June 30, 2010


Lovely: another faux trend story from the New York Times, this time about the honoring of multiple valedictorians, and then the easily-anticipated "standards must be dropping!" outcry from those who worry about these things. I remember that my school district started honoring multiple straight-A students in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and weighted AP classes began precisely to address this and make fine distinctions among a bunch of students who worked hard. As the person who was the official valedictorian of my high school class the first year of weighted grades in the school, I can truthfully state that a bunch of my fellow students generally worked harder than I did in high school, and that while I was reasonably proud of a consistent academic record, "valedictorian" has never been a part of my identity, nor has it appeared on any vitae I've written. Valedictorian honors are transitory by their nature: they become public the day they become largely irrelevant except as a mark of the irretrievable past. (The parallel in adult life: as Judith Martin writes, you really don't want your wedding to be the best day of your life, or it's all downhill from there.) To be honest, the most accurate and predictive honor I received as a high school student was the appellation on senior superlatives (the list of "most" and "best" and "most likely to" that many high school classes vote on): doesn't dress to impress. 

Okay, okay, there may be some relevance to the term for those who think that academic competitions are important marks of social values, so maybe we should coin a new term for the group of graduating seniors who have passed a threshold for impressive and consistent academic accomplishments. I nominate the term Ooh-datorian, as in "Ooh... the tenth-ranked student in this class worked harder and did more than the valedictorian in my high school class." And that's true for my daughter's graduating class. I know about half of the top ten students in her class by GPA because, well, my daughter hung out with the dangerous type of crowd that gets together over winter break to study calculus. If I remember correctly, the tenth-ranked student in her class was her friend who borrowed a copy of Calculus Made Easy because she was feeling uneasy (and I don't think she need have), the third-ranked student is her friend of many years who is the hardest-working high school student I've ever met, and so on. (There are plenty of graduating students at her high school whose grades were not as high but also impressed me in many ways, and if they are at all representative of this cohort of teenagers, I feel quite good about the next generation.)

In general, I think academic honors should be proportional to the relevance of the work to one's life. Honor people's academic work in one phase of schooling, but honor lots of things of similar importance, and keep it all in perspective. I am proud to know my daughter's friends partly because they work hard in academics but more because they work hard in more than one sphere of life, and I'd trust several of them with my life.

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Posted in Education policy at 5:36 PM (Permalink) |

Yes, Virginia, there is a need for more science education

Today may be a lost day for me work-wise, thanks to a number of circumstances, including a raging thunderstorm overhead that threatens the power where I am. But I don't think I'm going to blame higher ed policy in Florida for all of that. I have a similar reaction to The Real Science Gap, which is an articulate explanation of the dissenting position on STEM education (hat tip). Beryl Lieff Benderly walks us through arguments about overcredentialing/overproduction of Ph.D.s, the abuse of H-1B visas, the STEM report equivalents of the old 1980s Mellon report on pending faculty shortages, the abusive treatment of graduate assistants and postdocs in many universities, the typical stereotypes about clueless faculty advisers, and so forth. She quotes Richard Freeman (who has been specializing in credentialing since the 1970s), and a number of current and former engineering students chimed in with comments echoing the article. And on one level, it is true that the usual cry for more doctorates is often based on misleading claims about national economic needs.

Nonetheless, there are a number of weaknesses in the article, generally of the okay, so STEM isn't immune from the troubles of the world, so what else is new? variety:

  • A significant part of the underemployment problem with graduates in general is the sum of broader economic woes of the world. That's as true for recent undergraduates as doctoral students. There are serious problems about the impoverishment of an entire cohort finishing formal schooling between 2008 and 2012, and I'm not going to pretend to have a great solution except that it has to address more than STEM graduate students.
  • Some of the policy issues can be addressed by institutional policies--for example, by universities' treating graduate students and postdocs better and by universities' agreeing to bargain with new grad-student unions. And that's more important for humanities students than in the sciences, which tend to have higher stipends.
  • Similarly, the "overproduction" of doctorates requires all disciplines to help students figure out career options that don't rely on tenure-track positions. In 1930, the two fields with the highest number of doctorates earned each year were fields where few doctoral students would have expected university jobs: chemistry and education. We need a little explicit "let's list and prepare for at least three options" planning. I'm not on the bleeding edge at all in this argument; some historians have been making this argument inside AHA for years, even if it's not as broad a practice as it needs to be. And I strongly suspect that STEM faculty advisers are among the most likely to have grad students head into industry. One physics doctoral student I know at USF was recently promised a job by Jabil Circuits, a local firm. Go, Jason, and go, Jason's major professor! One of my college classmates who was a physics grad student at Penn when I was a history doctorate student ended up in industry, spending some time on DNA computing and now working for a textile firm. Maybe the people I know are extreme outliers, but the idea of STEM doctorates having industry jobs doesn't strike me as either new or unknown.
  • If the "we need to double our output for economic competitiveness" argument is overblown, the arguments described by Benderly ignore the non-human-capital value of formal education. I am not sure that the type of (non-Clay Shirky-definition) educational surplus I've described before always justifies a huge social investment in postgraduate work, but it's not a horrid thing for society if an occasional chemistry doctorate ends up working in a computer company, and it's definitely a social good if she or he winds up teaching high school chemistry and inspires later generations. (Cue FSU physics professor Paul Cottle here on the need for better starting salaries for high school science teachers...)

And, speaking of high school, I'm in favor of policies that expand general science education. Yes, the "we need much larger programs for our economic future" argument is exaggerated and overpromises. Yes, the Benderly article is a good, thoughtful dissent. Maybe one of those alternate careers needs to be teaching...

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Posted in Education policy at 4:10 PM (Permalink) |

I've got a bad feeling about this, Obey

So Rep. Obey (Wisconsin) is proposing to pay for a $10B boost to school districts in part by stripping hundreds of millions of dollars from RTTT and TIF? According to Ed Week reporters, the total offset from this move would be about 8% of the total cost, less than $1B, so I don't really buy Obey's argument that jobs come before reform programs. This looks much closer to opportunism than either addressing GOP objections on fiscal grounds or making the GOP back down sufficiently to get a bill through without offsets.

I'm not thrilled with some aspects of the offset targets, but there's something in this game of legislative chicken that doesn't smell right. I understand the principle of legislative sausage, and this is one move in a much larger policy and politics game. Nonetheless, there are a number of reasons why this filing of an amendment may be close to a thumb in the eyes of a number of federal players:

  • Burning bridges with states. This throws a few tons of egg yolk onto the face of state officials who cajoled school districts into working with them on RTTT proposals. They understand politics, but this is a particularly pointed move a few weeks after the second round of applications were due.
  • Burning bridges with the Senate. Yeah, I know, members of the House have little love for the Senate right now, but if I were in the House and saw HELP (education) committee members criticizing the Duncan four-option turnaround approach, the last thing I'd do is discourage Tom Harkin (HELP committee chair) from criticizing grant structures.
  • Burning bridges with others in the majority leadership. I wonder if Obey's office let George Miller know about this in advance, or if it was a surprise. If it was a surprise, it positions Obey as a problem child in his last half-year in the House. His state desperately needs all sorts of help from the rest of the country; this isn't going to help his leverage.
  • Undermining the credibility of unions. An AFT staff member quickly explained to reporters today the AFT position that they hadn't known what offsets would be used and that they preferred the original $23B bill without offsets. It really doesn't matter whether Obey had any contact with state or national affiliate officers from NEA or AFT; this is a notable distraction that no union leader needs right before the NEA Representative Assembly begins and the week before the AFT convention.

This is Obey's last year in the House, and I know there's a temptation for him to think there's little accountability for pulling stuff like this. Well, he may not have to pay for it, but others will have to. Own goal, anyone?

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Posted in Education policy at 2:30 PM (Permalink) |

Accessibility and the e-reader

A brief note about the federal government's warning on college distribute of e-readers and students with disabilities: the concern is warranted, and it's much better for the warning to come now than to come after colleges and universities spend millions of dollars (or require students to spend millions of dollars) without the due diligence needed. Every time I use a piece of technology in teaching, I worry about accessibility for students with visual or hearing impairments. A few years ago, I spent considerable time preparing Flash-based presentations for the first part of an online course, to discover that a student with hearing impairments then had to contact my university's disability-service office for transcriptions, and I decided to switch to written "lectures" for the rest of the semester. I think the communication was better for all students, not just him.

Sometimes you learn through experience, but as Ben Franklin said as Poor Richard, fools will learn in no other school. There are now thousands upon thousands of sites built upon technology with limited accessibility, notably Flash. So, for example, Sandra Day O'Connor has spent untold hours helping develop several solid online games to teach civics, which you can find at icivics.org. But they're Flash-based. That limits accessibility. Yes, I know Flash has developed accessibility tools, but at least one of the games requires quick responses, and ... well, it's a great concept, and I hope that there's a paper version of it available for teachers who decide their students need a paper version to slow things down and make that game more accessible.

The safest technology wrapper for texts or other course materials is a plain-text file, which people can put into all sorts of programs to help them. Following that is a standards-compliant website. There are now tools to make websites touch-accessible for mobile phones, and focusing on websites will probably be a much wiser use of resources for most education technology outfits than creating Android or iPhone/iPad apps.

There is a possibility, as noted in the article, that this is a way for federal officials to use universities to push the publishing industry into allowing accessibility tools in all e-reader devices and programs. If so, it's no more an abuse of leverage than the use of colleges and universities to advertise e-readers (which is part of the role of these early-adopter "give an iPad to a frosh" programs).

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Posted in Higher education at 8:07 AM (Permalink) |

June 24, 2010

Botched credit hours and blotted copybooks

A week ago, Ed Sector's Forrest Hinton asked six questions about higher-education accountability. Below are the questions, my quick responses, and some discussion about the fallout from this month's hearings on accreditation and for-profit institutions:

Q. As the monolithic traditional university begins to break down and diversify, should we continue to trust providers of higher education and accreditation agencies to provide meaningful accountability?

A. What "monolithic traditional university"? There's never been such a creature in history; there has always been tremendous diversity of institutions. For the performative culture of accountability, see this morning's IHE column by Cliff Adelman.

Q. Is there a sound method of measuring student learning outcomes in higher education that won't turn college courses into workshops where students learn simple facts, algorithms, and skills?

A. Yes, but whether it's politically robust is a different question, and I think you have to give up on the singular form. The Utah Tuning project report placed on the Ed Sector blog page is both promising in terms of the faculty engagement in the project and also curious in the very different levels of detail in the expectations laid out for the two disciplines in the project (history and physics). See below for the short-term landscape in more detail.

Q. Now that the federal government is providing a lot of higher education's revenue through student loans, how much responsibility does the government have to ensure quality and monitor costs?

A. The federal government has been subsidizing college loans for decades, and since the early 1980s the bulk of federal aid has been in the form of loan subsidies rather than direct grants. What has changed in the past few decades is the cost-shifting from states to students and their families. So maybe the federal government feels more inclined towards wanting something for the dollars because the cost-shifting also shifts somewhat more support onto the federal government, but lower state support hasn't been accompanied by lower demands for accountability.

Q. Is there a trade-off between innovation and regulating quality in higher education? If so, what is the appropriate way to balance these competing forces?

A. This question is ambiguously phrased, and I am interpreting as a question about for-profit schools. (The last question is about credit hours, which covers distance education given this month's politics.) As we learned from the shadow banking sector and the financial crisis of 2008, regulators are frequently way behind creative people who want to make a buck, especially if something has been deregulated because people think history has ended (e.g., the repeal of Glass-Steagall). Right now, for-profit companies of all types peddle degrees or the mirage of a college education with widely varying claims of success, and they have become remarkably adept at vacuuming up federal funds. Some administrators in different institutions tell me that's not only in terms of college loans but also G.I. Bill funds, though I don't have independent confirmation of that claim. To the extent that taxpayers and students are on the hook for loans, that practice has to have some scrutiny. In the early 1990s, the screening mechanism was default rates. Today, I think another measure is needed, but I'm not sure what that might be, maybe federal subsidy per graduate (with some calculation of the effective subsidy for loans).

Q. If higher education's traditional accountability structures are unable to provide adequate oversight, can we make use of other ways of ensuring quality instead, like through informed consumer demand?

A. Again, what "traditional accountability structures"? Name one that has existed for at least five years in any state and that has remained stable. With all of Adelman's caveats, maybe it's something we should try.

Q. When measuring course credit hours, how do we allow innovative new approaches in education to meet the standards implied from traditional rules on seat time, lab experiences, etc.?

A. This is obviously the hot topic du jour, since regional accreditors have looked the other way while some for-profits essentially bought accreditation by absorbing a few nonprofits and since at least one regional accreditor also paid little attention when a for-profit passed off a tuition-generating mechanism as real education. So let's explore this a bit more...

The difficulty with a Wild West of education is that you don't know what a course means. When an unaccredited institution is taking students' money but it's not telling the world it's anything but what it is, and if the students aren't lying about what the diploma means, it's just an experience someone pays for. Are you paying for classes in aerobic yoga weightlifting? That sounds like something taught by the Macho Yoga Instructor my mother once had years ago, but if it's your money and just your experience, that's fine with me. It's different once public funds are involved and once credentials have an exchange value in the labor market, and even more complicated if you're a student having taken courses at two colleges and wanting those courses to transfer into a third to help you get a degree.

Given the background to this morning's hearing in DC, there are clearly bad actors (or bad actors), and the temptation might be to have a rigid definition of what a credit hour is for course purposes, either for federal student-loan purposes or for transfer purposes. For the moment let's skip the question of entirely-online class and talk about about courses that blend some class time with other experiences such as online discussions, tutorials, etc. What counts as a credit hour: the time you spend in class, the time you spend actively working on assignments, the time you vaguely think about the course? What about people who read at different speeds: does the slower reader sign up for and pay for more hours for a course than the faster reader?

The reality is that the credit hour is an institutional convention that is malleable to help everyone account for student progress through programs as well as for tuition purposes. A good example of the malleability is in performing-arts programs. No matter how long a performance music major practices for it, my guess is that a college symphony orchestra class will always be one or two credit hours, no more, because that is the way to address the conflict between wanting students to be in performance classes every semester and also graduate without having to pay more than an engineering student: you require performance and studio classes every semester, but the total of all classes (including theory, music history/ethnomusicology, electives) doesn't add up to more than 15 hours in a semester.

One feasible way to address the credit-hour issue is to have disciplinary conventions for classes that need cursory vs. more extensive inspection, something that factors in both the nature of the discipline and the credit-hour load. A performance class that's one or two credit hours? Let's definitely not worry much about that. Undergraduate U.S. history class carrying three credit hours that blends one hour of lecture, one hour face-to-face discussion, and one hour of online activity? That's a conventional discipline and credit-hour load, with a slight bit of innovation: a little more scrutiny. Vague class in an unorthodox or vocational program that's 9 hours? Let's worry a lot more about that.

In terms of the giant leap that some are going to suggest: should we have institutional-level assessment for every class that can hold colleges and universities accountable? That is more likely to work for limited courses that everyone (or almost everyone) takes in the first two years than for the broad range of classes students take in their majors. Regional accreditors are now pushing institutions to develop such institution-wide assessment for general education programs, and while I am concerned about some of the consequences of that, it is at least plausible to have common assessments in composition, first-year calculus, and so forth. But something for the Celtic Civilization course my wife took with linguist Nancy Dorian? Good luck! (For those who are curious, it was a culture class, not a language class. I signed up for it initially but had to drop it, much to my regret.)

Some observers have argued that the likely fallout from the for-profit hearings will touch far more than the for-profits, and that's right for several reasons. One is that high-tuition institutions that are either for-profit or non-profit will be involved in a disproportionate amount of subsidized loans than low-tuition institutions simply because of tuition, so they will invite scrutiny. Second is that the questions about online classes in for-profit institutions are very close to the questions that you can ask about non-profit private and public institutions' online classes. Third is an institutionalized consequence an administrator and I were discussing this week: the hearings, any changes in law, and any changes in regulations will affect regional accreditors, who in turn will push additional mechanisms down on all of the institutions they oversee. I suspect that from a paperwork-burden perspective, accreditors will have to slice up the oversight mechanisms in some way to avoid peeking into every single course. It may not be my suggested slice, but if they don't perform some triage, oversight is just unworkable.

Finally, I think I misspelled Barmak Nassirian's name in a comment on IHE in the last week, but we all need to learn how to spell his name correctly since we're going to be reading a lot of what he writes and says in his capacity as associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO). During the life of the Spellings Commission, Nassirian was the go-to person for many higher-ed reporters, and I suspect we'll be hearing a lot from him in the next half-year or so.

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Posted in Education policy at 4:10 PM (Permalink) |

The value of college IV

In comments over the past few weeks, Glen McGhee has been doing a lot of work making the argument for a credentialist lens for higher education. And two weeks ago, Jose Vilson's Memorial Day blog entry raised the perennial question of what we're supposed to be educating our children for. So let me address the obvious questions that I haven't answered in the set of blog entries on the value of college. Roughly speaking, my argument is that in the absence of great social upheaval, social institutions tend to have an inertial relationship with the rest of society, and that the school-adult income relationship is an example of that inertial relationship. That's not to say it's just or predetermined or hermetic or even stationary. Rather, it's a statement of the importance of institutional structures once they're set up. Schools can maintain inequalities, they can help students change the world, and all sorts of mixes in between. In other words, formal schooling is a tool up for grabs.

We should not be surprised that without some sort of pressure otherwise, schools would tend to maintain social inequality. That's not because schools are particularly nefarious but because as Charles Tilly argued, humans tend to hoard opportunity for those close to them. So the more advantaged parents, families, and social groups in a particular society would use any childrearing practice as a vehicle for maintaining advantage, and without countervailing pressures, they'd have more options to do so than less-advantaged parents, families, and social groups. The same was true when work occupied more of the lives of children between 10 and 15 than schooling, so why should we expect anything different when formal schooling became more prominent as part of childrearing?

Except that things did not stay the same. As many have noted before me (including Karl Kaestle, Martin Carnoy, Hank Levin, Ira Katznelson, Margaret Weir, and others), the early nineteenth-century North witnessed dramatic expansion of school structures and, almost as importantly, a different way of talking about schooling. Horace Mann was not the first prominent advocate of education as a right; local Workingmen's parties were by the late 1820s, and over a few decades the advocacy of multiple parties expanded the education-citizenship link from a "schooling promotes citizenship" to "schooling comes along with citizenship." The story is long and messy in the nineteenth century, but among other things, that broadened connection was at the root of the mid-century lawsuit against racial segregation in Boston schools (that's mid-19th century), the relationship between compulsory education and compulsory attendance, the power of the state vis-a-vis parents, and so forth.

No one should pretend that Workingmen's parties said "education is a right" and all shouted "Hallelujah!" Far from it; the meaning of education as a part of citizenship was and remains contested. The notion of education became part of a citizenship bundle (what Europeans would call social citizenship, or the American version of it), and as Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick point out, it's a mixed legacy. On the one hand, it provides a lever by which millions have been able to acquire better lives. On the other hand, it has also become the lever on which we rely too much, expecting one institution to solve so many social problems.

Those who wish to use education to address inequality need to think about the multigenerational long term. Part but only part of inequality can be addressed directly in a human-capital sense. Far more has to be addressed by equipping large chunks of the population to change society in other ways, and education is an indirect lever there. W.E.B. Du Bois understood the long game, and despite his young-adult romanticism with social-science research in the Progressive Era, he was persistently thinking about the long game for an entire population. His debate with Booker T. Washington was largely about teacher education: Washington publicly argued that primary-teachers for (and most community leaders among) African Americans in the South had to accommodate racism, with advanced academic training a luxury. Du Bois argued that the new colleges for African Americans (the core of what we call HBCUs today) would inevitably train a disproportionate number of teachers and had to support academic ambitions over multiple generations. His Talented Tenth argument was not about elitism but teachers for mass education.

In part the argument in favor of expanding college experience is not that it will pay off immediately for every student who attends college but that it will pay off for the society and for college students' children and grandchildren. On an email list some years ago, I expressed skepticism when one list member argued that formal schooling was essential for social activism. There were plenty in the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement who had no more than an eighth-grade education and put their bodies on the line because they knew what was right. But it helped tremendously that some key roles were filled by African Americans and others who had a college education, a law degree, and so forth. Segregationists had some very well-educated, savvy people working on their side, and it was important to have equally well-educated, savvy people working on the side of civil rights.

That work shifted schooling in a better direction. Not perfect, but significantly better. The structures of formal schooling, including credentials, student aid, legal nondiscrimination requirements, etc., have left formal schooling moving in a different direction from 100 years ago, but the accumulated changes themselves have imparted a certain momentum to the relationship between schools and society. The role of schooling right now still is weighted towards wealthier families, but there are significantly more opportunities for poor children to improve their lives through schooling than 50 or 100 years ago. That doesn't leave schooling as a cure-all, nor does it excuse us from working towards improving the lives of people in other areas, but it gives me some optimism that we can change the way that schools provide differential opportunities, if we push hard enough and cleverly enough.

That leaves me in a somewhat odd mood towards expanding college, pushing an instrumental formal experience in hopes that all the stuff that isn't planned does even more than what is.

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Posted in Higher education at 2:14 PM (Permalink) |

June 23, 2010

Collegiate Lying Assessment?

I should be asleep, but it's summer, we've released our teenage son from stricter bedtimes, and he is practicing sax. Most of the tasks on my plate require a little more concentration than I can muster after midnight, so I will write instead about lying, or whether we can tell much about someone's skills when we put them deliberately in a decontextualized situation where either the situation is a known lie or where the individual in question can get ahead by lying.

What put that into my head was the description of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) published by creators of the test. The CLA is one of the three supposed assessments of college learning that comprise options in a part of the Voluntary System of Accountability, and apart from the controversies over generic assessments of college graduate learning and the mediocre statistical properties of the supposed value-added measures of non-longitudinal samples, it's important to look at the details of the assessments themselves.

On its face, the CLA looks like a plausible assessment of reasoning skills in a written context. As described by its creators, the CLA sometimes consists of a performance task keyed to a simulated case with attended (fictional) documents, and sometimes it is a prompt to critique a specific argument. The samples provided were both from public policy--specifically, crime. Thus far, it looks something a cross between high school debate and the AP history "document based questions." I've constructed some assignments around fictional cases as a way to fine-tune what students have to confront and how it ties in to the issues they need to address. And it is common enough for essay prompts to quote someone's opinion in the topic at hand and ask for a critical assessment. As I said, it's plausible on its face.

But a funny thing happens once you remove either type of task from the subject in which it's embedded: those who are rating student responses do not have the substantive expertise to check student assertions. If someone responds to a simulated case in my class with statements about education research that are clear misunderstandings of course material, they're not going to get an A. Same with a response to a "please evaluate this statement" prompt. With the CLA, however, there is no such check unless the human rater happens to have substantive expertise aligned with the prompt (in the samples, criminology, sociology, or government). And even there, the scoring guidelines appear to ignore the veracity of student statements. It is entirely about whether someone can construct or criticize an argument in response to prompts.

In this particular case (with a prompt about crime policy), suppose a student lied about criminology research--made up four names and said that they were famous criminologists who had conducted research in effective deterrents. How should such a response be scored? I think I know the answer, because K-12 students in Florida are sometimes encouraged to make up details for the state's writing exam. As far as I am aware, such fabrication is rewarded as success in providing "artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative" (William Gilbert, The Mikado). If you know something to the contrary about the CLA, please point me to it in comments, but nothing I've read thus far is particularly reassuring on this point.

Maybe that's what we should be doing in college, producing Sophists who can turn a nice phrase and fake their way through school, through job interviews, through a daily three-hour radio political talk show, or through professional reports about things like bridge safety and oil-drilling backup systems.

Or maybe we should acknowledge that if it's to have any value, a general-education program has to have some substance, and assessments of its success need to be rooted in the areas it putatively requires some learning in. Not writing and reasoning in general but writing and reasoning about the stuff that's in the gen-ed curriculum.

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Posted in Education policy at 1:10 AM (Permalink) |

Designed to reward age discrimination?

The French government is proposing to raise the age when retirees can draw down full pensions, which sounds remarkably like the 1980s reform of Social Security, including the bump of two years, except that France is going from 60 to 62 and we're already at 67... and a logical compromise for extending the solvency of Social Security indefinitely would combine lifting the cap on income taxed by Social Security and another hike in the full-benefits age from 67 to 69 or 70.

But there's a problem, as Matthew Yglesias points out: the growing population of long-term unemployed in this recession are tending to be (or at least disproportionately are) older workers who will have a much harder time finding work than young adults with a college degree.

... which lands us in the lap of teacher layoff discussions and state pension plans. Many of the arguments against basing layoffs on seniority are focused on the presumed incompetence of some unidentified segment of older teachers. Sometimes that's thinly-disguised age discrimination, sometimes it's not. But let's suppose there isn't even the thinnest veneer of age discrimination. What would happen to someone in their late 50s who is fired or laid off by a school system? Sometimes older teachers have careers after they retire, but I suspect a good portion don't, and I don't think it's smart public policy to ignore labor-market discrimination. State or local pension plans with health benefits can provide a buffer against the labor market because a teacher who is eligible for a pension at 55 or 60 can probably make ends meet until Social Security kicks in, especially with at least a part-time job.

Then again, some of those who would love to destroy tenure also would love to remove public obligations to pension plans. So I have one question for the proponents of the combination: what do you expect someone to do if they're 57 and fired or laid off and the pension and retiree health benefits they expected suddenly evaporate? I can understand if an individual employer says, "That's not my problem," but it's lazy wonkery to propose a set of policies that make people highly vulnerable to age discrimination and then walk away.

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Posted in Education policy at 12:00 AM (Permalink) |

June 22, 2010

I read Giroux recently and winced...

... and then wrote an essay on another blog on how to save teacher education. Or not if your mileage varies from mine, but at least you get to read me swear.

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Posted in Education policy at 6:44 PM (Permalink) |

June 19, 2010

What uses of test scores will pass legal muster in teacher evaluations?

Legal considerations on the use of test score derived stats in teacher evaluation: Scott Bauries started an interesting discussion June 2 of value-added measures and teacher evaluations from a legal perspective. It's very important to read the comment thread, as he's challenged on his conclusions by Bruce Baker and Preston Green, especially with regard to disparate-impact claims. Bauries claims that employers need to defend the procedural due process but are probably safer on the substance, regardless of the problems with value-added measures.

Reading the main entry and discussion, I lean strongly towards' Bauries' conclusion, with one important caveat (below). My impression of the 2000 G. I. Forum v. Texas Education Agency case on the disparate impact of high-stakes graduation tests, which the state won, was that the plaintiffs were not prepared for the last burden-switching test on disparate impact. My rough impression of disparate-impact claims of illegal discrimination based on the Civil Rights Act: it's a series of penalty kicks/shots in soccer/hockey or maybe the games with alternating possession in overtime. I'm not a lawyer, and this is primarily based on my understanding of Title VI rather than Title VII law, but to the probably-inapt analogy: First, the plaintiffs try to demonstrate that a mechanism such as a test affected a property interest of the plaintiffs and had a disparate impact on one of the protected classes. If the plaintiffs succeed, the defendant tries to demonstrate that the mechanism meets an important interest, was properly constructed and applied, and members of the affected class had a fair chance at succeeding in the mechanism.

So far, we're describing lots of situations that have evolved in the past 25-30 years, especially with high stakes testing. Debra P. v. Turlington established the basic federal expectations in terms of student tests, and as a number of states created a new round of graduation tests in the 1990s, they relied on Debra P. v. Turlington as a guide to meeting the basic questions and getting to the final round all tied up. And this sort of makes sense if you think about the maturity of various mechanisms: you can argue that there is a rational state interest in a certain outcome (an adequate measure of achievement in the case of graduation requirements), and then satisfying the "fair chance at succeeding" is often a question of satisfying a set of criteria rather than perfection and that's often a reflection of the organization's experience and capacity.

The final test is whether there is a better option: could the defendant have feasibly chosen an alternative mechanism that satisfies the same interest with less impact. I've never read all of the materials in the G.I. Forum case, but the following is a key passage in Judge Prado's ruling:

The Plaintiffs were able to show that the policies are debated and debatable among learned people. The Plaintiffs demonstrated that the policies have had an initial and substantial adverse impact on minority students. The Plaintiffs demonstrated that the policies are not perfect. However, the Plaintiffs failed to prove that the policies are unconstitutional, that the adverse impact is avoidable or more significant than the concomitant positive impact, or that other approaches would meet the State's articulated legitimate goals. In the absence of such proof, the State must be allowed to design an educational system that it believes best meets the need of its citizens. (emphasis added)

In the end, the plaintiffs' lawyers in the Texas case were unable to provide a clear alternative to high-stakes testing that they could demonstrate was both feasible (i.e., wouldn't cost an arm and a leg) and would have a lower disparate impact. I'm not too worried about the state interest, since you can usually construct alternative mechanisms that have facial validity and that have roughly the same "noise" as whatever you're arguing against. And the not-an-arm-and-a-leg criteria is tougher to meet if you're arguing for portfolios, since it increases the cost... but it starts from a relatively low base of cost per-pupil. Ultimately, though, it is hard to argue that a prospective alternative would result in a lower disparate impact if it is only prospective and thus you have no evidence whether the protected class you're worrying about would be helped by the alternative.

So in the discussion over at EdJurist, Bauries's clinching argument is really that for all their flaws, value-added measures are going to look reasonable to a judge in that they try to adjust for incoming achievement of students and plaintiffs will have to put forward an alternative with concrete evidence that the alternative does a demonstrably better job at treating teachers fairly. The catch-22: without a working model of alternatives with that record, plaintiffs are going to be sunk on disparate-impact claims.

Bruce Baker has followed up on Bauries with a set of tongue-in-cheek impossible criteria to make the use of value-added measures reasonably fair. I understand the temptation, but he's onto one thing: ultimately, local K-12 unions will have to figure out how to respond. This will include whether they have separate evaluation procedures for the 20% of teachers for whom value-added measures are even possible, how to mix the data, and so forth.

And now for the caveat: a good part of the legal consequences of using student test scores for personnel decisions will depend on how stupid local administrators are in the first jurisdictions to use them, and the first that are challenged. I can imagine districts where administrators are careful to fire experienced teachers only where there is a record of several years of low statistical measures of student achievement and only where that is consistent with low marks in other areas, such as administrator and peer observations. I can also imagine districts where administrators purge teachers based on a single year's worth of data and with no checks of consistency with other sources of information. If the legal tests are in jurisdictions with the first set of practices, they're far more likely to pass muster than if the first cases are for terminations that don't meet a basic smell test of rationality.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:40 AM (Permalink) |

June 16, 2010

Unholy alliance proposal #573: FinReg and journalism

Inspired by a blog entry today by Ezra Klein's research intern and today's Dilbert cartoon, I had a crazy thought for addressing both the decline of commercial journalism and Wall Street lapses: is there a way to give solid journalism a revenue source that also forces more transparency/responsibility on Wall Street? One idea for better responsibility on Wall Street is the transactions tax proposal, which was the focus of the blog entry by Klein's research aide. But I'm afraid that's probably too sensible, since it penalizes financial churning, and thus it's not politically viable.

But there's a way to replace the revenue stream of classified ads, the one that CraigsList stole, and we can use current practice and history as a guide: require that certain forms of financial transactions by institutional parties have public notice in electronic form in venues with substantial readership. Public-notice requirements are common for all sorts of legal purposes, and there is a very long history of printers' reliance on such revenue streams. Okay, in Ben Franklin's case it was because he became the printer for the colonial government of Pennsylvania (e.g., Franklin's printing of this text of a speech). But we continue to require both public agencies and private parties to pay for a public notice of some transactions and other items of public interest. Sometimes these are in daily newspapers, sometimes in local legal periodicals designed almost entirely to capture the revenues.

The key here is to require the non-password-requiring electronic publication of an appropriate set of transaction records in places with substantial traffic. There is absolutely no guarantee that today's professional journalist sites will capture revenue by gathering substantial traffic, and I suspect if such a requirement were in place today and if it weren't a walled garden, Facebook would suddenly capture a large chunk of the potential revenue. But it's a way to use an existing model of public notice requirements to replace some of the revenue stream that's disappeared in the past 10 years.

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Posted in History at 1:04 PM (Permalink) |

June 14, 2010

Isn't Florida guaranteed a republican form of government?

The first draft of the new Florida Educator Accomplished Practices was released last month for public comment on a form that allows almost little substantive feedback. The accomplished practices are supposed to serve as the minimum elements of educator preparation programs, and I understand the balance between micromanagement and platitudes is hard to strike.

The draft is brief and reduces several of the current list's main items into subsidiary bullet points under seven main items in the draft revision. Ethics, critical thinking, and role of the teacher completely drop off the revision's first draft, and the first draft reduces diversity and cognitive research to bullet points. One item that worries me is the downgrading of cognitive research into subsidiary elements of main expectations. Given the prevalence of educational fads, teachers and administrators need to have a solid grounding in educational psychology.

As an historian, what worries me about the draft in addition is that you could transplant it to China or many another undemocratic country, and most of it would fit reasonably well. That shouldn't be the case: teachers in Florida should know that they're obligations are tied to the relationship between teaching and citizenship. So I've proposed an additional accomplished practice I've termed democracy and citizenship and covers issues such as ethics, nondiscriminatory treatment of students and families, and pushing civil debate. We'll see if the task force agrees with me in any way on this.

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Posted in Education policy at 3:45 PM (Permalink) |

The currency of higher education in America

I winced reading today's Inside Higher Ed column by Arthur Levine and hoped for a second that someone was impersonating him. I checked it against my Higher Education Commentary Bingo Card:

bubble industrial society dinosaur unchanging decrepit
distracted digital native dumbest generation swirling millennial generation
seat-time anytime/anyplace

Free (by Chris Anderson)

mobile or ubiquitous learning individualized
helicopter parents passive/active dichotomy seamless outcomes pampered
reengineering students as consumers incentivized P-20 accountability

Looks like the piece hit every item in the second column.

Levine is consolidating a set of stereotypes about higher education that is only tenuously connected with real colleges and universities. The column is written as if almost every student is an 18- to 22-year-old with an iPad and an iPhone, a BitTorrent user, and a habitual plagiarist. For any who is tempted to describe college students in this way, please look at the real students in most colleges; a substantial fraction may fit this stereotype, but it's still only a fraction. And whatever flaws today's college students have, I suspect our predecessors saw them in spades 50 years ago. I would plead the same with the column's implication that college and university structures and curricula have not evolved over the past century; look at the proportion of courses taught online or by adjuncts and tell me again how universities don't change and don't see students as consumers. Even the one item I'd otherwise be willing to give a pass on--"All education is essentially remedial, teaching students what they do not know"--implies that education is the same as knowledge. Ouch.

The painful part of reading this morning's column is not only the blithe acceptance of stereotypes but the failure to see that higher education cannot avoid having some unit of currency. Like many other pieces I have read recently, this morning's column calls for a move away from the student credit hour. With the millions of transfer students in the country, colleges and universities need some currency system to treat them fairly and process the request to bring some of their work from other institutions into the new institution. That is unavoidable, unless you want students to start from scratch at every institution. But let's imagine a world where colleges and universities no longer count seat time. So the student credit hour would be replaced by what, precisely? Some propose a list of competencies, but that's still a countable currency (if in tests/assessments passed rather than courses), and then you'd have to create competency assessments for every conceivable course in the world that a transfer student might have taken somewhere else. Does anyone really believe that's a more viable structure than credit hours/courses?

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Posted in Higher education at 8:01 AM (Permalink) |

June 13, 2010

The teacher jobs bill is still needed and sensible

Rick Hess's blog continues to be interesting and well-written, and while he is out of the country, he's recruited as substitute bloggers two of the new generation of political scientists focusing on education, Patrick McGuinn and Paul Manna. They have been a welcome addition to the field, and I look forward to what they have to say in Hess's space.

Hess continues to talk about the $23 billion education jobs package as fiscal profligacy, and I gather that he agrees with those arguing that additional short-term stimulus spending would be a significant contributor to long-term national debt, in addition to delaying a (presumably deserved) day of reckoning for local school districts. I've made the argument before that the colonic model of school reform (and public-sector reform more generally) is an attractive hypothesis but one without an empirical basis put forward by its proponents (including Hess). Yeah, I know, Rahm Emmanuel talked about not letting a crisis go to waste, but we in education tend to declare too many crises for that to work too well.

I suspect I simply disagree with Hess on short-term debt and long-term national debt. I am persuaded by a number of economists that the far greater threat in the long run is posed by either health-care costs (Medicare and Medicaid) or by the shortage in revenue caused by the recession. In addition, I am also convinced that inflation and interest rates are too low for us to have too many options right now. Like Paul Krugman, I think the initial stimulus was far too small, and I see the mini-packages rolling through Congress in the past half-year or so as a necessary supplement.

In that context, saving teachers' jobs is a plausible component of additional macroeconomic stimulus, and those arguing about whether it should require elimination of last-in-first-out layoff priorities are playing chicken with a Mack Truck: damn it, get the package through, or the only useful function you'll have in the fall will be the proper orientation of your index finger.

From a macroeconomic standpoint, I suspect the question is what would provide the greatest bang for the buck, keeping people employed or spending the money on any other function. I suspect that you could find a group of people who have a bigger stimulus impact than teachers and other school-system employees: the majority of civil servants are probably paid at least a little less than the median teacher, and more of their income might be recycled into the economy. That's an empirical question, though I suspect that differences between the stimulus effect of keeping on "relatively low-paid professionals, clericals, and service staff" vs. "even lower-paid professionals, clericals, and service staff" are going to be swamped by any differences between "keeping public employees working" and other ways to spend money.

It's important to keep in mind that Hess is far from the only conservative downplaying the budget woes of schools. About half a year ago, Arthur Peng and Jim Guthrie penned an article for Education Next about how everyone was constantly crying wolf over public-school funding. There is a significant truth in the article along with several important flaws. What Peng and Guthrie have correct is the history over 60 years of generally buffering public-school funding in crises, if you look at national-level data. That is because we associated schooling with citizenship in both legal and political ways, and that helps insulate schools from the effects of economic downturns. (They also mention a number of other mechanisms.) There are some important weaknesses in their article:

  • The past is not prologue: I'd love for treatment of public schools in minor downturns be perfectly predictive of what happens as we (very slowly) leave the worst worldwide economic crisis since the 1930s. Peng and Guthrie imply that the behavior will continue automatically, and I am unconvinced.
  • Per-pupil revenues do not address infrastructure/capacity: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, two recessions in quick succession hit districts while many were also struggling with a decline in student enrollment with the back of the Baby Boom. Looking at per-pupil revenues obscures the fact that a number of districts engaged in repeated years of RIFfing teachers (RIF = "reduction in force," the term commonly used at the time), with small reductions in per-pupil revenues magnified greatly by enrollment declines. We're again on the downslide of a baby boom (if the baby boom echo), and regions with enrollment declines will face greater budget woes as a result of compounding events.
  • The nation is not the district: even in prior recessions, there have been school districts and states where school funding suffered far more than what you may assume from the charts in Peng and Guthrie's article, and demographic unevenness compounded that lumpiness. Enrollment declines were not felt in the budgets of Sunbelt state schools in the early 1980s, but they were prominent in the Northeast and Midwest.
  • Law is not reality: Peng and Guthrie state that education is treated budget-wise in the way that constitutions are written (i.e., children and education first, sometimes explicitly so). I wish! In reality, while education funding shifted towards the state level in the 1970s, states have also greatly expanded funding of health care and prison systems. I suspect that Blago will shortly be enrolling in a graduate program at Statesville U., if you know what I mean, but apart from the education of juveniles in state custody, that's not really the type of spending we should think of as schooling. (Yes, I know Statesville is a maximum-security facility, but Joliet closed in 2002.)

Bottom line: I wish I could share Peng and Guthrie's view of schooling as largely buffered from recessions, and I wish that I could fear long-term debt from a stimulus more than I fear lingering high unemployment, the way that Hess does. But as long as inflation and interest rates are close to zero and unemployment lingers in the 9-10% territory, we'll need fiscal stimulus, and supporting teacher jobs is a logical way to do it.

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Posted in Education policy at 1:23 PM (Permalink) |

June 11, 2010

Remedial/development education, required reading

If you're interested in community-college remedial/developmental programs and you haven't yet, go read an excellent feature by Bill Maxwell that appeared last Sunday in the St. Petersburg Times Perspective section. Because it's in the paper's opinion section, Maxwell is free to add his judgment, but for the most part this is just a good feature, detailed and thought-provoking. It deserves more attention than it's gotten thus far in the week.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:11 AM (Permalink) |

Why is a college education like a tulip bulb?

Dean Dad has one plausible response to the latest installation of the "college is the next asset bubble to burst" argument, and every time I come across it I grind my teeth, think of ravens and writing desks, and go on. At least Glenn Reynolds is neither an economist nor an historian, or I'd accuse him of professional incompetence. Hint to all who might think he's right: a college degree is not an excludable good that is the type normally resellable on a speculative basis. But at least I have material for this Out of Left Field Friday entry...

Some part of the argument regularly floated on this topic is an anticipatory taste of Schadenfreude: "I just can't wait for the bastards to get their due," with higher education standing in for all bastards here. As many people before me have pointed out, Schadenfreude isn't a wise basis for public policy, and desire for it tends to blind one to analytical details. Most students are not in the type of tuition-dependent institution that Dean Dad rightly points out is the only part of higher ed vulnerable to a "oh, we can't spend as much as we'd like" change in behavior. Millions still want a college education, and if they can't afford private tuition or out-of-state tuition somewhere else, they'll pop for a four-year university degree or start at community colleges.

At some level, the dissatisfaction with higher education leads to grumbling and sometimes structural changes in public higher ed (e.g., calls for accountability, today more about attainment than cognitive outcomes). Concerns about family costs have led to the changes in student loan policy. Grumbling has not yet led to changes in tax laws that would move the needle on athletic departments or large endowments. And given the labor-market queueing advantage of those with college degrees, you're not going to see people leaving colleges in droves, or at least not "college" in the abstract.

In other words, this doesn't look like an asset bubble to me in any way I'm familair with.

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Posted in Higher education at 9:31 AM (Permalink) |

Of side deals, soup and sandwich, and prayers

A few days ago, the St. Petersburg Times uploaded all of the second-round RTTT local MOUs in Florida they had been able to acquire to one of the relevant blog entries, so I can talk about the elements that are common among them. First, a mea culpa: when reading the Broward document on Safari, the browser only showed the paragraph discussing impasse, and I wrote a blog entry based on that assumption. After seeing several of the MOUs, I checked the file format, realized it was not a PDF, and put it into a different app. So my erroneous description of Broward's and Hernando's MOUs as dramatically different is my fault. There are some interesting variations (as I explain below, Hardee should not be included in the broader list), but I'll stick with the commonalities.

I'm going to start with the local MOU signed in January by stakeholders in Hillsborough and other MOUs signed in a handful of other counties where locals of the Florida Education Association signed onto the first state application to Race to the Top. The Times blog entry at the time could be read to suggest that the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association (HCTA) wheedled the school board into the language. I suspect the reality is that HCTA asked FEA's bargaining support team to give them something that would allow HCTA to sign on and still secure them (or try to secure HCTA) against impasse proceedings and being locked into an experiment after the money ran out.

So what did the January MOU in Hillsborough include?

  1. The parties agreed to negotiate in good faith to allow them to participate in the state's RTTT program.
  2. The parties agreed that they would not take discretionary bargaining subjects to impasse even if that impeded participation in RTTT (and if the state rejected whatever was bargained, Hillsborough would not participate).
  3. Any contract modifications agreed to as part of bargaining with RTTT would cease either with the end of the grant or the end of the contract. (In Florida law, public-employee collective bargaining agreements can last no longer than three years.)
  4. The school district committed itself to finding non-general-fund sources of money "to continue implementation" if RTTT funding was insufficient.

Again, the effect of this agreement was to guard HCTA from being exposed to impasse proceedings and a default permanent commitment to contract provisions for a program that might not be fully funded after RTTT moneys ran out. The first protection was incorporated into the state-level MOU for the second RTTT application. It is not entirely clear that the state-level MOU addresses the second issue directly, though it does state that the MOU (and the commitments) end with the end of the grant, if the state receives the award. (I'll get a little more into the weeds on the doctrine of status quo below.) In any case, the new state-level MOU was sufficient for the vast majority of counties and local unions this time around, and FEA's leadership encouraged locals to participate (hedging that around a bit in public language).

The existence of local MOUs the second time around is an indication that the reassurances were not enough for at least 10 counties and their locals to sign on without a local MOU. (Stakeholders in the rural county of Hardee signed an MOU that essentially duplicated the state MOU: they'd attempt to bargain to meet RTTT requirements, but they wouldn't declare impasse. So I am not including Hardee in the group of other counties whose MOUs put a termination date on contract modifications.) Three of those counties have large populations: Duval (Jacksonville), Lee (Ft. Myers), and Broward (Ft. Lauderdale). The others are much smaller.

So what parts of the local MOUs match up to the MOU signed in Hillsborough in January? I'm going to match up some of the language of the Broward MOU (why? Broward's the largest system in the set, and I can copy and paste language from its MOU) against corresponding elements in the January Hillsborough MOU and see what remains:

  1. Good faith bargaining: The parties will use best efforts to develop a negotiated, mutually agreed upon implementation plan in the areas identified by the parties as part of the Plan (from item 2 of the Broward MOU).
  2. No impasse: Any items relating to the RTTT Application or Plan that are unsuccessfully negotiated between the parties specifically for the purpose of applying for or receiving the RTTT grant award will not be subject to the impasse procedures set forth in Chapter 447. The impasse procedure is herewith deemed waived by the parties as to negotiations which are for the specific purpose of applying for or receiving the RTTT grant award (item 4).... Should there fail to be a fully ratified MOU by the bargaining-unit and non-imposed agreements after good faith negotiations for RTTT, the parties are released from any obligation to continue participation in the Race to the Top Grant (item 8).
  3. Termination date for contract modifications: In the event that negotiations for RTTT result in modification to the existing CBA, such modifications will expire upon either the expiration of the RTTT grant or upon the expiration of the funding of the grant whichever occurs first (item 5).

Those pieces parallel three of the four elements of the January MOU in Hillsborough (and I've put the Broward MOU text in the same order as the list above). That doesn't mean that they don't have policy implications, but it's not as if this language came out of nowhere; the provisions clearly came from the January MOUs. (Discussion of policy below.) What's new?

  • Recognition that RTTT may require impact bargaining as well as mandatory subjects of bargaining: If an RTTT grant is awarded, any items in the Plan that impact wages, hours or terms and conditions of employment or that may modify the current CBA are subject to bargaining in accordance with Chapter 447 (item 3).... Portions of the RTTT Application and Plan implicate mandatory subjects of bargaining under the Florida Constitution and Chapter 447. The parties acknowledge that limited issues such as performance pay, salary schedules, and teacher placement can best and most effectively be addressed at the local level (item 7).
  • Agreement to the state MOU does not commit the parties to specific contract changes: [A local stakeholder's signature on the state MOU] does not constitute agreement to modify the existing CBA or to negotiate additional language consistent with all elements of the FLDOE Preliminary Scope of Work (item 1).... The signature of the Union President on the FLDOE MOU does not constitute an agreement to (a) reopen or otherwise modify the CBA, unless and until a subsequent negotiated time specific waiver or other agreement has been mutually agreed upon by the BTU and SBBC or (b) limit or waive its rights and protections under the Florida Constitution, the Florida Public Employees' Relations Act and other applicable laws (item 2).
  • Contract modifications for RTTT do not become the default contract language that extends beyond the end of a contract while negotiations continue: If bargaining according to this MOU results in any modification to the current CBA in order to comply with RTTT requirements, then such modification(s) will not operate as the status quo and shall have no precedent setting value, face or effect, unless to the extent agreed to be the parties therein (item 6).

The first topic is mundane and would probably be accepted as a statement of reality by most involved in Florida public labor negotiations. The second category protects parties (primarily unions) from the argument that a signature on the state MOU was the same act as signing a labor contract or a binding commitment on any specific element of a contract (from the first numbered paragraph of the MOU). More interesting is the language from the second numbered paragraph that refers to "a subsequent negotiated time specific waiver or other agreement" that results from bargaining. Any part of a collective bargaining agreement that includes a time-limited waiver of union rights (or agreement on a contract provision that is discretionary under Florida law) would satisfy that language. I am not a lawyer, but this may duplicate established protections that unions can assert at the table.

What appears to be truly new in comparison with the January Hillsborough MOU and also a potential substantive difference from anything else is the language clearly stating that contract modifications specifically for RTTT do not become the status quo that continues after the end of one contract if bargaining continues on a successor agreement. Here we're truly getting into the weeds on Florida labor law: A public-employee labor contract continues to operate after the last date if there isn't agreement on a successor, and the terms and conditions of employment continue as if the agreement had been extended. There is some controversy about whether and which waivers of rights by either party continue as the status quo, but the status-quo doctrine changes the nature of bargaining, as a deadline that might otherwise be facing one party at the end of a contract just does not exist, and that provision continues. If I understand correctly, the public-interest rationale for the status-quo doctrine is that maintaining the terms and conditions of employment during a contractual interregnum is easier to administer, and since the parties agreed to those terms and conditions at some point in the past, one can assume that the contract provisions are not contrary to the public interest. But it does theoretically remove bargaining leverage from a party who conceded a term that would otherwise cease at the end of the contract.

Given the language elsewhere in the Broward MOU (and others) that the RTTT-related contract modifications cease as of the end of the contract or RTTT funds, I'm trying to figure out what the additional language on status quo adds. Is this the legal equivalent of putting on long johns on a winter day in Philadelphia just in case the temperature drops another 40 degrees F.? It roughly parallels the same issue--"we're not locking ourselves into the experimental contract language we may agree to"--with different language.

The two questions that have been raised have been of process (transparency in the state's application: will federal reviewers see everything that's relevant?) and the substantive question of commitment to contractual changes after the grant money runs out.

I don't think the transparency issue is affected by the language about impasse, since I'm persuaded that the local MOUs' language effectively duplicates the state MOU language on the issue without adding anything substantive. And the state has the authority to include or exclude specific counties based on information state officials have; remember that this is an application by the state for money, not an application by individual school districts. So we're down to one issue: does 10 local unions' unwillingness to be locked into specific contractual language in advance of the grant directly contradict the application's claims of stakeholder buy-in?

Well, that's not quite it, either, because I don't think the other locals want to be locked in either, but they didn't sign local MOUs with language on the issue. So it's really whether the application reviewers have the information they need to decide if the state as a whole has sufficient stakeholder buy-in to earn the relevant points in that part of the evaluation. Suppose for an instance that we should wipe out those ten counties from buy-in based on signing the local MOUs; would Florida lose any points? Perhaps a few.

So a man walks to the corner deli to get lunch and orders a soup and sandwich. He pays and waits at the pickup counter. When the short-order cook rings the bell and puts the tray on the counter with the order, the customer asks the cook, "Did you pray while putting together my meal?"

The cook squints a bit. "Did I pray?"

"Yes. Did you pray for me while putting together my meal?"

The cook thinks. The customer's a stranger, there are seven billion people in the world, and she's busy making lunches. Should she pray for all the strangers in the world or make sure she doesn't cut her fingers off? But the customer's always right, the boss says. "Sure, I prayed."

"What'd you pray for me?"

"I prayed for you to give me a good tip."

Now for the big picture on transparency: you can't read minds. At most what we know is that officials in these ten counties are more suspicious of the state MOU than FEA President Andy Ford and other members of the governor's task force. Do you think that local officials in other states are equally suspicious? Is there a way for a state to suss that out? Officials in every state have assumed that a signature on an MOU is a legal commitment, and the same has been true in Florida. There could be all sorts of local agreements of the nudge nudge, wink wink variety in multiple states, and that's true of every grant program where the state is the applicant and locals participate. If someone wants Florida to be penalized because state officials were unaware of local suspicions and we now know about it because the local stakeholders put those suspicions in writing, do we need to set up mechanisms to find any agreements that are unwritten?

There may be one other issue in the grant application development playing into this: the state asked local stakeholders to sign the MOU before the state application was finished, and there is a section of the state MOU that allows local districts to back out if they discover after having signed the MOU that they don't have the capacity to follow through. (That's shortly after the zipper clause that lets the state exclude local districts.) A few national stakeholders have pointed out that RTTT required states to buy into the common core standards before they were finalized, and the development of the Florida RTTT application had a parallel problem of asking local stakeholders to sign on before knowing all of the details of the state plan. Given the escape clause in the MOU, that shouldn't have fed into discussions about any local MOU, but I wouldn't be surprised if that upped the suspicion level.

The policy question remains the same: what happens after RTTT funding runs out? There are (at least) two ways to look at this, if you're a supporter of the RTTT program. One is to see the state application as a way to lock in certain policies that can't be undone. The January MOU in Hillsborough and the ten MOUs that the Times has uncovered would greatly irritate anyone with that view, because it's evidence that local unions and possibly school boards are going to want to backtrack just as soon as the legal commitments for RTTT evaporate. But there's a second way to look at RTTT: they force states and local districts to experiment in certain ways and have certain experiences. If you think that the experiences with different policy structures are going to change the conversation and loosen up opposition to a bunch of things, you're going to trust that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Or you have to think that at some level, you can't force local districts to behave in a certain way forever and stakeholders have to agree with you at some point.

I think the first way of viewing RTTT is incompatible with its being a voluntary grant program. If you want to force certain behavior, you can't hide it behind a temporary pot of money, and people are going to seethe and figure out ways to undo it if you try. If you want to be top-down, you have to be top-down and open about it, and limit it to things you are reasonably certain you can control. If you want to encourage experimentation, you need to acknowledge that some of the experiments will absolutely fail and let local districts escape from those failed experiments.

One other matter I haven't been able to resolve: I vaguely remember some of the news coverage this month reporting that both the first and second Florida applications for Race to the Top mentioned at least a few of the local MOUs, but I couldn't find any reference to the local MOUs in either (at least by searching within the PDF files). For the record, can anyone tell me whether my memory is going, or if I just missed everything?

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Posted in Education policy at 8:38 AM (Permalink) |

June 9, 2010

Get your performance-pay evaluation report bingo cards here

So another few evaluation reports have been released with little evidence of student achievement flowing from performance-pay systems. This is going to sound like a broken record from me, but I don't make too much out of one or two studies in policy research. These studies on systems in Chicago and New York confirm something any historian (or anyone who's read education historians) could have predicted: even if there is some benefit from changing a pay system, it's a darned hard thing to try. This is one of the reasons why I dislike the boutique, closed evaluation tradition in education research: every evaluation collects data, walls it off, and then presents (only) conclusions to the public. When there are millions of dollars being spent through the Teacher Incentive Fund in addition to privately-funded efforts (or any program with an interesting but untested theory of action), there have to be data archives so that other researchers (those not on the original evaluation team) can conduct secondary analyses.

But having put forward these caveats, I'm going to guess that most studies of performance pay are going to show negligible effects on test scores. This may be my inner cynic (okay, not very inner), but the long-term questions on performance-pay policies revolve less around whether it is consistent with the theory of action proponents have but focus instead on whether the politics demand something regardless of effects and what is workable from a variety of standpoints.

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Posted in Education policy at 8:59 AM (Permalink) |

June 8, 2010

The value of college III

Part of the value of a good college education is that much of it is surplus. In the same way that the early nineteenth-century education of women could have been perceived as superfluous, a good deal of what students learn could be seen as not directly or immediately useful in their lives. To some economists, this may smack of inefficiency: why should we educate anyone beyond what we can see as an immediate payback on the job or in life? To others, this gets absorbed in a metastatic notion of human capital, where everything good in life is redefined as investment. (Read the new introduction in the 1993 edition of Gary Becker's Human Capital if you doubt me: not only are schooling and standalone job training considered human capital, so is love from one's parents.) Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz refer generically to education as critical to handling changing technology on the job, which makes a certain amount of sense as long as you're not operating a picture-based point-of-sale register (technology can deskill jobs as well as require greater skills). Goldin, Katz, and Uwe Reinhardt are definitely well-meaning, and I'd want them all at my back in an unlit economics-department hallway. But at some level, the economic justification of surplus education is troublesome because it is a black box (how the extra education works exactly isn't modeled); the slop between formal schooling and economic utility (which I've termed surplus) is a fundamental problem for how economists approach education.

An inefficient education as useful play

So let's turn from economics to anthropology for some help. In 1973, American Anthropologist published Stephen Miller's "Ends, Means, and Galumphing," which explored the social and evolutionary purposes of play. It's reasonably well-cited for a social-science article, but more importantly it's widely cited in areas as diverse as educational and social psychology (where you might expect it to be cited) and... well, it's cited in "Marketing in Hypermedia Computer-Mediated Environments" (1996, in the Journal of Marketing). In other words, it's got legs. Miller argues that one can define play within multiple species as activity that is deliberately inefficient and where the individuals involved gain pleasure from facing challenges that stem directly from the inefficiency, whether we're talking formal inefficiencies such as the rules of baseball and chess or informal make-believe... or activities one might find in college such as analyzing a real or fictional company's operations, writing a history paper, spending ten or more hours talking about a single play of Shakespeare, and so forth.

More importantly, Miller argues that play has some advantage for a species in that it turns specific skills into general problem-solving capacity. In play, one uses skills repeatedly and in a range of combinations. (One could argue a little differently about some videogames I know, but I'm describing his argument, not making my own, and the point would still be important even if you removed videogames that require nothing but exactly-repetitive behavior.) Play looks remarkably inefficient in one way, but it has important adaptive value in another.

So too with much of formal education. I could make the same faculty-psychology arguments on behalf of studying history that many people do: not only does it provide specific knowledge of certain times and places, it also prepares you for any career that requires the presentation of linear arguments with specific time- and place-bound evidence. (Legal brief, anyone?) It teaches you about human foibles and prepares you for situations where you have to suspend antipathy towards individuals to identify potential motives and key interests. David Brooks makes all of those arguments in his column today.

But that type of argument has always struck me as beside the point, not because history majors do not have practice in those skills but because any faculty-psychology argument is easily turned into a nebulous "this will help you learn critical thinking" claim, which my time-and-place-specific training makes me skeptical of. Yes, majoring in history will help you in a lot of fields more than not going to college at all, but it's hard to argue that a history major is better suited to a professional biochem lab's gruntwork than a math or physics major, even if the gruntwork has occasional public presentations attached to it requiring linear arguments with detailed evidence (see above on that refrain).

(Margaret Soltan argues a different point today, asserting that the value of the humanities is in the embodiment of human frailty, not its rational analysis. She writes, "For [William Arrowsmith], a prolonged encounter with the humanistic tradition amounts to a more and more sensate anguish at the recognition of our own chaos." I'm not going to argue with her or Arrowsmith, since I'm sure many a student in a Milton seminar has probably had crises of faith, and I had the odd experience of The Painted Bird as a soothing read at the end of my first semester in college. I'm just making a different point that can stretch beyond the humanities.)

An honest explanation of the value of college acknowledges that when college accomplishes what it can, a good part of that achievement is teaching students how to play with ideas in thoughtful ways and follow up that play in a reasonable, rigorous manner. This is neither a comprehensive nor exclusive way of thinking about college: formal schooling doesn't guarantee this result, and there are plenty of wise people in this world who can play with ideas without having finished secondary school, let alone college. But you're far more likely to get adults who can play with ideas in a productive sense if some critical mass of them have attended formal schooling where that was one of the outcomes.

I think Stanley Fish and gaming-for-learning enthusiasts are some of the more extreme proponents of this view, though they may not like being put in the same bin. At some times eloquently and inarticulately at other times, Fish argues (or just implies, as in yesterday's piece) that playing with ideas is the purest and highest aim of college and university life. That's a good part of the reason why he is allergic to some other conceptions of teaching (such as passionate engagement in the world). Those who have pushed for the insertion of game design in teaching likewise see value in gaming in and of itself, and they have the well-intentioned goal of spreading that joy to students through the use of gaming in teaching.

I do not think the promotion of intellectual play is the sole purpose of higher education, which is why I do not agree with Fish on his save the world on your own time refrain, which would place a wall between classes and any concern with what happens off a campus. Nor do I think that constructing game-like structures inside classes is the only way to promote intellectual play, which is why I have only experimented in a tiny way (and not that well) with game-like structures inside classes. Instead, what a good college (and many a good high school course) provides is the foundation, tools, and time and space for students to play with ideas.

This play needs to be rooted in specifics: some critical mass of specific knowledge in an area, which includes stuff we might call factual information and also knowledge about important questions that have been and continue to be asked in the discipline or field. In most (but not all) colleges and for most (but not all) students in those colleges, that foundation and set of tools require some breadth and some depth. You can't be a great student of history without knowing a sufficient amount about some critical mass of places and time, or without knowing a sufficient amount about some critical mass of other fields that bring other questions to bear on the ideas you're playing with.

And then you need the opportunities and encouragement to play with ideas in important ways. Sometimes these come in structured assignments that look playful, sometimes in serious assignments that engage students in the flow that positive psychologists write about, and sometimes the opportunity comes in extracurricular activities. Again, none of this necessarily requires formal schooling, but the playful autodidact must discipline herself or himself, and a formal school can provide structures to encourage this type of engagement. The institutional nature of a school can often grate on those within its walls, but it can also provide helpful structures. From an historical standpoint, the amazing feature of non-mandatory secondary and postsecondary education is not that one-quarter of teenagers leave high school and two-thirds of young adults do not complete a B.A. but that so many finish when there is no law requiring it. Normative expectations play an important role, and that is as true for shaping behavior within a school as standing outside it pushing students towards school.


Justifying public subsidies

Okay, some of you must be thinking, I'll follow this argument about the play of ideas as far as formal schooling doesn't cost much. But why should taxpayers subsidize this, and why should someone incur more than $100,000 in debt to learn how to play with ideas? Taxpayers should subsidize surplus education because it's worked for society in the past, which may seem highly unsatisfying but is true with one caveat (below). More pragmatically, the obviously-useful parts of higher education easily justify the subsidy, and what appear to be "frills" are comparatively cheap: try to tell a provost that the English department or history department is a money-waster, and she or he will laugh in your face with good reason: humanities faculty are generally the cheapest dates in any place, in part because of their low salaries and in part because even at the ritziest research universities they don't require several hundred thousand dollars in start-up money each. Doubt me? Go ask your local university the annual maintenance costs per student of a intro-chem lab and an intro-languages lab.

Costs to students: the car rule-of-thumb

Student debt is a different issue. I don't think someone should incur more than $100,000 in debt for an undergraduate education. However, that issue is complicated by stories about new college graduates with mountains of debt that come from enrollment in private schooling, either non-profit colleges and universities or for-profit programs. We need to watch the debt issue, but the streams of student debt origins are concentrated away from public colleges and universities (i.e., not what the solid majority of students face). There are plenty of public colleges and universities where the average debt for graduates carrying debt is under $20,000, and that's a reasonable debt to incur for the part of a college education with likely immediate payoffs in the job market (assuming that there's a job market in the next few years). In addition, the creation of income-based repayment plans is a buffer against college debt peonage if debt begins in the federal loan programs that are captured by income-based repayment. Again, that's easy when you're talking about public colleges and universities. Fortunately, a very large majority of high school seniors and their families are skeptical of mountains of debt, which is why (for example) two of my daughter's closest friends are going to the University of Florida next year rather than Rensselaer, Rutgers, or Georgia Tech (some of the other places one or the other was accepted, where they would have paid out-of-state or private tuition).

(As I've noted, private loans and gigantic debt coming from attendance at private institutions comprise a different matter, in addition to credit card debt. Part of the role of Pell grants, the new GI Bill, and federal loans is to encourage families to take on both subsidized and unsubsidized loans. That may sound remarkably like the type of public-private partnership that's become common in economic development, except that here, families and students incur substantial risk. Private non-profits and for-profits are in the same boat here, receiving a federal subsidy that's often bundled in with additional unsubsidized loans that families and students carry forward, something NYU is struggling to respond to, at least. And all university administrators who approve privacy-invading deals with credit-card companies should rot in Purgatory for a very, very long time.)

There is another way in which student debt is taken out of context: for full-time students and a number of part-time students, a significant part of the cost of college is the opportunity cost of not being in the labor market (or giving up some job opportunities, for part-time students). That can end up in debt if students borrow to pay for living expenses while going to school, and in any case, it reduces income and the accumulation of job experience. For a few years, that's more than balanced by expected greater earnings. The opportunity cost of not gaining job experience becomes a larger issue for someone who is out of the job market for an extended period, as happens with longer graduate programs (such as programs that have an average time-to-degree of nine years for students who finish, and that would be on top of the time spent in an undergraduate program).

A few rules of thumb, to summarize on debt and opportunity costs of attending college: if the direct debt incurred by going to college is on the order of magnitude of an economy or low-priced midsize car, it's justified by the anticipated concrete returns, so the chance to play with ideas isn't a giant financial risk. Don't go into debt on the order of a house note unless the degree leads directly to a lucrative career (e.g., medicine or law, and even there I have some questions). And if you're going to spend more than ten years out of the labor market as part of getting an education, definitely get that economy-car-sized education.

The assessment dilemma

Let me return now to the issue of public subsidies in part for what might look like surplus education. Part of the justification for public subsidy (concerned with value) is taken care of by the parts of college you can identify concretely as human capital, specific bits of skills and knowledge with clear social benefits. Part of the justification for subsidy (concerned with cost) is taken care of by the fact that the more expensive parts of college and university academic programs are concentrated where you see more clearly identified returns (the "humanities are cheap dates" principle). (Athletic programs and student affairs are different subjects.)

That might be enough from the perspective of some faculty (and Stanley Fish and David Brooks, at least this week), but the push for accountability in learning outcomes in higher education can easily be turned into the type of mechanism that squeezes out opportunities and structures for playing with ideas. For the foreseeable future, there will be key actors in several states who would be willing to impose reductive standardized testing on colleges and universities. That is the alternative to the current set of assessment mechanisms embedded in regional accreditation. So let's look at assessment and accreditation with regard to playing with ideas.

The black hole of accreditation-centered assessment

Assessment in the context of regional accreditation is best thought of as meta-assessment, where accreditors hold colleges and universities responsible for having a curriculum and assessing how well students learn it. That putatively gives institutions the freedom to create a structure consistent with a unique mission as long as there is assessment of student learning. In reality, this type of meta-game can be difficult to navigate, and the default behavior leans heavily towards mimesis: many colleges and universities hire consultants familiar with a particular regional accreditor, and they tend to suggest whatever structure has enabled similar institutions to pass muster. In addition, because consultants (or former consultants) are sometimes brought in-house to handle the logistics, they focus on the parts of the process that are most easily managed and cause the least hiccups internally... and that often turns into a small universe of reductive measures available commercially, especially for general-education goals. (Want to assess writing? Let's try the ABCXYZ. Want to assess problem-solving? Let's try the ABCXYZ. Want to assess critical thinking? Let's try the ABCXYZ. Yes, of course we can create our own in-house assessment, but we'd also have to justify its use to our accreditor, and it's just easier to use the ABCXYZ; why don't we at least try that as we're developing our own...) There's a reason why the Voluntary System of Accountability specified one of three cognitive measures: it piggybacked on existing trends in accreditation and institutional inertia.

My general concern is that the mechanisms of assessment through regional accreditation can become the black hole of faculty time, absorbing everything around it and making it difficult to plan a structure for more engaged projects or the type of activity I have described as intellectual play. In addition to what else I could say about that narrow range of measures, the long-term problem with institutional meta-gaming is that the rules of the game can change, sometimes with nasty consequences for faculty time. Every time that an accrediting body changes the rules by which institutions have to set rules for students (i.e., the curriculum), faculty have to rework their lives and often entire programs of studies to accommodate the changes. Every time my state reworks licensing requirements for college-based teacher education, or changes the rules for state review, faculty in my college have their time stolen by the logistics of meeting the rules. (Please don't ask a Florida dean of education to describe the double-standard between the rules for college-based teacher education and alt-cert unless you have a few hours.) One of the consequences is an overburden on both faculty and student time. Let me stop talking about faculty time and focus instead on student time: Look at a few random programs of study for baccalaureate programs in nursing or education. Count the number of elective courses. Compare with a program of studies in any social-science or humanities major. Then pick your jaw up off the floor.

On the one hand, the licensure requirements make a certain amount of sense from the perspective of professional training: you want teachers, social workers, and nurses to have the tools to do the job. On the other hand, an undergraduate education that is devoid of anything but instrumentalist technical courses is job-training and nothing else. And especially for teachers, that is inconsistent with one central purpose of college and dangerous for what we'd like them to do on the job. And the Holmes Group's proposal to shift all teacher training to the masters is unrealistic for working-class students if you apply the car-cost limit to student debt for future teachers. I am not sure there is a good way out of this problem for elementary teacher education, and it is on the extreme end of the "no room for thought" problem we face with accreditation-based assessment.

Outside elementary teacher education, there are a few escapes, but none are palatable. Ignoring assessment requirements of accreditors is either fatally brave or foolish, so what's left? Assessing intellectual play. You can stop groaning now. Yes, attempts to assess "creativity" make you tear your hair out, and the thought of assessing intellectual play makes you want to punch me out for the oxymoron or the threat of one of these projects unmoored from substance and rigor. But from an institutional standpoint for a faculty member in one of those regions with an accreditor that threatens micromanagement, you can either tilt at windmills or see what the power might be used for. I've got a limited appetite for windmill-tilting, and I've got enough blunted spears in my garage for a lifetime, thank you very much. This may sound like squaring the circle or getting out from within the horizon of a black hole, but the ability to assess intellectual play would allow faculty to justify all sorts of projects within an existing accreditation framework.

Defining and assessing a challenge

First, a reminder of Miller's notion of galumphing, or play: pleasurable activity that is deliberately inefficient and encourages the combination of existing skills to accomplish the self-defined or agreed-upon goals over and around the obstacles presented by the constructed inefficiencies. The tricky part of assessing such activity is not focusing on the issue of pleasure but instead on the meta-rules that characterize the nature of the activity. For this purpose, it's best to think about a circumscribed type of intellectual play: a challenge that is at least partially well-defined, based in considerable part on what others have done (i.e., not entirely reinventing the wheel), and that requires putting together at least a few skills. Then the assessment of the student activity has two levels: the level of the meta-game, where you assess how well the student defines the challenge, shows where and how the project relies on other work or is new, and how well the student used multiple skills; and the level of the project itself, where disciplinary conventions come into play...

And for history, at least, the disciplinary conventions match fairly well with the first level: having an appropriate historical topic, using the historiography in a sensible way, and handling a range of evidence and argument structures. The guts of most undergraduate history papers are in that last catch-all category: "handling a range of evidence and argument structures." There are a number of more idiosyncratic and less comparable assessment frames (such as student reflection on engagement), and this short essay is about the larger picture, not a detailed (let alone a tested!) framework for assessing intellectual play. And this sketch is about a narrowly-defined type of challenge, with lots left out. But it's a way to think a bit about the issue... or play with the idea of assessing playing with ideas.

Tools to explore

A few words about some recent developments to watch in this vein. The Lumina Foundation's Tuning project could have begun within a regional accreditation context, but it's geared instead towards a proof of concept that a faculty-driven definition of outcomes and assessments can simultaneously honor disciplinary conventions and also satisfy external constituencies (thus the term "tuning" to get everyone singing in the same key: I've got to ask Cliff Adelman sometime whether it's harmonic or tempered tuning). If I remember correctly, the first discipline-specific reports should have been available on the foundation website sometime this spring, but it's not there now (just a cutesy cartoonish presentation of the idea along with Cliff Adelman's concept paper and other materials from 2009). At a first glance, it looks like an application of the accountability framework of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (i.e., the liberal-arts office in One Dupont Circle). But without sample exemplar projects, it's hard to judge at the moment.

Then there's the movement for undergraduate research. When my daughter and I were visiting colleges over the past few years, it's clear that every institution devoted resources specifically to undergraduate research, whether they were public or private. Then again, these were generally small colleges where undergraduates were the only research assistants that faculty would be getting. On the third hand, undergraduate research is a type of operation that both liberal-arts colleges and universities are trying to develop and promote, albeit with different understandings of student engagement. I think my alma mater (a small liberal-arts college) now requires seniors to engage in a major thesis-like project. At my current university, that's expected only of Honors College students, and the resources of the Undergraduate Research office are available to all in theory and would be totally swamped if every student asked to be involved. Again, neither the development of Tuning and undergraduate research are models in any practical sense of the word, but they're something to watch and, if nothing else, they provide a few rocks on which to stand and survey the landscape of playing with ideas.

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Posted in Higher education at 10:30 PM (Permalink) |

June 4, 2010

More on so-called "side deals"

Andy Rotherham has responded to my blog entry early this morning. Let me skip for now the question of why he was the sole person quoted in the article and address the local MOUs in Florida on Race to the Top. Rotherham wrote in part, "If these agreements have no bearing on the state's application or implementation then why go through the laborious exercise of crafting them[?]" I wasn't in the room for any of these, but having observed Florida schools for almost 15 years, I can imagine a number of reasons, including distrust by some party in a county in the judgment of FEA President Andy Ford and other participants in the task force about the clause excluding non-mandatory subjects of bargaining from impasse. I said as much in my prior post. I'm not a labor lawyer, and neither is Andy Rotherham, but I do know something about the dynamics within FEA, where there is often a healthy internal debate. The argument that local MOUs are an inherent evasion of the grant is something that requires examination of the actual language at issue.

Now, to my comment about Rotherham's being used as the sole source for Wednesday's story in the St. Petersburg Times. Why did it seem curious to me? Partly it's a matter of sensitivity to these issues on a number of fronts. For more than a year, Rick Hess has been pointing out the potential for all sorts of perception problems with a competitive process that's the result of (enormous) discretionary authority. In April, Liam Goldrick noted that the New Teacher Project was simultaneously advising several states on RTTT and then commenting on the process (something he thought was unwise from an organizational standpoint).

So when I read a story with a single source commenting on the issue, where the source may have had business interests at stake and where the disclosure of that in the story was vague, and then the term "some say" with only that source as documentation, it looked odd. It was a good journalist quoting someone who is open about disclosure in every direct piece of writing of his I've read. And it wasn't the larger point. But I don't remember anyone correcting the impression earlier in the spring that TNTP had been a disinterested observer. But I could also have thought of a number of reasons why there weren't more people quoted or more disclosure about Wetherbell (Rotherham's firm): maybe Matus got the information late in the day and couldn't reach more than Rotherham; maybe the material was in the submitted story and an editor chopped out additional disclosure; maybe Rotherham didn't have access to the text of the local MOUs or didn't have a copy of the state MOU and was relying on Matus's over-the-phone description of "hey, this looks like it could be different, especially in Hernando." But on the other hand (I think we're on my fourth hand here), the failure to correct the stuff on TNTP is a lapse for education journalism more generally, and it has to stop. So I decided to note what I had observed, call it minor compared with the other issues, and go on. If it looks like I'm being hard on the Times, it's because this local newspaper is one of the top papers in the country on education, and I think I can expect great reporting. But this is a minor error, I meant the observation as such, and I explicitly said so. If I were going to point out that the alleged transparency problem with Florida's application is a distraction until better researched, maybe I need to be consistent and explicitly say my concerns along parallel lines were less important, nu?

My central point was that absent some more solid analysis of what the local MOUs actually meant and whether they conflicted with the application packet, the larger issues were not about procedure but the sustainability of whatever happened with RTTT, assuming it was beneficial. Here's what I wrote this morning:

It's a legitimate question to ask what the right balance is in collective bargaining on the scope of bargaining, on the relative power of the parties, and on state law that can essentially dictate terms and conditions of employment outside bargaining.... It's also a legitimate question to ask about the commitment of parties to reform after the money runs out.... Those issues are still out there, and they're out there whether or not a particular state has an MOU like Florida's.

And here's what Andy Rotherham wrote:

[T]here are two big outstanding questions on RTT that we won't know the answers to for several years: First, how durable will the policy changes be?  Will states relax things when the money is gone and/or will "loser" states undo the reforms they put in place in an effort to win? Prize theory is built on the idea that the progress generated in an effort to win is built upon.  That idea has not been fully tested yet in the public/political sphere.

Surprise: we agree on the importance of that question! No, it's not really a surprise. It's just that a lot of electrons have lost their lives this week in what thus far looks like a nonstory.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 5:24 PM (Permalink) |

Correcting the facts on so-called RTTT "side deals"

In Wednesday's paper, St. Petersburg Times reporter Ron Matus relied on the sloppy language "some say" to spin a mountain out of a molehill about county-specific MOUs between school boards and local FEA affiliates. In the article as well as two blog entries Wednesday and Thursday, Matus stated that there were a number of counties with local memoranda of understanding (or MOUs) and quoted one individual who said that the existence of what Matus called "side deals" might be a problem for Florida's application. Matus stated that his source Andy Rotherham had helped other states with RTTT applications, but the article did not state whether that was in the context of consultancy contracts (i.e., whether Rotherham's new organization had its reputation and business at stake in competition with Florida's RTTT application).

The omission of any mention of Rotherham's business concern is minor compared with the failure of the Times to look at the content of the side deals and see whether they modified the obligations of local parties vis-a-vis the state Memorandum of Understanding that most districts and unions signed across Florida. Since Ed Week has gotten into the story, albeit without quoting Rotherham, it's important to look at the facts.

First, the issue of impasse. Language from the state MOU (part of the RTTT application):

Only the elements of this MOU which are contained in existing law are subject to the provisions of section 447.403, Florida Statutes. (p. 3)

Explanation: F.S. 447.403 is the part of Florida's public-employee collective-bargaining law that covers impasse. In other words, if there's a part of the MOU that is not already a term and condition of employment under Florida law, it's not susceptible to the impasse procedure. That point is clarified in the attachment the Times education blog noted was part of many counties' documentation.

The Broward side agreement in its entirety:

Any items relating to the RTTT Application or Plan that are unsuccessfully negotiated between the parties specifically for the purpose of applying for or receiving the RTTT grant award will not be subject to the impasse procedures set forth in Chapter 447.

Can someone explain to me why this is any different from the state MOU? But there's a second issue that Ed Week's Michele McNeil discussed: "these side deals also say that any changes successfully negotiated because of Race to the Top will expire once the funding does," and refers to the Hernando County MOU. But on p. 4 of the state MOU, Part IV explicitly states that the state MOU expires "upon the expiration of the grant project period, or upon mutual agreement of the parties, whichever occurs first."

The question one might logically ask is why some counties and locals felt they needed extra language. The FEA had a long weekend discussion with state leaders and local leaders about the state RTTT application this time around, and from news coverage it looks like FEA President Andy Ford was strongly encouraging locals to sign on. The reason why was pretty clear: he had had a seat at the table in the task force Charlie Crist set up in the week after Crist vetoed SB 6. When you've had a hand in crafting changes, you've got a stake in success. In addition, the additional language had taken care of one of the legal concerns of FEA bargaining-support staff, because the MOU from the first application in Florida looked like it might give school boards the ability to impose contracts on matters beyond what is currently in state bargaining law. Unlike in many northern states, Florida school boards have the authority to impose contract terms under impasse for a the duration of a fiscal year, but only on mandatory terms and conditions of employment as defined in Florida law.

In January, FEA had cautioned locals not to sign the MOU, and it crafted language for the few locals who wanted to sign (including one large county, Hillsborough). The language FEA crafted for the locals in the first RTTT round? It specifically exempted issues from impasse when the issues were not already in state law. (I don't have the exact wording in front of me, but I am sure an intrepid reporter could ask the Hillsborough press rep for it.) In that case, it's clear that the local MOUs created legal conditions different from what would have been the case with a signed state MOU and no local MOU. So when similar language appeared in the state language, why did some local teachers unions sign essentially redundant local MOUs? Let's just say a generous level of suspicion about the process.

The greatest problem with this coverage of the county-specific MOUs is that it's a distraction from serious issues of reform implementation with RTTT. The issues Matus and McNeil have raised in the context of local MOUs exist with the state MOU. But instead of focusing on the substance, the reporters are focusing on the process issue. It's a legitimate question to ask what the right balance is in collective bargaining on the scope of bargaining, on the relative power of the parties, and on state law that can essentially dictate terms and conditions of employment outside bargaining. In a state like New York, bargaining authority leans more towards unions than in Florida, and likewise state law. Northern states are the ones to have seniority-preference laws that trump the bargaining process, and Florida has had several statutes trying to mandate all sorts of things unions would be very unlikely to agree to in local collective bargaining.

It's also a legitimate question to ask about the commitment of parties to reform after the money runs out. That is one of the critical questions with the DC teachers contract: what happens if/when the billionaires pull out? The billionaires' support of DC along with RTTT present a theory of action all about inertia: if we can just budge districts away from current practices, we'll accomplish long-term structural changes. In contrast, Denver's ProComp was in the context of a permanent funding stream and a political deal with voters: give us the money permanently, and there is a permanent change in compensation practices.

Those issues are still out there, and they're out there whether or not a particular state has an MOU like Florida's. I understand why this reporting on process exists, especially in a rush to print news, but am disappointed that two good reporters have perseverated on an apparent process issue without checking the details of their assumptions (i.e., whether the local so-called "side deals" are substantively different from the state MOU).

Disclosure: I am a former member of the FEA governing board. (I have not corresponded with elected FEA leaders about the reporting on this story, but I want to be open about my former position within my state affiliate.)

Update (9 am EDT): After I posted this earlier in the morning, Valerie Strauss published an entry on the topic in the Washington Post blog she writes, largely repeating what the Times had said. I also corresponded in the last hour with one reporter interested in the story, and one of the empirical questions is whether the local MOUs in Florida are more like Broward (short and redundant) or more like Hernando (which was much longer and with elements McNeil discussed in her blog entry yesterday afternoon). There's also a broader question about state administrative authority. Suppose a superintendent of a district in any state receiving RTTT funds decides she or he isn't going to follow one of the requirements. She or he just didn't put it in writing. Does the state's obligation to eliminate participation and cut off funding for that district change? As I said earlier this morning, the broader and more interesting questions are not really about local MOUs.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 6:01 AM (Permalink) |

June 2, 2010

Quips on Race to the Top and Common Standards

From late morning until a few minutes ago, I've spent the day under a cloud of variously-intensive headache pain. I'm free of it but also exhausted, so in the zeitgeist of evidence-free punditry about RTTT and Common Standards, here are some thoughts:

  • If my memory and reading are correct, none of the national press outside Florida noted the collaboration involving the Florida Education Association in the state's RTTT2 application until... there was a chance to criticize the FEA. Have national ed reporters been captured this spring by a particular narrative frame on unions? For Lesli Maxwell and others: if you describe everything unions do vis-a-vis RTTT as explicitly or implicitly obstructionist, how can you can distinguish the good actors from the bad? (Disclosure: I'm a former member of the FEA governance board and a VP of a higher-ed local affiliated with FEA.)
  • There is a point to criticism by Rick Hess and others that RTTT required state buy-in to the Common Standards in math and reading one day before they were finalized, effectively creating a cheap zipper clause in the application. At least it's not requiring states to buy in to Texas-approved textbooks. Texas's Board of Education would not have liked the idea of Lincoln's second inaugural as one of the English/Language Arts required texts without balancing Lincoln with Jefferson Davis.
  • And speaking of copouts, at least give credit to Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell for harkening to Virginia's own curriculum standards as an excuse for not putting in a RTTT2 application. He can think on his feet faster than some other governors I know, or his own attorney general. At least until a sharp reporter asks the governor to repeat a single line in the Standards of Learning he's so proud of.
  • Notice that since Sarah Palin's resignation as governor, Alaska has returned to its status as one of the states you put in a map inset or use to miniaturize Texas? Texas and Alaska are the only two states that outright refused to participate in the Common Standards project. They also have mutually exclusive cuisine: you can't get moose or wolves in Texas, and you can't find armadillos or liberals in Alaska.

After hearing some of these, a family member said, "Between that and your sinus headache, please don't breathe on me." More serious thoughts as soon as I can find them.

Update: mea culpa on misidentifying the Ed Week reporter who wrote about Florida yesterday. The attribution should have been and now is Lesli Maxwell.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:04 PM (Permalink) |

June 1, 2010

The value of college II

An offhand reference I made last week to Lisa Delpit is nagging at me this evening. It's the part of Other People's Children (1995) where she talks about the existence of codes of power (what others would call tacit knowledge) and how one of the jobs of good schools should be to lay those bare, damn the accusation of selling out to an instrumental view of schooling. Her argument is that middle-class parents and educators too often talk in a Romantic discourse about schooling, ignoring how advantaged parents teach a great deal about the codes of power explicitly and how unfair it is if you hide some of the secrets of power from poor children. When I began teaching at USF, Delpit's book had been published recently, and I used it for several years. It never failed to stimulate healthy debate, especially since the majority of my undergraduate students are usually of the temperament and philosophy Delpit was trying to discomfit.

While her argument was more about primary and secondary education, a great deal of it could apply to college, yeah, even to junior faculty. Earlier in the spring, SUNY Buffalo sociologist Lois Weis visited USF, thanks to the Alliance for Applied Research in Education and Anthropology (Kathy Borman's group in the anthropology department here), and one of her talks briefly referred to Delpit as a jumping-off point to a realistic discussion of what research-heavy universities are looking for in faculty. You think I was unrealistic in urging assistant professors to wait until they're tenured before sinking a lot of time into experimental forms of scholarship? Go listen to Weis; I saw at least one colleague looking to apply for promotion to full absorb every word, and I thought that was wise. Weis's talk was unabashedly instrumentalist: if there's a game to be played in academe, let's not pretend it doesn't exist, and let's make sure that the people we care about can play the game with a full understanding of the rules.

Beneath these arguments is a realistic assessment of how schools combine instrumentalism and the potential for change. Delpit doesn't worry too much that children of color will sell out; let's give them the skills to succeed, and while some may want to sell out, we'll probably learn a great deal about how many won't. Weis didn't talk about that much in the hour-long presentation, but given the type of work she does, I don't think she's on the side of getting a bunch of sociology grad students to join Wall Street. Being successful as academics mean they can make arguments for a better society in general.

One of my friends and longtime colleagues talks about the time John Hope Franklin visited USF many years ago and when asked about radical change in society, Franklin reportedly said, "Go to the library!" What he meant, or what my friend drew from what he meant, was that the textbooks reach the next generation, but to be in the textbooks, you've got to publish research that's read and influences those who write textbooks. And to publish research, you've got to go to the library. It's a conventional view of academic research coming from one of the great African American intellectuals of the 20th century, someone who grew up in Oklahoma, went to college in Nashville in the 1930s, was denied opportunities in WW2 because of race, helped Thurgood Marshall prepare cases in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and stood by his association with W.E.B. Du Bois in the middle of anti-Communist hysteria as he was ascending the academic ladder. Of course, you might say that it's easy to take that view if you're John Hope Franklin, but I suspect it was not easy to be John Hope Franklin, at least not before the 1970s.

The point of all this is that schools simultaneously serve as a vehicle for hoarding privilege and also for breaking it down. The first part is going to exist not because schools exist but because those who currently have privilege are going to use whatever institutions exist to maintain that privilege. So Romantic notions aside, you don't get a choice in that fact, in any society with formal schooling. The choice is whether we take the tools that currently exist and make those tools available to people broadly. When I first saw a link to the May 16 New York Times article on Vedder's and Murray's anti-access view on college, my thought was that Vedder and Murray were arguing that poor families should give up half the tools at their disposal for improving their lives. Are college degrees sometimes used as credentials without reference to what graduates learn? Sure, but you don't eliminate the use of credentials by refusing to gain one. Are college programs sometimes light on substance or disconnected from the job you might get within two or three years? Sure, but you get to keep what you learn for the rest of your life, not just the job you get in the next few years.

And is formal schooling sometimes mind-numbing, discouraging, depressing, oppressive, disillusioning, lock-sync, and whatever other term you want to call lit? Sure, and that's a consequence of a structured curriculum that also provides millions of children with access to the life of the mind. If you've got the resources and the background to teach your children at home.... hmmn, where might you have gotten it? ... sure, you can be a successful homeschooling parent. Of course, if you're a homeschooling parent, you might well use a prepackaged curriculum that makes your kid's education fairly close to the structured system that you just called mind-numbing, discouraging, depressing, ... well, you get it. There are many, many ways in which formal schooling can improve, and there many ways in which schools carry a political burden that is unreasonable. But that's no reason to avoid or fail to use the instrumental value of schooling as formal schooling. First let's graduate the next John Hope Franklin, and Franklin's readers, and we can also worry about the tortured, contradictory nature of higher education.

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Posted in Higher education at 9:29 PM (Permalink) |