January 27, 2010

Why the "college hunt" genre is unrepresentative, and the shame of the College Board Profile

This morning's blog entry by Valerie Strauss is typical of the genre: a perspective on what it's like to apply to a number of selective colleges and universities and hunt for financial aid. And it's all wrong, both from a policy perspective and (I'd argue) even a hypercompetitive parents' perspective.

Policy perspective: the colleges most students attend are not very selective. Even for the ones that don't accept all applicants, most accept the majority of applicants (including most public universities). And even in the world of "very" selective institutions, you might be surprised. Sure, both Harvard and Stanford will reject more than 90% of their applicants this year, but most of the "very" selective private liberal arts colleges accept 25% or more of applicants... and we're at the peak of the baby boom echo, so it's only going to head up from here. (Math problem: If you're a high school senior and apply to colleges where you have a 50% probability of being accepted, and the decisions of each college are random and independent, how many do you need to apply to to have at least a 98% chance of being accepted into at least one?)

So the problem is generally not getting accepted into one college but being able to pay for it and being able to take all the classes you need and succeed at them. My daughter is applying to a few places where the tuition/board combination is high enough where some institutional aid would be very nice, and last night we completed the FAFSA, which is one half of the financial-aid paperwork for one of her desirable colleges. (I'll have more to say about the other half later.) The administration's promise on a simplified FAFSA has been fulfilled, at least from my experience: you don't need a CPA to fill it out, especially for families who are eligible for Pell grants and state assistance. The administration's proposal for a 10% cap on income you owe on college loans would be another step, and a definite improvement on the new income-based repayment option. Given the gap between Pell grants and tuition at a number of public universities, pushing on income-based repayment may be more valuable in the long run than expanding Pell grants.

Where Strauss is correct from a public perspective is the gap between the time high school counselors can spend shepherding students through the admissions process and the reality of the need. I'm thinking here primarily of high school students who would be first-generation college students. There aren't too many guidelines for a ninth-grader to keep in mind, but they're probably not repeated often enough: get your act together now to make sure your first semester grades are at least a mix of Cs and Bs, and they need to head up from there; read more than what's required; go as far in math as you can; take SATs or ACTs in your junior year; tell your parents to put their financial information in one place starting early fall of senior year; expand your college possibilities in one dimension from what you're being told by those around you. I suppose there are others that high school counselors use, but for the barebones, students whose parents never attended college can get into a fine public university following this.

If there's something that worries me apart from the high school curriculum and funding for poor students, it's the narrow way most high school students think about where and how to look for colleges, and the way that adults encourage that narrowness in part from their experiences or perceptions or because of tacit knowledge. There are sometimes circumstances that restrict students--those who need state assistance will be staying in-state, and often first-generation college students (especially young women) live at home while attending classes at a public university, at least for a year or two. (I know of one very large community college where faculty get the benefit of teaching incredibly talented first-generation students because their parents wouldn't let the students move away for a few years.) High school students can be creative in working with family preferences--Orlando high school students often prefer the University of South Florida (here in the Tampa area) and Tampa area students often prefer the University of Central Florida (Orlando) as a "far enough away from home so I'm not visited by my mom twice a week, but close enough to drive home on weekends" solution. But that's like chain migration: if you hear about an option from someone you know, you can use it.

What about the options you don't personally know? I've had some conversations with teenagers and parents in the past year or two where presumptions have become stereotypes and blinders. One parent completely dismissed a nationally-known public liberal-arts college because she knew some students with learning disabilities who saw that as a friendly place to attend... so it must not be good enough (i.e., prestigious). A student who is one of the most hard-working teenagers I have ever known and interested in engineering schools didn't know the difference between tuition-dependent private schools and those with endowments and substantial institutional aid. She was thinking very hopefully on an engineering school within driving distance that is tuition-dependent and where there was no way that she could get aid (and thus attend). She hadn't thought of CalTech at all, though it's well off and where she might get a boost because of the dominance of men in their undergraduate enrollment. Another student who moved to the U.S. four years ago was disappointed in her board scores and thought colleges wouldn't want her. She's another incredibly hard-working student, one who admissions officers would drool over in reality. For the students in these cases, I'm not worried because it didn't take much to persuade them or their parents to think a bit more broadly (and optimistically). For the millions of talented high school students I can't persuade personally to think a little more broadly about colleges, I worry about the mental shortcuts we take when looking for colleges. It's an understandable but sad statement about our country when some of the most effective recruitment of college students is done through Saturday television broadcasts in the fall.

Private perspective: As I wrote above, the FAFSA is one of the pieces for institutional aid for a college my daughter is keenly interested in. The other is the College Board Profile. Last night, I printed out their 19-page worksheet and filled in answers for the several-hundred questions about parental income and assets so my daughter can enter the data this afternoon. I'll just say this to the admissions officers for the private institutions using the College Board Profile: you've just demonstrated to me why your efforts at recruiting a diverse population of students is often a facade. When your chosen tool (which you don't have to pay for) is several orders of magnitude more difficult to complete than the old, more complicated FAFSA, it's clear that you don't have a clue about how to get poor students to apply for financial aid. And College Board? Shame on you for requiring poor families to pay for the privilege of having one more barrier to receiving financial aid.

My daughter will do fine, and unlike other college seniors, she hasn't panicked. Several years ago, when it was clear she was interested in Type X college, her mother and I talked about the financial feasibility of that. (I'm a public-university professor in a relatively low-paid field. Well-off? Definitely with respect to human history! Able to send my daughter to Type X college on my and my wife's income alone? .... uh, what type of cat food tastes good?) We figured we could expand her horizons, but given that her spine is stiffer than mine, I expected it would be in one direction.  Let's see: ask her to consider Type Y college? Not going to happen. Z? Not a chance. Type X-public? Hmmn... that worked. In the fall of her sophomore year, I told her that if she could find a Type X college that would let her visit classes, either public or private, I'd take her. And she found such a place, so we went. As a result, we spread out college visits over a few years, not a few weeks. That first college is still on her "very interested" list, and overall she liked (and applied to) roughly half of the places we visited, most of which were Type X colleges. Her interests have changed a bit, but she'll do fine in any of the places she's applying to, and it's her life, not mine. Yes, she's been accepted to at least one. As I stated above, if you've worked hard in high school and you're not set on getting into the One True Place for You, you'll get in somewhere you can learn a great deal in.

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Posted in Higher education at 12:05 PM (Permalink) |

January 24, 2010

Horizon 2010 report mostly wrong

At least this year's EDUCAUSE Horizon report on emerging IT doesn't predict the tremendous growth of Second Life. But it has plenty of misjudgments in what it predicts will be Big Higher-Ed IT in the near and medium term. Below are my quick judgments of what Horizon 2010 thinks will be big:

  • Semi-correct: the impact of "mobile computing." The sloppy use of the term indicates that the report writers have bought into the hype. There is just too much fragmentation of operating systems and too many students of moderate means who cannot afford smartphones for this prediction to be anything but wishful thinking. Mobile computing will work for certain professional programs, largely at graduate levels, where either there is a reasonable expectation that students will buy equipment as demanded or where there is support for a specific set of devices. My guess for the most common application of mobile devices today? Clickers. Maybe some company will figure out how to combine clicker technology with prepaid (term-length) cell service for specific purposes. Until then, mobile computing will generally be project-specific.
  • Semi-correct: the likely impact of ebooks. Again, this is going to be more selective than the report indicates (and I say this as a relatively early adopter). What ebook readers may provide is more flexibility to read generally-formatted text documents (such as PDF), rather than expansion of types of formats (such as multimedia).
  • Largely incorrect: expansion of open content. In a few subsidized areas this will continue, but we've already seen the shuttering of one major open-content project. The reality of open content is that it requires resources to create and maintain; witness Valley of the Shadow Project, a wonderful online history project that is now officially "archived." Obvious sign of the report's failure to connect with reality: no discussion of the shutting down of Utah State's OCW project. Ouch.
  • Largely incorrect: gesture-based computing. These applications will be quite complicated and expensive, and they will be limited to disciplines where the investment pays off. 
  • Philosophically problematic: the hype of "visual data analysis." I use graphs in teaching. I do not assume that because I use graphs, students can competently conduct data mining just by looking at pictures. For some reason I cannot fathom, the report highlights Wordle; a tag cloud is the humanistic equivalent of USA Today "infographics." Horrid. Kill this idea now, please, before you do more damage.
  • Major goofball hype: augmented reality. Yeah, right, in the same way that Second Life took off and CAD is used in English courses. Whenever the most obvious use of a particular tool is in the field of architecture, you know that you're not talking about a tool that is going to be used widely across higher ed.

I need to return to my Sunday copyediting task (a wonderful but very long and editing-needy article MS). Maybe my focus on copyediting today is making me a bit grouchy with the Horizon report; I know that since I've criticized the report, I should probably provide an alternative perspective, and I'll think about that over the next week. In a year or five, you'll be able to see who was correct.

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Posted in Higher education at 3:10 PM (Permalink) |

Florida legislative session education preview

Former Miami Herald reporter and current free-lancer Gary Fineout has a solid legislative session preview on education policy in this morning's Sarasota Herald-Tribune (hat tip). I may disagree with his predictions on the margins, but on the whole I think he's on the money in identifying the obvious issues. Fineout was starting his analysis from the Florida Chamber of Commerce report released a few weeks ago, which had a combination of noncontroversial suggestions as well as a few ideological throwaways (such as the resurrection of the failing-schools voucher program). Fineout is probably correct that budget woes will kill or maim any suggestion with a large price tag (though I would love the suggested large boost to higher education). So let's divide the policy ideas into the noncontroversial and the controversial and then the elephant in the room.

Noncontroversial: end of course (EOC) exams, especially since Rep. John Legg said his bill would have non-biology science EOC exams as non-high-stakes tests. I've been watching that issue in semi-despair for several months after the U.S. Department of Education confirmed the Florida DOE's view that Race to the Top grants could not be used for assessment development. Legg's promise is a good compromise, if it happens as he stated.

Noncontroversial: continuing to use federal stimulus dollars to boost local district budgets. The decline of property-tax collections is the giant sword hanging over schools this year, and the balance of state-local K-12 funding is one of the giant budget issues this year along with Medicaid and the lack of any trust funds to raid for 2010-11. 

Controversial: modifying the constitutional class-size mandate. There might be a compromise here involving statutory changes to the implementing laws. Legislative leaders might have to choose between spending political capital on this issue and on the next two.

Controversial: legislative attempts to end K-12 teacher tenure. The legislature has mandated the end of tenure before, sort of like the way the legislature has mandated merit pay before (next issue below). If the legislature overplays its hand, an extreme bill might turn out to be a short-term nightmare for teachers and a long-term Pyrrhic victory for tenure critics. I can think of at least two ways that FEA can fight more extreme laws in the long term with reasonable chances of winning.

Controversial: merit pay, or rather legislatively-mandated mechanisms. This would be the fourth or fifth go-round on this issue in the past decade in terms of state mandates. Someday there will be a set of legislative leaders who want to work a deal with the FEA on performance pay at a time when FEA leadership is interested in a deal; until then, the heads will continue to butt. (For Mike Antonucci and other union critics, you need to work harder to understand how a teachers union in a state with weak collective bargaining laws can successfully resist state-level mandates when the political branches are often actively hostile to the state affiliate; your usual explanations flounder in Florida.) 

The elephant in the room: money. Legislative leaders seem disinclined at the moment to do anything that could be called raising taxes. While state revenue collection appears to be on a slight upward trend, that is more than counterbalanced by a decline in tax collection at the county level and increasing demands for Medicaid. Last year's budget politics was set by two contexts: growing legislative disillusionment with Charlie Crist and the chaotic aftermath of Ray Sansom's speakership on the House budget committee. This year, Crist is a lame duck who is viewed in the legislature as somewhere between a powerful fool and an opportunistic sell-out, and that's within his own party. Speaker Larry Cretul has reset his caucus's leadership according to his own preferences, which now include one rather than two budget chairs. And Senate President Jeff Atwater may be inclined to burnish his conservative fiscal credentials for his political future. As a result, Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander will have several quanta less influence and will probably be picking one or two battles on large issues. I have no idea whether this presages a slow-moving train wreck on the budget or opportunities for quick-thinkers in April. But a budget wreck on the scale of Pennsylvania (if not California) is possible.

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Posted in Education policy at 12:30 PM (Permalink) |

January 23, 2010

Ebook readers and markets

At the beginning of the month, one of The Big Things at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was the proliferation of electronic readers (or ebook readers), and as someone who bought a Sony ebook reader a few years ago for work purposes, I have a few thoughts that are different from the standard speculation you can find online.

I bought the Sony (a PRS-505 for the geeks) because I needed a device to hold article MSS for Education Policy Analysis Archives so I could squirrel myself and it away somewhere without distraction. Then I started carting student papers around in it, and then tried downloading articles onto it, as well as a few books for pleasure reading. It certainly served its main purpose for me, with a small but important exception.

The major weakness of the Sony for my purpose was displays of tables and figures, which tend to be important in professional research papers. Since the Sony's size mimics the mass-market paperback size, it cannot display a regular 8.5x11 (or similarly-sized A4) page without reformatting it. Reflowable text is beautiful, but reflowed tables are gibberish. The Sony's handling of PDF allows a sideways-display of half a page, but that still produces fairly tiny text and is disastrous if the midpoint of a page is not the logical breaking point for a display. Even with text-only PDFs, the reformatting to text-only is awkward, and often does not work for two-column pieces. For professionals who have similar needs, the larger-format devices are mandatory for most work purposes.

The other issue that would determine future purchases is annotation. I would like to be able to comment on student papers using a device. With my current device, I can read papers but cannot comment on them. For a variety of reasons, doing so on a computer is workable but awkward (at least for me). And moreso, the point is not annotation but creating annotations that I can share with students when I return papers. I don't know whether the annotation systems available on some devices attach notes to the documents in ways that can be shared, but an annotation system that is private, just for me, is a deal-breaker. I contacted the Entourage Edge folks, and they say that the scribbled notes on PDF documents would be added to the documents (and thus can be given back to students), but not typed notes. That'll do as a minimum.  I haven't heard whether the other large-format ereaders have (or will have) similar capacity. And of course there are the two major question marks in the near-term future, the Apple tablet and the Notion Ink Adam. I mention those two because an Apple tablet that's modeled on the iPhone will have multitouch zooming (extraordinarily helpful for reading figures) and the Adam looks like it will be the first tablet with a PixelQi screen. I've heard that the Edge may have a very good shot at education markets in Asia, but an Apple or a PixelQi tablet with sharable annotation would be very appealing to me. On the other hand, if a tablet has no documentation annotation I can share, it's not practical for me.

I am not typical of e-book reader users in general, but I am typical of some. The discussion I've read thus far too often ignores the likely fragmentation of the potential market for ebook readers and tablets and the way that people might think about and use the devices. Manufacturers and software developers are obviously making bets about which devices and software will capture enough segments to be profitable (and sustainable). Maybe we should think about these market segments as potentially "thick" in some commercial sense (likely to sustain either a type of device or a type of product) or "thin" (not likely to sustain a commercial enterprise).  (Okay, I'm using the "long tail" metaphor here.) Amazon clearly went for profiting on the device rather than a printer-and-cartridge system, and that was evidently a correct judge of the market (especially customers who had become used to heavily-discounted books from Amazon). Jeff Bezos benefited from Sony going first; in technology, sometimes being the second mover is the big advantage. Who knows if the creators of the Skiff reader or various hardware or software alternatives will hit a thick-enough segment? 

Some clearly amateur thoughts on this:

  • Someone aiming for customers who read primarily fiction and nonfiction in the "bestseller" categories need a smoothly-functioning catalog of books but not necessarily a huge title list or a large part of that segment. If you doubt me, guess what proportion of books is sold in airport shops and other non-bookstore retail outlets and then find documentation of whether you were correct. 
  • A multipurpose device (such as what Apple's tablet is likely to be) needs to be easy to use in its central apps. It does not need to have an enormous feature set to be commercially successful, and an open SDK will help the apps develop. This gives Apple a substantial advantage in tablets, though someone working with Android might catch up in terms of a singularly beautiful design.
  • Something that is more aimed at a niche, such as the Entourage Edge or the Skiff reader, needs to be head and shoulders above competition in doing its job well or the niche needs to be larger than expected.
  • Alternative for niche devices: be incredibly inexpensive and incredibly consumer-friendly.

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Posted in Reading at 10:30 PM (Permalink) |

January 22, 2010

Collegiality: It's harder to separate ideas from people than you might think

As the president of the USF chapter of Florida's statewide faculty union, it's part of my job to defend the academic due process rights of That Guy.* If you've worked at a college or university, you've had to deal with That Guy, a generally prickly personality more commonly male than female who may have some good ideas (and in some cases, That Guy is usually correct on the merits) but tends to express them in ways that attack people rather than focus on the relevant issues. That Guy's standard mode is bullying in private and either high dudgeon or deliberate attempts to embarrass in public. That Guy's vocabulary can be littered with terms such as moron, idiot, and liar... usually in reference to people who disagree with That Guy. That Guy usually refers to high motives and ethics to justify That Guy's behavior, but from the outside, it looks like That Guy's model is more likely to be John Bolton than Martin Luther King, Jr.

It looks like Ohio University assistant professor Bill Reader may be a That Guy in the eyes of his colleagues, and his tenure case revolving around collegiality has now hit the news. The 1999 AAUP statement on "collegiality" as part of evaluation argues that there is a difference between evaluating collegiality as part of someone's job (that is, in teaching, research, and service), on the one hand, and having a free-floating collegiality criterion separate from the different parts of one's job, on the other. The more radical view of John Wilson is that even tucked inside teaching, research, or service, collegiality is an inappropriate expectation at a university. On the other end of the spectrum, I can probably find a number of administrators who will explain that if someone is truly destructive in a work environment, it's part of their job to deny tenure to prevent the problem from saddling an entire department or college with dysfunction for a person's whole career. The AAUP statement is still the best guide to navigating the issue of That Guy on any campus, but it takes a bit of guts on the part of those around That Guy to enforce reasonable norms of behavior.

Part of a university's job is to explore uncomfortable ideas. This will inevitably prompt outside Astroturf pressure groups to criticize a university on occasion, as happened this week with USF. That's why it is right for those concerned about collegiality criteria to warn that collegiality is not congeniality and that a free-floating collegiality criterion could chill speech. On occasion, we all make stupid mistakes in social settings, and we should still get a hearing for our ideas. If a perfect recitation of Judith Martin's Miss Manners books were a requirement for an academic job, I suspect few faculty would ever have our jobs. And if we kicked out faculty who occasionally lost their tempers, we'd be setting a poor model for students, whom we'd like to socialize into recognizing that good ideas come from all sorts of places and people. On occasion, people engaged in ideas act in ways that are uncomfortable. There has to be wiggle room in our ideal of a conversation that focuses on ideas rather than people, or we'd have sterile, passionless universities.

And yet, while that wiggle room should be broad, it should not be infinite. That Guy may entertain or amuse faculty with thick skins and who are not the targets of That Guy's tactics, but That Guy's tactics often push a good segment of faculty (either in a department or more broadly) to withdraw because they don't want to be targets or to say To hell with serving on this committee or task force; I'm going to go back to my office and work on what I know is valuable and not a waste of my time. That Guy's behavior shrinks the active public space at any college or university.

That's the core dilemma in the discussion over collegiality as a criterion used in evaluation. If universities can casually dismiss faculty because they're prickly, administrators can destroy that common space for debate in an a priori sense, because ideas are taking a lower priority than deviation from an arbitrarily set norm. But if That Guy can run rampant in a department, college, or university, the behavior effectively destroys common space for debate in a factual sense, as only a small handful are willing to be in the presence of That Guy, and you get a rump caucus masquerading as collegial governance. Obsess about personal behavior that is pricklier than your norm, and the ideal of paying attention to ideals is lost. Assume everyone has mental Kevlar, and the reality of a broad discussion is lost.

The AAUP statement is a practical and professional way to address the dilemma by forcing peers and administrators to be cautious in judging interpersonal prickliness: see where it affects the job. And the statement is explicit in warning that extreme behavior is not protected: "Professional misconduct or malfeasance should constitute an independently relevant matter for faculty evaluation. So, too, should efforts to obstruct the ability of colleagues to carry out their normal functions, to engage in personal attacks, or to violate ethical standards." The AAUP statement should not be much comfort to That Guys the world over, because it gives peers and administrators the ability to judge truly odious behavior as odious, if they choose.

Ah... it's the if they choose where the rub usually lies. Faculty have very little training in confronting colleagues about their behavior. It's a little too easy to avoid conflict, to avoid pointing out that lying and backstabbing is inappropriate, because that's a horrible conversation to have no matter what its outcome. And when it comes to annual reviews for tenure-track faculty, it's tempting to be encouraging and avoid telling colleagues that they're not doing enough in research or teaching... or in treating colleagues, staff, and students like human beings. I understand the temptation of administrators to have collegiality as a separate item for tenure reviews: in many departments, there will not be the guts to stand up to That Guy, and the separate item seems to be a reasonable alternative, or an alternative for desperate administrators. But then you're left with one end of the dilemma I've sketched above, and you've betrayed core academic values.

There is another problem with the separate collegiality criterion: you're failing to address the underlying problem in those cases, which is with peer evaluation that does not look at what's actually happening. If a tenure-track faculty member comes up for tenure and close to a majority or a majority of colleagues votes against tenure for reasons of collegiality but no one told her or him of the problem for five years, how much of the problem is with the candidate for tenure and how much of the problem is a dysfunctional pattern in peer review? And suppose you deny tenure in that case... there are always likely to be tenured jerks as well as untenured jerks, sometimes even jerks as deans or provosts. Don't you want faculty with integrity and savvy willing to stand up to the tenured and administrative jerks and thugs? Unless you foster an environment where everyone looks at problems with open eyes and talks about what's as plain as the nose on your face, the type of faculty member most likely to stand up to administrative thugs is ... That Guy. Congratulations: you've just created/maintained an internal audience for That Guy.

* A friend who is a very active defender of academic freedom used That Guy in an e-mail to me a few months ago as a generic term for department/campus jerk. The friend's department apparently has two That Guys, one male and one female.

Update (1/23): Bob Sutton has additional, very thoughtful comments, including the perfect reading recommendation (Gunsalus's book on academic administration).

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

January 20, 2010

Odds and ends from the peanut gallery

It's a few minutes before closing at this Super-Brand coffee store, so it's time for a few thoughts...

  • The successor editorial team at Education Policy Analysis Archives/Archivos Analiticos de Politicas Educativas has unveiled the new website. New submissions should head there. For a few months you'll still see articles I accepted, but otherwise, go Gustavo and company! (My apologies for not having figured out how to get accented characters to show in this version of MovableType.)
  • I'm still feeling fine after the accident on the 11th. My car... well, let's just say that we'll be doing our part for the recovery, thanks to an insurance company and our bank account. 
  • The theme of the month thus far is "nothing happens without hiccups and red tape." I swear that if I die before the end of January, I'll have to fill out several forms before I'm buried or cremated. 
  • Did the Cowboys release Martha Coakley at the end of November? Sure looks like it now. 
  • Paul Krugman says he's "pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama." I like Krugman's public writings a great deal, but didn't Krugman give up on Obama several times in early 2008 (and in a rather nasty way)? Cue the editorial cartoonist and lines from Brokeback Mountain.
  • My daughter and I went on our last joint college visit over the holiday weekend. I wondered aloud if the sparkly bits in the sidewalk were either mica or the remains of Stephanie Meyer vampires. My daughter would have winced except that she barely got through Twilight without the gag reflex taking control.

The friendly mop is now telling me I need to go, though its wielder is saying otherwise. Time to go. 

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Posted in The academic life at 10:59 PM (Permalink) |

January 16, 2010

Starting the semester with a bang

As some of you may know, my semester started out with a bang, or a crash, or at least some broken lights. Minor car accident Monday morning; I stopped for a yellow light, but the driver of the van behind me didn't get the clues. There have been some other things going on since the beginning of January, and here's just a smattering:

  • Ratification of a Memorandum of Understanding between my union chapter and the University of South Florida Board of Trustees to authorize a domestic partner health insurance stipend and an early retirement incentive program. I ran or set up four voting times on the Tampa campus, organized materials for the three smaller campuses, drove to collect the ballots from one of those campuses, ran the counting of ballots, answered questions from bargaining-unit employees.
  • Major collective bargaining session yesterday afternoon, which entailed a good bit of preparation.
  • Campus politics, which shall remain unspecified.
  • Did a longer turn than usual this week as Father Chauffeur, because both of my children are in high school, so their schedule was juggled for end-of-semester finals.
  • Ran around a bit more than usual because of the accident.
  • Ran around a bit to help my wife with her executor duties.
  • Ran around just to stay warm.
  • Finished preparing some articles to be published in EPAA later this month. Corresponded with new editor (hi, Gustavo!) on transitional issues.
  • Am more behind than I expected on some things this new semester. At least I won't be bored!
  • Tried to get in a reasonable complement of exercise, despite deciding not to take on martial arts the evening of the accident. (Some of the stuff we're working on this week involves hitting our partner on the collarbone/shoulder. I thought that wouldn't be smart on the same day.)

Tomorrow I head off with my daughter to a colder city than Tampa for one last round of college visiting, unless she wants to revisit a college before making decisions. Because it'll be a quick trip (and the new security procedures thanks to a guy who stuffs explosives in his underwear), I won't bring my work laptop. When I get back, loads of work awaits.  

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Posted in The academic life at 6:07 PM (Permalink) |

Weingarten, teacher evaluation, and the long haul

I started this entry Tuesday, before the Haiti earthquake, thinking about long-term policy changes. There are a number of students and staff at USF, as well as Tampa-area residents, who are worried about relatives or who are now in mourning. Sometimes the long term pauses while you take care of immediate needs. Well, it doesn't really pause, but most people have a limit on how many things they can focus on at one time. We can multitask, but not hypertask.

As I hope most of us have become aware, our woes are often small in comparison with world events. I've had a few bumps in the road this month, one quite literal: the driver of the gray van behind me Monday morning didn't stop when I did for a yellow light. Thankfully, crumple zones, air bags, seat belts, headrests, and other bits of technology did their job, and two uniformed officers of the Tampa police guided traffic around the immobile vehicles until the wrecker could take them away. My laptop, sitting in the trunk at the time, appears unhurt. I'm unhurt; or, rather, if you tell me I need to see a doctor about my head, I'll tell you to stand in line, and the previous suggestions have not been after an accident. Surviving rear-enders without a scratch makes me grateful for government regulation, for technology, and for people such as the two witnesses who helped steer traffic until the police arrived. After news of the earthquake, I think I can handle the small bumps in life. Look around you and you realize you can and often should suck it up.

One thing I haven't been able to do this week is look closely at the Randi Weingarten speech or much reaction to it. There's been a semi-understandable "hey, she's given a Good Speech before; where are our flying cars?" reaction. But for those who are jaded by a speech, I'd agree a little more if I didn't see so much immediate score-keeping kept about who won on which issue in which city. You either care about and focus on long-term structural changes, or you don't. We're in the middle of an era in which many policymakers believe that a few derived measures from tests are good enough for high-stakes decisions and extending that to personnel decisions. There are going to be districts that make disastrous decisions on how to use student outcome data, in different directions, and districts where both the structure and the practice is uses information appropriately (and yes, does use the information). For the short term, I care a great deal about the disasters. For the long term, I know they'll exist and hope there's enough nudging of things in the right direction. For that long term, Weingarten's speech is right and consistent with AFT national support of local bargaining.

For those who keep scorecards, the battle over the Detroit collective bargaining agreement is important for counting coup. To those who think about the human impact of change, you have to worry about the attempted (and possibly successful) coup inside the Detroit Federation of Teachers. (To those who thought the new Detroit contract was too little, too late, I told you so on the internal union politics.) For those who focus on the long term, Detroit is a blip either way, losing students consistently over the years and one district out of hundreds in Michigan. Quick question: how many so-called "suburban" school districts have more students than Detroit's?

If there is a big picture on teacher personnel issues, there are several issues to pay attention to:

  • Teacher preparation and professional development evaluation. I think Louisiana's approach to evaluating preparatory programs is about at the right scale: uses test data cautiously, and I think appropriately at the program rather than graduate (i.e., teacher) level. Florida is starting something that it claims is similar, but it's on a jerry-built measure (or, rather, Gerry-built measure since I know the person who is at least partly responsible for the measures of growth used here), and because it's incautiously done, I suspect it'll take several years to straighten out the kinds. I am relatively optimistic here.
  • Teacher preparation and professional development structures/curriculum. Here, Arne Duncan, Arthur Levine, NCATE, and TFA/other alt.-entry routes are going to push things in one productive and one disastrous direction. The productive direction may be more time earlier in classrooms with appropriate (scaffolded) support. The unproductive direction is the denigration of psychology and other disciplinary knowledge as "theory." Incidentally, that denigration has been a common pattern within schools and colleges of education for the past 30 years--the same people who are being criticized for their ineffectiveness. My college of education is a sample of 1, but it's the educational psychologists on my floor who are the ones most adamant in the college that there is no research support for learning styles (and Michelle Rhee's district that requires teachers to use something it calls learning styles). And as far as sociologists and historians of education controlling teacher education programs? Ha! Please point to one. If there is pushing of social theory inside programs, my firm prediction (which can be empirically tested!) is that there is either no relationship between respect of disciplinary-based faculty and puffery in the teacher-ed curriculum or a negative relationship. I am cynical here.
  • Teacher preparation and English language learners. There are major problems here. Unfortunately, teaching teachers about the history of immigration is both necessary and insufficient, but the social history (or a watered-down version of it repeated ad nauseam) tends to be the focus of many professional development structures that attempt to address ELL problems. Linguistic psychology takes a back seat, and there is too little research on both methods and appropriate assessment. I am in despair right now on this area.
  • It's the baby-boom echo, stupid.  All the cries about teacher shortages with the retirement of baby boomers is ignoring the baby-boom echo, the peak of which is right now passing through college. In a few short years, they'll be the bulge of early workforce participants, and you won't need a high proportion of them to be teachers to fill the empty seats. Oh, yeah, and there are the people in their late 30s and early 40s who can also do so. Apart from spot needs by geography and specialization (esp. science and special education teachers), I don't think that there is going to be a significant teacher shortage. I am optimistic.
  • The mix of evaluation sources. I've written about this before: we have no clue as a society how to mix different sources of evaluating teachers together when each source is incomplete and sometimes severely flawed. For ideological reasons, there are advocates of different varieties of sticking one's head in the sand, either ignoring student outcomes or treating them as infinitely-accurate and -valid measures. The major Gates initiative here might be an oasis or buffer of experimentation in the RTTT era. I am cynical but hope to see something of value, eventually, maybe, filtered through a lot of political spin.
  • Incentives vs. protocols. As John Thompson has pointed out, Atul Gawande's advocacy of protocols (checklists) is an uphill battle in some areas of health care.We see similar resistance in education, sometimes for good reasons (there are some awful protocols in education) and sometimes for bad reasons (see Lisa Delpit's discussion in Other People's Children on the disingenuous criticism of DISTAR for alleged abuse of power relationships). But few have pointed out that there is a conflict between the advocacy of incentives, which assumes that teachers can deliberately choose to act in a way that increases test scores, and the pushing of protocols, which assumes that no matter how well-trained and professional, teachers could use reminders to act in a way that increases student achievement.
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Posted in Education policy at 5:10 PM (Permalink) |

January 12, 2010

Haiti earthquake

The major earthquake near Port-au-Prince has destroyed hundreds of buildings in the Haiti capital, probably killed thousands, and the news looks very bad. The Lambi Fund blog entry is brief and upsetting. If there's one good thing, it's that when I attempted to donate to the Lambi Fund, the form is hanging on submission, and I hope that's because too many people are trying to donate. I received an e-mail confirmation, so it looks like the donation went through.

The Twitter hashtag is apparently #haitiquake -- I'm preparing for a horrid few days of news, and this puts any of my petty woes in perspective.

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Posted in Personal at 9:37 PM (Permalink) |

January 9, 2010

Spot temperature:Climate::Test score:____________

I fully expect that within a week (if not yet already) some climate-change skeptic will use the cold wave currently freezing much of the country as an argument that climate changing really isn't happening. And every time there's a vicious cold snap in winter or a cooler-than-average summer we get the argument. And some reporter and editor decides to devote part of the ever-shrinking news hole to bad coverage of the issue, while a relative handful of reporters use the question as an opportunity to educate readers about the difference between weather and climate.

Today, I'm sitting in central Florida with more layers on than I usually need in early January. It's colder weather than usual. But we're in a warming climate, because in the long run of decades (or centuries) the current cold wave is just noise, and the trend is towards a warmer atmosphere. "Just noise," you may be thinking through chattering teeth, "tell my heating bill that it's just noise." The current cold wave is nasty for individuals today (and a few days more), but it's temporary.

The variability of weather makes sense to most people because we have enough experience to distinguish between spot temperatures and broader patterns. We know that temperatures have daily and seasonal cycles. But the cyclical nature of weather does not give us enough background to grasp climate change. For that, you need data. A lot of data. A lot of data from a lot of places and times, of different sorts, with a number of experts sifting through it.

And even then you get climate-change conspiracy theorists, including someone who's evidently a hacker.

You can probably guess the logical analogue here: we do not have anywhere near the same density of data on student achievement that we have on climate, and yet we draw bold conclusions about the underlying achievement from a relative paucity of noisy data. As I wrote in August, we need to learn how to make decisions with noisy data. But in terms of broad trends in achievement, it is a bad habit of Americans to equate the latest test scores with long trends. 

And that doesn't even touch the question of whether test scores are like temperature readings. Ah, but they are, if you're talking about your and my outside thermometers: placed at different heights, in different conditions (sheltered, out in the open, shade v. sun), different ages of the thermometers (and thus consistency of the readings across the years). I am sure that background thermometers in these varied conditions are highly correlated in the sense that when it's colder, they're all colder, and when it's warmer, they're all warmer, and so the correlations across time are likely to be very high. But I wouldn't use them in any scientific research.

Stay warm, and have whatever hot beverage you like!

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Posted in Education policy at 10:45 AM (Permalink) |

January 4, 2010

And Bill Brass would run through the streets of Edinburgh shouting "Eureqa!"

If you are a social scientist and haven't checked out Eureqa, you should spend a few hours playing with it in the next few months, because it's entirely different from your prior experiences with statistical software. Featured in a Wired article last month, Download Your Own Robot Scientist, Eureqa is not a scientist but a statistical engine that generates potential formulae to solve a defined problem from data, evaluates the formulae as it goes, and does so using a set of operations defined by the user. The usual (somewhat tedious) method for those of us trained in social sciences is to think very clearly about the problem, define a potential model (or, in reality, the form of a function and the variables that would go in that function), and let software estimate parameters to minimize error defined in some way or maximize the likelihood of having observed the collected data. If the "think very clearly" sounds remarkably Cartesian, so be it. In the best of worlds, that a priori modeling can lead to interesting and useful findings, even if you're also exposed to John Tukey-like practicality (such as his 53h smoothing). There's also the "churn it out" school of automated stepwise regressions that used to be an excuse for researcher laziness, though I have recently accepted a manuscript for Education Policy Analysis Archives with precisely that tool used at one step (and for very justifiable and practical reasons--the authors were not being lazy one whit).

So in this world of "try out one well-justified family of models at a time" rushes Eureqa, threatening to either upset the applecart or lead to some very interesting possibilities. Instead of comparing a set of nested models, where summary models often allow inferential judgments of the utility of additional variables, Eureqa compares some very different models, where the conclusions one can draw in comparing models is restricted to the sample (where many people would argue we're always restricted, but I'll skip the metatheoretical discussion of inferential statistics). So what the heck is the use of Eureqa?

To get a glimpse of the possibility, let me tell you about my experience. Looking at one of the images in the tutorials, I saw a sine curve whose magnitude diminished, and I thought, "Okay, let's see how quickly Eureqa recognizes that," synthesized numbers in a spreadsheet to fit a formula with a magnitude that diminished to 0 asymptotically (i.e., as the independent variable headed to infinity), and plugged it into Eureqa, telling Eureqa that it could add, subtract, multiply, divide, and use sine and cosines in any combination. In a few minutes, Eureqa spat out an optimal formula that was identical to the one I had used.  Okay, so far so good, but I had been easy the first time out.

Next, I added an error term. Eureqa asked me if I wanted to smooth the data first. No, I said, and Eureqa had some problems, so I went back and checked the "smooth" box. Eureqa dutifully chugged away, and one of the candidate formulae was almost the same as the one I had used (minus the error term), but it wasn't the prime candidate after several minutes. Instead, Eureqa proposed a sum of two sine curves that had slightly different periods. I thought about it and realized, oh, yes, of course. One way to have a diminishing-amplitude sine wave was to have diminishing amplitude, but another is to have the sum of two sine waves with almost but not completely identical periods. As time goes on (or x increases), the waves shift from constructive to destructing interference, and the amplitude of the sum decreases. In a real-world environment, we would need to extend the time (or observe at higher x's) to disconfirm one of the two candidates--increasing amplitude after some time would lend evidence to the two-wave interference formula. Eureqa had neatly forced me to think of another way to see the data.

And that is the obvious first-order value of Eureqa, to generate different ways of seeing data. But it isn't the only value. And to make the argument for the second value, to generate reliable models for complex social data, I'll ask for some help from the late Bill Brass, a Scottish medical demographer I encountered in graduate school through the Brass logit relational model of life tables, a 1971 model of transforming a single model life table into life tables of real countries in real time using two parameters (alpha and beta--okay, so he wasn't exactly stellar in the naming-parameters department, but he was a brilliant practical demographer otherwise). The Brass logit model has some problems at extreme age ranges and for countries with unique mortality conditions, but given the complexity of mortality experiences through time and across continents, having any simple model that could take a model set of age-specific measures and transform it into something anywhere close to real experiences is ... well, amazing. And Brass did it without the help of microcomputers.

Since the early 1970s, a number of demographers have tinkered with the Brass logit model, and they have the benefit of microcomputers, but without Eureqa. Before microcomputers and fast computing using individual-level data, demographers had to use a combination of mathematical models and the type of statistical insight that Brass brought to life tables. So could demographers and other social scientists use Eureqa to generate this type of relational model for a range of data? Possibly, and certainly they could use Eureqa to generate candidate models. I'd be curious to see if Eureqa could come up with anything close to the Brass logit model if fed an appropriately-prepared set of data. Demography grad students, here's a great project--see if Eureqa can beat Bill Brass!

In the next month I'm finishing up my EPAA editorial duties (or coming as close to it as I can in preparing approved articles) and delving more intensively into unfinished projects. But there's a small project that's perfect for Eureqa. I have no idea if it'll come up with anything useful, but because Eureqa's proposed solutions are sample-dependent and Eureqa splits the sample into training and validation sets (and uniquely per run), Eureqa gives me a perfect routine for dull tasks: do work, take break to see how Eureqa is running, capture proposed solutions, restart the run with a new training/validation split, go back to dull task, rinse, repeat. It doesn't require the intensity of concentration I'll need for unfinished projects this spring.

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Posted in Research at 9:30 PM (Permalink) |

January 1, 2010

Wannabe education reformers in the U.S. need to use English

Confession: I do not have a professional editor review these blog entries before they become publicly available. As a result, there is the odd grammatical error that I notice only after publication.

And yet, I do not abuse the English language deliberately. In contrast, one of the least attractive stylistic tendencies of wannabe reformers, reformists, reformistas, or whatever term you wish to use, is the blatant word abuse, and unfortunately we see that in Tom Vander Ark's blog entry December 26, which had impact and leverage (ab)used as transitive verbs. They are not quite as chalkboard-scraping as incent (which I have heard and read from Arne Duncan and Mike Petrilli), because they do exist as nouns (and impact does not hurt my inner ear when used as an intransitive verb). But good grief, friends: do not add business jargon monoxide to the conversation, or you have no ... hmmn... leverage with which to criticize others for the same sin.

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Posted in Education policy at 5:06 PM (Permalink) |