• April 18, 2014 03:40 PM The Worst Trends in Higher Education

    There are trends in higher education that those of us of follow this sort of thing like to track. There’s an increasing focus on accountability. There are the ever-escalating cost. There’s lately a great deal of worry about how much varsity athletes are worth. There’s a push to get more an more parts of higher education online.

    When Education Secretary Arne Duncan has his semi-regular “ask questions of the secretary” discussion on Twitter (an event, admittedly, not geared for journalists) I often try to get him to answer my major question for all education policymakers: what are the worst trends in higher education. He never bites.

    Well, former Cornell President Hunter R Rawlings III has some ideas. At a recent alumni day talk at Princeton he a great deal of time talking about what was wrong in education and what direction we should move in in the future. As he put it

    [A] barrage of criticism [of American academia] stems from looking at universities as businesses: bloated, expensive, out of date, ripe for disruption like the music and newspaper industries. After years of recession, falling middle-class salaries, and rising tuition (much of it caused by withdrawal of state support), college is viewed by many Americans as a purely instrumental means of preparing for a job, any job. Credentialing is dominant now, and fits well with American pragmatism, love of business, and desire for efficiency. This is one of the principal reasons for the (overhyped) reaction to online education in the last 15 months: MOOCs [“massive open online courses”] and other online instruments seemed to offer a quick, cheap fix for the notoriously inefficient nature of academia.
    But the real threat to higher education today is, in my opinion, not internal, it is ideological: the expectation that universities will become instruments of society’s will, legislators’ will, governors’ will, that they will be required to produce specific quantifiable results, particularly economic, and to cease researching and teaching certain subjects that do not fit the utilitarian model. Last year [Oklahoma] Sen. Tom Coburn got an amendment to the Senate budget bill essentially requiring the National Science Foundation to stop funding research in political science. Texas has instituted a system by which to quantify professors’ work and evaluate them according to the number of students they teach and the grant dollars they bring in. Florida came close last year to charging extra tuition to students studying humanities at state colleges in order to discourage the practice. President Obama wants the Education Department to rate universities on a numerical scale, and many states are now already evaluating universities on the basis of the average earnings of their alumni 18 months after graduation. We are in the age of data, we measure anything that can be measured, and we treat what we measure as dispositive: We take the part for the whole.

    There’s nothing wrong with accountability. Accountability is a good thing. But it’s also difficult. The important part is paying attention to what matters, not just paying attention to what’s easy to count. Education is more complicated, and more valuable, than that. Rawlings:

    There are scientific, and there are poetic, renderings of the brain. I am drawn to both, but… we human beings aspire to understanding and joining with higher things, universal things, things we cannot see or touch. I don’t know how to measure the value of Emily Dickinson’s poem, but… she knew how to measure the brain, the sky, the sea, and even God.
    Whatever we do, let’s not let the bean counters diminish the creation and teaching of qualitative things.

    An understandable reaction of many taxpayers is something like this: “If the school is funded by MY taxes then its only right that I get to define its goal, purpose, and operation?”

    But that’s not the best way to ensure real accountability.

    Every taxpayer’s idea of how a university should operate isn’t actually all that efficient. Taxpayer A might want one thing, taxpayer B might want another. In practice this means decisions go to state politicians, who often don’t have the long-term perspective in mind.

    So much of the recent accountability focus in higher education seems to have to do with how much money college students earn once they graduate. But that’s not what colleges exist to do (maximize graduate earnings) and too much focus on that would remove virtually all impractical forms of learning. And what, indeed, is the purpose of college if not to gain an understanding of the world beyond the material?

    Historically if you wanted to focus on earning money immediately, by going into business or learning a trade like nursing or accounting or automotive mechanics, you didn’t have to go to college at all.

    Let’s keep this in mind. By moving more and more of the trades under the traditional umbrella of college we’ve not only made these subjects more “academic” and intellectual, we’ve also moved many of the trades measures of success into the liberal arts. And that’s not a good thing, because the liberal arts aren’t supposed to be any good and helping a graduate to maximize his income. He can often make money, for sure, but that’s because he’s smart and knows the world, not because he had six classes in early-modern European history.

    Measure what matters. Don’t just measure what’s easy to track. It’s certainly time to pay attention to quality, but does quality always have numerical value? Should money be the main question?

  • April 18, 2014 10:00 AM Why Can’t the Zombie-Focused Sociologist Get a Job?

    An occasional topic here at College Guide has been the employment problem many aspiring academics have. Because American universities produce far, far more PhDs every year than there are tenure-track positions, many potential professors have hard time supporting themselves, despite their impressive credentials.

    And some people have a really hard time. Todd K. Platts writes at Inside Higher Ed about his situation:

    Like many recently minted Ph.D.s [his is from the University of Missouri] I am witnessing the shattering of my dreams of becoming a full-time college professor by the vagaries of an academic job market destroyed by a fledgling economic system. Balancing the heartache and disappointment with the repeated failure to find gainful academic employment is not easy. How could it be? I have dedicated my whole adult life to this. In the past two years I have sent out hundreds of applications, mostly to small liberal arts institutions, community colleges, and private religious colleges in the hopes of landing a position as a fulltime sociology instructor - somewhere, anywhere.
    Sociology still offers a fair share of opportunity for tenure-track employment. Indeed, spending 40 hours a week on employment dossiers is not uncommon for me. Moreover, most of my friends were able to land jobs before defending their dissertation even in the bleak job market. I am happy for them, but it makes my inability to find work sting harder.

    So, why can’t he find a job?

    My job market struggles are made all more the inexplicable by the fact that I maintain an active publication track in a hot field of study - zombies. In the past year alone I have published three articles, and I have an additional three under review, and numerous projects in the pipeline.


    The problem here, in a larger sense, is structural. But some people have a much harder time than other. And that’s because some people have courses of study for which there is basically no job market whatsoever.

    Now, I have some sympathy for this man, who appears hard working, reasonably talented, and the victim of some rather bad luck. I imagine that he might be a very interesting hire for some institution, and a very amusing undergraduate instructor, but honestly it’s hard to imagine someone less likely to obtain an academic position. Zombies?

    The sociology program at the University of Missouri is ranked about 80th in the nation. So Platts was studying in a lower ranked department and focusing on a decidedly fringe topic. No doubt the friends he talks about who had no trouble getting jobs had more mainstream dissertations.

    I mean, it’s sad and his research certainly appears entertaining (and published in a few publications) but what, really, was he expecting?

    There is a real job market for these sorts of things. And sometimes the market is pretty limited.

  • April 17, 2014 05:39 PM Teachers Have a Respect Problem. Guess Why?

    There’s big lawsuit in California. With the backing of a group called Students Matter, nine public school students from across the state are suing, in Vergara v. California, arguing that state laws make it so hard to to fire bad teachers in public schools that many students, especially black and Hispanic ones, can’t get a “basic” education. Plaintiffs says this is about ensuring teacher quality. The opponents say this is about the labor rights of teachers.

    But there’s a problem with this lawsuit. For even if one accepts that students have some right to decide what does or does not make a good teacher, this lawsuit will not result in better education. It can’t. That’s because a lawsuit ostensibly about “improving the teaching profession” will ultimately do nothing but make the teaching profession more unattractive and unstable.

    Consider this. According to a recent piece in the New York Times:

    Lawyers for the students named in the case, Vergara v. California, have argued that California students are subject to an unfair system that deprives them of a fair education, which translates into the loss of millions of dollars in potential earnings over their lifetimes.
    Under California law, teachers are eligible for tenure after 18 months on the job, and the teachers who are hired most recently are the first to lose their jobs during layoffs. School administrators who try to dismiss a teacher with tenure for poor performance must complete a lengthy procedure.

    Surely there are quite a few bad teachers, but are bad teachers the cause of low achievement? It’s hard to tell.

    Lawyers for the state and the teachers’ unions say that while the plaintiffs have relied on complicated algorithms and emotional speech, they have done nothing to prove that students’ constitutional rights are being violated by existing teacher employment laws. In fact, the state’s lawyers argued in closing briefs, one of the teachers cited by plaintiffs as “grossly ineffective” was awarded “Teacher of the Year” by the Pasadena school district.

    It’s sort of hard to tell what an “ineffective” teacher really looks like.

    In fact, of the primary reason for teacher success, and this is a little debatable, but bear with me, is the confidence they have in their own jobs. This is not some woofty Education Graduate program talk, this is true of all jobs. People perform better when they feel respected and valued in those jobs.

    And teaching has a huge respect problem. As Anya Kamenetz put it in this publication last week:

    About 70 percent [of teachers] are classified as disengaged…. This is surprising in some ways, because teachers score close to the top on measures that indicate that they find meaning in their life and see work as a calling. Unfortunately, the structures that teachers are working in-which may include high-stakes standardized testing and value-added formulas that evaluate their performance based on outside factors-seem to tug against their happiness. “…They don’t feel their opinions matter,” [the executive director of Gallup Education] says. K-12 teachers scored dead last among 12 occupational groups in agreeing with the statement that their opinions count at work, and also dead last on “My supervisor creates an open and trusting environment.”

    Now, why might they feel like they’re not respected? Why might have feel like they’re not valued in their profession? Perhaps lawsuits focused on making it easier to fire teachers, and the fact that policymakers see low quality teachers as the primary cause of low education performance, have something to do with this respect problem.

    And making it easier to fire teachers wouldn’t magically result in better teachers; it would just result in higher teacher turnover, which would also be bad for students.

    If teachers did feel respected they’d be sort of delusional, wouldn’t they?

  • April 17, 2014 04:40 PM The Political Attractiveness of “Last-Dollar” Scholarships

    The old adage about there being no such thing as a free lunch may hold true regarding a turkey sandwich on rye bread, but free lunches can happen in the world of higher education. An example of this is the growing number of “last-dollar” scholarships, in which private entities or state/local governments agree to cover students’ remaining tuition and fees after all federal grants have been provided. (Note that it does not cover room and board or living expenses—an important component of the total cost of attendance.)

    Consider this hypothetical example of a last-dollar scholarship. A student with a zero expected family contribution (EFC) qualifies for a maximum Pell Grant ($5,730 for the 2014-15 academic year) and a Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant of $1,500. If she enrolls at a public university with tuition and fees of $9,000 per year, the last-dollar scholarship would then cover the remaining $1,270. But if she goes to a community college with tuition and fees of $5,000 per year, the last-dollar scholarship does not pay a dime.

    Bryce McKibben of the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) analyzed the implications of the new Tennessee Promise scholarship, which promises students free community college tuition and fees if they meet a relatively restrictive set of eligibility criteria. The program is estimated to cost about $34 million per year, suggesting that not many students will benefit. McKibben’s piece mentioned that 35% of Tennessee community college students have a zero EFC, meaning these students will get no additional funds from the program as the maximum Pell Grant of $5,730 far exceeds full-time tuition and fees of under $4,000 per year. Indeed, an analysis by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission showed that the median student with an EFC of under $2,100 would not see a dime from the Tennessee Promise:


    This doesn’t mean that last-dollar scholarships don’t have value. They do benefit community college students who barely miss qualifying for the federal Pell Grant, as well as students attending four-year institutions (such as under Indiana’s 21st Century Scholarship program). Another important benefit of last-dollar scholarship programs is informational. Students may be induced to attend college simply by having better knowledge of what college costs, even if they do not receive any additional money. The literature on college promise programs, as I summarized in this paper, suggests that informational campaigns can increase college enrollment rates by several percentage points.

    Last-dollar scholarships are politically attractive due to their clear message about college costs (even if they’re excluding any housing or living expenses) and relatively low cost. If the goal is to help the neediest students afford college, however, states may want to consider adding stipends to students whose tuition is already covered by funds from other sources.

    [Cross-posted at Kelchen On Education]

  • April 17, 2014 01:33 PM Education Reform and “Teacher Haters”

    I’ve been writing publicly about politics for a few years now, so I’ve become accustomed to a pretty steady stream of hate mail. It appears to come with the territory. And nothing—nothing—lights up my inbox with insults like writing about education reform. It would be one thing if folks objected to the substance of what I write—but most of the time, the emails are pure ad hominem attacks. They impugn my motives or call me a “teacher hater” or any number of other similar epithets.

    I don’t mind disagreement, but I’m frustrated with being seen as disingenuous, so I wrote a column for Talking Points Memo today explaining why I care so deeply about education reform:

    I write about American public education for a living. As someone who cares profoundly about inequality and the state of social mobility in the United States, I’ve come to truly love my work. It’s time for me to confess: I am a teacher hater. I’m also bent on undermining public education in service of my corporate overlords. Or, at least, that’s what my inbox tells me every time I write something about charter schools, Teach For America, or education politics in general. And while unsolicited hostility is part and parcel of the politics writing game these days, this particular line of attack cuts particularly deep.

    Click here to find out why it bothers me so much.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • April 17, 2014 10:20 AM New York Kicks Off a New ELLs Conversation

    New Yorkers are famous for their narcissistic myopia. Talk to a long-time resident, and you’ll hear just as much parochialism as any small-town stalwart. New Yorkers take it for granted that they embody the cutting edge. If you make it in New York, sure, you can make it anywhere, but—once you’ve made it—why would you bother leaving?

    And while this is almost always bluster beyond any semblance of reality, when it comes to education policy, New York has been grabbing all the headlines of late. From New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s (successful) universal pre-K battle with Governor Andrew Cuomo to rethinking the role of charter schools in public education to the state’s leadership on Common Core implementation, New York has been the site of some of the best education debates of the last year.

    And now there’s evidence that the state—and New York City—are preparing to lead on another element of education policy: English language learners. Last week, the New York State Education Department released a new “Blueprint for English Language Learners (ELLs) Success.”

    The new document should encourage advocates pushing for evidence-based language supports for New York ELLs. It covers some of their suggestions to Mayor de Blasio’s pre-K expansion plan. For instance, the Blueprint notes, “All teachers are teachers of English Language Learners.” Nearly every school enrolls ELLs, and these students’ success depends on all teachers taking responsibility for their success.

    Too often, students formally designated as ELLs are seen as special, especially challenging students outside the purview of mainstream classroom teachers. This is the sort of thinking that leads some to criticize charter schools that serve low percentages of ELLs—their core assumption is that these students are uniquely difficult to educate.

    The Blueprint takes a different view: it recommends that schools see “home languages as instructional assets” that teachers and students can use “in bridging prior knowledge to new knowledge.”

    Perhaps even more encouraging, the Blueprint “affirms that it is not permissible to assume that unsupported immersion of ELLs into an English-speaking environment will enable them to succeed academically.” While this should be obvious, many American schools use different reasoning. They believe that the most direct path to English acquisition is by wholesale immersion. There’s a certain logic to this: shouldn’t students who hear more English develop English proficiency more rapidly?

    Instructional models that support ELLs in their home language often lead to quicker English acquisition than English immersion programs.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • April 16, 2014 04:59 PM Using Better Metrics to Build Better Schools

    Envision runs a group of three charter high schools in the Bay Area. They champion, as many schools do these days, “deeper learning” and “21st century skills.” Envision enacts this philosophy through a “Know-Do-Reflect” process that uses projects, portfolios and presentations to integrate assessment with learning. They prompt students to turn the lens both inward and outward. The students are asked to self-assess their own progress, and through the portfolio exhibition and performance assessment process, they open up their work to outside evaluators as well.

    Education these days is falling into a data gap. There is wide agreement that reading and math test scores alone reflect, at best, a small subset of what we want students to know and be able to do. But concepts like deeper learning, critical thinking, collaboration, and the like are inherently subjective and qualitative. In today’s high-stakes, bad-faith atmosphere, and in a global context, the subjective judgment of teachers, students and school leaders on “is our children learning?” is not trusted as a standalone measure of student progress. For better or for worse, politicians and the public want to see hard data.

    One emerging consensus on how to bridge this divide: use outcomes instead of test scores. The idea is that by looking at trends in high school graduation, college entrance, college persistence and college completion, schools can fairly compare themselves by transparent measures that really matter. (Race to the Top provided significant funding to states to create the kinds of databases that make these outcome measures possible). In 2011 KIPP, the charter school chain, released a much discussed report looking at the outcomes of its own students. They found that one in three students who completed a KIPP middle school had graduated from a four-year college at least a decade later.

    These were good results. Coming from a population that was 95% African-American and Latino, and 85% free or reduced lunch, KIPP students graduated at quadruple the rates of similar populations. But KIPP publicly declared that they weren’t good enough. They want to create schools where at least 75% of students beat the odds, and have the tools to succeed long after the intensive atmosphere and extra resources of the school are just a fading memory.

    The change in metrics has influenced a change in strategy, at KIPP and across the charter school world. To graduate from college, students need to be self-directed, highly motivated, and confident. Bob Lenz, the founder of Envision, believes that those qualities are best cultivated by the performance assessment model integrating learning and assessment. But when it comes to convincing outside observers of the effectiveness of this measure, graduation rates and college persistence are paramount. In a recent case study of two of Envision’s three schools by Stanford University, students demonstrated college persistence far above the norm. At Impact Academy of Arts and Technology in Hayward, CA, founded in 2007, 81% of the first graduating class that started there as freshmen enrolled immediately in college. Of those, 66% made it to their second year. At City Arts and Technology High School, for the class of 2009, nearly 85% of graduates who enrolled in a college stuck with it for at least 4 years.

    Tracking outcomes is more complex than reporting test scores. It’s also more relevant.

    [Cross-posted at Hechinger Report]

  • April 16, 2014 08:41 AM CBO Finds Third Consecutive Year of Good News on Pell Costs

    Yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office announced some more good news for members of Congress: For the third consecutive year, the Pell Grant funding cliff is smaller and further away than we thought. After a few shaky years of funding during the recession, the updated CBO baseline will surely come as welcome news to lawmakers facing midterm elections and a tight budget. But should Congress start celebrating just yet?

    Not quite. The new CBO estimates prove Congress has bought some time, but long-term estimates still suggest the program’s unfunded costs are lying in wait. And because the Pell Grant program runs like an entitlement program, in that all eligible applicants receive an award, lawmakers will have no choice but to deal with the shortfall eventually.

    To date, Congress hasn’t provided a regular appropriation for the Pell Grant program larger than $22.8 billion, with another $5.5 billion kicked in for fiscal year 2014 awards through mandatory (entitlement) spending for the program. It’s filled in the rest, year after year, with short-term, emergency funding from a variety of sources, including the 2009 stimulus bill, student loan savings in the 2010 healthcare law, the Budget Control Act of 2011, and a series of eligibility changes to the program that reduced costs.

    Starting with the 2013 CBO estimate, there was some surprising news: The program actually cost less than expected.

    Then, starting with the 2013 CBO estimate, there was some surprising news: The program actually cost less than expected. As the rate of growth in the program flat-lined, the expected costs started to drop. Underestimating the numbers for fiscal year 2013 meant Congress could draw on an accumulated surplus in the program. Those funds–which actually come from funding provided in past years but never spent–are large enough that Congress can spread the surplus across fiscal years 2014 through 2017, added to a flat appropriation for the program. Based on a separate funding formula, the maximum grant also increases with inflation.

    Here’s where it starts to get tricky. In fiscal year 2017, all that will be left of the surplus is $0.4 billion. And at the same time, the costs of the program are projected to increase as more students become eligible for Pell awards and the size of the maximum award increases from $5,730 this year (including the mandatory portion of the award) to $6,100. That will require a $25.0 billion regular appropriation, rather than the usual $22.8 billion. So in 2017, lawmakers are back where they’ve started, trying to patch together funding to keep the program going. And while the funding cliff is only $2.3 billion that year, CBO estimates it will grow every year thereafter, costing lawmakers more than $38 billion from fiscal year 2017 to 2024.


    That means members of Congress aren’t off the hook in ensuring the Pell Grant program–the cornerstone of federal financial aid for low-income students–is financially stable. The CBO report is good news for the immediate future, but it’s not a cure. Lawmakers have bought themselves a few years to figure out the long-term future of Pell Grant appropriations. If they don’t, the Pell Grant funding cliff will come knocking again.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central and co-authored by Jason Delisle]

  • April 15, 2014 05:14 PM CCDBG Reauthorization a Must for House Republicans

    At least in recent years, Congress is usually where educational improvements go to die. But last month, the Senate passed a reauthorization bill for the Child Care and Development Block Grant. Senators sent the bill over to the House, where Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) held a hearing. But what happens next remains to be seen.

    This week, I published an op-ed in The Hill urging House Republicans to give the bill a second look. I listed four reasons the members might find the child care law among the most compelling education bills that will cross their desks, and urged them to work with the Senate to pass the law’s first reauthorization in nearly two decades. The first reason members of the House should pay attention?

    Working Parents Need Child Care: Child care is unaffordable for most everyone–but it’s prohibitively expensive for the low-income parents who need access to care to be able to work. It can cost more than a year of tuition and fees at a public four-year college, according to a 2013 report from Child Care Aware® of America. CCDBG is designed to get parents back in the workplace. It was re-established as part of the welfare reform package Congress passed in 1996, based on work, not welfare, status. And its focus hasn’t changed: Fully 93 percent of families using child care subsidies today do so because they are either in education and training programs or employed. Without the support of CCDBG vouchers, the economic productivity of the nearly 904,000 families served by the program would be lost.

    Click over to The Hill to check out the full piece.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • April 15, 2014 02:19 PM California Among the Worst in Awarding Degrees to Hispanics

    With a population more than twice as Hispanic as the national average, California has a lower-than-average proportion of Hispanics with college or university educations, and no institution among the top five for awarding them degrees, according to a new study.

    The state is 38 percent Hispanic, compared to the national average of 17 percent. But only 16 percent of adults aged 25 or older have degrees, compared to the national average for Hispanics of 20 percent, the study, by the advocacy organization Excelencia in Education, finds.

    “Why does California, the state with the largest Latino population in the nation, not have a single college break into the top five nationally for awarding degrees to Latinos?” asked Deborah Santiago, Excelencia in Education’s chief operating officer and vice president for policy.

    It’s an increasingly important question as more Hispanics head to college. Nearly a quarter of students from kindergarten through Grade 12 are Hispanic nationwide, and more than half in California and New Mexico and nearly half in Texas.

    The study finds that the gap in graduation rates between Hispanics and whites nationally is shrinking. Forty-one percent of Hispanics got two-year-associate’s degrees within three years or four-year bachelor’s degrees within six, compared to 50 percent of whites. That’s a difference of 9 percentage points, down from 14 percentage points two years go.

    But the study says Hispanics will need to earn another 5.5 million degrees above current levels for the United States to regain its place as the nation with the greatest college attainment. Today, it’s fallen to 14th in the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with a higher education, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

    [Cross-posted at Hechinger Report]

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