December 31, 2008

Zombie jargon for the end of 2008

As this incredibly horrid, wonderful, and plain odd year limps to a close, we should say goodbye to terms that are long past their usefulness. (Snark warning: It's the end of a year, and this is one of the rare times that I will actively make fun of bad ideas.) In my view, the following terms are zombie jargon, terms that by all accounts should be dead but somehow are still walking around. Are your brains being eaten by any of them?

  • Speaking of brains, let's start out with brain-based learning. All learning is brain-based, but neuropsychology is not sufficiently advanced for anyone to say with certainty how a specific instructional method is tied to what happens in specific parts of our brains. This term is too often connected with pseudoscientic cant used to sell various products and programs.
  • Let's move from brains to classrooms: sage-on-the-stage vs. guide-on-the-side. If you can figure out a classroom where there is either no structure at all or children don't have their own ideas, go visit a real one. Until then, please don't bother me with false dichotomies. All good teachers have some structure in the classroom. All good teachers work with the fact that students are human beings with their own motives, moods, and so forth.
  • But the fact that students are different is sometimes reified into categories with little research support, such as learning styles. My educational psychology colleagues tell me that there is insufficient evidence to support claims that a particular student will inherently learn better in some presumed "mode," let alone support for the constructs of various proposed modes. And it's a good thing, too: if some of us truly were verbal or kinesthetic learners rather than being able to absorb visual information, the roads would be much more dangerous than they already are.
  • Along the lines of learning styles is multiple intelligence, which is Howard Gardner's assay of our internal baloney meter. If you've paid money to read one of his books on the topic, you failed the test. In his defense, I know that he developed the term in trying to address the king of all zombie jargon in education, intelligence. But I'm not sure if it makes problems any better if you multiply them.
  • But let's move from psychology to policy pablum. If you hear policymakers talk about world class standards, make sure to run as fast as you can before they open up your skull. I don't know if my children and their peers need to meet standards that would work in Quito, Buenos Aires, Accra, or Beijing, but I'd settle for their meeting MIT standards, Oberlin standards, and UC Irvine standards, and for their being able to make friends and work with peers from Quito, Buenos Aires, Accra, or Beijing.
  • And now that we are in the 21st century, can we stop talking about terms such as 21st century skills as if being able to read and knowing a bit of science, math, and history are somehow obsolete?
  • While all of the terms listed above should have been dead a few years ago, I want to add another one that's freshly dead (or should be): data-driven decision-making. This is not an argument against using data to make decisions but against using the term "data-driven decision-making" to avoid talking about hard decisions: what should we be teaching children, who has priority on resources, is a teacher or principle thinking that their job is working hard instead of teaching, etc. It is a term used by technocrat wannabes, the ones who would have talked about zero-based budgeting in the 1960s or time-and-motion studies in the 1920s.

If it's still 2008 where you are, please take care tonight, don't drink if you're going to drive, and have a great New Year!  Oh, yes, and don't taken in by zombies talking in management-speak:

Update: Lake Superior State University has published its new banished-words list for those who want to avoid abusing the English language when talking about other subjects.

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Posted in Education policy at 5:27 PM (Permalink) |

December 30, 2008

Sansom watch, December 30

Recent items in the news on Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom and his position at Northwest Florida State College:

  • Sansom hired attorney Richard Coates to represent him in responding to the ethics complaint filed against him.
  • Reporting on the ethics complaint by the Tallahassee Democrat, Tampa Tribune, and Capitol News Service. The only additions to the first wave of reporting appears to be comments yesterday by the complainant (David Plyer, of Clearwater). 
  • State legislators weigh in on Sansom appeared this morning in the Pensacola News Journal. Senator Don Gaetz: "I would leave my house keys and my children with Ray in a minute. I'm troubled by his association with Dr. Richburg, who is someone who's had his problems with his credibility."
  • The Tallahassee Democrat's editorial, Speaking of subterfuge: Give it up, Mr. Sansom, called for the Speaker to resign either from his college job or the Speakership: "Mr. Sansom has already created a terrible legacy for himself, further contaminated legislative credibility with the public, and stained his party's honor. What more can he possibly have in mind?"
  • Speaker's office routinely deletes e-mails: The Miami Herald published an AP report that the Speaker's office said it found no e-mail record of correspondence between Ray Sansom and his business interests: "House Speaker Ray Sansom's office deletes e-mails about its business dealings every month, in part because lawmakers have fewer restrictions on preserving their records than most of state government."
  • Alex Leary reported that Northwest Florida State College President Bob Richburg talked about a potential veto of construction funds by Governor Charlie Crist, and in a December 22, 2007, e-mail he urged Sansom to be proactive in defending construction funding to the college: "You asked if I had any advise [sic] on the initiative you and the delegation are working on in the west. I'm sure you have thought about the governor and making the project veto safe. If not, that's my advice. He is such a populous [sic] that I could see him stepping in at the last minute and vetoing the work that you and others have done. I guess that goes for our other projects as well."
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Posted in Higher education at 6:20 AM (Permalink) |

December 29, 2008

Matt Miller's choice of a model politician on education policy is weird

Matt Miller is back with a fundamentally outlandish idea:

At a moment when we've basically nationalized the banking, mortgage and insurance industries, a little nationalization of school operating costs is in tune with the times.

There's nothing inherently wrong with a little outlandishness, and he uses funding inequalities as the basic rationale to push a combination of anticyclical stimulus, purse-strings incentives, and maybe the destruction of school boards. But like Mike Petrilli, I am a little skeptical, though for a different reason. Apart from the merits of revenue-sharing, there's something odd in his appeal to the authority of Richard Nixon:

In the end, of course, Nixon found he had bigger problems to deal with. But he left a blueprint for Mr. Obama to follow.

I don't know if Miller meant to be funny and refer to Watergate, but it's hard to figure out why Miller reached out to Nixon for an example, when Nixon's primary de facto education initiative was the relationship between his Southern strategy and civil-rights enforcement, and Nixon used local-control rhetoric frequently in his arguments against busing. There's a reason why Nixon's revenue-sharing plan was first floated and then killed: a federal funding-equalization case was rising through the courts, and any sane domestic policy adviser would have figured out tentative plans for responding to a potential blockbuster decision requiring equalized funding.

I suspect that archival documents would identify San Antonio v. Rodriguez as the primary motivation behind the plan Miller thinks was a technocratic bit of genius. But when the Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that the federal constitution did not forbid funding inequalities, there was no political reason to push the plan any further, and Nixon would have had no inclination to do so. If Miller wanted to pick a politician who was able to push funding reform without court orders, he'd be much better off writing about former Florida Governor Rubin Askew, who convinced the state's legislature to pass an equalization law in 1973 after it became clear that no court would require the state to do so.

But back to Nixon and the big picture on federal education policy. Yes, the 1972 Education Amendments had Title IX and the 1973 Rehabilitation Act had Section 504, but those clauses were inserted by Congress, and Title IX regulations did not appear until several years later. The most prominent institutional contributions to federal education policy that began inside the Nixon Administration were the creation of the National Institute of Education, which I have seen and heard generally attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan's inside advocacy, and NAEP, at least partially credited to Nixon's first education commissioner, James Allen, who resigned early in the Nixon administration (and died in a plane crash). Petrilli has it nailed: the idea of a huge bailout/stimulus/revenue-sharing plan is much closer to Lyndon Johnson than it is to Richard Nixon.

I've been disoriented in the past by Miller's rhetorical gambits, and so my reaction this morning fits with my response to his earlier book The Two-Percent Solution and the introduction to his forthcoming The Tyranny of Dead Ideals. The rhetoric in the intro to Tyranny is filled with a mix of technocratic rhetoric and management-guru "we must change to fit the times" nostrums, as if Miller were a genetic recombination of Marc Tucker and Spencer Johnson. 

There's nothing wrong with being technically superb, which is why I heartily approve Obama's designation of Peter Orszag as head of the Office of Management and Budget. But even if I agreed with all of Miller's policy ideas, there's something odd about his choices of arguments. Essentially, it's hard to build a case for major policy change around technocratic arguments, and I don't think you will find Obama following that path. Consistently in the campaign, he talked about his values and what he argued were shared American values; his stance was not "I'm competent, so trust me" but "Here are my values, and I'm a pretty smart dude." 

The Tyranny of Dead Ideas may be better than its introduction. It's likely to be read widely, and I just hope Miller makes better rhetorical choices in the bulk of the book than he made in the book's introduction or today's op-ed.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:27 AM (Permalink) |

Sansom watch, December 29 edition

This morning, the St. Petersburg Times reported on an ethics complaint filed earlier this month with the Florida Commission on Ethics. The allegation in the complaint is that Ray Sansom "used his public position as a representative of the people to secure a $110,000 per year job as a vice president of Northwest Florida State College." The first substantive step for the commission is a review of the complaint's sufficiency: "Complaints need not be as precise as would be required by the rules of civil procedure in a court of law and shall be deemed sufficient if the complainant under oath upon knowledge or belief alleges matters which, if true, may constitute a breach of public trust." If it meets that test, the commission's executive director will request an investigation, and if the investigation finds probable cause, there'll be a hearing. But the length of this process looks indeterminate, other than required minimum periods to allow the respondent time to reply at several steps. If you are thrilled by administrative regulations, you can read the commission's full set of rules on reviewing, investigating and holding hearings on complaints.

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Posted in Higher education at 9:49 AM (Permalink) |

December 28, 2008

Sansom watch, December 28 edition

Recent items in the news on Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom and his position at Northwest Florida State College, all today:

  • Alex Leary reported that Sansom and Northwest Florida State College President Bob Richburg e-mailed each other extensively on multi-year plans to funnel $122 million dollars to the college.
  • St. Petersburg Times correspondent Lucy Morgan reported that Richburg is one of the state's public executives who took advantage of an early-retirement program and then returned to employment, in his case receiving a lump-sum payout of $553,228 in 2007 before returning to work a month later at a $228,000 annual salary and a $8,803 per month pension. (I think Florida law requires that Richburg abstain from the pension for a year to keep the full pension income after returning, but Morgan does not specify what happened in his case.)
  • The Jacksonville Times-Union's editorial, Speaker flap: Sansom must choose, is straightforward: "Sansom's school ties have damaged his credibility and degrades public perceptions of the Legislature as a whole."
  • The Orlando Sentinel's Jane Healy argues that hiring legislators as employees or politicians as presidents is How not to improve higher education, and Sansom is the first example she gives on hiring legislators: "While this approach might work in the short term--more money to your college or university--it stinks to high heaven as a way to improve Florida's system overall. All it does is encourage more legislators to try to get the same deal from their local universities or colleges.... That's no way to run a system, particularly when money is scarce."
  • In St. Petersburg Times opinion piece, Eckerd College President Donald Eastman described the state-college-system plan as emblematic of the state's failure to coordinate higher education policy: "Florida's higher education landscape is like the Wild West, with powerful politicians making self-serving decisions about where new campuses will go and community colleges abandoning their original mission to now become four-year schools."

I suspect the phrase "where new campuses will go" refers to the next campus of USF Polytechnic, which sits near land of one state senator. There is some self-interest in Eastman's column: In the next round of budget cuts he will be trying to protect the state subsidy to in-state private-college students, and part of his defense will be to argue that the grant program is less expensive than public higher education and also more efficient (and less prone to politicization). But fundamentally, he's right. As one former university system Chancellor Charlie Reed described it earlier this decade (in reference to the state universities after the destruction of the old Board of Regents), Florida higher education governance has become a goat rodeo.

Update: In the first half of his year-in-review parody (the rest will be published January 4), St. Petersburg Times columnist Howard Troxler writes, "June 6: Loss of talented professors at Florida universities solved by plan to replace them with state legislators."

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Posted in Higher education at 6:15 AM (Permalink) |

December 27, 2008

Sansom watch, December 27 edition

Recent items in the news on Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom and his position at Northwest Florida State College:

  • Yesterday, the Lakeland Ledger published Sansom's handsome pension, which calculated how much his state pension would rise from his new position at NWFSC Vice President if he stayed at least 5 years: $4,236 more a month than if he had just been a state legislator.
  • Today, the St. Petersburg Times published capitol correspondent Steve Bousquet's column, House members stay quiet as public blasts speaker, which discusses the legislature's code of silence, and how ordinary Floridians are reacting to that silence. He quotes Marilyn Weaver's comments, aimed at Pinellas legislators: "Our household is so disgusted with the current Florida legislators for not speaking out and condemning what Speaker Sansom has done in enriching himself and bestowing favors to his college."

For those who are curious, yes, I will continue to note any news items I find on Sansom and his position.

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Posted in Education policy at 3:38 PM (Permalink) |

December 26, 2008

(Effect) size matters

Nathan Yau is not Edward Tufte. Yau is a doctoral student in statistics. Tufte is a Yale professor emeritus. Yau's list of his 5 best data visualization projects of 2008 has a common missing element (from four of the listed projects) that E.T. would pull tufts of hair out over: the images have no quantification. To Tufte, that is a cardinal sin, along with the "chartjunk" that infects so many graphs in USA Today and other newspapers.

I am generally on the side of Tufte on this issue: unless you're a topologist, quantity matters and units matter. A common fallacy in manuscripts (and sometimes published articles and books) is the confusion between statistical significance and practical meaning. But if you are working with a sample size of 50,000 or more (common with a large epidemiological study or census microdata extracts), it is hard for many relationships not to be statistically significant. But whether the relationship is meaningful depends on the size of the relationship.

And here, the units matter! If you know that the multiple-regression coefficient between income and achievement is 1.5, that may or may not be notable. If you're measuring income in thousands of dollars and achievement in scale score points when the range is 0-1000 and the standard deviation is 150, that's a meaningless relationship (going up 15 points, or 0.10 of a standard deviation, when the income increases by $100,000). If you're measuring income by natural log and achievement in standard-deviation units, that's a substantial relationship (essentially moving a standard deviation up or down when the income doubles or is halved). 

In part stemming from the literature on meta-analysis, it is becoming more common for individual studies to identify effect sizes. While I still want to have a sense of concrete relationships, pushing authors to look at quantitifed relationships in perspective is always good. The same should be true for "data visualization." Quantify, folks! 

(For the record, I don't think Tufte is infallible. Far from it.)

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Posted in The academic life at 11:03 AM (Permalink) |

The mixed value of GEDs

This morning in the St Pete Times, Ron Matus has a short article discussing the mixed reception GED recipients know they'll have in the world. Some earning GEDs have already faced life's curveballs interviews several adults who have received or are studying for their GED. According to one,

Samantha Fenwick knows all about the stigma. "People think if you got a GED, there must be something wrong with you, or you did something wrong," she says.

Fenwick doesn't need to refer to the GED work of James Heckman and others (though I'm a bit surprised Matus didn't): It's no longer a surprise or controversial that GED recipients benefit a little by earning the alternative diploma, but that it is not the same as a standard high school degree.

Nor should it be a surprise that the meaning of a GED lies partly beyond the credential effect. For some who take the GED test, it is a matter of respect, or sometimes family relationships, and there is almost a subgenre of articles about GED recipients showing their children (or their grandchildren) the importance of education.

The problem comes in assuming that the GED is the same as a high school diploma for public-policy purposes. If you think it's the same, then there's no problem shuttling lots of high school students into a GED program that's essentially test prep/warehousing. And that's how Florida currently measures graduation rates. If you think that the GED is better than nothing, but not the same as a high school diploma, then you let students go that route when they are far behind in credits, but you do not let high schools get credit for those students as having graduated. 

There is also the question of what is "far behind" enough in academic credits to justify that type of decision, and I do not know of a single study that looks at that. The data's there in adminsitrative records, and it would make a good project for someone who has the time and analytical skills.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:33 AM (Permalink) |

December 25, 2008

Comment weirdness

For some reason, the older entries had the comment-permission wiped out with the upgrade. The comments still exist on Haloscan, but they're just not showing up here! I'm sure there's an easy trick to fix that, but it may take a while.

Update: Problem fixed. Kludgy templates...

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Posted in The academic life at 4:13 PM (Permalink) |

Marbury v. Madison and the Toussie pardon?

The attempted revocation of Isaac Toussie's pardon may not be within the scope of presidential powers, and former White House pardon attorney Margaret Love has been quoted in several places expressing skepticism. The White House statement yesterday said in part,

Yesterday the President forwarded to the Pardon Attorney a Master Warrant of Clemency including 19 requests for pardons with direction that he execute and deliver grants of clemency to the named individuals.

The power to grant pardons and clemency is in Article II, Section 2, just a little before the power to make appointments. So I think we may hear about the following language soon from Marbury v. Madison (1803):

The appointment, being the sole act of the President, must be completely evidenced when it is shown that he has done everything to be performed by him. (5 U.S. 157)

But in all cases of letters patent, certain solemnities are required by law, which solemnities are the evidences of the validity of the instrument. A formal delivery to the person is not among them. (at 159-160)

Michael Froomkin has helpfully explained that Chief Justice Marshall wrote about pardons 30 years later, in a way that suggests Bush may get out of this jam with only massive embarrassment rather than a sticky legal issue.

Thanks go to my daughter who pointed out the Marbury connection this morning.

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Posted in History at 11:52 AM (Permalink) |

What you do today if you don't celebrate Christmas

To all of my readers who celebrate, please have a wonderful Christmas. This morning, I'll be upgrading the blog's software.

Update: I need to fiddle with templates a bit, but the Big Bad Scary Upgrade is done, with relatively little pain. Thanks to Jose Vilson for the shove.

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Posted in Random comments at 7:18 AM (Permalink) |

December 24, 2008

E-book readers and faculty workflow

I agree with novelist Charlie Stress (hat tip): electronic book readers are enormously useful for people who have to read enormous amounts of text. Stress's context is the group of acquisition editors ("slushpile" readers) he knows, but it is also true for faculty. I bought a Sony PRS-505 earlier this year in hopes of becoming more efficient as an editor, and that's finally happening now that I have the right tools and habits to fit with it. In the past week or so, I've been able to make decisions and send off e-mails on a bunch of manuscripts by going to a quiet location with the following:

  • The reader stuffed with manuscripts and reviewer compilations
  • A printed sheet with a bunch of prompts for me to guide my thinking and take notes on
  • A clipboard with separate compartments for the sheets of paper and pens
  • My reading glasses
No internet, no distraction. On occasion, statistical tables are difficult to read without a printout or a full computer screen, but I'm getting used to the formatting. If I'm very lucky, I can read, think about, and prepare notes for e-mails on 4 or 5 manuscripts. But it also gives me a greater chance to get some work done when I only have a few minutes.

A similar process works for reading student work of some types. I am a teacher who often writes far more comments than other people tell me are commonly read/absorbed by students. That's fine with me, but I turn student work back more quickly if I first read through a batch without commenting (and then insert comments in the files the next time I have a few hours with a computer). 

I haven't been successful yet with the reader and published journal articles (often downloadable via PDFs). But it will work with nontechnical papers I sometimes download. I suspect that if I commuted by train, I'd do a lot more work this way. But I drive, so much of my commuting time is spent with podcasts rather than electronic texts.

Florida's corporate tax-credit vouchers and the OPPAGA fiscal impact report

Today, University of Colorado faculty member Kevin Welner has an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel criticizing the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) report on the state's corporate tax-credit voucher program and its fiscal impact. Welner argues that the claim of net savings to the state "is based on smoke and mirrors ... [and] concocts its numbers out of thin air." The key point: OPPAGA had to gather data or make an assumption about the proportion of voucher users who would have gone to private schools anyway. OPPAGA failed to gather data and assumed that only 10% of the students would have either paid tuition or received scholarships from the private schools. Based on that assumption, OPPAGA claimed that the state saved about $1.50 for every $1 it gave away (in the form of tax credits to corporations participating in the program).

Welner's point is important: the arguments about the fiscal impact depend on whether you think that the participating students are increases in the poor students attending private schools. As the OPPAGA report notes, if only 60% are private students who would not have attended without the program, then there is no net fiscal benefit to the state, assuming the rest of their models are correct. Since the number of participating students doubled in the past three years, it should have been simple to ask whether the new students (who otherwise were eligible to attend public schools in Florida in the prior years) were transfers from public schools. There are fewer than 1,000 participating private schools in Florida, the schools have to track students individually for audit purposes, and OPPAGA had to contact them for another part of the report, anyway. Is the failure to gather the crucial data a matter of flawed research or is it the result of an explicit directive by politicians? (More on that other part later.)

Then there's the question about the rest of the model. As one correspondent with the St. Petersburg Times noted, there is no analysis in the report about the difference between the fixed and variable costs for students. Some part of the cost of public education is scalable by student, while some of it is not scalable. The fixed costs of running a school is the reason why districts with shrinking enrollments close schools: it doesn't make sense to run a school for 50 students when the school was built for 500. If the beneficiaries of tax-credit vouchers are concentrated in a district, that district's fixed cost does not decline, and it rises in proportion to the remaining students. Since more than half of the recipients in Florida last year lived in three districts (Miami-Dade, Orange, and Duval counties), those districts had to bear a disproportionate burden of those fixed costs to serve the remaining students. Given the relative size of the voucher program and the number of students (21,000), even the most affected district (Miami-Dade) would have seen marginal impacts. But it's missing from the fiscal impact analysis, whose conclusions are distorted as a result. For similar reasons, a comprehensive fiscal-impact analysis would need to address the local costs of providing special education and other services that are not covered by the state or where the local district loses grant or categorical funding from the federal government. Depending on whether the federal government provides significant aid, a gain by the state may be balanced by a loss of federal funding. Essentially, the analysis is a simplified (and data-thin) calculation of the impact on the state government, not the impact on total revenues and services.

The big picture is important: the corporate tax-credit voucher program has been expanding rapidly, and as the actual state expenses looked like they would bump up against the $88 million ceiling, the legislature agreed to increase the ceiling and asked for the fiscal-impact report in the same bill. Because of the report's construction, I expect lawmakers who wanted to increase the ceiling further to argue for it as a matter of saving the state money. We still don't know the facts, though, either about the fiscal impact or how students are doing in the program.

And it's the last issue that was in the report but has gone unreported in Florida's newspapers. Part of the required report included a question of how to induce participating private schools to have their students take the state assessment for public-school students. The answer by private schools who received public funding for some of their students was essentially, "We don't want to participate, and you can't make us." The private schools contacted by OPPAGA told staff that they did not think the FCAT was an appropriate measure of what their students learned, that having their students take the FCAT would cause them to distort their curriculum, and that norm-referenced tests they already used would be sufficient. Now, where have I heard these arguments before?

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Posted in Education policy at 10:36 AM (Permalink) |

Sansom watch, December 24 edition

Three new items on Ray Sansom and his job at Northwest Florida State College (all commentary):

  • Sansom has no place to hide, Pennsacola News Journal editorial Dec. 23. "You know the situation is getting critical when politicians under fire begin refusing to talk to the reporters uncovering inconvenient facts, and throw down the 'partisan politics' card."
  • Deceit further shreds Sansom's credibility, St. Petersburg Times editorial Dec. 24. "What's nauseating is Sansom's hypocrisy and his unwillingness to candidly answer for steering college construction money to an airport hangar project sought by a friend. What's equally disturbing is that his Republican colleagues in the Legislature are not demanding answers from the speaker who is tarnishing them all."
  • Job-bliss, I-110 good, a dog's life ("Sansom saga" subhead). Mark O'Brien column in Pensacola News Journal Dec. 24. "[I]t's refreshing and ironic to see South Florida people upset about what a Panhandle politician did. And so depressing to see how few leaders will stand up to Sansom and say, 'This is wrong.'" First good joke from this scandal: "And what about Judy Bense, now the interim president of the University of West Florida? Her brother, Allen Bense, was House speaker a few years ago, but UWF hardly cashed in on the Sansom scale. Maybe someone should get Bense a T-shirt: 'My brother was Speaker of the House and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.'"
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Posted in Higher education at 9:30 AM (Permalink) |

December 22, 2008

Ray Sansom has no credibility left on education, and neither does Northwest Florida State College

Yesterday's Panama City News Herald called for Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom to quit his leadership post in the legislature, a month after the Northwest Florida Daily News broke the story December 19 that he had become a vice president at Northwest Florida State College. December 19 was the same day he became Speaker of the Florida House. His official position is Vice President of Planning and Development, but one suspects the true title is Vice President of Mutual Back-Scratching. Here's the sequence of what Florida citizens have learned, thanks to solid investigative reporting, especially by Alex Leary of the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald capitol bureau:

  • On November 20, the Daily News reported that Sansom's pay is $25,000 more than his predecessor's. Sansom tells the newspaper that he sees no conflict of interest, and Common Cause of Florida says it cannot pursue the common-sense concerns about such conflicts because the legislature's standards on conflicts of interest are "notoriously weak."
  • On November 21, Alex Leary reported that Sansom's new job is $27,000 more than his former job for the Alabama Electric Cooperative, that Sansom put $200,000 into the state budget to create a "leadership institute" at the college (Sansom was budget chief in the state House last session), and that he was a prime mover behind legislation to turn a bunch of the state's community colleges into "state colleges" with four-year programs. In doing so, the former Okaloosa-Walton Community College became Northwest Florida State College. (Disclosure: I work at USF, and there are concerns in the state university system that this ad hoc state college system is going to lead to massive duplication of programs and conflicts surrounding supervisory authority over baccalaureate degrees.) Liberal state activist group Progress Florida asks whether there was a quid pro quo, Sansom's job in return for money and more authority funneled to the college. "Absolutely not" is the response of the college's president, Bob Richburg.  
  • On November 24, a Orlando Sentinel editorial declares that Sansom's new job has a "rotten smell," asking, "Who would have thought that the state's public colleges and universities would turn into a jobs program for state legislators?"
  • On November 28, Leary reported that Sansom steered far more to Okaloosa-Walton/Northwest Florida than had previously been reported. He performed a magic trick, turning $1 million in recommended capital construction funding into $31 million (more than any other community college in Florida, even those with far more students). And the startup funds for the college's "leadership institute" was $750,000, not $200,000. 
  • Also on November 28, editorials in the Palm Beach Post and Panama City News Herald call for Sansom to resign his position at the college, and on November 30, the St. Petersburg Times editorial board said Sansom had "the lowest personal credibility in memory for a new House speaker." (Yesterday, the News Herald went further by calling for Sansom to quit his leadership position in the legislature.)
  • On December 4, the Northwest Florida Daily News editorial board said that Sansom "deserves every bit of the grief he's getting."
  • On December 7, Leary reported that one of the capital construction projects for Northwest Florida State College was not at the college but an "emergency training center" at Destin Airport, on land belonging to Jay Odom, a Sansom friend and contributor, and the owner of a general aviation company on whose planes Sansom flies (at Republican Party expense, according to the article). State funding for the project through the college came after the state had rejected Odom's prior proposal for an almost identical project. In 2007, he had proposed creating an airport hangar that would be hurricane proof and thus could be turned into an emergency shelter; in other words, he would be able to get public funding for his commercial business. (A hardened structure would be easier to get insurance for.) While Odom denied that the college project was the same idea in a different guise, and that his airplanes would not be parked in the building, one of his employees told Leary otherwise, and the architectural plans refer to aircraft. Sansom denied that the project would benefit his friend, but Odom was part of e-mail correspondence with Sansom and Northwest Florida President Bob Richburg about the airport project. The project was not submitted through the normal legislative process but instead added through back channels. 
  • On December 8, the Palm Beach Post reported that the VP job given Sansom was not advertised openly, that Sansom was the only applicant, and that Sansom's legislative staff (who are state employees) faxed the application to the college from his state office. Sansom's communications director claimed that it occurred without his knowledge, but I'm trying to figure out how he could not have been aware of this: "Uh, I just printed out this application, and I know that I need to get this over to the college president's office 150 miles away, when the board meets tomorrow.  No, I'm not telling you to fax this using state resources. But maybe fairies will help me while I'm at lunch." Riiiiight. The position was added to the college board's consent agenda the next day without prior public notice. (See the minutes of the November 18 meeting for the mention of the tardy addition, one day after Sansom's office had faxed over the application and the day before Sansom became speaker.)
  • On December 10, Leary reported reactions both at the state capitol and also in Okaloosa and Walton counties, and ordinary Floridians were angry. One Tampa resident (Charles Luthin) wrote, "Your decision to hire Rep. Sansom and his decision to take the job not only appears wrong, IT IS WRONG." When asked by reporters of his reaction to a call for an investigation of the deals, Governor Charlie Crist snapped back, "Yeah, next question."
  • On December 14, Leary reported that Northwest Florida President Richburg essentially became Sansom's legislative strategist during the spring session, to secure legislative approval for the new "system" of state colleges. (See disclosure above; I think this is going to be a complete mess.) One of the barriers was getting the college's trustees on board, and at this point here is the one clear violation of Florida law: Okaloosa-Walton gave notice for the meeting in the March 17 Daily News (a small-circulation newspaper in Okaloosa County), but the board met March 24 150 miles away in the state capitol, apparently in a closed room at Florida State University. Richburg wrote Sansom, "It's probably the only way we can do it in privacy but with a public notice here." As the First Amendment Foundation's Barbara Peterson told Leary, "That's a fairly clear statement of intent to avoid, as much as possible, public attendance and/or oversight." 
  • On December 15, the Northwest Florida Daily News reported Sansom's defense of the capital construction funds (finally!). According to Sansom, the expansion of capital funding came as a job booster, and it was tied to existing plans for a student activity center that otherwise would not have been funded or not have been built as quickly. To him, it was completely transparent. (Sansom did not mention the airport project.)
  • On December 17, current MSNBC personality and former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough called for Sansom to step down from the speakership: "The Ray Sansom that I have heard about bears little resemblance to the guy I have known for 15 years. It is maddening to see what power does to some men."
  • On December 18, Leary reported that Sansom's funneling of funds to the college began in 2006, when he became the budget chief for the state House, and total construction funds climbed from the under-$5 million annual funding in the prior four years to over $7 million in 2006, $26 million in 2007, and $31 million in 2008. 
  • Also on December 18, the Northwest Florida Daily News reported Richburg's defense of the March 24 meeting as open. Only one trustee would talk with the Daily News, to say that the meeting wasn't intended to be private. The article also reported that there were no minutes of the meeting.
  • On December 20, other Times and Herald reporters wrote that 18 current or recent legislators had jobs in Florida's public colleges or universities. Of those, 9 had their current jobs when they were elected, but 9 either switched jobs within higher education or like Sansom became college/university employees while they were legislators. (Florida's legislature is part-time and pays relatively little, and most legislators have other jobs during their terms. Disclosure: my union has three members who are legislators, and one who just was term-limited out; all had their current jobs when they were first elected.) 
  • On December 21, Leary reported that public records confirm what he had inferred December 7: the airport project for the college was the hangar that Sansom's friend Jay Odom had wanted public funding for in 2007. From city and other records, it appears the only difference is that the project funded for the college has a few classrooms added on. They college says the project "isn't a hangar but a training center for students in emergency response [and a facility] that will be used by officials during a storm" (Leary's words). The clinching piece of evidence on the manipulation is an e-mail from college President Richburg to Sansom when they were collaborating on a PowerPoint for the March 24 college trustees meeting--the one in Tallahassee but with a notice 150 miles away, and putatively about the state college system. "Somewhere-somehow you should acknowledge how much you appreciate the Board accepting the responsibility of the Destin Special Purpose Center--first responder and homeland security training and local EOC [emergency operations center]."
  • Update: Today, Leary reported in the St Pete Times education blog that Richburg had given Sansom a $122 million wish-list for what he'd like Sansom to funnel to the college before he left the legislature.
This isn't the first time that the little college in Okaloosa County has tripped up a Florida House Speaker: 16 years ago, a similar controversy erupted over Bo Johnson's employment at what was then Okaloosa-Walton Community College. Johnson quit his college job, but he had other troubles, eventually being convicted of tax evasion and serving time. And as reporters have noted, Sansom isn't the only legislator who currently holds a job in a college or university that he got while serving in the legislature. If the legislature is going to be part-time with low pay, you cannot forbid legislators from holding or seeking jobs with public agencies. But there should be a bar on current legislators' taking public jobs that are not openly advertised and competitive, and there should also be a much stricter set of conflict-of-interest rules in the legislature where the state budget is concerned.

Richburg, the college's trustees, and Sansom are all at fault: Richburg, for selling the integrity of the college; the trustees, for looking the other way; and Sansom, for funneling funds to his friends and for refusing to acknowledge or respond to the public outcry in the last month. The members of the board of trustees:

  • Wesley Wilkerson, Chair
  • Sandy Sims, Vice Chair
  • Elizabeth S. Campbell
  • Joseph W. Henderson
  • Brian Pennington
  • Dale E. Rice, Jr.
  • Vercell Vance
  • Esteena "Teena" K. Wells
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Posted in Higher education at 11:15 AM (Permalink) |

December 21, 2008

Student debt, social investment in education and the search for a basketful of school

At the Social Science History Association conference this year, there were "author meets critic" sessions on two important books, Kathryn Neckerman's Schools Betrayed: Roots of Failure in Inner-City Education and Claudia Goldin and Laurence Katz's The Race between Education and Technology. Together, the two books represent solid new work in understanding urban education (with Neckerman) or arguments about the relationship between education and the economy (with Goldin and Katz). In particular, Goldin and Katz's argument is both a brief in favor of investment in education and a reply to skeptics such as Alison Wolf, author of Does Education Matter? Myths about Education and Economic Growth (2003). (Wolf updates the older arguments along the lines of Berg, Freeman, and Braverman.)


In Neckerman's book, we see the behavior of parents and cities (or one city, Chicago), embedded in a very specific historical context. In Goldin and Katz's book, we see the behavior of parents and societies more generally, across more than a century. I suspect most of the reviews of Goldin and Katz will focus on their human-capital assumptions and their claims that the ratio of skilled-worker wages to unskilled-worker wages (and thus wage inequality) will drop if we move more of the workforce to the skilled (i.e., educated) end. I hope that at least a little of the discussion will make things a bit more complicated, not because Goldin and Katz are entirely wrong but because we need a better way to talk about how schooling works. Yes, education builds human capital, but it does a lot more, and even within a human capital lens, a focus on education and only education ignores a few other things. The rest of this post addresses some of the problems of social investment in education from within a human capital perspective. Criticism of that perspective and alternatives waits for another post.

Let's start with a family-strategy question: if you're a parent, what is the best strategy to make sure that your kids are healthy and happy adults and that they can raise their own children (your grandchildren!) in a life that makes you proud? A human-capital perspective says that education is the best investment, almost universally. Well, that's not quite right. If you happen to have five million dollars to invest in your child by age 25, you certainly can spend a good chunk of that money on what you could call human-capital investment: private schools, tutors, great experiences, colleges, grad school, etc. (You could also spend some of that money working less so you can spend quality time with your child; economists would still call that a good investment in human capital.) But you wouldn't spend all five million dollars that way: you'd invest the majority so that your child (and grandchildren) can have a safety net. (Let's assume that not all of that was invested in Lehman stock.) So for the very wealthy, education as human capital is part of a family strategy. If you're wealthy enough, your child will survive and do quite well almost no matter how foolishly she or he behaves as a young adult. But education is a good thing, too. In this framework, education is part of a diversification strategy. Even if you did invest $4 million in Madoff's enterprise or Lehman stock (along with other large chunks of the portfolio in WorldCom and Enron), your kid still has an education to fall back on. The one security of an education is that no one can foreclose on the knowledge in your head. In other words, education as human capital in part is a hedge for the very wealthy.

If you're extremely poor, your choices are much more limited. You worry about whether you can put food on the table and take your child to the doctor long before you worry about how to pay for college. There's no such thing as a nest egg you can put away for either yourself or your child, and everything is a matter of (often cruel) tradeoffs. The choice is sometimes between investing resources in immediate survival (absolutely necessary) or in education (a long-term investment with an inherently uncertain return). So in contrast with very wealthy families, formal education is both the best long-term investment and also one that is the most risky one... not because there are less risky ones but because there is no other option. 

The majority of Americans are neither very poor nor extraordinarily wealthy; most of us have enough to live on but not enough where our children's education is a hedge against other investments. For many parents, the choices are between approximately equally valued options, but they're often framed as avoiding harm: not making our children pay for us when we retire, not losing a house, not having our children on bread lines, etc. And all of the options have some risk and require tradeoffs. Do you save more for your retirement fund or save for your child's college? Do you pay for tutoring in middle school, knowing that doing so has a harsh long-term penalty for college savings, or do you hope that she or he gets straightened out and justifies socking away more for college? Do you get a new roof or save for college or get tutoring or stuff more money into the cash fund in case you're laid off ...? Oh, yes, and do you put in overtime and thus spend less time with your child? On the one hand, being "middle class" provides far more options than being very poor. On the other hand, the options are not necessarily easy choices or ones with great certainty.


Thinking about education as a family strategy should put a spotlight on the gap between a microeconomic perspective (that the rate of return on education makes it a good idea) and an individual or family perspective: individuals don't have a smooth return-on-investment ROI curve. You're employed, or not, or have part-time work, or work overtime. You only have one job (or two), and one salary (or two). Abstractions such as ROI make sense when you're speaking of populations, and millions of Americans understand that abstraction: that's why mutual funds have expanded so dramatically in the past few decades (well, expanded in investments before they shrank in value...). In buying a mutual-fund share, you're buying a basket of property, getting diversification on the cheap (well, if you watch the fees). But you can't diversify your family that much: "I'll send 5% of my son to manufacturing industry, 10% to financial services, 10% to information technology, ..." You make investment choices for one child at a time. And there are no guarantees for that child (or for you). On the whole, investing in education is a good choice. But you're still trusting to a great deal of luck.

And even if you look at populations, behavior can look inconsistent with the incentives microeconomists assume. Sociologist Roz Mickelson focused on such an inconsistency in her classic article, Why Does Jane Read and Write So Well? (1989), and her follow-up, Gender, Bourdieu, and the Anomaly of Women's Achievement Redux (2003) (both subscription based/$$ required). Why have women dramatically expanded college attendance in the past half-century, even as the return on that investment has lagged behind the value of college for men? Her argument five years ago was that women are more likely to try to balance the social value of different spheres in life: work, family, etc.


We'll come back to Mickelson and Bourdieu another time. Today, let's focus on the individual-population gap. To a great extent, the problem of student debt is that it concentrates the risk at the level of individuals and families. In contrast with purchasing private insurance or a social insurance program, either of which spreads risk, parents or college students take on substantial parts of the risk that the college education will not pay off, because of dumb luck either in the economy of the moment (cross-sectional dumb luck) or in the lifetime of the student (cohort dumb luck). 

As states have withdrawn support from undergraduate instruction, this privatization of risk has accelerated. If you care about equity, you should be worried by the consequences. But even if you don't care at all about fairness, you should still recognize that the assumption of greater risk will change the behavior of college students. (I won't call it distortion because I am not likely to be convinced that there is any theoretically neutral behavior of college students.) To be honest, I do not pretend to know for certainty how the behavior of college students changes with the assumption of greater debt. I will leave that empirical question to sociologists and economists.

I am not sure how to spread the risk across either individuals or cohorts. A tuition-free undergraduate education that public taxes support would be one way, but I suspect we're not headed there as a society. Among other reasons, people think that college students should bear some of the burden of their own education, a result of the vocational rhetoric surrounding college education (including the human-capital rationale itself). But even in a world with tuition and debt, there should be some way to create a "basketful of school," creative mechanisms that spread risk so that students from families of moderate means can attend college with the reasonable security that their futures are not going to be shackled to student debt.

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Posted in Education policy at 12:27 PM (Permalink) |

December 20, 2008

Study: Self-serving utility of PR can still be outweighed by inherent value of research

Since I'm convinced by Jeff Henig (Spin Cycle) that the process of research can possibly outweigh the distortions of PR spin in the long term, I will give a bit of thanks here to the New Teacher Project's PR folks who deftly spread a story of TNTP's supposedly great effectiveness in Louisiana, getting word of it in various places, and linking to George Noell's project page with the Louisiana Board of Regents. Without TNTP's flacks, I wouldn't have been prodded to go read the latest paper, which is both more and less than what TNTP's press release said.

More than what TNTP said: In a contract with the state, Noell has piloted a multi-level model to evaluate teacher education programs from grade 4-9 student test scores in five content areas (math, reading, language arts, science, and social studies). If you read the last two technical reports, you'll probably be impressed with the care with which he and his team has conducted this, starting with very small samples several years ago, looking to see whether exclusion of teacher and school levels change the portion of the variance swallowed by different levels, adding in blocks of variables in sensible ways, conducting preliminary analyses with OLS, checking on effects of Katrina and Rita, testing whether family background variables (e.g., whether kids are in single-parent homes) add explanatory power, whether there is stability in the key coefficients of interest (inferred effects for preparation programs), and so forth. The papers explain why they use a prior covariate method and treat successive school years (and the schools in separate years) as independent units, rather than embedding that data in a repeated-measures design, in the context of a "there are tradeoffs in research" worldview. This is about two or three cuts above the work I've read from the SAS Institute's value-added group, and Noell is to be credited with working over half a decade to establish a credible program of research. 

In this cautious vein, Noell's reports lay out the case for differential effects of teacher preparation programs. With the latest reports, he's only covering a small portion of the state's programs, because there have been mandated redesigns in the decade, and he chose to report results only on graduates of the programs having completed the redesign process. Since only a handful of programs completed that redesign long ago enough for there to be sufficient graduates with reported scores, this should be viewed as an initial look, though I am guessing that Louisiana's state officials will be happy to contract with Noell for years in the future until all of the programs come under the microscope.

Less than what TNTP said: Because the alt-cert programs are freestanding, they could finish the redesign earlier, so there are few college-based programs in the hopper for the latest report, and one of them (University of Louisiana - Monroe masters program) looks like it's sitting pretty. There are also some question I have about the choices made by Noell -- it looks like he combined scale scores from different grades in the analysis (at least from the coefficients, I don't think they used z-scores as dependent variables), and there's always the question about matching students to teachers (essentially the fiction that math and science teachers don't help students with the other subject, or that reading and history are unrelated). The last question is testable, but that would be an interesting problem to tackle in a practical sense. (Also, A.W., if you read this blog, I think you were wrong when you said Noell had used three different models. I think you were referring to his test of whether excluding either teacher or school levels changed the variance distribution, unless it was his testing the contribution of family variables. Having three different models in a far more interesting sense would be akin to using HLM software, PROC MIXED, and OLS. Impractical, but it would be great if someone did it. I'll buy you a beer sometime and we can talk about it.)

Then there's the question of how much weight to place on test data, but that's a policy question rather than in the domain of research methods. If Louisiana decides that all college-based programs have to be above-average, that's an abuse of the research. But I have no problems if it uses the data as part of a review decision—e.g., if it will place programs under considerably more scrutiny where graduates have far, far worse results for kids than other new teachers.

The long view: If my quick read of Noell's work is right, and it's as solid as I think it is early on a Saturday morning, then the practical regulatory question for states will not be about whether college-based or freestanding teacher preparation programs are better. Instead, the question will be which specific programs are effective in the areas where there is appropriate data. These days, it is the rare state staff who can criticize an entire sector of preparation programs; state lawmakers or political appointees are the ones to praise, slam, open, and close doors on those types of options. But staff may well be happy to play an evaluative role for specific programs.

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

December 19, 2008

Pets, the White House, and common sense

And for the first time in a while, it's Out of Left Field Friday!

I think my spouse is attracted to animals used in research, but only if she doesn't know about it. When we started dating in college, she had just recently acquired a ferret, long before we discovered that ferrets are used in nausea research. (Ferrets have a physical and visible reaction to nausea.) Then a few years ago, she agreed to take in and foster two zebra finches, and we now discover that because male Zebra finches learn a good bit of their songs from their fathers, they are used in memory research.

So what's next? Our current animals/owners are two Zebra finches and a bearded dragon. The beardie is our son's choice, and if there were a common pet that we need telepathy for, it's bearded dragons. They're very friendly (if you're not a mealworm or cricket), and they're easy to care for (as long as you wash your hands after handling one and if you don't kiss it), but they have no voice, and their behavior is often hard to interpret. Does that look mean "pick me up"? Or does it mean, "Meh, I really don't care for that Bernanke guy"? While I suspect the first is more likely, you just don't know.  Personally, I'd rather trust our investments to our beardie than to Madoff, but that's primarily because I don't have Michael Weinstein's theoretical monkeys. (You'll understand that comment if you were listening to public radio or attended Haverford College in the mid-1980s, but you can probably guess the content.)

Michael Weinstein's theoretical monkeys were never on the possibility list for pets in the next administration, but my wife wants the Obamas to get a bearded dragon. Having heard that one of the girls is allergic to dogs, she noted that bearded dragons do not have dander, and the girls are both old enough to know how not to get salmonella poisoning. A First Dragon (and a first First Dragon) would be a good thing, she reasons. I'm not so sure, from the perspective of bearded dragons, since except for a rescue animal, almost any pet the Obamas get might become instantly popular, leading to overbreeding.

But more generally, I will admit my skepticism about all things Obamaesque on the personal side. Look, I like the guy and probably would enjoy shooting the breeze, but I'm one of the 63 million people who chose him to do a job. Here's my deal: Barack Obama doesn't go off the deep end, and I don't ask about his or his family's personal life. Any other way and we quickly get into silly season. Should the choice of Sidwell Friends be seen as a rejection of DC charter schools? Maybe an acceptance of the DC voucher program? Oh, no, it's one of those historically Quaker schools; the kids are going to be pacifist, and Obama's going to let the Communists take over! Or maybe we should see it as a private family choice.

Same with the pet; while it would probably be good for a shelter dog to be adopted by the Obamas, going beyond that to assume some greater symbolism is ... ugh. It's going to be Malia's and Sasha's dog, not yours, not mine. Unless you're volunteering to paper-train it, get off the topic. Or get ready to hear all about our plans to make sure Malia's a violist, Sasha gets chosen as the lead in her elementary-school musical, and both of them get to be black belts in some martial art. Let's not go there, okay? They're children, not symbols. Get. Over. It.

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Posted in Out of Left Field Friday at 5:06 PM (Permalink) |

Top education stories of 2008

I'll get my chips in early on year-end reviews:

  1. The economy. The recession is deep and going to be long, and everyone's going to be reading Public Schools in Hard Times: The Great Depression and Recent Years (1984). Maybe you're not, but you should. State budget cuts are going to wreak havoc on base budgets and all sorts of initiatives (both good and bad), and anyone who thinks that this is a fabulous opportunity to cut fat obviously believes in the colonic theory of policymaking. (I don't.)
  2. Obama's election. I know everyone's talking about the Duncan appointment this week, but there are deeper, more important consequences. First, if you're going to look at personalities of individuals, it's better to look at the incoming president. Last month or in the last week (depending on what you think of the Electoral College), we elected someone who has gotten ahead through education, whose relatives went through pain to pay for a private high school for him, someone who transferred between two colleges, someone who went back to school after several years working as a young adult. Beyond his personal history, his administration will decide whether the politics of accountability can be rescued from NCLB. That's a tall order.
  3. The Bush administration runs out of steam. The Higher Education Act was watered down far from what Margaret Spellings and Charles Miller would have liked, NCLB is a dead brand, a subcabinet appointee departed on a matter of principle, and the Reading First evaluations were more disappointing than I think anyone would have predicted.
  4. New York City roars back. First, I'll identify Elizabeth Green as the education reporter of the year, formerly at the Sun and now for Gotham Schools. After scoring several scoops in Manhattan, she crashed the gates at Gates. Then there's the continuing debate about Bloomberg, Klein, mayoral control, and all that. There's the discussion about said events by Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier. There's Randi Weingarten's rise in the AFT. There's Eduwonkette, whose entries this year have often focused on New York. Whether you love or hate it, the Big Apple is the place to be for education politics, intrigue, and chatter. 
  5. The Secret Power of Invisibility, also known as the bursting of ballons in educational philanthropy. If it isn't the decline of foundation investment portfolios, or the schemer who evidently Madoff with billions, there's the utter whiffing of Ed in '08, and the acknowledgment by the Gates Foundation that they goofed in the past. 
And now the must-read education books of 2008 (one published in 2007... I'm cheating a bit):

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Posted in Education policy at 2:10 PM (Permalink) |

December 17, 2008

Cosmic-ray bursts. They must be.

Or at least that's how I explain the odd pattern of phone calls I've been receiving recently, where people fail to leave messages even though I didn't answer the calls. Some of them have been local, and I am guessing they are wrong numbers. But in the past few weeks I've received a series of phone calls from the same number in the 940 area code. It's a bit spooky, since the caller hasn't left a message. If you read my blog, understand that I will not answer a phone call from that number. If you want to contact me, leave a message or e-mail me! And please be aware that lots of people view repeated phone calls as a type of stalking behavior. In my case, I am not concerned for my safety, but I do not have any social obligation to answer all phone calls. That's what voicemail is for...

In related news, someone commented on a post recently in a way that obviously uses the post as an excuse to tout an organization. It's a nonprofit, but since it looks like the organization hired a media firm to write comments on the same topic across multiple blogs, I'm treating it as comment spam. Zap!

Finally, my daughter has decided to read Leonard Susskind's The Black Hole War after discovering that it has an Escher drawing as a key metaphor towards the end of the book. She's upset with the pollywog-and-rocks illustration early on, partly because she's disappointed that a physicist could have such a poor understanding of biology. (You'll have to read the book to understand.)

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Posted in Random comments at 11:53 PM (Permalink) |

Stupid leadership at...

  1. Michigan State University
  2. Yeshiva University
My deepest sympathies to the faculty and students at both places. May the skies open up and give you something more than Schadenfreude.
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Posted in Academic freedom at 1:28 PM (Permalink) |

Okay, it's Arne Duncan. Back to the substance already, willya?

The following is one of those trick questions you should never answer: Was Arne Duncan appointed because he's a cipher/Rorschach test for those with an axe to grind in national education politics, or is he an appointee primarily because of his personal and political connections? In between other tasks, I've been reading the comments flying past at half the speed of light, and after the most sensible and well-grounded supporting piece I've seen yet (disclosure: I'm a sometimes contributor to the blog), I've been reminded of Stephen Carter's response when asked if he ever benefited from affirmative action: so what?

So what if he's a policy cipher? He won't be making decisions by himself, and if anyone has a bully pulpit on education, it's going to be Duncan's boss. What matters is the collective decision-making, including the debate over the hard decisions to be taken with NCLB. 

So what if his appointment is far more closely tied to networking than many of the other Cabinet appointees? He'll now be in a far more public and less insulated role than as aide to Paul Vallas or the CPS head serving at the pleasure of Richard Daley. He'll rise or fall on his own merits, at this point.

As I wrote six weeks ago, let's move on to some discussion that is less personality-based.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 1:14 PM (Permalink) |

December 15, 2008

Grading highs

I have a bunch of odds and ends to finish before submitting grades, but I read two papers this morning that earned very high grades in different ways. I'll explain more after I'm done, but it was a great way to start the week. The rest of this week is for grading, EPAA stuff (yes, authors, I know I owe you e-mail!), and a bunch of loose ends to tie up on the new collective bargaining agreement. Next week, the university is closed, which is both good and bad, but no one can complain about the state of my office next week. As of now, I hope everyone understands that finishing the semester is the most urgent task.

December 12, 2008

Wayang kulit, apparently the transition game of choice

In the past few weeks, while I have been out of touch (relatively speaking and at times mentally), the education news on the transition has been an odd political version of Indonesian shadow puppetry (or wayang kulit) where writers such as David Brooks or Seyward Darby portray Obama's decision on Secretary of Education as some sort of signal about his policy preferences. As I've stated before, that's partially true at best, and since the target of much of this is Linda Darling-Hammond, about whom I've written before, I'll keep this brief:

Friends, how stupid do you think Obama is, that he'll respond to character assassination by proxy? And do you think the attacks say more about Darling-Hammond or more about how you view the president-elect?

Darling-Hammond is on my journal's editorial board, but that doesn't mean I've worked closely with her. (I wish she had accepted more manuscripts for review; that's a common desire of editors with regard to plenty of reviewers.) I've met her a handful of times at most, and I've published one of her manuscripts. On a lot of the policy issues that her critics like to target her for, I see her as a lot more ambiguous than they do (or at least she's been prolific enough that I've caught her spouting the Vague Conventional Wisdom more than once). On some things, I agree with her, and on some things I don't. Specifically, I think Kane and Steiger's research is important and has to be responded to, whether it's right or wrong in the long term. But that is how one addresses disagreements with scholarship: with more scholarship.

In terms of running a department, I think Alexander Russo's criticism of ed journalists is correct: someone needs to go out and do the legwork on the issues that matter to department heads, apart from what is already published. Find out what Darling-Hammond's been like as an administrator, both for those under her and her peers. I have no idea what she might be like as Secretary of Education. But I have a visceral reaction against ad hominem attacks, and that's what's happening here.

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Posted in Education policy at 12:59 AM (Permalink) |

December 11, 2008

Catching up

I think I'm finally back to full health, or at least 95%, and my union finished the ratification of a contract that was tentatively agreed to just before Thanksgiving, all of which is good news for EPAA readers and authors, who are both owed stuff. It's good news for my students, who have turned in the last of their work for the semester. (The collective bargaining agreement is a net gain for my colleagues, too.)

There's something both weird and relieving when after a few weeks of relative lack of energy, you've got the stamina and clarity of thought to read through manuscripts first thing in the morning (which is when I work best on this stuff). So while I was in San Antonio earlier this week, I spent a chunk of my free time reading and taking notes on manuscripts. The first of several disposition letters (e-mails) went out earlier this afternoon, and after I've several more sets of notes, other e-mails will be heading out. And then I work on the next article. And read student papers.

In the meantime, and in part because of the pace of the semester, blogging has been slow. I have not commented on most of the post-election news, and I hope to pick up the pace after I catch up with other things. I'll write a short note later tonight, but I don't expect to blog much over the next 10 days. One of the few posts in the next week will essentially be a transcript of what I said in San Antonio, but that'll be the longest one.

One comment I have to make, after walking through the Alamo when in San Antonio: The Daughters of the Republic of Texas have taken extraordinary care of the Alamo itself (it's a gorgeous oasis in the middle of downtown San Antonio), but the organization lives in an alternate world where the self-annointed Texians of the 1830s were bold and principled, and where slavery didn't exist (or at least didn't exist to be mentioned in the Alamo). Bold? Yes. But while I had heard of the Alamo as a monument to slavery that never mentioned the word, it's one thing to read it and nod and another thing entirely to visit the place. It's a mind-bending place that is run as if it's still the 1950s. I know I need to catch up, but that's nothing compared to the people who operate the Alamo.

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Posted in The academic life at 7:38 PM (Permalink) |

December 5, 2008

Friday tidbits

  • The Daily Howler notes that the New York Times printed the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education report claiming that there had been 400+% increase in tuition over 25 years... and then claimed that the figure had been adjusted for inflation. Right. Chalk up another great journalistic victory for the Times, which apparently never just reprints press releases... without mangling at least one fact. (Hat tip.)
  • All the talk about a stimulus package including school construction ignores the fact that most of those projects are probably not "shovel-ready." In contrast, there are probably plans to rebuild bridges and highway overpasses. Or, given what would happen if Al-Qaeda dropped critical interstate connections, I hope that there are ready-to-go plans in every state transportation office. The gist is that school construction projects are not going to be the fastest projects off the drawing board.
  • Along with building schools, maybe we should think about stringing better fiber-optic networks within state systems of higher education. State officials who listen to Larry Smarr's presentation (or watch the multimedia) at this year's Educause conference would be smart to think about how such networks could reshape higher education.
  • More generally, kudos to this year's Educause conference organizers; as I've been driving around this month, I've been highly impressed by the podcasts of sessions.
  • A public mea culpa on my error in Wednesday's entry about cognition. Kevin Carey, yes you're right; you did briefly mention the public disinvestment from higher education at the state level. I still think you're wrong on the big picture, but it's part of this blog's job to issue errata.
  • I'm almost... almost, but not quite over the cold. This virus has been with me long enough that I'm going to start charging rent.
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Posted in Out of Left Field Friday at 8:11 AM (Permalink) |

December 3, 2008

Cognition isn't all that it's cracked up to be

If I had my usual set of facilities about me, I would defer grumbling about Kevin Carey's article in the Washington Monthly because I had work to do. But though Carey elides fairly important topics such as real trends in faculty pay, adjunctification, and trends in state support for public higher education, the real reason tonight (or probably early this morning by the time this is done) that I'm deferring grumbling about it is because I don't have my usual set of facilities about me, in either the archaic sense of cognitive apparatus or equipment (in this case, access to a website I need to get several tasks done). Because Michael Bérubé's entry today shows that he has more patience with Peter Singer than I do, I can't even explain what irks me about Singer's position vis-a-vis cognitive capacity of people with Down syndrome. I can assure you that I know several adults with Down syndrome who would be more trusted at this moment to make sound judgments about important matters than I would be.


Part of this well-grounded feeling of inferiority comes from a specific medical condition that were I to have any authority at all in the area would probably be attributed to a rhinovirus or retrovirus. At this point in a head cold, I'm usually less miserable than seriously underslept and overstimulated, and after about 43.5 years on this earth, I know that unless I'm mistaken, this is a temporary set of circumstances. Well, not the underslept or overstimulated part, but the unusual combinations of ideas that appear in my head. Yeah, yeah, I know some of you believers in "brain-based learning" would point to V.S. Ramachandran's work on synaesthesia to argue that my brain probably just has interesting connections building up. Me, I think it's the result of congestion and a lack of willpower in commanding my brain to make sense. But what do I know? If I'm right that I am not making sense, then the last sentence is ... oh, shoot. I'm sure Bertrand Russell would find a way to delegitimize that last passage.

I consider myself lucky to be past the point in this illness where I am physically miserable and have to force myself by sheer dint of moral rectitude to stop feeling sorry for myself, damnagit, I have friends who are chronically in pain or are in life-threatening conditions. No, instead I am in the mildly entertaining or at least distracting condition of having the delusion that if I am seriously lucky I could put together a set of words or at least word-like things that might be in the stream-of consciousness style that is almost but not quite entirely unlike what James Joyce might have written on a bad day when he had felt like the entire Everglades had invaded his left sinuses.

(Kids, don't try this destruction of a good Douglas Adams construction at home: your friends will run screaming from the room, never to speak with you again. I should note that I am alone in this room.)

Nonetheless, I suspect that despite this short lapse in my usual blogging style and restraint, I might still be considered human enough to have rights in Peter Singer's firmament. So that's one flaw in his argument, the essentializing of human capacity. If I have rights when I have my full faculties, but for ten days out of a year, I'm making about as much sense as an iguana with a bad temper, the contingency of rights on cognition is something that is hard to see as consistent or useful. I could have been euthanized four days ago when I was a fairly useless lump on a bed, but tomorrow and definitely by Thursday I'm one of the protected cognitive classes? Even in my current condition, that makes about as much sense as a cabbage being elected president. (Then again, that could explain our 13th president, a Mr. James Buchanan.)

In addition to essentializing human capacity, it has a remarkably crude view of cognition and human understanding. While I may be attracted to the work of Dr. Ramachandran because it fits my own experiences, most cognitive psychologists I know think that our mind is much more complicated and subtle than even the most sophisticated models today. That's okay: a model is not supposed to be as complex as reality, and the work I'm aware of (I'm not a psychologist!) gives tentalizing clues about a modular mind rather than a detailed framework. But those clues are enough to cast doubt on cognition as a unidimensional construct. If it is so, it is plausibly unidimensional only under fairly strong assumptions without convincing evidence.

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Posted in Personal at 12:19 AM (Permalink) |

December 1, 2008

Top 10 Reasons To Be Glad You're Not on a Transition Task Force

Speaking for the approximately 300 million of us who are not on one of the Obama-Biden transition task forces, I can say that we're all horribly disappointed. So to cheer us all up, here's a list of reasons why we're secretly glad we're not among the top movers and shakers in the next two months:

10. Can ring up all of that lobbyist easy money instead.

9. Too busy working on perpetual motion machine to solve world's energy problems, remove the threat of a global climate crisis, and stop the impending global depression.

8. Too much eggnog at holiday party? No Matt Drudge to worry about!

7. More time for online shopping today.

6. Won't have president-elect/Mr. Constitutional Law Professor interjecting himself into water-cooler debate about church and state and religious displays.

5. Have time instead to read favorite book on education policy, Accountability Frankenstein.

4. Can finally get Step 13 completed in Bill Ayers' Master Plan for Ruling the Universe (cell codename "Roger", control contact "Brandi" at Palmer House Hilton, behind translucent plastic sheeting in construction area).

3. There is a great need for someone to start the new Facebook group, Why I'm Upset I Wasn't Immediately Named Obama's Internet Guru: sure to get 3 million friends.

2. Working on transition task force would delay filing for unemployment benefits. 

And the Number One reason why you should be glad you're not on a transition task force:

1. Really don't want to be remembered by Rahm Emanuel as "that idiot who gave me the worst head cold in my life."

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Posted in Random comments at 8:56 AM (Permalink) |