April 29, 2009

No such thing as a "failed search"

I used to hate "student evaluations" as the most ill-used expression in higher ed,* but I have a new pet peeve: "failed search," as in claims that the "second major search for a dean [of Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism] is on the verge of failure."

Piffle and lizard snot.** There is no such thing as a failed search, or at least 90% of the searches without a hire at the end are far from failures.

The phrase failed search implies that the job of a search committee is to run a process that ends in a hire, some hire, any hire, any hire at all, and no matter what the qualifications of candidates who applied, by golly, if you don't get that quarterback-of-a-dean (or chair or faculty member), you've just got to take the person who fogged the mirror the best. It's written there in policy. Or the state's regents expect it. Or it's better to make the wrong hire than to potentially lose a tenure-earning line to the provost's/dean's/Sheriff of Nottingham's greedy fingers. Or gravity will cease to function in the next academic year.

One of my colleagues is fond of quoting Lawrence Iannaccone as saying, "No hire is better than the wrong hire." I agree. The job of a search committee is to solicit and recruit applicants and then sort through them in a professional and legally appropriate manner. If there's a good fit with an applicant, and the institution comes to an agreement on salary, etc., hurray! But if the search ends without a hire, often that means that the search committee did its job properly. It's an inconclusive search, or a search that discovered something important about the field, or about the institution, that requires rethinking what's appropriate.

I have no idea what's going on with the dean's search in Berkeley, but the casual expression hides a stereotype of searches as conclusive or failed, and that just isn't so.

* As I wrote last week,

They're NOT evaluations!!!

Personnel evaluation at universities should be conducted by peers and chairs, not students, so we rule that out. And you KNOW that your students are evaluating the course in the real sense from the first day, and by the time they fill in the bubbles (or click on the bubbles online), they've already told their classmates what they think of the class.

They're ratings. Evaluation is a thoughtful reflection on what's happened or is happening, geared towards changing practice. Ratings can be part of that, but the student end-of-semester surveys are not the sum total of evaluation, and I wish people would stop using that term.

** Apologies to Bruce Coville fans. I don't think that there is a lizard species that has nasal mucous membranes.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Higher education at 11:35 PM (Permalink) |

The NY Post is shocked, shocked to find that donations are going on in here!

The New York Post is playing to a double standard this week in counting up donations from UFT to state politicians. Not only is there no examination of donations from others (Hi, Mayor Bloomberg and allies!), but one of the UFT's adversaries in mayoral-control politics is Democrats for Education Reform, which prides itself on getting down in the dirt and political.

So for the 37 Big Apple adult citizens who are not yet aware that there is shmuts in the big city, I have news for you: people donate to political campaigns. Organizations donate to politicians. If you don't have public financing of campaigns, you either have to have donations or all your major politicians will be billionaires. Well, maybe not all of them. Just your mayor.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 9:35 AM (Permalink) |

April 28, 2009


My apologies to everyone to whom I owe work and to readers who would like extended blog entries on the future of higher education, today's NAEP trends report, teacher demographics, and so forth: I've been squeezed from too many directions to have much coherent to say, apart from about 60 minutes this weekend where several entries wrote themselves. Each little thing that takes my attention has consequences down the line on tasks, and the effect of the cascade is delayed work. Welcome to higher education in the 21st century, folks, and my apologies for the construction in the hallway. We really didn't plan for the leaky ceiling, but we'll clean up the place as soon as everything is done. Or close to done.

Cascade is also a good metaphor for the consequences of our economic and budget woes. I'm becoming aware of a subtle shift in the attitude of faculty in some departments at my university, something that began when the university gave layoff notices to several dozen staff and now has a consequence for faculty careers (more than lower staff support). I've found my own attitude on some things shifting in parallel ways, and through this I'm discovering the inside of a changing zeitgeist. It's an interesting experience, I have no idea how representative this is, and I wonder how many other historians are having this dualism of having their perspective shift and then think, "Oh, this is how social history works."  For a variety of reasons related to confidentiality and my role as a chapter president, I can't be any more specific, but I can give another example: a friend of mine who once visited Ellen Goodman to complain about a column Goodman had written in the Boston Globe that had been critical of welfare recipients. After complaining, my friend heard Gooman reply something like the following: "That's well and good, but you have to understand that the majority of women now work, they go to work when their children are young, they manage the tensions that involves, and as a result they are less tolerant of other mothers who aren't making the same effort." Zing. That statement doesn't wipe out the points that a number of academics have written about welfare politics, but it captures one of the knock-on effects of growing female labor-force participation.

So while I have some other things to say about Mark Taylor and the future of the universities, I'm still in the midst of things that are more subtle and I think more transformative than Taylor's tendentious critique of higher ed.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in The academic life at 11:29 PM (Permalink) |

April 27, 2009

PCAST, mostly very good except for Rensselauer's president

Today, the White House announced President Obama's picks for the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), and with one exception, they look great to me.

The exception is Shirley Ann Jackson, whose scientific reputation is fine but whose administration of Rensselaur Polytechnic Institute is rife with signs of problems, from the close vote of no confidence in 2006 to the dismissal of the faculty senate in 2007, stripping a professor emeritus of e-mail privileges, and (just discovered a few months ago) the provision of a second home in the Adirondacks for her at a time when RPI was laying off dozens of staff members.

I don't think that PCAST's reputation is well-served by one of the poster children for administrative arrogance in higher ed.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 1:26 PM (Permalink) |

April 26, 2009

What are the costs of education at universities? A quibble

Sara Goldrick-Rab reports on Kevin Carey's visit to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. One thing about his comments and the Delta Project on higher-ed costs makes me wonder about the failure to talk about messy data with college costs, or rather what Goldrick-Rab reports on his comments:

Of course, Madison is a research university, a very good one, and research is expensive. So let's set all that research aside and look only at spending on what the feds classify as "instruction, academic support, and student services."

The problem is that it's not possible to rely on IPEDS reports to separate out the costs of research from the costs of instruction etc. If you want to read the relevant glossary items from IPEDS, you can scroll down this page to "instruction," but the gist is that IPEDS cost reporting for instruction can include a broad range of stuff you could describe as research-oriented including the salary of faculty (WITH time spent on research), salaries of academic deans, and even in some cases the depreciation of buildings when distributed to different functional categories. I don't know where graduate research assistant stipends and tuition waivers would be counted, but the point is that even without delving into support and student-services categories, lots of spending at research universities that is research oriented is counted as instruction for IPEDS purposes. Essentially, the IPEDS cost categories are functional to a moderate extent but not comparatively useful in the way that many assume.

That messiness makes it hard to have productive political conversations around instructional costs. On principle, Carey is right: students deserve the same general education wherever they go, and flagship public universities are often favored over community colleges and regional or directional state universities. But the key adverb is "often," and in some states it's a favored community college that receives interesting treatment (e.g., Northwest Florida State College and the Destin airport hangar... oops, educational building at the airport 15 miles from campus). And historical trends are relevant: many states ramped up raw-dollar investment in community colleges in the 1970s and 1980s as they were starting to disinvest in universities when examined per-pupil. That doesn't make the institutions equal by any means, but I suspect institutional leaders can point to inequities in how their sector has been treated by the legislature. They're different inequities, of course.

I don't mind Carey's asking the question about the relative costs of instruction -- even based on mediocre data, it's the right question. But I don't think it's easy by any means to have a single formula that apportions instructional costs per student FTE, advising and support costs per head-count, and research infrastructure with some other function. I'd love to be proved wrong with something that would be politically robust and not end up with all state support being zeroed out (in which case all institutions are certainly treated equally), so kibitzing is most welcome!

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Higher education at 9:50 AM (Permalink) |

Brevard County schools want to go out of business?

Apparently the Brevard school district has a problem when the nondenominational church renting space on Sundays from a Melbourne elementary school wants to attract new parishioners by talking about sex within marriage (hat tip). Never mind that this is now standard fare in churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.

Despite teaching many children of NASA workers (Brevard County includes the Kennedy Space Center), Brevard school officials must be afraid that even if they are nowhere near school on Sunday, students of the elementary school will somehow be polluted/corrupted if a mailing to adults mentions "sex" and the school name on the same page. As my wife shot back when I explained why I was laughing, "Don't they know where their students come from?"

I suspect that Brevard has no legal basis for discriminating against the church on the content of sermons, and I hope they are ridiculed to the point of backing down before the contract is up for renewal. I'm not Christian, but this is absurd.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 9:33 AM (Permalink) |

Two gems this morning

I have the distinct pleasure of reading the St. Petersburg Times from cover to cover most mornings (or later in the day). They are one of the few papers to keep a number of reporters covering education in a substantive way, and while reporters at other papers find themselves stretched between too many assignments (such as Adam Emerson and Lindsay Peterson of the Tampa Tribune, both of whom are excellent), the Times continues to invest in ways that I wish other newspapers would/could.

The Times/Miami Herald joint state-capitol bureau is another example of this investment, though that is a joint bureau that is less powerful than it used to be (e.g., with Gary Fineout out of the Herald). But it still manages to churn out great work, including its investigation of the deals between the now-indicted Ray Sansom and Bob Richburg. I would not be surprised if that investigation leads to professional awards, and it has earned my gratitude for its work.

The columnists are also nothing to be sneered at, and today's columns by Howard Troxler on higher education and Lucy Morgan on the state's legislature are gems.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Higher education at 9:10 AM (Permalink) |

April 22, 2009

Margins for error in policy

We're operating without water in my building for today and tomorrow, at least until the lab reports come back after the drop in pressure overnight. Faculty and staff know, so they'll get to know their colleagues in nearby buildings. I feel sorry for students who run to the right (usual) place and then hope to dip into the bathroom right before class without knowing in advance that the bathroom is unavailable; I hope they all give themselves a little extra margin for error in timing.

I wish the same for policymakers, that they give themselves and their desired/favored policies some margin for error. A policy that falls apart without perfection is a doomed policy, and while everyone understands this, it's sometimes hard to put in place. Here's the practical difference between the stimulus package and Geithner's management of financial policy: the stimulus package can do a lot of good even if implementation is imperfect. I may not get my desired high-speed rail line going from Tampa to New York or Chicago, but someone will get jobs, take the money and spend it, and thus help replace the demand we're losing in this downturn. I'm much more concerned about Geithner's management of the financial mess and the resuscitation of credit markets, because I think there is far less margin for error without nasty consequences (either a waste of money or ineffectiveness).

To some extent, the discussion of the difference between assurances and firm enforcement in federal education policy is an issue of margin for error. I'm an historian, so I can go back to the prehistory of the 1960s (for all you young wonkish types) and Gary Orfield's first book, The Reconstruction of Southern Education (1969). As Orfield explains, Southern states resisted and tried to work their way around the requirements of the Civil Rights Act's Title VI (nondiscrimination), and it took some years for the federal government to make a bona fide threat of enforcement before school districts would desegregate in response to demands by the Office of Civil Rights. Someone who expected instant enforcement would have been sorely disappointed. Someone who expected that lawyers and the federal government would have to push and push hard for several years to begin the ball rolling -- and really rolling -- would have been more realistic.

There's isn't very good language for talking about this with education policy other than the vague terms implementation and transition. Some fields do have practical terms, though. For example, in meteorology the term I have heard tossed around with regard to hurricane forecasting is the "path of least regret." That means that if the choice for hurricane forecasters is between alerting people to evacuate when there is a definite chance it's unnecessary or failing to alert people to evacuate when they might really need to, the forecasters see evacuation or other preparations as the path of least regret. That term does not mean that forecasters always pick the path of least regret, but the language allows them to discuss choices in a clear fashion.

I'll be clear: while I agree with some of the mandates in ARRA money, I've already gone on the record as skeptical of unique student-teacher record linkage. But because regulation is a fact of life in both state and federal education policy, I think it's important to step back occasionally and think about the broader issues involved. That's part of why I've come to think that accountability systems need have a positive defense that teachers and schools can use, because it can allow systems and individuals to manage risk in ways that benefit students. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Basic takeaway: all regulatory policies need some margin for error.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in The academic life at 11:22 AM (Permalink) |

April 18, 2009

Research blog started

For those who want to walk into the weeds with me on a new research project, feel free to follow my new research blog hosted at USF. Dorn's dangerously public research blog has the subtitle "conducting research without a net," and I am likely to fail in public view. [Update 4/20/09: the blog server's database had a problem over the weekend, but it's fixed this morning. I swear, my entry did not break the internets.] See today's entry for an an example of a "duh, this is why you don't look at your project at 9:30 pm" story. That's not quite true: looking at the project at 9:30 on Saturday showed me something I didn't pick up the last time I worked on the data at a perfectly sane time. But that's what being a tenured faculty member is supposed to allow and even encourage: taking greater risks either in terms of potential failure or the time required for a project.

For those who are curious about the background for this project, we currently don't have a good way to translate administrative reports of enrollment by grade into a trustworthy measures of graduation. Chris Swanson's work doesn't count without considerable assumptions, but that's not a shame at all, since no one else's does with the exception of measures adjusted for interstate migration (such as Rob Warren's), and that's not feasible except with states and other large population units. Longitudinal measures such as the NGA and federal regulatory graduation statistics will go a long way to fixing this, but there will continue to be an important need to be able to work with administrative data. And it's an interesting intellectual puzzle.

In my spare time in the past few years I've been trying an analytical approach using whatever meager skills I have in formal demography. There are limits to that, and I've decided to try a different approach, simulating a range of conditions of potential high schools and looking at relationships that way. This'll start with the simplest approach, a hypothetical world where the student population at schools never change, each ninth-grade cohort has identical experiences, and no one transfers in or out. If I can look at that artificial world, I might be able to relax those assumptions one at a time.

But I need to be able to generate data for that world that is plausible, as opposed to something I could generate by my imagination. So I'm playing around with data from the National Longitudinal Sample of Youth cohort beginning in 1979 to have a set of nationally-sampled data from real, historical adolescents with a year-by-year longitudinal record of school attendance and high school graduation. From that, I'll generate a set of synthetic (or Monte Carlo/simulated) cohorts with a range of grade retention and graduation. Consider it a pilot, or proof-of-concept, or just playing around.

If your spectator sport of choice is not baseball or opera, follow the new blog. As I've said, I'm as likely to fall flat on my face as not.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 10:21 PM (Permalink) |

If you're an unemployed teacher or academic, run for office!

Which unemployed or underemployed people could plausibly run for office in 2010?

The budget outlook in Florida is better than it used to be, thanks to the federal recovery funds that have already flowed and are likely to flow; essentially, federal funds are plugging about half of the gap legislators were facing for the next fiscal year. But in our state (and many others), even with the better budget proposal there are still going to be hundreds of teachers laid off (which is better than thousands), and in our state, a number of other teachers who will be forced into retirement through technical means (including one of my daughter's teachers, several others I know, and probably a principal I know). If the state budget is closer to the worse proposal still alive, there will be dozens or a few hundred university faculty and professional employees who will also be out of work.

From a party perspective, there is an obvious reason why unemployed individuals are not usually great candidates for public office: their primary concern is (rightfully) getting a job! But our state legislature is so gerrymandered that a large minority of legislators waltz into office without any opposition whatsoever. Not just meaningless competition: literally no opponent. In this environment, a party that doesn't currently have a certain seat and can't recruit an experienced candidate might gain a little leverage by convincing an unemployed professional to run for office.

From a potential candidate's perspective, it's different. If you're an unemployed teacher, professor, or researcher facing unemployment, and you want to run against an incumbent, I can give you one great reason to run: you'll meet loads of people. The best way to run for a Florida House seat is to walk door to door for weeks on end. The districts are small enough that you really can walk through a district over an election season, certainly if you start today, and if you can't win the seat (which has a small income, but it's there and it carries insurance), you might meet your next employer while you're running. The same is true in many other states. And if you try to qualify by petition rather than paying a fee, you'll definitely have to meet people in your district.

Case in point: I know a former graduate student from USF who ran for office in a House seat against an incumbent who was well-liked and endorsed by several local unions. The former grad student was an adjunct at a community college with almost no fundraising connections and little money, and he got into the race very, very late. Even with those disadvantages, he racked up 48% of the vote. A few weeks earlier, a little more organizing, and he could have won.

So if you get a pink slip or are an adjunct, think about it: you could be a legislator, and even if not, running for office might be how you get your next job.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Random comments at 6:27 PM (Permalink) |

More on Sansom and Richburg indictments

The Northwest Florida Daily News coverage of the Sansom and Richburg indictments is more extended than that of any other Florida paper other than the Times and Herald, and it has the coverage of local reaction that other papers couldn't provide; it's clear that while many have sympathy with Sansom (not all!), NWFSC President Bob Richburg is far from a beloved figure in the community.

One other brief comment: The Times/Herald capitol bureau's Alex Leary deserves enormous credit for his investigative reporting. I would not be surprised if this coverage wins awards. And this is the type of stuff that requires a long-term investment in reporters, an investment that we are less and less likely to see in the next 5-10 years. (The St. Petersburg Times is unusual in that it is owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute. It's still being squeezed by the decline of newspaper revenues, but it doesn't have the extent of problems that most other papers have right now.)

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Higher education at 7:59 AM (Permalink) |

April 17, 2009

Four hours

It took me four hours today to write and polish a disposition e-mail to the author(s) of a submission. This was a manuscript that I enjoyed very much but for a variety of reasons could not publish, and I owed the author(s) some good advice, or at least the best advice I could give. When I began this editing gig, I'd frequently spend that much time on a disposition e-mail for almost any manuscript, and I'm still spending lots of time on R&R (revise-and-resubmit) e-mails.

And while I spend some time on rejection letters, they usually don't require as much time as an R&R request (would that be an R&R R?), because the key thing about R&R is to provide as focused feedback as I can -- that's both fair to authors and sanity-saving for me. Rejections require an explanation of why a work is either not appropriate for the journal or technically weak, but there is less of the social-contract obligation of an R&R. After all, if the author(s) revise and submit to another journal, they will (quite properly) have an entirely different set of eyes looking at the material.

The next few e-mails are for R&Rs, and I think they'll be shoved back to sometime in the weekend, because they may take some time, too!

Sansom and Richburg indictment and grand jury report...

... are available online thanks to the St Petersburg Times.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Higher education at 2:59 PM (Permalink) |

Northwest Florida State College president indicted on perjury

As several news sources are now reporting, a Leon County, Florida, grand jury is indicting former Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom and Northwest Florida State College President Bob Richburg on charges of official misconduct over the shuttling of state funds to the college. In addition, the grand jury is indicting Richburg for perjury. The second is the big surprise, and it signals something very important about how Richburg could not stop being arrogant when he was testifying in front of the grand jury. Below is a Youtube clip from the Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times Capitol Bureau of Leon County Attorney Willie Meggs on the indictments:

Since Sansom's resignation at the beginning of the year, I've heard from several people that he got caught up in dealings with the developer and Richburg. I'm willing to believe that to a limited extent; the grand jury obviously believes that he's culpable for starting to implement Richburg's plans, and there's a simple word with which one can respond to these suggestions: no. Let's hope this discourages for a few years both legislators and college administrators from trying to foster back-scratching relationships that exploit the public.

Are GPAs dirty while the SAT-I score is clean?

Before I dive into a minor patch of weeds, some basic issues: Above all else, the vast majority of college and university admission slots are not at selective institutions, so the debate over SAT use for deciding admissions should largely be tangential to policy concerns about postsecondary attainment. This is akin to spending all one's time thinking about the undergraduate curriculum at Harvard or the civic engagement of students at Oberlin. Even if you look at the institutions that require SATs, I suspect the vast majority of slots are at selective institutinos only in the barest sense of rejecting some applicants. But the use of SAT scores is a political hot topic because it stabs into our ideas about meritocracy (as Nicholas Lehmann has written) and also because it has been used for status purposes by institutions or pushed down on institutions (either by state politicians or U.S. News & World Report).

So when Michael Kirst gives us a heads-up that a forthcoming book will argue that SAT I scores have no added predictive value for finishing a degree (not first-year grades, but finishing a degree), I am not surprised one whit. I will wait for the book to see if the evidence is convincing, but I don't think that it will change either the use or the dominant themes in the debate. When SAT scores are used for things it was never intended to and for which there is no documented validity (as a placement tool in college, or for use in judging high schools), you're talking about culture rather than rationality and evidence. A case in point is Chad Aldeman's recent discussion of the SAT debate:

It may or may not be biased against minorities and low-income youth, and kids can be coached on how to improve their score. But, what else do we have that's better, that elite colleges and universities would trust as a replacement? High school GPAs are tarnished by grade inflation and high schools themselves are yoked to reputations. Personal statements are no less coachable than SATs, and extracurricular activities favor the children of parents with time and money. Even worse, none of these things are objective; a student in Abilene, TX cannot be compared to a student from Anchorage, AL on these things. The SAT, on the other hand, is a national test.

Since Aldeman had previously argued that selective institutions should set a basic "we think you can do the work" threshhold and then run a lottery, this is a fascinating defense of a largely defenseless practice. Here's the gist: plenty of research documents that despite all of its problems, a high school GPA is (roughly) at least as good as the SAT in predicting first-year grades. But while many people understand that imperfect data can still be useful (and I suspect that would be Aldeman's defense of the SAT), there is a theme in the excerpt above that appears commonly in debates about admissions standards: GPAs are dirty, SATs are clean.

The argument is almost always laid out the way that Aldeman does: high school GPAs are inconsistent from place to place. Even course titles don't mean the same thing; first-year algebra in one place can be remarkably different from algebra in another. Grades are often a reward of students' putting up with seat-time rather than a demonstration of accomplishments. In contrast, the SAT is a nationally-normed test, and whatever weaknesses it has, it more than makes up for that in its being objective.

One practical problem with this argument is that college is not a set of SAT-like tests. College is messy in all sorts of ways, and for all its flaws, there is something in a high school transcript that has more information about a student than an SAT score. We'll have to wait for the book to come out to see more, but there's a reason why a regular diploma is a more valuable credential than a GED, and the GED is also a nationally-developed test.

A second problem with the "GPA dirty, SAT clean" argument is that the use of the SAT can most harm the chances of students who come from high schools with the lowest graduation rates, schools where one could argue a relatively high GPA says a great deal about relative persistence. As Ted Sizer argued almost a quarter-century ago in Horace's Compromise, suburban schools are filled with the types of classroom treaties that result in grade inflation. But in a school where roughly half of the students never graduate, grades tell you a great deal. They may not tell you if someone who finished algebra I with an A can derive the standard binomial-equation solution (the SAT-I doesn't tell you that, either), but they tell you how much a student has persistence, guts, bureaucratic navigation skills, etc. And if someone from such a school writes an essay (we're talking about selective institutions, again), I suspect it would be far less likely to be coached or professionally edited than the essay of a student in a comfortable suburb. 

As an historian, my professional judgment is that the debate over the SATs has almost nothing to do with whether there is a rational justification for its use in admissions. Instead, the public debate is almost entirely over our ideas of merit, and the framing by one side of the debate as a claim that the high-school GPA is dirty while the SAT is clean is confirmation of that judgment.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Higher education at 9:15 AM (Permalink) |

April 16, 2009

Migration and graduation

I'm experimenting with publishing working papers on the Social Science Research Network, with the first one, Migration and Graduation Measures, freely downloadable on some technical issues with graduation rates. The gist: without knowing accurate information about migration (and transfers), non-longitudinal graduation rates are going to be inherently problematic.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 2:54 PM (Permalink) |

April 11, 2009

Bewildered at arguments about rent-seeking

Not to accuse the conservative left hand of not knowing what the conservative right hand is doing, but I am bewildered by the latest publication of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. (Hat tip.) The report repeats an argument I have heard before why student aid is horrible: it feeds rent-seeking behavior from colleges and is therefore counterproductive in terms of larger spending patterns. Apart from the thin evidentiary base and failure to consider alternative hypotheses (primarily, that public colleges universities raised tuition as state appropriations per student have fallen), there's a gaping inconsistency between the "it just encourages them" argument against student aid and arguments in favor of publicly-funded vouchers that pay part of private-school K-12 tuition.

Some K-12 voucher programs are conditioned on schools' accepting vouchers as complete payment, but that is not true with either Florida's tax-credit voucher program or its voucher program for students with disabilities. Yet--not to my complete surprise--I don't think that anyone who has argued that college student promotes rent-seeking basis has lifted a finger to see if there is rent-seeking behavior with K-12 voucher programs. This is not a call for anyone to research this, particularly, since I don't think the salient issues with K-12 vouchers are the possibility of rent-seeking.  But it's an inconsistency in conservative education policy arguments that is rather curious.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 10:19 AM (Permalink) |

April 10, 2009

Remedial math in community colleges

The anonymous community-college Dean Dad wrote this morning about remedial math classes in community colleges, and I'll use this as an excuse opportunity to bring together several thoughts I've spread around in different places or have not articulated:

  • Remedial education in community colleges should be the logical place where we try Carol Twigg's approach to improving essential common instruction.
  • We should stop blaming a mythical lack of alignment between high school and college for remedial-education needs in community colleges. I'd bet a bundle that every high school counselor tells students that algebra is required for college, and I'd bet a bundle that students who pass algebra and then are slotted for remedial education in community college knew far more algebra at the end of the algebra course than when they took the placement test for CC. My alternative hypothesis: students forget, especially if their hold on algebra in high school was by the fingernail. I'd be happy to be disproved wrong here, but someone has to do the research to keep stating the myth without my tossing tomatoes.
  • There should be no conflict between the National Mathematics Advisory Panel's final report recommendation emphasizing fractions as a central pre-algebra skill, on the one hand, and the desire to teach probability and statistics, on the other hand. How can you teach probability without students' understanding fractions? 
  • My guess based on observing weaknesses in communicating math-ed expectations is that one key stumbling block in learning fractions and teaching them is grasping/explaining how they can represent multiple properties and how the same properties of a fraction can be represented in different ways. If someone understands that 2 is a fraction, and that 67% not only is close to 2/3 as an abstract value but also can represent an approximation of the same darned thing (for a whole load of values for "thing"), then the concept of rational numbers is a small step, or at least a much smaller step when someone responds to the first statement with "huh?"
Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Higher education at 11:59 AM (Permalink) |

More notes on college visits

I'm continuing my series of notes on college visits (the last one was from the fall). Thanks to frequent-flyer mileage, my daughter's spring break, and a few other things, we're spending almost an entire week in a part of the country where my daughter has never visited. I've been in one metro area before, but not for an extended period of time, nor with enough time and transportation to investigate the place well. And for one of the colleges, we went a good ways away from the metropole to a part of the country and a geomorphological area I haven't visited, either. We still have a few days left here, but the schedule is much looser tomorrow than it has been, so I'm not stealing that much from my sleep to type out these notes.

  • Reason #1 to visit the bookstore (confirmed now, after multiple college visits): see what's assigned. See which disciplines assign texts in all campuses, which assign trade paperbacks. See which English departments assign all Great Canon Collections (i.e., Norton anthologies, Riverside Shakespeare, etc.), which assign all non-collections, and which are a mix. See how many books don't come in on time (only possible if you're visiting close to the start of a term). See which bookstores have prominent posters advising students on financial aid what to do under various circumstances. (With the except of the last, creating broader access to this information is a hidden benefit of all the attempts to lower text costs for students: if colleges have to post what faculty are requiring, everyone will have access to the same information my daughter and I have acquired by browsing shelves. I still like browsing, but...)
  • Reason #2 to visit the bookstore on a public campus: chat up the bookstore manager. Ask what students are reading for pleasure. Ask what's the number-one error students make in buying books. If there are multiple staff members, browse quietly and listen.
  • One last item on bookstores: I've now come across two college bookstores without a general reading section, and the bookstore manager confirmed that as students have started ordering their pleasure reading online, it makes no economic sense for the bookstore to devote space to general reading. She's happy ordering books one-by-one for students who don't want to give up their credit card #s online, but she can't afford to have that chunk of space devoted to Calvin and Hobbes, Al Gore, etc.
  • After telling my daughter my previously hidden curriculum for making sure she sits in on a class at each campus--that by the time she goes to college, she'll have spent enough time in college classes that she can't feel like an imposter--she still wants to go to classes every campus. Then again, since the topics of classes included Mort d'Arthur, Shakespeare, and poetry, I'm not surprised. (I wish that someone would create a "video capture" setups that would work in a seminar or studio class; while I have the time and frequent-flyer mileage to take my daughter to various colleges, that is NOT available generally, and as I have said repeatedly here, there is something shameful in the fact that iTunes has perpetuated the myth of college classes as lectures.)
  • Then there's yet another reason for a prospective student to visit a class: so the parent can do more shmoozing during the free time.
  • Thought during one campus visit: "Wow. That's a unique demographic profile for this type of school, and I never would have thought about it before visiting, but it makes perfect sense."
  • Thought during another campus visit: "Well, that would have gotten the school in trouble 40 years ago. Probably did, too."
  • Explanation to my daughter about a different demographic pattern (at a different college) from the one referenced above: in the same way that there's chain migration, there's also chain application/matriculation, in part a deliberate institutional strategy.
  • One tourguide early on mentioned the famous campus quirky tradition that was a plot point in a novel written by an alum (and in the college's bookstore). Then again, I have yet to visit a small four-year campus that doesn't have at least one quirky student tradition, and I've seen enough quirkiness at large places, too.
  • Undergraduate research in science is the new astronomy in small colleges: ubiquitous and visible on campus. 
  • My daughter has seen far more birds of prey this trip than I have.
  • Only once in eight official or unofficial campus visits has the following explanation been relevant: "They were frozen vegetables put in a steam tray."
  • An admissions office in early spring can be a madhouse, with a mix of high school juniors looking and high school seniors deciding. I think I like the chaos a bit more than the more rehearsed admissions presentations at other times, or at least it gave me an opportunity a few times to gather a different type of information than I otherwise would have.

One more reflection: The only "safety-school" application possible is the total number of applications. How would you feel if a financial advisor told you to sink your investment portfolio into three companies and only three companies: a "safe" low-risk bond; and two companies with stock and varying levels of assumed risk? That's bonkers: you choose the overall level of risk you want and diversity across and within classes, and those of us without enough money to diversify by individual company invest in mutual funds (and now ignore the statements we receive). We've been talking about this explicitly in my family (if not with the same metaphor) to encourage sanity and from a realistic sense of how the admissions offices work in the colleges in which my daughter is interested. First, for the sanity: one of the educators in my daughter's high school evidently has had too much contact with parents who really believe that their children can improve their chances by adding one more AP class or adding one more extracurricular activity instead of challenging themselves to a reasonable extent and being themselves very well. So I've given my daughter full permission to stop at X AP classes (X being many more than I or her mother took).

That's reasonable not only because the "climbing the class rank" game is not a healthy approach to high school but also because college selectivity never has been and never should have been thought of in the way it became common to before or during my generation. High school counselors are still pushing the "safety school" and "stretch school" approach, and that advice incorrectly implies that the selection process has a monotonic function of likelihood (i.e., that you can predict the ranking of difficulty in getting into a set of schools both by attributes of a student and by the characteristics of a college). Schools that operate by a formulaic approach may do that, but for them, you know that the only things that count are GPA and SAT/ACT scores. If there's any qualitative judgment, it's both sanier and more rational to assume that if a prospective student passes a certain minimum threshold where the admissions officer thinks, "Okay, this student can do the work," everything else is a matter of admissions decisions on who would be a "good fit," and all of that to families just means a crapshoot. So treat it as such! Demonstrate you can do the work, and then be yourself and a very good yourself.

Chad Alderman has an interesting proposal on that point: that above the threshhold that a prospective student presents a reasonable expectation of success in college, colleges should just operate lotteries.

(P.S. Community colleges are no longer safety schools, not because they're turning away students but because they're not being given enough money for next year to have all the classes students need. A hunting license for classes is not safety.)

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Higher education at 1:46 AM (Permalink) |

April 9, 2009

When historians comment on draft regulations...

Kelly Woestman, H-Net's current president, just wrote a wonderful comment on NARA's proposal to reorganize the management of (and possibly centralize) presidential libraries.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in History at 9:24 AM (Permalink) |

April 7, 2009

Mediocre education reporting #357

Sam Dillon's story this morning on the evident pending Giant Teacher Shortage IV: Postapocalyptic Horror... uh, pending retirement of many teachers struck me as extraordinarily poor reporting on a National Commission on Teaching and America's Future report because Dillon wrote his lede from the first two pages of the report.

Here's what the report says, or the gist of it: let's develop alternative models of socializing new teachers, models that take advantage of the demographics of teaching.

Here's the lede in the article: "Over the next four years, more than a third of the nation's 3.2 million teachers could retire, depriving classrooms of experienced instructors and straining taxpayer-financed retirement systems, according to a new report."

Do you see the same problem I do? The main argument of the report is not mentioned until paragraph #4 of Dillon's story. (In addition, like many other reporters Dillon fails to mention whether the report was peer-reviewed.) Then Dillon apparently called up Michael Podgursky for a publishable quotation, who dutifully responded with his usual skepticism about demographic Chicken-Littleism.

Except in this case, the primary Chicken Little was the reporter. Look at the chart in Appendix B, on p. 18, and you'll see quite a bit of room for optimism. For those who need a hint: the Baby Boom echo cohort is now beginning careers.

Update: Apparently USA Today has the same take on the report as Dillon, and like the Times, it fails to note that the report did not appear in a refereed journal. C'mon, reporters: raise your game when reporting on research.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 7:00 AM (Permalink) |

April 6, 2009

One teacher's response to Ron Matus's article

There's been lots of coverage of the Ron Matus story March 29 on firing teachers in Florida, but there's been no follow-up online about the letters to the editor that were printed April 4 (last Saturday), and at this point, I can't even find the letters on the Times website. But I think one needs to be highlighted, because it's from a teacher and makes a few important points:

The premise in the article [by Ron Matus] is that tenure makes it too hard to fire bad teachers, yet the few examples given don't demonstrate that, but rather, simply show inaction on the part of school districts.

If the writer had found districts attempting, but failing, to fire bad teachers, he might have a point. I see this drive to get rid of tenure as an effort to instill fear in teachers and keep them silent. Teachers living in fear for their jobs can't afford to speak out.

Getting rid of tenure (read: due process) might make it easier to dismiss the rare teacher who shouldn't be in the profession. It would also make it easier to dismiss the good teachers--even the great ones, because the great ones are the ones who stand up and advocate for their students, themselves and their profession, and in doing so sometimes step on toes...

John Perry, Tampa

I've known John Perry for a number of years; he's an activist in the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, but I don't think he was when we met. I think Perry's wrong about the order of magnitude of "the rare teacher who shouldn't be in the profession" (emphasis added), but since a good portion of teachers leave the field within a few years, I don't think that there's a shortage of ways to discourage teachers from continuing.

More broadly speaking, I think more sophisticated critics of teachers and their unions understand that administrators are the ones who fail to fire teachers, but Perry's other point is important: while K-12 teachers do not have academic freedom in the same sense that higher-ed faculty do, they're the ones I often hear a certain style of reformers praise for precisely the type of dissent that would be in danger without due process.

So let me phrase the question in the following way: does anyone want administrators to be able to fire teachers summarily after teachers do the following?

  • Refuse to change a grade to let an athlete play.
  • Complain that the new math textbook series is confusing to new teachers and likely to lead to poor teaching.
  • Sign and date a request that a child be evaluated for eligibility for special education services.
  • Complain when girls have fewer opportunities than boys.*

As far as I am aware, the only case above for which K-12 teachers are clealry protected when they speak out is the last one, and that's because of a Supreme Court decision stemming from Title IX; I suspect that the are likely to be protected if they push for assessment to gain services for a child, but I don't know of anything as clear-cut as a Supreme Court decision. And I don't see people who are in favor of "tenure reform" rushing to replace workplace due process with greater whistleblower protections.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 10:01 PM (Permalink) |

An advertisement for history

My thanks to the indefatigable Paul Krugman, who writes soberly about how close we came and may still be to a repeat of the 1930s:

[K]nowledge is the only thing standing between us and Great Depression 2.0. It's only to the extent that we understand these things a bit better than our grandfathers--and that we act on that knowledge--that we have any real reason to think this time will be better.

I am not an economic historian, but it strikes me that if we get out of the current mess with a minimum of pain, it will be due to government stimulus, fast action by the Fed (and other central banks, though Bernanke is clearly going far beyond other central bankers) to increase the money supply, and plain luck. I'll take the luck right now, but the other stuff is policy and is informed by serious understanding of the Great Depression. Bernanke comes from the monetarist side of the economic house, while Krugman, DeLong, and others come from the firmly Keynesian side, but there can be no doubt that Bernanke's aggressiveness is informed by his own thinking about economic history, as Krugman's and others is informed by their own.

Let's just hope that their understanding of economic history from the late 1920s and early 1930s is a little less urgently needed in a year or so.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in History at 9:22 PM (Permalink) |

April 5, 2009

Fish ferociously flubs

Excuse me while I pick my jaw up off the ground after reading Stanley Fish's latest piece, wherein he argues that because some substantive academic arguments are heated, we should see through the University of Colorado faculty committee's misreading of a typical scholarly debate as research misconduct. One can make a number of plausible arguments about the university's response to the committee report (e.g., that it ignored the majority's view that the appropriate punishment was a demotion and suspension, not firing), but to claim that the committee erred while passing off the sleight-of-mouth that he admitted being "not competent to judge Churchill's writings" is just astounding. If a peer committee with more expertise in the area than Fish is not competent to judge research misconduct in such a case, who should be allowed to pass judgment? 

There are other fallacies in the piece: Fish's defense of Churchill doesn't match the central argument the jury was exposed to (political bias and pressure motivating administrators), and I still don't understand why it should matter to the University of Colorado that Doris Kearns Goodwin is still making moolah after admitting plagiarism. Dick Cheney is still earning a pension after encouraging torture. Would that excuse my waterboarding a neighbor? Sheesh.

In protest of this illogic, I am going to exile myself from Florida for a week to Minnesota.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Higher education at 10:20 PM (Permalink) |

April 2, 2009

Academic problems are not prostate cancer

I'm sure you needed to be reminded of that, but there's a question here (one I discussed in my talk today): Should there ever be a thing such as "watchful waiting" when a teacher sees a student having problems?

I think the answer has to be no. At her talk this afternoon, University of Pittsburgh special education faculty member Naomi Zigmond argued that special educators need to be relentless, a word she chose deliberately. Someone working with children who are nonreaders or have extraordinary problems in math cannot rest when students cannot perform important tasks or don't understand a concept. Yes, child development is an aid to education, but it is no guarantee, and for a young child, time is too precious to assume that waiting three or six months will magically make an academic deficit disappear. 

There is a political reason as well. There are a few all-too-easy arguments that critics of high-stakes testing can make, and all of the arguments within easy reach have horrid consequences: accountability ignores gifted children, or accountability lets parents off the hook, or some other statement that I just don't subscribe to. On the other hand, I think it is viable (and intellectually defensible) to say that accountability based on test-score formulas is worse than accountability based on concrete teacher responsibilities. But to make that argument, there have to be concrete teacher responsibilities, and at its base is the refusal to wait for problems to resolve themselves.

That doesn't mean that teachers panic if a child takes more than three minutes to understand Maxwell's equations. It means that when you have good-enough informtion that a child's achievement is stagnating, you change what you're doing. What's good enough? I'll tackle that another time, in short order...

April 1, 2009

Sharpton paid off? Please tell me this is an April Fool's joke

The New York Daily News is reporting this morning that former NYC Schools Chancellor Harold Levy is involved in a $500,000 payoff set of donations to the Rev. Al Sharpton's organization, with payments beginning shortly after Sharpton and Joel Klein launched the Education Equality Project in June 2008. With friends like Levy,...

In other news, I am hereby announcing my support for the public flogging of teachers whose students' test scores decrease from year to year, my hope that NYC invests an addition $1 billion in the ARIS system, my trust in the market to determine the true worth of schools within a voucherized environment, and my death last Thursday from reading Michele Foucault. In lieu of flowers, my family is asking that donations be made in my name to the John Birch Society, except for my son, who would appreciate iTunes cash cards instead.

Okay, it looks like the DN story is serious. Yikes. That'll take the wind out of the Education Equality Project (EEP) conference starting today. Then again, maybe "eep!" is the reaction of participants and fans of the Klein-Sharpton effort.

Listen to this article Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy at 8:31 AM (Permalink) |