November 30, 2009

Great day in physics!

Last Tuesday was the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, and today it's the turn for physics. Yeah, I know: you have already probably heard about the record collision at the Large Hadron Collider announced this morning. But that's not what I'm talking about. It's my oldest nephew's 25th birthday, and I get to brag on him. Lucas Parker is a graduate student under the wing of Lyman Page at Princeton, working on the Atacama Cosmology Telescope Project and chosen for one of the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship program slots this year to work on a polarimeter prototype (if I remember correctly something that could theoretically go on a space vehicle). 

Happy birthday, Lucas!

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Posted in Higher education at 11:01 AM (Permalink) |

November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

When I was a young(er) adult, Elizabeth and I would visit her maternal grandparents for Thanksgiving. There were some significant differences between those meals and the Thanksgiving traditions I grew up with. First, Elizabeth's relatives could cook, and while my mother is a wonderful human being and could make sure that a bird was prepared in a way that didn't kill anyone other than the bird itself, there was a reason why the main meals I learned how to make when I was a teenager involved ramen. Second, at least as much effort was expended in that house in the Poconos on preparing foods that weren't the bird as on the bird itself. That was probably wise, since Elizabeth had been vegetarian for a few years before I traveled with her to her grandparents' house. But among other things, it meant that I had the opportunity to taste homemade pie baked the same day. (Baking was one of the other skills I never learned when growing up, though some of my mother's more distant relatives became bakers, and very good ones, too. The Food Thing was not my parents' thing, and that was fine, because as a result I became very familiar with the suburban pizza joint and the taco joint and eventually a broad range of cuisines outside my family's tradition of... okay, no tradition to speak of in terms of what could be made in a kitchen, though my maternal grandmother made something she called kugel, which had calories and in Douglas Adams's words was almost but not quite entirely unlike every other kugel I have eaten in my life. Did I also tell you why I blame sexism for my deprived taste buds in my youth? My maternal grandfather was a wonderful cook; I only had his cooking once, cold schav, and it was wonderful. But he was a man, and his wife cooked.)

Third -- and here is the part of cultural tolerance that anyone who is in a long-term relationship and visits the in-laws/other's family will understand --  Elizabeth's grandparents drank something strange. No, I don't mean that as a euphemism for alcoholism, or the fact that they had crystal that they obviously reserved for alcohol and enjoyed, which was all just fine with me, because I enjoy looking at glass with odd angles in it, and an occasional distilled beverage is just fine with me. I mean that they truly drank something strange on Thanksgiving: sweet pink champagne.

Elizabeth had warned me some weeks before we drove up State Route 9 (the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Northeast Extension before it was 476) through the Lehigh Valley and through a tunnel under a ridge and then along 209 and the left turn at Broadheadsville onto 115 to Effort (supposedly the Last Effort to gain a post office, now certainly one of those stations being closed), along the river, and up Merwinsburg Road to New York Blvd to the wood-plank house with the straight row of pine trees (another phenomenon Elizabeth had warned me about: there is something sacrilegious about a row of pine trees, though I knew it had been planted as a windbreak from the days that the street was a dirt road). Not only did her grandparents Margaret and Henry live in an exurban landscape in a part of the Poconos where you really wanted to wear warm and very bright clothing in late fall, and not only did her grandparents keep a loaded rifle on the steps leading down from the kitchen to the basement (what her grandparents could do with a loaded rifle when they weren't that steady on their feet at that point in their lives, I don't know, but they were used to it, while it probably kept me usefully nervous), but they stocked several bottles of sweet pink champagne in the cellar. My apologies to those who are particular about their terminology: I should probably call it sweetened pink sparkling wine rather than champagne, because I know that only the sparkling wine from grapes that grow in Champagne should be called champagne, but there was something horribly but perfectly incongruous about the term sweet pink champagne.

And they had their Thanksgiving dinner at 2 pm, while my family always had it in the evening. Elizabeth's grandmother Margaret would bustle around the kitchen for a few hours midday along with Elizabeth and her mother Peggy, and I would generally have my offered help gently refused with the excuse that there were already too many people in the kitchen, though I would be given several ceremonial tasks such as to bring the bottles of sweet pink champagne from the basement to the kitchen or to clear and set the table. (I am very grateful among other things today that I never had the task of ceremonially shooting off the rifle accidentally.) And we would sit down and pass plates around and eat some, and then the sweet pink champagne would be opened, and it would disappear down gullets.

And then almost inevitably, the weather would be cool but not frigid but very damp as Elizabeth and I alone or joined by Peggy would walk along New York Blvd. or down one of the paths along it in a postprandial, anti-cabin-fever perambulation in the late afternoon as the trees would drip down on us. And we would get back to the house around dark, have a small dinner an hour or two later, maybe a dessert when Elizabeth's uncle, aunt, or cousins might join us, and look at the ongepotchket Pennsylvania Dutch decorations that Margaret had acquired over the years and think about the house's ceilings that were about 4-5 inches too low for my taste (and I am not a tall man). A day or two later we would head back to the Philadelphia area, a country with which I was more familiar.

After Henry died a year or two before Elizabeth and I married, and Elizabeth's uncle and aunt moved down to West Virginia, Margaret moved to an assisted living facility near her son and daughter-in-law, and that house has probably passed through a few owners since. Margaret died in the late 1990s, and now Peggy is gone. And we have our own Thanksgiving routines in a suburban landscape in a place far from temperate lands where a fall harvest festival makes much sense, but we will see if any sweet potatoes grew unmolested this year in our yard, and we will make lots of food and maybe open a bottle of wine. My son is the pie fan, and he's made pumpkin pie on several Thanksgivings. My daughter will probably make succotash, and we will make several varieties of cranberry relish from raw cranberries. No pink champagne, but I'll be thinking of it.

I wish a restful Thanksgiving for everyone in the U.S. and an easy workday for everyone else. Don't go too crazy on the pie, and make sure to take a postprandial, anti-cabin-fever walk.

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Posted in Personal at 5:43 AM (Permalink) |

November 25, 2009

My phone number is more accurate than your research

One minor irritation while I've been an editor this past half-decade has been the occasional slight sign that a manuscript author dumped the entire output of SPSS or SAS into a table, complete with 10 digits of specificity. Ten digits! Yes, these folks who compute regression coefficients, p-values, and R2 to the tenth digit based on a sample of 157 individuals are wizards of the inferential algorithm. (My apologies for the sloppiness: 157.0000000 individuals.)

There's only one problem: my phone number is more accurate, having 11 digits.  Here it is in all its glory: 1-813-974-9482. (That's my office number, incidentally, and if you're tempted to call it, you will receive a very nice recording of me pointing out that my e-mail is the better method to reach me, especially the day before Thanksgiving, though I don't mention Thanksgiving in the recording because it would be obsolete for most of the year.) I know that most North American chauvinists would think of my phone number as having only ten digits, but it really has 11. In North America, you can omit it, but that's a printing convention that's local rather than universal. Henceforth I will print my office number in all of my statistically-oriented manuscripts. And since, as we all know, he who can compute social-science numbers to the mostest digits wins, I shall be crowned Social Science Heavyweight at the next World Social Sciency Championship.

You laugh at me? Okay, here's the test: remove the last digit and see if your results stand. I'll bet they do. Then remove the last digit from my number and try to reach my office line. Ha! In my phone number, the last digit matters. Not so in your statistics.

Think about the last time you scanned a table with the results of an inferential statistical procedure. What do the digits of inferential procedural results tell you? The sign and the first nonzero digit tells you the direction of the relationship, the order of magnitude, and a rough scale within that order of magnitude. What does the second nonzero digit tell you? Generally in education research, the first digit is important, the second is close to bullshit, and given the frailties of even well-designed research, the third is far beyond bullshit. I remember some years ago when I submitted a manuscript to a journal edited by Howard Wainer, and if I recall correctly one of his editorial remarks declining the manuscript was his stance that in general no statistic should be printed with more than two nonzero digits. 

That's not quite true with descriptive statistics tables, where the measures may change only in the third or fourth digit. But it is certainly true with a vast array of inferential statistical claims where authors simply don't think before dumping the results, and that extends beyond manuscripts to the printing of various official statistics. There is one purpose I can imagine to printing meaningless digits: to check for fraud. But maybe we can stop at the second or third digit, or just provide all the meaningless digits in a public archive?

Incidentally, as long as the table is formatted as a table (not with tabs, dear author), I can export to Excel and round to an appropriate number of digits. No big deal to me as an editor, which is why it's a minor irritation... just something that makes me a tad more skeptical of newly-submitted manuscripts. But the general use of Too Many Digits (TMD) is a debasement of the public use of statistics (not that it was ever that high to begin with).

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Posted in The academic life at 10:20 AM (Permalink) |

November 12, 2009

Race to the Top: review, revise, redux

I am in California this weekend for the Social Science History Association annual meeting, where we get to talk about Maris Vinovskis's book on the last quarter century of school reform, and since one of my copanelists Saturday morning is Jennifer Jennings, I finally get to meet the sociologist-formerly-known-as-Eduwonkette in person, face to face. Because several family members live in Costa Mesa, I also get to enjoy Kean Coffee about 20 miles south of the conference hotel/cruise ship (when the heck did the SSHA officers decide to book the Queen Mary??!).

While the focus of the book panel will be ... well, Maris's book, I'm sure we'll be talking about Obama education policy at some point, including Race to the Top. I was rushing around last night not getting enough done, so I didn't have a chance to do more than casually skim the stuff that's now available on the revised final guidelines. A few initial thoughts:

  • Bottom line? No idea. I traveled west and had coffee (see above), so I don't have a bad case of jet lag, but I've been on planes for 7 hours today. 
  • I very much like the competitive priority on STEM fields. That uses a standard device for focusing grant-writers' minds in USDOE competitions (the bonus points for meeting a competitive priority). (Disclosure: it looks like my state's department of education is following the push a bunch of us have been making about using Race to the Top funds for end of course exams, especially in science.)
  • From the list of changes made, it looks like there have been a lot of political calculations made on what changes had to be made to keep stakeholders in the game and what had to stay the same to satisfy policy goals.
  • Duncan is not anal retentive enough to make the points add up to a "nice round number." I have a suspicion this is deliberate, and if so I think I know the reason why.
  • People who focus on the total potential range of points for each section are missing an important feature of point distributions in scoring systems: it's the actual range and not the potential range that matters on rankings. If the potential range is 58 points from top to bottom on one component but the scoring leaves a real-life range of 10 points, it doesn't matter that the total number of points is 58. It could have been anything from 10 to 58. So what matters is how the reviewing panel looks at everything.

If we have time, I'll try to persuade Jennings to put on her Eduwonkette cape and save the state where I grew up. But I think California's problems are beyond what even a brilliant sociologist can solve. At least I get to see family members, which is worth the jet lag I'll be fighting in the next week.

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Posted in Education policy at 7:41 PM (Permalink) |


My graduate students are reading Jeff Henig right now, and it appears that few editorial boards or other advocates have taken his argument in Spin Cycle seriously, at least from reactions to the latest sets of charter-school reports issued by think tanks. Ritualistic incantations at the publication of the Brand New Latest Report Showing That Your Deepest Beliefs Are True should be tempered by the possibility that Sean Reardon might soon write a Think Tank Report focusing on the study's methods. Hoxby is a respected economist, and the key point of Reardon's report should be to remind us that one study does not a literature make. As Henig argued, individual studies are drops on the mill's paddles and are very rarely the whole stream. Or as Colorado's Kevin Welner said in response to Reardon's review of the 2009 Hoxby report, even the most enthusiastic reader of a study on one city might wish to "explore the causes rather than to jump to broad conclusions." I will hereby jump to the broad conclusion that this is wise advice.

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Posted in Education policy at 7:38 PM (Permalink) |

November 11, 2009

Sometimes, negotiations are tough slogging because they're tough

Whether in reference to the Obama administration, the AFT, academic administrators at some universities, Iran, or some other entity, my personal news reading and listening in the last week has been full of finger-pointing about reneging on deals, backing away from apparent deals, undermining good trends, falsifying promising hints, or ruining fresh minty breath. It is frustrating to see people so quick to jump out with criticism, a self-fulfilling prophecy of finger-pointing in situations where further negotiation could be fruitful.

There's a corollary to the truism about not worrying about credit attributed to Ralph Winter, George Marshall, Ronald Reagan, and probably many others: sometimes you have to choose between getting things done and setting up blame in case of failure. 

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Posted in Random comments at 11:39 AM (Permalink) |

November 10, 2009

Incentives for high school curriculum change

Leslie Maxwell writes a short and solid blog entry (and maybe a story later this week) about the politics of college admissions at San Diego State University. Specifically, SDSU's move to eliminate a preferential admissions policy for high school students from San Diego has sparked a debate about perceived obligations to serve the local community. I am of multiple minds here about the consequences of excluding potential students who are unlikely to move to go to college outside their home county, but I don't know if the potential SDSU students outside the county are more or less advantaged on the whole, and what would happen with college completion.

On the other hand, I think see where the dynamics are heading... towards setting up one of the local districts (Sweetwater Union's school district) as a model because of its existing compact with SDSU. I recall Peter Sacks reporting on a certain high school teacher in Oceanside, and I'm curious how he'd see this. Calling Peter Sacks...

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Posted in Education policy at 5:00 AM (Permalink) |

November 7, 2009

Avoid the interrupting, comma

One more bit of advice to students this afternoon: If you wish to write forceful sentences, do not be a writer, who places a comma between the subject, and verb of a sentence, nor between parts of a compound verb or noun with, only two items, nor in the middle of, a prepositional phrase. (Remove the underlined commas and reread.)

Doctoral students and Ph.D.s tend to be addicted to the dual comma interruptus, but other students appear to have a habit with the single, self-pleasuring comma. 

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Posted in Teaching at 4:42 PM (Permalink) |

Do not use dictionary definitions in papers, unless you're writing a paper about dictionaries

A word of advice to all students: in almost every subject, no matter what some teacher told you years ago, do not ever waste your time or words repeating a dictionary definition in an academic paper. Whatever Mr. Johnson's and Mr. Webster's successors wrote down is descriptive, not authoritative, and almost certainly it is useless for the argument you wish to make. There are obvious exceptions (philology, etymology, etc.), but I have never seen a paper where a dictionary definition serves any purpose other than to motivate my tooth-grinding. 

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Posted in Teaching at 3:31 PM (Permalink) |

November 6, 2009

Issues in electronic grade reports

This morning's article in USA Today on electronic grade reports is a reminder of a few important facts in evaluating technology use in schools:

  • Ease of use (in jargon, "usability") is critical to adoption. The systems that existed a few years ago were (and many still are) clunky and hard to use for both teachers and parents. New systems are becoming easier for parents to use, creating different accounts for students and parents (so students are aware of what parents can access but not interfere with that access), e-mailing notices of new grade uploads, and so forth. Larry Cuban's dicta about hybridization still hold true for anything living on a server.
  • The digital divide is especially important to pay attention to when private records are involved. Many poor parents and children use public libraries for internet access. With libraries' reducing hours, and with the public nature of computer-use rooms in libraries, parents without at-home internet access face significant barriers to accessing information that is online. That doesn't mean that districts should not build on-line systems, but there needs to be careful thought about how parents might access the information when they do not have private internet access, in the same way that there is a need to plan for parents with disabilities, parents who do not speak English, etc. 
  • Districts should begin to figure out how to bring data together for parents. I'm not talking about a giant data warehouse--that becomes cumbersome (as well as security-fraught) if anyone can have access to databases--but a slim addition to the type of stuff that is showing up in the online grade report systems. I've proposed that for high school students there could be something akin to a look-at-everything-your-student-is-doing "dashboard" (if you'll forgive that term). Grades, extracurricular activities, jobs, etc. That will take some careful thought, but maybe an economic crunch is the right time to do it, when districts will think about the tradeoff in use v. design/maintenance costs.

My children's high schools are both using Edline this year, which is a dramatic improvement from attempts at online assignment and grade access a few years ago. There are still significant issues: some teachers find the interface hard, the school district took several weeks before realizing that maybe it might want to send the private authorization codes to parents in the mail rather than entrust them to students, and the school district still has not yet addressed the divorced-parents issue with regard to access (at least from the report of one co-custodial parent frustrated that the other parent has the authorization code and sole access but isn't using it). This is still significant improvement from my perspective. 

Now, if only the school district will get new online systems for high school counselors to schedule classes, for special educators to work on IEPs, and teachers to sign up for professional development. At least in Hillsborough, those are legacies from when the district incompetently tried the low-bid strategy with vendors who didn't demonstrate capacity to fulfill the contracts, and so everyone is stuck with systems that still (expletive verb) (colorful adverbial expression). 

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Posted in Education policy at 8:32 AM (Permalink) |

November 4, 2009

Election results -- eh.

Andy Rotherham has a tempting interpretation of election results (and their effect on federal education politics), but I'm guessing he's just suffering from living in Virginia this morning. Normally, it's a very nice state, but I've seen some pretty-well-expected "darned my state is going down the tubes" messages from Va. acquaintances over the past 12 hours. 

The more fundamental questions for any domestic initiative are whether health-insurance reform passes this year and what happens with employment in the next 4-5 months. My best guess is that health-insurance reform will pass and employment will start to nudge up but not by leaps and bounds. The result is that the potential for "oh my gosh I have to protect my seat" paranoia by majority Congresscritters will abate as a result of a health-insurance law but that pressure on the employment front will keep members of Congress nervous (regardless of party). 

And, in any case, since the action in education politics is usually at the state level, that's where the import of yesterday's elections lies:

  • The death of two more TABOR referenda means that education funding is imperiled only by a horrid economy and state revenues. Yippee?
  • An unpopular Democratic governor in NJ is replaced by a Republican governor who may well enter office nearly as unpopular, facing a legislature that tends to protect wealthy communities at the expense of poor communities when it comes to education. 
  • A popular Democratic governor in VA is replaced by a conservative Republican governor who promised to focus on education (among other service-oriented campaign promises), with a legislature dominated by Republicans. 
  • In the sick state of New York, a billionaire buys a third term and a probable minor scandal about his elbows as well. In the meantime, an ineffectual governor will increasingly be overshadowed by state-level politics over education. 
  • The sick state of California loses its often-running lieutenant governor to Congress. 

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Posted in Education policy at 10:56 AM (Permalink) |

Read Cliff Adelman's new report

Cliff Adelman's brand new report on international comparisons in higher-ed attainment (hat tip) is a must-read. I just wish I had enough time to read everything I should, including this item. (My reading lists: want to, need to, should have read three months ago.)

I therefore assign you, my dear reader, to read the report. This is your chance to get ahead of me. 

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Posted in Higher education at 6:21 AM (Permalink) |

November 1, 2009

Ready-made dissertation topic on local school politics

Anyone looking for a dissertation topic on school policy or politics can now rest easy: read the Palm Beach Post's description of a local reform effort that blew up in the face of a superintendent. You've got everything in there from the data-driven mantra to parental backlash to odd bedfellows with the teachers union and coalition politics. I have been watching the story unfold for a few months and suspecting that there's been a lot more beyond the headlines. I want to read the book on this, so get cracking, somebody!

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Posted in Education policy at 9:05 AM (Permalink) |