March 31, 2009

Lies, damned lies, and the Pacific Research Institute

Often, it takes a bit of time to uncover statistical flummery; one needs to dig deep inside arcane methods or the details of data collection. But sometimes it takes just a few clicks. Matthew Ladner's blog entry today, $243,000 per student school districts?, quoted work by the Pacific Research Institute that claimed two small districts in California each spent more than $200,000 per student. Scandalous! Criminal!

Well, it might be, but so is the credibility of anyone who quotes those statistics without taking a few minutes to look a wee bit more closely. According to the quoted press release, California spends something over $10,000 per student ($11,600 is the figure quoted for 2006-07), but the Mattole Unified and Mineral Elementary districts supposedly spent $225,256 and $242,610 per student.

My first thought was of the tiny New Jersey districts that literally had no students for odd administrative-law reasons. Or maybe these were essentially fictive districts created by companies that incorporated towns and funneled money into specialized programs for a tiny population of executive children. But the locations (Humboldt and Tehana counties) didn't fit with either hypothesis. I was curious: I clicked. And then I saw the magic words in the PRI website pages: "Revenue Received per ADA." ADA = average daily attendance and is not always the same as enrollment.  Okay, so what was up?

Mattole apparently has 905 enrollees but the ADA listed on the PRI site is 35.2. Mineral has 123 enrollees and an ADA reported by PRI as 4.7. If you divide the revenues by the enrollment, the average revenues are a much more sensible $8,761 and $9,270 per student, respectively. That sounded very odd: WHY would ADA be so low? So I checked out the districts. In Mattole, the vast majority of enrollment is in a single charter school, Mattole Valley Charter, which had 864 enrollees in 2007-08. In the Mineral Elementary district, the eScholar Academy virtual charter school had the bulk of enrollment.

If gambling on proposition bets were legal in Florida, I would bet at least a little money on charter-school enrollment NOT counting for the district's official ADA. So in any small district where the majority of enrolled students were in charter schools (or in this case, one charter school each), the official ADA would be far lower than the actual enrollment of students in schools receiving public support. 

But instead of betting any money, I'll just bet my reputation. Does anyone want to prove me wrong? 

Update: In comments, Ladner and PRI staff member Vicki Murray acknowledge that I was correct, and the original claim was incorrect.

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Posted in Education policy at 8:15 PM (Permalink) |

Not closing up shop just yet

Kevin Carey's Chronicle column this week, What Colleges Should Learn From Newspapers' Decline reminds me too much of Willard Daggett's slipshod prognostication: oh, yes, there will be surgery-by-wire where you can stay in Podunk while a surgeon in New York City opens up your heart (something close to what Daggett claimed in one speech I witnessed). And because some colleges on the margin of financial survival will close in the Great Unraveling (as Krugman has termed it), that means there are huge segments of higher ed doomed in the next five years!

Pardon me for the historian's skepticism here, but if that were true, then the quick closure of Atlantic University in 1932 should have presaged disaster for higher education later in the 1930s. Didn't happen. The Depression caused lots of trouble for both K-12 schools and colleges, certainly, but I don't see what Carey sees. The newspaper business is imploding because of a combination of several things:

  • Owners began to expect absolutely unreasonable profit margins
  • The revenue model for newspapers depended not on readers but on selling advertisers the valuable access to readers that eroded in the internet era.
  • Newspapers have been unable to replace that revenue model.

We may see similar levels of idiocy in some institutions, but that's true no matter what the era. Peabody College for Teachers was an independent private institution having financial difficulties in the early 1970s, but what put it over the edge and forced the merger with Vanderbilt several years later was the amazingly inane decision of administrators to eliminate non-education programs, thereby swiping the financial legs out from under the place. (Retaining the non-education programs may not have saved Peabody in the end, but eliminating them ensured its demise as an independent college.) That type of misjudgment is possible anywhere at any time.

One significant difference between newspapers and colleges and universities (and the relevant one here given Carey's argument) is that colleges and universities have already responded more successfully than newspapers to dropping support from the constituency that used to pay for access to readers ... er, students, or more properly, graduates. The decline of state support for public higher education began several decades ago, and while Carey and I may not like the shape of the response, no one can claim that it has fallen on its face in the same way as (or even in a remotely similar way to) newspapers trying to gain money from online readers. Because businesses have paid for access to graduates (i.e., they pay more to adults with baccalaureates than to high school graduates or high school dropouts), that has been enough not only to sustain higher education but given it substantial growth over the past 30 years.

In other words, higher education already had its newspaper-circulation problem, and it's on the other side. Update: Brad DeLong embarrasses me by coming up with the ultimate "already had its problem and went past it" example: books didn't kill universities. Current score counting macroeconomic analysis: DeLong, 501; Dorn, 3.

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Posted in Higher education at 8:34 AM (Permalink) |

March 30, 2009

Seattle will be drier

I spent some time this weekend finishing the first complete draft of a talk I'm giving in Seattle on Thursday. I'm going to be heading there while a few thousand historians are leaving Seattle after the end of the Organization of American Historians meeting. I'm either expecting to find a time machine or I am heading there for a different meeting (Council for Exceptional Children). Last time I was in Seattle, it was wetter and colder than what's forecasted for the middle of this week. We had a drenching rain in Tampa this morning, so things will even out in my personal experience this week, even if not for the world.

I hope my neighbors weren't paying close attention while I was timing the draft. I don't read papers word-for-word, but I wanted to get a sense of how far I'm off on time, so I read it aloud while alternating between the laundry room and the kitchen.

Oh, the topic? Accountability and students with disabilities. I think I know how I'm ending the hour, but the cliffhanger before the third set of commercials is the tough part right now, and I haven't yet decided if Jason's going to live. If he does, I'm going to have to tear up the last act and start fresh. I've given a spoiler, haven't I?

More seriously, this talk is giving me the opportunity and prod to think through some connections between areas of education politics that I mentally put on "percolate": the democratic rationale for public education, tensions between public and private purposes of schooling, and what technocratic mechanisms may be useful for (and in what circumstances). When I get back, I have to think about potential outlets and how to get a potential coauthor to give up enough time to participate (and the value involved in that). 

The only serious performance question I have is the extent of corny jokes and how far I can/should push them.

  • An RTI Tier 2 intervention plan and a Writ of Mandamus walk into a bar...
  • Peter Singer dies and finds himself at the Pearly Gates facing St. Peter: "So your most important goal right now is to avoid pain?" St. Peter begins...
  • How many IEP team members does it take to screw in a lightbulb?...
  • A rabbi, a minister, and a psychometrist are in a rowboat in the middle of the lake...

Maybe not those jokes.

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Posted in The academic life at 12:21 AM (Permalink) |

March 24, 2009

Ward Churchill, delusional

A little over three years ago, I noted that Ward Churchill was an awful poster boy for academic freedom, and he continues to astound me with his trial against the University of Colorado. According to both the New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Ed reporting on his testimony today, Churchill claimed both that his firing was motivated by external pressure and also that he should have been judged by academics outside the University of Colorado. But if there hadn't been an internal committee, I'm sure he would have pointed to the AAUP guidelines that tenured faculty should be judged by university/college peers before being fired for research misconduct.  One wonders what sort of procedural safeguards Churchill would claim is sufficient, if asked, or if he'd just like to get off scot-free with any potential misconduct if he's outlandish enough.

I disagree with my friend and fellow historian of education Philo Hutcheson, who testified on behalf of Churchill, arguing that firing him for research misconduct is too harsh because Harvard didn't punish its famous plagiarists. That may have a tiny bit of surface plausibility, as Margaret Soltan sarcastically notes, but Harvard's lapse is not Churchill's excuse. The inequitability-of-punishment argument holds within an institution, not across institutions, or no plagiarist could ever be punished because once upon a time, Harvard or its equal in this sort of academic prestige, Southern Illinois University, had famous plagiarists who did not have to carry the full consequences of their actions.

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Posted in Higher education at 10:51 PM (Permalink) |

March 23, 2009

Fordham Fellows

Once again this year, as in 2007-08, the Fordham Institute has brought in a group of Fellows with a diverse set of views. Today's blog entry by Catherine Cullen is a case in point. I side with Cullen on the substance about Charles Murray, but Mike Petrilli and Fordham in general deserve kudos for creating an environment where their fellows are free to speak their minds.

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Posted in Education policy at 2:43 PM (Permalink) |

March 22, 2009

Grokking social-science statistics

Several comments in the past few weeks have expressed some wonder that I use statistics when I am publicly skeptical of several policy-related uses of education statistics. I am a little confused by the comments (and implicit accusation of inconsistency), since many of the most articulate critics of high-stakes testing are assessment experts, but for the record, here are a few of my personal stances towards social-science statistics:

  • If for no other purpose than to engage in political debates in a conscientious and credible fashion, adults need to have some rudimentary knowledge of statistics and probability and also be able to listen to and discuss essential concepts without doing enormous violence to them. This is on the same order as needing to have some rudimentary knowledge of Newtonian motion, thermodynamics, electricity, algebra, natural selection, etc., to engage in public policy debates in a constructive fashion. Know why perpetual-motion machine patents require extraordinary (and highly improbable) evidence; know why regression to the mean invalidates many change-over-time claims when the baseline comes from a sample of outliers. 
  • If you're tempted to be proud that you don't know statistics, see what happens to the following sentence if you replace "in French" with "using statistics" and "French history" with your current interest: "Yes, I'm writing about French history; what do you mean, I need to read stuff that's written in French?"
  • One of the reasons why one needs that basic knowledge is to know the limits of statistics and be able to ask probing questions of the claims that are made in public debates. Probing questions are not of the formalist type that could be applied to any claim, "You can say what you want by picking a statistic" or "It's unethical to use statistics without talking about the metause of statistics." Probing questions engage the specific claims made in debate: "Politician Yodel says we saw a 102% increase in the incidence of Echoing Disease last year, but I want to know what the incidence was the year before so I know if this is a serious problem."
  • Though social-science statistics are inherently constructed objects, they can nonetheless be enormously useful. For a thoughtful and useful discussion of social-constructionist arguments, see Ian Hacking's The Social Construction of What? (1999). (Michael Berube and I both very much like Hacking's discussion of dolomite, though I suspect I am closer to Hacking's end view than is the Paterno Family Professor of American Airspace and Dangeral Studies.)
  • To work with social-science statistics, at least I find it tough to simultaneously criticize every character that I type in a statistics program and also work the darned program and think about what I'm doing. So I engage in a form of suspension of disbelief, work the statistics, pause and think about the larger meaning and doubts, work again, doubt, work, doubt, etc. I know I'm embedded in the statistical machinery when I hear, "Sherman, are you going to get any sleep tonight?" And I know when I've doubted enough when I realize I forget the syntax for calling up multiple regression.

And tomorrow morning, because of the idiosyncrasies of the USF IRB-02 records, I need to write and print an IRB protocol so I can finish a long-delayed project ... assuming I can climb the learning curve for the R-Project language.

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Posted in Research at 9:38 PM (Permalink) |

Needing a break, even for a hardened historian

During spring break, I starting reading some books on the Spanish Civil War, and I'm finding it tough slogging: it's not inherently hard reading, but it's hard to read for long about a story that ends badly, where thousands of people lost their lives and a country turned into a dictatorship that lasted for decades. I'm finding myself putting down a book after about 20 minutes of reading and needing to find something much more upbeat about life.

This is a substantial change from when I was a college student or grad student and read about all sorts of tragedies without its affecting me in the same way. After my first semester of exams, I read The Painted Bird... as a break from studying before my plane flight home. So either I was a hardboiled adolescent/young adult who has softened, or having children has changed how I react (and, yes, I teared up a bit when reading several Patricia Polacco books to my children), or the current economic crisis and the genocides of the past 20 years have been making such tragedies seem much closer. 

That, and maybe those of us who study the history of education have it easy, because even when schools have educated children worse than we'd like, the children have still been alive.

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Posted in The academic life at 5:09 PM (Permalink) |

New media and academe

A few somewhat-related ideas floating in my head this afternoon:

The persistent value of blogging. While many others assert a professional value of Twitter and LinkedIn, and I am sure they can be used in that way, I will stick to blogging: it's public, it captures thoughts that require more than 140 characters, and I cannot think of a better way to capture a conversation between academics that is lively and yet substantive, such as the mini-debate evolving today (today!) between Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman about the financial rescue plan to be unveiled tomorrow. DeLong and Krugman are taking the time to explain academic arguments in a way that is accessible to the rest of us. 

Libraries as new-publishing entrepreneurs. Print-on-demand technology may give fresh legs to the long-form academic argument. It has created a new business model for commercial publishers such as Information Age Publishing, it lets traditional academic presses cross-subsidize low-demand work at much less cost, and it has let academic research libraries in the front door of publishing. In my own professional sphere, it's become evident that research libraries contain some incredible entrepreneurial talent, and there are some under-the-radar developments that belong in the best of social entrepreneur literature. Update March 23: this morning's news about the University of Michigan Press should be seen as wholly good news on this front.

The whatever-works model of textbook production. This doesn't exist (yet), but I am hoping that it will. In the competition between standard text publishers and open-source divas, the winner will eventually be college students and whichever group can figure out how to create low-cost texts that still provide royalties to authors. That may involve open-source publishing (in which case the payments wouldn't exactly be "royalties"), or it may involve megacorporation publishers. Or something else like the Kindle or Sony Reader. But the next decade is sure to make this all very interesting.

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Posted in The academic life at 12:33 PM (Permalink) |

March 21, 2009

The world is slowing, I'm speeding up, or I have acquired a few afterburner kits

I am now far less behind than I was in early December. The next EPAA article (to be published April 10) is in the can; I have another 5 in various post-acceptance stages, a bunch of decisions to be written up from my scribbles and reviewer comments, a revision ready to read, grad-student manuscripts in my "to read when I am nowhere near online" cache, a few more obligations out the door, more paperwork done, a small book out, several problems ironed out with the USF administration before they became crises, a few proposals inside USF, etc. 

A good part of this progress is thanks to one of the USF graduate students, Judy Castillo, who is editorial assistant for EPAA this year (my first, and of course I get this wonderful support as I'm in the home stretch for my editorial stint, but I'm incredibly grateful for her organization and editorial skill). I also owe thanks to some chunks of time hoarded and my decision to cut out several trips as I was sick twice in the last few months and looked at the obligations. So I am not headed to AERA in San Diego, I did not go to the AFT higher-ed conference in Miami, and I did not go to Tallahassee two times that I would have liked to. I suspect that my spouse will tell me to eliminate at least one or two more trips before the end of the academic year. And for several reasons I will not be traveling in the first half of the week any time next year, unless I have one of my children with me.

Note that I did not say I am ahead. I have three embarrassingly-late academic obligations to clear up, and other things that will continue to pop up or need to be addressed, including the EPAA MSs where I have an e-mail that needs to be written up (these are usually revise-and-resubmit requests because that takes time to condense the advice and figure out what are the highest priorities). But I am far less behind and have many fewer embarrassingly-late obligations at the moment than I did several months ago.

As the economy crumbles, at least my professional life is calmer than it used to be. My thanks to all the afterburner help I've been receiving in recent months.

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Posted in The academic life at 4:24 PM (Permalink) |

Michael Crow and Bernie Machen up the yin-yang

Monday's New York Times story on Arizona State University stole my point earlier this month about the expenses of public research universities and the tension between undergraduate teaching and the building of a research infrastructure. Either that, or I was stating the obvious (I think I was stating the obvious). The Times quoted the ASU student State Press in pointing out that the budget cuts had turned ASU into the Neutered American University instead of Crow's "new American university."

Today, Timothy Burke has another thoughtful entry about the future of higher education, this time on the difficulty of building the core of a great teaching university, on top of September's argument that the party's over as far as a several-decades boom is concerned. And Thursday's news about prospective cuts at the University of Florida's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences should be sobering given that UF is putatively part of the Association of American Universities, the country club of higher education in the U.S. Michael Crow's ambitions did not protect ASU from a fiscal fiasco, and after Bernie Machen continued a decade-long trend to turn UF into a medical center with a university appendage, budget cuts have resulted in a layoff grievance that my union won decisively this month, pending disaster for science at UF, and the widespread destruction of morale around campus. So much for the value of being a member of the country-club set.

ASU and UF are the extremes of this pattern of overweening administrative/political ambition, stories of mission creep having become mission sprint and now the mission trots. Other institutions may survive this downturn without as much of a visible fiasco, and well-placed institutions might even benefit, at least in comparison. The irony of the entry title is that while "up the yin-yang" is slang for extremism (well, in one of its uses), the reason why Crow and Machen are in the Academic Hall of Shame right now is because they have not understand balance at a public university. I suspect that there is a reasonable balance, and part of my job as a faculty union leader is to do my best to push that balance. But I recognize that historical trends and current budget crises make that balance much more difficult in most places.

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Posted in Higher education at 2:28 PM (Permalink) |

March 20, 2009

Brutal rites of passage

The stories about the Dallas school "cage matches" between students is a sign that unprofessional and brutal treatment of children is possible whenever the adults lack a moral compass. This is something that could have happened 50 or 100 years ago, and it happened because some twisted people in charge thought that the best way to handle students is to encourage unbridled violence. Great. Just great.

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Posted in Out of Left Field Friday at 9:58 PM (Permalink) |

March 18, 2009

By request: on teaching quality

I am not going to write today about the new report, An Evaluation of Teachers Trained through Different Routes to Certification, because I haven't read it. (Other things take higher priority for me right now; the report is heading to my to-read pile. But after reading the praise and also Aaron Pallas's criticism, let alone Sean Corcoran and Jennifer Jennings's review, my curiosity is piqued.) But I have an outstanding request from a reader to discuss teaching quality, and I'm going to pull the exam-writer's trick and reformulate the question: what should policymakers know about the history of "teacher quality" in the U.S.?

Short answers: the long shadow of character, the education bootstrap, the short history of the single salary schedule, and the porous nature of certification/licensure. 

The long shadow of character

First, teaching as a career is less than 150 years old. In North America teaching was largely a short-term and part-year occupation until sometime in the 19th century (depending on where you're looking). In part because of the mix of private and taxpayer funding, and the short sessions in many places in the country, few people in the early 19th century could make a living teaching full-time. So many of the mostly-male teachers were in schools only part of the year, filling in when they didn't have opportunities to preach, attend college, or engage in something else.

Because of the multiple missions of schooling, academic qualifications were low on the priority list for those hiring teachers. The key qualification was high character, and the most common practical qualification was the ability to control a classroom. The source in many history of ed texts illustrating the second is Edward Eggleston's The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1871), a novel whose subtitle tells the tale: "A Story of Backwoods Life in Indiana." At the beginning of the story, the new schoolmaster is asked by trustee Jack Means,

"Want to be a school-master, do you? You? Well, what would you do in Flat Crick deestrick, I'd like to know? Why, the boys have driv off the last two, and licked the one afore them like blazes. You might teach a summer school, when nothin' but children come. But I 'low it takes a right smart man to be school-master in Flat Crick in the winter. They'd pitch you out of doors, sonny, neck and heels, afore Christmas."

In the nineteenth century, a smart teacher had the ability to control older boys, presumably by making them smart when necessary. 

That wasn't universally true; one of the common arguments for hiring women as teachers rather than men was their presumably nurturing nature. The gender stereotype of who was the right teacher inevitably involved questions about who could properly motivate students, especially boys. Never mind that women could use a switch on a student as easily as a man could. Or the rather clever way that hiring women allowed urban school districts to have a workforce that was cheaper and less likely to hop to other jobs -- because women had fewer higher-paying opportunities. (The same dynamic was true with African American teachers in the 20th century, at least until the 1964 Civil Rights Act; teaching was one of the best opportunities for upward mobility.) The rationale was all about sweetness and light, nurturing and character.

The legacy of all that history is that academic qualifications became an issue decades after the spread of mass primary schooling in the North. Part of the resistance was a fear of centralization; as New York state politician Orestes Brownson said, once the first normal schools were established, then states would try to work it so that no one but a normal-school graduate could teach. (He was partly right; see the "porous nature" section below.) Concerns about morality led schools to bar women from teaching after marrying, then forcing maternity leave when pregnancies began showing. Even now, morality will trump academics in the news. When was the last time your local television news show ran a story about teacher qualifications (either academic background or effectiveness)? When was the last time it ran a story about a teacher having sex with a student?

As I have argued elsewhere, this focus on virtue has caused serious long-term harm in how we look at teaching. And in the long run, those who argue about whether it's most important to intervene in teachers' disciplinary background, pedagogical training, or effectiveness in raising test scores are having a debate that could not have existed 100 years ago. So to the partisans in that argument, you are all light-years ahead of Jack Means and his real-world counterparts.

The education bootstrap (as in lifting up onself by one's, not engaging in violence with a)

Teaching was not a career in the early 19th century, but women could be teachers by the middle and end of the century, because the start of mass schooling generated an adult population with at least a minimum of formal education. A few weeks ago when I heard Joseph Kisanji of the Tanzania Education Network talk about the state of special education in Tanzania, what struck me was the low proportion of primary students who continued to secondary grades. That plus the high fertility rate in Tanzania puts the country behind the eight-ball, having a very high ratio of children in need of a teacher to adults with enough education to teach. Add sex discrimination in the form of requiring girls to work and thus discouraging them from secondary school, plus the legacy of "villagization" in the 1970s (the Tanzanian equivalent of Soviet collectivization) and you've got a serious dilemma for the country. While the average student-teacher ratio is something like 50:1, according to Kisanji in some areas of Tanzania, that ratio is 70:1, 80:1, or even 100:1.

At some point, that dilemma exists with every population, at least in the abstract if not with 100:1 ratios) because you start out with less knowledge in the adult population than you'd like, and to get there, you first need a critical mass of adults who are both educated and also willing to teach. Let's call that the educational starting hole.

The United States essentially lifted itself out of the starting hole through coeducation and mass primary education (even if it was inconsistent). The pool of available teachers grew in the 19th century with the willingness (and eventual preference) to hire women and also by declining fertility and mortality, so that the proportion of the population in elementary and secondary school ages shrank. That demographic transition gave the next few generations a chance to keep expanding the critical mass of educated adults.

One stumbling block since WW2 has not been the number of adults with bachelor's degrees but the consequences of reduced discrimination for fields such as teaching that have historically relied on discrimination elsewhere as a recruiting device. In terms of generating an educated adult population, we're doing fairly well as a country. (That's an historian's hindsight, not a statement of satisfaction.) What is remarkable to my historian's eye is that so few college graduates today need to enter teaching to satisfy the bulk of school needs. The struggle to attract great college graduates to teaching is less the total number of graduates than the question of who goes into teaching and the alternatives that pull potential teachers into other fields.

That doesn't mean that teachers know everything they should. The accessible availability of "content knowledge" (an awful phrase, to be honest) is far more widespread than access to great repertoires of teaching techniques and the opportunities to practice them. There's a long story and debate there, and I'll just suggest that while you can learn a great deal about physics online from Walter Lewin, there's little parallel for how to teach high-school physics. (Fans of sciencegeekgirl, please understand I'm talking about videos... I know there's plenty of text-based material online.)

This also suggests that what Tanzania desperately needs is to boost its secondary schooling. The country is one of the world's poorest, and while it is not in the same awful shape as Zimbabwe or Darfur, that's saying very, very little. Get a critical mass of young adult Tanzanians reasonably educated, and the following generation will be much better off in part because there will be a greater mass of potential teachers.

In terms of the U.S., we should understand both where our strengths lie (a much more broadly educated adult population than many countries) as well as weaknesses. Maybe one example will illustrate: the teaching of math in elementary and middle schools. In the past two decades, there has been a generational change in the amount of math that high school graduates have taken, especially among girls. (This change comes from the mid-80s increase in graduation course requirements in many states.) At the same time, there has been a deliberate effort to improve the teaching of math. I'm not going to get into the debates over the 1989 National Council for the Teaching of Mathematics standards statement or its more recent revisions, but the discussion is out there in the ether and should not be ignored.

The first trend is something that is a strength as far as the academic skills of potential teachers is concerned: more high school graduates (and thus college graduates) have exposure to math through any level than before 1982 or 1983. It is certainly not universal or complete; there are still too many elementary teachers who fear math and pass that fear on. (As far as I'm concerned, a single teacher who does so is too many.) The second trend? I'm not sure, and I'll hedge my bets by referring to Larry Cuban's hybridization thesis: I'd bet more elementary and middle-school teachers are using manipulatives and activities that try to "make sense" of math, but probably few are engaging in what its critics might refer to as unstructured teaching in the name of constructivism. Some part of that, but probably not much, is related to a deeper understanding of how children do or could learn math. Both issues (knowledge of math and knowledge of teaching math) have changed over the past generation or so. One of them, possibly both, is likely to be responsible for Florida's steadily increasing math scores on NAEP for eighth-graders since 1990.

The history of the single salary schedule

Advocates of differential and performance pay for teachers sometimes portray the single salary schedule as a long-term legacy of an inefficient bureaucracy, and that's partly true. You can find some sort of salary schedule in the growing school bureaucracies of 19th century cities. But there are some substantial features of salary schedules before World War 2 that suggest how short the single salary schedule's life has been.

First is the difference between elementary and secondary teacher pay. In Philadelphia, the teachers at Central High School were treated like royalty in comparison with all other teachers in the system, at least at the beginning of Central's life when it was the only high school in the city. Teachers were called "professors," were paid much better than elementary teachers, and were largely autonomous. And they were men. As Philadelphia added more high schools, Central High and its teachers lost prestige and authority, but the gap between elementary and high school teachers was persistent and reflected in the structure of teacher organizations (including nascent unions) and pay.

Second is the treatment of teacher pensions and gender. In many cities in the mid-20th century, pensions had conditions that disadvantaged women who had children. In Nashville, for example, I've come across age guidelines that eliminated all teachers who began a job over age 40 from being eligible for the pension plan. What that did was eliminate from pension plans the women who taught for a few years before having children, left teaching as their children were growing up, and then wanted to return to teaching later.

Third is the persistent racial inequalities in teacher pay, even after the 1940 Melvin Alston equalization case. Scott Baker has argued that in the fight for teacher equal pay, many Southern school districts began to use the National Teacher Examination as a basis for pay differentiation after they were told that African American teachers scored lower on the NTE than white teachers.

In the history of teachers in the U.S., the development of bureaucratic pay schemes fit comfortably with discriminatory practices, and one of the victories of unions, civil rights activists, and women's civic groups has been the elimination of explicit discrimination in pay schemes. Need one require a single salary schedule to maintain that accomplishment? I don't think so, but to ignore the history is foolish, and there needs to be a watchdog so that there isn't a resurgence of pay discrimination among teachers.

The porous nature of certification/licensure

Nineteenth-century New York politician Orestes Brownson was partly right when he thought that the creation of normal schools would centralize the qualification of teachers. The normal schools of the 1800s became recognized and eventually grew to teachers colleges and regional state universities, and "teacher training" has become a common feature of what people do before they become teachers.

At the same time (and in a related way), if slowly, inconsistently, and unevenly, school administrators began to give preferences or require teachers to have some formal training, whether provided at county training schools or in state university schools or colleges of education. As the curriculum expanded in the early 20th century, administrators pushed the  generally minimal state bureaucracies to expand specialized credentials (or endorsements); one mark of the expansion of special education in postwar Tennessee, for example, is the creation of a licensure specifically for special educators. 

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the vast majority of states had a licensure structure for teaching that at least nominally required licensure for teaching, recognized divisions between elementary and secondary education, and recognized specializations at all levels (whether subject specialization in secondary education or specializations in services provided at multiple levels).

The alert reader may note that I did not claim that teacher education has a lock on teacher training or other professional-role entry in schools. Far from it! Even when states have established laws mandating that permanently-appointed teachers have licensure, the loopholes have been plentiful and large. Substitutes and temporary or emergency licenses have been common ways around certification/licensure requirements, and the proliferation of alternative certification programs has eroded the minimal barriers that certification/licensure poses. I suspect it would be a feasible dissertation project to document that as we have gone through two waves of babies in the past 70 years, there has been a consistent pattern in licensure practices: certification/licensure is loose when there is a shortage of teachers and tightens when there is a surplus of regularly-licensed teachers. (Who says that history can't meet the Popper definition of science: there's a disconfirmable prediction! Okay, so the claim is probably trivial to document...)

The nature of the loosening depends on geography and period, but my guess is that poor rural and urban school districts have been the most likely to have a "fog the mirror" standard for teachers, even when there has been a shortage. (Another prediction that can be checked...) That is less a cause of unequal provision of teachers to disadvantaged children and communities than a consequence. But the historical fact is that licensure has developed but not enclosed teaching.

An article by Donald Boyd et al. in the December Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, "Surveying the Landscape of Teacher Education in New York City," is particularly interesting in that historical perspective. What Boyd and his coauthors convincingly demonstrate is that the NYC Teaching Fellows program has not really competed with college-credentialed new teachers. Instead, Fellows replaced the emergency/temporary licensure population of prior years. Consistently over this decade, college-credentialed programs have been unable to supply enough teachers for New York City schools. This pattern is not an anomaly. Instead, it demonstrates the historically porous nature of teacher licensure. 


I hate sections that are titled Implications. Yeah, right, as if I know all the implications of this: I don't. I can spot when a policymaker has a theory of action that ignores the history, but it's not clear how to draw lines from this history to current policy dilemmas. Not that I don't have some ideas about "teacher quality" policy issues, but this entry took about 6 weeks to take shape in the evenings and on weekends, while lots of other things took precedence, and this is the type of question that could justify a book. (Someone else take this on, please; I have enough to write about for the rest of my life!) The reader request was interesting enough to make me think about this in at least some depth, and for that, I am grateful. If you find this of some value, that's great, and please let me know in the comments if you can draw a straight line from this stuff to policy.

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Posted in Education policy at 4:21 PM (Permalink) |

March 17, 2009

Longitudinal data systems, good; unique teacher linkage, bad

Diane Ravitch's blog entry this morning seriously disparages the value of longitudinal data systems, including the linking of teachers to students, and John Thompson's entry discusses the abuse of data by administrators. Essentially, both Ravitch and Thompson fear the brain-dead or conscious abuse of data to judge teachers out of context. That's also the reason why NYSUT (the New York state joint NEA-AFT affiliate) worked hard to convince the legislature to put a moratorium on using test scores to make tenure decisions; Joel Klein was moving very quickly, and I think UFT and NYSUT had good reason to believe that without the moratorium, there would be substantial abuses of test data in NYC (and elsewhere) in tenure decisions. 

My take: longitudinal data systems are a good thing, but linking teachers to students is a much more fragile undertaking.

Florida has a longitudinal data system that began in the early 1990s and has been used for 10 years to judge schools based on test data. Approximately ten years ago, I sat in a windowless room in Tallahassee as a Florida DOE member discussed the new A-plus system and a variety of technical decisions tied to it, and for which he had brought stakeholders and a few yahoos from around the state to give advice. I was one of the unpaid yahoos who had the great joy of flying in tiny airplanes several hundred miles a few times a year to give advice on the matters. 

We had so many matters to discuss that one minor conversation was almost overlooked: a state mandate that required that the FDOE link each student to a teacher primarily responsible for reading and math. One state official showed us a draft form and then explained the concerns he had about it: in his view, the state that had tried that a few years earlier (Tennessee) had multiple conceptual difficulties connecting individual teachers to individual students. But they had run roughshod over those concerns, and he anticipated that Florida would do the same.

It wasn't a matter of letting teachers off the hook (this now-retired professional staffer is what I think of as an accountability hawk) but logic and sense. How many physics and chemistry teachers help students understand algebra better? How many history teachers help students with writing or reading? For students receiving special education services in a pull-out system, do you want only the special educator to be responsible for a subject, or do you want both the general-ed classroom teacher and the special educator to have responsibility? This spring, my wife (a math major and special educator) is tutoring a local child in math on weekends or evenings; so who should get credit for how he performed on testing in the last week, his teachers in school or my wife? Today, you can add NCLB supplemental educational services (or after-school tutoring) to the mix. 

The larger point: even if you decide to wave away the concerns of Richard Rothstein and others, even if you focus entirely on what happens in academic environments, it is fallacious to link every student performance with a single teacher. If we are providing the appropriate supports for children, then the students with the lowest performance are the ones for whom such unique linkage assumptions are the least justifiable, because they may be receiving academic support from general education classroom teachers, from special educators, from after-school tutors, and maybe mentors or other providers in neighborhood support organizations (such as Geoffrey Canada's). Today, I do not think one can parcel out responsibility without making assumptions that have no basis in empirical research. Those who support individual teacher linkage have the burden to demonstrate otherwise.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:07 AM (Permalink) |

March 16, 2009

A letter from someone else's Stu Dent

I generally don't write about students I am currently teaching. I will occasionally write about events months or years later, but generally not in the same semester. But I have an e-mail this morning from someone else's Stu Dent:

Hi I am from England, currently studying a [type of] degree in [field]. For my last piece of work, we have a 3000 individual project to complete. My project is trying to answer this hypothesis: [hypothesis in a field far from mine]. I have found some recent statistics which have your name attached: [what follows is a statement I don't recognize]. Unfortunately I found this data a few months ago, and did not reference it properly. I would be extremely grateful if you could send me a link where you got this information from, or send me a link to your document showing this information.... Thank you, Stu Dent

Dear Stu, Looking closely at your e-mail, I will confess that your statement is entirely unfamiliar to me, and I don't think I've ever written those words.

Good luck with your project. It's designed so that YOU do the hard work of research because it's in your best interest as a student. So I'd be undercutting the whole point of the project if I didn't give you the chance to learn from it by doing it entirely by yourself.

This is not nearly as bad as graduate students who spam an e-mail list saying, "Please complete this survey online" or any student who writes, "I'm writing on X [very well-studied] topic; can anyone help me with the literature?" But you think that in an upper-level course in any program, students would still have learned that it's their job to do the research. And if you're going to contact a faculty member at another institution, you think that there might be some value in looking to see if the faculty member is an expert in what you're studying. Sigh.

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Posted in The academic life at 9:14 AM (Permalink) |

March 13, 2009

Recession-and-education humor

You know things are weird when late-night comics start channeling socialist intellectuals:

"The president said we can't stick with the school calendar that was created during a time when most Americans were farmers, and he is right. We need a new school calendar for a time when most Americans are unemployed." Jimmy Fallon, March 11, 2009
"The postponement of school leaving to an average age of eighteen has become indispensable for keeping unemployment within reasonable bounds. In the interest of working parents (the two-parent-job-holding family having become ever more common during this period), and in the interest of social stability and the orderly management of an increasingly rootless urban population, the schools have developed into immense teen-sitting organizations, ..." Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974), p. 439

And then there's the pseudonymous community college dean's great quip:

"Surest sign of recession: our Admissions staff reports that it's raining men." Dean Dad, March 5, 2009

In the early 1990s, I collected a number of cartoons tied to my dissertation research (which eventually became Creating the Dropout), and the "what good is education?" theme was behind many of them. I forget who drew the 1993 or 1994 cartoon that had graduates walking across the stage, receiving parchment scrolls, and unrolling the scrolls to discover that each read, "Will work for food." Expect more along these lines in the next year or so.

Back to the serious issue here: The problem with arguing about the value of education is that the human-capital arguments are all at the level of a population. From a population standpoint, more education is a great thing. From a family or individual perspective, it's likely to be a good thing on balance, but you always take risks in individual choices.

As I pointed out in December (revised for One-Blog Schoolhouse), there currently is no mechanism for reducing risk of educational choices, but there are both costs and risks--students who attend or return to college face the opportunity costs of foregone income as well as the possibility/probability of having a lot more debt upon graduation. And we all know quite vividly now how graduation does not guarantee one a job. Recessions encourage people to return to school because the opportunity costs are much lower. Laid off? Hey, then there's no downside to attending community college for a few classes. That pattern also demonstrates why it's dangerous to ignore opportunity costs when discussing student debt, but the larger point is that recessions make it all too clear how educational choices involve calculations of risk and probabilities, not average rates of return.

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Posted in Out of Left Field Friday at 2:32 PM (Permalink) |

March 12, 2009

Will Charlie Crist threaten a budget veto if the legislature won't go along with using ARRA funds?

Mark Sanford's political ambitions might cost 7,500 South Carolina teachers their jobs because he doesn't want his state to accept federal ARRA funds. Charlie Crist's political ambitions might save thousands of Florida teachers their jobs because he does want Florida to accept federal ARRA funds. There are some legislators in Florida who agree with Mark Sanford. Florida's constitution requires a supermajority vote in both legislative chambers to use nonrecurring funds for more than a small portion of recurring expenses, and for a day or two I was very worried not enough legislators would agree to use (nonrecurring) federal dollars to plug the hole in the state's (recurring) revenues for education expenses.

Then it occurred to me what Crist has the power to do if a budget reaches his desk without using federal dollars: veto the entire thing and call the legislature back into session. I have no pipeline to the governor's office, and I suspect that Crist's answer to any question along these lines would be, "I am sure that I will not have to do that." So this is likely to be unverifiable and therefore unscientific speculation, though I think my speculation is based on the right levers in the state. In South Carolina, Sanford has the parallel power, which in his hands might wreak enormous damage by striking out parts of the budget that rely on federal ARRA funds.

Two ambitious Republican governors. Two very different potential directions for their states' futures.

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Posted in Education policy at 6:35 PM (Permalink) |

Joel Klein as DM

John Thompson's blog entry today, God Does Not Play Dice, is in response to Charles Barone's Ed Sector report on value-added or growth models used for high-stakes accountability. (It's on my to-read list along with the IES/Mathematica study on teacher ed programs and various other things.) Thompson describes a number of caveats and then says,

...none of my objections would be major if the model was used for purposes of diagnosis, science, or a "consumers' report." We should pursue social science fearlessly, but we must not play dice with the lives of teachers by evaluating them with some theoretical work in progress.

That plays off Einstein's quip, "God does not play dice," in reference to quantum mechanics. That comment always made me think that if God does not play dice, maybe God forces you to pick up the dice and roll.

And that gave me the image of Joel Klein as Dungeonmaster.

A troll has just entered your classroom. He has a mace, a strength of 11, and 16 hit points.

After the Cafeteria Blob you threw at us, I only have 4 hit points, and I lost my Spitball Blocking spell.

Fight or run away?

Better fight; if I run away, I lose the Memo Spindle.

Better hope you're lucky. You need to roll a 17 to block the mace, 20 to break it.

But you're only giving me a D12!!

This is New York. You're tough enough. Roll.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 10:40 AM (Permalink) |

Inconsistency illustrated

From an Andy Smarick blog entry yesterday afternoon:

I can't imagine how sad and frightened thousands of DC kids and parents are today.... The scuttling of this program will have a swift and severe influence on about 1,700 low-income boys and girls.

From Smarick's blog entry about 10 hours earlier:

The schools chief in Baltimore unveiled a laudable plan last night to close low-performing schools...

From the Baltimore Sun article:

While in the past, closing city schools have phased out over time, Alonso wants to make all the moves this summer.

As I wrote last week on the issue, there's a substantive question of how you handle school and program closures. But if you assert emotional trauma when one program is going to end suddenly, you shouldn't expect readers to take very seriously your praise of another policy decision that has the same lack of transition. The "sad and frightened" line may well have been ridiculed as cheap emotional blackmail if it had been used by parents upset with school closures in Baltimore, the District of Columbia, or New York City. Yes, there's a serious question on change vs. stability for individual students, but if the question is there in one setting, it's there in all settings.

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Posted in Education policy at 8:54 AM (Permalink) |

March 10, 2009

Get Accountability Frankenstein for $10!!

Information Age Publishing is having a ten-year anniversary sale where you can get 10 or more books from their catalog for $10 each. Their authors, editors, and series editors include Gene Glass, Ernie House, Erwin Johanningmeier, Terry Richarson, Tom Popkewitz, Kathy Borman, Kenneth Wong, Jaekyung Lee, Maurice Berube, V.P. Franklin, Carol Camp Yeakey, and many others.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 9:54 PM (Permalink) |

"Five pillars" and paranoia

I'm waiting--just waiting--for some yahoo to point to the "five pillars" language in the president's education speech this morning and say, "Hey, there are five pillars of Islam, too. This means...!" Then again, such a statement would require that the said nutcase would have to know something about Islam. 

And while we're speaking of conspiracies, is there anyone else who is completely fed up with the "birthers," who do not understand that people from different backgrounds can fall in love and have a kid who has to be born somewhere? At some point, the tin-foil lunatics have to face up to the fact that Barack Obama was born in the United States, even if he is half-Vulcan.

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Posted in Education policy at 6:48 PM (Permalink) |

Walking the talk...

The education news of the day is the president's speech before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on education policy. No one should be surprised at the themes (investing in early-childhood education, raising standards, improving teacher quality, fostering innovation, and increasing access to higher education). Nor is the next level of policy surprising in terms of Obama's advocacy of raising caps for charter schools, promoting performance-pay for teachers, having tests that aren't just fill-in-the-bubble, shifting subsidized loans to the direct-from-fed lending, and so forth. (There are two exceptions, below...) The details are largely absent here (or at least the level of detail that would identify those who might agree or disagree with the details), but that's because the president's name is Barack Obama, not Bill Clinton. 

The two exceptions to the "yeah, yeah, I guessed he supported that" litany: state data systems and extending time spent in school. That's supremely wonkish and... well, more on those another time, but I did want to note them.

And, finally, it looks like Obama is starting to hit a post-inauguration stride on speeches. This isn't the high oratory of the May 2008 speech on race, but regardless of whether I agree with specific ideas, I think this had more of a natural rhythm than many of his speeches from the nomination acceptance through his inaugural address. I mean, many of his speeches from late August through late January are fine, but they're not Obama at his best. I know that this is getting much closer to the better end of the Obama speech spectrum. Well, except for one factual flub...

P.S. President Obama? Don't look at anything called "dropout rates." They're garbage. Look at graduation measures instead, even if they're technically weak.

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Posted in Education policy at 1:38 PM (Permalink) |

March 9, 2009

Quips on "learning styles"

After the Dallas ISD blog entry on "learning styles" Friday, a few thoughts came to mind over the weekend (so this is a belated Out of Left Field Friday note):

  • I am so happy that people who claim to be kinesthetic learners don't actually try that out in all situations. "Officer, you shouldn't ticket me. I'm a kinesthetic learner, and I can assure you I understand Newton's laws a lot better now than before the accident!"
  • Someone at ETS must have been under the influence of learning-style beliefs when creating the "arranging baby marshmallows and spaghetti on blue paper to discover different ways to multiply binomials" lesson for the Springboard program used in my county. Isn't the gluing-macaroni-on-paper activity reserved for Mother's Day cards in first grade? (Hint, oh clueless curriculum developers: manipulatives should get students to the central ideas quickly.)

This morning, I'm sure there are hundreds of thousands of students who are claiming to be Standard Time learners unable to learn via Daylight Savings styles... but maybe it's just the lost hour of sleep that's to blame.

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Posted in Out of Left Field Friday at 10:21 AM (Permalink) |

Set-aside questions answered?

Per David Hoff's question Friday on whether the "spend it quickly" provision of ARRA will conflict with the mandate to set aside 20% of Title I funds in schools or districts not meeting AYP, the initial guidance on the relevant USDOE webpage doesn't appear to be that clear. But a few things come to mind:

  • In terms of a macroeconomic effect, 20% of the Title I budget of affected schools or districts may or may not be significant, but it will surely be swamped by the larger decisions taken in the passage of ARRA and also in states that decide either to take the money or not. From what I understand, one reason why the Japanese central government's claims to stimulate the economy in the 1990s was always exaggerated was because local governments didn't always follow through. At some point, the question in Washington will be, "Okay, what do we do if states refuse to take the money we're offering?" That's one of my fears in Florida.
  • If 20% is set aside but used at some point within 15 months, there's going to be a delay effect but I'm not sure how awful that would be. That sounds like a technical question that few of us in education are competent to answer.

I'm not an economist, but I suspect the gist of this is that the educational consequences of the set-aside will be a bit more important than the macroeconomic ones. I have concerns about the set-aside provisions, but unless an economist points out differently (calling Dr. Rouse!), the issues should be decided based on education policy.

Update: Sheesh, I forgot some critical words above... Title I budget of. I hope adding them makes my meaning clear... or at least a little less like mud.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:09 AM (Permalink) |

March 7, 2009

Closures and transitions

There is a double standard at work right now in the discussion over the federal DC voucher program. I'm not just speaking of the evidentiary slipperiness Aaron Pallas pointed out Monday and Thursday. In addition, I am thinking of the argument that students in DC-area private schools on the vouchers should not have their schooling disrupted for a policy change, a curious argument to make by those who have been advocates of disrupting the lives of students in public schools when the schools are closed or staff are fired en masse. Voucher programs should be protected from disruption while decisions about public-school programs hedge on the side of disruption? Secretary Duncan is one of those who have tried to make both claims, and given his Renaissance program of school closures in Chicago, this inconsistency fails the smell test.

Beyond the issue of consistency, there is a legitimate question of how to handle transitions in ways that respect the legitimate interests of students and of adults in the system. Sy Fliegel spoke openly about program closures and transitions in Miracle in East Harlem (1993), his memoir of open school choice in Spanish Harlem (Community District #4). You think of that experiment in association with Deborah Meier? Good for you! But Fliegel makes clear that a number of programs were clearly failures, either of ideas or mismatch with the community or management problems. As he explains in the book, his job was to handle program closures and to do it in a way that left the least pain possible. For some reason, his approach struck me as something akin to the attitude toward business owners when an idea fails: "Okay, that didn't work out. Dust yourself off and try again, and thanks to the separation of personal from business assets, you're not wiped out." Well, not quite a painless exit: there's the opportunity cost of time spent running a business. But a failed business is not inherently a scarlet letter, and Fliegel wanted to make clear that failure in developing a Community District #4 school did not mean that an educator (or set of teachers) was worthless.

For some reason, though, neither school systems nor wannabe reformers have paid much attention to Fliegel's approach, either in dealing with schools in crisis or in closing down schools for financial reasons (as in Rhee's closure of schools in DC). In the first case, teachers are often "passed around" or told to sink or swim in a transfer/waiver system. Neither approach is appropriate. 

Students are also affected deeply by any massive transition. Some welcome the change (when schooling dramatically improves) or are resilient. Others have their lives traumatized. My daughter had her preschool experiences disrupted twice when one school's management fired her teacher, and a few years later in a different city, the management fired the director. My daughter did well through the transitions, but the corporate approach by the centers in each case simply stank from the perspective of most parents: the employee was shepherded out of the center by security personnel with no chance for the children to say goodbye to a teacher or center director that they loved. In neither case was the termination for disciplinary reasons or anything where the escort was for safety reasons. It was just a knee-jerk "this is how terminations are done; damn how this will teach children that some people are disposable" decision. Sometimes reformers and managers forget that children are watching what happens and how the adults around them are treated.

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Posted in Education policy at 7:17 PM (Permalink) |


Per Brad DeLong and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U-6 is now at 14.8%. U-6 is the "alternative measure of unemployment" that includes underemployment: "Total unemployed, plus all marginally attached workers, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all marginally attached workers." Those who truly believe in the colonic theory of school reform need to be ready for the consequences...

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Posted in History at 11:33 AM (Permalink) |

March 6, 2009

Kindle version of "One-Blog Schoolhouse" available!

The Kindle version of One-Blog Schoolhouse is now available, for approximately half the price of the paper version. (Yes, I get less money per copy for the electronic version. That's okay. You don't get the cool blurbs that are at the front of the trade paper version.) The trade paper version is also available at the online Barnes and Noble store.

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Posted in Writing and editing at 7:13 PM (Permalink) |

"Cut the c***, governor, and tell us what you'll support"

I'm reading between the lines on this report of a Florida legislative committee hearing from yesterday, but I think the reported interaction between (majority) committee members and the governor's representative is an indication that my guess a few days ago was correct: Florida's state senate leaders are almost to the point of saying out loud how fed up they are with political games.

Next Friday, naf eht stih tihs eht with the March revenue estimating conference, when the state's economists will reveal the state's equivalent of the Fed beige book: we're in deep trouble still, deeper than the assumptions built into the governor's budget proposal. As I've said, Governor Crist is the second most disciplined politician I've seen in my life, but it's one thing to strategize over one of your campaign promises and it's another thing to put the entire state budget at risk for something... I'm not sure what, but something. And while I disagree with state lawmakers who want to refuse federal recovery funds, I understand their not wanting to stick their necks out for unpopular tax increases or long-term commitments if the governor's going to claim that the state can increase education funding with no tax increases. This is a rosy budget proposal that Salvador Dali could write. 

In the least painful of all possible worlds, the state would accept federal assistance, streamline sales-tax collection to make it enforceable with online sales, eliminate egregious sales-tax exemptions, raise tuition 5% and allow universities to raise tuition 10% more as long as large chunks go to financial aid, raise the state sales tax one penny for three years, and raise the cigarette tax to $1.50 or $2 a pack. What is easiest politically are the elimination of a few hundred million dollars of sales-tax exemptions, the tuition hikes, and a cigarette tax of $1 a pack, possibly the streamlined sales-tax collections. But that's not going to be enough to do what the state needs over the next year and make schools, colleges, and universities a priority. I hope the legislature does more than what it's signaling now is likely. As with the recovery package, half a loaf is better than none, but it's my job as a citizen to point out that we really need the whole loaf.

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Posted in Education policy at 12:24 AM (Permalink) |

March 5, 2009

Sherman Dorn is called a dirty name: behaviorist

Not really, but in this week's Education Sector forum on technology and assessment, Scott Marion of the National Center for the Improvement in Educational Assessment comes close. In reading Bill Tucker's report on the subject, I had previously been concerned that it was too close to boosterism for bells-and-whistles approaches, broad claims that we can address concerns about the quality of testing if we can just get stuff online. Yes and no, I thought (as I explained February 20). So when the online discussion this week mentioned one alternative, the quick-and-dirty approach of curriculum-based measurement (CBM, also called progress monitoring), I asked a question:

This type of formative assessment is not only too-often ignored by general-ed researchers, it's also being ignored by the think-tank community. If you read the NCIEA's The Role of Interim Assessments in a Comprehensive Assessment System: A Policy Brief (recently published), you'll see that the report entirely skips between a definition of formative assessment that is entirely informal and casual to the type of periodic/benchmark assessments that are much more complicated than CBM/progress monitoring. What's necessary to turn technology-based assessment away from the bells-and-whistles assumption and devote enough attention to the "here's what we can do now that has documented research support?"

Marion responded in part as follows

Sherman sounds like a supporter of CBM, so he should probably be happy that we stayed away from doing a critical analysis of this enterprise. I have only begun to look into CBM and what I've seen makes me very nervous. These multiple "measures" are treated as if the inferences drawn from each of the measures are based upon some sort of valid equating. Everything I've seen thus far-and admittedly I need to look into this much more--suggests that inferences made about student growth and not supported by a psychometric foundation.

Hmmn... there's a broad base of research on curriculum-based measurement, and Marion blithely skips by that. Essentially, CBM suggests a regime of regular testing that samples the entire year's curriculum. Is it possible to construct alternative forms that aren't precisely equated? Absolutely. But the same standard should be applied to so-called benchmark/periodic assessments, and as far as I'm aware, the NCIEA brief referred to above doesn't raise that issue at all. The deeper technical question is whether score movement reflects real achievement change and whether lack of score movement indicates real achievement stagnation, and that's a thorny issue for almost any system of measurement you can shake a stick at. I'll let Stan Deno, Lynn Fuchs, and other researchers in the area defend themselves, but there was something in Marion's answer that just didn't sit right. (Among other things, someone who claims to be an expert on assessment who has only "just" started looking at the CBM literature? It's been around for more than 20 years.)

Then there's the label slapped on at the end:

Finally, and related to Bill's report, CBM fits smack within a fairly outdated behaviorist conception of student learning.

I've apparently become a behaviorist in my free time. Quick: someone find me a deprogrammer! If you're curious, step back and think about the decisions a teacher has to make about classroom time and his or her energies. Might it be useful to give a teacher or a principal a tool to gather information efficiently, with little time stolen from classroom instruction? At least theoretically, a consistent sampling frame for CBM could include free-response items with interesting cognitive demands. Not a problem! Well, until you get to the nuts-and-bolts of practice, when you need to write and decide on items. Then it gets interesting. There is nothing wrong with quantitatively-scored items used for screening/informational purposes as long as those tests are not taken as the only source of legitimate information on children (and I don't believe I've seen that in the CBM literature). If Debbie Meier thinks it's valuable for third-grade students to learn their times tables, I think we can safely assume that some mix of information is fine, and the behaviorist label is pretty silly.

Besides, I think we experienced silly arguments about two decades ago around the construct of "authentic" assessment, and at least a few states spent millions and millions of dollars on performance exams that were beautiful in theory but problematic in different ways from multiple-choice exams. If I remember correctly, at least one or two studies from the U. Minnesota National Center on Educational Outcomes concluded that performance exams gave children with disabilities at least as many problems as multiple-choice exams.

So let's not reinvent the wheel and cast aspersions on our least favorite formats. It's the use and not the format that matters. I don't want to see a few billion dollars spent entirely on blue-sky test development projects when a few million dollars could develop something that is practical across millions of classrooms. Let's ensure that at least some of the current money is spent on stuff that's useful today and also invest in long-term development projects.

Incidentally, I should have given credit to Charles Barone for his suggestion of open-source testing. I knew I had seen it somewhere, but the only stuff I could find for the February 20 entry was something else.

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Posted in Education policy at 12:20 PM (Permalink) |

March 4, 2009

Higher-ed policy conundrum: I'm a cheap date, but my brother isn't

Yesterday's hearing on federal science funding highlights one of the dilemmas of increased funding: how do you do it in a way that is sustainable and does not lead universities to invest in a research infrastructure built on untenable assumptions (i.e., building lab space that will be empty when funding falls and hiring postdocs who will have to be let go once a single grant period ends).

But that's not the major problem I see. One of the inevitable tensions in the Obama administration's higher-education policies revolves around the relative investments in teaching institutions vs. research infrastructures. The vast majority of college students attend nonselective 2- and 4-year public institutions, and if one goal of President Obama is to increase the American public's time in higher education, that is where the time will expand. To do that without making the initiative counterproductive, both the federal government and state governments will have to put money into teaching institutions. For community-colleges, that investment is usually an easy sell, up to some limit; community colleges always argue for their budgets as cheaper than universities, student-for-student. And for state 4- year colleges and universities that offer no more than master's degrees, that's also fine.

But for public universities that either claim to or aspire to conduct significant research, the policy focus on undergraduate education is in tension with another Obama administration goal: increasing research in health and science, especially that connected with energy conservation or renewable energy production. That tension isn't direct: ask any president of a large university if it can both educate undergraduates and conduct stunning research in bench sciences, and the answers, "Absolutely." Rather, the tension is subtle, indirect in terms of the implied investments at the state level.  Last year, Kevin Carey asked why Illinois cheated Chicago State by favoring the University of Illinois, and his pointed question is another form of the one any state should ask: how do you divide the available dollars between education and research?

Part of the question is about teaching loads of individual faculty, but that's not really true in major research universities. Even if you tell a department chair to produce N student credit hours, that doesn't tell the chair how many classes an individual faculty member teaches. There are a variety of ways to provide time for faculty to research. Large universities can shift teaching from tenured and tenure-track faculty to contingent academic labor. Wealthy liberal-arts colleges have generous sabbatical opportunities to compensate for consistently heavy teaching at other times. Time is the cheaper resource to provide faculty, relatively speaking. To put it bluntly, as an historian whose research interests lie in the U.S. and where my projects sometimes rely on secondary analysis of quantitative data available for free, I'm a cheap date. Give me time, a reasonably up-to-date computer, occasional funding for travel, and I'm on my way.

But my brother's another story. He's a geomorphologist at Arizona State University, and his research activities have required spectometry and X-ray microscope time as well as equipment, graduate-student funding, and travel funds to collect specimens in the field. And a lab at the campus. The funding required to make this work is a different order of magnitude from what I do. Then there's comparative medicine; a former VP of finance at USF once told me that it is cheaper to house me in my office than a lab mouse in a tiny cage.

Because there is no feasible way to make bench sciences and medical research operate entirely on grants--you can try to do that for a time, but funding rates go down as well as up, and you can't expect institutions to rebuild an infrastructure from scratch every time that federal research funding spikes--there has to be some decision somewhere on research infrastructure investment. Here, sabbatical opportunities are nice but don't begin to satisfy the bottom-line needs of research. This is investment in equipment, in reasonable expenses, and in people as well--the professional lab employees, the graduate students--and bridge funding to preserve teams is one sensible (I'd say required) element in building a research infrastructure. 

Easy, says the observer who hasn't lived in Florida: just limit which institutions engage in capital-intensive research. Then you can concentrate the necessary funds, gain economies of scale, and we can satisfy both goals reasonably. I've seen two attempts to do that in the state in the past decade, and both efforts were swallowed whole by the maw of the Higher Education Status Machine. The Status Machine is fed by the nature of modern academic administration and also by the local booster role of higher education. In Florida, we have runaway institutional ambitions, where even a small community-college president in the panhandle dreams of turning his institution into a four-year college, and where half of the university presidents are insulted if you point out that their research programs are just a wee bit smaller than Princeton's. Then the legislature gets into the game: the soon-to-be (and now erstwhile) House Speaker maneuvered an "everyone can become a four-year-college" bill through the legislature last year, funneled millions to his friend at the now Northwest Florida State College, and was still less wasteful of state resources than the legislators who pushed through two new law schools and three new medical schools in the past decade. Huey Long would be so proud: in Florida, every man can be a king, just as long as she or he runs a public college or university.

Let me step back from my local and immediate cynicism. One of the persistent patterns in U.S. higher education is the upward institutional status trajectory over time. Many normal schools later became teachers colleges and then undergraduate state colleges before they transformed late in the 20th century into universities with significant research programs. Boosterism likewise not a new phenomenon. And the expansion of doctoral programs focused on post-degree employment at research institutions has played a role in this, even if it is much smaller than historic boosterism in higher ed and administrative status envy. But the latter two? Let's put it this way: no candidate would say the following at a campus interview for a public university presidency: "You're perfect as you currently are, and I will do nothing to advance the institution beyond where it is now." 

I am not certain if there is a solution to this dilemma. Theoretically, a state could simply divest itself of research ambitions. That appears to be what Arizona is doing, and it's going to be a disaster. A state could underfund its community and 4-year colleges, which is what Carey accuses Illinois of doing. A state could attempt to ration the upward ambitions of institutions, but you can see how short that idea lived in Florida. You could also pretend that a state's public institutions can be all things to all people. That's where Florida is now.

At the federal level, I suspect that this topic won't even be discussed, because there is no easy solution and the same booster dynamics exist at the federal level (witness the earmarks throughout the federal budget to help specific university-based projects). There's also the dynamics within an administration to consider: to put it honestly, someone like new White House aide Roberto Rodriguez might be articulate and sharp, but that's not going to hold a candle against a cabinet secretary with a Nobel Prize. It would be great to be a fly on the wall for the conversation, though.

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Posted in Higher education at 7:47 AM (Permalink) |

March 2, 2009

Raising a stink

My home office stinks right now. It's a temporary "new plastic object" stink from the large inflatable ball I'm sitting on in an effort to strengthen my back muscles and keep me from being completely sedentary while typing.

My on-campus office stank this morning. The electricity went out in the building sometime over the weekend, and somehow the HVAC smelled not only as if an animal had died in the ductwork but that someone had newly painted the dead animal as well. So I spent most of 6 hours figuring out how to conduct some work well away from the building. (If I were of a conspiratorial mental bent, I'd assume this was connected with the fact that my Outlook installation hasn't been able to connect with my campus account in about 3-4 months... but I found a workaround for that, and I figure an hour or two of lost work from moving around isn't a tragedy. And the staff were the ones stuck in the building for their work.)

There are two glorious thing about these stinks, however. One is that they are likely to be temporary. Offgassing plastic is highly unpleasant, but it ends. I know, I know; I'm ruining various organs in my body. But I like my back muscles, and I'd like them to like me back. Tradeoffs... And there are enough faculty, staff, and students who traipse through my ugly yellow-brick campus building that getting the HVAC working right will be a priority. 

The second glorious thing about these stinks is that I can smell them. Yes, this is an improvement in my quality of life, at least compared to last Tuesday, when several people told me I looked like death warmed over. By Friday, I was death microwaved. Today, I think I'm at least room-temperature.

But there's the other side of this; too many people work in fairly-permanently stinky buildings. (The official term is "sick building syndrome," but mold stinks.) I hope that the stimulus funding for renovations addresses the buildings on my campus, on my wife's long-term school campus, and other places where it can be permanently unhealthy to work or study.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:47 PM (Permalink) |

Take a breath (if you don't have asthma) and go on

I don't have asthma, but as my head cold morphs into the ordinary misery of seasonal allergies, I realize it's a darned nuisance not to be able to breathe comfortably. With luck I'll shortly be back to normal (or at least for what passes as normal for me), and in times like these, it pays to take a deep breath on receipt of almost any news and criticism. Evidently, my perspective lies somewhere between former Hill staffer and new DFER policy guru Charles Barone and NYC union activist Norm Scott, because I'm getting dished on by both. I'm not going to use the lazy journalist's excuse, "Because both sides are criticizing me, I must be right," in part because I'm not a journalist, in part because it's easily possible to be wrong about multiple things at once, and in part because while I disagree with Barone's and Scott's posts, they (generally) have the guts to say where they disagree with me. Oh, yeah, and they spell my name right. That counts for a lot with me.

Barone criticizes me (and others) for writing too much from an adult's perspective. I've written about that topic before (at length in Accountability Frankenstein and in more digestible chunks in One-Blog Schoolhouse), so let me provide a somewhat different gloss here: I could easily turn my blog over to several guest writers, my children and their friends. I suspect Barone's response to their criticisms of high-stakes testing would be, "Well, I know a little more about the world and your own best interest than you do." That statement would be absolutely right (at least in the first half) and an absolutely adult perspective.

(Incidentally, I agree with his substantive point in his entry that teacher happiness is not the point of either education policy or teacher education. I don't think that you can usually have effective teaching with completely miserable teachers, but I suspect or at least hope Barone would agree with me, and there's plenty of ground between avoiding total misery for teachers and seeing their euphoria as the primary goal of policy.)

Scott criticizes me (and others) for ignoring the fact that Arne Duncan was flawed as head of the Chicago Public Schools. Er, no. I'm fairly sure I'd have disagreed with him on a number of his decisions in the same way that I am fairly confident on where I'll disagree with him on federal education policy. But that open expectation of some disagreement does not mean the Obama administration is evil. Scott asks, "Exactly how much 'context' do these people need?" I'd say 20 years of Republican presidencies divided by 8 years of Bill Clinton. In comparison with Bill Clinton on the whole, Obama is good. And in contrast to the others, he's very, very good. That doesn't mean that I'm going to stay quiet when I think the administration is doing something wrong. It means I do have some perspective. Breathe, folks, breathe. For those who are worried about Arne Duncan, I think you'd do much better to putting your energies into worrying about Timothy Geithner instead.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:16 PM (Permalink) |