Sunday, February 27, 2011

What Would You Do?

Some proponents of the NBP are asking a reasonable question: If not the New Badger Partnership, then what? How to cope with the pending massive cut to UW funding without hiking tuition and getting a nice new toolbox?

Good question.

First, begin by convening experts (scholarly experts, not only your fellow administrators) with competing viewpoints and ask them to review the relevant documents and make proposals. Don't hire an outside expert for $3 million-- heck that's more than the annual budget for many departments!

Second, make information on current spending widely available and accessible and ask for input. Take that input seriously. Don't promise people ice cream with sprinkles and cherries on top for telling you what you want to hear.

Third, consider the possibility that real innovation--a whole new way of thinking about how to deliver higher education--could save public higher education. Keep the core mission: educating the children of the state at a reasonable pricepoint, as best you are able given the resources you have. Act like an "A" student and stop worrying about competition--just put your head down and do your best work. Only "B" students spend their valuable time trying to constantly compete and push down their opponents. Madison's focus on per-student spending and exclusivity - an attitude reinforced by rankings systems like U.S. News and internalized by an ill-informed public-- is getting us nowhere. It's time for the Madison administration to act "responsible for training and educating the people they have been elected and appointed to serve, rather than acting as custodians of institutions."

There are many experts on higher education policy who think the current budget crisis is a true opportunity to disrupt business as usual in public higher education-- while keeping it truly public (and not in name only). The current NBP is neoliberalism at its finest and it will only perpetuate the growth of income inequality in Wisconsin and beyond. Telling your constituents that there is only one way to solve this problem--and without you the Titanic will sink-- is in no one's best interest. Let's call it what it is--exclusion-- and bring some more creative minds to a much bigger table.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

More Flexibility to Raise Tuition?

Central to debates over the New Badger Partnership is the question of whether additional flexibilities that make it possible to raise tuition are desirable.

Evidence can and must be used to make these decisions. A robust, evidence-based debate on our campus is obviously needed but to date has not occurred. Instead, to many of us outside Bascom it seems as though administrators have mostly relied on the input of a few economists and some other folks who work in higher education but are not scholars of higher education. It also seems like seeking advice from those mostly likely to agree with you. (Please--correct me if I'm wrong--very happy to be corrected with evidence on this point.)

It would be wonderful to see a more thorough review of existing evidence and the development of an evaluation plan that will assess positive and negative impacts of any new policy in ways that allow for the identification of policy effects-- not correlations. (Let's be clear: comparing enrollment of Pell recipients before and after the implementation of a policy like the MIU does not count.)

A few years ago I blogged about studies on the effects of tuition and financial aid on individual decision-making. To summarize-- effects of each are relatively small (especially when compared to effects of academic under-preparation, for example) but usually statistically significant. Also, what we call "small" reflects our value judgments, and we must recognize that.

Effects of "sticker shock" are thought to accrue early, such that the "shocked" students end up academically unprepared for college (for example don't even graduate high school) and thus are omitted from the eligible population of students on whom effects of aid and tuition are usually estimated. So hypotheses about sticker shock are very hard to test, partly because a good test requires measuring both the initial "shock" and the resulting behavior many years later (when college enrollment decisions are made).

There are other ways to think about these questions, beyond individual-level analyses. For example, we could contemplate possible effects of tuition hikes and aid increases on overall enrollment (which results from the aggregation of behaviors of many individuals). We could also look at evidence on how common it is for institutions like ours that hike tuition and raise aid to sustain the commitment to that aid over time.

Let's start down that path by examining one study that sheds light on the first of those questions. I will review more such studies in the coming days. My goal is to help facts and figures replace fear as the driving force behind our campus decisions.


In "Rising Tuition and Enrollment in Public Higher Education" Hemelt and Marcotte examine the relationships between tuition and aid on the one hand, and enrollment on the other. Essential to this discussion, for most of their analyses they disaggregate by type of institution, making it possible to isolate effects on universities comparable to UW-Madison.

Using national IPEDS data on public 4-year colleges and universities from 1991 to 2007, the authors find that on average a $100 increase in tuition and fees (in 2006 dollars) would lead to a decline in enrollment of a little more than 0.25 percent. Since we rarely raise tuition by $100, let's instead consider that a $1,000 increase in tuition would result in an enrollment decline of 2.5 percent.

But most relevant to this discussion, these economists find that the tuition elasticity of enrollment is largest at Research I universities-- and they specifically give the example of UW-Madison. According to these scholars, freshmen at universities like Madison's are "much more" affected by tuition increases than students at other kinds of institutions (for example, freshmen at UW-Stout). (The tuition elasticity is -0.24 at Research I's compared to -.107 on average). And, the average amount of aid received has the smallest effects for students at Research I universities, compared to other colleges (.06 on average, compared to .01 at Research 1's).

In plain English, what does this mean? The consequences of raising tuition are greatest for students at places like Madison, and the benefits of increasing aid are smallest.

Why is this? The authors consider the possibility that students at Madison are not weighing the price of Madison relative to the price of Stout or Eau Claire, nor the price of other Big 10 schools writ large, but rather the price of comparably elite Research I institutions. Restricting their analysis to the top 120 public universities in the country, then, they again find that these students are particularly price sensitive, and particularly aid insensitive.

A few words from the authors: "These patterns in price and aid sensitivity are consistent with students opting out of “top 120” schools for competitors as price rises, while finding a way to pay tuition bills at other state schools where students may have fewer options....The evidence...of higher price sensitivity but lower aid sensitivity at “top 120” and Research I institutions raises general questions about enrollment patterns at public four-year colleges and universities, beyond the implications of tuition on enrollment at single institutions. One implication may be a shift of students from higher income families to private institutions or public universities in other states, along with a shift of students from lower income families to less expensive public universities within the state. This would suggest a redistribution of students across public colleges and universities within a state, with those most financially able leaving the system, and others scaling back to enroll at more affordable
institutions. Obviously, student-level data are needed to test this."

Distributional consequences of tuition policies are too rarely considered, and are not addressed in the NBP.

Sure, consequences and benefits should be put into context-- for example considered against the consequences of not raising tuition. But this paper by respected economists clearly indicates that it is not appropriate to assert that increasing financial aid at institutions like UW-Madison will effectively hold students harmless from the negative effects of tuition increases. Enrollment will be affected, and distribution of enrollment across institutions may be particularly affected. Who will measure those effects? And who will care?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Politics As Usual?

There is much buzz here at UW-Madison about the proposed New Badger Partnership. You can read all the details about what the Chancellor has proposed here, and you can read about some of the concerns expressed here.

In the interest of a rich discussion of this important policy proposal, I want to draw your attention to some relevant research on the topic. I'll start off with a recent paper by Michael McLendon, professor at Vanderbilt University, and his colleagues Russ Deaton and Jim Hearn.

In a 2007 article McLendon discusses trends in higher education governance reforms over the last several decades, and in particular the rationales posed for these reforms. The piece is worth reading in its entirety, but here are some highlights relevant to the campus debate:

Between 1985-2002 states considered more than 100 different ways to modify governance of higher education systems. "Policy rationales asserted in justification of these changes often pointed to the desire for improved accountability, operating efficiency, cost savings, competitiveness, coordination, and innovativeness....Paralleling roughly the emergence globally of a public sector reform movement christened the “new public management” (Brudney & Wright, 2002, p. 354), some American states experimented with changes to their governance systems for higher education that focused on efficiency rather than equity, choice rather than standardization, decentralized rather than centralized decision-making, performance rather than process, and outcome rather than input measures."

Sound familiar?

Why so much reform? As McLendon and his colleagues note, it is most common to depict "reforms as a rational response by state leaders to policy problems for which the redesign of higher education systems might serve as a suitable solution." But, McLendon posits, building on an argument advanced earlier by Aims McGuiness, an entirely different explanation is possible: political instability. Turnover in who's in charge- and the threat of turnover-- may in and of itself lead to these reforms-- even though they are posed as rational and necessary, in fact the reforms themselves may be political animals.

And this is, in fact, what McLendon finds. "Fluctuations on the political landscape of states [are] the primary drivers of legislation to reform governance arrangements for higher education."

In particular:

(1) "States are more likely to enact governance legislation in years in which the legislature became captured by one of the two major political parties, following a period of divided party control of the institution."

(2) "As the percentage of a state’s legislature that is Republican increases, so too does the probability of a state changing its higher education governance system."

(3)"The longer governors occupy office, the lower the probability of their states enacting structural changes. Conversely, states whose governors are newer to office appear more likely to undertake such reforms...A turnover in administration could present the most opportune time for a governor to seek to maximize control over executive branch agencies, leading to the changes in higher education governance we have documented."

(4) "Our analysis yielded no evidence linking passage of governance legislation with the economic conditions of states, the characteristics of their college and university systems, or regional diffusion."

In other words, historically states have not made decisions about the governance of state higher education institutions based on stated rationales but rather based on politics.

Is the situation here in Wisconsin at this moment in time really any different?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Koch And A Smile

Sometimes a story just writes itself: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker duped (on tape) by a liberal blogger posing as major right-wing Republican donor David Koch.

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel coverage

Huffington Post coverage

Ezra Klein (Washington Post)

One Wisconsin Now


You don't get to be a professor at a top university by settling or compromising. You get there by striving, competing, and working against all odds to cram extra hours into already-long days. You expect the best, of everyone.

So it's hard to be a professor at a public university right now. Almost by definition, public universities aren't the top of the heap in spending on the things that professors are trained to care most about-- research, salaries, resources. This leads to frustration, anger, and indignation when our talents go unrecognized, our fields disrespected, and our friends leave for private universities.

It's hard to be a professor at a public university, for sure.

Of course, it's also hard to be a kid whose entire future depends on achieving economic stability and that seems to depend on college-- but college is increasingly out of reach. You're told that the flagship college in your state is really the only one that's worth going to and despite your desire to ignore those elitist comments, they nag at you. You want to go there, but annual costs of attendance are more than your family makes in a year. Your parents didn't go to college, and none of your friends managed to get to that place. So really, why bother? Why work your tail off in high school to get the best grades, work after school jobs to save money, and why knock yourself out to take that ACT? You're never going to be able to get in, and if you do, it's gonna financially cripple your family to afford it. The government has never come through with real financial help before, why expect it to now?

Somehow, my heart tells me it's harder to be that kid than it is to be me.

It's time for UW-Madison to be with the children of Wisconsin's working poor families. Offering financial aid -- accompanied as it is by a byzantine system of paperwork, rules, and caveats-- is clearly insufficient to overcome the fear instilled by widespread talk that tuition is high and getting higher. (I am a researcher of financial aid-- it "works" but it by no means demonstrates sufficiently large effects to hold students harmless from high tuition.) Financial aid won't help combat word on the street that the place is so elite it won't even hang with the other UW universities or colleges anymore. It's out for itself--its alumni, current students, and professors-- not for you.

I am not naive-- we are going to take a bone-crushing hit this year. Our belts are going to tighten so much that we can hardly breathe-- at least we will think that's true. But the fact is, UW-Madison doesn't know poverty. Not even close. It's been blessed to have what it needs to be nearly everything it's wanted to be. That's getting harder to do, and now in these times choices will have to be made. Programs will have to be cut. Faculty will have to teach. Class sizes might have to be a bit larger. The truth is, we will survive this-- and we will be more respectable for it. UW-Madison is nothing without the respect of Wisconsin. Leaving the state behind is not an acceptable approach to accommodating our desires to be the "best."

The math lobby makes Obama bang the drum for more math

I am on my way home from Portland, Oregon where I spoke a meeting of teachers interested in technology. I went to Palo Alto before I went to Portland which meant that when President Obama visited Palo Alto and Portland last week I was there too. This mattered because I was blocked on both ends of my trip by the President's entourage. Those things happen -- no big deal.

But what is a big deal is that the President was going on that trip to speak with people about education. And so was I!

Curiously, we were speaking with different folks. Obama was speaking with Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and the President of Intel. Now, these guys know a lot about business and entrepreneurship and innovation. Education? Not so much. They did go to school. After that, there is no reason to assume they any more about education that anybody else.

Of course, Mr. Obama could use some help with respect to education. He announced yet again the critical need for more math and science, by which he means higher test scores. Why he cares about this I don't know. I guess he thinks maybe we can beat the Chinese in something if we just all study harder in high school and win the math competition. I wonder why he doesn't promote a business competition. I could get my arms around that. Teach kids business -- it might help.

But no, math and science again. He makes it sound like we just don't have enough mathematicians and scientists. There were 10000 applicants to MIT's freshman class last year and they took 1000. So, if anything, we have plenty of kids interested in science but not enough MITs. But the truth is, all the applicants get into some other school that will teach them what they want to know.

And then what will happen? They will become part of the great mass of unemployed, or underemployed, mathematicians and scientists. Really, we have plenty already Mr Obama. Look at the statistics on the number of applicants for each professorial position in these fields.

I don't know what this math and science obsession is really about, but I do have a guess. The testing industry is banging the drum and sending money to push for more testing and as usual, the lobbyists are winning.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What Do Elite Institutions Owe Their States?

Dear readers,

It's quite a time here in Wisconsin. I've spent the academic year juggling a major research project, teaching, and being a wife and mom of two young kids. This blog is something I've had to set aside in an effort to get all of that done. And I know I should stick with that focus, especially seeing as how this is the semester I'm up for tenure. But there is just so much going on around me, it's getting near impossible not to comment. That said, as I do comment, I cannot help but feel that Madison--and Wisconsin--is not the same place it was when I started blogging in early 2009. It no longer feels like a safe bastion of liberalism where freedom of speech is secure and all voices respected. It feels, frankly, a bit like Virginia where I grew up-- or maybe (god forbid) even Florida. So, you can bet I'm going to be a more cautious optimist as I write.

In fact, I think for now I will let others speak for me. On the topic of whether the University of Wisconsin-Madison should break from the University of Wisconsin System in its effort to preserve its greatness, I'm chewing on these words, and hope you will too...

"Students who have the greatest educational need—low-income, part-time, first-generation, working parents, immigrants, and people of color—are systematically funneled into institutions with the fewest resources. In response, elite universities must be uncommonly generous in the years ahead with respect to funding, transfers, and the amount of students they will serve....This campus, Madison, spends far more money per student than other branches of the University of Wisconsin System [setting differences in research funding aside and focusing solely on instruction, academic support, and student services] , spending [at all other UW 4 years] is $8,500 per Madison, it's more than twice as much. So here’s my question: why are you so expensive to educate? Why do you deserve so much more? After all, you’re supposed to be the smart ones....Maybe it should take less money to help you reach your educational goals.... The answer, I think, has very little to do with concepts like cost. Rather, you were here first and you're the best. When people look at resource allocation numbers for K-12 schools and see massive inequality...they call it injustice and file massive lawsuits. When they see the same numbers for higher education, they call it meritocracy and a job well-done.... Only by subordinating some of their self-interest...and embracing the interest of all institutions--including the students within them and the students who aren't within them at all--will America's elite institutions be able to live up to the historic ideals that have done so much to make us the nation we are today." KEVIN CAREY.

Tonight I leave you with this. I am a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor deeply proud of my students and my colleagues-- all of them. Those at Madison, those at other UW's, and those who are not yet but perhaps hope to become part of the UW community. I chose UW because I was deeply impressed by its longstanding service and commitment to the state-- not its self-interested desire to get the highest rankings, attract only the easiest to educate, or offer the highest salaries. In other words, I came because UW-Madison seemed the exception to the elite Research I gatekeepers--it was a place where one could do research while also fulfilling the major commitments of public higher education. I sincerely hope that Madison will right its course and make its state proud.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Tide Will Rise

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is out for more than money. He's out for blood. He won't quit until he drives a stake through the hearts of public employee unions in the Badger State. That much is clear.

How this current saga will end is anyone's guess. The amazing protests that have taken over the Wisconsin State Capitol and downtown Madison might wear down, if not Walker, the few moderate Republican state senators remaining. Or the GOP might try to eliminate collective bargaining without needing the "Wisconsin 14" -- the Senate Democrats who have crossed the Illinois border to prevent a vote on the budget bill -- by pulling the collective bargaining provisions out as separate legislation (which would require only 17 senators present; there are 19 Republicans). The outcome? A general strike perhaps. Wisconsin unions and Democratic lawmakers have already publicly agreed to accept sizable concessions on health benefits and pensions as demanded by Walker and the Republicans -- on average, an 8 percent cut in public workers' take-home pay -- which would severely cripple the state economy.

The Governor has said that this is about balancing the budget, not destroying unions. Few believe him of course, especially given his track record as Milwaukee County Executive, but that's what his talking points tell him to say. I don't believe him the same way I don't believe that congressional Republicans are serious about the budget deficit and national debt. Walker's first action as governor was to propose and enact corporate tax cuts equivalent to the cost of the cuts he is now seeking to impose upon public employees. Congressional Republicans pushed for the same thing, the extension of Bush-era tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, which added nearly one trillion dollars to the national debt. Republicans are making these fiscal crises worse and are attempting to balance the budget on the backs of public workers, making cuts to programs like food aid for poor pregnant women and women with children, but refusing to ask those with means to sacrifice one whit.

Wisconsin Democrats and union leaders have rightly drawn a line in the sand when it comes to the elimination of collective bargaining rights (over anything other than wage increases below the rate of inflation). Whether you like them or not, Americans have the right to organize and join unions and employees ought to have the right to come together and collectively bargain wages, benefits and working conditions. This right is outlined in the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights. Republicans, however, have succeeded in convincing too many working families that their brothers and sisters in the public sector are the enemy.

As Paul Krugman eloquently writes in the New York Times (2/21/2011), the preservation of unions is also a matter of balancing political power.
For what’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about the state budget, despite Mr. Walker’s pretense that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. It is, instead, about power. What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy. And that’s why anyone who believes that we need some counterweight to the political power of big money should be on the demonstrators’ side.
But Mr. Walker isn’t interested in making a deal. Partly that’s because he doesn’t want to share the sacrifice: even as he proclaims that Wisconsin faces a terrible fiscal crisis, he has been pushing through tax cuts that make the deficit worse. Mainly, however, he has made it clear that rather than bargaining with workers, he wants to end workers’ ability to bargain.

You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the last 30 years — which it has — that’s to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions.

And now Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to get rid of public-sector unions, too.

There’s a bitter irony here. The fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, as in other states, was largely caused by the increasing power of America’s oligarchy. After all, it was superwealthy players, not the general public, who pushed for financial deregulation and thereby set the stage for the economic crisis of 2008-9, a crisis whose aftermath is the main reason for the current budget crunch. And now the political right is trying to exploit that very crisis, using it to remove one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.

Why average Americans are willing to give selfish corporations and capitalist greed a pass, but demonize other working folks is beyond me. Why must so many Americans embrace a race to the bottom rather than the notion of a rising tide? Jealousy of wages and benefits that unionized workers have won for themselves has turned to rage as the economy has soured, even though it is often based on bad information (public employees in Wisconsin make LESS in wages and benefits than their private sector counterparts). That rage can turn in one of two directions -- it can become productive or divisive. The likes of Scott Walker and Republican bankrollers, such as Koch Industries, are counting on the latter.

As an alternative, those oppressed workers, primarily in the private sector, could choose to organize themselves as their public-sector brethren have done to better their lot -- or take political action to strengthen social supports, job training opportunities, and demand greater equity in U.S. tax policy. Or they can choose to embrace a "Life Sucks" mantra. "I suffered [a job loss/salary cut/reduced benefits], so those other working stiffs should have to suck it up, too." But why demand blood from a stone? If one is serious about shared sacrifice, why not demand reasonable concessions from public workers, along with tax reforms to close corporate loopholes and higher tax rates or income tax surcharges on millionaires?

Such concessions from public employees can be achieved through the collective bargaining process, both at a local as well as at a state level. Look what Vermont achieved in 2010 under a Republican Governor by working with unions. Walker's approach was to unilaterally propose something and refuse to negotiate or even discuss it with public employees. Nice guy that, Mr. Walker. But he can't be all bad because, after all, God talks to him. Indeed, his approach sets him apart from some other freshman Republican governors, including Iowa's Terry Branstad, Michigan's Rick Snyder, and Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett. California Governor Jerry Brown (a Democrat), running a state with far worse budgetary problems, won't resort to union busting either.

From the Wall Street Journal (2/18/2011):
"We're going to go negotiate with our unions in a collective-bargaining fashion to achieve goals," the Republican governor [Michigan's Rick Snyder] said in an interview. "It's not picking fights. It's about getting people to come together and say here are the facts, here are the common-ground solutions."
Former Clinton Labor Secretary and Berkeley public policy professor Robert Reich argues
that rising income inequality is at the heart of our nation's and our states' fiscal challenges:

So the problem isn’t that “we’ve” been spending too much. It’s that most Americans have been getting a steadily smaller share of the nation’s total income.

At the same time, the super-rich have been contributing a steadily-declining share of their own incomes in taxes to support what the nation needs — both at the federal and at the state levels.

The coming showdowns and shutdowns must not mask what’s going on. Democrats should make sure the public understands what’s really at stake.

Yes, of course, wasteful and unnecessary spending should be cut. That means much of the defense budget, along with agricultural subsidies and other forms of corporate welfare.

But America is the richest nation in the world, and “we’ve” never been richer. There’s no reason for us to turn on our teachers, our unionized workers, our poor and needy, and our elderly. The notion that “we” can no longer afford it is claptrap.

From an education policy standpoint, have teachers' unions always been on the right side of the issues? Of course not. The Wisconsin Education Association Council is an example of one that has been slow to change as compared with other NEA affiliates such as the neighboring Illinois Education Association and many state AFT chapters. Walker's election finally got WEAC to read the tea leaves and advance a proposal to embrace a number of school reforms rather late in the game. That said, I fully and wholeheartedly support the current organizing efforts of WEAC and its right to represent Wisconsin teachers at the bargaining table.

But this is bigger than education and teaching. There is a larger agenda at play here. Republicans have effectively sought to create a wedge between working people -- a divide and conquer strategy that exploits the economic turmoil and uncertainty currently gripping this country. At the same time, they are pushing an anti-tax agenda with two purposes in mind -- (1) to give huge tax breaks to corporate interests and the wealthiest Americans, and (2) to bleed the public sector dry and reduce the size of government regardless of the impact on the poor and elderly. The result: historic income inequality in the United States.

Too many Democrats are complicit for failing to see the forest for the trees and for allowing Republicans to set the narrative. (President Obama's proposed 50% cut to the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is a case in point.) Progressives need to take the elephant by the ears and shake some sense into it. We need leaders who will tell it like it is and propose policies to move America forward, not backwards. My hope is that the activism and energy present in Wisconsin will be channeled productively and over the long haul, not just to fight anti-union crusades, but also to build a state and nation that aspires to greatness, excellence and prosperity for all of its people -- from those at the top to the weakest and most vulnerable amongst us.

The tide will rise.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Artificial Intelligence, Jeopardy, and the inane reporting of the New York Times

I usually write about education in this column. But, yesterday, the New York Times ran a front page article on Artificial Intelligence. They ran it because there is an upcoming competition between an IBM computer and the champions of the Jeopardy TV show. It is being billed as a man against machine competition to see if people are smarter than computers or vice versa.

Whenever there is nonsense to print these days, the Times seems to be right on it. The time claims that:

machines (have begun) to “understand” human language. Rapid progress in natural language processing is beginning to lead to a new wave of automation that promises to transform areas of the economy that have until now been untouched by technological change.”

Long before I worked on education I was a leader in the field of Artificial Intelligence. My specialty was Natural Language Processing. I worried about how computers could possibly understand language in the same way that humans understand language. I came to the conclusion that while this was a daunting task, it was probably not an impossible one. But, in order to make computers understand language they would need dynamic memories and they would need to be able to learn (because what you hear and read changes what you know). They would also need goals (because we understand in terms of what we care about) and plans, because we learn in order to help us do something better. I began to work on learning and memory, and understanding how planning works. And, while there has been much progress in AI in those areas, we are still far from having very intelligent machines that can do such things very well.

Not according to the New York Times, of course. There headline was


A Fight to Win the Future: Computers vs. Humans

Gee, will computers suddenly take over? I have been asked this question by every reporter and TV person who ever interviewed me about AI. The nonsense behind this question is too long to discuss her. But here is what the Times said:

“Machines will increasingly be able to pick apart jargon, nuance and even riddles. In attacking the problem of the ambiguity of human language, computer science is now closing in on what researchers refer to as the “Paris Hilton problem” — the ability, for example, to determine whether a query is being made by someone who is trying to reserve a hotel in France, or simply to pass time surfing the Internet.”

All this because a computer will try to play Jeopardy.

Computers have been getting by for decades now on key word search. Google has made key word search an art form. The “Paris Hilton” problem is not a problem for people however. In spoken English, the hotel is pronounced with an emphasis on Paris (as opposed to London.) But, people don’t really need that spoken cue so much because context tells you what is being talked about. We see or read about Paris Hilton. We make a reservation at the Paris Hilton. “The food is bad at the Paris Hilton” is not a confusing sentence. It is only confusing to a computer that doesn't know what you are talking about and processes only key words. In other words, the Times is discussing ideas about how to use statistics to make a best guess about what the words might mean. And then, seeing that a program might be good at this, the Times then predicts the takeover of mankind by smart computers.

The New York Times used to be a great newspaper. I have subscribed for over 40 years. But these days much of what they have to say is nonsense. When Bryant Gumbel asked me on the Today Show, many years ago, whether computers would soon take over, I attributed his question to the need for sensational junk on morning TV. The MacNeill Lehrer Report on PBS asked sensible questions. Redes in Spain asked sensible questions. But, alas the Times doesn’t care that the average reader is going to draw conclusions about a computer’s ability to understand that simply aren’t true. And I don’t think they give a damn.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Forward. That's the Wisconsin state motto. Our new governor is calling it into serious question. Since arriving in the governor's office in January, Scott Walker has directed his state driver to put the peddle of his gleaming new SUV to the metal ... in reverse.

In my thirty nine years, I have never lived under such a retrograde governor. The likes of Mike Dukakis, Bill Weld, Madeleine Kunin, Dick Snelling, Howard Dean, Jim Doyle each stand in sharp contrast to the arrogance, spitefulness and wrong-headedness of Walker. I am ashamed that this man is the leader of our state. Nice going, Badgers.

Walker's proposal to close Wisconsin's current fiscal year budget deficit includes a de facto salary cut of more than 8 percent (in the form of greater contributions into the state pension system and for health benefits) for all state and university employees. The impact on the state economy -- and on the Madison area, in particular -- from the enactment of such a proposal will be enormous. It will be felt in the form of reduced state income tax revenues, lowered sales tax revenues from reduced purchasing power, and the likely closure of private sector businesses, especially in the retail sector. Standing in sharp contrast to his campaign pledge to create 250,000 jobs over the next four years, in just a month and a half in office Walker has already succeeded in driving high-speed rail and wind energy jobs out of state (primarily to Illinois) -- and this attack on public sector employees who are being asked to bear the entire burden of closing the budget deficit will further torpedo the state economy. Walker's proposal will cost the state $1.1 billion in lost economy activity, according to the Institute for Wisconsin's Future. And it could precipitate a brain drain from the public sector and from the state over time. But, that's OK -- high school grads can run the state.

The coup de grace (that's French, Mr. Walker) is the Governor's proposal -- that has nothing at all to do with the budget deficit -- to eliminate collective bargaining rights for all state employees, university employees, and state teachers. Walker is using the state's economic woes as cover to launch an overtly political attack on unions. He would restrict them from bargaining about anything other than salaries, and only salaries below the rate of inflation. Benefits, leave time, and working conditions would be off the table.

The governor also has issued an unprecedented threat on public employees, saying that he would call out the National Guard to quell any problems. All of these proposals are embedded within a budget repair bill, announced only on Friday afternoon and scheduled to be voted on Thursday by the rubber-stamp Republican-controlled Legislature. The only public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for today in a tiny room in the State Capitol. So much for public input.

What do you think the outcome will be?

That's right. Backwards.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

No more factories! How about we stop training students to be factory workers then?

The New York Times ran an article today about the closing of the last silverware factory in the U.S. While the shutting down of factories in the U.S. is sad, sadder still is the continuation of the "factory model" of education which was indeed, designed to make compliant factory workers.

Most people don't know that the schools we have today were meant to behave like factories:

In 1905, Elwood Cubberly—the future Dean of Education at Stanford—wrote that schools should be factories

“in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products…manufactured like nails, and the specifications for manufacturing will come from government and industry.”

William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906, wrote:

“The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places…. It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.”

Since we now have no factories, perhaps it is time to get rid of the factory model of education and allow children to learn in a way that is less stifling, less dark and ugly, and more likely to produce the kinds of people who can fill jobs that will exist in this century.

Politicians in nearly every country have thrived by producing graduates of school who cannot think for themselves and mindlessly go about their lives. This may have worked in the era of the factory, but there are no more factories. Yet school is still a dreary mind numbing experience.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Third of Russians think sun spins round Earth?

It is headlines like these that allow education people to get on their “we must teach more science kicks. Why do people need to know this stuff? Will it help them live their lives better? Will ramming it into their heads harder make it stick? And would we be better off if it did stick?

Third of Russians think sun spins round Earth?

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Does the sun revolve around the Earth? One in every three Russians thinks so, a spokeswoman for state pollster VsTIOM said on Friday. In a survey released this week, 32 percent of Russians believed the Earth was the center of the Solar system; 55 percent that all radioactivity is man-made; and 29 percent that the first humans lived when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth."It's really quite amazing," spokeswoman Olga Kamenchuk said of the survey that polled 1,600 people across Russia's regions in January, with a 3.4-percent margin of error."All of them (the questions) were absolutely obvious... the data speaks of the low levels of education in the country." However, people tend to forget what they have been taught at school if it is not part of daily use, she added: "I wonder whether our colleagues in other countries would find any different."

The study also found that women were more likely than men to believe the scientific fallacies.

I note that the spokeswoman makes the same point, but in most places she would be ignored and a teach more science furor would ensue.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Unintended, Unforeseen Consequences

The challenges surrounding the U.S. Department of Education's (ED) plan to replace principals at underperforming schools across the nation (New York Times: "U.S. Plan to Replace Principals Hits Snag: Who Will Step In?") reminds me of the unintended consequences of California's class size reduction policies during the 1990s.

As the New York Times reported yesterday about the ED's $4 billion plan to radically transform the country’s worst schools by installing new principals to overhaul most of the failing schools, "[T]here simply were not enough qualified principals-in-waiting to take over."

California experienced a similar human capital problem when it reduced class sizes statewide in grades k-3. An unintended consequence of its state policy was the hiring of more emergency-credentialed and unqualified educators as a result of the additional teaching positions needed to enable smaller class sizes. As this Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning report noted, "[T]he implementation of class size reduction ... dramatically increased the shortage" of fully qualified teachers. In addition, the Public Policy Institute of California reports that it exacerbated educational inequality and disproportionately affected schools that served low-income and minority students:
CSR led to a dramatic increase in the percentages of inexperienced and uncertified teachers. In 1990, there were few differences in these characteristics by racial/ethnic and income groups. Even as late as 1995–1996, the year before CSR, schools with high percentages of nonwhite and low-income students were only slightly more likely
than other schools to have inexperienced teachers who lacked full certification and postgraduate schooling. By 1999, large gaps in teacher qualifications had emerged between schools attended by nonwhite and low-income students and other schools. For black students in schools with more than 75 percent of the students enrolled in subsidized lunch programs, nearly 25 percent had a first- or second-year teacher; almost 30 percent had a teacher who was not fully certified. At the other extreme, for white students attending schools with 25 percent or fewer of the students enrolled in subsidized lunch programs, only 12 percent had a first- or second-year teacher, and only 5 percent had a teacher who was not fully credentialed. These differences reflect the varying levels of difficulty that many schools experienced in attempting to attract and retain teachers following the implementation of CSR.
With all the current hullabaloo about wanting to fire more underperforming teachers as a chief reform strategy, the critical question is: "Who will replace them?" The belief that 'we can do better' does not necessarily make it so. We've got to attend to and recognize such human capital challenges before we put forth such policies, however well intended.

Obama asks CEOs to help; This CEO responds...

President Obama: "As we work with you to make America a better place to do business, ask yourselves what you can do for America. Ask yourselves what you can do to hire American workers, to support the American economy, and to invest in this nation."

This statement was meant for CEOs of businesses, of which I am one (albeit of a small business) so I thought I would answer the President.

Here are some things I can (and do) do:

I hire American workers. I particularly like to hire American Ph.D.'s (in Russian Literature, History of Medicine and Archeology to name three recent hires of mine.) I like to hire people like that because they are very smart individuals who have bought the stuff that colleges sell and wound up unemployable because of it. I like how smart they are. I have no use for what they learned in their PhD programs however.

I hire American workers. I also like to hire women who have small children who want to work from home. I am happy to let them work the hours that suit them and in most cases I have never met them. I need them to be able to write and think well. Despite the ridiculous education system we have, it doesn't seem to make everyone a bad writer and thinker. Fortunately for me, such workers are in plentiful supply. Why? Because in this country nearly everyone has to work in a office and the skills of writing and thinking are way undervalued. Since my company builds school and training courses you might think I would hire people who had degrees in education. I don’t. Those degrees don’t teach much worth knowing.

I support the American economy by building learning by doing project-based courses and degree programs that teach people how to do things rather than listen and memorize things. Oh wait. That was the Spanish economy since I built those courses for Spain (and for Peru and soon for some other developing countries.) Why don’t I build them for the U.S.? I did initially, but our universities think that what matters most is the brand name of their degree and not the quality of the education entailed in that degree. The best universities in the U.S. are controlled by very conservative faculty who have no incentive to change the system in any way.

I also build high school courses and elementary school courses that would radically change the U.S. economy if they were ever deployed here. They teach students to do things and they concentrate on doing things that would make them sought after in the marketplace. But here again, they are more likely to be deployed in other countries which have some flexibility about what they can offer. Here, in the U.S., in a testing dominated school system that you have both inherited and made worse, no real change can occur. Is it any wonder then that my services are sought after in many countries around the world but rarely in the U.S.? Here we can’t fix the school system because the testing companies and the book publishers have the country in a stranglehold which you seem incapable of fighting.

I want to help this country. I really do. I want to help students live their lives better, make better decisions, learn what it interests them to learn, and learn things that will make them employable. But you have made it very difficult to do that. The schools teach so many subjects that were determined in 1892 and can never be eliminated from the curriculum, that there is no room for change. I want change. The students want change. The teachers want change. But your government stifles change at every opportunity.

The good news is that I can help and have been helping American businesses teach their own employees how to do their jobs better. I can do this because, for the most part, no government regulations prevent it. (When the government does step in and demands certain training, that training is always done in an absurd fashion that copies the school system because in those cases there are government mandated tests as well.) Our big corporations want and need their employees to think better and act better and they do invest in that. Since the graduates they hire don’t know much and can’t do much this has become a lucrative business for us. So, you might think I would really like our graduates to remain dumb so that the corporations we work for will continue to need us. But I don’t. I want change. It is all too sad really.

If it makes you feel any better, most every country in the world is as stupid as we are about education. But that will change soon. Other countries will soon step up and lead in educational change, and their economies will thrive. That will take some time and you won’t be President when it happens, so its not your problem really.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Milo, Obama, and science fairs

Milo was asked, as were all his Kindergarten classmates, to build a simple boat and bring it in to school to see whose boat did best in the water. Milo's boat sank. He was very mad at his mother. She had built a bad boat. The kid who won had a father who built a very good boat.

As long as there have been school competitions there have been underlying parent competitions. Lately, President Obama has been touting the wonder of science fairs. He thinks that science fair winners will go on to become great scientists and that science fair winners should be lauded in the same way as great athletes.

This is so absurd, it is hard to figure out where to start.

There probably is the occasional science fair project that had no parental involvement at all. In fact, I judged a science fair not so long ago. I was asked to help because some kids had done computer stuff and the judges needed help. But, the truth is that I wasn't really competent to judge the only real issue -- which was originality. I saw some things that looked interesting and made it clear that the kids involved had learned a lot about computers, but it looked like obvious stuff to me. I couldn't be sure because I actually don't know everything that has ever been done with computers.

The winners were, of course, those who had built the glitziest displays, ones that had really attracted attention for one reason or another.

Far from the idea that the winners were likely to go on to become great scientists, I would guess that the kids who won had a better future in public relations or advertising because that is what they were clearly good at.

I have known many great scientists in my life. I don't know if any of them ever won a science fair, but I feel pretty sure that most never even entered. The personality of a scientist is hard to make generalizations about, but outgoing and artistic, with a need to make really great displays with the help of their parents, doesn't exactly come to my mind when I think of the scientists I have known.

President Obama is on a science kick lately. I really don't know why. If he wants the country to become more competitive, we might think about teaching kids about business, and encouraging them to become more inventive, allowing them to do more things on their own initiative and worry less about what the school says they must learn.

Of course, the President doesn't know how to do that and doesn't ask for help.

Instead he says "science" a lot.

Friday, February 4, 2011

GOP Spending Cuts Follow Tax Cuts For The Rich

Just as I said.
Republicans now controlling the House promised Thursday to slash domestic agencies' budgets by almost 20 percent for the coming year, the first salvo in what's sure to be a bruising battle over their drive to cut spending to where it was before President Barack Obama took office.

"Washington's spending spree is over," declared Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman who announced the plan.

The White House says the GOP effort could cause widespread furloughs of federal employees, force vulnerable people off subsidized housing, reduce services in national parks and mean less aid to schools and police and fire departments.

Popular programs such as health research and federal aid to school districts appear likely to take a hit when lawmakers write the spending bill for the departments of Education, Labor and Health and Human Services.
Tax cuts for the rich prioritized over all else.
I note that former Labor Secretary and current Berkeley professor Robert Reich, in his Twitter feed (@RBReich) today, backs up a point I made about these proposed tax cuts being a precursor to Republican efforts to launch an assault on domestic spending and entitlements -- using the federal budget deficit made so much worse by these tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires as their rationale.

I said: "I recognize that this issue isn't specifically about education, but it is inexorably linked. Given President Obama's apparent unwillingness to go to the mat for Democratic principles (and his own campaign pledge!), Republicans have succeeded in extending the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires -- not just for the first $250,000 or $1,000,000 of their income, but all of it up to infinity. The total cost of all the proposal's tax cuts is $900 billion. Republicans' likely next step is too take off their "tax cutter" hat and don their "deficit hawk" cap, saying that the federal government is living beyond its means, and will fire away at domestic spending. You don't think education will avoid being in their crosshairs at that time, do you? You know that this is more than simply a ploy to line the pockets of rich Americans, right? It's part of a plan to bleed government dry and then argue that government programs need to be reduced, eliminated or privatized."

Reich wrote: "$900 b tax cut w/ lion's share for rich explodes deficit and makes future domestic discretionary spending sitting duck for R cuts."

Yes, folks. This isn't just about tax cuts for the richest Americans. This is but a front in the war to reduce the size of government regardless of its collateral damage to Americans who need government the most.

Economic inequality is already at an all-time high in this country -- even higher than prior to the start of the Great Depression. Our educational system only has a finite amount of power to overcome such overwhelming inequities. If these forces are left unchecked, it may become an impossible job, especially as education programs themselves may fall victim to all-too-easily-predictable budget cuts.
At least the House Republicans can say that they kept this promise. This proposal shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Obama's State of the Union remarks on education: a response

President Obama made clear in his State of the Union address that he is completely clueless about education. This is a very sad state of affairs indeed, since all the teachers that I talk to are well aware that things in school are getting worse all the time.

Let me discuss some points the President made:

  1. The President said: Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education.

Let us remember that a high school education means: algebra, geometry, history, literature, physics, chemistry, economics etc. And it means memorizing facts about these subjects and passing tests. How would this qualify anyone for a job? Of course new jobs require more education that that. It is however possible to change the high school curriculum and teach things that make one employable. The only companies that hire high school graduates are those who intend to re-train them on the job like fast food outlets, or construction companies, or hotels, or airlines. We could fix this very easily Mr. President. Change what is taught in high school!

  1. The President said: as many as a quarter of our students aren't even finishing high school.

And right they are to quit. Unless you intend to go college a high school education is useless and most students realize that.

  1. The President said: The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations.

Perhaps, but why should we care? First you are talking about test scores again. I assure you Mr. President that you couldn’t pass any of the science and math tests. today. They are just about temporary memorization and you have forgotten it as well you should have. So others nations memorize better. So what?

  1. The President said: America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.

Why, Mr. President do you think that college degrees are so important? Is it because you know that high school is useless? Or is it because you really want people to know more about literature and history? Or, are you under the illusion that colleges teach people how to get jobs or how to think? I assure you Mr. Present as a veteran of 35 years of professoring, college teaches students how to game the system, how to party, and how to figure out how to graduate. Thinking isn’t really taught all that well and job skills are almost never taught.

  1. The President said: We launched a competition called Race to the Top. To all 50 states, we said, "If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we'll show you the money."

Sounds good Mr. President. But “Race to the Top” is all about test scores and it is driving responsible teachers, principals, and superintendents mad. Have you talked to people about the effect of Race to the Top? Most professional educators agree that it is a disaster.

  1. The President said: And over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.

There you go again about science and math. What is this fixation about? I know plenty of unemployed PhDs in Physics and Math. We have plenty of scientists. And this country does just fine in producing great science in any case. Do you really think that we need more scientists? What for? Who would employ them? If you think learning science and math makes you more innovative you would have to work hard to prove that. If you think that doing well in science and math courses means you can build a business or create competitive advantages for the US economy, which must be what you think, I find it hard to agree.

You might Mr. President, start thinking about how we can teach our citizens to think clearly and to do things that matter. School does not teach doing or thinking. It teaches memorizing facts, in part due to the so called reforms you and your predecessor have put in place.

Our schools are a mess because the curriculum they offer is mostly useless information that comes up only on tests. Stop with the testing and start teaching kids to do things, and to think clearly, and innovation will follow.