Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Picture of the Day: Failure to Serve

Everyone wants to be "the best." Stuyvesant High School in New York City is one of those considered to be winning the race to the top.  According to this picture, and the New York Times, not so much.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Who Gets Paid What?

Today the Chronicle of Higher Education released information on the "Median Salaries of Senior College Administrators by Job Category and Type of Institution, 2011-12. "  Giving concerns about administrative costs contributing to rising tuition-- or at minimum, the difficulty in keeping tuition flat giving the expansion of some administrations, this is data we should all pay attention to.

How does UW-Madison stack up? A quick comparison of the salaries of a sample of 20 or so indicate that overall, Madison pays slightly better than the median salaries at doctoral-grant institutions.  But that conceals some heterogeneity which may deserve further attention.  What jumped out most to me is that while men like Vice Chancellor for Administration Darrell Bazzell, and Vice Chancellor for University Relations Vince Sweeney, and Dean of the Graduate School Martin Cadwalleder earn $30-60,000 more than the median for people in their position, three of the key female stars on campus earn below-the-median salaries:  legal counsel Lisa Rutherford, Vice Provost for Enrollment Management Joanne Berg, and Director of Academic Planning and Analysis Jocelyn Milner.  Education dean Julie Underwood, and former Chancellor Biddy Martin earn(ed) well above the national median, which offset the lower salaries of women overall.

My point in making these comparisons is not to suggest that everyone isn't earning their keep 'round these parts--we are all working hard and making do with less these days--but the comparisons serve as important reminder that we should always, always remain vigilant about the specifics of salary distributions.  I know Madison tries hard to attend to gender equity, and administrators at other colleges and universities should too.  After all,  higher education should lead the way in ameliorating inequality-- not perpetuating it!

Hat-tip to Tora Frank for able research assistance! We used 2010-11 salaries since that's what's available-- and as we all know, raises aren't happening these days...

Picture of the Day: Wisconsin Races to the Bottom

This is from Tom Mortenson's Postsecondary Education Opportunity Report, Feb 2012

What We're Reading: New Evidence on College Prep and Financial Aid

The National Bureau of Economic Research has released a couple of new papers worth reading.

(1) A new study from Kirabo Jackson at Northwestern considers a Texas college-prep program called APIP: Advanced Placement Incentive Program. It provides cash incentives for student and teachers to help students perform well on AP tests, and it provides teacher training, curricula oversight, and test-prep sessions.  While this clearly fits the model of "teaching to the test" it's about way more than paying students for grades.  The cash incentives for the teachers are real money-- depending on the school, as much as $500 for each student in their course scoring a 3 or better on an AP exam, and bonuses up to $1000 at year's end, and for the "lead" teachers, annual bonus payments up to $15,000 per year. Payments to students are also large-- not only is the fee for the exam defrayed, but they can also get up to $500 for good scores.

Now, this is clearly not an entirely public program-- private donors are paying 70% of the costs, which can range up to $200,000 per school per year, which an average cost of $225 per student. Moreover, currently opportunities aren't extended to all schools in Dallas, where the program operates--these are schools that seek out the chance and sign up. In fact, Jackson carefully notes, "Many districts are interested in the program but there are no donors. So there is always a shortage of donors.”

APIP was not randomly assigned to students, but Jackson uses a rigorous quasi-experimental diff-in-diff approach to try and sort out program effects from selection effects.

Jackson identifies program impacts on college attendance and completion, with attendance effects more prominent for white students, and completion effects more pronounced for black and Hispanic students. While he draws attention to these heterogeneous impacts in the paper, he does not discuss the potential mechanisms underlying the heterogeneity-- I hypothesize one reason is that while succeeding in AP coursework may not be enough to move more black and Hispanic students into college, at the institutions when they commonly attend, having the AP credit may well accelerate time to degree for those who manage to go.  On the other hand, a lack of AP courses may be among the few barriers faced by the white students, but since they are more likely to attend selective institutions that use AP in admissions but don't apply those credits against college coursework it may not accelerate time to degree.

In any case, this is a carefully executed study well worth-reading.  The author concludes,"Because there has been little credible evidence on the efficacy of college-prep programs despite large public  and private expenditure on such programs, the results of this study are encouraging about the potential efficacy of college-preparatory programs at improving the educational outcomes of disadvantaged students who are consigned to inner-city schools."  I would only add, the results are only encouraging if you believe that there will ever be enough private donors and/or sufficient resources devoted to helping students at disadvantaged schools succeed. Perhaps living under the Walker-regime in Wisconsin simply makes me a little too pessimistic.

2. The second fascinating study of the morning tests a hypothesis I've floated in several places recently-- perhaps giving promotes giving, especially when it comes to financial aid.  Jonathan Meer and Harvey Rosen examine this at a single (anonymous) research university (which I'm betting is Princeton).  Overall, they find the answer is no-- people don't tend to return the generosity they are given.  There's virtually no effect for students who received scholarships or campus jobs, and in fact students who took out/ are saddled with loans are less likely to give to their institution post-graduation.  In other words, duh -- this strategize that state institutions are being forced to rely on, putting the burden of costs of attendance on their students, is going to drive down the size of their endowments over time.  It contributes to a vicious cycle.

What the paper doesn't do is examine the effects of widely-respected, beloved programs like the federal Pell Grant. In my research I detect substantial gratitude among students for that program, and I strongly suspect that given the opportunity to realize the economic benefits of college attendance--e.g. when people reach their mid-40's-- they are more likely to give back.  A hypothesis still open for testing.

In addition, it's worth considering the possibility that effects of aid on giving are heterogeneous-- much like the effects of aid on college persistence, and the effects of college on wages.  This anonymous university isn't very diverse-- it's 74% white and 31% of students went to a private high school. The authors test for some race interactions and find a few but the more interesting question is whether students more likely to depend on need-based financial aid are more likely to give-- and this school has very few truly poor students attending it.

Overall, a nice start for a literature with plenty of room to grow.

For a free copy of each paper, click the link in the first paragraph of each description and type in a .edu email address.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Post-Racial Era?

A fellow professor at an institution that shall remain nameless (truly) just forwarded me an email he just received. It has been modestly modified only to protect the professor and the university.

"Hello, I see from the Latino Studies Department website that you are a faculty member .  I’m wondering if you would be able to translate something for me?  At our cafeteria we are in the process of naming several of our new food venues.  At our “Mexican Grill” venue, where we will be serving Tex-Mex food items, we are considering some different names for this food venue.  We are considering using Comida Rica or Que Rico for the name, along with “Mexican Grill.”   Does Comida Rica mean Delicious Food and Que Rico, Delicious?  We want to make sure that we are using words properly and have also seen these words associated with “Rich Food” “How Tasty” or “How Rich.”  I would appreciate it if you would let me know  the definition when used with food."

Yes, the professor is Latino.

Is this really the 21st century?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wisconsin Legislators Attack Academic Freedom at UW System

Lest you thought their interests in UW System were merely economic, Wisconsin legislators have now baldly demonstrated their political agendas with regard to institutions of public higher education.   Squelching an art exhibit hosted by UW Extension, legislator Steve Nass framed his attack on academic freedom as an appropriate intrusion, intended to "help" Extension's long-term interests in having state funding by promoting political correctness.

Linking together the new austerity in higher education with political interests in suppressing "liberal" education and the activities of the arts and humanities, the Wisconsin legislature brings the past antics of Lynne Cheney and her ilk to a whole new level.  It is imperative that UW System not operate out of economic fear, compromising the integrity of its programming, and instead reverse the decision to cancel "Art in Protest"-- holding the event proudly, to fulfill the mission of its name.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Squeeze Public Higher Education-- And Watch it Squirm

Make no mistake about it-- a conservative agenda in public higher education, quite similar to the one for public k-12, is steadily progressing across the nation.  The multi-pronged attack includes cutting budgets ("we have no choice-- look at the deficit!"), deriding outcomes ("college is worthless, students are partying"), and applying business models to evaluating success ( c.f. all the efficiency talk).

Today's news is rife with stories suggesting that under attack, public colleges and universities are abandoning their missions, adapting market-centered approaches, fighting with each other, and otherwise jumping ship.

  • A new survey reports that 143 public colleges and universities now have differential tuition -- a policy that seems efficient on its face, but may well further stratify opportunities, leaving behind those with the least information and least ability to pay.

If you weren't alarmed by events last year in Wisconsin, and what they suggested about national trends, you ought to be waking up now.  And assuming you are concerned, come out this week and hear about how public higher education can fight back.  Gary Rhoades is in town, at a visit sponsored by the Wisconsin Academy and the Wisconsin Alumni Association, and he's giving three talks.  Please join us!  The first one is tonight at 7 pm at MMoca.

John Stuart Mill and Rick Santorum agree: what is going on here?

In 1859, John Stuart Mill, an important English philosopher wrote this about education: 
If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them. The objections which are urged with reason against State education, do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State's taking upon itself to direct that education: which is a totally different thing. That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as any one in deprecating. All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government. 
Yesterday, It was reported in the New York Times, that Rick Santorum,
 said the idea of schools run by the federal government or by state governments was “anachronistic.”
The Times article goes on to say that:
But it was the latest in a series of comments by the former Pennsylvania senator — who is tied in polls in the critical Ohio and Michigan primary contests — suggesting that he takes a dim view of public schooling. He and his wife home-schooled their children.
For the first 150 years, most presidents home-schooled their children at the White House, he said. “Where did they come up that public education and bigger education bureaucracies was the rule in America? Parents educated their children, because it’s their responsibility to educate their children.”
“Yes the government can help,” Mr. Santorum added. “But the idea that the federal government should be running schools, frankly much less that the state government should be running schools, is anachronistic. It goes back to the time of industrialization of America when people came off the farms where they did home-school or have the little neighborhood school, and into these big factories, so we built equal factories called public schools. And while those factories as we all know in Ohio and Pennsylvania have fundamentally changed, the factory school has not.”
Now, I cannot say that I am a big fan of Rick Santorum (or truth be told any of the other candidates for President.) Presidential candidates tend to agree with each other about education when they are not simply lying about it.
Here is Barack Obama on the campaign trail four years ago:
And don't tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend most of the year preparing him to fill in a few bubbles on a standardized test.  I don't want teachers to the -- teaching to the test. I don't want them uninspired and I don't want our students uninspired. 
He doesn’t want students taking tests all day, eh? He has a  funny way of showing it.
And here he is later on in the same speech actually quoting me (without mentioning my name):
We'll teach our students not only math and science, but teamwork and critical thinking and communication skills, because that's how we'll make sure they're prepared for today's workplace.
Of course presidential candidates have never been too keen on the truth, so why am I surprised he never did any of this?
But I am surprised by Sanatorium because he seems to actually mean it. He homeschools his own kids after all. So the real question is just how crazy an idea is this? Should the government get out of the eduction business?
To think about this correctly one has only to ask if countries run by dictators or by religious authorities would ever consider getting out of the education business? You can’t have a Communist country without an education system that teaches why your country is right and all other countries are wrong. You can’t really imagine that Iran isn’t controlling every word taught in their schools. Well, so are we. In a real democracy the government does not run the schools, nor produce the tests. The government must simply require as J.S. Mill said, that every child be educated.
While people who believe in democracy hold up the schools of Stalin or Hitler as the very paradigm of education gone wrong,  somehow we still think the government should be in charge of education. Here is my favorite quote by Mark Twain.
In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards. 

Government run schools are not a good idea. There is always a truth being taught whether that truth is importance of algebra and what passes for science or whether it is the proper things to believe about our leaders.  Schools feel and look like factories and prisons because children and being made to conform and forced to be there.  
We need to re-think education. The first step is re-thinking the role of government in education. Santorum is right about this and I am pleased to see a presidential candidate raise the real issues in education. Of course, the Media make fun of him for raising these issue simply because they cannot conceive of any alternative to government run education. (Possibly because they all attended government run schools that taught them the truth.) The media needs to get smarter so the conversation about education can get smarter. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Strengthening Our Democratic Enterprise: Education Policy in the 21st Century

This guest post is from Dr. Barbara Ferman, Founder and Executive Director, University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia and Professor of Political Science at Temple University. Please contact her directly with any questions or comments, at bferman@temple.edu .

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s White House speech on January 10, in which he heralded Action Civics as a promising model for engaging current and future generations in the democratic enterprise, appears to have generated cheers from some and set off alarm bells among others. Such debate is what democracy is all about and should be supported and encouraged. However, as is too often the case, the debate is mired in confusion as to the purpose and practice of Action Civics. As Executive Director of one of the founding organizational members of the National Action Civics Collaborative (NACC), I would like to set the record straight with regards to this very promising practice—what is Action Civics, what is the value added and what does it look like in practice?

Action Civics is an iterative process of issue identification, research, constituency building, action, and reflection that is used to address real-world experiences that apply to the lives of students. It is a process that embraces collective action, encourages youth voice, agency and leadership, and emphasizes the rights and responsibilities of citizens in a democratic society. In addition to building the skills, developing the knowledge and shaping the values that underlie a democratic society, Action Civics has been correlated with improved academic and behavioral outcomes. So, what is the problem? The problem is that students may embrace perspectives with which we disagree. This is a very real possibility but isn’t that what democracy is about? For example, I do not agree with Checker Finn’s perspective but I respect and absolutely defend his right to publicly articulate it. Democracy is not about unlimited freedom or irresponsible behavior, both of which threaten democracy. Rather, it is about learning to behave responsibly within a free society. Shutting students down or teaching about democracy in ways that are incongruent with its underlying principles does a disservice to the student, to education and to democracy. If we want our young people to participate in the larger society in ways that are productive, respectful, and that preserve our democratic institutions, we need to let them practice.

So, what does Action Civics look like in practice? What do youth take on when given the opportunity and support to make their voice heard? Here are a few examples from the founding members of NACC:

  • At Earth Force, youth are leaders in their community around issues like water quality, food access and energy consumption. They identify local issues important to them, and research the policy and practice behind those problems to create real, sustainable change. They meet with government officials, create awareness campaigns to share throughout their community, and work in partnership with local leaders to ensure their change is effective for the whole community.
  • At Generation Citizen, high school students, under the guidance of classroom teachers and college student mentors, have collaboratively developed projects on topics like school transportation policy, gang violence and food access. By learning traditional civic content alongside skills for civic action, these students have applied their civics knowledge to help to raise awareness, inform policy makers on their views, and make their voices heard on issues important to them, their schools, and their communities.
  • At Mikva Challenge, students have hosted mayoral candidate forums, served as election judges, volunteered in local campaigns, conducted action oriented research on a wide range of issues and worked closely with the CEO of Chicago schools and the Mayor to improve transportation and schools. 
  • At the University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia (UCCP), high school and college students have collaborated on a youth produced TV news show that airs weekly on Public Access TV. Upset by the disproportionate amount of negative media attention, these young people decided to spotlight positive contributions of youth. Involved in every stage of planning, production, marketing and distribution, these young people have acquired a wide range of technical, project management, communication, and media literacy skills as well as a much deeper understanding of role of media in a democratic society. 
  • Youth on Board, in partnership with Boston Public Schools, administers the Boston Student Advisory Council (BASC) to engage students in decision-making processes that affect their public education. BASC has been instrumental in improving learning environments by creating mechanisms for student feedback in official teacher evaluations, protecting student rights and providing recommendations on restorative justice discipline policies. 

This is only a small sampling of how youth are engaging in the democratic process to make improvements in their education, the health of their communities, the way media portrays young people, and the political process itself. They are learning to be citizens in a democratic society and behaving professionally and responsibly. This is Action Civics in practice. Hopefully, President Obama will share Arne Duncan’s passion for and embrace of, Action Civics as a powerful antidote to our engagement malaise.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Focus on Pell

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities has released a new report highlighting the use of federal student financial aid by states and congressional districts.  It is fairly obviously intended to make the point that campus-based aid-- which President Obama is trying to leverage to hold colleges and universities responsible for rising tuition and fees-- is a tiny amount of money.  I think it does that quite effectively. But what it also highlights is how important the federal Pell Grant is to state and local economies.

Let's take Wisconsin, for example.  In 2010-2011, just over 130,000 Wisconsin students received Pell Grants, valued at over $454 million. In contrast, campus-based programs (the SEOG and work-study) distributed funds to just over 35,000 students to the tune of about $34 million.

The contribution of federal student aid to congressional districts is sizable, but the relative contribution of campus-based programs is generally small. For example, in Paul Ryan's district, the Pell Grant contributes $36 million, while campus-based programs add just $2 million.  In Sean Duffy's district, the Pell contributes $45 million, and campus-based programs barely $3.2 million.  Of course, where there are more colleges and universities, districts benefit much more from campus-based programs.  Tammy Baldwin's district (which includes UW-Madison), receives $104 million from Pell, and just under $10 million from campus-based programs.

The variation in the contribution of campus-based aid dollars to economies in congressional districts illustrates the challenges Obama faces in getting his proposal passed.  In contrast, the widespread distribution of Pell dollars throughout congressional districts shows us why, generally speaking, the Pell is likely to survive for quite some time.  It also makes one wonder why Congress doesn't do more to focus on Pell, and even increase spending, especially given that Pell dollars clearly contribute to state economies-- both directly, and indirectly via increased human capital. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Playing the College Ranking Game: How to Stop Gaming the System and Improve Rankings

The following is a guest post by Robert Kelchen, doctoral student at UW-Madison. 

The recent revelation by Claremont McKenna College that it falsely reported artificially high SAT scores for six years of incoming students is the most recent example of a college or university fudging the numbers in order to look better in the ubiquitous U.S. News and World Report college rankings. Other recent examples of colleges trying to game the rankings include:

All of these problems have led to calls to get rid of the U.S. News rankings. However, few people are discussing the true problem with the rankings: they’re measuring perceived institutional prestige instead of whether students actually benefit from attendance—and that is why there is such a strong incentive to cheat! The U.S. News rankings currently give weight to the following measures:
  •        Undergraduate academic reputation (ratings by college officials and high school guidance counselors): 22.5%-25%
  •        Retention and graduation rates (of first-time, full-time students): 20%-25%
  •        Faculty resources (class size, faculty degrees, salary, and full-time faculty): 20%
  •        Selectivity (ACT/SAT, high school class rank, and admit rate of first-time, full-time students): 15%
  •        Financial resources (per-student spending on educational expenses): 10%
  •        Graduation rate performance (the difference between actual graduation rates and a predicted graduation rate based on student and institutional characteristics): 0-7.5%

Most of the weight in the rankings is given to factors that are inputs to a student’s education: initial academic preparedness, peer quality, and money. In fact, the focus on some of these outcomes is detrimental to students and the general public. The strong pressure to keep admit rates low is partially a function of institutions encouraging students to submit applications with a very low chance of admission and results in colleges being unwilling to open their doors to even a few more deserving students. Encouraging higher rates of per-student spending does not necessarily result in better outcomes, especially considering these resources could go toward serving more students. In fact, raising tuition by $1,000 per year and burning it on the quad would improve a college’s ranking, as long as the pyromania is classified as an “instructional expense.”

Retention and graduation rates do capture a college’s effectiveness to some extent, but they are also strongly correlated with institutional resources and incoming student characteristics. The Ivy League colleges routinely graduate more than 90% of their students and are generally considered to be the best universities in the world, but this doesn’t mean that they are effectively (or efficiently) educating their students.

Yes, I did use the word “efficiently” in the last sentence. Although many in the education community shudder at the thought of analyses of efficiency or cost-effectiveness, they are essential in order for us to know whether our resources are helping students succeed at a reasonable price. The U.S. News rankings don’t speak to whether certain colleges do much to improve the outcomes of students, especially as the students attending highly-rated universities are extremely likely to graduate no matter what.

College rankings should recognize that colleges have different amounts of resources and enroll different types of students. (U.S. News currently does this, but in a less-than-desirable manner.)  They should focus on estimating the gains that students make by attending a particular college, both by taking student and institutional characteristics into account and placing much more weight on the desired outcomes of college. It is also important to measure multiple outcomes, both to reduce the ability of colleges to game the system and to reflect the many purposes of a college education. Washington Monthly’s set of alternative college rankings are a good starting point, including national service and advanced degree receipt in its set of outcomes. These rankings should also take cost into account as a negative factor; as the net cost of attendance rises, fewer students can expect to come out ahead on their investment of time and money.

Despite the wishes of many in academia, college rankings are not going away anytime soon; a sizable amount of the public use the information and publishers have found this business to be both profitable and influential. However, those of us in the higher ed community should push for rankings that attempt to estimate a college’s ability to help students meet their goals instead of measuring a college’s ability to enroll students who will graduate anyway. As a part of my dissertation (in work with Doug Harris), I am examining a potential new college ranking system which takes both student and college resources into account and adjusts for the cost of providing education. I find that our set of rankings look much different than the traditional college rankings and reward colleges which appear to be outperforming given their resources.

This sort of ranking system would eliminate the incentive for colleges to submit inflated test scores or to become extremely selective in their admissions processes. If anything, holding colleges accountable for their resources would give colleges an incentive to fudge the numbers downward—the exact opposite of the current rankings. Just like measuring multiple outcomes helps to reduce gaming the system, multiple ranking systems reduce the incentive for colleges to cheat and provide false numbers. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The real damage done by testing in the schools: a conversation with Milo

I had a long conversation with Milo, my six year old grandson, the other day. Milo is very smart. (Yes, I know. What grandfather wouldn’t say that? But trust me, he is.) 
I asked him what he had done that was fun recently and he told me about a game he had been playing with a friend, which was good to hear about since Milo went through a long obsession with chess that I am happy to hear is waning.
I then asked him about school. I asked him if he liked taking the tests (which are everywhere these days - even in first grade) and I also asked him if he had learned anything interesting lately. I know that he doesn’t find school that interesting from previous conversations with him and from my daughter’s (the “me” below) postings about him. Here is the most recent one:
Milo: I wish they would teach real science in science class.
Me: What's real science?
Milo: Like chemistry, biology, dissection.
Me: What kind of science do they teach instead?
Milo: Paperwork.

Milo said he liked taking tests. He liked working out the problems and, of course, does well on them.  
Now, I have been railing about these awful standardized tests for the last 25 years, long before NCLB made everyone aware of how awful testing really is. But, Milo made me realize that what I hate about testing is not the tests themselves. Milo made me realize that I liked taking the test as well when I was a child. I always liked contests and I liked winning. I am so against testing that I forgot that for a smart kid, they can be fun.
While teachers and principals correctly argue that testing is ruining our schools, the reasons that they cite, all of which are correct in my opinion, often do not include the main reason that I am so opposed to testing.
I became vehemently anti-testing when I began to question the validity of the curriculum being taught in the schools. As I began to invent different kinds of experiences for kids on the computer in the 80’s and 90’s. I came  to realize that my software would never be used. The reason was clear enough. I was building software that did not relate to the existing curriculum. “Broadcast News” was meant to teach how to analyze current events through pretending to be a newscaster. “Crisis in Krasnovia” was intended to teach how political decision making works. "Road Trip" was intended to allow kids to explore the country. My team built many programs like this and they were never used because they didn’t fit into the existing curriculum. Many factors make the curriculum intransigent: the colleges that insist on certain courses for their applicants, parents who think whatever was taught to them must be taught to their children, politicians who can’t think about education in any sensible way as well as many other factors. But the number one issue is the tests. If all that matters are test scores then you can’t really spend much time on any curriculum that doesn’t get tested. In other words the tests make it impossible to change the curriculum from the one Charles Eliot specified in 1892.
This is why NCLB and Common Core are so insidious. They allow no modification of the ancient idea of what constitutes an education.
This leads me to the second part of my conversation with Milo. I asked him if he had learned anything interesting in school lately and he told he me that he had been learning  about how the rhinoceros is an endangered species. He said they were being killed for their horns and that that was very sad. I asked him if he would be upset if he found out that wasps were an endangered species and he said wasps sting people and they are bad so it would be okay if they all died. I asked if he knew what wasps ate and if he understood that if there would be a lot more of whatever nasty stuff they dine on if there were no wasps. Of course his teacher had not mentioned any idea like that so this was lost on him. I asked if he was upset that people killed chickens and he said no because you can eat chickens. I said that you could eat rhinoceros as well and this was, of course, news to him.
My point is that the school, even when it teaches something that might not be on the test, still doesn’t teach kids to think hard about what they are talking about. It teaches truth. So while rhinoceros extinction may not be in the Common Core, memorization of officially approved facts certainly is. School ought not be about the teaching of officially approved truth.
And that, then, is why standardized testing is so awful. They don't test creative thinking or reasoning from evidence or how to have an argument.  They teach the truth. And the truth somehow always manages to include the quadratic formula but manages to exclude areas where the truth isn’t so clear.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Focus On Developing Teachers, Not Simply Measuring Them

This cross-posted item is from a piece I wrote for the Silicon Valley Education Foundation's TOP-Ed blog.


Amid the current flurry of state policy reform activity around teaching, I've been thinking about what's missing. My conclusion: A focus on teachers as learners....


To read more, visit the TOP-Ed blog post.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Think Outside Your Box

It is often said that access/diversity and affordability in higher education can only come at the expense of quality. Thus, it is all-too-common for critics to cast those in favor of broadening college access as socialists who simply want to destroy high-quality educational institutions. They promote a false dichotomy that has been kept alive for decades by the consistent retelling of the "tragedy of the commons." The tragedy, we're told, is that people will always strive to maximize their private benefits, and that eventually these will necessarily come at the expense of common goods.  Garrett Hardin famously laid this out for us in 1968.

Sadly, far too many people seem to think the tragedy of the commons is a problem that can't be solved. The "iron triangle" model dominating decision-making in higher education confirms this-- since "we know" that spending leads to quality (thus less spending leads to less quality), and that increased access (e.g. more people) requires more money, then it follows that more access means less quality. Right?
Well, no, not really.  First, the link between spending and quality is notoriously weak -- maybe because there's too little variation in spending and/or quality to detect an effect, but maybe not.  Second, just because money is spent on access does not mean that money isn't also creating more quality (especially if diversity is one measure of quality). And third, it's possible to spend less money on quality and yet produce more quality by increasing productivity.

But you can't produce more productivity without greater compensation since people will only respond only to cash, right?  You can't get hard work without inequality-- and inequality is good since a rising tide lifts all boats. Right?? Well, again, no.  It is possible to solicit great effort from humans with other motivators, including security, community, and self-esteem.  Higher education is terrible at distributing these things; it's a climate where professors are said to be "independent contractors," always trying to one-up each other, and it's the very rare administrator who takes time to commend or praise her faculty's hard work.  But places do exist, whole departments even, where people get along, and this keeps them content and productive even when they are not well-compensated according to "market value."

The current crisis in public higher education demands that we make it a priority to grow and nuture such places.  They have to be created by real leaders, and leadership is what's really lacking right now.  Higher education leaders that are educated and experienced in the areas in which they work (e.g. higher education policy), leaders that focus on goal-setting first, and policy development second, leaders that see nothing as inevitable and everything in education as a possibility-- these are so hard to come by.  We are surrounded by narrow-minded thinkers who can't imagine a world other than the one they live in now. But if we encourage and develop people who can think outside the box--the box created by a highly individualistic vision of higher education-- we will find a sustainable model.  We will, as a community, move beyond the tragedy of the commons.

I'm not alone in this vision.  Hear it again, directly from the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics-- Elinor Olstrom.

Crossing Wires

A recent exchange between Chris Rickert and Mike Knetter provides a useful example of what happens when we engage in policy discussions without being insufficiently clear about our intended goals.

Chris's column from Thursday was titled "Big donors don't make a big impact on tuition at UW-Madison." In this piece he makes the following points:

(1) UW-Madison faces a public relations problem because it claims to have financial troubles but building construction on campus is rampant.
(2) Private donations to UW often go to buildings and athletics, rather than to need-based financial aid.
(3) There is a national affordability crisis.

He does not tie these three points together in any clear fashion in the text of the column, but the headline attempts to do so by claiming that what the three points tell us is that donors aren't really helping the university respond to the national crisis, since their money doesn't go to discount tuition.

Obviously, those who raise money from private donors at UW were not happy. And so we have a response today from Mike Knetter, of UW Foundation. Knetter makes two very clear points:

(1) UW is grateful for every donation it receives, whether or not it goes to financial aid.
(2) Donations that improve educational quality enhance the affordability agenda, since it is meaningless to provide an inexpensive education if that education isn't worthwhile.

Unfortunately, I think this discussion was not as productive as it could have been. If Chris's intent was to question decisions about resource allocation at UW-Madison, perhaps to stimulate a deeper conversation about those issues, then he got off-track by implying that only donations to aid are useful.  Mike's response is directly to that point.  And this is too bad, since it would be very helpful to the campus community for UW to engage in a public debate about the goals it is trying to achieve with limited resources, what the most effectives routes to achieving those goals are, and where we stand in relation to those paths.  If I'm reading between the lines correctly, Chris wants Madison to be responsive to public needs-- but it's not exactly clear that "responsive" means to him.  And if I am reading Mike correctly, he feels that in order for Madison to meet any of its many goals, it will need to continue to depend on private donors-- and that means accepting the heterogenous motivations donors possess and working within those parameters.  That too should be up for some discussion.

I hope in the coming months we can all attempt to begin our arguments about what Madison and System should or should not do by first saying what we want these institutions to achieve.  Unless we have a common understanding of goals, the route to reaching those goals will continue to elude us.

Monday, February 6, 2012

On Tuition Flexibility

This Wednesday the Wisconsin Special Task Force on UW Restructuring and Operational Flexibilities will hear from the chancellors of Madison and Milwaukee on several issues, including flexibility for tuition-setting.

I'm on the record as having numerous concerns about the unintended consequences of giving institutional administrators more say over tuition, since they operate under intense local and political pressures to generate more resources which lead them to raise tuition even when it comes at the expense of access commitments. The latter are far more difficult to uphold, since even when people feel strongly about supporting college opportunities for disadvantaged families, the fact is that those families are quite distant from the lives of decision-makers, and thus easy to neglect.

A new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research by Columbia economist Judith Scott-Clayton offers important reminders for this task force and the chancellors.  The access commitment is easy to make in theory, and much harder to fulfill in practice.  Sure, we like to believe that we can simply meet it by redistributing tuition revenue from middle and upper-class families to poorer families via financial aid (discounting).  But this relies on a set of assumptions, including that (a) poorer families will know the discount is coming and ignore the sticker price, (b) they will know and believe this information early enough to ensure their kids are prepared for college (as researchers put it, “potential college students cannot respond to a price subsidy if they do not know it exists"), (c) that this redistribution strategy will survive significant political push-back from the middle and upper-class families, (d) that the unintended divisiveness of the policy won't cause many consequences to campus climate and educational opportunities for the poorer students, and (e) that the access commitment will last even as campus administrations change.

I'm skeptical that these assumptions will be met by the kinds of tuition flexibility proposals we've seen in this country.  Short of a flat-out widely advertised and legislated promise to all Wisconsin residents under $80,000 (or some other income cutoff) that the full costs of attending college will be FREE, I don't think (a) and/or (b) will actually happen.  I don't think anyone knows about (c) or (d) and as for (e), get real-- no one puts this stuff in writing like they ought to.

Back to the NBER paper by Scott- Clayton-- here are key takeaways:

1. The chances are good that the market failure known as incomplete information has become more consequential in recent years as pricing of college has become much more individualized.  Despite decades of informational interventions, misinformation remains widespread-- as Scott-Clayton puts it,  "while many students appear well aware of the benefits of postsecondary education—in some cases even overestimating expected earnings gains—they persistently overestimate costs and are uninformed about sources of potential aid."

2. Creating a more complex system in which costs are higher and more variable, and more discounting is utilized, is unlikely to be offset by purely informational amendments.  In other words, an awareness campaign like that proposed by Biddy Martin last year likely won't even partially solve the problem creating by more tuition complexity.

3.  Informational contraints "can potentially undermine the effectiveness of even very large investments in financial aid."  In other words, we could spend a lot of money without creating much access--and we have to keep that in mind. It's a subject deserving of widespread and thorough public debate.

The lesson from this National Bureau of Economic Research paper for Wisconsin is this:  it's imperative that whatever tuition policy we move towards, it should not exacerbate students’ confusion about cost.   In my estimation, tuition "flexibility" at the institutional rather than System level will create more harm than good from those already left out and left behind by Wisconsin and its universities.

Postscript:  I want to clarify that the hearing on Wednesday will include discussion of two different tuition issues. First, whether the legislature should have granted the Regents flexibility to set tuition and then capped tuition.  I concur with Chancellor Ward that this is inappropriate-- the Legislature has much on its plate, and should allow the UW System Board of Regents the opportunity to convene a full discussion of tuition issues and make its own policies.  There are many ways for various constituencies to make their case to the Regents for keeping tuition very reasonable for Wisconsin residents, and the outcome will have more political legitimacy if done this way. Second, I understand that some chancellors want to have the flexibility to set tuition devolved to their own campus-- rather than have the Regents set it. This is not something Chancellor Ward is arguing for-- in contrast to his predecessor, and to the chancellors of Milwaukee and Stevens Point, he concurs that tuition-setting is an important function of university systems.  Finally, one last point-- anyone who claims that an access agenda is antithetical to an educational quality agenda is caught in the old Iron Triangle rhetoric, and needs to get up to speed.  Access (including diversity) is a key element of quality, and providing quality without access is no way to secure our children's future.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Cupcake Incident

On Friday my son turned five.  And so it was that on Thursday night I found myself elbow deep in dark chocolate cake batter and made-from-scratch coconut frosting, carefully following a recipe from the very chic Boston bakey Flour.  After asking Conor to name all of the children in his kindergarten class (twice) to be sure I would make enough cupcakes, I filled 18 spaces in my two non-stick pans and stuck them in the oven. Then I collapsed—while I love to cook, I hate baking, since it requires precise measurement and careful attention to detail, for which I have little energy left in the evenings given that such effort is required at work all day long.  Normally I would have taken a shortcut and used a mix to make life easier, but I wanted Conor’s cupcakes to be exactly as he’d asked for them—very chocolate, and very coconut.

Well, what those cupcakes really were—I learned 25 minutes later—was stuck. Glued to the pan, going absolutely nowhere. So much for “non-stick;” those suckers weren’t moving.  No, I didn’t use cupcake liners; I was trying to be “green.”   All of that Penzey's dutch-processed cocoa, organic butter and eggs, for nothing.  

I went to bed distressed.  Now what?  We needed 18 cupcakes by 930 am, and they had to be great.  Yeah, I knew they were for a bunch of 4 and 5-year-olds, but still-- they really just had to be great.  I searched West Madison online for bakeries, pondering the one with the $3 organic cupcakes (really??), the good ol'stanby Costco (not open til 10), and a new place a Facebook friend recommended.  As my eyes closed, I berated myself for obsessing this way. How could I have forgotten the cardinal rules of academic motherhood, and even attempted to bake cupcakes?  My own UW colleague, Simone Schweber, once wrote a brilliant column for the Chronicle about this-- and I had neglected the wisdom of her words, also written after attempting to make perfect cupcakes:  "I was always afraid that I wouldn't be a good mother, much less a perfect one, and indeed, it's much easier to make perfect, if ridiculous, cupcakes than to be a good mother.

The next morning, I dropped Conor off at school and set myself on a path for the grocery store.  A $5 or $10 box of cupcakes from the bakery department would be just fine for these little palates, I told myself.  I drove towards Sentry.  And then, to my astonishment, I turned left-- and instead made a beeline for Cupcakes-A-Go-Go.  It was a bit of an out-of-body experience; I got out of the car, went in and purchased 18 cupcakes, handing over my Amex and charging $54 -- all the while screaming (silently) at myself "STOP IT, this is CRAZY!" 

What in the heck had happened to me?  I knew the money was better spent elsewhere, that the kids wouldn't taste the difference, and that no one but me was demanding that I do this.  I knew that only children would be present at the celebration, no other parents, and that my kid's school (a Waldorf program) does its best to discourage conspicuous consumption. As a sociologist, I further knew that my behaviors were class-linked, and that I ought to actively resist them. I knew this, I knew that, and I simply couldn't stop.

So I brought the cupcakes back to kindergarten, and my husband and I served them. Conor smiled and enjoyed a chocolate one, and the other kids (including my 2-year-old daughter) licked their fingers happily. The eating lasted all of 10 minutes, and then it was done. $54 worth of sugar, consumed.  

What happened Friday morning is going to stay with me for a long time. Mainly because I still can't understand it.  Was I simply over-compensating for the guilt of being a working mom? I don't think so, since I really don't feel my family is anything but proud of my career.  Was I embarrassed by my baking mishap? Not really-- I know it happens. Was I competing with other moms, whom the teacher mentioned sometimes shop at another organic bakery?  Maybe a little.  But at the end of the day, for all of my intellectual abilities to classify and analyze my own actions, I can't find an explanation that resonates.  Most of all, I can't account for my intense guilt (almost disgust) over that $54. 

What I can tell you is this: I won't be found in a cupcakery again.  Just can't do it. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

college is about status not education

I have friend who I won’t name who went to a university I won’t name. He is very proud of having gone to this particular school. He insists that is son will go there. He attends their football games regularly. He brags that he is the only member of his family who was ever admitted to that school.
Whenever he says something I think is silly, I make fun of him for not knowing much because he went to this dumb school. Now in fact, I don’t think the school he went to is dumb and I don’t think he is dumb but my razzing gets to him and we are friends so it just a way that we talk to each other.
The other day he insisted that his school was ranked in the top 20 universities in the country. This being my business I assured him that it was not and he got very angry and then eventually looked it up and realized that on some lists his school didn’t appear even in the top 200. Recently he bet me that his school was in the top 10 hardest schools to get into. Of course it was no where near that hard to get into.
Why am I telling this story? I do not believe that one receives a better education in one university than one receives in another (unless one is planning a research career in which case where you go to college may matter a great deal.) It doesn’t matter where he went to school, it does matter what he has done since school. But his alma mater matters to my friend a great deal.
When I moved, as a professor, from Yale to Northwestern, I was always being asked why I would make a move like that. People perceived me as moving down in class. And, I succumbing to the status issue we all live with, will usually respond “Yale” when asked where I was a professor if I don’t have the time to list all the places I have been.
This is the point. The obsession we have with going to college in this country, with test scores, with SATs, with rank in class, and so on is not an obsession about education at all. It is an obsession about status. If you can say you went to Harvard every one will say ooh and wow and suddenly people will believe you are very smart. 
Having taught at places that are thought of that way I can tell you that there are smart kids and there are dumb kids at all these places. What they have in common is an ability to please their teachers and do well on tests.
It is a very sad state of affairs that people spend tremendous amounts of money on exorbitant tuitions, push their kids from kindergarten onwards to get good grades, and obsess about test scores for small children, all in the name of status. Moreover, they attach status to schools that don’t even have that status. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the phrase “its a very good school” after having been told that someone’s kid went to some school no one ever heard of.
This isn’t just an American obsession of course. Exactly the same phenomenon exists in the UK down to even which college at Oxford is better than which other college and in France with the Grandes Ecoles and in every other country I know about.
I wish I could say it is all nonsense but it isn’t. Companies make hiring decisions based on which school one attended and your friends think about you differently based on which school you attended. But it is simply not about education in any way. A lecture is still boring everywhere. The same books and internet are available anywhere, and college has never actually been all that much about education any way. Graduate school maybe. College not so much.
We really have to start thinking about all this differently.
Here are some numbers to think about. Yale and Harvard are top research universities. They are really about researchers teaching students to do research. One out every 64,000 people in the US are researchers. On the other hand, there are 1 million lawyers, 6 million teachers, and 12 million health care workers. Colleges do not teach these three, graduate schools (and technical schools) do that.
Stop worrying about what college your first grader will go to. Leave him alone. Let him have fun and learn what he wants. Most of us never attended Yale (including me) and have managed happy lives.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Are you there Kevin? It's me, neoliberalism

In a recent blog Kevin Carey took on Claire Potter’s critique of Obama’s higher education proposal by chastising her for using the term neoliberalism, and calling her a college professor so out of touch with the real world that she isn’t invited to the policymaking tables where he hangs out.

Dear Kevin, as you know I like you very much—so pardon me if I take offense here.  As a fellow college professor who spends quite a bit of time in DC policy circles (including with you), I think your critique of Potter is off-base. It’s also incredibly unproductive, as you set up an “education reformer versus college professor” dichotomy that's decidedly unhelpful. You accuse Potter of thinking she’s better than the DC crew, but she said nothing of the sort—instead it’s really you who calls her the idiot, seemingly for using big words. 

At the heart of the problem with your critique, Kevin, is that you’ve really missed the meaning of neoliberalism.  Yes, I’m going to keep using the polysyllabic term, since like “stratification,” it has real meaning and is useful for describing a complex concept. 

No, neoliberalism isn’t like facism—as you point out—and no one I know ever claimed it was.  It’s not widely abhorred, primarily because the term itself challenges an ideology so dominant that people have a hard time recognizing its existence.   You reduce neoliberalism to just one of its pieces: an effort to remove market regulation in the pursuit of greater liberty. Since Obama seeks, in some regards, to regulate the action of markets, markets which you rightly note already operate in education, then his policies can’t be neoliberal.  Right?

Wrong.  Neoliberalism is staring you in the face, and in today's education policies it isn’t marked solely or even primarily by a lack of market regulation, but by the promotion of privatization, erosion of worker protections,  heavy reliance on standardized testing, and the rollback of broad community input on school decisions.  More informally, neoliberalism posits that solutions to problems such as opportunity gaps lie in competition among individuals rather than long-term planning and cooperation.  It serves the few who are “racing to the top,” rather than the many who could and should work together for a just and equal society.  Frankly, neoliberal policies take the easy way out and call it “efficient”, rather than doing what’s hard but ultimately long-lasting and ethical.

Unbelievably, without a shred of evidence that positive outcomes have been achieved with the first, President Obama has proposed yet another Race to the Top, one that will undoubtedly reward institutions for policies that promote slippery-slope private partnerships (e.g. between community colleges and business), high-stakes accountability, and top-down reforms of professorial work, all in the name of enhanced productivity.  I'm on the record as for for productivity improvements in higher education, but I would never want them to be agenda #1—first we have a long way to go toward establishing a much deeper commitment public education, we must agree on goals and metrics for both educational equity and quality, we have to develop an appropriate and socially-just financing structure, and then we can work on efficiency.  Working backwards is a surefire way to cut costs and lose what’s most valuable: talent. And it’s definitely the way to create and perpetuate a 1% in education that leaves most of us behind.

Kevin, we share a deep commitment to doing whatever it takes to improve students' education experiences.  But we disagree on what we think the path to that goal must entail.  In my view, the road must include the continuation and indeed the growth of public investments in public education—not routes around it.  It must also include enhanced respect and support for educators.  There is no evidence of such support in this proposal—the importance of adequately supporting the work of professors in order to help student is not mentioned, and yet the fingers of blame are pointed in their direction (most recently by Joe Biden) for rising costs of college attendance.   The winners of this race will likely be the private institutions, who depend far less on state support, and thus will look like winners.  The students and families equipped to benefit from choice—those with more access to information and who are accustomed to “shopping,” will reap the rewards. They're the voters, and they'll love it most of all. Others who love the idea of choosing, and believe the false hopes that discussions of choice perpetuate, will similarly fall in line. That’s the neoliberal model at work—purporting to convene a fair competition, exciting the individualistic imagination of the American Dream, without placing any particular value on the principles of collective public goods or fair labor practices.  It may get people revved up in an election year, but make no mistake about it--it isn’t a progressive vision in the least.