November 26, 2008

Relying on ideas to cheer you up: student predictions of federal education debates

I think I'm going to sue my body, because I should have had a productive day yesterday and be able to count on another one today--one meeting this morning, and then nothing else. Instead... let's just say our local landfill will be burying a bit more carbon in the form of wood pulp than it otherwise would, because of my sinuses. My wife told me as I was leaving this morning, "You are going to your meeting and then coming home." This was an order.

Fortunately, I'm a happy teacher today because of my undergraduate history of ed class yesterday. As the semester is winding down, we're in the home stretch on themes and topics, and yesterday was a 75-minute race through 60+ years of federal education debates. Like my friends and colleagues Erwin Johanningmeier and Theresa Richardson, I think that the discourse often calls for public schools to match the national agenda du jour. They're not alone in this view, but I think their 2007 book is the only one that puts everything together in quite that way. I disagree with them on the start of truly federal education debates (as opposed to national debates), but that's a judgment call. But back to yesterday's class: my part of the class (in terms of lecture) laid out my argument that since WW2, schools have been called upon repeatedly to fight ...

  • ... the Cold War
  • ... the War on Poverty
  • ... racism and prejudice
  • ... for economic competitiveness
Since their documentary collection includes the text of A Nation at Risk, I let them figure out the discourse for themselves, and then asked them to find the martial rhetoric (the end of the first paragraph and the second paragraph).

Part One was finished: I'd prepped them for the next bit. I said, "If we think this is a pattern that might be extended, what is the next battle that schools will be called on to fight?" I let them loose, and they guessed that public schools might be asked to help fight inequality (a continuation of one of the themes above), to help fight for economic competitiveness (again, a continuation, with India and China replacing Germany and Japan from the 1980s), to help fight the war on terror/terrorism, to help fight a new Cold War that's coming (with Russia or China), or to help fight global warming.

As I told them, in early 2002 I fully expected the Bush administration to use martial language to talk about education serving the war on terror. Such was not to be the case: there was no call for learning foreign languages or anything else that might connect schools with foreign policy. Then again, there was no call from the White House for public sacrifice at all in connection with the two wars currently going on.

I did tell them my guess about the rhetoric we might hear from the Obama administration, and it turned out to be included in their list. But I'm going to hold that close to the vest, for now. Do you think that the schools-should-help-fight-X rhetoric will continue, and if so, what will X be in the next decade?

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Posted in Education policy at 9:42 AM (Permalink) |

November 25, 2008

Nelnet undercuts teacher loan-forgiveness program

I know a teacher in Florida who has taught at a school eligible for the federal loan-forgiveness program for more than five years, who teaches special education, and where Nelnet has twice refused to process her paperwork, after the relevant signatures have been made in the district.

I have no idea if this is widespread, but it has me steamed, in part for policy reasons (what do bureaucratic shenanigans do to the goals of loan-forgiveness programs) and in part because this is personal: this is my spouse who's been given the bureaucratic runaround.

If you know of other situations where Nelnet or another loan servicer has delayed, stonewalled, or otherwise screwed up the paperwork on the federal loan forgiveness program, please leave me a comment or e-mail me.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:59 AM (Permalink) |

November 23, 2008

When the news hole shrinks, any mention is a blessing... well, sort of

Adam Emerson used to be the Tampa Tribune's higher-ed reporter. As the Tribune's owner Media General has been laying off reporters and editors left and right over the past year, assignments have shifted, and Emerson now has the K-12 education beat. So when he called me up with the news, it was also to ask about Florida's graduation rate. Basic story: in the last week, the Florida Department of Education released its annual data on graduation. They published two sets of statistics, both including and excluding GEDs from the number of students in each cohort receiving a diploma. They did not publish the alternate rate that they will have to start publishing in a few years, where the students who drop out to take GEDs will still be part of the cohort schools are responsible for. Some progress in transparency is still progress, and as I told Emerson, Florida's education commissioner is smoothly preparing both his board and the public for when the official graduation rate drops because of the change in definition. I suspect he may also be giving signals to the superintendents around the state that they'll no longer be able to hide problems with the dropout-to-adult-GED path or with GEDs.

We talked about this and other topics in a longish phone call, and as I usually do, I wished him well on the story, especially on getting enough space for it. Well, Emerson's story is now published, and in a 130-word story, my name is in there three times. He's a good reporter, and any gap between the published story and the first paragraph above is entirely a matter of the space he had to tell the story. I like seeing my name in print as much as the next yahoo, but yeow, that's a rapidly-shrinking news hole.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 11:10 AM (Permalink) |

Hire a discount windbag

Reading one student paper a few minutes ago reminded me that a number of school districts hire consultants for fairly high prices. Some of them are worth every cent because they perform services that are rarely required but essential. Some of them are highly overpaid. And some of them cost even more in opportunity cost than in the direct cost of hiring someone. (This category is for all of the speakers who must be so fabulous that the district pays all the teachers or staff a day's wage and also uses buses to ship them in to a central place to hear from the Great Guru in person. Feh.)

In these hard times, the practice of hiring windbag-consultants at exorbitant fees must stop. That doesn't mean that school districts can't hire people. They just need to do it reasonably. If I had the time, I would offer my own services as a Certified Ostentatious Windbag (C.O.W.) for any job for which I am qualified at half the going rate of... oh... Willard Daggett.  Heck, I'd do it for a quarter of his going rate. Or less. And one of my conditions would be that I would speak to 150 people at most in the same room. You can connect as many people as you want by intranet, so you only have to carve out the time I'm speaking. 

But unfortunately, at least for the next few months, my time is all spoken for, so if you're a school official or a school board member, you'll have to engage in your own hunt for a discount windbag. If you really need a speaker, take the fee you had carved out in your budget. Chop it in half. Go to a local university. Ask if anyone has the same expertise as your desired, high-concept consultant. Ask if they'd take half the going rate of your consultant. My guess is that you'll have a happy collaborator, someone with at least as much expertise as what you needed, and you'll have saved the public some money at the same time. 

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

November 18, 2008

Brief notes on a college visit

My daughter and I took advantage of Veterans Day this year to make another college-visit trip, to a different region of the country from February's trip, this time to two Colleges of Potential Choice. I was wrong last time when I said I kept having facultyish thoughts in February as well as parent thoughts. I have at least three lenses through which I'm seeing colleges we visit: parent, faculty member, and person who studies education. Thoughts during the visits Monday and Tuesday:

  • The campus tour is a genre of performance art with its own conventions and rituals (including the tourguide's walking-backwards-and-tripping bit). 
  • All of the institutions we've visited together try to make students feel special/entitled, and their values are embodied in how they do so.
  • She's enjoying cooler weather (again). We've definitely lost her as far as staying close to home is concerned.
  • As a parent, I waver between wanting a tourguide to pour forth the information and hoping that the tourguide is just a little rough around the edges so we get a better sense of the institution. Same with the admissions officer who conducts the information session.
  • Oh, dear. I spaced out precisely at the time when the tourguide said something surprising (and alarming) to my daughter. Time to conduct some quick research online while she's in class!
  • That is both an odd and perfect place for the science fiction collection.
  • It is a surprising phenomenon that slight changes in the architecture can make a difference between a campus that feels intimate and a campus that feels monumental. 
  • Stone, wood, plaster, brick, concrete. Someone's got to write a song about campus building materials.
  • That must be awfully slippery in the rain. The other flooring isn't, but it's awfully ugly. Isn't there any flooring that is both safe and pleasing?
  • I think the charm of both places is almost guaranteed in contrast to my daughter's bureaucratic high school.
  • Oh, they don't have that here? I made an assumption; thank goodness I didn't voice it with my daughter.
  • Oh, my, that's an amazing... indulgence is not quite the word. Neither is entitlement, since it's valuable for its educational purpose. Serious flabbergastery, and I'm someone who's been around for a good while. 
These random notes are brought to you by a day that started at 5:15 and is going past 11 pm, with a few breaks for chauffeuring, music, and light napping. I am still far behind on stuff I need to do in almost any realm of life. It's everything I've taken on, plus the time of the semester, but I think I'm going to declare temporal bankruptcy. Warning: if you're not a family member, I'm afraid you're not a secured creditor on my time. Maybe my problem is prioritization and sequencing. I was trying to finish up a project today with an acquaintance, when she snapped back, "Sherman, you are just too little, too late. I already voted!"

I think I will stop now before I commit worse jokes.

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Posted in Higher education at 10:57 PM (Permalink) |

November 15, 2008

NCLB music

Bill Wraga, at work a mild-mannered U. of Georgia faculty member, has recently uploaded the latest NCLB/ed reform song I've come across. Some others:

This is certainly not the first time that education issues have been set to song. Doggerel is a longstanding tradition among students around the world, and sometimes it's a ritual. (One of the traditions at Bryn Mawr College is the three evenings in the year when most of the undergraduates gather and sing a bunch of songs about campus life, with lyrics in both English and Greek.) Tom Paxton is a wonderful songwriter, but his song is not his best. I'm hoping to find a set of lyrics for ed reform that has a bit of whimsy, is set to "I'll Fly Away," or is written by students.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 3:23 PM (Permalink) |

November 11, 2008


So the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) is changing its name to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU). No wonder the group's "leaders want the new name to be read as a series of letters": if you pronounce the acronym, it sounds like Apple U. or that the speaker needs a kleenex.

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Posted in Higher education at 7:28 AM (Permalink) |

November 10, 2008

You know you're punchy when....

... a correspondent guesses that no real news on Obama and education will occur soon "outside of a secretary announcement," and your first thought is, "Inside a cabinet secretary, it is dark and hard to read."

Apologies to Samuel Clemens, of course. Or maybe no apologies necessary.

And now, to finish some teaching stuff.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:09 PM (Permalink) |

November 9, 2008

Collegial support with a touch of greed

This morning is the last half-day of the History of Education Society meeting in St. Petersburg. Several times this weekend, I found myself encouraging friends and colleagues to finish book manuscripts. I want more reading, even if I don't currently have time to do it!

I just wish it hadn't required quite so much paperwork to get the nice weather moved from next weekend to this.

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Posted in The academic life at 8:12 AM (Permalink) |

November 5, 2008

Not at the top of the agenda

Last week, I was puzzled when Inside Higher Ed's Scott Jaschik e-mailed me to ask whom I'd suggest for the next Secretary of Education. I perfectly understand the journalist's desire to have material ready to roll with predictable events (in this case, something for election day, but also the prepackaged pieces rolling out today and over the next week). But there are a few reasons why the post of Secretary of Education struck me as maybe not the highest priority for an Obama administration:

  • The major crisis in this country is economic, and that will occupy the attention of the new administration, to the virtual exclusion of any other initiative that is not clearly tied to it.
  • The major action in a transition is the transition task force's (or task forces') work. Initial appointments are one but only one task of the transition scrum.
  • In the federal bureaucracy, some of the trickier appointments are less the top of the department than the relationship between the cabinet-level appointment and the sub-cabinet appointments. The resignation of Diana Auer Jones as assistant secretary for postsecondary education is Object Lesson #1 in appointments: pay attention to more than one level. 
I felt somewhat contrary, thought for a few seconds, and asked myself, "Okay, suppose I didn't mention any of the Usual Suspects. Who would I recommend for the top of the department? Someone who has political experience and obvious gravitas in education and who could gain instant confirmation." Governors and former governors who were active in education policy are the obvious reservoirs for that. As a member of no organized party in the Will Rogers sense (at least until Plouffe and Axelrod got into the act), I suggested two former Southern governors for Obama and two semi-moderates in the unlikely case McCain won and needed a few breather confirmation hearings. And then I made a suggestion for the Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education, which didn't appear in the article (though one of the commenters suggested her for Secretary of Education): Molly Corbett Broad.

I'm amused by the comments on the piece, which occasionally begin with the assumption that John Podesta would really care a whit about Inside Higher Ed's list of suggestions. Riiiiiiiiiiight. But that was the starting-point of the article (or maybe something to amuse or goad readers), and within a month or two anyway, we can compare Obama's real choice to the list in the article. And then move on to some discussion that is less personality-based.

With a few exceptions, education discussions will continue to be about setting the table, not the agenda. College affordability and science/technology research are likely to be the most likely pieces to be addressed in 2009, because they're easily tied to the consequences of our economic disaster and ways to get out of it. If there's a third likely item, it is in early childhood education because of the investment argument (more about human capital and investment arguments in another post later this month). If anything else becomes obvious as low-hanging fruit, it'll get knocked down and gobbled up, but those will be opportunistic. The obvious tough issues are going to remain tough issues. I say this less because I'm prophetic (my Ph.D. came with a rear-view mirror, not a crystal ball) than my desire to recognize the blazingly obvious.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:40 AM (Permalink) |

November 4, 2008

Being an historian is a dirty job, but someone's got to do it

I voted by absentee this year, so I was able to canvass for a little this afternoon before turning into Chauffeur Dad. I'm waiting at a large warehouse-turned-kid-exercise-palace, with a gymnastics place on one side and my son's taekwondo place on the other. I was sitting on the floor when I heard a fellow parent, or maybe a gymnastics coach, pontificating to several poor desk personnel about how we should reinstitute some sort of literacy test for voting. I heard him misstate the positions of one of the candidates for a few minutes, and then I couldn't stand it any longer. I stood up and walked over.

So I heard you wanted to reinstitute literacy tests for voting?

Uh, maybe not anything like a college degree but I think people need to ...

Okay, so I have to ask: what's your favorite Federalist Paper?


What's your favorite Federalist Paper?

Um, well, I'm not sure I mean that, but I think people need to know something--

Okay, fine enough. What's your favorite section of the Florida Constitution?

Look, I'm more of a statutory guy. There's a difference between knowing about platforms and knowing about the constitution.

Right. So then I asked him about some relevant legislative positions of the candidate he was fulminating against. Not that accurately, either. Fair? No. But I wanted him to think that maybe, just maybe, disfranchisement mechanisms affect more than just the targets of your hatred. Occasionally, maybe once every few years on average, I have to use my knowledge in public. I consider it an occupational hazard.

And to answer the obvious question, at the moment my favorites are Federalist No. 10 and Florida's Article I, Section 1.

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Posted in History at 7:59 PM (Permalink) |

November 3, 2008

In lieu of a serious post

I am certain that regardless of concerns about the electoral process, we will have a president tomorrow night at midnight. His name... George W. Bush.

Oh, you were asking about the next president. Likely to be Barack Obama. Despite various bits of speculation around an Obama cabinet, the key immediate personnel will be the transition staff. I have my suspicions about who is likely to be on a domestic-policy transition task force, and that suspicion is that it's not going to be a surprise to anyone. If any academics are on it, they're more likely to be from law and economics than any other field. Then again, the key domestic issues at the beginning of the next term will be economic. Everything else will have to be planned, but not everything is on a front burner (with the possible exception of where to spend with a stimulus package). 

But until then, I've got a boatload of work to do, and I'm not likely to blog much this week.

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Posted in Education policy at 1:28 PM (Permalink) |