Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Even a 7 year old knows how to re-design first grade

I have been thinking about what we will do in our new Alternative Learning Places in first grade. I was talking with someone who may work with us on this and she in turn asked her 7 year old nephew what projects he would like to in school and what he thought he might learn from those projects. Here is some of what he suggested:

1. Model rocket
How far can we shoot it? How do we measure height? How do we measure distance? How fast is it going?

2. Rubberband Model airplane out of wood
How can we get it to fly more than 17 yards in the sky? What happens if we take off wings, wheels, back wings? Can the stick fly without wings?

3. How high can we build a building? With wheels so we can move it everywhere when we want to.

5. Model truck
How much can the truck carry? How far can it go with a lot of weight in it.

6. Money
How sell and buy things and count money.

7. Build robots that walk until they run out of battery. See how many miles they can go.

8. Make a remote control airplane or helicopter.

9. Build a catapult.

11. Make a model sail boat, remote control moves the flag to change directions in the wind.

12. Map & Compass to find a treasure inside and outside

So, I guess the message is that a bright seven year old has a better idea of what a good first grade curriculum would be than does any Education Department in any State.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Test of Leadership

When the history of American higher education in the 21st century is written, I suspect the end of the first decade will be known for two resounding themes: the growing importance of community colleges, and a move from college access to a focus on college success. The vocabulary of this important time centers on words like efficiency, productivity, and effectiveness. These are terms that, thanks in no small part to the work of foundations like Lumina and Gates, finally have traction among both administrators and consumers of higher ed. In a very real sense, this is nothing less than astounding progress for an institution built primarily to enroll students privileged enough to attend college-- and not necessarily to graduate them.

For the latest--and greatest-- example of this sea change we can look to Indiana. Faced with ever-common declines in resources for higher education, leaders in that state are reportedly rethinking business as usual. Typically, budget cuts are distributed across the board, doled out as necessary, and intended to simply save money but not accomplish much else. Indiana's Commission of Higher Education is hoping to shake things up this time around by assigning cuts to colleges and universities based partly on performance. Specifically, the Commission recommends spurring statewide, system, academic, and operating efficiencies by allocating the $150 million in cuts based on per-student state funding, completion rates, and availability of federal stimulus funds.

This is an audacious move, and one that Governor Mitch Daniels should embrace. He should do so not because there's a robust body of evidence suggesting that the plan will work (such evidence doesn't exist, to my knowledge) but rather because we really need to know if it could. The "winners" would seem to be the state's community colleges-- they would take the small proportion of the cuts-- but that success should be measured not in terms of dollars gained or lost, but in terms of change incurred. Governor Daniels should lead the way not only by making this policy shift, but also by ensuring that its effects are evaluated. Do those colleges most affected by a distribution shift-- from enrollment to performance--see the greatest alterations in their outcomes? Are any negative consequences observed at those schools, versus others?

Indiana's providing a fantastic opportunity-- a chance for other states to learn both from its ambitious leadership, and from its policy innovations. I hope in 2010 we see more states making similarly bold moves.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hana reminded me that Milo will have to go to school soon

Milo will enter first grade in September 2011.

I find this news so frightening I hardly know where to start. It is time for me to start building an alternative. This is the plan. We will construct an on line First Grade curriculum. What we will build is actually a teacher's guide on what to do and how to do it. We will not be building a school at all. It will be an Alternative Learning Place (ALP), housed wherever we can find the space. We will build many ALPs but the first one will be for MIlo so I have started to plan a curriculum for him. We plan on having 12 boys in each ALP with a teacher. The ALP day will focus around projects and activities and will, of course, all be learning by doing. Here are the activities I am thinking about right now:

First Grade Activities (all of which focus on reading, writing, speaking, arithmetic, and working with others, in context)

Robot building
Airplane building
Bridge Building
Kite Flying
City Planning
Food Preparation
Map Drawing
Football, Basketball, Soccer, and Baseball
Newsletter Writing
Computer Use
Diagnosis of Illness and Treatment
Spanish language
Movie Making
Trip Planning

We will build other activities for kids with other interests than these, including ones for girls. They will be located in places where the private school tuition is prohibitively expensive and the public schools are considered unusable. New York, Chicago, Washington D.C. and South Florida are my first thoughts. If you have a 4 or 5 year old and are thinking about 2011, write to me. We will have to charge tuition I am afraid but should be able to charge a lot less than the fancy private schools.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Updates on the Race: 12-21-2009

Creative RttT Lawmaking (Politics K-12)

RttT Hopefuls: Clear The Week of March 15, 2010 (Politics K-12)

States Struggle With Pk-20 Data (Education Week)

State senate passes RttT reform bill (AP)

Bill addresses failing schools (San Francisco Chronicle)

Final bill could be passed "before the holidays" (Los Angeles Times)

Assembly Speaker: Race is 'on track' (San Jose Mercury News)

Teachers union says 'no' to state plan (Teacher Beat)

Unions balking on Race (Orlando Sentinel)

Florida Dems cry foul (St. Petersburg Times - The Gradebook blog)

63 of 67 school districts sign on (Miami Herald)

Failure to address teacher furlough could jeopardize RttT chances (Honolulu Star-Bulletin)

State supe stumps for RttT (Times-News)

Luna: Charter school cap to stay (Times-News)

RttT funds could target lowest performing schools (Chicago Daily Herald)

DoE rolls out RttT proposal summary (Journal & Courier)

Governor pushes performance pay (New Orleans Times-Picayune)

Apply in Round 1? Governor: Yes! State Supe: No! (Baltimore Sun)

Editorial: More reform needed (Boston Globe)

Education reform bill passes (Detroit News)

Reforms pass, including control of failing schools in Detroit (Detroit Free Press)

Editorial: Better than expected (Detroit News)

Governor will wait for second round (Nevada Appeal)

Bill draft would remove state data firewall (Las Vegas Sun)

Expanded school choice could fuel state RttT effort (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Move your ass, New York (New York Daily News)

Two districts sign on (The Oregonian)

Gist pitches aggressive ed reforms (Providence Journal)

Governor's special session: a 'high-pressure gambit' (Nashville City Paper)

Special session will address teacher evaluation (The Tennessean)

School district sign-ups underway (Baraboo News Republic)


Past Updates on the Race to the Top

First, Do Your Homework

There's growing concern with higher education's affordability problem, as well there should be. It's hard to see how college will promote social mobility if a kid's ability to access it is increasingly linked to whether or not his family has money.

So it's heartening to see college leaders attempting to provide solutions. But it'd be even better if we first saw them earnestly attempting to understand where the real sources of trouble lie. I'm afraid that step's being skipped a bit too often, running the risk of making things worse.

Here's a recent example. At this month's Regents Board Meeting, University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Reilly was explicitly asked to name some solutions to promoting affordability at his institutions. There were many ways he could respond. To his credit, Reilly acknowledged the importance of growing the state's paltry support for need-based aid and he said that multiple solutions were needed--there's no one silver bullet. Fair enough. But then he took a bit of a flying leap, saying we also needed an informational campaign aimed at helping students and families understand that it's best to finish college in four years.

Huh? This one left me scratching my head.

More specifically, Reilly said that his administration needs to do a better job communicating with students and families about their educational "choices" and the financial implications of those choices. He suggested that students and families do not know that finishing in four saves money, and if they did, they'd make "better" decisons.

Based on what, exactly?

Was Reilly in possession of some new empirical evidence indicating that Wisconsin families don't perceive the returns to a college degree, or one earned on time? Had he or his staff done homework that showed students were taking longer to finish because they lacked a "focus on 4?" I wish this was the case, but I doubt it. The only data Reilly has publicly provided for his argument is this: he compared the completion rates of in-state students to out-of-state students and noted that the latter group pays more tuition and finishes degrees faster. Given the numerous differences between the two groups, this is an especially weak argument, and one that a decent analysis of the data could easily tear apart.

On the other hand, we have a new national report from the Gates Foundation about the most common reason for college dropout: students' overwhelming need to work. There's also a rigorous study from the National Bureau of Economic Research showing that declining resources for higher education (e.g. supply-side factors) contribute more to college completion rates than do student-side factors. In an earlier paper, the same authors pointed to how the overcrowding of non-top 50 public institutions (a category into which nearly all of Reilly's institutions fit) leads to increased time-to-degree. And within Wisconsin I am co-leading a team of researchers investigating precisely how and why affordability matters for college success. None of that work provides support for the idea that students don't know that finishing a degree faster will save them money. Instead, they have a hard time figuring out how to make that happen while juggling work, family, and school.

Of course, Reilly isn't alone in thinking that he needs to share this "money-saving advice" with students and families. The problem is that his assumption and his message aren't benign. In particular, both come across as out-of-touch and insensitive to the harsh realities of some students' lives. Just think about his words on the subject, which include these quotes: "You've got to realize how much more you're going to be paying unless you focus." "...Part of the problem clearly is students choosing to say, 'I don't want to take an 8 a.m. course' or 'I want to take my courses between 10 (a.m.) and 3 (p.m.) on Tuesday and Thursday.,," "We need to be clearer about results of choices that students and families make about college...There are ways that students and families, by planning ahead a bit and making some focused intentional choices, can hold the cost of an education down."

The assumption he's making-- that the choices made by low-income families are not "intentional" or even informed--rests on shaky, volatile ground. As I've argued elsewhere, the common sport of painting working-class students and families as irrational is off-base. In fact, taken in the context of significant constraints on their lives the decisions many students make about extending their time to degree are quite rational. As a former UW undergraduate told me, ‘It's not an issue of choosing to work when classes are available, but often an issue of you don't get to choose your schedule, especially as the number of hours you work increases."

I have a feeling that when making his suggestion, Reilly was referencing those picky students who want to sleep late and be choosy about their courses, a common rep given to the Madison undergrads (for example). The problem is, those aren't the same students not completing degrees in 4 years. In essence, he's drawing on impressions of an elite group of students to shape solutions to the problems of the non-elite. Not gonna work.

In the absence of any empirical support, one has to wonder-- why does this idea have any traction at all? I think its because it fits with American ideals-those who work the hardest and "focus" the most will get ahead. It places the blame squarely on individuals rather than institutions, even when purporting to share responsibility. Constraints be damned; if you "know" what's good for you, you'll do it. Plus, communicating to students what's good for them is far less expensive than providing the financial support they need to make their actual choices pay off.

Crafting solutions to policy problems without doing sufficient homework first can incur trouble. For one, you risk insulting and alienating the very folks you wanted to help. That's certainly what happened here. As the former UW student told me, "Very few people are oblivious to the fact that adding an extra year to your education costs more money... I'm disappointed that the UW-System seems absolutely unaware of the challenges faced by its students, and its president believes that it's due to personal choice or ignorance that a student would not graduate in four years...The system misunderstands the plight of students who have similar circumstances to the ones I experienced."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

what college should I go to? (The concept of a “hot college.”)

The Daily Beast posted a list of “hot colleges” the other day which reminded me of exactly how insane this country has become about going to college. It is actually quite difficult to choose what college to attend. But, as a retired professor I find the concept of a “hot college” rather amusing. I can recall, when I was working at Yale, that every now and then, Brown was determined to be hotter than Yale. It was hard to fathom what this might mean. We had the same faculty we had the previous year, more or less, as did Brown. The quality of students was more or less the same at both schools. The campus hadn’t changed. How did Brown get hot, and then, later, get less hot?

When I was working at Northwestern, one year we were suddenly “hot.” This time I knew why. Our football team had played in the Rose Bowl the year before. This is, of course, a very clever way to choose a college – by examining the quality of its football team.

As a professor one is aware of other faculty in one’s field and in allied fields all across the world. Ask any professor about another university and he will judge the quality of that school by the quality of the faculty he knows or has heard of who teach there. This is not a bad measure, although it is an idiosyncratic one. Thus, I was surprised to find, on the Daily Beast’s top 15 list, some schools that I had either never heard of or certainly could not name a single faculty member there, namely: Elon University, University of Georgia, Washington and Lee, Ohio Wesleyan, University of St. Andrews.

Now, I have no ability to judge the quality of these schools, nor do I have any interest in disparaging them. I am concerned instead with the folly surrounding college entrance and college choice. So with that in mind what makes these schools “hot?”

According to the Daily Beast:

Elon is hot because: “Elon has gone out of its way to recruit applicants interested in the sciences by luring them with the possibility of undergraduate research,”

Ohio Wesleyan University is hot because: “Loren Pope’s called OW, “one of the best academic bargains in the country.”

University of St. Andrews is hot because: “More than a third of the students at St. Andrews’ come from abroad, and one academic year’s fees total less than $25,000.”

Washington and Lee is hot because: “funds went to establishing the merit-based Johnson Scholarships, which promise a full ride to about one-tenth of freshmen each year.”

University of Georgia is hot because: “$2.9 billion in aid has been meted out to students in the past 15 years.”

Clearly hotness has something to do with price, but that doesn’t explain why any state university isn’t considered hot in comparison to any private university since they are far cheaper and often quite good. And that certainly wouldn’t explain why Brown was hotter than Yale every now and again.

I found “being able to do undergraduate research” to be the funniest explanation of hotness. Why is that important exactly? And if it is important to a student, wouldn’t that be the kind of student who ought to attend a research university?

College counselors, the media, and the general paranoia about college that runs through the high schools these days, has made college selection a complex and frightening busyness. So here, without regard to “hotness” I will make a few points about how to choose a college.

1. Don’t put yourself in debt to go to college. Price does matter. If you can’t afford Yale, don’t attend Yale.
2. Know what a college actually offers. Attend a research university because you think you might want to do research in later life. A list of the top 50 research universities can be found in U.S. News and World Report. They are mostly the extended Ivies and the important state Universities. If you aren’t interested in research go somewhere else. I know that Yale is a nice brand name. If you want a brand name, go there, But there are plenty of places that will educate you as well.
3. Know what you want to be educated in. Do not go to college with no idea of what you want to learn about or are interested in doing later on. If you do that you will major in “sex and drugs and rock and roll” like everyone else and you will waste your time and your parent’s money. You can always put off college until you do know what you are interested in learning.
4. When you think you know what you want to learn find out if the people who are good at what you want to do actually teach that at the place you want to go. People say that schools are “good schools” without having a clue what the criteria might be. What is good for you may not be good for the next guy. You must know what the school is good at teaching. Find out.
5. Choose a place that looks like you. Visit. See what the students look like. They differ from place to place for many reasons. Find out where you feel comfortable.

Do not go to college because everyone you know is going to college. Go with a purpose. And -- avoid “hot schools.”

Let the parents vote for their favorite curriculum

There was article in the Huffington Post today headlined: "Merry Hyatt, Tea Party Patriot, Wants Mandatory Christmas Carols In Public Schools". Apparently she has proposed an initiative to the California Legislature that "would require schools to provide children the opportunity to listen to or perform Christmas carols, and would subject the schools to litigation if the rule isn't followed."

Now you might think I would be against this, but I love the concept. Let's determine the school curriculum by having the public suggest stuff that they like a lot and make all the kids do it. We could make all kids watch TV because the public likes doing that. We could have kids read magazines about movie star's lives because many parents like doing that. We could have a going to Burger King curriculum because lots of people like doing that.

Perhaps this is the way we can finally get rid of algebra, chemistry, history, and the other nonsense they teach in school. Let's let the public vote on their favorite activities and we can have kids do those all day.

Christmas Carols instead of algebra. It works for me.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Updates on the Race: 12-17-2009


List of Contending States Grows (Education Week Politics K-12 blog)

37 States to Apply in Round 1 (Education Week Politics K-12 blog)

Will Local Teachers' Unions Sign Off On State RttT Plans? (Education Week Teacher Beat blog)

A RttT Scorecard (National Council on Teacher Quality)

A Race to Nowhere (Education Week - Bridging Differences blog)

Editorial: Districts should embrace teacher merit pay and RttT (Orlando Sentinel)

Districts sign off on RttT (The State Journal - Frankfort)

In for round 2 (Maine School Management Association)

RttT bill weakened, critics charge (Boston Globe)

Commentary: Whose needs come first in schools? (Boston Globe)

Teachers' union may withhold support for state application (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

Legislative attempt to qualify for competition (Las Vegas Sun)

Governor Paterson: Raise charter school cap (New York Post)

Troubled waters? (Flypaper)

Editorial: Legislature right to snub governor's 'school scheme' (Capital Times - Madison)

Six school districts targeted for RttT (Kenosha News)

Bill would strengthen state's hand to intervene in low-performing schools (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)


Past Updates on the Race to the Top

Boy Mystery: Update

Just a quick update -- The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has released the list of colleges and universities it plans to investigate for giving preference to men in admissions:

Catholic University of America
Goucher College
Johns Hopkins
Lincoln University (Pa.)
Loyola University Maryland
Messiah College
Shepherd University
Shippensburg University
University of Delaware
University of Maryland-Baltimore County
University of Maryland-Eastern Shore
University of Richmond
Virginia Union University
Washington College
York University (Pa)

Original Post: "The So-Called Boy Mystery"

Updates on the Race: 12-16-2009

Is Race to Top an Urban Game? (Education Week Politics K-12 Blog)
Some state officials have a sneaking suspicion that Race to the Top is an urban state's game and that has made some question whether they should apply, at least in Round 1. For instance, Vermont had originally planned to apply for Round 1 of the competition, but is now going to hold off for Round 2.... The state decided to sit out the first round because of the competition's rules on charter schools. Vermont, a largely rural state, doesn't have them, but it does have some other innovative public schools, Knopf said. But, under the RttT regulations, the state can only get up to eight points for its innovative schools, out of a possible 40, since it doesn't have a charter school law.

In North Dakota, state education superintendent Wayne Sanstead told Michele that it can't move quickly enough to make the Jan. 19 deadline for Round 1. Still, when the state applies in Round 2, it will develop a North Dakota-kind-of-plan, he said, which will probably be a lot different than other states' plans because of the rural nature of his state.
Jockeying for Race's Post Position (Eduflack)
Of the 15 states receiving significant help from the Gates Foundation to prepare their applications, 13 are planning on Phase One apps. Not surprisingly, Texas is not on the early intent list (as the Republic of Texas is likely trying to figure out how to make up points for the big dings it will take over its resistance to common core standards. Surprisingly, North Carolina has NOT indicated its intent to submit in Phase One, despite the Tar Heel State's reputation for being a true leader in education reforms over the past three decades.

While the official RttT scoring makes clear that past accomplishments are worth more points than plans for the future, we see a number of states that have made major changes in recent months (firewalls, charter caps, etc.) just to be compliant with Race requirements. States like California, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, and Wisconsin will have to demonstrate — in just a few short weeks — that recent legislative action is the culmination of a commitment to school improvement, and not simply fast action to win some quick money.

And who is missing from the list, besides North Carolina? Rhode Island is not there, probably indicating that State Supe Deborah Gist is working to do it right (with regard to detailing her aggressive reform agenda in a few hundred pages of prose). But otherwise, the early app list reads like a list of those most likely to win and those most hopeful to win a major prize.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Good Eatin'

Wisconsin is the prototypical 'good news' state. Denial of some stubborn realities has grossly limited impetus for education reform in recent years.

However, here is some legitimate good news ("State improves participation in school breakfasts"), progress -- not success-- on the school breakfast front from a state that has too long been a laggard. Data comes from the annual School Breakfast Scorecard from the Food Research and Action Center.

State leaders, including Governor Jim Doyle and the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness & Health, deserve credit for prioritizing this important issue. The Governor's School Health Award is one vehicle that has encouraged and promoted wider availability of school breakfasts in Wisconsin schools.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Updates on the Race: 12-14-2009

Who Would Have Guessed The Race Would Look Like This? (Democrats for Education Reform)

36 States to Apply in Round 1 (Education Week Politics K-12 blog)

Campaign cash from charters driving Governor's, state's goals? (Contra Costa Times)

Editorial: Schools race to -- where, exactly? (Los Angeles Times)

Politics, politics (AP)

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: DC gets to apply, too (Washington Post)

GEORGIA: State a 'frontrunner' (Gainesville Times)

State bid would impact teacher evaluation, pay (The Advocate - Baton Rouge)

Educators wary of state plan (The Advocate - Baton Rouge)

MARYLAND: Editorial: Gates rejection a 'wake-up call' (Baltimore Sun)

MASSACHUSETTS: Op-ed from Stand for Children, Black Leaders for Excellence in Education (The Boston Globe)

Race to the trough in Michigan? (Ann Arbor.com)

Editorial: Legislature's 'racing', but to where? (Lansing State Journal)

NEVADA: Editorial: Governor Gibbons' failure to lead (Las Vegas Sun)

Strategy to be unveiled (Gotham Schools)

More charters, teacher testing part of plan (Albany Times-Union)

OHIO: State eligibility caught up in budget stand-off? (The Columbus Dispatch)

SOUTH DAKOTA: State probably a 'long shot' (Sioux Falls Argus Leader)

TENNESSEE: State partnership with Battelle to focus on STEM (The Tennesseean)

WASHINGTON: Editorial: 'Beggars can't be whiners' (The News Tribune - Tacoma)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Updates on the Race: 12-11-2009

New Teacher-Evaluation Systems Face Obstacles (Education Week)

ALABAMA: Governor touts charter schools (Andalusia Star-News)

Guvinator will 'veto' Assembly-passed RttT reform bill (San Diego Union-Tribune)

Assembly passes reform bill (Los Angeles Times)

Editorial: 'Assembly failed California's schoolchildren' (San Jose Mercury News)

COLORADO: Educator evaluation changes focus of bill, Race (Denver Post)

DELAWARE: State targeting students at risk of dropping out (The News Journal)

State is a serious contender (Eduwonk)

Op-Ed: Ed commish calls Race 'a defining moment' for Florida's schools (Miami Herald)

School districts asked to line up for Race (St. Petersburg Times)

IDAHO: Community meetings focus on RttT (KPVI-TV)

ILLINOIS: Advance Illinois advances RttT blueprint (Catalyst Chicago)

KENTUCKY: State ed dept wil lseek authority to remove superintendents, school board members in struggling districts (Kentucky.com)

LOUISIANA: Controversy surrounds state's revamped RttT proposal (The Advocate - Baton Rouge)

Stronger focus on great teachers and school leaders (New Orleans Times-Picayune)

Fordham Foundation calls state 'biggest RttT disappointment' (Flypaper)

Gates Foundation denies state RttT planning support (Baltimore Sun)

State superintendent proposes teacher quality changes (Baltimore Sun)

MICHIGAN: Legislative efforts to strengthen state position in Race on-going (MLive.com)

NEW JERSEY: Outgoing, incoming guv camps scrap over timing of application (The Star-Ledger)

OKLAHOMA: Governor's Office seeks RttT input (The Oklahoman)

TENNESSEE: Governor promotes new partnership to promote math & science (AP)

WEST VIRGINIA: State board calls for RttT reforms (The Charleston Gazette)

State superintendent seeks greater authority to intervene in struggling schools and districts (WisPolitics.com)

Editorial: Mayoral control of city schools the right approach (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)


Past Updates on the Race to the Top

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Updates on the Race: 12-08-2009

State can't seem to put one foot in front of the other (Education Week)

District officials wary of Race to the Top (The Press-Enterprise - San Bernardino)

HAWAII: ED official pushes solution to teacher furlough debacle (Honolulu Advertiser)

ILLINOIS: State 'fine tunes' application (Chicago Current)

INDIANA: Disagreement over using student test scores to evaluate teachers (Fort Wayne Journal Gazette)

LOUISIANA: Teacher evaluation reform central to state proposal (The Advocate - Baton Rouge)

MINNESOTA: Star-Tribune editorial says state 'must compete' (Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune)

NEW JERSEY: Led by lame-duck governor, state now WILL apply in round one (NJ.com)

NEW YORK: State senate ed chair asks for clarification of state's eligibility (NY1)

WISCONSIN: Gov. Doyle meets with ED counsel, former Boston sup Payzant on mayoral control (Chicago Tribune)


Past "Updates on the Race"

College Completion Rates: Up, Down, and Sideways

I love a good controversy about an important higher education topic. What better way to enjoy a Wisconsin snowstorm than to sit cozily inside, trading emails with knowledgeable folks who are trying to sort out why it appears college completion rates have declined in the U.S. over the last 30 or 40 years. I'm hard-pressed to think of one (well, maybe, after a long day of work having this 38-week fetus out of me would be nice). So, thanks to Sarah Turner, John Bound, and Michael Lovenheim for giving us such a nice meaty analysis to chew over this week.

There's already been a good bit written about and commented on this report, particularly by Cliff Adelman, the man who gave the world America's longitudinal transcript data and a robust series of reports on what they tell us about colleges and students. The fact that so many people find so many different messages in the analysis actually bodes well for the paper--it's partly a story about trends in completion rates (are they really down, or just stagnant?), partly a story about potential reasons for declines in rates (is it all about inadequate student preparation?), partly about differences among 4-year institutions (e.g. public flagships vs. other nonselectives), and partly about community colleges (are they "doing harm?" Why don't their outcomes seem affected by resources? etc).

As a sociologist, I see questions about inequality pervading all of these issues, and nothing tickles me more than to see economists writing about stratification. If completion rates really declined in the face of efforts to expand overall participation, we can anticipate political pushback against advocates for greater efforts to enhance access-- regardless of the reasons for the decline. If the reasons for decline (or stagnation) have anything to do with compositional changes on either the supply or the demand side (and the answer really is "both") then that's a story about inequality too, since those changes accompanied expansion. And any story about differences among institutions or effects of institutions is really about the functions or unintended consequences of institutional differentiation itself, a key facet of our higher education "opportunity" structure.

All that said, here's what I think we should take away from this paper:

1. It's nearly impossible to expand participation in any program without affecting the outcomes of that program. For too long some people have talked about changes in access and completion in U.S. higher education without sufficiently acknowledging that compositional shifts in who attends college will (almost without a doubt) affect graduation rates. Let's hope this paper gets the basic discussion back on the right track.

2. That said, changes in composition of the student population did not occur in a vacuum. As the student body changed, so did many of our policies and practices. More states came to rely more heavily on the community colleges to serve those deemed "unsuitable" for 4-year institutions (see Brint and Karabel, and Dougherty for more). With increased institutional differentiation came a greater need for states to choose how to distribute scarce resources, and evidence suggests that oftentimes a decision was made to give less money to sectors serving needier students (e.g. public 4-year nonselective and 2-year colleges). That didn't go unnoticed by students and families themselves, whose perceptions of resources and status affect their college choices (see Cellini for a recent paper demonstrating this). Furthermore, other policies changed at the same time--including federal financial aid--in ways that promoted shifts to less-expensive colleges.

3. As a nation we relied on community colleges to absorb much of the growth in enrollment. To what end? While some will read this paper and decide that community colleges have screwed up, that's a flat-wrong and oversimplified conclusion. It's also not one intended by the authors. As table 4 in the paper shows, we treat community college students like they are cheap to educate. Median per-student expenditures during the 1990s were just $2,610 at community colleges, having declined 14% since the 1970s. In comparison, spending at public 4-year "non-top 50" colleges was 52% higher. What's the expression I'm looking for here? Oh yes, "crap in, crap out." (Hold on-- I will clarify-- I am not saying community college students are crappy or that all community college outcomes are crappy!) We pushed lots of students in the door, gave the colleges little money, and were surprised that when faced with paltry resources, crowding, and a growing abundance of missions things didn't go so well? Shame on us. Take a look at CUNY's faculty, students, and classrooms a few decades after the 1970s open-admissions experiment there and you'll see the relationship I'm describing. You simply cannot install a massive policy change without proper supports, no matter how good the intentions are.

But let's be honest--the paper doesn't demonstrate a strong relationship between resources and outcomes, in the community college sector or elsewhere. In fact, it indicates a weaker relationship in that sector compared to others. But as the authors have acknowledged (in personal correspondence), endogenous state behavior would bias them against finding a larger effect, and measurement of resource effects is perhaps more problematic in the 2-year sector, for many reasons including how and under what conditions (e.g. governance) resources are allocated, costs may be greater, and there is overall less variation in resources. So, this paper isn't the greatest test of whether money matters for college completion (not that a good direct test exists). It is, however, pretty good at showing that fixing k-12 isn't going to be a sufficient solution to the completion problem.

I will be the first to admit that the paper doesn't provide sufficient evidence to support all of the relationships I've laid out here-- and therefore many remain partially-tested hypotheses. Mostly, the authors didn't test them because of methodological challenges that could be hard to overcome since changes in student characteristics, sectoral enrollments, and resources are highly interrelated and operating bi-directionally. If that's true, teasing out what matters most using the logistic regressions employed in this paper becomes much more problematic. I've also got to note that given the methods used here, it's also not appropriate to use the findings as evidence that one sector is outperforming another.

So in the end, here's the punchline: if we want graduation rates to improve, we need to pay attention more attention to how we structure college opportunities. This is a multi-sided process, with states, colleges, parents, and students all making decisions, and often in an information-poor, resource-deficient environment. No single approach (e.g. high school preparation, financial aid, college accountability, etc) targeting a single group is going to work.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The So-Called Boy Mystery

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently announced that it would investigate whether some colleges are discriminating against women in an effort to generate a more gender-diverse student population. Reaction was mixed, with some saying it's about time that the "crisis with boys" in higher education is acknowledged and addressed, and others expressing some disbelief and ridicule that the gender wars have come to this.

But part of the overall response really stuck in my craw--the oft-repeated claim that we "just don't know" what's going on with boys. According to many, sources for the gender differential in higher education are a complete "mystery," a puzzle, a whodunit that we may be intentionally ignoring.

Yes, there are numerous potential explanations for the under-representation of men in higher education--and in particular the growing female advantage in terms of bachelor's degree completion. For example, it could be that boys and girls have differing amounts of the resources important for college success (e.g. levels of financial resources or parental education) or that the usual incentives for college-going (e.g. labor market returns) have differential effects by gender (why, laments the Wall Street Journal, don't boys "get" the importance of attending college?). It's also possible that changes in the labor force or marriage markets, gender discrimination, or societal expectations play a role--or that the reasons have to do with the growth of community colleges, changes in college affordability, or shifts in the available alternatives to college (e.g. the military).

Sure, this is a wide range of potential factors, not easy to untangle. But while a few years ago we really hadn't a clue about what mattered or why (partly because the trendlines were just becoming visible) this simply isn't true now. This is a topic getting plenty of attention in the research community, there's a reasonable amount of solid data for analysts to use to tackle the major questions, and researchers are on it. Just as one example, I recently reviewed conference proposals for higher education sessions at a national academic meeting, and more than half of the approximately 50 I reviewed were focused on the gender in higher education question.

I've learned the most in the past couple of years from a series of studies conducted by Claudia Buchmann and Thomas DiPrete. Buchmann and DiPrete are well-known for their very rigorous approach to hypothesis testing, and thorough (though often complex) approach to investigation. Their findings on this topic have been published in the top sociology and demography journals--places, admittedly, media commentators are unlikely to find them. So, to help shape a more informed debate on this topic, here are two key Buchmann & DiPrete findings which deserve a wider audience.

1. The growing female advantage in BA completion is much more about college success than it is about college access. While it is the case that there have been changes in college participation (with women's participation growing more rapidly), the gender gap in BA attainment mostly stems from gender differences (among 4-year college goers) in who completes degrees. This suggests that whether or not boys "get" that they need to go to college has little relevance.

2. Women experience greater college success because they are academically better-prepared to do so. Boys and girls score similarly on standardized tests, but girls excel in terms of course grades--and these grades are highly correlated with college outcomes. In fact, the gender gap in college completion is well-predicted by middle school grades. Moreover, girls exhibit greater effort (e.g. on homework) and other important non-cognitive characteristics.

So the gender differences we now see in higher education are largely reflective of already-observed differences in k-12. Buchmann and DiPrete have tested for other explanations, including those described above, and they just don't hold much water. The empirical story is thus pretty simple--now that the (mostly cultural) barriers to college entry for women have fallen away, we shouldn't be surprised to see the issues we already know exist in k-12 having impacts on college outcomes.

Now, the search for explanations as to why there are gender differences in earlier schooling outcomes is the topic of a much more contested body of literature. Some argue that the problems lie in schools and that reforms (e.g. single sex schooling or the development of a more masculine culture in classrooms) should be targeted at schools. For their part, Buchmann and DiPrete think that the answers lie in some combination of school resources (the gender gap is smaller in highly-resourced schools), and a kind of culture re-orienting (driven by parental involvement) that can help more boys integrate attachment to schooling with the boy-culture desire to be emotionally detached. Girls exhibit stronger behavioral and social skills from the very start of kindergarten, and continue to exceed boys in the development of those skills throughout elementary school. Notably, the kinds of skills girls appear to have-more self-control, interpersonal skills, etc-are the target of certain kinds of preschools and parenting strategies.

In the end, does research tell us definitively whether the appropriate policy response to a gender gap in BA completion is affirmative action for boys? Of course not. It's pretty clear from these studies and others, including a new book from Thomas Espenshade and his colleagues, that any solution will need to address not only gender disparities but racial and class ones as well. The clearer implication of Buchmann and DiPrete's work is that policymakers concerned with the lower rates of college completion among men need to focus not so much on the actions of colleges and universities, but on k-12 education and pre-adolescent experiences in particular. This is a pipeline issue, and is has been for a long time--for decades girls have outperformed boys in most aspects of k-12 schooling (despite a chillier climate there), and as the barriers to entry into postsecondary education have fallen away, they have entered and performed better there as well. Buchmann and DiPrete argue that instead of targeting interventions at boys per se, reformers could instead target groups of students from similar social strata who are underperforming in school. In theory, at least, it should be possible to develop interventions that help all students, but incur particular advantages for boys.

To sum up: the gender advantage in higher education is not surprising and it's not a "mystery." In fact, there are some clear directions for intervention. So, instead of lamenting a "whodunit," let's get to work.


This particular post requires a long list of references rather than links, so here they are. Unpublished or forthcoming pieces (aside from the book) can be found on DiPrete's website.

T. DiPrete and C. Buchmann. Advantage Women: The Growing Gender Gap in College Completion and What it Means for American Education. Manuscript in preparation for the Russell Sage Foundation.

A. McDaniel, T. DiPrete, and C. Buchmann. (Forthcoming). The Black Gender Gap in Educational Attainment: Historical Trends and Racial Comparisons. Demography.

J. Jennings and T. DiPrete. (Forthcoming). Teacher Effects on Social/Behavioral Skills in Early Elementary School. Sociology of Education.

J. Legewie and T. DiPrete. (2009). Family Determinants of the Changing Gender Gap in Educational Attainment: A Comparison of the U.S. and Germany. Schmoeller's Jahrbuch.

C. Buchmann, T. DiPrete, and A. McDaniel. (2008). Gender Inequalities in Education. Annual Review of Sociology 34: 319-337.

T. DiPrete and C. Buchmann. (2006). Gender-Specific Trends in the Value of Education and the Emerging Gender Gap in College Completion. Demography 43 (1):1-24.

C. Buchmann and T. DiPrete. (2006). The Growing Female Advantage in College Completion: The Role of Parental Education, Family Structure, and Academic Achievement. American Sociological Review 71:515-541. (Note: This paper won a national award from the American Sociological Association's Section on Sociology of Education.)

J. Jennings and T. DiPrete. (No Date) "Social/Behavioral Skills and the Gender Gap in Early Educational Achievement." Working paper.

Alex Trebek: hero of vocabulary preparation

I was waiting for a football game to come on TV and there was Alex Trebek selling a vocabulary building software program. It was one of those half hour infomericals which was packed with the most amazing garbage about education ever assembled in one half hour. It seems that the company he was touting, Wordsmart, was founded by a "world renowned educator" named David A. Kay. I thought I knew all the world renowned educators. Even google seems to have missed this guy. He sells a piece of software that will not only get your kids great SAT scores and get them into Harvard, but also guarantees (not really, they just make it sound that way) them a high paying job. (This last nugget is based on the idea that Harvard graduates make more money on average than Joe Schmoe.) And will this all be done by building your child's vocabulary. And why is it important to build your child's vocabulary? Because people who succeed have large vocabularies.


I guess people must believe this nonsense so I checked to see what the software did. Predictably, it tells you a word and than asks you some multiple choice questions about it. It is has many ways of doing this but drill and practice is just drill and practice by any other name. They are making enough money on this to be able to buy half hour spots on national TV. (And they are able to buy Alex Trebek!)

Now, I assume that most of my regular readers would know why this is nonsense, but in case you happened onto this site randomly, here is the point. Because successul people have large vocabularies it does not mean that if you have a large vocabulary you will become successful. Vocabularies are acquired quite naturally by speaking to people and by writing to people and by reading by otherwise interacting verbally with people who have vocabularies a little larger than one's own. This is how we learn words naturally.

This is pretty much the only way to acquire a large vocabulary. You can try to memorize the dictionary if you like, which is more or less what this software is about, but if you don't use the words regularly you will forget them.

Another piece of nonsense brought to you by those wonderful folks who believe that testing and education are the same thing.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sad Day for UW Colleges

The Cap Times is reporting the summertime departure of UW Colleges and Extension leader David Wilson. My frank response: this sucks.

Wilson is one of the good ones. Very bright, forward-thinking, not afraid to speak his mind. I should know-- recently I gave a radio interview and made a few statements about the UW Colleges he didn't like. His response? To invite me to participate in a conference call with all of his deans, and then inform me that the purpose was to "educate" me a bit about his institutions and all they do. Needless to say, I was a bit taken aback-- but by the end of the call, nothing but grateful. I had learned quite a bit, and if he'd been more forthcoming about the call's purpose I might not've participated. He's a smart man.

I've often thought that Wilson's leadership held promise for helping Wisconsin rethink the work of all of its two-year colleges, and that he could lead the way in some kind of...ummm...merger (whispered voice) that would be productive rather than destructive. Sadly, I suspect such an opportunity's been set back by this news. (I suspect others are now happy, but I'm just sad.)

So, shucks, darn it-- big loss.

Wilson will become president of Morgan State University in Baltimore, starting July 10. The Baltimore Sun is reporting his arrival there.

Updates on the Race: 12-04-2009

Eyeing stimulus money for education, states adopt reforms (Christian Science Monitor)
States seek stimulus funds tied to education reforms (PBS NewsHour)

Parental involvement in Race to the Top (KPBS)
RttT bill is divisive (Sacramento Bee)

ILLINOIS: Hard policy work to advance RttT goals (illinoistatehousenews.com)

KANSAS: State is 'well positioned' (Lawrence Journal-World)

MICHIGAN: State Senate passes teacher tenure bill (Detroit Free Press)

NEVADA: Special session to address Race to the Top? (Las Vegas Review-Journal)


Past "Updates on the Race"

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Updates on the Race: 12-03-2009

Michele McNeil at Education Week has a really important story about a new Center on Education Policy report that questions whether states have the capacity to effectively implement proposed Race to the Top reforms -- and suggests that states may be applying for RttT funding primarily because they are short on cash.
...[M]ore than half the states report that their capacity to carry out stimulus-related education changes is a “major problem."
In other news:

DELAWARE: Plan unveiled

ILLINOIS: Gov. Quinn announces leaders of RttT effort

MICHIGAN: Racing to the top or slowing to a crawl?

NEW JERSEY: Not applying in round one

RHODE ISLAND: New laws strengthen RttT effort

TENNESSEE: Is in contention

TEXAS: 'The feds are coming, the feds are coming'

WISCONSIN: Special session could address Milwaukee mayoral takeover

Rhode Island Targets Teacher Assignments

The latest edition of the National Council of Teacher Quality's newsletter highlights the efforts of Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist to eliminate the practice of transferring teachers based on seniority. Instead, openings should be filled "based on a set of performance criteria and on student need," according to a memo sent by Gist to the state's school superintendents.

Generally, given the evidence that veteran teachers tend to flee so-called hard-to-staff schools and leave those schools populated by less experienced peers, I am generally agreeable to such policies that promise to lessen such inequitable teacher distribution. I say that with two caveats. First, policymakers and researchers should work to ensure that there are no unintended consequences as a result of such a policy. For instance, might this policy result in some veteran teachers leaving a needy district, leaving the state, or taking an early retirement rather than continue to teach in a location that they no longer want to? Second, the state of Rhode Island would do well to address teacher working conditions which research shows have greater bearing on teachers' decisions to stay at or leave a given school more than other factors, such as pay.

The state's teacher unions -- the National Education Association Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals (RIFT) -- are not happy with Gist's approach and may take the issue to the courts, saying that Gist does not have the authority to direct such a change and that it limits collective bargaining rights. That all said, however, this aggressive leadership on the part of Commissioner Gist is why folks are beginning to mention the Ocean State as a serious Race to the Top contender.

See some past thoughts on this issue.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Invisible Institution

Community colleges have been called many things-"junior," "second chance," "sub-baccalaureate," and one of my personal favorites: places of "continued dependency, unrealistic aspirations, and wasted general education." That last one dates back to 1968, in the heat of their growth period (the author is W.B. Devall, writing in Education Record).

Despite all the disparaging remarks, I have a strong sense that many community college leaders are willing to be called just about anything, as long as they're "not called late for dinner." And this year, at least, they're at the table, and standing to enjoy a nice deal in the form of the American Graduation Initiative (part of legislation pending in the Senate).

But this period of sunshine provides only a modicum of comfort, given the longstanding backdrop of invisibility punctuated by insults. In 2005, Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews wrote a confessional column called "Why I Ignore Community Colleges." A Brookings Institution report released today reveals that Matthews was (and is) far from unique among his colleagues.

Brookings examined mainstream news coverage since 2007 and discovered that only about 1% of national coverage (appearing on TV, newspapers, news websites, and radio-and not including blogs) is devoted to education. That's education of any flavor.

Zoom in on coverage of community colleges and the picture gets even worse. Of all education reporting - of that 1%-- only 2.9% is devoted to community colleges. Public two-year colleges enroll 60% as many students as 4-year colleges and universities, but receive only one-tenth the news coverage. As the Brookings authors conclude, "From the standpoint of national media coverage, community colleges barely exist."

Invisibility is both a cause and a symptom of community colleges' low-status in higher education. The oft-unmentioned "snob factor" contributes to reporters' sense that their readers neither care, nor need to know, much about this sector. Children of journalists are unlikely to attend community colleges, and we all know that parents pay more attention to whatever their kids are doing. The same problem applies to politicians-it's a veritable miracle that President Obama is speaking with pride about institutions of postsecondary education where he's unlikely to send his own children.

Leaving community colleges out of the news means substantially skewing the American image of higher education. Stories about the critical links between the economy and education are missed-after all, it's community colleges who consistently watch enrollment rise along with unemployment. Kids and parents hear repeatedly about competitive admissions and rising tuition, expensive dorms and climbing gyms, even though these are the reality for less than half of all undergraduates. And we hear about, and from, presidents of 4-year colleges and universities, far more often than we hear about their hard-working peers running community colleges.

I think that sadly enough many at community colleges have gotten used to stereotypical representations of those schools-the lack of resistance to NBC's comedy Community may be one indication. But as William DeGenaro points out, it hasn't always been this way. In the 1920s and 1930s, community colleges were praised as essential to public education, getting ink in publications like the New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, and Reader's Digest. Enrollment was climbing rapidly, just as it is now, and the media took notice. In fact, DeGenaro's research reveals that "the print media served as a booster, implying that the colleges resulted from common sense." That "rhetoric of inevitability" stands in sharp contrast to today's stance of invisibility. By ignoring an entire sector of higher education, the media helps to de-legitimate it. Simply put, reporters need to catch up--the President, together with many federal and state leaders, philanthropists, and citizens, sees the American community college as essential to the nation's future. What are journalists waiting for?