Monday, January 30, 2012

Title Your Study with Care

Today's New York Times features an article on a new study on residential segregation by Edward Glaeser of Harvard, and Jacob Vigdor of Duke University.  I'd like to draw your attention to what the study actually finds, and how it's being pitched to the national audience.

The study is produced by the Manhattan Institute'Center for State and Local Leadership. The Institute is widely recognized as a conservative research organization. 

The title of the report, as written by its authors, reads: "The End of the Segregated Century."

The NYT's headline reads: "Segregation Curtailed in U.S. Cities, Study Finds."

The NYT's tweet reads: "Nation's Cities Almost Free of Segregation"

So it seems, the study must tell us that segregation has ended, or is about to-- right?

Nope.  What it tells us, points out Doug Massey of Princeton University, a nationally recognized expert on the topic, is that segregation has declined substantially in metropolitan areas with few black residents.   I wish I could say more, but this study-- despite being covered in the New York Times-- does not currently seem to appear anywhere on the Web!

So why not title the study "Shifting Patterns of Segregation"and the headline "Segregation Declines in Some U.S. Cities, Study Finds?"

Hmmm.  Think it'd get as much attention?  Fuel as much conservative fire? Yeah, that's what I thought.

PS. Want a more nuanced take on the changing face of segregation? I recommend this study.

You Got Rejected from Your First Choice College. So What?

The following is a guest post from Robert Kelchen, doctoral candidate in Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Washington Post’s Campus Overload blog recently featured a guest post, “Getting Rejected from Your Dream School(s) isn’t a Bad Thing” by Eric Harris, a junior who attended the University of Maryland after being deferred by his first choice (Duke) and rejected by six of the other eight colleges to which he applied. (He was also accepted by Emory.) Eric’s story is hardly unique, as numerous blogs and websites feature stories of students who were rejected by their first choice college. Most of the popular media accounts of students rejected by their first choice college are from students like Eric—those who applied to a large number of highly selective (and very expensive) colleges and universities and still attended a prestigious institution.

The kinds of students who are typically featured in the media are very likely to enjoy college and graduate in a timely manner, no matter where they end up attending. But the students who should be prominently featured instead are those whose first choice colleges are very different than their other options (much less selective four-year colleges, community colleges, or no college at all). Just-released data from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA shows that only 58 percent of students attending four-year universities were attending their first choice college in fall 2011; nearly one-fourth of students were rejected by their first choice. This suggests that a fair number of students fall into this category, but little is known about their college outcomes.

As a part of my dissertation, I am using data from the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study to examine the college experiences of students who attended their first choice college to those who attended another college—either because they were rejected by their first choice or because they were accepted by their first choice but did not attend. WSLS students all come from modest financial backgrounds and were Pell Grant recipients during their first year of college, so it is likely that the cost of college played a much larger role in their college choice process than for students like Eric.

It is important to note that students end up at their first choice college as the result of three decisions: applying to their first choice (not explored in my study), getting accepted, and then attending after being accepted. I model the acceptance and attendance decisions using available information on the students’ demographics and academic preparation, their high school of attendance, and their first choice college. This is an important step in establishing a causal relationship because WSLS students who attended their first choice college tend to come from different backgrounds (especially from more rural areas) than those who did not.

I use interview and survey data to explore whether students’ academic and social integration levels differed between students who attended their first choice and those who did not for either of the above reasons. The interviews suggest that most students reported being happy with their college of attendance, regardless of whether that was their first choice college. (Whether this is actually true or whether this is an example of self-affirmation bias, in which people try to portray a disappointing event in the best possible light, cannot be determined.) There are also few differences between students who attended their first choice and those who did not on survey measures of academic and social integration.

I also use academic outcomes from the University of Wisconsin System and the National Student Clearinghouse to estimate the effects of attending one’s first choice college. After modeling the selection process, I find no statistically significant differences on academic outcomes between students who attended their first choice and either group who did not. (This dissertation chapter is nearly complete, so stay tuned for the full results.)

It appears that being rejected from one’s first choice college is not the end of the world for most students. The psychic costs appear quite high in much of the popular media, but we don’t need to feel too sorry for students who are forced to attend a highly selective college that may have been their seventh choice instead of their first. I spent three years in college working in the admissions office at Truman State University, and I talked with plenty of students for whom Truman was not their first choice. After being rejected by elite, expensive universities, they came to Truman and turned out just fine. So don’t worry too much about getting rejected by your first choice college—especially if paying for college was never one of your concerns. Everything will be okay.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Thoughts on the Obama Blueprint for Higher Education

Today President Obama unveiled his latest blueprint for the reform of higher education at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, a public institution with relatively high tuition and relatively advantaged students, and a place in the midst of a dispute over graduate student labor practices. It's just miles from Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, where on July 14, 2009, Obama released his American Graduation Initiative, a blueprint for transforming the nation's community colleges, which was essentially destroyed as it was caught up in political debates over the health care legislation.

The blueprint responds to the groundswell of concern about the high and ever-expanding cost of college attendance, and the corresponding growth in the costs of financial aid. It resonates with efforts by the Occupy movement, and especially with the agendas of the Lumina and Gates foundation. It's also consonant with the work of many labor economists.

On the one hand, there are many things to like here-- for example, it's about time the Administration shined a light on the fact that tuition is rising primarily because states are cutting their support to higher education. Despite some recent unfortunate remarks by Vice-President Biden, faculty salaries don't account for much of the increase in tuition. While it is the case that the salaries of SOME professors are too high, such discussions serve only to distract from the real problems-- and have the political effect of pitting educators against students. That may be convenient for administrators, or conservatives who simply want to put the predominantly liberal faculty out of work, but it isn't solving the problem of rising tuition. We shouldn't expend effort making policy based on anecdote or a few bad apples, especially when a wealth of data is staring us in the face, pointing the way.

But in many ways, what President Obama does in this blueprint is deeply problematic. First, it demonstrates his clear adherence to market-based logics of educational reform. He seems to actually believe that Race to the Top is working so well that it ought to be replicated by creating another competition in higher education. Where's the evidence to support that? Too much faith in Arne Duncan, if you ask me.

Second, the approach of tying Perkins and SEOG dollars to these new requirements has a consequence--perhaps unintended--of restricting the abilities of financial aid administrators to exercise their professional judgment in directing aid to students. These are some of the most flexible dollars at their disposal-- and some institutions have very, very few. I'm concerned that we don't yet know whether the choices aid administrators make maximize the effects of these dollars in ways that will now be minimized-- and also that these frontline workers would seem to have little control over the institutional and state actions needed to ensure the dollars keep coming in. In other words, aid officers may have fewer flexible dollars to work with now, but no additional control over how their universities set tuition.

I'm happy to see some money to promote the adoption of practices that can increase productivity in higher education, but as Doug Harris and I have pointed out, the evidence-base on which to make judgements about cost-effectiveness of programs is very, very thin. So I'm very disappointed that this program didn't begin by first endowing the Institute for Education Sciences with the resources needed to establish multiple higher education research centers, and task them (in part) with evaluating effects of this effort.

Also, given that some of these approaches to enhanced productivity have negative effects for faculty worklife, it would have been good for Obama to at minimum urge policymakers to avoid pitting students against their educators-- as they have in criticizing teachers' unions-- and instead be cognizant that students and professors have many common interests, and those should be emphasized. I predict that next up we'll be told that faculty aren't really interested in student success, and thus can and should be replaced. Of course, no one will produce hard evidence to back that up-- and yet we'll be demonized.

When it comes to specific aid programs, it is absurd for Obama to double the American Opportunity Tax Credit without any explanation, while barely mentioning the Pell Grant. As Sandy Baum and Mike McPherson recently wrote, when "will we also debate whether government expenditures targeting low-income college students deserve much stricter scrutiny in this age of attempted austerity than government expenditures through the tax code targeting more-affluent students?"

Overall, my reaction to this proposal is a simple "Meh." (HT to Sue Dynarski) Lately Obama has come out fighting, talking about the rich and poor, and about not backing the same old policies which got us into this economic crisis in the first place. What I see in this proposal is a lot of his approach to k-12 education and it's neither radical or progressive. Sure, it resonates with the desire of moderates and conservatives (as well as so-called reformers) to hold the academy's feet to the fire, and it does talk about state responsibility. But a progressive blueprint would've referred to higher education much more strongly as a right and a public good, focused on policies that could most benefit the struggling public institutions (think community colleges and state u's-- not flagships) and left all privates out of eligibility, stressed the importance of both faculty success and student success to the definition of "quality", and instead of framing change as a "race to the top" he should have called for a "war on educational inequality."

PS. After reading my take, please consider Clare Potter's. She is spot-on, and I only wish I'd made the case as well as she did!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Larry Summers Opines about the Future of Education: A response

Larry Summers, former President of Harvard and former member of both the Clinton and Obama Administrations has told us his thoughts on education in a recent article in the New York Times.

Let’s look at what he has to say about the future of education. He makes six points. I will consider them one by one.
  1. Education will be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it. 
The naivete of this statement coming from a former President of Harvard is astounding. How exactly, Professor Summers do you expect that that this will happen? Will professors suddenly stop lecturing? Will classrooms cease to hold hundreds of students? Will Harvard no longer offer courses that are ‘Introduction to Whatever?” Will students no longer accumulate credits in order to graduate? Because if none of those things change, Harvard will continue to be about imparting information. Professors like to lecture. One of the primary reasons they like lecturing is that it requires very little effort and they can spend most of their time on research. Unless Harvard decides to no longer value research as its top priority in the hiring of faculty the incentives will not change. If the incentives for faculty do not change, students will continue to be treated like bodies in the seats in all but the most advanced classes, And, as any professor or can tell you, that means talking at them. 
Further, you are assuming that faculty actually know how to use the information they teach. Unless faculty spend serious amounts of time as practitioners in the real world, which the vast majority of them do not, the actual use of what is done with the information they have taught is typically unknown to them. Ask your faculty what students do with the information they have learned at Harvard after they graduate and see if you get any realistic answers. The faculty typically doesn't know.
2. An inevitable consequence of the knowledge explosion is that tasks will be carried out with far more collaboration

I am sure that is true. Now let’s think about Harvard. The kids who get into Harvard have learned to do everything but cooperate in order to get into Harvard and in order to succeed at Harvard. They fight to be number one in their classes in high school. They kill themselves to win the SAT competition. They cram for tests night and day all through school. At Harvard cooperation isn’t quite the right description. Anyone who saw ‘The Social Network” (the movie about Facebook) got the idea what really goes on when a new project is being worked on at Harvard. And, professors don’t really like cooperation because then they can’t figure out which member of the team really deserved which grade. As long as there are grades and tests and valedictorians there won’t be much cooperation. The workplace may well need it. Harvard isn’t teaching it. Neither, I might add, is the government for which you toiled all those years. Even Obama’s cabinet, of which you were a part, couldn’t cooperate which is more or less why you are no longer part of it as I understand it.
3. New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed. Electronic readers allow textbooks to be constantly revised, and to incorporate audio and visual effects. 
Wow. You are so out of touch that you don’t even realize that textbooks wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for the constant lobbying efforts of textbook manufacturers. Textbooks are very last century. We have them because legislators can’t and won’t stop their sale. Most faculty use them to avoid teaching. Students mostly ignore them in any case no matter how many glitzy pictures they may now have in them. 
You are right that new technologies will alter the way learning happens but not because they will alter how knowledge is conveyed. That whole idea that knowledge is conveyed is exactly the problem. Knowledge was conveyed by Monks when they were the only ones who could read, so they lectured about what they had read. The fact that faculty still do this in the modern era is ridiculous. No one can remember very much of what they heard in a lecture.
And, it isn’t the conveying of knowledge that is the issue in education in any case. Real education means helping students attain new abilities, enabling them to do new things. And, yes, new technologies can and will help that happen, but that will happen by bypassing the existing university system unless that system decides to adapt to the new technologies, an unlikely event at Harvard I would think.
4. “Active learning classrooms” — which cluster students at tables, with furniture that can be rearranged and integrated technology — help professors interact with their students through the use of media and collaborative experiences. 
Really isn’t that a nice idea?  The last two Administrations, in one of which you had plenty of opportunity to speak, has basically killed that idea and replaced it by testing testing and more testing so that no one does anything but memorize. How dare you quote ideas from cognitive science when all that has happened in the last 12 years is the ignoring of those ideas in favor of more rote learning?
5. The world is much more open, and events abroad affect the lives of Americans more than ever before.
So? Is that going to make Harvard’s Psychology department stop teaching statistics and how to run an experiment? Is that going to make Harvard’s Computer Science department stop teaching theoretical computer science? There are already plenty of study abroad programs and language courses at Harvard.
6. Courses of study will place much more emphasis on the analysis of data.
Now this is just silly. Scientists have always relied on data. Baseball owners haven’t so maybe you are right about Moneyball. You leave out the absurd use of data like the article in the Times written by Harvard Economists 
saying how testing is relevant to evaluating teachers, an article that relied on the assumption that test scores were important in the first place.
I feel obligated to say that for someone who ran a university you really don’t know much about education. I offered some years ago to help you learn about education (through a mutual friend) but you weren’t interested. Maybe you should stop writing about a subject you don’t understand and go back to economics, a subject nobody understands.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Guest Post: UCR Students Promote a Bad Tuition Plan as Police Beat Protesters

The following is a guest post by Bob Samuels, President of the University Council - AFT and a lecturer at UCLA. It is cross-posted from his blog, where you should go to find all of the original hyperlinks. I highly recommend also reading his November entry in the Huffington Post on why public higher education should be free.

The UC Regents meeting had a little of everything this week: UCR students came up with a new way to fund the university, a long list of new salary increases was released, UCSF asked to quit the system, a retired professor was fired, protesters disrupted the meeting, Regents met behind closed doors, and police attacked protesters who were using books as shields.

What does it all mean? Perhaps, it all adds up to the demise of the modern Western social contract. Without being too dramatic, we are seeing an attempt to resist the destruction of the central institutions of modernity: the university, the public commons, and the welfare state. Although it was once taken for granted that everyone should sacrifice for the common public good, this social contract has been broken, and now some are fighting to maintain it, while others are pushing us forward to a more premodern mode of social organization.

A case in point is the UCR “Student Investment Proposal,” which argues that students should pay no tuition while they are in school, but once they graduate, they should pay 5% of their income for 20 years. At first, this appears to be an elegant solution, but it really represents the final privatization of the public university. Instead of relying on state and federal funds and a common tax base, the new system would rely on private citizens to fund their own education through the use of a non-progressive flat tax. Just as UCSF wants to break its ties with the state and the rest of the UC system, this new funding model would allow students to “pay for their own education,” and would get rid of messy things like financial aid and family contributions.

Under this neoliberal payment program, the students working at Starbucks would be paying the same percent of their income to the UC as the students working for hedge funds. Of course, the university would have a strong incentive to only accept wealthy students, since these students have the highest chance of earning a big paycheck in the future. Likewise, there would be no reason to support programs in the humanities and social sciences if the big earners will all go to law school, medical school, and business school. In short, the student proposal is a private solution to a public problem, and yet we are told that the Office of the President will take it seriously.

It is indeed telling that a student group has come up with such a regressive funding model. We can read this as a sign of the way the backlash against the public good has been so successful that even good-intentioned people present anti-social ideas as if they were progressive. While the program does insist that the state should spend 2% of its budget on the UC each year, it does not say how the UC should use this money. Instead, we are told that students will pay for their own education out of their own future earnings. Of course, this model assumes that these students will have a future income in a world where we no longer have any sense of the common good

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Baking Bread Without The Yeast

Among my son's favorite books are the ones in Richard Scarry's Busytown series. In What Do People Do All Day?, Able Baker Charlie puts too much yeast in the dough, resulting in a gigantic, explosive loaf of bread that the bakers (and Lowly Worm) need to eat their way out of.

The opposite problem -- a lack of yeast -- is present in Michelle Rhee's recent op-ed in Education Week. In it, she limits her call to "rethink" teaching policy to "how we assign, retain, evaluate, and pay educators" and to "teacher-layoff and teacher-tenure policies." (And she casts the issue of retention purely as one about so-called "last-in, first-out" employment policies rather than about school leadership, collaboration or working conditions.)

The utter absence of any focus or mention of teacher development either in this op-ed or in her organization's (StudentsFirst) expansive policy agenda leaves me wondering if Rhee believes that teachers are capable of learning and improving. If Rhee indeed does believe that new teacher induction and career-long professional development have value, then why does she consistently ignore it in her public statements and in her organization's strategic priorities? The alternative, of course, is a view that teachers are static beings, incapable of improvement. They are either born effective or ineffective. "Mr. Anderson's value-added score is an 18, thus he is an ineffective teacher and should be fired because his inability to teach cannot be ameliorated." We, of course, know this not to be the case. This alternative view also involves a strategy of simply trying to hire and fire our way to success. From research and international exemplars, I think most of us understand such a narrow approach to be ineffectual, albeit politically attractive in some quarters, especially among the Republican governors that Rhee is assisting exclusively.

High-quality development opportunities for teachers are like the yeast that helps the bread to rise. Comprehensive teacher induction has been shown to accelerate new teacher effectiveness and increase their students' learning. Likewise, personalized and purposeful professional development also can strengthen teaching skills and classroom impact.

It seems to me that a stated policy goal should be to ensure that as many as teachers as possible successfully pass educator evaluations being developed across the nation. Too many advocates such as Rhee appear to be eager to fire more teachers rather than make investments and restructure schools to maximize their effectiveness. A critical role for policy then would be to re-define teacher development in a way that raises the quality bar and invests public dollars in programs and approaches shown to have the desired impact on teaching and learning. Isn't that something we all can agree with?

Teachers are tremendously influential -- and we should do everything we can to unleash their full power. On teacher effectiveness, I'm unwilling to settle for half a loaf.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Skipping Evidence in Favor of Conclusions

Tonight's Chronicle of Higher Education features a story of great policy relevance. Under the headline "Study Disputes Claims That Preferentially Admitted Students Catch Up," author Peter Schmidt describes the results of an unpublished paper by Duke researchers as calling "into question other studies that play down the academic difficulties initially experienced by the beneficiaries of race-conscious admissions." The paper, Schmidt says, has been marshaled by critics of affirmative action as they seek a Supreme Court ruling knocking the policy down.

My own reading of the paper is that drawing such conclusions from this work, and highlighting them with such an inflammatory headline ("preferentially admitted students"?) is grossly inappropriate. While the authors document (1) racial/ethnic variation in the relationship between initial academic preparation and later major-switching and (2) that major-switching accounts for the diminishing racial/ethnic gap in GPA during college, there is absolutely no evidence presented that the use of race in college admissions is the driving factor behind such switches.

But I can see where the reporter got such ideas. The authors frame the paper from page 1 in terms of the debate over racial preferences. There were other options, including framing it in terms of unpacking the significant fluctuation in students' choices of college majors over time (e.g. as documented by Jerry Jacobs in Revolving Doors), and the implications of that fluctuation for labor market outcomes. Or they could have thought in terms of the debates over student learning, and how this may help us understand racial differences in rates of learning, such as those laid out in Academically Adrift. Instead, the authors open with a discussion of how affirmative action is "promoting access" to the "less prepared,"suggesting that such admits would need to "catch up" over time. This is the language of affirmative action critics, not researchers who recognize that the literature on testing and admissions hardly indicates that students who are admitted through the use of some form of preference may not be less prepared at all, and thus have no reason to catch up.

The first finding presented in the paper is that even though they start "behind" white students at Duke (behind as proxied by their first semester GPA, which is hardly solely a function of intelligence or preparation), black and Hispanic students make steady gains in GPA over time. One could look at this and think many things-- for example, perhaps over time minority students learn the "system" and figure out how to reap its rewards. (For the record, even white students do this, and have for decades--read about the "grade point average perspective" in Howard Becker's classic Making the Grade.) Or maybe black students benefit disproportionately from mentoring and other attention on campus. There are many possible explanations, but the authors turn to two in particular--variance and course selection. And in the end, they hang their hats on major migration--black students catch up on their GPA by switching to easier majors, and this is because they are disproportionately weaker students. Controlling for switching explains almost all of the black/white convergence in grades, say the authors. And so, they write, "Attempts to increase representation [of minorities] at elite universities through the use of affirmative action may come at a cost of perpetuating under-representation of blacks in the natural sciences and engineering." There you have it: we oppose affirmative action because it hurts black people.

Ok, let's say it together: COME ON. There are no alternative explanations proffered by these very fine academics (one of whom trained at UW-Madison)? And seriously, issuing such a policy proclamation based on a study of one single, highly unusual private university?

It is easy to come up with many, and next to impossible for the authors to rule them out. So black students have lower first year GPAs than white students, and this explains why they'd be more likely to switch majors over time. This can be true even WITHOUT affirmative action. Only if we hold a very high bar that says "we will only admit students above this bar so that they will not change majors" would this be stopped. Moreover, have the authors considered the potential that Duke's affirmative action program is the problem-- not affirmative action itself? As Doug Massey and his colleagues have pointed out, programs of all kinds that admit students but fail to adequately support their success are bad programs-- period. That does not mean the admissions practice itself is bad-- it means the university is hypocritical. It wants the glory of claiming diversity without devoting sufficient resources and effort required to ensure that all who are admitted fully succeed.

These are but a few conjectures- and deciding on which is right is not my job. My point is straightforward: this paper begins and ends with a political agenda, and it's being used as such. There is no more reason to think the patterns observed are attributed to the use of race in Duke's admissions decisions than to discriminatory practices in the allocation of university resources to its students, or to inadequate teacher quality on the part of its professors in some majors. Who knows the reason? Certainly not these researchers.

Is Higher Tuition What the Public Wants? And Who Cares?

In a blog over at the Washington Post today, Daniel de Vise raises an interesting question: Does the public want lower (or higher) tuition? He engages with this issue mainly in the context of private institutions, discussing anecdotal evidence from a recent meeting with college presidents.

In a nutshell, here are the highlights of his findings:

1. There is some evidence that the public wants a deep discount on a more expensive product. In other words, families are happier when they get a lot of merit-based financial aid at a high-priced college. Some colleges have found that when they cut tuition, applications drop too, and families complain they aren't getting much aid.

2. There is also some evidence that the public embraces -- even demands-- lower tuition, even thought it means getting less aid. At Sewanee, The University of South, which de Vise highlights, cut its (very high) tuition by 10% and focused efforts on need-based aid, resulting in an increase in applications. de Vise also notes that Sewanee took a key step, first done by George Washington University, freezing tuition for returning students. This prevents surprising hikes in cost from year to year, something that my own research (forthcoming) suggests can alarm students and even induce some to drop out of college.

So what's going on here? How can college presidents say that they must raise tuition because that's what the public wants, while others work to lower tuition, because it's what the public wants?

The answer is quite simple, actually. The "public" doesn't exist. It's an averaged American, comprised of heterogeneous individuals.

Some people equate the price of college with quality. Those are likely the same people who will buy a Lexus, thinking they're getting a better car, even though Lexus and Toyota use the same components. They're thrilled with a discounted Lexus, and have the cultural capital to know that if they go to a dealer and haggle, they might get one.

Other people have negative connotations associated with high prices. They see expensive things as "elitist", "snobby" and most importantly out-of-reach. They don't want to haggle for an affordable price, since they know that when people like them (who don't wear Banana Republic, look white, or speak formal English) walk into a dealership or admissions office, they aren't likely to get a deal. They want the price low, period. Discounting doesn't work for them.

Both types-- and there are nuanced versions of each-- are now part of higher education. But the pricing model, advocated by so many college presidents and backed by evidence produced by economists, is built for the first group-- the We Like Deep Discounts on Expensive Things group. Why? Because it suits the needs of institutions, who want to have more cash on hand, it seems "realistic" given budget cuts from governments and declining endowments, and it's said to be more efficient.

Ok. Let's say that's true (and I worry about the evidence, since much of it is based on studies of students from the 70's and 80s, before tuition went through the roof and disadvantaged students became a large part of enrollments). It doesn't necessarily make it effective policy. The relative effectiveness of the two strategies depends on who's in higher education (who dominates enrollment), what goals are sought, and whose outcomes are more affected by the pricing strategy. If first-generation students are in the I Want It Cheap camp, and they begin to comprise a sizable fraction of enrollment, if the primary outcomes measured are college graduation rates of at-risk students, and if first-generation students are most price-sensitive, then I'm sorry but hiking prices and discounting simply isn't effective.

Thus, the question we ought to be asking is not the one de Vise posed -- Is higher tuition what the public wants?-- but rather, Is higher tuition going to achieve the goals America has set for higher education? If we want to make progress, that's the one we have to get focused on answering.

Remaking Academia: Disclose Your Funders

In my first post on remaking academia, I recommended that authors disclose the funders of their research--as well as the costs of the work. The recommendation had twin aims: to expose any potential influences (positive or negative) on the research, and to allow others to make more accurate cost-benefit calculations when planning how to conduct their own research. Unless you know what good research really costs, it's hard to realistically plan for it-- and to fundraise to support it. If you know it'll be expensive, you have to seek outside support, and that will lead directly to the decisions you'll make that will eventually require that you name your funders.

This week, the national association of economists adopted similar standards. Given the extent to which economics is alpha dog in social science research, capturing headlines and exerting disproportionate influence on public thinking, this is the right move-- just long overdue. Said one economist in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Economics is in the harm business but we don't wrestle with the ethical implications."

Admittedly, sometimes naming funders is easier said than done. For example, I have been supported by a foundation that stipulates in a contract that it is not to be named in publications. I have difficulty with this, and pondered the reasons for it, but ultimately abided by the request. I do this only because I feel certain that receiving funding from that source has had no other influence on my actual research other than making data collection (which I designed and conducted) possible. The foundation is extremely low-touch, especially compared to others which I do name-- those that provide professional development and other supports which could shape the direction of my thinking and research.

It can also be unclear when a funder must be named. Academics often have multiple sources of support from our time, and our time is blurry-- summers can be funded from 3-4 sources and who knows who's paying for the time you spend on a given Fridsy writing an article. In those cases, I recommend acknowledging them all.

Finally, we have to check our propensities to overreact to the naming of funders-- and not too quickly presume untoward influence, while maintaining a healthy skepticism. It's very common, for example, to see the Gates Foundation listed as a funder of education research-- but the role the Foundation plays in each piece varies tremendously, according to both authors and program officers. Sometimes the idea started with the Foundation, and other times it was the last funder in-- hardly influential.

The main goal should be honesty and transparency. Don't wring your hands over it-- just do it.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Remaking Academia: Improve the Hiring Process

The latest entry in a continuing series here at The Education Optimists

Have you ever sought a job as a professor? Depending on your field and where you’ve applied, it goes something like this:

(1) You send in a letter of interest, a CV, and some publications. Maybe some letters of reference too, or perhaps just contact information for those people. If it’s a teaching institution or a school of education, maybe you’ll also send in a statement of teaching philosophy and some student evaluations.

(2) If the search committee likes what they see in the file, they get in touch. This typically means you’ve published a fair bit, demonstrated that you have some interesting ideas, come from a good graduate program, have very solid letters that say you’re among the very best, can attract grant funding, etc.

(3) Then you either meet with the committee via phone or Skype, or at a conference, or more commonly go to campus. (Sometimes it’s a two-step or three-step sequence, sometimes you just go right to campus.) During the visits, you’ll do a talk about your research (to show how you approach questions, theory and evidence), talk with lots of academics who will ask you about your future research plans and what you like to read and discuss (mainly to see if they think you’re smart and they like you), meet with an administrator or two, talk to students, and maybe give a demonstration of your teaching (e.g. a pedagogical talk).

(4) At the end of the evaluation period, a search committee, or even the entire department, together with the dean, has a set of information about you. It includes a written record of what you’ve done, thoughts about what they’ve heard, some student evaluations on a set of metrics, etc. Then they make their decisions.

Often this results in the offer of a job at a pretty good salary with decent benefits, with a three-year contract, and the possibility of tenure. Or, if you’re lucky, it’s a tenured position—in which case they’ve committed (after a tenure committee does their own review) to hire you “for life.”

This process has long puzzled me for what it omits. And as I listen to heated discussions of ineffective professors and teachers, and watch the advent of a strong debate from k -20 over using metrics to decide who to fire, I have to wonder: why can’t we start instead by using data and standard human resources practices to improve our effectiveness at hiring?

Before I list some suggestions for improvement, let me admit that I have held one academic job for my entire career (which admittedly is just 8 years long). And this area—hiring and evaluation—isn’t the topic of my own research. So I don’t know about every practice used in every college or school, and it’s quite possible some of what I think should be done IS being done—in which case we should get a good census of practices and start evaluating their effectiveness. This is a blog I really hope to get constructive feedback on (yes, more so than usual).

(1) Rethink who does the hiring. Right now prospective colleagues primarily do it. This is good, since they are whom you’ll end up working with and spending time with. They should and must have a role. But those peers were hired because they are talented researchers and teachers, not because they know how to evaluate large numbers of prospective applicants and make terrific judgment calls. Professionalization of this hiring practice is needed, and it must include very experienced people who’ve done hiring in academia for decades. Ideally, they’d be systematically trained in identifying expertise in the competencies academics need to do their jobs very well (see next point).

(2) Bring some additional competencies into the mix. Being a good professor or teacher requires strong time management skills, grit, resilience, ability to respond under pressure, communication skills, drive, ability to implement feedback, performance orientation, inquisitiveness, and cultural competencies as well. Where/how are these being assessed now? Primarily in terms of how much you’ve managed to publish in X time (which doesn’t necessarily tell you how well time was managed since other activities are often sacrificed). There are instruments for measuring such things, and we’re often ignoring them. That’s not good enough. What other competencies predict success in academia? We need to know, and we need to integrate them into hiring.

(3) Lengthen the process. My colleagues will hate me for saying this, but spending only a total of maybe 2-5 days evaluating whether a person should be allowed to teach large numbers of students, enjoy limited campus resources, etc, is far too quick. You need more data and more time to analyze it.

(4) Systematize the evaluation process. We use very superficial forms and often don’t consider the data that result in any sophisticated way. The process of reference and background checks is too personal, political, and idiosyncratic, mainly because people who were never trained to do these checks are in charge!

There’s got to be even more we can do. Sure it has to be a flexible process that can be adapted to public flagships or private liberal arts colleges, as well as community colleges, etc. It also can’t be so expensive as to prevent scaling. And it will need revision and improvement. When’s the last time your department changed how it recruited and evaluated applicants?

The current process skips key steps and fails to assess competencies that when not present, lead to failure and turnover in academia (and k12 teaching). Instead of researching who we should fire, why not focus our attention on improving the hiring process? It seems far more efficient, not to mention equitable and ethical.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What Happens When You Remake Academia? Rick Hess Looks Your Way

Rick Hess is an amusing guy-- witty banter, fun to have drinks with-- and always pushing buttons. I dig that, even though we rarely agree on policy issues.

What I like most about him is that he takes seriously the idea that academics should bring their research to the public, and in an effort to prod that along, last year he began ranking us. He uses a set of metrics that even he admits are pretty darned flawed, but are at least an ATTEMPT in the right direction. I like it not because I'm ranked (ok, I like that too) but rather because Hess is a prominent guy doing whatever he can to provide incentives to professors to do more than what tenure requires of them. He wants us to use all 5 tools in our work--"disciplinary scholarship, policy analysis and popular writing, convening and quarterbacking collaborations, providing incisive media commentary, and speaking in the public square." And that I can appreciate.

So here are the rankings this year. And here's the methodology.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Remaking Academia: 12 Ideas for 2012

What follows is a summary of a Twitter thread I started a few days ago. Feedback suggested it might be useful to compile it here.

Here are 12 rough, off-the-cuff ideas about how we might collectively remake academia. Just to get the party started. Please throw yours in too!

1. Hey professor: Ask yourself "What new knowledge does this article contribute to the world? Does the method actually address the research question?" If the answer is no or it does not, for pete's sake please don't be so self-serving as to submit it for publication.

2. Publish for the sake of knowledge dissemination, not in the pursuit of tenure. There should be penalties for publishing bad work!

3. At least 1 out of every 5 publications should contribute a lesson for policy or practice at some level.

4. For every three articles placed in academic journals, write at least one executive summary for public dissemination. For those of you at UW, consider this part of the Wisconsin Idea. You could ask your department to host a site where you post these summaries collectively with your colleagues-- no need for a special outlet. Or, consider this bit of info from Julia Savoy- "you might consider depositing your work or summaries of pubs in Minds@UW, an institutional repository that offers a number of benefits, such as long-term archiving and permanent URLs. The outlet is already set up and indexed by Google and other search engines.

5. Blogging and writing op-eds and letters to editor, based on evidence not anecdote, should count for tenure.

6. The full costs of research, and all funders, should be disclosed in a standard statement at the end of articles.

7. It isn't "mixed methods" if you simply add anecdotes in the discussion section to "explain" your statistical findings.

8. Write about what you actually did not what you wished you'd done. Be honest, share tradeoffs and lessons learned.

9. The discussion section of a paper should be INTERESTING and worth reading, not a throwaway.

10. People with controversial opinions should be prized for bravery, not shunned for rocking the boat. Academic freedom & all.

11. Syllabi should include readings from competing perspectives, and varied political ones too.

12. There needs two be a "professor 101" course for all new faculty, helping socialize them to whatever "standards" are expected.

If you want someone to remember something, tell them a story.

As I have mentioned in this space before, when I am in Florida, I play in a couple of old guy’s softball leagues most weekday mornings. I have been playing in one league for about four years but the retired Marine drill sergeant who runs the league (and picks the teams every day) has never learned my name. Now there are more than 100 guys playing so this is understandable but last week I decided to fix the problem.
I decided to tell him the story of my name.
My parents were both Army Air Corps (now the USAF) officers during World War II. Pilots speaking over the radio on US planes when given an order always respond “Roger Wilco” which means “understood, will comply.” My father thought it would be a laugh riot to call me Roger Wilco Schank. My mother didn’t think that was all that funny. But he called the New York Times anyway and told them two air force officers had a son called Roger Wilco. He said if the Times printed the story on the front page, it stayed. I was told that they did print it, but not on the front page, so I got a more normal middle name.
The ex-Marine team picker loved this story and, this morning, he called me by my name when he picked me, muttering “RW” as he selected me.
I am telling this story because it has an important educational message. I have been talking about story telling for more than 20 years (since I wrote “Tell Me a Story.”) And, I am tempted to say, that the schools haven’t been listening, but it is not true.
Propagandists always knew the power of story telling for getting people to remember a message, which is why we all know the story of George Washington who never told a lie, but fail to remember the George Washington who married a rich widow to get her money and her 300 slaves.
If you want someone to remember something, tell them a story.

2012: A Year for Big Ideas

2011 was a terrific year in some ways, and a horrible one in others. Watching many national leaders attack the rights of working families was devastating, but watching those families fight back was awe-inspiring. What Time magazine called the year of the protestor, I'd call the year of the working class reawakening.

Personally, 2011 was a critical turning point, as I finally earned tenure and thus the distinct privilege of having the freedom to speak my mind and keep my job. Wow. I can't tell you how GOOD that feels. Watch out world.

My hope is that in 2012 we'll see many people bring fresh ideas to old problems, with a willingness to float trial balloons on thoughts they typically might've withheld for fear of reprisal. I've been endeavoring to do this a bit on Twitter, and at Liam's suggestion I'm next reposting my latest stream-- on Rethinking Academia.

We are welcoming guest bloggers in 2012, following the remarkable success of Robin Rogers, and encourage you to write to us if you'd like to speak out on an issue facing k-20 education. Don't get me wrong--we don't post anything that's simply advertising your product or work, and we will stick at least initially to bloggers we have some sense of. We want to keep the discourse on this blog stimulating, thought-provoking, and at least modestly snarky. Send us good stuff!

All the best for a fabulous 2012!