December 31, 2009


For me, 2009 was full of transitions, from the private to the international. On the private side (or that affecting me directly), in addition to my mother-in-law's death, I'm wrapping things up (or winding them down) at the end of my five-year term as Education Policy Analysis Archives editor, and my daughter has her driver's license and is in the middle of applying to colleges. Publicly, we've had a Florida House speaker resign, a presidential inauguration, an almost-but-not-quite-complete collapse of the world economy, a (still-too-small) stimulus package or three, the 2008.5 Nobel Prize for Economist-Like Rambling going to Steve Leavitt for Superfragifreakowhatonomics, and landmark health-care legislation that might just get to a bill-signing ceremony next year. And I'm leaving lots of things off the list here for a variety of reasons. For both good and ill, 2009 was absolutely full to the brim. Here's hoping that 2010 gives all of us a little breather.

Oh, one of the list above isn't true. For a better summary of things that didn't happen this year, see Howard Troxler's year-end wrap up, part 1 and part 2.

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Posted in The academic life at 4:45 PM (Permalink) |

One more almost unreadable student paper for 2009...

After trying to decipher Chuck's handwriting with all those scribbles and crossouts, I will never, ever complain about my own students again.

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Posted in Random comments at 4:35 PM (Permalink) |

Education stories of 2009 (U.S.)

The end of the year is the traditional time for journalists and laypeople to look back and identify major issues in a year. As Phil Graham (or maybe Ben Bradlee) said, journalism is a first rough draft of history, and you know what a first rough draft looks like. Nonetheless, as an historian I'll take a stab at what I think will be seen in retrospect as key developments in education in the U.S. They may even have been key issues this year!

  1. The Great Recession and students' lives. More children are homeless, hungry, or displaced in some way because the adults in their family have lost jobs or their homes. We won't know the exact extent of the effects on children's lives for a few years, but the news stories of the recession's effects on children are first indicators of a quantum leap in child poverty. And there is also an effect on the lives of college students, though the effects are more complicated. People are returning to school at a rapid clip, but because financial resources are lower, there is also a greater demand for financial aid at college.
  2. The Great Recession and the education stimulus packages (plural). In late 2008 it became obvious that for several years Florida had been leading the country again... in declining state and local revenues. Around the country in early 2009, school-system budgets for 2009-10 looked like they were going to collapse, resulting in catastrophic layoffs that would affect not only schools but the whole economy. Federal spending kept hundreds of school systems afloat and is a good part of what saved the economy from a much worse decline in aggregate demand. The early-2009 stimulus package (aka ARRA) is the major part of the story but not all of it. If you didn't hear about the mid-December shifting of $23 billion from TARP into an account school systems could use to save jobs, you missed a substantial increase in the stimulus that should be considered part of December's second stimulus, along with an extension of unemployment benefits and federal subsidies for COBRA payments.
  3. College financial aid reform. The Obama administration is combining administrative changes to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) with a push to eliminate the federally-subsidized private lending program and shift resources into direct lending. While it is not politically possible (and probably not legally possible) in many states to require that all students complete the FAFSA, it is possible to make it much easier to complete, encouraging more students with real financial need to take advantage of financial aid.
  4. The growing role of community colleges... and erstwhile or soon-to-be-erstwhile community colleges.The July plan to give $12 billion to community colleges is a relatively small part of the overall policy emphasis of the administration on community colleges, from the appointment of a community-college president as the chief administrator of higher education policies to the greater scrutiny of proprietary training institutions (where do you think students who would otherwise go to proprietary job-training programs will be headed instead?). Ironically, two of the largest states are headed in a different direction, with Florida's community-college system disintegrating or morphing into a "state college" sort-of-system, and some voices in California voicing a similar idea with new caps on Cal State enrollments. (DC is headed in the other direction, with UDC splitting into two- and four-year institutions.)
  5. Race to the Top. Some of you may wonder why this isn't #1, but I'll defend my judgment that it's important but whether you like RTTT or not, it's not nearly as important a change as the issues I've put above this. But don't fret if you disagree: see #8.
  6. Common core standards effort. The halting, awkward, adolescent-like steps towards creating at least some vague national-level standards developed, and while Alaska and Texas may not be involved, and other states may opt out later, this is the curriculum equivalent of the 1989 Charlottesville summit, in that it is a national rather than a federal effort.  (See Maris Vinovskis's recent book for that story.)
  7. City school control battles. From the renewal of mayoral control in NYC (and Bloomberg's relection) to an emergency manager in Detroit and the apparent devolution of Los Angeles Unified, governance is once again front and center in urban school politics. Well, maybe it never left as an issue, which is a cynical historian's perspective. But if you think I'm cynical, wait until Diane Ravitch's new book comes out in a few months. No, I haven't read the manuscript. But you don't have to before you can take a good guess at what Ravitch will say about New York City. (Recent developments in Detroit and Los Angeles came after she must have submitted her manuscript.)
  8. Teacher evaluation in local bargaining. Collective bargaining agreements put the AFT in the center of teacher evaluation debates through its support of new arrangements in New Haven, St. Louis, and even Detroit. And both teacher evaluations and collective bargaining more generally are at the heart of disagreements between the Minnesota and Florida teachers union state affiliates, on the one hand, and state departments that would like teacher union signoffs on RTTT applications, on the other. Disclosure: I am a member of the Florida Education Association and was on the governance board for a two-year term that ended this past summer. I haven't had time to learn much more than what's available publicly on the Florida disagreement, but I'll give you one idea in the back of my mind that's also in yesterday's Ed Week story (requires subscription) by Stephen Sawchuk: both affiliates are merged (i.e., in both the NEA and AFT).
  9. Sexting as a news topic. This is the latest object of our perennial concern about youth behavior, made  highly visible with the suicides this year by Jesse Logan and Hope Witsell. The main difference between teens' sending racy photos of themselves by cell and other foolish teenage behavior is that cell-phone technology enables a social chain-reaction from an MMSed photo that other (and more fundamentally stupid/dangerous) behavior does not. Not that any of these is a good choice, but if you knew that your teenager was either going to get addicted to a drug, become pregnant/impregnate someone, or send or receive a sext message, which would be the least inherently dangerous behavior?  Fortunately, Mike Petrilli is correct about the state of American teenagers: the trends on seriously dangerous adolescent behavior is headed in the right direction... not that any reporters covering the sexting issue noted that fact.
  10. Textbook affordability. Arnold Schwartznegger's midyear ramblings about ebooks aside, there has been movement in several areas to address the rent-seeking behavior of both textbook publishers and college bookstores. This includes public and private ventures to create online textbooks with inexpensive print-on-demand options and textbook rentals, and Florida is probably not going to be the last state where public colleges and universities need to list textbooks for all courses at least a few weeks before a term starts, to allow competition. There are some logistical problems with the last, such as with brand-new courses or new sections opened up to serve demand, but some tweaking will probably result in an institutionalized arrangement allowing students to search for books they can find anywhere.

So what have I missed? Any errors in judgment on the ordering? What do you think the issues for 2010 will be? Time to kibitz!

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Posted in Education policy at 1:20 PM (Permalink) |

December 21, 2009

I agree with Paul Cottle: set a date for science

In response to Florida Commissioner Eric Smith's weekend op-ed in the Tallahassee Democrat (responding to the December 13 op-ed by FSU physics professor Paul Cottle), Cottle says, roughly, okay, maybe not this year, but set a firm date for setting up EOC exams in all central science areas. I'll go further: Florida needs to set a firm date for increasing the lab-based courses required for a standard diploma, including chemistry, physics, and an earth/space science as well as biology. Even if it's for the class of 2015 or 2016, we need a deadline.

There are several reasons to do so:

  • The challenges of this century require a citizenry that has a much better understanding of science. I don't care if you don't work in a field related to science; if you vote, I want you to understand some basics of science. So do my children. So should you.
  • Minimum requirements can reduce the inequalities of course enrollments. Gender differences in high school math and science enrollments shrank dramatically between the early 1980s and this decade. Part of the change was the fact that many states, especially larger states such as California and Texas, increased their core-academic graduation requirements. Right now, there are dramatic inequalities in who takes advanced science courses. My 17-year-old daughter and most of her friends who are seniors are taking a second year of some science (in her case, physics), partly because of their interests but also because her school offers those courses. Set the requirements higher, and school districts will have to figure out how to make more seats available in science classes.
  • Minimum requirements set the floor for what the next generation of elementary teachers knows. About a century ago, W.E.B. DuBois argued that African American activists had to care about the academic training of future teachers, and he is still right, and his point is correct for teachers of all students. Except that while DuBois talked about the "Talented Tenth" in the early 20th century because he knew that teaching was the most attractive profession for college-educated African Americans, we can't assume that any more. We no longer have a world where teaching is the best professional opportunity for women or for all members of marginalized cultures and races. That's a tremendous advance for the basic fairness of our society, and that means that the realistic pool of teachers is comprised of all adults with baccalaureate degrees. So we need to think about the pool of elementary teachers coming from the Talented Third or the Talented Half (which is a statement of relative attainment, not inherent ability). Want to attract new teachers from elite colleges? Go right ahead, but that still won't get you more than a fraction of the likely set of teachers in the future. Want to increase the content expertise of teachers? Great, but for the most part those requirements will focus on subject specialists in secondary schools, not elementary-school teachers. The majority of elementary-school teachers will still come from public university graduates, and many of them will have had their second-to-last lab science course in high school. (In many universities, students can satisfy the general-education requirements in science with one class.) The central question here is how much lab science do you think elementary-school teachers should have experienced? 
  • Technological breakthroughs 10-25 years from today will be crafted by the hands of those in high school now and in the near future. The real work of science and engineering research stands on the shoulders of senior researchers in any field and also relatively new graduates from college (whether grad students at a university or new employees in the private sector). Much of bench sciences these days is a team enterprise, not the work of a brilliant faculty member working alone. While this is not as persuasive an argument for me as the ones above, because only a limited number of high school graduates become members of such laboratories, it's a good thing to have a larger pool of people who are qualified to think about this work.

So I agree with Paul Cottle: the state legislature should look at its dance card and put down science for the near future. It doesn't have to be the first dance coming up, but it should be listed there somewhere.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:48 AM (Permalink) |

December 19, 2009

What can graphic novels teach us about verbs in static displays?

I'm in my office this afternoon for a few hours getting some work-related puttering done.

While I'm procrastinating on the puttering for a few minutes, I want to talk aloud (or write publicly) about some thoughts I had in the last few days about how graphic novels convey verbs. Here's the problem: most forms of visualizing information are all about nouns--whether points on a graph or text inside chart boxes. In a few cases (such as with the wonderful, visualizations have implicit verbs (in Gapminder, changes). But for the most part, the existing "grammar" of concept mapping is all about nouns. I realized this in June when attending a digital-humanities unconference and someone who worked on Internet 2 was running a show-and-tell about a number of visualization tools. Great stuff! And then I realized why I was so uncomfortable: where were the verbs? Where do you get to show what the implicit model of the world is?

This issue is important because however useful visual representation of stuff (i.e., nouns) is, it is enormously hard and rare to put verbs in the picture. Minard's famous graph of Frenchmen dying throughout Napoleon's invasion of Russia is the exception, not the rule. But we think about the world with verbs as well as nouns, and those of us with some quantitative skills need to figure out how to (and help others) put verbs in visual representations, else we will be stuck with cryptic, largely useless concept maps as the default, too-often-brainless attempt to visualize ideas.

That challenge has been nagging at me for half a year now, and probably because it's the end of the semester, a few days ago I realized something obvious: what visual medium is able to convey verbs in what is ostensibly a static representation? Oh, duh, yeah: comics. Graphic novels. Whatever you call them, they've got action. Oh, boy, do they have action!

I am not sure exactly where to go with this. I don't have anything clear in mind except a few fragments: something that's the reverse of Edward Tufte's sparklines (reduction of visual information to stick in a line of text), or maybe something like the xkcd stick figures dancing within and on the margins of graphs, talking about what's happening. This is one of those times I wish I had wasted months of my adolescence reading comic books, because if I had, I would know exactly how graphic novels represent verbs.

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Posted in The academic life at 3:45 PM (Permalink) |

December 18, 2009

Endings and beginnings

Earlier this week, the dishwasher broke. So we've been doing dishes by hand for a few days. We have a delivery of the new one tomorrow sometime, and the majority of the world doesn't have dishwashers, so what am I complaining about? Not complaining, but just thinking of how doing dishes by hand is a good metaphor for how much of my semester has felt: this should be going faster, easier, and for now, this is just life. If you see me in the next few months, don't ask about what's fallen through the cracks. I know, and I'm working on it.

It's the last day of school before break for the rest of my family, and after I submitted grades earlier this week I've been playing catchup on both work and nonwork chores. There's a boatload of editing tasks I've just started, and that will probably consume the bulk of work time over the next few weeks. There are some union-related tasks, some conversations with individual students about independent study and dissertation work, and some paperwork that I need to do.

In the meantime, there are some good things to savor: problems avoided or solved, friends and relatives with accomplishments or other good news, plans for travel with my college-hunting daughter or to observe Canadian faculty in the wild (i.e., at a conference), some projects of my own in process (and close to fruition), fun ideas that keep popping into my head for a long-term book project, other projects lined up that I am looking forward to working on, books I am looking forward to reading, and anything that brings a smile to my face for completely silly reasons.

Until I get a good bit of the chores done, I'll be on a light blogging schedule. Have a good rest of the month, a wonderful holiday if you celebrate any ongoing or upcoming holidays, and a wonderful start to 2010.

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Posted in The academic life at 8:00 AM (Permalink) |

December 13, 2009

Turnaround or abandonment in NYC?

The extent of school closings in New York City is becoming evident, and after JD2718's posts on the subject over the past half-week, UFT's Leo Casey provides an overview and alleges an ulterior motive (to create available space for other purposes, not to improve education).

I'm far from NYC and can't speak from close knowledge of the city schools, and I'm still grading student work so I have no time to read extensively. But this is an important story and rolling conflict, and there are a few predictions I'll hazard:

  • At least one conservative will commit rampant inconsistency by simultaneously (or nearly simultaneously) weeping over the demise of the DC voucher program and applaud Klein for his bold moves, repeating the double standard on the issue I have described before
  • A small handful of schools may be preserved through fairly heroic efforts, but most of the closures will stand.
  • There will be no effective way to hold Tweed responsible for consistency and rationality in its school opening/closing decisions. 

In truth, many administrators engage in maneuvers that appear as arbitrary as Klein's closures do, but rarely is it on such a scale or so visible beyond the locality.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 9:22 PM (Permalink) |

December 11, 2009

Questions while procrastinating while grading

The Friday-at-the-end-of-finals-week edition...

  • Did President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize speech as a wartime president demonstrate that irony is not dead, or what? 
  • Is the last question rhetorical, or what?
  • Is Hannukah a holiday that celebrates energy efficiency, oil wars, or insurgencies?
  • Why do no schools have a food as a mascot (e.g., the Souffles)? (My tablemate at this 'bucks is finishing up the last class for her associates' degree this very hour and thinking about culinary school. That plus my memories of latkes prompted this Very Serious Research Question.)
  • Why do the three colleges with narrative evaluations that I have visited (UC Santa Cruz, Evergreen State College, and New College of Florida) all have odd mascots (respectively, the banana slug, the geoduck, and the null set [Article 11(a)])?
  • Is the fact that no Starbucks brews decaf in the evening a demonstration that the market works, or that it doesn't?
  • What was the metaphor for faculty moving to administration before the 1977 opening of the first Star Wars movie--i.e., in the b.t.D.S.t. (before the Dark Side trope) days?
  • Has anyone else seen the parallel between Tolkien's One Ring and the General Services Administration General Form 152 (the "Request for Clearance or Cancellation of a Standard or Optional Form")? One form to rule them all,/ one to authorize them./ One to make us fill them out/ and in the night despise them.

Have a good weekend, all! I'll be attending a recital tomorrow, but the rest is all work or chore.

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Posted in Out of Left Field Friday at 8:56 PM (Permalink) |

December 9, 2009

Online grandiosity failed, so get back to work

So U21 Global looks like it's failing, after the dumping of U of I Global and the morphing of Western Governors from the "we're going to conquer the world through online enrollments" stage into the "we'll settle for 10,000 students based on a Netflix model of tuition with half of our students in teacher ed" stage.

This is not the death of online education, which exists at virtually every institution of some size. Nor is it the death of scaled-up online education, since there are several outfits, notably the K-12 Florida Virtual School, which appear to have done just fine at a large size. So what's made the difference between the thriving programs and the dying programs?

  • Thriving programs serve specific purposes. Florida Virtual School is not trying to conquer the world. It addresses a few specific needs, notably providing catchup classes, a few basic requirements that many students would like to "get out of the way" to take other classes they prefer face-to-face, and some opportunities unavailable in smaller districts. The fact that thousands of students in Florida find those valuable is related to the size of Florida, not a lack of specific planning on the part of the Florida Virtual School's administration.
  • Thriving programs have stable (and nurtured) feeder relationships. An online program within a university can develop constituencies much more easily than Vague Global Program, and the Florida Virtual School has cultivated or taken advantage of a number of ways that students find out about its strengths (as far as I can tell, from other students and from counselors).
  • Thriving programs have staff and teachers in a relationship modeled on bricks-and-mortar schooling. Florida Virtual School has made a point of explaining its acceptability in part because it has a dedicated staff and faculty "just like" the local public school down the street. As far as I can tell, thriving online programs within universities tend to treat faculty teaching online like other faculty, largely because they are faculty in regular departments and because the hiring patterns for full-time faculty normatively follow departmental patterns. How many ads in the Chronicle have job positions in an "online" department as opposed to a position in anthropology, economics, marketing, etc.?

What appears to have died is online grandiosity, and that's a good thing.

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Posted in Higher education at 6:06 AM (Permalink) |

December 7, 2009

"The gap is gone"

If Aaron Pallas's report is correct, and Roland Fryer did tell Anderson Cooper bluntly in reference to the Harlem Children's Zone and Promise Academy, "The gap is gone," Fryer committed an understandable but all too common sin of education reformers across the centuries: overpromising. I've been in the room as one or more program directors and the like have promised the sky, the moon, and a few thousand stars to stakeholders and potential funders. Every time it's happened I've winced, because I've seen the storyline play out many times before: do something good, overpromise, and then see the program never be able to fulfill the more grandiose claims.

To me as an education historian, this is not an issue of whether we're adjusting for social class and other variables. Nor is it whether Geoffrey Canada is a good person (go read Paul Tough's book if you doubt that). Or whether Canada himself is overpromising: "it's worth about an hour of celebration" is his comment about the test score reports. It's about a persistent dynamic in education reform of being so desperate for something that works that you see more than is there.

I don't get that sense from Canada, who strikes me as driven and gritty and tied to what is happening to the kids in the area he's working. I'm worried about the talk around Canada and the HCZ, of taking Fryer and Dobbie's recent paper on the Promise Academy (which strikes me as fine work, but just one paper) and seeing that one paper as definitive. I've read Paul Tough's work (assigned it to my summer class), and I want HCZ to do everything Canada wants it to.

But I also want someone to look at it judiciously. And here's the irony: while it's common for a program head to be enthusiastic and a professional evaluator to be jaundiced, what is clear in the 60 minutes segment (and everything else I've read about Canada) is that the roles are reversed here. Canada's driven enough to be skeptical, to have changed school and program leaders when he doesn't see the progress he wants. Fryer? Well, check the CBS video of the segment between minute 10 and minute 11 (while watching the whole 14-minute segment). He said "the gap is gone" as baldly as Aaron Pallas claimed.

Yes, you're hearing me wince.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:13 PM (Permalink) |

December 5, 2009

Are central Florida schools flouting Florida law limiting test-prep?

I have heard from teachers and students in three area districts (Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Hernando counties) that secondary teachers in some subjects are being ordered to spend the first 10 minutes of class suspending the curriculum and teaching material from another class. In the case of two counties (Pinellas and Hernando), I have heard stories that math teachers are being asked to teach 10 minutes of reading--not include word problems in math, which is certainly appropriate, but teach reading (a subject very few of them would have certification in). In one county (Hillsborough), I have heard a report from a student that a high-school anatomy teacher has been asked to spend 10 minutes reviewing other science subjects (and the emphasis appears to be in chemistry), probably to prepare students for the 11th grade FCAT science comprehension exam.

In 2008, the Florida legislature added a section to the existing law on assessment (F.S. 1008.22(4), if you're curious), specifying limits to what schools can do to prepare for tests, specifically

STATEWIDE ASSESSMENT PREPARATION; PROHIBITED ACTIVITIES.--Beginning with the 2008-2009 school year, a district school board shall prohibit each public school from suspending a regular program of curricula for purposes of administering practice tests or engaging in other test-preparation activities for a statewide assessment.

There are a number of exceptions to this prohibition--school districts can distribute sample test books, teach test-taking skills in limited quantities, etc.--but the spirit is clear: schools are not supposed to be engaging in test-prep that is a substitute for instruction. And taking time away from math class to teach reading, or away from anatomy to teach chemistry, looks like it's clearly prohibited.

It's also counterproductive from an administrative standpoint: if you wanted to add reading instruction, why would you ask a math teacher to do it? I should be clear: these are unconfirmed reports rather than documented examples. But if these reports are true, this clearly looks to be an end-run around ordinary curriculum policies requiring a certain amount of instruction in the classes to get more instruction or more test-prep in for high-stakes subjects.

There is one additional legal problem with this practice: there are both state and federal policies about teacher qualifications. I bet it's illegal in a number of respects to assign math teachers to teach reading and then report that everyone instructing in a subject is properly certified.

I have contacted the three districts in question to ask where the policies required by the law are. If you are aware of any specific examples (and I would need the school, date, class, period, and witness for sufficient documentation), please contact me by e-mail (sherman dottish-thingie dorn at-symbol-stuff

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 10:35 AM (Permalink) |