October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween, and now read my book!

Charles Barone chose Halloween to point to my proposal for post-NCLB federal accountability policy. For the record, despite what the picture on my website implies, I really look like the hunk of handsomeness that's at the top of Barone's entry (well, on the right side of the picture). I appreciate the link and hope folks will leave a comment on Barone's entry. (Commenting here won't count.)

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:22 AM (Permalink) |

Federal influence

Mike Petrilli asks one right question: where can the federal government influence behavior, and what are the tradeoffs? I'm especially delighted that the research in question is about desegregation. As I've written before, the argument against top-down reform by David Tyack and Larry Cuban is smart, sensible, detailed, and fits with an enormous amount of historiography... but it doesn't address desegregation. I'm not headed entirely towards Nudge territory, though I much enjoyed the book, and part of the reason is that there is a role for top-down policy imposition. We just have to be very careful about how that power is used.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:19 AM (Permalink) |

NCLB regs and graduation rates

A few quick ones this morning, while my brain warms up... So the new NCLB regulations are out. (Or, rather, they were out a few days ago, but I've been putting out fires while in the midst of a cold, and this was a lower priority.) Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Laura Diamond asked on Wednesday, Will NCLB changes improve grad rates? The obvious answer is yes and no: yes, the measures mandated by the federal government will be much better than the goat-rodeo world of dropout measures that currently exists, but, no, better measures will not move the world in themselves. After almost two decades of looking at attainment and dropout-prevention and -remediation programs, I am no longer surprised when people look to vocational education, personal counseling, and (these days) credit-recovery programs as solutions to dropping out. They may all be good on a small-scale basis with some students, but I worry when people reinvent the wheel and think they're hot stuff.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:15 AM (Permalink) |

October 28, 2008

Sick leave

Laura Pohl riffs off the new Center for American Progress report suggesting that districts pay teachers for part of unused sick leave. Many already do, and as the author notes, there isn't much research on the details. I just wish I didn't quite so immediate an interest in this topic. Given the state of my body this afternoon and evening, I'm hoping not to need to use sick leave myself tomorrow.

But enough about me. There's this thumb-sticking-out recommendation as a result of this report: Federal policymakers should amend No Child Left Behind to require information on teacher absence on school report cards. Okay, so we're going to take everything that might be conceivably relevant to performance and ask for a statistical report for each school. Why stop at teacher absences? I suppose with this reasoning, we should ask for data on used textbooks, unusable texts, library resources (don't tell me that they should be called "multimedia centers"!!), roof tiles per scraped student knee, and kleenexes used February 20. For all such proposals of expanded reporting, my advice is to take two budget rescissions and call me in the recovery.

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Posted in The academic life at 9:15 PM (Permalink) |

October 27, 2008

Conference post-mortem

Notes made while the caffeine is infusing into the bloodstream:

  • A well-loaded MP3 player can make a 5-hour drive better, but that doesn't mean that my body likes me any more afterwards.
  • Watching your team lose with your son after the second such 5-hour drive in a weekend? I suppose I earned beaucoup parent points, but see item above re: caffeine.
  • Dodgy e-mail spam filter makes for a fun morning, I can see. On behalf of everyone trying to respond to their inbox, I hope you will accept my deepest and most profound regrets for the resulting delay that you are not responsible for.
  • Outside downtown Los Angeles, downtown Miami has to be the least-walkable convention area I've visited.
  • You know you're at an academic conference with social historians when you look out the window, idly comment on the irrationality of all that money going into a waterfront that will be wiped out by a hurricane and is essentially a playground for people with spare income, and then someone opens up his MacAir and shows me and another colleague an aerial photograph with a superimposed map of Miami's downtown, showing where neighborhoods were destroyed to build up the playground.
  • A discussant probably earns service brownie points when a paper author says, "Okay, that set of comments justified my airfare."
  • I'm fairly sure I still don't understand Andy Abbott's presentation on "the thick present," but maybe I'll understand it better after I see it in print and with a vodka in hand, and I have to admit it's a great phrase.
  • On the other hand, maybe it's because most historians are lousy at theory (Andy's a sociologist). But we're good users of theory.
  • I still want a time machine, and you want me to have one, too.

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Posted in The academic life at 9:05 AM (Permalink) |

October 24, 2008

Why I avoid grading at 11 pm on Friday

Sent to a student a few minutes ago:

One way to think about the conflicting-interpretations question is to think about UNDERLYING issues. You may have covered this in the overview of the case, if you said something like, "In the McCormick v. Smith case, most of the opinions focused on the core issue, which was whether there is a constitutional right to high-quality cinnamon. Justice Lindt's dissent noted that while there is no explicit right to bark-origin spice in the constitution, except for the "equal cuisine under the law" clause of the Twenty-Eighth Amendment. While Lindt's analysis is similar to the majority opinion written by Justice Au Gratin, Lindt argued that the history of state provisions of herbs and spices over decades, and the existence of a Right to Taste in every state constitution, implied a right of social citizenship that encompasses cinnamon. Lindt's argument was very similar to that of Penzey et al., who point out the changing assumptions of Americans about what good food is and their willingness to share vanilla and cocoa as well as a cup of sugar with their neighbors, proving that while justices try to be impartial, they do watch election returns, and they know they'll have to eat their neighbor's cooking at some point in their lives."

Okay: you probably WON'T write that. But keep in mind that the suggested structure is there for a reason, as a helpful prompt. If you address the issue with a different structure, you can do quite well. But do remember it as a prompt!

For the record, I did not go to any panels on the social history of food.

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Posted in Out of Left Field Friday at 11:17 PM (Permalink) |

1200-baud modems as a metaphor for a hotel

My hotel room is nice, a comfortable place in which to work. I just wish that the internet connection here had any speed but interminable. For the record: if you are waiting for something from me that requires I do something online (journal, database stuff, etc.), you will probably be waiting until early next week. Please accept my apologies, but when I'm online this weekend, my students have to come first.

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Posted in The academic life at 6:53 AM (Permalink) |

October 23, 2008

Conference Season: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Last weekend was the Florida Education Association Delegate Assembly. Tomorrow starts the Social Science History Association annual meeting. Two weeks from tomorrow? History of Education Society meeting.

The Good

  • They're all in Florida; FEA DA was downtown Tampa, and HES will be downtown St Pete. (SSHA is in Miami.)
  • I finished the papers for SSHA and HES, and while I am not particularly proud of the timing, the dates I e-mailed them to discussants wasn't this week, either.
  • I've found the GPS device I will need to find the hotel tomorrow in Miami, akin to packing medications, shampoo, and brain.
  • I found Dirty Laundry tonight in time to make it Clean Laundry.
  • I've loaded up the iPod with Stuff to Hear along I-75.
  • I've caught up with grading in my undergraduate class.
  • I will get to watch two of the World Series games (on TV) while in Miami.
  • My hotel is a few blocks away from the conference hotel (which was full), is cheaper, and has no-added-cost wifi.
  • I won one of the World Series games 1-2 lottery slots, and I decided not to buy two tickets to Game 1 (for $100+ per ticket).

The Bad

  • The Rays lost, 3-2.
  • While SSHA is in-state, it's in Miami, 5 hrs away.
  • I still have loads of backlog and another weekend set of meetings.
  • I still need to pack.
  • I'm sure I'm forgetting something.

The Ugly

Just look at the time stamp; my alarm is set for 5:15. A. M.

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Posted in The academic life at 1:26 AM (Permalink) |

October 22, 2008

Palin is more typical than you think

Robin Abcarian's L.A. Times story yesterday about Sarah Palin's college career tries to establish a contrast with the three other major-party nominees:

Sen. John McCain is remembered as a passionate contrarian... Sen. Barack Obama... is remembered as a daunting scholar and calming influence. Sen. Joe Biden... is remembered fondly by professors who found him charming. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, however, is barely remembered at all.

"Looking at this dynamic personality now, it mystifies me that I wouldn't remember her," said Jim Fisher, Palin's journalism instructor at the University of Idaho, where she graduated with a bachelor of science degree in journalism in 1987. Palin, he said, took his public affairs reporting class, an upper-division course limited to 15 students. "It's the funniest damn thing," Fisher said. "No one can recall her."

It's not "the funniest damn thing" at all. It's all too typical of American colleges.

In a world where the majority of college students are either at community colleges or at public universities and colleges, anonymity is too often the norm. At huge places students can find niches, but if the various surveys of student engagement are any indication, it's all too easy to graduate from college without talking with a faculty member outside class, without having the same faculty member twice, and without the type of engagement with either faculty or classmates that people would remember years later.

I should know: I've had well over 2000 students at USF, and I have only had a handful for more than a single course, 15 weeks (or 10, in the summer), in, out, and often halfway out the door at the end of class, rushing to the next class, or to work, or somewhere. I struggle against the anonymity and my own bad memory for names and faces; and at least in the context of a single class, I can use Mnemosyne to learn names. But a few months after the end of a semester? If I've only talked with them a handful of times, and never in office hours or about interesting subjects, I really don't know them. The few who have kept in contact after that one semester? I'll remember them for years.

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Posted in Higher education at 1:45 PM (Permalink) |

October 21, 2008

NEWS FLASH: Limbaugh eats other foot

Rush Limbaugh, in an e-mail to Jonathan Martin and Mike Allen October 19, 2008:

Secretary Powell says his endorsement is not about race. OK, fine. I am now researching his past endorsements to see if I can find all the inexperienced, very liberal, white candidates he has endorsed. I'll let you know what I come up with.
Rush Limbaugh, on ESPN September 28, 2003:
I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team.
Okay, so Limbaugh's hydrophobic qualities aren't that newsworthy. But I'd be surprised if he can get through this week without finding a third foot to stuff somewhere.

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Posted in Random comments at 5:00 PM (Permalink) |

October 20, 2008

Oh good grief (the personal version)

Stay up late listening to the seventh game of the ALCS. Go to sleep, but not for long enough. Wake up. Shower. Dress. Drive son to school. Arrive on campus. Turn on computer. Realize you left your reading glasses at home. Drive home. Talk with spouse for a few minutes. Drive to campus. Realize you left your reading glasses at home again.

Without glasses, I can read for about 25-30 minutes at a time before I get slightly dizzy and a bit headachy. So I'll be pretty inefficient today, except maybe I'll clean out my office as a result. But having stuff to do without being able to makes me feel like Oliver Hardy in the famous movie The Sierpinski Caper, after he was dragged by Stan Laurel into a class on fractal geometry: "Well, here's another nice math you've gotten me into."

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Posted in Personal at 11:32 AM (Permalink) |

October 19, 2008

The buttons we bear... or the crosses, or other things

In the last week I've been criticized by both Stanley Fish and Andy Rotherham, so I must be doing something halfway interesting. As Leo Casey notes, the legal problem in banning any and all campaign buttons from the classroom is the question of other forms of passive advertisement of individual commitments. How can one construe a school system's ability to ban campaign buttons without also prohibiting teachers from wearing a cross, a Star of David, or a head scarf? Fish's column this week has his answer, starting with the answer commenter Elizabeth Fuller gave:

"They signal a person's individual choice, not necessarily advocacy." That is [adds Fish], they don't ask you to do anything except recognize the self-identification of the person in front of you. A campaign button, on the other hand, is asking for your vote.
That argument presumes that one decoration is nothing more than a private declaration, while the other decoration is unhesitatingly a request for action. Doesn't that rather depend on the specifics: would a half-inch cross be acceptable but a cross that's five inches across be susceptible to banning because it's more of an advertisement? And if a 2-1/2" McCain button can be forbidden, what about the tiny half-inch Obama state lapel pins that are almost impossible to read? Those definitely strike me as a private declaration. In terms of the legal question, if the UFT wants to test this principle, they should find one teacher to wear a very large religious symbol and another teacher to wear an unreadable Obama lapel pin. Because UFT's case this month was making a facial challenge to the NYC DOE regulation, that sort of dilemma was not evident. But because I suspect the outcome of a real case would depend on the specifics of this type of contrast, I don't think you can make an abstract rule. (The federal district judge in the case denied a preliminary injunction about the buttons-in-the-classroom issue. because the standard for preliminary injunctions in First Amendment cases is whether the plaintiff is likely to win the case in the end.)

But even if a K-12 teacher or faculty member has the legal right to wear a campaign button, is it appropriate? Here we get to Fish's false dichotomy on professionalism: the behavior in question is either correct or forbidden. Nowhere is that fallacy more evident than in Fish's response to the "what if I'm asked explicitly?" hypothetical. Fish's ex cathedra answer rings false:

Should teachers avoid responding to students who ask them about their political preferences? If my students ask what candidate I favor, am I bound to refuse to answer? (Cary Nelson). First of all, if you're teaching a class and not leading a rally, there should be no opportunity for that question to arise. But if it does, yes, you should refuse to answer it, and perhaps throw in a little lesson about why it is irrelevant to any issue that might come up in an academic discussion.

Here, the faculty member is supposed to respond to an honest question with hectoring: stop asking such nonsense! Let me try to understand Fish's position: before answering each and every student question, I am supposed to parse it for tight connection to the course content, filtering out anything that doesn't clearly pertain. Faculty should be free to ignore obviously irrelevant questions, but this strikes me as a strained position designed to be consistent with Fish's prior position rather than be workable and sensible.

There is a further problem: if Fish is correct that anything is appropriate if only pinned by an academic lepidopterist*, then the student can turn any supposedly inappropriate question into an appropriate one by making it academic. So if the student is not really asking about the faculty member's persona politics (or family, or reading habits, etc.) but studying the response of faculty to nosy questions not directly related to a class, is it then appropriate? By Fish's rules, it must be. I can think of a few other ways for students to "academicize" the rudest and least relevant question. 

But that effort to Godelize Fish (or hoist Fish on his own petard) is a bit too esoteric. The fundamental point is that efforts to make clean distinctions between private actions and intruding statements is very difficult when you're interpreting what people wear. I've never worn a campaign button when on campus, but that restraint is because of my sense of what's appropriate, not because that judgment is something I can defend as an absolute. 

* Many years ago, Suzanne Bender gave me the metaphor of lepidoptery for all sorts of things, and it seems to be appropriate here.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 11:44 PM (Permalink) |

Oh, good grief!

Apart from a few blog entries, I've been staying out of the fray on Ayers. I didn't sign the online petition because at the time it went up, it didn't appear as if Ayers' academic freedom was being directly threatened. In this regard, I agree with Erin O'Connor, that public criticism is not the same as a threat to academic freedom. The arguments about Ayers' connection to Obama are specious and many border on the disgusting, but using libel and slander during an election is an old tactic. For a reasoned explanation of why someone who disagrees with the petition's wording nonetheless signed it, see Deborah Meier's explanation on Wednesday. My view is very close to Meier's, except I decided not to sign the petition.

What has changed is the reversal of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's invitation to have Ayers speak on campus after the election. As John Wilson notes, the pretense of "safety concerns" is a naked excuse to bar Ayers because he is controversial or embarrassing. After the election, regardless of the outcome, Ayers will be an afterthought on the national scene. Would UNL bar any of the major-party candidates for president or vice president because of the costs of providing security or updating infrastructure? I didn't see any of the hosts for this year's presidential debates shy away from those costs. UNL's decision is a violation of academic freedom principles.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 1:16 PM (Permalink) |

How you finish

Congratulations to danah boyd, who passed her dissertation defense and will shortly join the one percent of the American population with a doctorate. For those of you who are still working on it, I hope you also have an advisor who will "protect [you] as long as [you vow] to kick ass and take names." I suspect Dr. Boyd (dr. boyd?) will continue to do that for many years.

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Posted in The academic life at 11:27 AM (Permalink) |

October 17, 2008

Magister economicus?

A few months ago, I became a ringer in an August 19 Ed Week chat with David Figlio and Jennifer Jennings. I've known economist David Figlio for about a decade, I've respected his work on Florida and accountability, and I've wanted to see how he'd respond to an argument from the young-Turk subfield of behavioral economics. (For one taste of this approach, see Dan Ariely's comment on market fundamentalism this week.) While Figlio is very clever in thinking up eyecatching projects as well as solid substantive work, it's from a fairly standard microeconomic perspective. So I sent in a question before the chat, and it was the first one out of the chute.

Let's see how he responded:

Q: The general theory of action for NCLB and other high-stakes accountability systems appears to assume the existence of magister economicus, the theoretically rational school employee. On the other hand, critics of NCLB, Florida's systems, and others are concerned with the potential harms of irrational responses, unintended consequences such as narrowing the curriculum or teaching to the test. The critics seems closer to the mindset of behavioral economists. Is there any research currently going on to determine if teachers are magisters economici, irrational actors, or a mix (and what type of mix)?

A: I think that the evidence is becoming clearer that many of the hopes of high-stakes accountability advocates and many of the fears of high-stakes accountability critics are correct -- school administrators and teachers can and do respond to accountability pressures, at least at the margins.

A number of recent studies have shown that schools subject to greater accountability pressure tend to improve student test performance in reading and mathematics to a meaningful degree—my recent study of Florida with Cecilia Rouse, Jane Hannaway and Dan Goldhaber (working paper on the website of the National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research), for instance, suggests test score gains of one-tenth of a standard deviation in reading and math associated with a school getting an "F" grade relative to a "D" grade. We find that these test score gains persist for several years after the student leaves the affected school. Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University has a new working paper studying New York City's rollout of school grades that suggests that responses to grading pressure seem to happen immediately—grades released in November were mainfested in test score changes in the same winter/spring.

In the case of my study with Rouse, Hannaway and Goldhaber, we try to look inside the "black box" by studying a wide variety of potentially productive school responses, and it appears that Florida schools responded to accountability pressures by changing some of their instructional policies and practices, rather than "gaming the system."

The rapid and apparently productive response of school personnel to school accountability pressure suggests that educators are, at least to some degree "magisters economici," responding to the incentives associated with the system. And this makes getting the system right so important, because if schools and teachers respond quickly to incentives, the incentives had better be what society/policymakers want.

Many people raise concerns about teaching to the test, and there is certainly evidence of this—consistently, estimated effects of accountability on high-stakes tests are larger than those on low-stakes tests—though the low-stakes test results tend to be meaningful still, especially with respect to math. Harder to get a handle on is the narrowing of the curriculum to concentrate on the measured subjects; there is a lot of suggestive evidence that this is taking place to a small degree at the elementary level, though studies of the effects of accountability on performance on low-stakes subjects typically don't find that performance on these subjects suffers—but of course, those subjects are still being measured with tests. Still there is certainly the incentive to reduce focus on "low-stakes" subjects. One possible solution for those concerned about low-stakes subjects being given short shrift would be to impose requirements such as minimum time spent of instruction or portfolio reviews.

There is a lot of evidence that accountability systems can have unintended consequences that are predicted by the magister economicus model. Derek Neal and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach at the University of Chicago note that accountability systems based on getting students above a given performance threshold tend to induce schools to focus on the kids on the "bubble." I've found that that type of system may lead schools to employ selective discipline in an apparent attempt to shape the testing pool, or even to utilize the school meals program to artificially boost student test performance by "carbo-loading" students for peak short-term brain activity. These types of unintended consequences are much more likely in accountability systems based on the "status" model of getting students above a proficiency threshold, rather than the "gains" model of evaluating schools based on how much these students gain.

But there's a tradeoff here. The more we evaluate schools based on test score gains, where gaming incentives are lower, the more the focus is taken off of poorly-performing students whom society/policymakers would like to see attain proficiency. How the system is designed is crucially important.

I was hoping that Jennings (known then only as Eduwonkette) would respond, in part because I suspected she was a sociologist (she is, an ABD at Columbia University) and because there are some very interesting critiques of the homo economicus assumption from sociology, most notably Viviana Zelizer's work on the nonfungible, social meaning of money. But it looked like the chat had a structure that didn't allow a back-and-forth discussion between Figlio and Jennings, instead being a two-person panel, with questions alternatively answered by each.

But back to the central question: to what extent are teachers and administrators people who respond to financial incentives? Figlio argues that they are, though we have to be wary of the consequences of a poorly-designed incentive system. I am not entirely convinced; while I agree that people respond to incentives, they don't necessarily do so in the way Figlio assumes (i.e., to maximize their gain). First, there is the phenomenon Zelizer noted, which is the social meaning of money. For a number of teachers in Florida, bonuses tied to the state system of assigning grade labels to schools is dirty money. That doesn't mean that teachers won't respond to the system in Florida (Cecilia Rouse, and Jane Hannaway, Dan Goldhaber, and Figlio make a pretty good argument that they do respond in ways that raise test scores). But that changed behavior may be tied to the reputational threat/promise of school grades rather than the bonuses. (Also see the Damian Betebenner review of their paper.)

Even if money doesn't mean different things to people depending on the context, there is the broader question of money in the context of other motivations. Here, behavioral economics is the tip of the iceberg; there are plenty of other nonfinancial reasons that drive people's behavior. That doesn't mean money is entirely unimportant but that it is one of many motivations. I suspect Figlio et al. would agree with me but point out that their analysis concerns the marginal effect of a change in incentive—that is, people's behavior can be driven by relatively small economic motives when that is the possible change they will attend to.

But in reality, you can't hold everything else constant. Given the resource and time constraints in the real world, you have to choose whether to try financial motivation for behavior or something else. What most arguments ignore if they favor public policies emphasizing financial assumptions is a fundamental economic concept: opportunity cost. What is the opportunity cost of trying to drive teacher (or student!) behavior by offering financial incentives? That is more than a thought experiment, and the cost is not just in tangible ways. But that discussion is for another evening.

See comments: Jennifer Imazeki takes me to task for viewing economists' work too narrowly, with some justification.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:35 PM (Permalink) |

October 13, 2008

Stanley Fish and the false dichotomy

In his New York Times column, Stanley Fish argues that while higher-ed faculty and K-12 teachers have a right to political activity outside the classroom, that does not extend to wearing a button to class. In response to my argument last week (and thanks not only for the shout-out but for spelling my name correctly!), he writes,

But the issue is not whether the clothes or, for that matter, the buttons, belong to the teachers; the issue is what they're using them for; and if they're using them as political billboards--announcing their partisan identifications from their chests--the question of the intrusion of politics in the classroom cannot be avoided.

Fish makes the strong argument in favor of such a ban: it is an intrusion of inappropriate material into the classroom. But Fish is wrong, for a very important reason: not everything that is questionable is forbidden. And why that is true in this case, especially, is critical to academic freedom.

Fish's argument (and one that is the focus of his last book) is that one must exclude political material from the classroom environment, because it's not a faculty member's job. In response to Leo Casey's argument that teachers should be a role model for democratic participation, including in campaigns, Fish argues that one could easily model participation by an "I Vote" message as by a partisan button/sticker.

Fish's argument is inconsistent with his general claims that faculty (and K-12 teachers) should not be trying to save the world on the students' time. Why is it any less of an intrusion to encourage students to vote than to encourage students to vote for specific candidates? If Fish claims that politics should be excluded from a math classroom, then one would have to argue that one should exclude any mention of the democratic politics from algebra, whether partisan or not. I assume Fish would not want K-12 algebra teachers or college math professors talking about jury duty, unless there is some connection to the course material. At least for Fish (but not necessarily others), you either have to exclude all messages about democratic participation or acknowledge that there is a role for teachers to model democratic participation.

But not everyone is Stanley Fish, wanting there to be a firewall between the classroom and the rest of the world. Most of those concerned about campaign buttons worn into the classroom are worried about the potential for coercion and interference with learning. So let's think through the potential for coercion. First, consider the elementary and middle-school environment, where students do not and cannot vote. How is someone who wears an Obama or McCain button in a kindergarten class going to influence voting behavior by their students? Er... not going to happen. By the time students are old enough to vote (as juniors or seniors in high school or in college), we generally assume they have a certain level of independence (and teens under 18 argue for more independence all the time). The most vulnerable students are younger, the ones whose ineligibility to vote make the concern about indirect coercion moot. (And I don't think anyone is going to defend direct coercion by a teacher, of the "You must use an absentee ballot and show me your ballot to get a good grade" variety. You do that and you've lost a career, buddy.)

So if coercion is not a serious concern, then someone might argue that wearing a campaign button might be a barrier to learning in the classroom. I've been trying to figure this one out, and I am a little confused: does anyone seriously believe that wearing a campaign button is anywhere on the same level as a teacher who says that girls cannot learn math or who continuously spouts racist jokes? The latter behavior interferes with learning. But let's follow this possibility through a few situations to see where this argument leads us. Consider first a middle-school math teacher who wants to wear a McCain button to class. Her or his students do not vote, so the coercion argument is irrelevant. But could that button make it harder to learn math for liberal students, or students whose parents support Obama? I'm trying to figure out how there is a Republican version of math or a Democratic version of math, and I just can't figure that one out. To argue that a campaign button interferes with learning math, one would have to assume that there are distractors that teachers can present to students without action--that wearing a campaign button by itself is going to make students either distracted or uncomfortable in the learning environment itself. I am skeptical of this claim, but let's assume that there is some psychology literature to back this up. So why are passively-worn campaign buttons more likely to create this effect in a math class than other possibilities, such as a teacher's wearing a cross on a chain, or having a wedding band, or being visibly pregnant, or wearing garish green-and-yellow plaid? By all means, let's ban badly-coordinated outfits by teachers, because that might distract those with Obsessively Coordinated Clothing Disorder! Until someone can provide reasonable evidence that teachers' wearing of campaign buttons by itself is something that interferes with learning algebra, I think we can allow middle-school math teachers to wear the buttons.

Now let's consider someone who teaches government/civics in high school, to classes of seniors who are often 18 and eligible to vote. Ah, here is the case where one should be able to ban all campaign buttons, right? Not so fast: imagine a class where the subject material is the first amendment and relevant court cases. She comes to class wearing a McCain button and begins with the following question: "Do I have the right to wear this button in class?" If you think teachers have the academic freedom to pick material and instructional methods that are clearly relevant to the subject of the class, you have to admit that civics teachers or political-science or law professors would be well within their rights to be slightly provocative to gain student interest. So anyone teaching civics or political science can wear a button as long as they use that button to teach students.

So let's go back to the general claim that teachers can be banned from wearing campaign buttons to class. Wish away all of my arguments but the last one, and assume that the general ban is appropriate. Because of academic freedom in teaching, at the very least we have to carve out an exception for social-studies teachers (in K-12) and political science, history, and law faculty (in higher education), but this is an unusual exception. It says, "you can wear a campaign button if you use it in instruction, and the more you talk about it, the safer you are." If you're willing to say that K-12 civics teachers can wear campaign buttons to class but math teachers can't, you've got to live with that awkward inconsistency. I think it's a foolish stance to defend, but your mileage may vary.

These problems arise only if you think that teachers are either commanded to engage in or forbidden from certain behavior; if they're not supposed to do X, they can't do X. The Fish position is thus a false dichotomy. In reality, there are plenty of behaviors that are forbidden to teachers, and plenty of things teachers should do. There is also a huge range of behavior that is neither mandated nor forbidden. Because wearing a campaign button is a passive behavior--you generally wear a campaign button without shouting, "Look at my Chthulhu for President button!"--it falls most sensibly in the middle category, along with most questions about what teachers wear. I don't wear stiletto heels to class, and I'd be a little confused by colleagues who do, but unless there's a bona fide reason to ban them in specific situations (e.g., in a lab, for safety reasons), within reasonable bounds I think teachers should have the right to pick their own clothing. As I wrote before, I don't think I'd impress students by wearing a campaign button to class, but I'm going to defend the right of my colleagues and K-12 teachers to do so.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 9:15 AM (Permalink) |

October 12, 2008

One more reading on culture and the way we talk about "intelligence"

Once again, I am in debt to Mike Rose, today for a thoughtful discussion of anti-intellectualism in American life and tensions in the campaign rhetoric this year, rhetorical motifs that rely on a narrow reading of intelligence. If like me, you are highly skeptical of monolithic constructions of intelligence but wince when you come anywhere near Howard Gardner, I highly recommend Rose.

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Posted in The academic life at 3:35 PM (Permalink) |

October 8, 2008

Yglesias on Ayers

Matthew Yglesias's take seems about right:

One thing you can say in Ayers’ defense is that it’s perfectly clear from his present-day conduct that he, in fact, realizes that unleashing a podunk domestic terrorism campaign would be a stupid and immoral thing to do. He could be going around setting off bombs. Instead, he’s a professor and a community activist. On the other hand, he seems sufficiently entrenched in egomania and self-righteousness that he can’t bring himself to actually admit that. And until he does admit that he was wrong, he’s hard to defend.

That seems pretty close to Oliver North, if you're looking for parallels—with North as a former talk-radio blowhard who has never apologized, but he's just a former talk-radio blowhard who speaks to conservative audiences.

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Posted in Higher education at 4:24 PM (Permalink) |

October 6, 2008

Data, phooie!

Eduwonkette scoops everyone else lots of other folks by reporting on the case of Art Siebens, fired from a DC high school though the first blush of available evidence suggests he was a pretty darned good teacher. Maybe he had done something wrong, or maybe he was just in the wrong school at the wrong time and the decisions in the District of Columbia school system are brain-dead despite Superintendent Rhee's claims that the public should just trust her on personnel matters.

Correction 1: I misspelled Siebens name with an extra t, so my blog search came up empty. Credit to Ed Notes Online, DC City Desk, and Fred Klonsky. Special mention to the Wilson Minority Parents Alliance for providing facial documentation of Rhee's direct approval over the summer.

Correction 2: As one comment noted, I didn't catch the other Wilson Minority Parents Alliance entry, which shows a very different side of the group.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:20 AM (Permalink) |

October 4, 2008

Bill Ayers and double standards

Yesterday's New York Times story on Obama and Bill Ayers suggests that Bill Ayers is not particularly reflective about his time as a Weatherman (their bombings weren't that bad because of the magnitude of the crime they considered the Vietnam War to be??) but that it's a real stretch to claim (as a new ad from the independent attack-ad group American Issues Project does) that Obama is an Ayers-ite. Apparently almost all of the contact between the two came before 2001, when Ayers' memoir (with its embarrassing statement) was published.

More generally, it's unfair to hold someone who is in public life and community affairs for several decades to an impossible "Caesar's wife" standard of whom you know and meet. I suspect that John McCain has (gasp!) met with Oliver North, who is responsible for some pretty despicable things (at least in my view). But I don't really expect Sen. McCain to have denounced him, and it would look pretty silly (and desperate) for any of Obama's supporters to say that the main reason why we would not want McCain in the White House is because he has not yet denounced every single shady conservative actor he's met more than three times. Obama hasn't even focused on the links between the savings and loan crisis and the current disaster, and on McCain's being a part of the Keating Five. (In any case, I suspect that would be a useless issue politically, for a variety of reasons.)

Maybe a bit of perspective here would be worthwhile. Some years ago, one of our neighbors suffocated her nine-month-old infant about half a year after her family moved into a house they rented on a nearby street. My children had been friendly with her stepsons, and we had talked with her occasionally. After she killed her baby, we had some long conversations in our house about the nature of evil, and we asked the questions I expect anyone would ask: could we have known what was going to happen? could we have intervened? are we fools for not having asked her more questions about how she was doing? That's the situation where you question your ability to observe and draw conclusions about your fellow human beings. Occasionally going to meetings with Bill Ayers over 20 years? Not the same issue.

So for the record, if I were ever invited to a panel with someone I thought had done some damaging things in the past, yes, I'd make my decision based on the general question of whether it was worth my time, not on the symbolic and meaningless issue of whether my presence on said panel would be an endorsement of everyone else on it. I can even shake the hands of Bill Ayers and Oliver North without implying that I agree with their stupid or criminal acts.

Addendum: At this point early Monday afternoon, the Ayers-Keating-what's-next mud now appears to be flying around more generally. At least this means the EDIN08 effort will not be the low point in the 2008 campaign.

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Posted in Higher education at 3:09 PM (Permalink) |

October 3, 2008

The beauty of the fundamental theorem of calculus

Michael Bérubé is back with Arbitrary but Fun Friday, and other bloggers have Friday entries on fish, movies, fun, ... so what the heck am I supposed to do? I got the staid bearded portrait up there in the corner of the blog. It's staring at me right now, daring me to be frivolous. Or giving me guilt trips for spending a few minutes early on Friday evening on frivolity. In honor of Tampa Bay Rays rookie sensation Evan Longoria, who hit two home runs yesterday afternoon into and through and out of left field, I will name this feature Out of Left Field Friday. (Complete tangent: A friend and his son were sitting in the outfield seats right under the first home run and a section away from where the second one landed.) So onto the first Out of Left Field Friday...

I wasn't a math major, and I probably wasn't going to become one, but that decision was solidified my first semester in college when I was taking a linear-algebra course with a visiting faculty member, and the moment one morning when he stopped in the middle of a proof, looked down at his notes, looked up at us, looked down again, smiled nervously, and said, "I seem to have left my notes for the rest of this proof at home." He waved at the board with the half-scrawled lines and said, "You can ... see how it goes." He was so engaging as a teacher that one of our classmates decided to ask questions frequently to keep herself awake. (At the time, several of us thought she was highly annoying, but I became friends with her over the next few years, and she finally explained her strategy.)

But at the end of my junior year, I finally acceded to all of my friends who were math majors and told me I had to take a specific math professor before I graduated. So I signed up for real analysis with Kyewon Park. I am surely one of the few history Ph.D.'s who have taken real analysis, but the point is not me but her and the class. First, my friends were right: Kyewon was a wonderful teacher, especially for a non-major taking what should have been an impossible class for me. More than 20 years later, I even recall what a compact metric space is. I think. That's a testament to her.

The second point is that the class reminded me how beautiful the fundamental theorem of calculus is. In basic calculus (either high school as an AP class or college calculus), you typically speed through the gist of differentiation proofs and the rationalization for integration, and then if you get a day or two free (as my high school teacher made sure of), you get exposed to the proof connecting the two. For me, the key link was the intermediate value theorem, which makes everything else pretty trivial. (My high school calculus teacher was also very good.) Beautiful proof structure, oohs, ahs, Louis Kahn, it's triangular (go there and look at the fireplaces). (I warned you this was Out of Left Field Friday.)

But that day or so is nothing compared with a good real analysis class, which builds up things from the ground up (or from the assumptions up). You start with all of this weird arcane stuff at the beginning that can only come from 19th century central-European mathematicians (hi, Leonhard!). If presented well, it feels like weird arcane stuff that you just trust will add up but seems pretty interesting in an "I'd rather learn this than a new language group" way. At the end of the first semester, I felt as if I had a very firm grasp on the nebulous mist of weird arcane stuff about measures invented out of whole cloth by 19th century central-European mathematicians; if you will, imagine driving a car backwards up a steep mountain road because the person sitting in the passenger seat assures you that there's a fabulous view at the end of the road. Fortunately, very few students die in the middle of a real analysis class.

Around February, I began to get glimpses of where this was all heading. "Oh, this is the firmer analog of X!" Well, "firmer" is true less in an epistemological sense than in the sense that some things were looking more familiar than they had in September and I had been exposed to a good number of theorems about the more abstract versions. March, and we were starting to see the contours of the bigger version of the intermediate value theorem. Okay, that gave us a second wind, and if you just keep the car on the road going backwards, you might find your way to a place where you can finally turn the car around and head to the summit forward for once.

I'm not going to tell you what it felt like to get to the point in the class where I thought I had a real grasp on the fundamental theorem of calculus. That was over two decades ago, and if I took pictures at the summit, they've been lost somewhere. I remember enough about the scenery to describe it in a vague way, and I do vividly remember the terror I felt along the way, the thrill on getting there, and the appreciation I still have for my guide.

Every once in a while, everyone should take a course in real analysis, or whatever your equivalent is. Find something that you know is absolutely gorgeous but currently incomprehensible and work to understand it better. Find a guide. Follow the guide and know that you're still going to be doing most of the work. Keep at it. Know that the thrill of understanding may outlast the understanding itself, and that's okay.

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Posted in Out of Left Field Friday at 6:52 PM (Permalink) |

October 2, 2008

Worst. Gates. Mistake. Ever?

Prince George's County superintendent John Deasy is becoming deputy director of the Gates Foundation. The Washington Post article on the topic buries the scandal that enveloped the University of Louisville around Deasy's diploma, awarded after one semester of work at the University of Louisville and after Deasy's former district awarded the center run by the person who later became education dean at Louisville (and Deasy's advisor) a six-figure contract. There may also be other problems with the resume Deasy used in applying to the Prince George's position. Ouch.

After the Franchised Small Schools Initiative and the then-fabulous-but-now-defunded EDIN08 project, this may become one more embarrassment to the Gates Foundation.

(Note to Mike Petrilli: Of course Deasy should have due process, and we'll see what the University of Louisville does with its review of his diploma. The fundamental problem is not about the credential but what you claim is your background. I'm never going to claim I'm a biochemist or a jet pilot, and I'll never apply to positions asserting that, either.)

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Posted in Education policy at 11:21 AM (Permalink) |