Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Whose Race to the Top?

A new investigation into the charter schools run by Joe Biden's brother Frank, a self-proclaimed "PT Barnum" of charters, raises interesting implications for the Obama Administration's educational policy known as Race to the Top.

As many, including the U.S. Department of Education which oversees RTTT, have pointed out, states that embrace charter schools are winning the race. As DOE materials put it, "President Obama has called upon states to encourage the expansion of charter schools. A network of innovative and high-achieving charter schools can be an important part of a state's school reform effort. However, charter schools are facing significant obstacles to expansion in too many states."

Is this an entirely disinterested reform effort? Many others have raised concerns about the neoliberalism inherent in RTTT, which shapes the dominance of private business interests over common public goods. For example, in a recent article two researchers from Occidental College document the actions taken by Arne Duncan in Chicago, where Renaissance 2000 threatened participatory democracy by excluding parents from key decisions including the closing of schools, an action that the Consortium for Chicago School Research did not find to be beneficial for student outcomes.

The "unintended" consequences of capitalizing school markets are numerous, but one also has to wonder about the intended consequences as well. As it turns out, Vice President Biden, a guy I have generally liked, has family interests in the charter school movement. This most recent investigation, which in full disclosure I will say was conducted by my sister Lisa Rab, makes me further wonder whether the Race to the Top is really about the 99% of America's students-- or truly about advancing the advantages of the 1%. As usual.

PS. Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post also covered this story, on December 10, several weeks after Lisa began writing about it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Career Choices: Please don't make me be a dentist!

I attended a family occasion the other day. I saw people from one side of my family most of whom I hadn’t seen in some years. I was introduced by my first cousin to her grandson. I was told that he was graduating college and would soon be attending dental school.

I broke out laughing.

Behind him were his two younger brothers. I asked if they would be going to dental school as well. At this point his mother chimed in that she certainly hoped so.

Now I was just sad.

Now, rest assured that I have nothing against dentists or dental school. A fine career choice I am sure. I have left out some information here. The mother of this boy is a dentist. I also left out that his father is a dentist. I also left out that his grandfather is a dentist. And, I left out that he (and I) have other cousins who are dentists as well. My uncle was dentist. His son is a dentist. His sister married a dentist. Her son is a dentist.

All these dentists are perfectly fine human beings and they all seem to be living well. It is funny to come from a family of dentists but really, so what?

At some point in the party we were all attending, as the music blasted and people danced, I saw that the young man whom I had first been introduced to had sat down next to me. He said that his grandfather had told him that I was some kind of professor and he asked me what I taught. After some chit chat I asked him if he really wanted to be a dentist.

He said that he had worked hard in college, struggling through required science courses and that it would soon all be worth it.

I asked him if had ever considered any other profession. He said ‘No.” I asked him why not and he said that there had been a lot of pressure from his family to be a dentist. I asked why and he said they had had good experiences and it had worked for them and they thought it was a great life.

I asked if there was anything else he could imagine being. He replied that he really wanted to work with people and that he liked talking to people and as he went on I got the idea that it wasn’t the teeth part of people that he was referring to.

I told him that when I taught at Yale I devoted one class every term to the subject of what the kids in the class wanted to be when they grew up. I challenged them to be something other than what their parents wanted them to be. But for the most part, the children of doctors were going to be doctors and the children of lawyers were going to be lawyers.

We don’t realize as parents how much we talk with children about what they are going to be when they grow up and how much we limit their choices by talking about the limited things we actually know about or by inadvertently putting pressure on them to look at the world in a certain way.

When I suggested that this young man not make any choice right now except simply deciding to decide all this in a few years while trying some other stuff out, he was mostly concerned about how he would explain this to his parents.

Now, usually I am writing about schooling in this column and this one is no exception. Except for my weird one day class, students at Yale got no real career counseling. They only get role models (who are all professional academics) or they get pressure from their parents, or advice from their peers about what is a hot choice right now. Why aren’t we teaching our children how to think about making career choices, or life choices for that matter? Because we are too busy teaching them calculus or macro-economics.

Governments complain about the lack of skilled workers but they don’t try to help in any way except to push more math and science courses which are irrelevant and in no way help one understand one’s career options. Calculus is not a career choice.

Schools need to start helping kids figure out what they can do in life or else the advisors will all be parents who are limited in their world view.

Billionaire Education Policy: Part 2 (Guest Post)

The following is the second post in a two-part series by Robin Rogers, associate professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). For more about Robin and her first post, click here.

Before I jump into policy experiments, I want to reflect on the enthusiastic response that I received from last week’s Part One of Billionaire Education Policy. If I could summarize the response with one word, it would be relief.

A lot of people who work in education, philanthropy, and government are wary of the rise in billionaire policymaking, but are reticent in voicing their concerns. Perhaps this is fear of retaliation -- what Edward Skloot calls the “Brass-Knuckles philanthropy”of the Gates Foundation. But I see another, more heartening piece to this puzzle. People in the philanthropic and advocacy communities don’t want to harm the mission of philanthropy. We fear that revealing the pitfalls of billionaire philanthropy might have some unforeseen effect on the good work that these foundations support.

Billionaire policymaking is the elephant in the room, but nobody seems sure how to approach it. I say that we should name the elephant, but we don’t have to shoot him. There is a middle road.

We’ve named the elephant – it is philanthro-policymaking. It is here to stay. A small, well-networked group of the super-rich will make and fund social policy globally. We don’t have to shoot the elephant, but we need to understand its nature and learn to live happily with it. Like any powerful institution, billionaire philanthropy needs checks and balances. Our task is to develop them.

Now, to education policy. If you’re not a policy wonk, wonkette, or even a wink, as my more politically savvy friends called me in college, stay with me. Once you get past the odd language of experimentation and evaluation, it’s all politics and human folly.

Testing new policy ideas is appealing. Why have a political battle over education reform, when you can experiment with a bunch on a small scale, and then pick the one that works best? In my last post, I mentioned the recent New York Times article “Policy-Making Billionaires” by Nicholas Confessore. In his coverage of Mark Zuckerberg’s controversial 100 million dollar donation to the Newark, NJ school system, Confessore wrote that NJ officials now plan use the money to “experiment” with education policy and find “what works” and then replicate the best programs with public money: “Whatever proves most effective [in the experiments] can then be rolled out on a larger scale.”

This approach to policy reform is not new. It was a central part of welfare reform in the 1990s. Testing and measuring are particlulary attractive to super-wealthy business oriented philanthropists – philanthrocapitalists. Philanthrocapitalist apply business models to philanthropy. They want to measure everything like money.

Social good is harder to measure than money. The official U.S. poverty line was changed this year after years of debate and controversy. We are struggling to even measure poverty. How do we measure student performance? Teacher quality? Our measurements are imprecise at best and meaningless and misleading at worst. Most educators, advocates, researchers, philanthropists, and policymakers are well aware of the problem of measuring complex outcomes. That awareness disappears when we talk about policy experiments. We act as if testing these programs will lead to some empirical, objective truth about what work bests.

Sociologists talk about manifest and latent functions – for all of you Sociologists, I am not suggesting a functionalist approach to education policy, the concept is illustrative. A manifest function is what something is supposed to do. For example, the manifest function of prisons is to incarcerate people. Things also have latent functions – effects that they have in addition to the stated objective. Prisons provide jobs, for example. That is a latent function.

Policy experiments are supposed to tell us empirically how good a program or approach is. They don’t do this very well. Randomized experiments are expensive, difficult, and rare. Most policy “experiments” aren’t really experiments. They are a trial run of a program with data collection. Even then, the data is often collected haphazardly or to highlight program success and minimize failures. Politics and research also operate in different time frames – solid evaluations often take years. In short, well-funded policy evaluations take too long to actually affect policy, and ad hoc evaluations don’t produce reliable findings. If you want to read more about these issues, I recommend Education Research on Trial.

If policy experiments don’t succeed in their manifest function, why are they still around? Because they are brilliant at their latent functions.

1) Building networks of people who support a particular reform and placing many of them in administrative positions.
2) Funding the intellectual development of a new policy.
3) Political advantage. If a program is in place, opponents can’t say the program is radical, impossible or to predict catastrophe -- few social programs have immediate and obvious consequences.
4) Taking the debate out of the political realm -- what should we do -- where citizens play a role and putting them in the technical, “expert” realm -- what works.

“Experiments” is not the correct word for this process. The scientific language of experimentation trips us up. Seeding is a more accurate description.

I’m not much of a gardener, but I know that I planted the plants that grow in my backyard, and I know that their success depends on what was planted there before, the quality of the soil, and the weather. Not everything that I plant grows. Some grow for a bit and then wither. Some flowers are hearty but ugly. But none are there because they’re empirically the best possible plants to be growing in my garden.

We need to think of experimental programs as planted seeds rather than clinical experiments. We learn which of the programs that we plant thrive and which fail. We can uproot the plants that are thriving but are poisonous to the plants around them. Rather than talking about outcomes and “yields” in some Sisyphean effort to find the thing that “works best,” we should talk about program results. We should talk about the actual plants, instead of pretending that our “experiments” will one day yield a perfect plant. We should talk about whether a specific goal was met. We should talk about how the goals relate to our values. And we should keep trying to get better measures for the outcomes we care about.

Talking about “policy experiments” as what they really are – seed programs for social policy – would help us see more clearly that billionaire philanthropists have become policy makers. The power of the economic elite currently hides behind the language of science, which seems to legitimize their actions and prevents us from asking questions. If Bill Gates is funding “research” and gathering “evidence” in “experiments” that he is funding, this seems normal. If he’s funding a seed program that will help the government set education policy, the privatization of policy becomes more obvious. We must not allow the language of science to obscure the power of the economic elite. Policy seeding is an effective political strategy

Monday, December 5, 2011

Billionaire Education Policy (Guest Post)

The following is a guest posting by my colleague and friend Robin Rogers, associate professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). She is the author of “Why Philanthro-policymaking Matters” in The Politics of Philanthrocapitalism, Society 2011, The Welfare Experiments: Politics and Policy Evaluation (Stanford University Press, 2004) and numerous articles on politics and social policy. Rogers served as a Congressional Fellow on Women and Public Policy during welfare reform, as a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Scholar at Yale University, was a visiting fellow at Princeton University. She is writing a book on philanthro-policymaking, Billionaire Philanthropy. This is the first of two posts in a mini-series on the Education Optimists.

The word “policy” makes us think of politicians and bureaucrats. But what happens when powerful policy-makers aren’t elected or appointed? Today, billionaires are shaping education policy in the United States. Buying political influence—-even legally—-feels dirty, so let me try again:

Philanthropists are saving our schools!

See what happened when I replaced “political influence” with “philanthropy”?

The super wealthy—I’m talking about the .01, not the measly 1%—have more influence in American politics than the 99% because they can donate huge sums of money to political campaigns and fund Congressional lobbyists. But their power extends beyond these well-publicized campaign contributions. With the economic crisis, the government is broken and broke, leaving a vacuum for the very rich to become more directly involved with the formation and implementation of social policy.

For years, the connection between philanthropy and policy-making has flown under the radar, but last week, the New York Times published “Policy-Making Billionaires” by political reporter Nicholas Confessore. I’m surprised it took so long for an article on billionaire policymaking to hit the newsstands. The Occupy Movement focused public attention on inequality and the concentration of wealth and power, yet we rarely talk about elite, strategic philanthropy, which Mathew Bishop calls philanthro-capitalism and Chrystia Freeland calls plutocracy. Michael Edwards has argued that philanthro-capitalism erodes civil society. I have written about the rise of philanthro-policymaking. But still, the rise of co-ordinated and strategic philanthropy by the very wealthy hasn’t been covered by the media.

Very, very wealthy men—-Diane Ravitch calls them the Billionaires Boys Club-- are setting policy. Ravitch’s “Boys Club” moniker has a literal counterpart in the form of the mysterious "The Good Club," a small group of billionaires led by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates that meets with the specific intention of setting the global social agenda. To be fair, it is not only a boys club; reportedly, Oprah is a member, so it’s The Billionaire Boys Club and Oprah.

Education policy is where mega-philanthropists are making the most significant inroads in the United States. In New York, billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg and billionaire philanthropist George Soros put up $30 million each for the Young Men’s Initiative, and then the City of New York matched these contributions. The goal of the Young Men’s Initiative is to improve the health, education, and employment of young black and Latino men in New York so they don’t end up in prison. No argument here: that’s a great goal. But $60 million in matching funds? Is this just extra cash the city had on hand? No. It came at the exclusion of other policy priorities. Is the Young Men’s Initiative a better use of taxpayer dollars than other programs would have been? Maybe. Did the philanthropic agenda of Bloomberg and Soros set social policy in New York? Absolutely.

There is no sign of this trend slowing down. In Screw Business as Usual, Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson argues for more elite policy-making power – you guessed it, in the form of “doing good.”

Yesterday, Twitter was buzzing with the news that the Gates Foundation had given a grant to ALEC to, essentially, influence state budget making -- where the rubber hits the road in education policy. I heard some debate over whether this constituted a Republican takeover of the state budget process, a Gates Foundation takeover of ALEC or both. No one suggested it was a victory for democracy. Kristen McQueary recently wrote about the scandal erupting over Stand for Children’s founder Jonah Edelman’s rant last summer in Aspen. Edelman was pretty explicit about the group’s power in the legislative process. Shhhh, Jonah! To paraphrase the movie Fight Club, the first rule of philanthropolicymaking is never speak of philanthropolicymaking.

One troubling example hits at the heart of public education. Last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared on Oprah to give the city of Newark, NJ 100 million dollars. Governor Chris Christie and Mayor Cory Booker were there, too. Big photo op – and nice photo. Then it got messy. Zuckerberg formed a foundation, Startup: Education, intended to parcel out grants to schools that matched funds with the grant and fit the foundation’s priorities. Months after the Oprah announcement, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city of Newark for denying access to communications between Booker and Zuckerberg. Booker claimed that communications between him and Zuckerberg regarding the grant were personal; that he wasn’t acting as Mayor, and thus the information was private. Zuckerberg later said the money was actually for developing leaders, like Booker. Now, according to New Jersey officials, the plan is to use the money to “experiment” with education policy and find “what works” and then replicate the best programs with public money.

The idea of using policy experiments to learn what works sounds great, but the reality is more complicated. In The Welfare Experiments: Politics and Policy Evaluation, I showed that policy experiments led to the 1996 welfare reform by changing institutional structures, building networks of people in support of reform, and making the idea of time limited welfare publicly acceptable. It had nothing to do with the research findings on the programs. The role of experimental programs in education reform is complicated – and the focus of Billionaire Education Policy, Part 2 (the next installment of this post, coming next Monday on the Education Optimists). For now, I’ll say that I am skeptical of claims, such as the one Confessore suggests, that “Whatever proves most effective [in the experiments] can then be rolled out on a larger scale…” Policy experiments don’t work that way.

All over the country, variations of the New York and New Jersey story are playing out: Philanthropists give money to resource-starved school systems, and in return, they reserve the right to effectively set education policy. Consultants and for profit programs present a potential conflict of interest by creating cash cows. Booker‘s claim that he was acting as a private citizen—and the fact that Zuckerberg’s money was just a pledge, not a guarantee of funding—raises questions. What is private and what is public? Is anyone accountable for what happens to this money? Do we need more transparency for private donations?

I feel crass in suggesting that we probe philanthropic giving with the same critical eye we cast on political money and business profits. And yet, the very nature of philanthropic giving has significantly changed in recent years. A handful of wealthy individuals and families control a large amount of this country’s wealth, and their “philanthropy” is beginning to feel more like governance.

ROBIN ROGERS can be reached via email at
Follow her on Twitter: @Robin_Rogers

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Gates Foundation Makes Grant to ALEC

Liam and I were out enjoying an evening of dinner and a movie, when some astonishing news came over Twitter: the Gates Foundation just made a grant to ALEC. Yes, more than $375,000 to the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization my husband has called a self-proclaimed "free market, limited government" non-profit, which is really just a spout of Republican policy ideas. They push an agenda "focused on pet approaches to privatizing education, firing teachers and enabling home schooling that likely have little bearing on student outcomes and that have little basis in research."

As a fellow Gates grantee, colored me disconcerted.

As a professor in public higher education in Wisconsin, where ALEC has worked to intimidate the scholarship of faculty like Bill Cronon, color me outraged.

Tomorrow, watch this blog for what my colleague Robin Rogers of Queens College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York has to say about the educational policy activities of billionaires. It'll be the first in a two part series. Clearly, it's something we all need to start discussing.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Things That Make Me Go Hmm....(Part 2)

Hot off the presses, recent news that has me scratching my head, or otherwise up in arms...

(1) Raising tuition in expensive cities in the midst of an economic crisis. Yep, that's what CUNY thinks is the right thing to do. Hat tip to Tom Hilliard, who pointed me to this incredible inane comment from a CUNY administrator: "What's really driving some of the issues here is the concern about debt and debt upon graduation, and our students as a whole take out little debt, for obvious reasons. The tuition's affordable for those who can pay." Um, yeah.

(2) The White House wades into the quagmire of university admissions, promoting creative thinking on how to achieve diversity. In one sense, just in time, since it sure looks like the Supreme Court is going to end the use of race in admissions by June. On the other hand, I wish the Administration would issue some cautions about how criteria like first-generation status and high school attended are hardly clean proxies for race. Plenty of folks want to do something less controversial, which socioeconomic diversity proxies will accomplish, but they can't and shouldn't pretend the outcomes achieved will be the same.

(3) Jerry Sandusky is innocent? So he says. "I didn't do those things. I'm not the monster I've been made out to be. I didn't engage in sexual activities with those kids." Others told me similar things during a recent trip to Penn State. I don't know, call me naive but I'm inclined to believe the testimony of the 8 or more adults who say they were raped, over the guy who likes to call anal sex "horseplay." I don't care what his "motives" were-- I care what his ACTIONS were. And by the way, does he sound drugged or drunk to anyone else?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Making College More Student Friendly (Part 1: Seg Fees)

Another new Education Optimists series-- this one is focused on how to reform our colleges and universities to become more student-friendly. First up, seg fees.

Last night as I observed my Twitter feed, I noticed a tweet from a student journalist about a particular aspect of UW System policy on segregated fees. According to System financial rule F50, in order for an organization to receive seg fees, it must "require that all leadership positions in the organization be held by students enrolled on a fee-paying basis for at least half-time; as used in this policy, "half-time" status means enrollment for a minimum of six credits as an undergraduate student, and enrollment for a minimum of four credits as a graduate student, except that for UW-Colleges students "half-time" status means enrollment for a minimum of three credits."

This strikes me as a good example of a well-intentioned policy with unintended consequences.

The purpose of the policy may be to ensure that only students hold leadership positions, preventing others in the community from accessing student resources and/or controlling agendas. That makes sense. Maybe it is also intended to ensure that students who hold leadership positions have "skin in the game"--e.g. paid their seg fees. That makes less sense, since many students didn't themselves pay their seg fees: their parents or financial aid did.

But this half-time requirement systematically disenfranchises the more than 23,000 undergraduate students in the UW System who, for whatever reason, are attending college part-time. Statistics show that part-time enrollment is a temporary situation for some students, and a strategy for college attendance for others. For example, a student may be full-time throughout college, but due to family obligations or a short-fall of financial resources, or difficulty with some hard courses, may drop to part-time for a given term. Or, the student's approach to financing college may be to work 3/4 time, and take a half-time load. Such students are disproportionately first-generation, racial/ethnic minorities, and/or from low-income families. They are often somewhat older, and more likely to be women.

Participation and leadership in student organizations is important. It's not only a credit to one's resume, and a great way to build social networks, but it is also a predictor of college persistence. Thus, it is probably especially important for students who are otherwise disconnected from campus to have the opportunity--if they so choose, can fit it in, and are chosen--to take the role as a leader. Saying that they can't (or if they do, their organization can't access seg fees) is passing judgement on their abilities, rights, and opportunities based on a single atribute of their college attendance pattern: how many credits they take. This serves to preserve and maintain the advantage of students who can afford and manage to schedule full-time attendance, and perpetuates the interests of full-time students over part-time ones.

This rule could be modified in ways that maintain the intent--to ensure leaders are students--while removing the unintended consequences. For example, why not require of leaders (item 2c in F50) exactly what's required of members (item 2b): "Students enrolled for a minimum of one semester hour of credit at the UW institution for which the organization is seeking official recognition?" Or, require that the person has taken at least 6 credit hours on campus in the last 2 years? If a modification is sought, consider this: Is it really the case that there is a systematic problem of non-students taking leadership roles in student organizations, such that a blanket rule that disenfranchises 15% of UW System undergraduates is truly needed?

Lest you think this is a minor issue that hardly ever comes up, take a look at today's Badger Herald. At last night's ASM meeting, student Nneka Akubeze was nominated to fill the position of vice-chair, and "Student Services Finance Committee Chair Sarah Neibart said because Akubeze, a special student, is enrolled in four credits, she is not eligible for a leadership position in ASM." A debate ensued. I do not know Akubeze, but it seems to me that debate was long overdue.