February 28, 2010

Larry Cuban has a blog

I have a bunch of reading to catch up on, more than I thought I did a few minutes ago: Larry Cuban has a blog! (Hat tip.)

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Posted in Education policy at 10:02 PM (Permalink) |

February 26, 2010

More TFA in Miami-Dade: where's the money?

The Miami Herald is reporting today that Teach for America is going to send 350 recruits to the Miami-Dade school system, supported by a $6 million grant from the James L. Knight Foundation (hat tip). Thanks to the federal stimulus, the Miami school system avoided laying off hundreds of teachers this year, but it's not as if there are large numbers of paid positions that are going unfilled. So the TFA positions are going to supplement, thanks to the Knight Foundation? It might sound good, but do the math: about $17,000 in donations per TFA recruit. This just doesn't add up.

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Posted in Education policy at 5:57 AM (Permalink) |

February 25, 2010

William McKeen and me

On Sunday, the St. Petersburg Times published a bizarre column by University of Florida journalism chair William McKeen, who started off by asserting that UAH killer Amy Bishop is somehow presenting a case against tenure and then headed off into the mythical nethersphere of a world where all professors are tenured sloths. 

My response will appear in tomorrow morning's paper, and my thanks to the Times editorial staff for printing the rebuttal.

Given the constraints of an op-ed column, some material was left out. For example, William McKeen's own department has 42 classes listed on the University of Florida course schedule for the spring, and of those classes, only 22 are being taught by full-time faculty. From spreadsheets colleagues at UF sent me, I know that as chair McKeen hired 12 adjuncts to teach classes in the fall and 15 adjuncts for the spring, generally paying each of them $3,000 per course. I guess that when he wrote the column he forgot about all the adjuncts he hires every semester.

And nowhere do I see McKeen (the chair of UF's Department of Grandstanding) volunteering to be the first to give up his tenure in Gainesville. Maybe that has to do with the layoff notices issued to faculty around the state and country?

What's particularly scurrilous in McKeen's column on Sunday is the attempt to link a singular incident with a pet cause: "Has tenure become so important that someone would kill when it was denied?" As many others from Margaret Soltan to "Dean Dad" have pointed out, Amy Bishop is not your typical disappointed academic. She's killed before, she was apparently a suspect in an attempted letter-bombing, and as far as I'm aware, she is the only faculty member known to have killed peers after being denied tenure.

In the anonymous Dean Dad's words, "Let's not use a deranged shooter to make points. The crime is awful enough as it is."

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Posted in Higher education at 9:07 PM (Permalink) |

February 24, 2010

Title II proposal: TNTP, meet Florida's "Ippy-Dippy"

The New Teacher Project has a new advocacy brief out proposing changes in ESEA's Title II, which is supposed to focus on personnel development. Some of the observations and proposals make sense (let's stop paying money for 90-minute drive-by "professional development"). Some are essentially using Title II as a vehicle for pushing other agendas (teacher evaluation and differential pay), though only some of it fits easily within Title II (here, training administrators and peers to evaluate teachers makes sense in Title II).

And some ideas are proposed as brand-new but have been tried before, including the suggestion that professional development be tied explicitly to the needs of students that teachers have at the moment. That seems to me to be remarkably like the Florida mandate for an "Individual Professional Development Plan," or IPDP. I've heard the complaints of too many teachers about the IPDP, which is usually pronounced Ippy-Dippy: it's another few hours of paperwork to complete each year with no real individualization of professional development. In other words, in Florida it results too often in paper compliance only.

But I'm only an historian listening to teachers in one state. If you live outside Florida, does your state mandate anything like our "Ippy-Dippy" form? What happens outside the paperwork?

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Posted in Education policy at 9:22 AM (Permalink) |

February 22, 2010

I cannot take credit for Sansom's departure

Apparently Ray Sansom's lawyer Gloria Fletcher has blamed bloggers for the downfall of her client. Since I was pretty active in writing about the Sansom affair in late 2008 and early 2009, maybe Ms. Fletcher means me... except that almost all I did was refer people by links to news stories written by Alex Leary or reporters at the Northwest Florida Daily News. Maybe she's referring to Tampa-area Democratic activist Susan Smith, except that I don't know that Smith blogs outside the DailyKos site (and there she's one of hundreds of thousands of writers), though she does produce a political podcast. Fletcher also blamed the House Republicans for their unfair procedural rulings. She could also probably blame the media--the aforementioned Leary from the St Pete Times and Miami Herald joint capitol bureau, as well as newspaper editorial boards around the state who jumped on the incredibly unfair bandwagon thinking that Sansom might have had a few ethical problems. And I'm guessing that when the criminal case is finally heard, she will start to blame Sansom's partners in the scandal, Bob Richburg and Jay Odom.

I don't think I played a role in events other than to keep a rolling list of links as the story unfolded. I am sure that many of the other individuals and groups played a role, but there's one place that Ray Sansom needs to look to figure out the cause of all this: his mirror.

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Posted in Higher education at 11:55 AM (Permalink) |

The cliff, layoffs, and another stimulus/state rescue

Andy Smarick's analysis is correct: Arne Duncan and Barack Obama are talking this week about pending teacher layoffs to lay the groundwork for more stimulus/state-budget-rescue discussions. I suspect I have one analytical and one policy disagreement with Smarck, though. First, it's not a "second stimulus," because we're moving into a period where there will be a lot of smaller spending packages, so this is going to be the fourth or maybe fifth stimulus proposal in this Congress. And this is going to be harder than an extension of unemployment benefits or anything else that costs under $25 billion, because states and local governments are still in horrid fiscal shape. I suspect Smarick would oppose another large federal rescue of state budgets, but I think it's absolutely necessary or we face another 1937. Teachers and other civil servants don't spend as much of their income immediately as those receiving unemployment benefits, but it's still a better emergency economic policy to keep most public employees at work than any tax cut except the publicly-invisible withholding reductions implemented last year. And as happened last year, there may be considerable inconsistency in the behavior of state-government politicians, many of whom may publicly be horrified about any additional federal spending but need it in reality. (The public conflation of TARP and ARRA doesn't help here.)

For anyone still arguing for budget cuts as public-policy colonic, all I can say is that I hope that you can still argue that point in a year or two without risking pitchforks from the public, if only because you didn't win the argument.

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Posted in Education policy at 9:49 AM (Permalink) |

February 21, 2010

Ray Sansom resigns from Florida House of Representatives

It's been 412 days since Ray Sansom resigned as Florida House Speaker after allegations that he had swapped millions of dollars funneled to Northwest Florida College for a job at the college. Since then, he's been a member of the chamber without a committee assignment, facing ethics charges in the chamber and criminal charges in court. Rather than face a House hearing that would have started tomorrow, he resigned today. The St. Pete Times political blog has made Sansom's resignation letter available for downloading.

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Posted in Higher education at 9:45 PM (Permalink) |

A closer look at HB 1009 (proposed expansion of Florida corporate tax-credit vouchers)

On Wednesday, I discussed my first reaction to news of Florida House Bill 1009, which I thought had some eye-popping proposals, and I posted Jon East's response. I've had a chance to look at the text of the bill, and there are some details hidden in there that are interesting.

  • The reporting of test scores for schools with 30 voucher students isn't for 30 vouchers students in any year but for those with at least 30 students who continue from year to year. That dramatically shrinks the number of schools that would have scores reported, and they would only be reported for continuing students, in contrast with public schools that report status test scores (which are part of the Florida system of labeling schools) as well as Florida's jerry-built "learning gains" measure.
  • The financial reporting requirements in the bill is only for schools taking vouchers worth a total of $250,000 per year. Let's assume that at some point FEFP funding per weighted student is $8000, and the 80% voucher is $6400. That would be about 39 students as the threshhold for the financial requirements. At the current voucher level the threshhold is 64 students. I suspect the financial reporting requirement would affect a tiny fraction of the schools accepting vouchers.

One other thought: if this bill passes, then the other large voucher program (for students with disabilities) will remain without any accountability for student outcomes. That's a huge question mark in terms not only of constitutionality but also state compliance with federal special education law. How are state assurances on providing a free appropriate public education affected when state general revenues flow through vouchers, either directly (as in the case of the disability-related voucher program) or indirectly (through the corporate tax-credit voucher program)?

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Posted in Education policy at 3:30 PM (Permalink) |

Jon East responds on corporate tax-credit voucher expansion (HB 1009)

Jon East, a former reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and now Research and Communications Director at the corporate tax-credit voucher non-profit Step Up for Students, was unable to put the following long response in comments to my discussion of HB 1009, and when he e-mailed them to me, I agreed to post them here:

As always, my friend, you offer a provocative commentary and I appreciate your recognition that this bill adds two new mechanisms of accountability even if they don't go far enough for you. Please allow me to probe two different claims you made here, though, because I don't think they present the clearest picture.

First, the assertion that the bill "expands the dollar amount per voucher from the state beyond what the state gives local school districts" feels a little like it was intended to obfuscate. Any general assessment of cost should probably begin with the fact that this option is now and would continue to be the lowest-cost education option in Florida -- lower than traditional public schools, charter schools, McKay scholarships, even virtual instruction programs. That aside, the amount the state "gives local school districts" is controlled by a 1973 law that essentially puts all the money for the base funding formula, called the Florida Education Finance Program, into one pot. As we know, the state has been putting less money into the formula while increasing the amount of "required local effort" for property taxpayers. But the larger point is that the FEFP is intended to make funding more equitable, with the breakdown between state and local portions varying county by county according to the size of their property tax base. To then turn around and compare the state portion as though it is some isolated variable in school funding seems contrived. The bill would place the scholarship at a 20 percent discount on this FEFP formula, and the FEFP is only part of the overall revenue picture for schools. By way of comparison, the per-student FEFP in 2007-08 was $7,143. The total revenues per student, including state, local, federal and capital, that same year (this is the most recent one DOE has published) was $11,017. So back to your point: The bill would indeed increase the scholarship amount up to 80 percent of FEFP. But if it took effect all in one year instead of four and it took effect today, the scholarship would translate to $5,490 -- which is almost precisely half the total per-student spending in public schools.

Second, your concerns about the "elimination of the cap" take a little liberty with the wording of the bill and a little more license with the current marketplace. The bill absolutely eases the process of increasing the cap, but one fact worth noting is that this would still be the only major education option with any cap at all. There are no caps for charter schools, McKay scholarships, virtual schools. And the McKay scholarship, as one example, grew only about 3 percent last year. The controlling factor for any school option is ultimately the students. If students and families aren't interested then the program doesn't grow.

In e-mail correspondence, East made clear that when he was discussing the Florida Education Finance Program, he was combining the state, local, and federal sources, and that HB 1009 also was discussing a voucher of eventually 80% of the combined state and local (but not federal) funding. From one perspective East is correct: the legislature sets the amount of funding that comes in total from the state's general revenues, from state trust funds, and from "required local effort" property taxes at the local level, and then a complex formula determines what the required local effort is from each county. Counties have a certain amount of additional property taxes they can levy on a discretionary basis, but FEFP is a unitary mandate in the sense that the legislature determines the base funding for students, and that legislative mandate is met jointly by state revenue and local property taxes.

On the other hand, I think that legislative history will be cold comfort to local school board members and county commissioners who have seen the state shift school funding in the past decade away from state revenues and towards local property taxes. That use of FEFP to shift taxes allowed former Governor Jeb Bush and the Bush-era legislative leadership to claim that they were lowering taxes when a good part of that was a clever shell game. (This is not a particularly partisan flaw: the Democratically-controlled legislature played a similar game in proposing a state lottery in the late 1980s which legislators claimed would boost education funding without raising taxes.) Many school board members will see HB 1009 as a drain of state revenues that will contribute to the shifting of education funding away from the state and towards local property taxes. When the legislature created FEFP in the early 1970s, they quickly ramped up per-pupil state support of education, effectively shifting the revenues from local property taxes to the state's general revenue pot. HB 1009 looks like it will continue a reversal of that original intent.

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Posted in Education policy at 3:20 PM (Permalink) |

February 17, 2010

Eye-popping proposal to expand corporate tax-credit voucher program in Florida

When Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas criticizes the Florida House bill to expand one of Florida's large statewide voucher programs, you know something interesting is happening with the bill. Thomas has previously argued in favor of expanding vouchers, but the current bill is eye-popping for Thomas. I have somewhat different reasons for thinking it's eye-popping:

  • It expands the dollar amount per voucher from the state beyond what the state gives local school districts.
  • It has an automatic mechanism for expanding the program, instead of requiring that program proponents return to the legislature for expansion as a structural point for program oversight.
  • It requires standardized tests and reporting by schools with a certain number of students (30 per school, close in configuration to a similar threshold for reporting by public schools). E-mail correspondence with the nonprofit financial agent for the program suggests that this was chosen for a number of reasons over the Fordham Institute's suggested sliding scale of accountability by proportion of money taken from the state. This is a step towards addressing the double-standard of accountability common in voucher and tax-credit programs. On the other hand, it is not going to satisfy everyone or possibly even many: This bill does not require that voucher-receiving students take the same tests that public-school students take, and there is no corrective action required for lousy schools receiving vouchers.

The bill is an interesting political gamble, but not really one about dynamics inside the legislature. Because the Republicans control the Florida legislature with an iron fist at the moment, opponents of expanding the program would need to persuade some key Republican senators to oppose this bill, and it has elements geared to satisfy concerns of moderate Republicans in the Florida state senate (notably the test-reporting requirement and another requirement for financial reporting). No one can predict the path of any legislative session with certainty, and who knows what wild ride we're on this year. But a path through the legislature is more secure than other things.

What's surprising to me is the audacious step of boosting the voucher amount in a horrid budget year over what the average per-pupil amount the state contributes to local public schools, plus the effective elimination of any cap on the program. Four years ago, the state supreme court ruled in Holmes v. Bush that the school-label-triggered voucher program violated the state constitution's requirement for a uniform public school system. But that decision did not provoke anyone into challenging the much larger voucher programs (for students with disabilities, funded by the state directly, and for students eligible for free- and reduced-lunch programs, funded by corporate tax credits). That implicit detente has depended on uncertainties among various parties about how the state supreme court would rule on the other programs, the fact that school boards would not exactly curry favor with legislators by getting involved (though they are the obvious entities with standing), and the sense that a cap on the tax-credit voucher program gave local public schools a guarantee that the programs' funding would not balloon in unpredictable ways. 

My first reaction on reading about the bill was, "Okay, why is anyone giving school districts and others a huge incentive to challenge the larger voucher programs in Florida?" The elimination of the cap and the boosting of the voucher funding could take money away from local school boards and do so in an uneven and unpredictable fashion, precisely at a time when school districts around the state have laid off staff and teachers and are looking at several pending and potential funding cliffs: a precipitous decline of local property-tax collections, the end of federal stimulus dollars by the end of 2010-11, competing for state dollars with ballooning Medicaid expenses, new constitutional limits on expanding funding after the economy recovers, and the always-possible floating of a Florida TABOR like Colorado's. The lack of a cap, especially, is something that would have to be raised as a planning concern by competent financial officers in small districts, because the attraction of even a few thousand poor students in a rural district could remove a substantial part of state aid. That might overcome the political barriers to a number of organizations' filing a constitutional challenge to the entire tax-credit voucher program.

So why is this being filed this year, and by Will Weatherford, a second-term representative from Pasco County who was tagged by his caucus to be Speaker in 2013-14? If this is a key part of his agenda as a legislator, he has four more years after this year to get this passed. That is, if there's a Republican governor, and there's the rub. If he had run for re-election, Governor Charlie Crist probably would have won easily, even though his political star has been tarnished considerably in more than three years of avoiding hard political battles. But he's not running for re-election; he's trying to hop to the U.S. Senate, and it looks like the general election in the state will pit CFO Alex Sink against Attorney General Bill McCollum. While McCollum is leading in polls pitting the two head-to-head, that's no guarantee this far out from November. If Sink wins the governor's mansion, the chances for expanding voucher programs disappears for at least four years, and possibly longer given the fact that the Florida constitution gives the governor a role in reapportionment. At least at first glance, this bill looks like a very clever do-or-die gamble: combine some increased accountability with a long-term structural expansion of the program. 

I am speculating without solid knowledge of insider strategies, just some guesses based on the current politics of the state. But it would explain why there's a bill that could break down the post-2006 detente in Florida voucher politics.

Zombie idea: short-cut high schools

I guess I was wrong yesterday in labeling Utah State Senator Chris Buttars as obviously out of the mainstream in terms of practices. The New York Times reports today on something that slipped under my radar: two-year high school degree options based on an idiosyncratic constellation of what the article calls "board exams." Not too surprisingly, this is the brainchild of Marc Tucker, who's been peddling some type of policy proposal for changing the structure of high schools for more than twenty years as head of the National Center on Education and the Economy. I think this primarily shows that he's been more effective at lobbying than the higher-profile Partnership for 21st Century Skills, because it look like the various testing options essentially would require students to succeed at 12th-grade somewhat-more-intensive coursework, and my reasoning yesterday on three-year programs holds here (students likely to succeed at these tests are going to continue through four years). Given the original argument of NCEE for a much more vo-tech focus, I'm not sure what to make of this, except that it looks like it will have minimal impact on actual enrollments. 

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Posted in Education policy at 10:33 AM (Permalink) |

February 16, 2010

Expanding digital humanities through diversification

Alex Reid's discussion of how to tip digital humanities practices into "early majority" status (hat tip) pushed a few ideas into alignment in my head, and while he has a pretty standard institutional perspective, it's headed in the wrong direction for a variety of reasons. The best and most productive way to expand the world of digital humanities is to diversify it.

Reid's idea: pick one or two tools that are on the frontier of current use among academics who think of themselves as "digital humanists" and create both investment in and buzz around the development of those tools. "Mobile computing" was the idea he focused on (as an example, not as a serious argument that it's the best focus for all institutions). There are two central problems with that narrow approach: it assumes that an institution can accurately predict the best investment opportunity in a burgeoning field, and it assumes that the best approach to evangelizing is intensification within the people who already define themselves as within the field as opposed to recruiting people who are doing very similar things but don't think of themselves (yet) as digital humanists. I think both assumptions are wrong.

If you read my blog, you'll know that I think the latest Horizon report on cutting-edge IT is likely to be mistaken in several regards. But even if you think the Horizon group can get a lot of things right, the approach Reid suggests essentially puts all of an institution's eggs in one basket. Has your college or university spent money on Second Life in the last few years? Yeah, mine too. Do you think in retrospect that was a wise investment, given the current funding situation in higher ed? Me, neither. Maybe Layar will prove me wrong on augmented reality. But if I were a provost or dean, I'd be hesitant to spend the equivalent of several faculty members' annual salaries (or more) on something that a very small number of faculty say is the latest thing and a sure bet. I'd be much more inclined to put money into a more general resource or a competition on campus and let a broad group of faculty tell me what's the most meritorious on balance (factoring in faculty strengths and records, among other things).

More troublesome than the all-the-eggs-in-one-basket approach is the almost guaranteed insularity of Alex Reid's idea. I loved going to THATCamp last summer, but one very troubling aspect of the attendees' demography is that we were almost all white, and I don't think there was a single African-American or Latino scholar attending. Oops. More than oops: it's a tremendous missed opportunity, or maybe best framed as an opportunity that self-identified digital humanists have not yet grasped. You think only white and Asian American humanists use computers? Yeah, sure. You think only non-Hispanic whites and Asian Americans are interested in exploring cultural heritage? Those who knew Roy Rosenzweig, just guess what he'd say about that. Maybe you're not aware of all the middle-aged or newly-retired professional African Americans who have started to fix up sites of formerly all-Black schools or engage in other acts of cultural preservation, a few decades after this guy named Alex Haley remade genealogy as a popular field. And professional humanists? Hint: the Association of African American Museums has a website. Really. So where are the representatives from those museums at digital-humanities get-togethers? 

I don't mean to be as accusatory as you might read the tone of the last few sentences. I know it's tough when you're starting at the edge of a self-defined frontier and trying to figure out how to climb the learning curve of JavaScript... oops, ActionScript... uh, Python,... let alone work in the collaborative groups who are putting together fantastic tools such as Omeka. That's serious hard work, and it's work that is functionally separate from engaging in deliberate outreach to expand the group of self-defined digital humanists to include people who are doing that stuff but not calling it digital humanities. So I'm not seriously criticizing today's group of digital humanists... yet.

However, those who push for the continued development of digital humanities in the current population of self-identified DHers need to look outside the window of the house they're currently building. If you're a non-Hispanic white self-identified DHer (or would that be DHist?), contact community museums and national and state parks with cultural resources when you plan your regional THATCamp. Talk to a variety of colleagues in local institutions and see what they're doing. Talk to librarians at HBCUs and Hispanic-serving institutions and see what's going on in their collections. Talk to a broad range of secondary-school teachers in nearby school districts, who are often great targets of recruiting for graduate programs. If this really is a great new world you're exploring, you want people with different experiences to show you what you don't know.

And if you're reading this and haven't gone to a THATCamp and don't identify as a digital humanist, but you know, you're reading this on a computer and wondering if the world of digital humanities is destined to remain a mostly-white enclave of academics, librarians, and museum staff? Nah... these are good folks. It'll just take a little nagging to bust the gates open permanently. (Addendum 2/17/10: case in point of "good folks:" Timothy Powell of the Penn Archaeology/Anthropology Museum, who is speaking this afternoon on Digital Ethnography at Georgetown and on Negotiating the Cultural Turn(s) at the Center for New Media and History (along with Bethany Nowviskie.)

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Posted in Higher education at 9:51 PM (Permalink) |

Heady, headwinds, or just headstrong?

Two education stories caught my eye this evening: the attempt by a Rhode Island superintendent to use state law on school interventions to trump collective bargaining and fire all teachers at one high school, and the trial balloon floated by a Utah state senator to end 12th grade in the state, or make it optional. 

Utah State Senator Chris Buttars is just being headstrong, or maybe "grasping at straws" might be the better term, since the idea of skipping a year of a four-year program isn't attractive to many students even when it's possible. Florida created a three-year high school structure some years ago, and it's almost entirely unused, for obvious reasons: students who are doing well-enough in high school to finish in three years are also eligible to attend a number of colleges, and will be told by high school advisors, their parents, and others that they darned well are going to spend a fourth year in high school so they can attend a college of their choice. And in colleges, while many students could use AP credits to graduate in three years, that's not a common pattern. An old friend of mine was able to finish high school one year early in the 1970s and enter a UC campus, but she was an extreme outlier.

Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo is facing legal headwinds but is less obviously foolish than Buttars. Gallo is relying on a set of state options for addressing low-performing schools, and when teachers in the district would not agree to a longer workday without substantially increased pay, Gallo said she'd forgo bargaining a solution and use the option to fire all the teachers in the school instead (and let them reapply for their jobs). There are two general questions here on the legality of Gallo's move: is the state corrective-action structure outside the scope of bargaining for public employees in Rhode Island, and does her move constitute an unfair labor practice by construction (i.e., even if the state corrective-action structure is not bargainable, is her action retaliation in the context of the moment)? This is very far from my experience, but if this were in the state of Florida for most of the time we've had public-employee bargaining, I suspect the outcome of a similar legal battle would not be easily predictable. 

The rule of thumb with economic crises is that people innovate through desperation rather than through careful planning. We're seeing that in the case of Utah. And nerves are generally raw throughout the country, so situations that might otherwise be resolvable often head into conflict when that might have been avoided in better times (I don't know if that would have been true in Central Falls).

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Posted in Education policy at 7:36 PM (Permalink) |

Books are not going to disappear from libraries

Student views of libraries are apparently all over the map when asked by the New York Times whether libraries need books anymore... but I think that's always been the case. Libraries serve multiple constituencies, and if you had phrased the question differently in different eras and for different media -- for example, "do libraries still need to stock cassette books-on-tape?" -- you'd have very different responses. Yes, public libraries still carry and loan audiobooks, though they're no longer on cassette tapes. 

Patrons like what they like, and librarians always have to figure out the right mix. Fundamentally, "books or ebooks" is the wrong question from the standpoint of library administration. It's going to be a mix of books, periodicals, audiobooks, video material, computer access, reference services, public space use, and outreach for public libraries and a different mix (but still a mix) for academic libraries.

From a public standpoint, too, "books or ebooks" is the wrong question. Funding public access to information is one of the best investments in the future I can think of. Yes, I think of libraries as part of the "constellation" of educational institutions (to borrow from Larry Cremin), and no matter how I may cringe when certain ones are used by students, it's better to nourish more sources of information than to be stingy.

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Posted in Education policy at 8:51 AM (Permalink) |

February 13, 2010

The message of opening access to AP courses: "Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!"

Someone reminded me that because I was crazy-busy in the fall, I didn't comment on one local controversy a few months ago, so this is a catch-up post of sorts, in part justified by the February 4 story in USA Today and Leslie Postal's story earlier this week in the Orlando Sentinel. The St. Pete Times editorial board published two pieces on December 15 and December 16 criticizing local schools in central Florida for having low and widely varying "passing rates" on Advanced Placement exam subjects. By "passing rate," the Times is using the common threshhold score, 3 out of 5, for earning college credit. Never mind for the moment that the reasons why students take AP courses are not necessarily about college credit, nor do all colleges set 3 as the threshhold. One can assume that the wide variations in proportions earning a 3, 4, or 5 reflect an underlying variation in achievement in the classes. The editorials argue that the achievement in AP courses is too low and that variations are a direct reflection of teacher quality. In the first editorial, the board wrote,

The passing rates on the AP exam are often pathetic. It is a scandalous situation that fails students, misleads parents and wastes public money.

In the second, the board wrote,

District superintendents and school principals should hold teachers accountable for dismal passing rates.

These are conclusions from a superficial analysis. I know of situations where it is obvious that low scores are probably reflections of teacher quality, but I know of several classrooms where either students are scoring well despite low teacher quality or where students are scoring low though they have a fabulous teacher.

For example, I know of one school with two teachers in a particular AP subject taught in 12th grade. Students of both teachers have approximately equal proportions earning a 3, 4, or 5. Yet I know from talking with students that one of the teachers is engaging, providing both materials and an environment more reflective of a college class than the other, where discussion is squelched and theoretical frameworks are presented as narrowly as one could imagine (and this is in a topic where college classes would commonly revolve around discussion). That's right: two teachers, one school, different assignments in the year (how did that happen??), very different reception by students, similar AP scores on the measure the Times published and the editorial board cares about. Most obvious explanation: credit goes to these students' prior teacher(s) in the subject for getting them ready for the AP class they take in 12th grade. Did that possibility appear to the editorial board? Apparently not.

More broadly, members of the editorial board of the Times (and a number of people around the country) have the exactly wrong approach to challenging classes in high school, as evidenced by another point in the December 15 editorial: "There is some merit to the argument that passing rates are low because too many unprepared students are being steered into AP classes." This statement, which I've generally heard from middle-class or wealthy parents, assumes either a zero-sum game for schools (for some parents, that their children aren't getting enough exclusivity in AP credentials for college admissions offices) or that students in AP classes are worse off being in the AP classes than not. The latter is speculation by the editorial board without a clear research consensus (see below for a longer discussion). The former is not acceptable to me as a basis for making policy decisions.

On a philosophical basis, I am disturbed by the assumption that we always need to withhold content based on prior achievement. Why does the fictional Ms. Frizzle tell students to "take chances, make mistakes, get messy!" in elementary school, but we have to shake in our boots at the possibility that we might be challenging older students? There are plenty of classes (e.g., U.S. history) where keeping students out makes little sense, and the Times is dead wrong in their approach on this issue.

The alternative to opening up opportunity: a situation such as at Berkeley High School, where the breakup of the school into mini-schools several years ago has segregated students, left a disproportionate number of white students in AP science classes, and led to a real zero-sum game of reduced science instruction as some parents and educators propose redirecting effort away from science labs to smaller class sizes elsewhere in the school. That becomes the dynamic when science labs for advanced courses are the arena for a privileged few instead of a more common expectation that teenagers should be encouraged to take challenging classes.

Addendum: Paul Cottle wrote a blog entry this morning on the same subject, and he refers to Kristin Klopfenstein's research, including an article she published last year with Kathleen Thomas (earlier version PDF). The research is mixed; for a different view with recent research, see a 2008 Northeastern Educational Research Association paper by Xinhui Xiong, K. D. Matterny, and E. J. Shaw. I don't think that schools should respond to the mixed research either by shutting down access to challenging material or by making the teaching of AP courses a higher-risk assignment for teachers than other assignments.

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Posted in Education policy at 8:43 AM (Permalink) |

February 11, 2010

Shoveling day

Friends and relatives in the mid-Atlantic are spending this week shoveling loads of snow. I've been shoveling, too, if not snow. It's time to deal with projects of various sorts, and I can't complain too much about them: recruiting people for certain tasks; responding to a bureaucratic emergency or three; getting various bills paid; talking with colleagues about potential projects; editing a batch of EPAA titles and abstracts for articles I accepted in late December so they can be translated into Spanish and Portuguese; and so forth. I should get a few more tasks done in the next hour before I head out to Afternoon Drive-Time.

May your shoveling day be productive, no matter what you're shoveling.

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Posted in The academic life at 1:15 PM (Permalink) |

Additional thoughts on performance pay politics

An addendum to my entry earlier this morning: I think that there is a politically-robust rationale for performance-pay policies, but it's not at the level of incentives usually used as the justification. The more plausible rationale for performance-pay policies is at the level of public-sector accountability: most people with jobs do not expect identical salaries or salaries based on a formula, and small variations based on something other than seniority and educational credentials might boost the facial validity of public-sector HR practices.

Note that this is not an argument that business practices are always incentives based (or should be: witness AIG as a disaster stemming from short-term incentives) or even widely varying. In some cases--large law firms, for example--entry-level professionals receive step pay increases in their first few years akin to teachers' step increases. But if I were to ask the head of the Florida Council of 100, Susan Story, whether she'd stop advocating performance pay even if the research consensus in a few years were solidly against its doing anything for student achievement, my guess is that she'd still push for some form of performance pay.

The discourse around this is somewhat similar to other comparisons people make between their lives and public policy: when policies look like you're pushing the cart and someone else paid by public funds isn't, you're less likely to maintain support for it. A friend of mine visited a newspaper columnist some years ago to complain about an article the columnist had written regarding AFDC (the federal welfare program before 1996). Don't you understand the factual errors with all of the myths about welfare? my friend asked. Sure, said the columnist, but you don't understand why public attitudes have changed: as the majority of mothers now have to find their own child-care arrangements while they're working, they're going to be far less sympathetic towards women who aren't willing to work or perceived as not willing to work.

I don't agree with the columnist's thumbnail history of public attitudes towards federal welfare policies or on assumptions that women on welfare have not historically wanted to work. But there is a significant grain of truth there that when the majority of mothers work when their children are young, and they have to find and pay for child care and wrestle with the stress involved in that, those mothers are not going to want to see that they're pushing the cart and others aren't. For similar reasons, those who oppose any performance pay have an uphill road telling people who work in environments with non-step-like pay arrangements that somehow public schools should be arranged differently.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 8:57 AM (Permalink) |

Why the Teacher Incentive Fund and Race to the Top are long-term dead ends for merit-pay advocates

The apparent push in the proposed 2011 Obama budget for an enlarged Teacher Incentive Fund on the heels of Race to the Top makes me think that merit-pay/performance-pay advocates may be spreading their political capital very thin on teacher evaluation. Most advocates of paying teachers in part based on test scores are also advocates of using test scores in part to evaluate teachers more broadly, especially dividing probationary teachers from teachers with a right to due process before dismissal. And they're trying to do both. Smart or stupid? I think it's counterproductive for several reasons:

  1. The research on benefits of individual-teacher performance pay is limited. Very limited and quite mixed. Putting all your chips on a huge expansion of experimental performance-pay schemes? You may not get what you want, and public evaluations may doom the politics. (Think Reading First, though the allegations of corruption set the stage in that case for death-by-evaluation.)
  2. Grant programs end. If the expansion of performance-pay programs relies on temporary revenue, then the program may well die along with the extra revenue. Denver's teachers union and district worked together on a long-term political deal: performance pay that teachers helped develop tied to a long-term boost in revenue. That's not the structure of RTTT, TIF, or the Gates Foundation grants.
  3. Real-life performance-pay bonus budgets are stingy. The best example of that reality is here in Florida, where the state budget for the school-based rewards for test scores has been no greater than $100/student (for a school) since the late 1990s, and while my undergraduate students sometimes enter my classes thinking that a huge amount of school budgets are based on test scores, in reality that's no more than about 1.5-2% of per-pupil expenditures in Florida (and that's for the schools that receive the money). When this money is distributed to staff (sometime it is, sometimes it isn't), it's in the form of bonuses, not additions to base salaries. The fiscal and political reality is that the only way to permanently boost base salaries substantially based on test scores is to give the money to a tiny fraction of teachers, and that's a recipe for political disaster (and legal problems).

The last point is one I am surprised opponents of performance pay have not raised sufficiently, and here's how I thought someone would have put it by now: Okay, so you want to pay teachers well if their students learn a great deal? Wonderful. So if students perform at a very high level, you're willing to raise taxes to reward teachers for that accomplishment? Liberal advocates of performance pay would probably answer yes if. I don't think fiscal conservatives who are performance-pay advocates have thought through the dilemma on that point very clearly; either the answer is that you're willing to raise taxes or that you have low expectations for schoolchildren. 

Eventually, I suspect that advocates of performance pay will have to decide whether they want to put all of their political capital into pay schemes that are fragile or into hiring and retention issues. The proposed ballooning of TIF is a sign that no one in Washington is thinking about the political balance of these issues in the long run. 

Disclosure: I'm a member of a higher ed union that has long had a contract with merit pay and considerable differences in pay by rank and discipline. K-12 is a very different world in this regard. 

Note: I started this entry on Tuesday, and because I forgot to change the "publish date" (which Movable Type usually sets at the time you started an entry, not published it), it first appeared as if it were published Tuesday. My editing fault, not your faulty memory. Now, your forgetting to read all of my books and articles? That's a different story.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 7:48 AM (Permalink) |

February 7, 2010

Peer reviewing, redux and redux

I regularly attempt some form of student peer review process for short writing assignments and am regularly frustrated with the inadequacy of the process--inevitably someone falls down on the job either in terms of participating in peer review or submitting draft work or providing advice that is counterproductive... and leaves an awkward gap and a reasonable question by students: "Do I follow my classmates' advice if I'm not sure it's wise?" That's the reaction that gets me to suspend peer reviewing for a semester or two and restructure. Yet I keep returning to it because there is value in having students look at a range of actual work and think about their own work in comparison.

In odd moments over the past few weeks I've been thinking about a different structure, focused less on providing written feedback and more on just comparing a sample of assigned writing. To give the exercise some meaning (and motivation), I've been thinking about incorporating student judgment into the grades for the assignments. (The idea is that if student ratings or rankings make a difference to peers, they will take the process more seriously.)

That's nice in theory, but how do you do that in practice in a way that is fair and does not provide perverse incentives (with students' having a reason to rate peers either high or low in some fashion)? (Please don't tell me not to grade: I'm not at UC Santa Cruz or New College!) That took me in some interesting directions, through some psychophysics literature (Thurstone's "law of comparative judgments"), some folks named Bradley, Terry, and Mallow (and Kenneth Arrow's preference/voting paradox), and eventually into BCS football rankings and the international chess fideration ranking system. Because I did some of my reading late at night, and some of this is far out of my comfort zone, my brain was hurting at several points, but I think I have stumbled onto something that is simple enough to administer, consistent with how I'd like to look at the inclusion of student judgment, and gives students a structure that is easy to respond to and gives them a reason to be honest in expressing judgments.

Again, that's in theory. It'll probably be the end of 2010 before I know whether I'm completely bonkers or if it's workable.

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Posted in Teaching at 3:00 PM (Permalink) |

February 6, 2010

College visits: some good, bad, and ugly ideas

Valerie Strauss's blog entry yesterday discusses the standard advice for high school students' visiting colleges and then provides links to the College Board and ACT college-visiting pages (which are surprisingly slim). Again, Strauss is speaking directly to parents -- "Be sure to contact the school in advance... If you child can sit in..." -- which has good programmatic advice and horrid parenting advice.  The high school student should be doing the contacting, maybe, if it's her or his college experience at question? But aside from that quibble, here's my take as a parent of a high school student waiting for admissions decisions:

Good: Strauss's advice for students who can't travel long distances to visit local colleges like the ones they're interested in in some way, to get a sense of what it would be like to attend a metropolitan university, a private liberal-arts college, a public regional state university, etc. That way, questions students have can be focused on the issues most likely to be relevant for a type of institution.

Good: Strauss's advice to visit classes. Wrong: her assertion that it's  "probably best [to leave that] for schools at the top of the desired list." As a parent and citizen, I think high school students should see what it's like to be in a college class as often as possible, especially in discussion classes that are never going to be on iTunes. My not-so-hidden agenda in pushing that with my daughter was to make sure that by the time she went to college, she'd know she belonged. 

Good: Strauss's advice to read student publications, and the College Board's advice to scan campus bulletin boards. I'd expand that: during tours of dorms and classroom/office buildings, look to see what's taped, plastered, and otherwise attached to the walls. 

Good: the College Board's advice to browse in the college bookstore. My daughter was interested to see if the general-books sections had her favorite authors. I wanted to know what was on the shelves for classes.

Good: Strauss's point that visits when classes are out of session or students are preparing for or taking exams is ... uh, not so wise. She takes for granted that the only way that you can visit colleges without taking an unexcused absence is during spring break. Not true! Many school districts will assign excused absences for college visits, and my local district will let students take up to three days per school year as official school business for college visits.

Good: eat in the dining halls. Caveat: this is assuming a residential college or university. But it's definitely a good idea, and many admissions offices will let one parent and the student eat lunch without paying (one reason why you head to the admissions office first).

Bad -- in fact, pretty horrible: The College Board's advice to "Try to see a dorm that you didn't see on the tour." This is a fine way to get arrested or warned off campus by the campus police or security. Dorms should not be accessible to strangers, such as high school students or their parents. Of course, if you try to get into a dorm that's not on the tour and no one stops you, that tells you something about the place, too, but I suspect you can find that out simply by observing whether the tour guide has to unlock a dorm entrance.

Not mentioned by anyone: how to ask questions of current students. The ACT page has several suggested questions, but there's something very important to keep in mind, both in asking questions of campus tour guides and other students: you can ask about the college in general, about the student's experience, and about the students' friends and classmates. Campus tour guides are trained to talk about the campus in general, but if you're a high school student, you need to know about real experiences. Best suggestion: ask about the experiences of friends and classmates. That's a healthy compromise between the generic "students here" and the privacy-invading "so tell me why you're really about to transfer at the end of the term." 

Not mentioned by anyone: if you've been accepted to a place and you don't think you can travel to visit it, ask the admissions office to put you (the high school student) in touch with a few current students who are willing to talk to you about the college. If you're interested in specific majors, ask for people majoring in those  (or related) subjects. See if it's possible to use Skype rather than a cell phone because if it's a Skype video call, you might get the benefit of talking not only with the current student but also with whoever's in the dorm room at the time. And here is where visiting a similar type of college locally can help you figure out the crucial questions to ask.

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Posted in Higher education at 5:20 PM (Permalink) |

Another stupid article on "the dating scene" in college

Some of the clues that the latest article on the "dating scence" in colleges with 60% female enrollment was written by a reporter with an axe to grind and a preset angle at which to grind:

  • The featured photograph from a university with 60% female enrollment (a) is of college seniors (or I hope they're seniors) in a bar, (b) is of an all-white group of students, (c) has six women and one man, (d) has no older students.
  • Every photograph features white students.
  • All the women interviewed for the story appear to be members of sororities.
  • One of the interviewees is a former student who happens to be hanging out in a bar near campus. (So why is he representative? Why didn't the reporter step a few minutes away from a bar?)
  • The focus is entirely at a flagship public university.
  • There are no older students interviewed for the story.

Since the primary world of colleges is at the regional state university and community-college level, maybe we should skip the flagship campuses and look at the statistics of an institution such as Miami-Dade College. MDC has more than 150,000 students enrolled, and while 60% of them are women, only about 35% are right out of high school (under 21). About two-thirds are attending MDC on a part-time basis, and while MDC is now a four-year institution, I don't think there are any dorms, so every one of those students are commuters and live somewhere in the Miami area. In other words, the dating scene for straight, gay, or bisexual students is where they live as well as on campus. That's the reality for the majority of college students in the United States, not the preppy picture that the New York Times reporter and photographer portrayed.

But if you want to look at residential colleges and universities, maybe a little reality should intrude: the average age at civil marriage for women in the United States has moved back up to the mid-20s, where it has been historically for well over a century, with the exception of the immediate postwar years. College students' meeting and marrying in college is common enough but not dominant. 

And the history of colleges is not one filled with demographic "balance" in some hypothetical way. For many years, the ranks of elite residential institutions were filled with single-sex colleges and universities with single-sex undergraduate colleges, and the students in those colleges and universities had to go off-campus for a hetereosexual dating scene. And in the first decade after World War II, the GI Bill pushed enrollment in public universities in the other direction, towards majority male enrollment. If you can find more than a decade or two when the dominant demographic profiles of residential colleges, community colleges, and public universities were all fairly evenly split by gender, I'd be surprised. My guess is that maybe a decade or two will fit with the peak of the Baby Boom through the mid-1980s... when people worried about the social consequences of the sexual revolution. As one of Gilda Radner's characters would say, if it's not one thing, it's another... so let's stop obsessing with the on-campus dating opportunities of college students.

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Posted in Education policy at 6:51 AM (Permalink) |

February 1, 2010

Sloppy journo skewered; readers await fix

Reporting is a hard job. These days, reporters are being asked to cover more subjects in less time with an even smaller news hole for newspapers that are losing money, laying off colleagues, and may be out of business within a matter of months. Even in good times, reporters knew that errors were going to be read by thousands of subscribers and that even if they worked twice as many hours in a day (usually impossible), they'd never catch all factual goofs or grammatical mistakes, or never quote enough interviewees to satisfy all readers. Great beat reporters are inherently improv artists.

Having said that, I know it should not be too much of a surprise that even reporters with solid reputations such as Ed Week's Debra Viadero sometimes get caught taking shortcuts. Thus far, no response from Viadero, but it's another part of journalism (and a reflection of the craft) to print corrections publicly. So let's wait and see how Ed Week acknowledges error.

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Posted in Education policy at 7:09 PM (Permalink) |

Grading the "Grades" reports

I'm back from Toronto today--had a great time talking with Canadian faculty, had my head chewed off in a thoroughly polite, Canadian way for one bone-headed error I made in discussion, survived subzero temperatures for a few mornings, and completely failed to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame building--and back in Florida the temperatures are a bit lower-than-average for this time of year but discussion of the Ed Week Quality Counts "grades" given Florida is apparently heating up. So maybe I need to revisit my idea from last summer of grading the grading reports. Last June, I pointed out that professional grading practices generally provide scoring criteria in advance, so that those who are being evaluated will have a chance to... you know... meet the standards. Let me list all of the facets on which I think one can grade such "grade reports" of states and the like:

  • Purpose. Is there a clear public rationale for issuing such a report? How broad or narrow is the public purpose?
  • Scoring criteriaDescribed in June.
  • Description of sources and analysis. How systematic is the collection of source material (as opposed to anecdotal or convenience sampling)? Is there a clear chain described from collection of data to the application of labels? Is there a discussion of relevant caveats/alternatives?
  • Robustness of sources. Are the sources publicly verifiable or replicable? Are they subject to gaming, falsifiability, or manipulation?
  • Relevance of sources. Is the material relevant to the criteria, and does the "grade report" use the most relevant obtainable information? Is the source information analyzed appropriately to warrant the application of the grade labels?
  • Sponsorship. Are funding sources and potential related interests stated clearly? Is there a separation between the real or likely perceived material interests of sponsors, on the one hand, and editorial control of the project?

It strikes me on impression that different types of periodic "grading" exercises have different types of weaknesses. An advocacy organization whose reports rely on anecdotal evidence and give higher grades to states that are more extreme towards its position might receive lower grades on description of sources and analyses and sponsorship than in other categories. A news organization that makes millions of dollars by selling a volume ranking colleges and universities using reputational surveys of institution heads and data on institutional wealth is likely to receive low grades on public purpose, robustness of sources, and relevance of sources. A news organization that ranks states on categories that change every year using no apparent criteria that also change every year is likely to receive its lowest grades in the area of scoring criteria and description of sources and analyses.

As a faculty member who has assigned thousands of grades to students, where the grades affect student progress towards degrees and financial-aid eligibility, I know from experience that the process of grading is imperfect and in my field depends on judgment rather than objective cut-and-dried methods. That's why I state criteria as early as I can, display model work from prior semesters if possible (with the permission of their creators), answer questions about assignments, look at drafts, structure revision opportunities into a number of courses, and always let students correct me when they document that I have recorded individual assignment grades incorrectly.  I know from student complaints about grading in general that they hate being judged on criteria they feel the evaluator keeps secret, or that is designed to make the evaluator look good, or that serves some other purpose that isn't for the general purposes grading is accepted by at least some to serve. In other words, if you're going to assign grades, especially if the clear intent is to shame certain entities into changing, you need to take at least a few minutes of care to address common-sense ethical expectations. I'd have far more patience with these publicity-seeking exercises if there were more care evident in the process.

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Posted in Education policy at 1:47 PM (Permalink) |