but I did find a Volvo C30 in the midst of 1960s muscle cars, and you know how mothers value safety along with frugality. My children gave her Octavia Butler's Kindred and a Louis Armstrong album.

Along the way, my teens and I took a few side trips. They had their first trip to Yosemite Valley, miraculously getting to Bridleveil Falls early enough so that only a handful of other people were with us. The amount of water mirrored the crowds, but this is late summer in a low-snowfall year. We also trekked into and around San Francisco our last evening, eating dinner at a hole-in-the-wall pizza parlor, browsing at City Lights, and eating desserts at Caffi Puccini. They're at school today (but not tomorrow: thanks, Fay!), and I'm on campus.

For the trip, I took along a bunch of things to read and got some of that done. (I've decided that the Sony Reader is an excellent investment for journal editors). We returned at the end of the week, and I spent a few days polishing syllabi and other course material. I had plans to spend today on the journal, but Tropical Storm (soon Hurricane) Fay is short-circuiting that plan; I am finishing as much of course prep as I could before I leave campus. That way, I can focus on other things if the power is out tomorrow or for several days. I have a few things this week, and they'll get shifted around. The local public schools are closed tomorrow, my university almost inevitably will as well, and we'll see if the same is true Wednesday. Did I mention that the Sony Reader was a good investment? The battery will last through several days of power-free living, if that's necessary.

I have a bunch of work I owe people, from manuscript authors to editors who want me to write to a coauthor and... oh, yeah, other stuff. To paraphrase Berke Breathed, my summer has been an idyllic set of good intentions savaged by a brutal pack of life. On the good side, I'm not going to be bored for the foreseeable future (or the rest of my life). But there are some consequences. I'm back from my blog vacation, but probably not back to regular blogging for another week or two. I have several half-formed ideas for longer entries, and they'll sit on the shelf for a while.

If you're a fellow Floridian, stay safe and dry. If you're not in Florida, go ahead and be smug. We'll have our revenge in the winter.

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Posted in The academic life at 2:43 PM (Permalink) |

August 5, 2008

Two brief comments

I promised not to comment on anything during my two-week break, but the NewTalk NCLBfest made me wonder who's missing from this debate. Your observations in the comments are most welcome.

Also, I think I may have alienated my family forever by going against their advice and buying a Sony Reader. Even my technophile son thinks I'm nuts. But the EPAA MS authors will probably appreciate my carrying their stuff with me to various short-reading opportunities.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 11:17 PM (Permalink) |

August 1, 2008

Blogging vacation for the D's

I will follow the lead of Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch, David Hoff, and plenty of others with D as an initial: I will not be blogging for the next two weeks. I have some things to take care of in the break between my summer class and the beginning of fall classes, so you will have to enjoy early August without me. (If you want, you can imagine me shivering in my basement in mortal fear of the theoretical possibilities of hurricanes as we head towards the historical high around Labor Day. Then again, my house doesn't have a basement. But since you're imagining, feel free anyway as long as you add a foosball table, air hockey, and one of those pneumatic-pumping flight simulators.) Enjoy your break from my academic blathering!

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Posted in The academic life at 3:12 PM (Permalink) |

A higher-ed unionist's view of the performance-pay debate

Corey Bunje Bower criticized a Newsweek column by Jonathan Alter and has the following response to Alter's slur against teacher unions:

Perhaps the most ridiculous thing that Alter writes -- and the statement that gives away the ideological underpinnings of his argument if anybody wasn't already aware -- is that unions "still believe that protecting incompetents is more important than educating children." Unions are far from perfect, and this is far from the most inflammatory rhetoric that I've read about them, but it's still sheer and utter nonsense.... Though more polite, it's the intellectual equivalent of calling somebody with whom you disagree a [N]azi or a terrorist.

If I were a union leader, however, I would mull over Alter's final point.... the general idea that unions could view submitting their members to more scrutiny in exchange for higher pay is something on which both sides might find some common ground.

I suppose I qualify as a union leader albeit in higher ed, so I'll take the bait. Disclosure: my faculty union was the one to propose merit pay at the table many years ago, and university faculty are more likely to approve of something called merit pay because there is a tradition of peer review for tenure/promotion. (Our collective bargaining agreement provides for general due process and substantive standards but leaves specific procedures for annual reviews to department votes.) So while I am skeptical of several top-down proposals for/policies encouraging performance pay in K-12, it is out of my seeing problems with it rather than a visceral opposition to merit pay. As the car ads say, your mileage may vary.


There are two policy issues here: one is how to think about teacher pay and working conditions in general, and the other is the question of collective bargaining at the local level (and the centralization/local question more generally). In Accountability Frankenstein, I wrote about high-stakes accountability advocates' simplistic and often flawed grasp of motivation. To put it briefly, even if we had a Holy Grail measure of "teacher contribution to learning," that wouldn't be a sufficient justification for relying on test scores for teacher pay. No one has the best idea for what works best, and a top-down approach would short-circuit even the most rabid merit-pay advocate's interest in finding out what works, in much the same way that NCLB's proficiency measure aborted alternative ways to examine student achievement (including quantitative measures such as average scale score, medians, percentile splits, etc.). Essentially, those interested in performance pay have to make the policy choice between experimentation and a crusade. So to all 0.379 Capitol Hill staffers and campaign advisors reading this blog, you should be wary of federal mandates: if you mandate the wrong formula, everyone will pay the price for Beltway arrogance, and you'll endanger the political legitimacy of the idea for the long term.

Caution about top-down mandates also fits with the local nature of collective bargaining and the affiliate structure in American unions. Despite what people may claim about the NEA's visceral opposition to merit pay, the big picture is more complicated: locals have negotiated performance pay or merit pay or whatever you want to call it, and the governance structures of both the NEA and the AFT commit the national affiliates to support collective bargaining at the local level. (There are also the merged locals and state affiliates that belong to both national affiliates.) That federal structure means that the NEA and AFT support what local leaders decide in terms of bargaining strategy and the agreements that the parties ratify at the local level. Where local leadership negotiates performance pay, the state and national affiliates support that. And where local leadership decides not to negotiate performance pay, the affiliates support that, too. (See a March 2008 column from NEA Today for an example of recent rhetoric that illustrates this complexity.) The more accurate policy position of both the NEA and AFT is that they oppose top-down mandates of performance pay, including how it is structured. The AFT is not officially skeptical of performance pay, but both national affiliates work with and for the locals. If you believe that either national teachers union can dictate bargaining positions to locals, e-mail me about my deep-discount sale price on the Brooklyn Bridge.

The second question about performance pay is thus the degree to which there should be centralized decision-making in education, and that is true for collective bargaining as well as for other matters of policy. It is not necessarily a matter of offering a grand bargain to Randi Weingarten and Dennis Van Roekel, because the bargain for some segments of a national union may be anathema to others. Let me put forward a pro-performance-pay, pro-union person's pipe-dream proposal that would serve someone's interests as a union leader, and you may understand: If I were a K-12 union leader in Florida, I would definitely listen to a national policy proposal that would tie some incentives for performance pay (bargained at the local level) to the degree to which a state had the following in place:

  • Collective-bargaining rights for public employees
  • Card-check procedures for certification of public employee unions
  • Binding arbitration for first contracts after a certain length of bargaining (say, 6-12 months)
  • Fair share in a bargaining unit that is represented by a union
Florida currently has one of those (collective bargaining rights for public employees), but gaining the others would be a pretty good trade in return for negotiating some version of performance pay (assuming it's not something that looks like the awful stuff that Florida has tried in recent years). To someone in a state like Florida, that looks like a possible deal. Framed as an incentive, it doesn't step on constitutional toes, but it gives more options to states that respect unions and collective bargaining. On the other hand, that's an awful deal to a union leader sitting in a state that already has fair share as well as collective bargaining. To someone who is opposed to any performance pay in such a state, that proposal looks closer to an insult than a serious attempt at a grand bargain.

As a result of this pattern, where different circumstances lead to different views of policy by local union leaders, you can have leaders sitting in different places, each of whom has a deserved reputation for being able to craft a deal with administrators, but where they have very different views of policy proposals. Ultimately, someone who wants performance pay in K-12 schools has to understand the fact that national affiliates support locals, and that the needs of locals will vary by state environment.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 2:38 PM (Permalink) |