Ten Miles Square


March 03, 2015 10:23 AM Hey Suburban Parents, Let’s Stop Spending Money at Abercrombie and Fitch

By Harold Pollack

Not long ago, I followed my daughter to Abercrombie and Fitch in a suburban mall.  I and a legion of other middle-aged parents were fairly stunned by the throbbing background music and frenetic atmosphere. I was also fairly stunned by the high price of the clothes.

Abercrombie and Fitch is now in court because the company declined to hire an otherwise qualified young woman because she wears a Hijab. Apparently she didn’t fit the company’s preferred look.

Shabby treatment of this Muslim young woman is just the latest infraction. Abercrombie and Fitch has attracted controversy for its refusal to sell women’s pants above size 10, its icky soft-core advertising, its apparent race/ethnic bias in recruitment, its mistreatment of an employee whose prosthetic arm ran afoul of the company’s “look” policy, and—not least–its CEO’s casual description of its cool-kid marketing philosophy:

In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids… We go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.

To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, every attractive all-American kid should deliver this guy a swift kick in the pants.

Our kids, particularly our daughters, are forced in so many ways to contend with a predatory commercial culture that reinforces the most crummy and stupid aspects of our adolescent culture.

As adults, this is partly our fault. We bankroll many purchases in stores that can’t be bothered to sell a pair of pants to somebody’s wonderful 16-year-old girl who wears plus-size pants.

I have no idea whether Abercrombie’s various policies violate various employment laws. I know that this company that doesn’t deserve my money. If every parent did the same, maybe the people hawking stuff to our kids would at least pretend to some basic decency.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

March 02, 2015 11:57 AM Iowa and New Hampshire: Believe the Hype

By Seth Masket

In his Sunday New York Times column, Frank Bruni laments the behavior of some campaign journalists (he does not exempt himself), and urges them to adopt some more enlightened behavior with regards to presidential campaigns. Some of the list is pretty good, actually, but I wanted to speak about the first item, “Stop hyping Iowa and New Hampshire.” According to Bruni,

The importance of the contests stems chiefly from our coverage of them; the momentum that winners and runners-up carry out of them is as much our decree as it is anything organic.

He then goes on to explain how demographically unrepresentative Iowa and New Hampshire are of the rest of the country and how few people are actually involved in these contests.

The insinuation here is that these contests are only important because campaign reporters cover them, and we could actually deprive these two small, rural states of their outsized impact on our nomination choices if we could somehow have reporters not pay attention to them. The problem with this argument is it seems to assume that the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary are creatures of the media. They are not. It is the parties that have puffed these contests up into events of importance that far outweigh the number of people involved.

Yes, the parties saw reporters as part of the nomination process when they developed this nominating system over the past four decades, and media expectations actually play an important role. The fact that, say, Bill Clinton outperformed media expectations in New Hampshire in 1992 helped convince some party insiders that he had the tenacity to wage a strong campaign and that voters wouldn’t necessarily toss him overboard for his associations with some petty scandals.

Nonetheless, it is ultimately the parties, not the press, that keep these early nominating contests important. Party insiders have set these contests up as opportunities to observe candidates conducting retail politics, organizing ground games, participating in debates, and getting out the vote. Those same insiders determine who can raise money and assemble staff for those contests. Party elites in New Hampshire and Iowa, through the use of their endorsements, often determine who even gets to be a candidate in their contests. And candidates who do poorly in these early contests tend to drop out very quickly — not necessarily because the media tell them it’s over (the press can be very fickle about these things), but because no insiders will fund or endorse them after that.

So, by all means, let’s follow Bruni’s advice to cover more substance in politics and devote less attention to candidates’ spouses, but focusing on Iowa and New Hampshire is one thing the campaign media are absolutely getting right.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

March 02, 2015 11:23 AM Sympathy for the Unhappily Unmarried

By Keith Humphreys

Stephen Merchant, unmarried

Stephen Merchant, unmarried

In watching a comedy special by the hilarious Stephen Merchant I was startled when he announced that his routine was about his inability to find a wife. An army of unmarried male and female comics do routines about their quest for romance or sex or a date or a boyfriend or girlfriend and a comparably sized throng of married comics regale their audience with jokes about their rotten marriage/dopey husband/nagging wife. It was strange therefore to hear a comedian define himself explicitly as unhappily unmarried.

There’s a lot of cultural space out there to be happily married, whether it’s someone rubbing people’s noses in their bliss with wedding anniversary photos on Facebook or a magazine writer managing to work an adoring, successful spouse into a profile of a famous person (particularly if the result is a vaunted “power couple”). With the arrival of gay marriage, the space for happy marriage has been expanded even further.

Unhappily married people also get their cultural due. It’s hard to count all the great novels and plays that plumb their painful existence.

As for the happily unmarried, the positive cultural image of the carefree, smiling, confirmed bachelor goes way back, and has recently been joined by you-go-girl-don’t-need-marriage types in pop culture. If you are unmarried, and a higher proportion that Americans than ever are in this state, you are now generally expected to be excited about it.

But many unmarried people aren’t excited about being unmarried, but find it hard to say so. How do most people react if someone says “I really wish I were married, but I’m not”? Too often I suspect it’s to the view the person as a failure who ought to be marketing their brand better on Match.com or as some emotional misfit who can’t fulfill their duty of joyfully embracing singlehood.

The truth is that there are enormous structural barriers to marriage these days. In communities where men have high unemployment rates and/or are in and out of the correctional system, marriage is harder to initiate and sustain. As the age of first marriage rises, a once common place to find a mate (college) comes at the wrong time in life. The decline of religiosity lessens the opportunities at another meeting ground where many of the current generation’s parents and grandparents found their life partners. There is of course on the job romance, but depending on that rules and informal norms in the workplace, that’s often an unappealing career and/or legal risk for the parties concerned.

Rather than simply expect every unhappily unmarried person to work it out on their own despite all that (and blame them if it doesn’t pan out), the rest of us could no doubt do more to support them in their quest. I used to think that “setting people up” inherently constituted annoying, Yenta-ish meddling. But my married friends who were “set up” speak glowingly about the third parties who brought them together. If done respectfully and thoughtfully, matchmaking for unhappily unmarried people is a community and personal service. Indeed, it can be a gift that lasts a lifetime (ask the Veillards).

Happy 82nd anniversary

Happy 82nd anniversary

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

March 01, 2015 1:54 PM Martin O’Malley Talks Triangulation

By Martin Longman

If former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is going to present any kind of challenge to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, he is going to have to get started soon. And he’s going to need to make a very compelling argument for why rank and file Democrats should turn their backs on Clinton for a second time. Perhaps this is O’Malley’s opening salvo:

Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who is likely to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, took a veiled shot at a potential rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a speech in South Carolina on Saturday, criticizing the politics of “triangulation” that have historically been associated with the Clintons.

“The most fundamental power of our party and our country is the power of our moral principles,” Mr. O’Malley said, according to a transcript of his remarks provided by an aide.

In words that echoed those of Senator Barack Obama when he battled Mrs. Clinton in 2007 for the Democratic nomination, Mr. O’Malley added: “Triangulation is not a strategy that will move America forward. History celebrates profiles in courage, not profiles in convenience.”

The problem, as I see it, is that most people have no idea what “triangulation” refers to, and, among those who do, there isn’t a strong consensus on exactly what it means or how it is relevant to our politics today.

As a strategic matter, O’Malley may want to highlight the things about Bill Clinton’s presidency that displeased a lot of Democrats at the time. He may want to point out things that look like missteps in retrospect. By doing so, he can put Hillary in a tough spot, as she wants to take advantage of her husband’s good standing with the party faithful while, at the same time, assure the nation that she’s her own person and not just an extension of Bill. Any time she has to create distance from the 42nd president, she’ll be uncomfortable.

On a substantive level, this can’t be an effort at re-litigating decisions that were made twenty or more years ago. O’Malley can’t score many points by talking about the failure to pass HillaryCare or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and DOMA. But he can contrast his views on trade and Wall Street regulation with Bill Clinton’s record and invite Hillary to do the same.

To get traction, he’ll have to find some areas where Hillary won’t break from Bill. But even if he can’t mount a credible challenge in terms of winning states and delegates, he can help define where the party stands.

Personally, I associate triangulation with a very specific period in history. It was the the strategy Dick Morris successfully urged on the president after the Republicans took over control of Congress in the 1994 elections. He would pass legislation on the Republicans’ wish list and then take credit for it, robbing them of campaign themes in the 1996 election.

This doesn’t seem pertinent to the 2016 election.

But ‘triangulation’ as a term can stand in for a lot of different ideas, both good and bad. On the good side, it can mean an effort to work with Congress to address problems even when Congress is controlled by the opposite party. On the bad side, it can mean conceding the ideological battlefield to your opponents and putting their legislative priorities above your own.

I’m sure it can mean a lot more than this, too. But talking about triangulation isn’t going to resonate by itself. And, at some point, O’Malley has to run against Hillary, not Bill. She has an extensive record of her own. And it may be, once again, her foreign policy record and positions that are her greatest weaknesses with Iowa caucusgoers.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

February 28, 2015 11:54 AM When a Caregiver Leaves

By Harold Pollack

For the fourteen years that I knew my mother-in-law Janice, she would sit at her computer for hours doing her bookkeeping working or just playing solitaire. Her son Vincent would sit quietly beside her, keeping her company. Then Janice passed away. Pretty soon, he kept Veronica and I company in the same way, for the time he lived with us. More recently, for the almost-six years that he has lived in a group home near our house, he has sat quietly beside the night manager Carol, while she has done her own computer work and play. Carol and Vincent have a special relationship.

Carol has firm opinions about things. She and Vinnie squabbled frequently, often when he was caught cutting corners on some rule. We sometimes squabbled with her, too. There’s awkward negotiation and role conflict regarding various details of Vincent’s care. She was away for awhile on sick leave after some surgery. The guys missed her terribly.

We called her last weekend to get a phone number. She surprised us with the news that she will be leaving her position. Like so many black women caring for other people’s loved-ones, she’s had to move on. Not for the first time, no one quite knows the right thing to say. “Thank you for everything” is essential, but leaves so much unsettled and unsaid.

Through circumstances that were beyond her control, she would not be able to say goodbye in person. So she asked one thing: Would we please tell Vincent that she will miss him terribly, but that she won’t be able to see him anymore. Would we also say goodbye to my two daughters, whom she has come to know? Veronica and I spoke with Vincent about it. A staff member had already gotten the guys together. She broke the news to them, rather in the way one tells small children about the death of a close relative.

Vincent is resilient and hungry for human connection. So he will soon find a new person to keep company with before he kicks in for the night.

Vincent’s not saying much about it. That’s his way. I’m helping him pen a goodbye card, as we’ve done when others have passed through his life. Given the low pay and the difficult working conditions in direct care work, he’s experienced this before.

At some random moment long in the future, he’ll say: “I miss Carol.” I’ll say: “Me, too, Vin. Me, too.”

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

February 28, 2015 10:19 AM You’re Not Half Crazy Enough

By Martin Longman

Sometimes, Steve M. can be very concise, which is a nice skill to have as a writer and an analyst. In this case, what struck me was how efficient he was in explaining the basic problem with the right-wing model of stoking perpetual fear and outrage without even the slightest regard for a factual foundation for their claims.

[Chris] Cillizza admits that Jeb inspired walkouts, that Jeb got heckled, and that Sean Hannity was a surprisingly gentle to Jeb in their CPAC Q&A. (I don’t think the mostly softball nature of the questions is a surprise at all — Hannity may make a living stoking purist right-wing rage, but every four years the guy who signs Hannity’s paychecks decides it’s time to find some Republican who’s electable and try to catapult him into the White House, even though Republicans struggle in presidential elections precisely because they first have to appeal to voters Fox has made into a hysterical mob. Murdoch and his henchman Roger Ailes don’t even want to dial down the mob-goading long enough to fluff a presentable candidate properly, which is why Mitt Romney got a cold shoulder from Fox for much of the last campaign, but the folks at Fox think they want someone electable, so of course Hannity was nice to Jeb.)
Jeb is still for immigration reform. He’s still for Common Core. As Martin and Maggie Haberman remind us in a separate Times article, Jeb supported giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and allowing them to pay state college tuition at in-state rates, although he’s repudiated those positions.
So he’s not what Republican voters want.

We can go over this again and again and again, but the Republican base hasn’t had the candidate they wanted since Ronald Reagan ran for reelection in 1984. It isn’t necessarily a problem for a candidate seeking the Republican nomination that they are unloved by the base, even though the base theoretically has some influence on who will lead the party.

But, recent history suggests that the base is powerless to stop squishes like Poppy, Dole, McCain, and Romney from beating out their more conservative competitors. What the base is good at is freaking out their nominees and getting them to commit fatal errors. Poppy didn’t really need to promise no new taxes, but it was a broken promise that cost him dearly. McCain overcompensated for his weakness with the base by giving us Sarah Palin. And, in his contorted efforts to speak to a base that had become completely unmoored from terrestrial reality, Romney set the land-speed record for lying by a human being.

I don’t know if Jeb helped or hurt himself by speaking at CPAC. I really don’t.

I do know that when addressing a room full of untethered zoo animals, you’re lucky to emerge with your life. That Jeb felt the need to bus in some tame animals demonstrates that he doesn’t actually understand the nature of the threat.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

February 27, 2015 9:10 AM Weekend Film Recommendation: Hobo with a Shotgun

By Johann Koehler

Back in 2007, Robert Rodrigues and Quentin Tarantino released a pair of ’80s exploitation revival feature films under the combined title of Grindhouse. They also held a competition for directors to submit trailers of imaginary films, consistent with the theme of the genre, that could be screened beforehand. One such trailer was eventually turned into its own feature length film four years later, and is this week’s movie recommendation. It’s Jason Eisener’s

Screen shot 2015-02-26 at 17.31.07

An especially grizzled Rutger Hauer plays The Hobo (buckle up; the clichés don’t relent). The Hobo stumbles upon Scum Town, where The Drake (played by Brian Downey) rules not so much with an iron fist as with sadistic glee. Ritual executions in Scum Town are frequent and arbitrary, and they’re meted out purely to remind the people that The Drake is in charge. To this end, the Drake’s childish goons Slick and Ivan unquestioningly decapitate their uncle in the middle of the street only to emphasize the absolute force of their father’s rule.

Meanwhile, the Hobo dreams of settling down and opening up his own business some day. But when he interrupts one of Slick and Ivan’s sadistic games and saves a similarly reform-minded prostitute named Abby (played by Molly Dunsworth), he’s forced to set aside his dreams and take a stand. This Hobo is sick and tired of the injustice that plagues Scum Town, and he’s going to go to any length to save it from the hoodlums and crooks. It’s not as though he has a choice, either. His involvement with Slick and Ivan has roused the Drake’s anger, and he’s now a target for brutal and grotesque dismemberment. The Hobo foregoes his dream of a happier life, and purchases a shotgun with which to fulfill his titular legacy.

Eisener nails the ‘80s style of B-movie violence-porn. In addition to the lurid and gruesome plot, the script itself is superficial and hackneyed, the colors are over-saturated (think CSI:Miami and you’ll be on track), and the soundtrack relies on liberal use of synthesizers. There’s something about a film that so shamelessly replicates the knowingly un-fashionable that it excuses much of what makes it so improbably dumb. After all, you’d feel silly dignifying a feature-length film with thoughtful scrutiny when it originated out of a frivolous two-minute commercial for a fake movie. That kind of off-handed dismissal makes it easy - and indeed necessary - to consume the many tired tropes (crime-ridden dystopias, the retiree with nothing to lose, the tart with a golden heart, etc.) without getting indigestion.

Screen shot 2015-02-26 at 17.47.12

You might find yourself wondering why Eisener would bother making a film that neither succeeds as an insightful and provocative dystopian parable, nor as an artistic spectacle worth handing down for posterity. But to do so would fail to acknowledge that there’s something inexplicably fun about a film that cashes in so unashamedly on these well-rehearsed clichés. Heck, maybe it’s the puerile and gratuitous violence that makes the film so watchable. I sure found my eyes glued to the set throughout, even if I would have welcomed a reprieve sooner than the final running time (a merciful 86 minutes) permitted.

It’s a film about basic instincts, made to appeal to basic instincts. If there is a point to it, maybe we’re over-complicating matters by searching for one. Don’t dare treat yourself to an expensive meal beforehand, and don’t have anything other than a cheap beer in your hand while watching it. Both may end up on the floor, if your stomach or sensibilities are weak.

WARNING: The trailer, which gives a pretty accurate sense of the tone of the movie, is filled with blood, gore, and colorful language.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

February 26, 2015 4:33 PM VA Chief Robert McDonald has Bigger Problems Than Mischaracterizing His Military Service

By Donald F. Kettl

Official Washington was abuzz this week with news that VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald falsely claimed to have served in the Special Forces (he had Ranger courses in the 82nd Airborne but was never a Ranger). But this black eye isn’t nearly as important as the department’s continuing struggles to shorten the wait times for vets to get appointments, a problem that earlier this month earned the VA, for the first time, a place on a list of the government’s nastiest problems.

In its just-released report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concludes that there’s a long way to go—the VA needs more work on scheduling, better accountability for care, has to get its computers talking to the Pentagon’s computers, and should manage it hospitals better. Overall, there are “serious concerns about VA’s management and oversight of its health care system,” the GAO found.

The bad news: These problems earned the VA a place on GAO’s “high-risk” list, along with the 31 other programs most prone to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement. It’s a list no agency wants to be on. Half a dozen have been in GAO’s sights since the first high-risk list 25 years ago—the Department of Defense’s supply and weapons buying programs, the IRS, Medicare, NASA’s contracting process, and contract management in the Department of Energy.

The good news: GAO’s work shows that even the nastiest problems are fixable, with smart management.

The biennial GAO report is always a delight for cynics and insiders—and it’s frightening for those who care about making government work. For those sure government is rife with waste, fraud, and abuse, it’s a catalog of government’s biggest problems. The problems identified in the report cost us hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

More important, though, GAO’s report is an important primer on government’s knottiest problems, as I explore in the updated version of my book, The Transformation of Governance (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Three big issues are looming.

First, this silver-anniversary collection lists 32 programs. Almost all of them are problems that anyone, regardless of political stripe, would agree must be fixed. Raise your hands if you oppose providing good health care for vets, getting good value from defense contracts, keeping toxic chemicals out of the water supply, or reducing waste in Medicare and Medicaid. Even in the most polarized Washington debates, there’s common ground for action, for there’s a checklist here of problems everyone would agree must be fixed.

Second, a careful reading of the report shows how the problems can be fixed. There are the big problems that plague individual programs, like sorting out the risk in NASA’s projects and making sure that weather satellites continue to feed us data. But there are root causes at the bottom of many of the problems on the list: missing performance metrics, information systems that don’t work, and good bridges across government’s boundaries. Food safety is on the list because it’s so hard getting the 15 agencies with a piece of the action to row in the same direction.

Most of all, there’s the problem of human capital: getting the right people in the right places with the right skills to solve these problems. That shoots throughout the entire list—and GAO names strategic human capital management itself as one of the high-risk items.

Third, the problems are fixable. In the last 25 years, 57 different programs have appeared on the list—and 23 have been removed. After the collapse of many savings and loans in the 1980s, the Resolution Trust Corporation tackled the huge pile of assets that tumbled into government control through the federal insurance program. The RTC did its job and then went out of business. EPA’s Superfund program was plagued by contract management problems, but the agency conquered them. The FAA struggled with modernization of the air-traffic control system but got its new systems in place. DOD had huge problems with security clearances for its personnel but solved them. And New Year’s Day 2000 came and went without major crises because a small team of federal officials led an impressive Y2K strategy.

All were high-risk programs that jumped off the list.

These issues might seem dull as dishwater if they didn’t hit so many programs that so many Americans care about—and if they didn’t cost taxpayers so much money. But there’s uncommon good news buried in this truly frightening list of problems. Most of these problems share doable solutions. More than a third of the programs that have appeared on the list have escaped, because smart managers made these solutions stick. And this is one of the rare game plans in Washington that everyone in Washington can agree is a winner.

February 26, 2015 11:32 AM Arguing that Education Funding is Unnecessary and that the “Culture of Poverty” is Due to a Lack of Education

By Chad Stanton

“There really shouldn’t be public schools, should there?”

This assertion posed in the form of a question from by Fox News host Lisa “Kennedy” Montgomery hints at the true position of an education reform movement pursued with special vigor by the GOP. It’s a movement bent on altering an education system that has served the nation fairly well for most of its history.

Make no mistake: the public education system isn’t perfect. The shortcomings of public education have been well documented. Still, the slow but concerted dissolution of public schools in favor of a system that originally sprang up as a protest against integration is no cure.

The unspoken but functional rationale of this movement springs from the conceit that some people simply aren’t equipped to learn. Their belief in the fundamental inferiority of African Americans (and, subsequently, other minority populations) is clear when advocates assert that their movement is only fit for those who are “ready to learn”. This is why charters are selective in who they educate. A system that only educates those lucky enough to be a part of the select runs counter to the notion of an educated citizenry necessary for a true meritocracy.

There have always been popularly supported elected officials who are comfortable allowing some citizens to be left behind in education because they never expected or wanted these citizens to be fully a part of the American fabric. Allowing the lucky to solidify advantages for their children and leaving the rest to wither on the vine increases our already disturbing inequality, but this is how they want things. For them, this isn’t prejudice; it’s common sense.

It’s especially rich that this movement, which hopes to create a system that educates only the lucky and privileged is, at the same time, quick to justify their “common sense” by arguing that hostility to education is endemic to a “Culture of Poverty.”

If a primary cause of persistent poverty is lack of education, a concerted and committed effort to strengthen our public education system makes more sense than outsourcing it to those who are allowed to pick and choose who they think redeemable.

Mississippi state Rep. Gene Alday recently argued that their public schools don’t need any more funding because black people receive “welfare checks”. Rep. Alday’s racism is what’s needed to reconcile this dissonance. If you believe that those who would benefit from additional funding are somehow beyond redemption, it makes sense to simultaneously argue that education funding is unnecessary and that the “culture of poverty” is due to a lack of education.

This logic animates an education reform regime that says, instead of providing more studied and careful aid, fewer resources for struggling schools is the proper response to poor results. The continued effort to defund any research in any field that challenges this logic is further proof of the their belief in inherited inferiority. Hopefully, now that the logic of this movement is being stated plainly we’ll be able to have a true debate on the merits of their ideas.

As the current cover story here at the Washington Monthly emphasizes, we must move past the idea that structural inequalities are a result of a culture that justifies the stuctural inequalities themselves. Once we do, we will move forward productively. It’s time for a new framework that maximizes our potential and the potential of the nation.

February 25, 2015 6:56 PM Is Teaching Undergraduates Central to the Mission…?

By Henry Farrell

Megan McArdle quite reasonably takes me to task for a seemingly (but not actually) throw-away phrase in my post about the recent dispute over the mission of my university. I’m very much in sympathy with the direction of her piece, so I thought I’d explain what I meant. One caveat—she very clearly specifies that she is talking about public flagship universities like mine, and I shall stick with that, so neither of us should be interpreted as implying anything about any other kind of institution (she takes her main example from an Ivy league school, but that example could just as easily have been at Madison).

She says this phrase caught her eye:

First, and most obviously, undergraduate education is central to the mission of the institution. Although at UW-Madison we have as many graduate and professional students as we do undergraduates, most of the graduate students are here because the undergraduates are here, and a very large proportion of our professional students are recruited from the undergraduate pool. Take away the undergraduates and the whole enterprise is done for.

She’s not sure what I meant by it (I’ll clarify in a moment) but she suspects that:

“Undergraduates are central to our mission” is a kind of polite public fiction within the university community, the sort of thing that everyone believes ought to be true but often isn’t, like “America is a great melting pot.”

The main evidence she has that it is a fiction concerns hiring, promotion and retention decisions:

One of my favorite professors at the University of Pennsylvania, a truly gifted and amazing teacher, failed to get tenure the year I was a senior. After a grassroots campaign by his adoring students, the department reconsidered and gave him an extra year, after which he again failed to get tenure, and he went off to the West. I eventually got to ask someone else in the department why he’d been let go, and the answer was simple: His scholarly work was not impressive enough. So arguably the best and most beloved teacher in the department, the one whose class I have carried with me lo these 20 years and more, wasn’t good enough to teach undergraduates at Penn because he wasn’t publishing enough groundbreaking research.

Does that sound like an institution where educating undergraduates is central to the mission? Not really. Or at least: It is not central to the mission of the faculty, because if it were central, it would carry more weight in deciding who to hire and retain


So to people outside, teaching undergraduates seems like a nice thing that the faculty would like to do, or at least persuade someone else to do, rather than an overriding priority.

As she points out, even if faculty don’t value undergraduate teaching, that doesn’t mean it is not at the core of the mission. Maybe Administrators care about it:

As a group, the administration is probably more focused on undergraduates than the faculty are, if only because the administration is responsible for keeping them out of trouble.

But I’m not sure that this means they think of educating undergraduates as core to their mission. Graduating undergraduates, yes. Keeping undergraduates from dying, or suing—yes. Getting undergraduates jobs, yes. Giving undergraduates a happy college experience that will later turn into fat checks from nostalgic alumni, yes. But educating them? Is that really their core mission? Again, from outside, it seems that administrators are more focused on student life outside the classroom than they are on what happens inside it.

Ok, so there is a lot to discuss here, and I might not get to it all, but here goes.

First, what did I actually mean? Well, the phrases that bookend the passage she quotes are different kinds of claim. The second—“Take away the undergraduates and the whole enterprise is done for” was an empirical claim. I realize that various restrictive practices mean that even if there were no undergraduates there would be room for Law schools, Medical schools and Veterinary schools. And maybe States would join the Federal government in making grants available for research in the sciences, social sciences, and even in the humanities, in which case very small research organizations might exist to compete for those funds. My own school, the College of Letters and Science, teaches a considerable majority of the undergraduate credits on campus, and the business model is based on that assumption. Possibly we’d have a very small Graduate College of Letters and Sciences. But it would be small, with only the very elite researchers, and some research staff to assist. Nothing on the scale of a Michigan, a Berkeley or a Madison. Undergraduate teaching underpins the large public research university.

The first sentence of the passage—undergraduate education is central to the mission of the institution—was, however, normative, not, as Megan interpreted it (perfectly reasonably in the context, which is why I’ve taken the opportunity to clarify), empirical. “Mission” is ambiguous between “what the mission statement says” (mission statements are, by and large, uninteresting—this is the ‘polite fiction’—and in the fuss over our Governor’s proposed revisions I think too few of the Governor’s critics paused to ask how well our practices actually align with our published mission), “what the institution is actually trying to do” (as she says, unclear, though speaking as someone who has a good deal of interaction with administrators at my institution, I have total confidence that their commitment to the undergraduate mission—and the rest of our mission—is deep, not at all cynical; and, fortunately, they are highly competent. Maybe we’re just lucky at Madison), and “what justifies the institution”. This last is what I meant. I didn’t argue for it, and I am not going to do so here, really (I think she and I agree, but she can correct me if not; we might even agree on why, but I’ll leave that till another time).

Now, to the main point. If educating undergraduates (well) is so central to the justification of the state flagship, do hiring, retention, and promotion practices reflect that? She is right that they don’t, and she is right that they should. By saying that I do not mean that teaching should always be more important than research or service. Just that teaching should sometimes be more important than research or service, and, usually, evidence of very high quality teaching should be good enough to get tenure for somebody whose research is right at the threshold that the institution usually holds research to and perhaps, even, below it. Students often ask me why we can’t recalibrate the importance of teaching in tenure decisions. Here’s the answer I give: several considerations which, when taken together, make me doubt that we can make big changes to the tenure process. Then I’ll suggest how better to align what we do with what our mission should be.

1) It is much, much, easier to judge the quality of someone’s research than the quality of someone’s teaching. Research is a publicly visible activity—you can count the papers and the number of pages, and rank the journals by prestige. Other recognized experts can be easily identified, and then asked to review all the research someone has produced, and evaluate it. Outsiders to that research, themselves experts in the evaluation of research quality in their own fields, have good reason to trust the judgment of experts in that field, and have experience evaluating the evaluation of research. As Megan says, teaching evaluations are extremely limited in their value. Most students are not expert observers of teaching (some are, actually, but it takes real work to figure out which ones: I always try to have a few whom I know to be experts, for my own purposes, but I don’t have a systematic process for finding them, and don’t know what a systematic process would look like). And professors are not even experts in teaching (some are, but it takes real work to figure out which they are); let alone in the evaluation of teaching or the evaluation of evaluations of teaching. We have only recently developed the technologies (video-recording) that make it possible to review, after the fact, the quality of someone’s teaching in the classroom; and even that does not capture everything; a lot of teaching goes on in the margins—comments on papers, conversations (including private, hence by their nature unobservable, conversations) with students, checking in to make sure someone is ok, building relationships, choosing the right people to present together, inviting a student who’s hanging outside your office to wait inside your office while you talk to a graduate student, so that she will hear and learn from the conversation, etc…

2) Suppose we had good ways of evaluating teaching quality. It would be extremely difficult for a single institution to do as McArdle suggests, and give teaching a lot of weight in tenure and promotion decisions. Why? Everybody knows that it is difficult to assess the quality of teaching. Furthermore, tenure decisions are holistic, and made by committees of people whose judgements cannot be precisely dictated. So, first, even if an institution declares it will give more weight to teaching, it is going to be hard for a tenure track professor to believe that. And, because they cannot be assured tenure, even if they would rather focus more on teaching, they have to remain competitive for jobs at other institutions—which have either not made the same declaration, or, even if they have made that declaration, it would be even harder for an outsider than for an insider to believe it.

3) Cultures change very slowly, unless they are under heavy pressure of some kind to change, and the culture of i) prioritizing research over teaching and ii) being sloppy in one’s judgments about the quality of one’s own teaching and that of others is very deeply ingrained by decades of practice.

All this leads me to doubt that tenure is a feasible pressure point for changing the quality of teaching. And even if it is feasible, it is not the most promising. I’ve already endorsed the suggestion of a track for master teachers. I actually think that, for the time being, the most promising pressure points are during graduate school, and post tenure. At the graduate school stage it is possible to require participation in systems that promote continuous improvement—the teaching assistants and lecturers are, after all, graduate employees. At the post-tenure stage, it is possible, for at least some professors, to create monetary and other incentives for participation. What kind of system am I envisaging? The clue is in McArdle’s comment that:

Compared to other institutions, university departments barely attempt to evaluate a professor’s skill at educating undergraduates—they do not, for example, spend much time supervising classrooms or trying to figure out how much the undergraduates have learned.

I’m not sure about the “compared to”—K-12 is the obvious comparison class.In k-12 we have lots of standardized tests, but not much assessment of learning in a specific period, and certainly not a lot of supervising of classrooms; and too much of the little observation that is done is done by principals who know little about teaching and for whom evaluating teachers is a miniscule and, de facto, unimportant, part of their job. But the best (if rare) practices in k-12 can be borrowed by higher education. Teaching is just like any other skill. You improve by first identifying others who are demonstrably skillful, observing them, mimicking them, getting feedback on your practice, modifying in the light of the feedback, and repeating the whole process over and over again. A system in which we record lectures and discussions, get teachers together to observe and discuss what they see, in the light of evidence about what the students learned (and, in college you can even, as I have done, select students to participate in these critical discussions) according to carefully developed protocols; and the addition of systematic coaching (sometimes by students—last Thursday the student whom I currently hire to observe me gave expressed dissatisfaction with the discussion I had just conducted in a discussion section and identified exactly what I need to do next week to avoid the problem) would, I think, improve the quality of instruction; and would be cheap relative to the cost of the whole enterprise.

I’d like to see these sorts of things happen because I think they’re the kinds of things that we should already be doing—because we should value undergraduate instruction more than we do. I don’t see the market exerting much pressure to get us to adopt such practices, though. I think the key reason is this. Parents, and students, are not buying education, but a credential. As long as that is what they are doing the brand is going to matter more than the actual instructional quality or how much they learn. As Bill Massy, Bob Zemsky and Greg Wegner put it in Remaking the American University:

Critics of higher education, and to some extent higher education itself, have misunderstood the core business of these institutions. Whereas most believe the task of universities and collegesis to supply quality educations at reasonable prices, their real business is to sell competitive advantage at necessarily high prices. [HB—this comment applies to the more selective parts of the sector]

As I explained here, as long as this remains the case, there won’t be much market pressure to elevate the importance of teaching. McArdle thinks that might be changing:

People outside the university are already focusing less on graduation day and more on what you did during your years in school. That will continue, and intensify.

Many of the people who will be doing that focusing are parents or employers, or policy makers who went to large research schools. Their beliefs about academia’s priorities—true or not—are going to shape their willingness to invest more in its students.

I am not so confident. When I talk to non-university audiences about admissions and choosing colleges my exhortations on parents to exert pressure on colleges to improve the quality of instruction their children will receive are met mostly with bemusement—because, I think, people don’t have much of a clue how to do that because it is so hard to figure out systematically what kids will or did learn within the institution. And anyway they are generally, and rationally, more concerned with the quality of their kid’s credential than the quality of their learning. Sure, there seems to be some political pressure to elevate the importance of teaching. But the kinds of proposals I see are so indirect that it is hard to imagine them actually having good effects, and easy to see them having bad effects (eg, rewarding schools for the starting salaries of their graduates would, for example, discourage colleges from improving their teacher education programs, because teachers start with low salaries, and are expensive to educate well and, in general, intensifies the incentives colleges have to seek students who are already well prepared and whom, therefore, they won’t need to educate). And it is not clear to me that many politicians actually have the attention span or time horizons to push through real, substantial, improvements, even if they had the relevant proposals.

Still, since it has come up, and knowing that a whole lot of readers are currently helping their high school seniors choose colleges: please, at open days, etc, ask the deans what kinds of system they have in place to identify the high quality teachers on their campus, and to ensure that other teachers are observing and learning from them, and they are learning from each other. Many deans, and a not a few faculty, recognize that undergraduate instruction is not as good as it should be, and would more than welcome some sort of market pressure to make improvements happen.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

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