Friday, October 30, 2009

Madrassas, Indoctrination, Education and Kristof

It is always disappointing when a writer who says sensible things about most issues decides to turn off his brain when it comes to education. I complained about a nonsensical article about education in the New York Times written by Nicholas Kristof a few months again, and now he has gone off and done it again. He is writing about spending less money on troops in Afghanistan and the suggests that that money should be spent on education. Kristof:

Since 9/11, the United States has spent $15 billion in Pakistan, mostly on military support, and today Pakistan is more unstable than ever. In contrast, Bangladesh, which until 1971 was a part of Pakistan, has focused on education in a way that Pakistan never did. Bangladesh now has more girls in high school than boys. (In contrast, only 3 percent of Pakistani women in the tribal areas are literate.) Those educated Bangladeshi women joined the labor force, laying the foundation for a garment industry and working in civil society groups like BRAC and Grameen Bank. That led to a virtuous spiral of development, jobs, lower birth rates, education and stability. That’s one reason Al Qaeda is holed up in Pakistan, not in Bangladesh, and it’s a reminder that education can transform societies.

Why am I complaining? This seems reasonable enough. Indeed, Kristof is usually reasonable. And then he says:
When I travel in Pakistan, I see evidence that one group — Islamic extremists — believes in the transformative power of education. They pay for madrassas that provide free schooling and often free meals for students. They then offer scholarships for the best pupils to study abroad in Wahhabi madrassas before returning to become leaders of their communities. What I don’t see on my trips is similar numbers of American-backed schools. It breaks my heart that we don’t invest in schools as much as medieval, misogynist extremists. For roughly the same cost as stationing 40,000 troops in Afghanistan for one year, we could educate the great majority of the 75 million children worldwide who, according to Unicef, are not getting even a primary education. We won’t turn them into graduate students, but we can help them achieve literacy. Such a vast global education campaign would reduce poverty, cut birth rates, improve America’s image in the world, promote stability and chip away at extremism. Education isn’t a panacea, and no policy in Afghanistan is a sure bet. But all in all, the evidence suggests that education can help foster a virtuous cycle that promotes stability and moderation. So instead of sending 40,000 troops more to Afghanistan, how about opening 40,000 schools?

On the surface this seems right, but it is very wrong. Americans have the view that Pakistan is full of terrorists and people who take money from the U.S. and make no good use of it. There is some truth to this I assume, but Pakistan is also full of very reasonable and intelligent people who behave a lot like people in the US. They go to good schools in Pakistan, they run successful business there, and they worry about fixing their country. I have been to Pakistan a few times, always talking about education and am usually very well received. I have talked with Mushareff and with various ministers in the government on many occasions. I am on the board of a private school there that is trying very hard to make great and innovative schooling available around the country.

I have never visited a Madrassa but I have seen the kids that go to Madrassas and they look happy and healthy. Here is a picture I took:

What is the issue here? The issue is indoctrination.
Madrassas have a goal. Their goal is make the kids that attend them believe certain things that the teachers are sure is true and to think and behave in certain ways in their every day lives. In short, Madrassas, like many other religiously run schools, know what the end product should be and they have a long history of being successful in creating what they want. The fact that we don’t like what they produce is irrelevant.
When Kristof says he wants to build more schools what he means, apart from the obvious -- getting kids capable of reading and simple math -- is to create more schools like the ones we have in the U.S. In the U.S. we have thousands of schools where kids are packed in like sardines learning a set of subjects will neither help them live their
lives reasonably nor help them to make a living. The education they receive is all about getting them into college, which is pretty irrelevant for the majority of the students who just need to be able to function well after graduation.

We offer indoctrination in our schools too. We constantly indoctrinate our children to believe that college is very important and that memorizing facts to help them pass tests is how to get there. This is the system we would be exporting and it is even more useless in Pakistan than it is the U.S. Just saying the magic education word is of no
help Mr. Kristof. You actually have to understand the difference between education and indoctrination. Madrassas do it and the U.S. schools do it too. You are saying that we should indoctrinate Pakistani students with our kind of indoctrination.
I say we should consider what learning is really about is, help our children learn things that are, or will be, important to them. (This would not include say -- our indoctrination about the significance of Algebra or the wonderfulness of our glorious history.) Build a school that does that, use it to help our own children learn, and then export that.
The U.S. schools aren’t as good as Madrassas. They have no goal, they don’t know what they want to produce and they have no agenda at all except raising test scores. How would spending millions on building these kinds of schools, the ones with the horrific drop out rates, and the pregnant students, and the drug dealers on campus, be a good thing? We are not doing so well over here in education. (The Beaconhouse School in Pakistan is every bit as innovatve as any school we have in the U.S.) Here is a picture of me helping the teachers at Beaconhouse think about learning:

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Whispered Policies

Friday's Chronicle reports on a new study that points out how difficult it can be to identify which colleges and universities have no-loans policies designed to enhance affordability. Author Laura Perna and her colleagues find that the majority of elite institutions with these policies fail to advertise them in ways that are accessible to low-income students and families-- effectively maintaining their status as "bastions of privilege." The researchers then go on to make several helpful suggestions about how colleges could change their tactics to increase awareness and uptake of their progressive efforts.

But they could've gone one step further and discussed the incentives colleges have to maintain the status quo-- that is, to continue making their current and former students and staff feel good with liberal actions, garnering attention in elite venues such as the New York Times, without fundamentally changing their overall enrollment demographics or costing too much money. Call me cynical, but as a sociologist it strikes me that this is exactly how power is effectively maintained in the face of pressure for socially responsible actions from powerful institutions.

According to another recent study by economists Waddell and Singell, of the just-over 384,000 Pell Grant recipients attending 4-year institutions in 2000, only 0.3% were enrolled at Ivy League institutions (which disproportionately possess these no-loan policies). Across elite private institutions, Pell recipients rarely amount to more than 1% of the entering class. In 2000, there were only 108 Pell recipients in the freshman class at Harvard, and just 50 at Princeton. These are tiny, tiny numbers. So if no-loans policies actually resulted in massive increases in applications from low-income students, we could see many consequences for those schools. For one, their institutional aid budgets would have to grow-- if low-income students managed to get past the admissions hurdle. Second, depending on how exactly admissions dealt with the increased applicant pool (e.g. whether a 'thumb' was placed on the scale so as to ensure a reasonable proportion were admitted-- an action recommended by Bill Bowen), graduation rates might be affected. Third, you'd see a larger, more visible contingent of people on campuses from different family backgrounds, affecting social dynamics. Many of these outcomes could be interpreted as both positive and negative, depending on your perspective.

Simply put, right now colleges with small numbers of low-income undergraduates can afford to adopt no-loans policies. Based on the two studies discussed here, this is likely because their policies are only weakly communicated to the groups who'd be affected (I hestitate to call these the "targeted audiences" however) and the effects on enrollment are small and subtle. For example, Waddell and Singell conclude that such policies do not increase the overall number of needy institutions at institutions but do have some effect in skewing the composition of that group toward somewhat lower-income students who've traveled longer distances to attend college. Since positive publicity generated by laudatory articles in the elite press may well generate enough new alumni donations to offset current costs, the whole thing may be close to a "wash" --under current circumstances. More effective publicity and outreach to families who do not read the mainstream liberal elite newspapers or visit websites like to get their information about college, might change the game. Under those new conditions, I have to wonder-- would no-loans policies continue to be so popular in elite higher education?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Overhauling Teacher Prep

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's call for an overhaul of teacher preparation programs is certainly warranted. Reports such as Arthur Levine's in 2006 have highlighted weaknesses in the training received by many graduates of traditional, university-based teacher preparation programs.

I'm one however who believes that there is role both for university-based as well as alternative providers of teacher preparation, such as Teach For America and The New Teacher Project. In a policy brief for the New Teacher Center (and related blog post), I discuss some promising partnerships between institutions of higher education and school districts -- teacher training pipelines that by and large provide the hands-on experience and training called for by Secretary Duncan and contained within many other diagnoses of what ails traditional teacher prep.

Likewise, the Carnegie Corporation's Teachers for a New Era initiative provides evidence of what effective university-based programs can and should look like.

To answer the Secretary's call, we needn't start from scratch.

UPDATE: Alexander Russo has the text of the Secretary's speech here. Secretary Duncan singles out Wisconsin-based Alverno College (among other institutions) and the state of Louisiana for praise. I also discuss both Alverno College and Louisiana's teacher preparation accountability system in my policy brief.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Once upon a time, college students could pay their tuition with a mix of family support, financial aid, and perhaps a little work. Today, family support and aid are woefully inadequate for a broad swath of undergraduates, and full-time work is common.

Is working while in college truly necessary? Are the earnings used for academic expenses related to postsecondary education, or are they frittered away on life's pleasures? Since a handful of studies indicate a negative association between working long hours and rates of degree completion, these questions have taken on broader significance.

Unfortunately, few studies track students' income and expenditures in systematic ways. To better understand spending patterns, and attempt to tease out the reasons for those patterns, one would ideally have longitudinal data collected for a large sample of students, and complemented by in-depth interviews with a sub-sample of students to delve more deeply into the reasons underlying decisions, and validate the measures employed. Now true confession: Together with Doug Harris, I am conducting just such a study right now, the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study. But that's not why I'm writing this-- we don't yet have data to report on.

But apparently someone else does. A few weeks ago, a news outlet reported the headline "Will Work for Beer," covering the release of a new study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, published in the Journal of Population Economics. In that study the authors used national cross-sectional data and determined that the earnings students make from work are not enough to replace contributions from their parents, or cover tuition costs. According to the report, "We test several hypotheses regarding the financial motives for and academic effects of college student employment and find empirical support for the hypothesis that a decrease in parental transfers increases the work hours of four-year college students. We also find that an increase in the net price of schooling increases the number of hours worked by both four-year and two-year college students."

Ok. So the decision to work may have something (but not everything) to do with how much support parents provides and how expensive college is. Unsurprising. Not particularly newsworthy.

But the lead author didn't stop there. Instead, she waded into popular stereotypes about college students, telling the reporter that the results mean that the drive to work isn't coming from a need to really make ends meet-- instead, " to have ‘beer money,' money for entertainment, money to pay other expenses, just not their tuition."


Her conclusion took a gigantic interpretive leap from her data. Notably, it's not a conclusion found anywhere in the actual research paper. All her evidence suggests is that students' work isn't generating income equivalent to parental contributions or in line with college costs. This could mean many things, including that students have a hard time finding enough work to generate sufficient earnings. Of course it suggests they likely need to find other ways to make ends meet-- including loans. But it says nothing about what they use their work earnings for, how they prioritize expenses, what they go without, etc. With her statement to the press, the author did little more than simply impute meaning to meaningless results.

Why mention "beer money"? It's not uncommon for an academic paper to simply say what it shows-- and conclude that while we need to know more about explanations for patterns in the data, we just don't have the information in the dataset to tell us what we need to know. Why step outside those bounds, and lend fodder to the fire? In what way is this helpful-- to policymakers, to students, or frankly, to anyone?

Working students are often struggling students. There's good qualitative evidence on this, even if the quantitative evidence isn't yet available. Professors dislike them because they tend to fall asleep in class, having been up serving on the graveyard shift instead of studying. Their classmates often don't know them well, since student-employees have little time left for socializing. Their grades are lower than average, their stress levels high, and their chances of degree completion relatively low. So why do we feel the need to minimize their need to work, to mock them for it, to enforce a stereotype that their earnings are spent at bars? It seems nothing less than classist-- in the absence of providing students with sufficient financial supports to make working during college truly optional, we try and make ourselves feel better by telling stories that students work not out of true financial need, but rather a desire to imbibe.

Maybe that helps some fraction of folks sleep at night, but I seriously doubt it's grounded in any kind of truth.

Teachers' Voice

An important survey was released this week that captures teachers' perceptions of their professional working environment. The national study of 900 teachers by Public Agenda describes educators as falling into one of three groups: "Disheartened," "Contented," and "Idealists." It also raises some serious policy implications for the placement, retention and longevity of teachers based on teachers' perceptions about working conditions, why they entered the profession, and their opinions about proposed policy reforms.

But as useful as this survey may be in defining these issues at a 30,000-foot level, it does not approach the power and utility of teacher surveys that offer entire populations of educators in individual states and districts the opportunity to share their voice about working conditions, leadership support, resources, opportunities for professional learning, etc. In turn, these anonymous surveys also provide contextualized, customized summary data at the state-, district- and school-level based on the perceptions and opinions of local educators.

Teaching and Learning Conditions surveys have been led by the New Teacher Center in states such as Alabama, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina and West Virginia, and in school districts such as Fairfax County, Virginia. They provide state and district policymakers and educational leaders with powerful data to define issues that need to be addressed in school and districts that have major implications for the quality and effectiveness of teachers and principals.

Read the Public Agenda report, but also think about conducting a Teaching and Learning Conditions survey in your state or school district. What do the teachers where you live and work think?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Democrats, Poverty, and Schools

Renewing the War on Poverty clearly needs to be one of President Barack Obama's main objectives during the coming years. As Barbara Ehrenreich and so many others are documenting, the deteriorated safety net is failing poor people during this recession, leaving them in dire straits.

So when Nick Kristof decided to pen a column for the New York Times urging the Democrats to again lead a fight against poverty, his heart was in the right place. But his aim was way off. On Thursday, he wrote that the Dems must focus on public schools, since they "constitute a far more potent weapon against poverty than welfare, food stamps or housing subsidies. " Huh?

Social science researchers across the nation are scratching their heads. Where in the world did Kristof get this one? For decades, solid analyses have demonstrated that while aspects of schooling can be important in improving student outcomes and alleviating the effects of poverty, the effects of factors schools cannot and do not control are much greater (for a place to start, read Doug Downey's work). Kristof emphasizes teachers and improving teacher quality by taking on the teachers' unions because he reads the data to mean that "research has underscored that what matters most in education - more than class size or spending or anything - is access to good teachers." Simply put, wrong. Access to good teachers is the most important factor affecting student achievement that is under schools' control (or as many put it, the most important school-level factor). What matters most in educational outcomes is the poverty felt by students' families. And to my knowledge, no study has ever rigorously compared the effectiveness of interventions based on cash transfers, housing subsidies, and teacher quality improvement-- what's needed to reach the kind of conclusion with which Kristof drives his argument. At the same time, a simple glance at the relative effects of programs like Moving to Opportunity, New Hope, etc which target poverty itself rather than how adults interact with children from poverty (the aim of improving teacher quality), should convince anyone than his target is misplaced.

Experts who think daily about how to end poverty could, and undoubtedly will, inform the next steps taken by Democrats. Dems should listen to them, and not to Kristof. With that approach they will undoubtedly begin not with teachers' unions but rather by connecting job seekers to work that pays, installing strategies to promote stable families, making quality housing affordable and safe, and of course guaranteeing access to good health care.

what cognitive science tells us about what we really need to learn

We have all gone to school. We all know that school is organized around academic subjects like math, English, history and science. Why?

It is not easy to question something that everyone takes for granted. It is especially not easy when the very source of all our concerns in education can be easily traced to this one decision: to organize school around academic subjects. How else might school be organized? There is an easy answer to this: organize school around thought processes. In 1892, when the American high school was designed, we didn’t know much about thought processes. Now we do. It is time to re-think school.

School, at every age, needs to be designed around these processes, since it is through these processes that everyone learns. Academic subjects are irrelevant to real learning. They are not irrelevant to the education of academics of course. But, how many people really want to need to become experts in the academic fields?

Here is a list of the sixteen critical thinking processes. These processes are as old as the human race itself. The better one is at doing them the better one survives:

The Sixteen Cognitive Processes that Underlie All Learning

Conscious Processes

1. Prediction: determining what will happen next
2. Judgment: deciding between choices
3. Modeling: figuring out how things work
4. Experimentation: coming to conclusions after trying things out
5. Describing: communicating one’s thoughts and what has just happened to others
6. Managing: organizing people to work together towards a goal

Subconscious processes

1. Step by Step: knowing how to perform a complex action
2. Artistry: knowing what you like
3. Values: deciding between things you care about

Analytic Processes

1. Diagnosis: determining what happened from the evidence
2. Planning: determining a course of action
3. Causation: understanding why something happened

Mixed processes

1. Influence: figuring out how to get someone else to do something that you want them to do
2. Teamwork: getting along with others when working towards a common goal
3. Negotiation: trading with others and completing successful deals
4. Goal Conflict: managing conflict in such a way as to come out with what you want

All of these processes are part of a small child’s life as well as a high function adult’s life. Education should mean helping people get more sophisticated about doing these things through the acquisition of a case base of experience. Teaching should mean helping people think about their experiences and how to handle these processes better. Unfortunately education and teaching rarely means either of these things in today’s world.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The New York Times misunderstands education again: this time the GED

The New York Times is at it again, promoting nonsense about education. I can only guees that it owns a test making or grading company because it sure does love this stuff. From today’s editorial:

Millions of Americans are trapped at the margins of the economy because they lack the basic skills that come with a high-school education. This year, more than 600,000 of these people will try to improve their prospects by studying for the rigorous, seven-hour examination known as the General Educational Development test, or G.E.D., which should end in a credential that employers and colleges recognize as the equivalent of a diploma. The most fortunate live in states — such as Delaware, Kansas and Iowa — that have well-managed programs in which 90 percent or more of the test-takers pass. The least fortunate live in New York State, which has the lowest pass rate in the nation, just behind Mississippi. Worse off still are the G.E.D.-seekers of New York City, which has a shameful pass rate — lower than that of the educationally challenged District of Columbia. This bodes ill for the city, where at least one in five adult workers lacks a diploma, and the low-skill jobs that once allowed them to support their families are dwindling.

The New York Times wants to make sure that New York City has great GED courses so poor people can get jobs. For fun, I looked at the web site of the GED testing service. Here are three typical sample questions on a GED:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain
unalienable Rights, that among these rights are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Which of the following political actions violated the principleof “unalienable Rights” of liberty that evolved from the above excerpt of the U.S. Declaration of Independence?

1. In 1857, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling promoted the expansion of slavery in U.S. territories.
2. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawed the practice of denying the right to vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude
3. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted women the right to vote nationwide.
4. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination in employment and public accommodations.
5. In 1971, the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the Constitution extended the right to vote to 18-year-old citizens.

A cook decides to recover some table salt that has been completely dissolved in water. Which of the following processes would be the most effective method of extracting salt from the solution?

1. spinning the solution in a mixer
2. boiling away the water
3. pouring the solution through cloth
4. dripping the solution through a paper filter
5. bubbling oxygen through the solution

In May, I graduated from Prince William Community College. Graduating with an associate of arts degree in horticulture.
Which is the best way to write the italicized portion of these sentences? If the original is the best way, choose option (1).

1. College. Graduating with
2. College, I graduated with
3. College. A graduation with
4. College. Having graduated with
5. College with

I don’t’t know about you, but as an employer I know that I would certianly hire people for low paying jobs if only they could answer these important questions. Perhaps it is time for the Times to notice that employers won’t hire people who can’t do anything useful and that our education system doesn’t teach much that is useful. Pouring money into test passing courses will fix nothing.

Here is the Times again:

New York will need to invest a great deal more than it spends at the moment. But the costs of doing nothing clearly outweigh those of remaking a chaotic and ineffectual system.

Right you are Times. New York needs to invest in real eduation however, not in test prep courses. How is it that the Times is this much out of touch?

Monday, October 12, 2009

California Knocks Down Data Firewall

California is adept at building firebreaks to stop advancing wildfires throughout the state. The inferno that is the student-teacher firewall issue was apparently doused yesterday when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that eliminates a statutory ban on using student achievement data to evaluate teachers. The existence of such a restriction would have deemed California ineligible for a federal Race to the Top competitive grant award.

Here is the Governor's press release.

Here, here and here are background posts on the student-teacher data firewall issue in California.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Pondering Perkins

Since 1958, the Federal Perkins Student Loan Program has been providing low-interest loans to needy students via campus-based revolving funds. More than 600,000 students (mostly undergraduates with family incomes under $30,000) receive a Perkins each year. The current Perkins differs from other federal loan programs, most notably the Stafford, because it is subsidized (the interest doesn't begin accruing until 9 months after graduation) and has a lower interest rate (5%, compared to the 6.8% Stafford).

The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) would change the Perkins in some notable ways, not all of which are clear improvements. The proposed changes are rather intricate, and as I've spent a fair bit of time puzzling over them lately I want to bring some of my nagging questions to this wider audience in an effort to gain some insights and answers. (In full disclosure, the financial aid officer at my university, Susan Fischer, is a vocal opponent of the changes. I have listened to her views, and considered why UW-Madison might resist the changes. Of course, what I'm writing here are my own thoughts, not hers.) Don't get me wrong-- I am generally very supportive of this piece of legislation, which I do think will expand college attainment and improve the American higher education system. I raise these issues in the hopes that tinkering with a few details might make it more effective.

As I understand it, the Obama Administration has several goals for changing the program: (1) increase efficiency via a move to direct lending, (2) expand access by substantially increasing the dollars allocated, and (3) create incentives to keep tuition (and private loan reliance) down by changing the allocation formula (right now the institutional 'fair share' is based partly on tuition costs, and this is thought to contribute to rising tuition).

In a nutshell, goal #2 would appear to be achieved via accomplishing goal #1-- moving to direct lending enables the investment in Perkins to grow from $1 to 6 billion. Goal #3 would appear to be achieved with a new formula that distributes money to campuses based partly on how much non-federal aid they provide, whether they charge below-average tuition and fees, and enrollment of Pell Grant recipients. But what worries me are some of the proposed accompanying changes and plausible unintended consequences. In particular:

(A) In the new version, Perkins becomes an unsubsidized loan, rather than a subsidized one. This would make the Perkins akin to the Stafford, albeit at a somewhat lower interest rate. This makes the program more expensive for students (anyone who thinks even $500 a year in additional interest doesn't matter to the decisions of poor kids just isn't paying attention), and therefore less attractive.How does this enhance access?

(B) In the new version, a match is required from colleges, which they are interpreting as "pay to play." If they do acquiesce, they'll likely draw that money out of need-based funds, or through raising tuition. This would seem to work at cross-purposes with the intentions of the allocation formula, and again, not increase access.

(C) The new allocation formula is likely to benefit private not-for-profit 4-year colleges the most (for more on why, see this cogent analysis by Education Sector).

(D) Most troubling, I am told that another big change is coming with the new Perkins (though I admit, I cannot find evidence of this change in the current legislative language-- I expect it's to come in the rule-making): Packaging rules will require that Perkins be packaged after the Stafford. In other words, financial aid officers must first offer (and students must accept) the unsubsidized Stafford at 6.8% interest, before offering the 5% Perkins. This strikes me as a substantial barrier, likely resulting in few students even getting to the Perkins. Everything we know about loan aversion among low-income populations, and the unwillingness of some of the lowest-cost colleges to even offer their students loans points in this direction. Again, how does this enhance access?

Are there other ways to achieve the same objectives? In particular, is it absolutely necessary to end the subsidy, and change the packaging rules? Could savings be achieved, instead, by ending those abysmal TEACH Grants and perhaps sacrificing GRAD Perkins as well? It might also make sense to keep the subsidy and end the 9-month grace period.

In summary, before we effectively end a mean-tested program offering low-interest loans, have we thought through every alternative and pondered every possible unintended consequence? I realize Perkins may feel like small potatoes in the context of this big bill, but with every penny mattering to our students in this recession, I think the proposed changes to the Perkins deserve closer attention.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Yesterday the U.S. Education Department released proposed regulations to govern the $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund, part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, along with the $4 billion Race to the Top fund.

Education Week's Politics K-12 blog has a good summary of the proposed regulations, and the New York Times and Washington Post have articles worth reading as well.

Individual school districts or groups of districts can apply for the i3 grants, and entrepreneurial nonprofits can join with school districts to submit applications.

Under the proposed priorities, grants would be awarded in three categories:

  • Scale-up Grants: The largest possible grant category is focused on programs and practices with the potential to reach hundreds of thousands of students. Applicants must have a strong base of evidence that their program has had a significant effect on improving student achievement.
  • Validation Grants: Existing, promising programs that have good evidence of their impact and are ready to improve their evidence base while expanding in their own and other communities.
  • Development Grants: The smallest grant level designed to support new and high-potential practices whose impact should be studied further.
Here is the link to the Education Department press release.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

New Tune, Same Stupid Key

Well, it had to happen sometime. Faced with a thoughtful, responsive piece of federal legislation to reform the financial aid system, some ideologue had to come forward with a proposal to end federal student aid entirely. Yep, you heard me right-- get rid of financial aid. Throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The Chronicle is reporting that a director of the Cato Institute's Center for Education Freedom -- aka the freedom not to be helped by the government-- is purporting that "student aid explains the pain" of rising tuition. This "higher education expert" (honestly, some people are way too kind) argues that phasing out aid will make colleges more responsive to people who pay "with their own money."

Too bad this expert, Neal McCluskey, didn't bother to do his homework. If he'd cracked a book, he would've learned--fast-- how wrong he is. Not to mention unoriginal. Back in 1987 then-Secretary of Education Bill Bennett made the same argument in a New York Times op-ed titled "Our Greedy Colleges." And economists including Ron Ehrenberg, Caroline Hoxby, and Sandy Baum flatly rejected it--on empirical grounds-- as simplistic and ideologically convenient (much as Kevin Carey apparently did today). Since that time, plenty of studies have tested the hypothesis. As one (real) expert, Harvard's Bridget Terry Long, puts it, "Of the many studies that have tried to identify whether colleges react to federal financial aid, most find little to no response. While several studies do find a college price response, their overall results are mixed and often contradictory. In summary, none of the numerous studies on the subject have found a "smoking gun" in terms of college pricing behavior....the fact that these two trends (rising tuition and rising aid) move in similar directions does not mean that one caused the other." Heck, even Rich Vedder's shop has moved past the simplicity of the idea, instead developing a (somewhat) more nuanced twist in which aid contributes to rising spending, not rising tuition (the latter could occur, but isn't inevitable).

Yet the Bennett hypothesis keeps on rearing its ugly head. I think after more than 20 years of this nonsense it's time to call the idea what it is-- just plain stupid-- and stop giving ink to the people who repeat it.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Surprise! Public Support Boosts Public Enrollment

As I've described in several posts this year, there's an ongoing debate over the role, value, and outcomes of the private for-profit sector of higher education, particularly the 2-year schools. Community colleges are often compared to their for-profit counterparts, many times unfavorably. For example, their graduation rates are notably lower. And enrollment in the for-profits continues to rise rapidly, suggesting that consumers are voting with their feet, regardless of any hesitation on the part of academic researchers. The students, some say, are the best judge of institutional quality.

But a new study suggests that student behavior may reflect another factor: institutional resources. Community colleges are historically underfunded, and as I've argued elsewhere, this seriously affects their capacity to serve students. It's one thing to point to differences in practices between the community colleges and for-profit colleges, and another thing to attribute those differences to variation in the "will" or intentions of practitioners, rather than attribute them to under-funding and all that comes with it.

Stephanie Riegg Cellini, an assistant professor at George Washington University, has conducted a rigorous analysis of enrollment in California that tackles these hypotheses from a useful angle. She asks: What happens to enrollment when public support for community colleges increases? Does enrollment shift from private to public? Does the number of proprietary colleges decline?

Cellini examines what happens after local community college bond referenda are passed in the state, and uses an econometric approach (regression discontinuity) that allows her to mostly rule out the potential that enrollment is endogenous to the decisions of those referenda (e.g. that a desired increase in community college enrollment induces passage of the referenda, rather than the referenda inducing increases in enrollment). Her results, published in a peer-reviewed journal (American Economic Journal: Economic Policy), indicate that an "increase of $100 million in funding for a local community college causes approximately 700 students per county, or about 2 percent of sub-baccalaureate students, to switch from the private to the public sector in the first year after bond passage, crowding out two proprietary schools in that county."

This suggests that students really do consider public and private 2-year colleges alternatives to one another (Jim Rosenbaum has also provided evidence of this), that they compete in overlapping markets, and that students' enrollment decisions may reflect the ability of one sector or another to work to attract them. In other words, when community colleges have more resources, students respond by enrolling-- in fact, until the bond-financed changes take place those schools may become quite crowded. As Cellini writes, "Potential two-year college students may simply be unaware of their public sector options. With limited budgets and virtually no advertising-a particular disadvantage relative to the private sector-community colleges may be overlooked by many local residents. Fewer still may know the extent of the programs and courses offered by the public sector, particularly considering that the growth in vocational fields has been relatively recent for many colleges. In the presence of this type of market failure, bond passage may generate a temporary surge in awareness of these institutions. The positive media attention elicited after bond passage may increase demand for institutions that were previously overlooked."

Of course, these results are most intriguing when considering the potential effects of the pending higher education legislation, which would give community colleges many more resources.Will any corresponding increases in enrollment, coming from the private sector, be sustained? How might this change the debate about what community colleges should learn from for-profits? These are important questions in need of answers-- let's hope researchers pay close attention.