Monday, March 27, 2006

Band Together and Test

The Washington Post reports on Florida's new initiative edict/paradigm linking teacher pay including the potential for raises to student performance on the FCAT (the state standardized test). The picture of a student pep rally coupled with the article is priceless. Notice the band of enthusiastic boys in the forefront. Now notice the majority of students sitting idle. Now look again at the expressions on the boys' faces. Is it just me or is there a little sneering superciliousness in their reactions? Surely the kids can see some of the irony in a pep rally to score well on an individual test. Aren't pep rallies generally about getting a team excited to achieve victory? I know, I know. There is something good and exciting about celebrating the individual too, or in this case parallels about teamwork and "we're all in it together" are easy to substantiate, but there is a bit of perversity in stirring kids into a frenzy only to sit them down to quietly take a test that lasts for hours on end. This band of boys is on to it.

As for linking teacher pay to standardized test outcomes, more to come... But an early reaction is that this is a tough call. If we (they) want to base this much on tests then the tests better well measure something the teacher has a lot of control over. It's tough to see how any restraints on the importance of tests and testing will remain in this Florida teaching/testing environment.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Walk a Mile High

The Rocky Mountain news reports a bill pending approval from the Governor, Bill Owens, that would require anyone who wants to become a public school principal to rise from teachers' ranks and hold a master's degree. The article reports that Democrats have largely backed the measure. They argue that anyone entering the field of education should have to walk the walk of a teacher.

I understand this “pay your dues” attitude. I understand it particularly well as a person interested in educational leadership but with only a modicum of classroom experience. I’ve thought about this a lot and I have a few conclusions based on talks with administrators, my studies, chats with policy folks, and teachers. To me this bill sounds extreme. In a perfect world schools would have two different types of leaders: instructional and administrative/political. The instructional leader would be a master academician, skilled in teacher theory and practice. This leader would be familiar in the latest scholarship and research. This leader could model effective classroom instruction, management, and provide significant practical and emotional support to teachers. This leader could also advocate on behalf of the teachers as his or her say in decision making was of extreme import in school. The administrative leader would spend his or time in the affairs of the school and community as many administrators do now, particularly secondary administrators. Decision making between these joint chiefs would need to be close to “joint.”

Because most traditional school principals work heavy in management, test score improvement, parental fire-fighting, and as liaison between county leadership and school level demands (a gamut requiring political acumen) I do not necessarily agree that good teachers make good administrators. This bill doesn’t seem to suggest exactly that, but it does declare that to be an administrator at all, regardless of how exceptional an administrator one becomes, experience in teaching is a necessary prerequisite. That to me is a shame, because most of the demands administrators face have nothing to do with teaching. I can certainly understand how teaching experience could make one more sensitive to the rigors and demands teachers face. I think most principals would benefit from walking a few miles in a teacher’s shoes. I just think the best principals do this out of necessity, not because they are former teachers.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Drop In

Today's New York Times targets in my opinion one of the greater threats to the stability and well being of American citizens: the plight and achievement of African American males. Staple sources for discontent echo in this article like the hip-hop industry, lack of male parent figures, and of course our dropout epidemic. But less tired sources like welfare reform and mainstream culture navigation skills get mention.

Regarding dropouts, the Times author takes a more satisfactory approach with his statistics than many states do when they report that most of their students graduate. He writes that in major cities graduation rates hover at half for black males. Half! Look here for a more appropriate graduation mark that states have promised to begin work on.

Combined with sobering realities like: "In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20's were jobless — that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20's were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000" the situation looks bleak indeed.

I don't have an answer but I do have a question. I would like to see more data about black males that have degrees, associates or otherwise, that are still unemployed. This information would help guide a discussion better suited to addressing such a horrendous scourge. I'd like to know how much impact schooling has on black males. It is possible that schooling only goes so far. The 47 year-old man named William Baker in the article who had been to prison had an associate’s degree. He also had no steady work. He lamented a bias he feels keeps him from getting a good job. People need chances. They need more than one. If a high school degree or a college degree doesn't necessarily equal chances, as I believe it does not, then we have a long way to go to figuring this one out. We need more ways to help people drop in.

Monday, March 13, 2006

National standardization grows close to a tree

This morning's eduwonk ran a contest on national standards that I couldn't resist entering. The two articles, one by Diane Ravitch the other by Kevin Kosar. Read Ravitch here, and Kosar's op-ed here. Eduwonk asked about a common thread between the two. The answer it turns out is that Kosar was Ravitch's doctoral advisee. The protégé doesn't fall far from the tree. Both of these pieces advocate for national standards, likely for some different reasons. But they differ more fundamentally.

Ravitch invokes College Board founders Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, and Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University. By doing so she implicitly advocates higher ed institutions should be setting the curriculum. Kosar takes a different tact. With a plaintive appraisal of a political landscape unfavorable to national standards policy, he implicitly argues for a more traditional approach to national standards. By traditional, I mean in the sense that policy makers constantly fiddle with K-12 standards and avoid 13-20 standards. Kosar's approach to national standardization, where K-12 universal standards would ideally lead to more symmetry in the admissions process and eventually college achievement, seems more politically tenable in this political environment than it has before. As he suggests, it's probably not going to happen, but a little more articulation between systems seems to be in order.

I'm reminded of a professor who got me into this whole education policy mess. She was way left, brazen with her New York accent, and righteous. She derailed the career of a future educator for alcohol misconduct. One day in class, after a long discussion about what if anything could fix our education woes--I remember pressing her pretty hard--she bluntly and unapologetically said: "standardize it all." It was obvious after class that she felt she had alienated the masses on that front. But she stuck to her guns: put every child on the same page every day. This makes some sense. However, it goes against foundational mores and enlightenment ideals like some local control that people like de Tocqueville saw necessary to fend off rank apathy and administrative centralization. Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that an America that emphasizes equality over liberty would force something like national standards. My take is like Kosar's. There's still enough liberty loving, in the perverted-over-time anti-federalist tradition, to thwart equality's ultimate payday--national school standards. More to come I'm sure.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Diamonds and the Community College

The Chronicle Review* and CNN recently report about a new push, including monies coming from Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, to get more top community college grads attending top tier universities. These stories identify an increasingly obvious trend education and economic heavyweights like Anthony Carnavale, Stephen Rose, and William Bowen have identified: our top universities' clientele increasingly resemble country club and resort guests, far from the collective and romaticized struggling student archetype.

Joshua Wyner, Vice President of Programs at JKC, writes for both CNN and the Review that although schools like Amherst, University of Virginia, Harvard, and the University of Michigan are attempting to redress this trend by offering more grants to extremely low income, extremely high achieving students (more a statistical oxymoron than rule). The University of Virginia for example under AccessUVA offers students admitted under standard criteria who come from families making less than 200 percent of the poverty line for a family of four (approx. $37,700 in 2004) a free ride. Sounds pretty good right? Well in 2004-05, the first year of the program, 200 students were admitted under AccessUVA’s zero debt provision or 5.4 percent of all incoming students. Those students are truly diamonds in the rough. Note also that when AccessUVA was created the cutoff was going to be 150 percent of the poverty level for a family of four or $28,274. There was a reason they made the cutoff more liberal. These students are truly diamonds in the rough. Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the intent behind Access programs. But they’re not exactly aggressive and don’t fundamentally change anything. The cold hard of it all is that kids from poverty don’t go to top tier colleges because they don’t do well in general in K-12 schools—culpable along with a myriad of other at-risk factors slamming kids.

But more specifically, back to Wyner’s and JKC's proposal—to get more community college transfers into the very best schools. This sounds great but I wonder about attrition. Schools like my Alma matter could afford to take on transfer students, in fact they couldn’t afford not to since a certain amount of first and second year students would inevitably drop out. Around 30 percent would eventually dropout and these numbers are actually very good among universities and colleges. Average college completion among the states within 6 years of enrollment hovers around 55 percent. Completion for two-year programs (think community colleges) is nationally at 30 percent among students completing in 3 years.

But what about the best of the best colleges and universities Wyner and JKC are talking about? These schools graduate a very high number of their students. Think 90 percent. The question theses articles fail to fully address is what is the incentive for a university to take on extra numbers, numbers that could potentially significantly hurt their bottom line? Remember it only takes a few students to bust a budget. They have to be housed after all, they need roofs over their head when taking classes. It would seem much more probable for targeted efforts at the type of equity JKK is shooting for to originate at colleges and universities that are in the top tier, say top 100, but not the tippy top—top 25.

I don’t intend to sound like a downer. I think there is great promise among community colleges and Wyner is right about California working pretty well. But nationally we’re not there. I’d like to see some data to go with the claim that “economically and racially diverse groups of high achievers are graduating from our community colleges every semester.” And I would think Wyner and Jack Kent Cooke should not be so narrow in their belief that the very best institutions should be the change agents here. The point being made is important. Beyond everything else, it would seem like a good idea to expand collaboration between top 4 year institutions and community colleges. Maybe they'll find more of those diamonds everyone keeps talking about.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Here's an idea. The world is not exactly flat, yet.

Inside Higher Education writes this week about how we compare in engineering output to China and India. Yes, the now hackneyed battle cry for too many of our elected officials both informed and uniformed. As someone who is growing tired of hearing about how we are losing both the productivity and jobs race to India and China (I guess I grow tired easily but in education you start to hear things so many times you'd swear your iPod's shuffle algorithm needed help) this report from Duke comes as breath of fresh air. The report breaks the degree granting down in new ways. It looks at subbaccalaureate versus baccalaureate degrees and wisely breaks the numbers down on a per capita basis. A move any scientist worth her salt would make.

They report that in 2004 Americans earned 222,335 degrees in engineering, computer science and information technology; Indians earned 215,000 degrees; and the Chinese earned 644,106. They then consider quality (assuming a four year degree constitutes quality over a lesser degree). Over 290,000 of the Chinese degrees, and 103,000 of the Indian degrees are "subbaccalaureate." So close to half the degrees earned in both China and India are not baccalaureate degrees, whereas in the United States, 84,898 of the engineering degrees awarded were associate’s degrees, close to 38 percent. In terms of per capita degree earning, the United States awarded 758 degrees per million citizens. China awarded 497 degrees per million citizens, and India 199.

Now the real challenge is to determine if quality can really be measured by a baccalaureate versus subbaccalaureate approach. It's possible that a "lesser" degree is perfectly suited to training an engineer. The few engineers I know, however, have gone back to get Ph.D.s citing demands for more skills. If this is any indication, and I don't purport to know if it is, more education in a field like engineering might make for better engineers. Either way, this report is a fine way to reframe the debate... er... one-sided rant.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Surface Debate: Vouchers in Virginia Float?

The Washington Post reports about a struggle in Virginia set to unfold. The struggle will be over whether to send students with disabilities to private school on public dollars. The proposed option would make 175,000 students eligible for funding to the tune of the same average amount the state currently spends on their education: $2800.

There are some problems here, and they are not exactly the problems the article quotes. To begin with the obvious. The proposal is a voucher system. Lawmakers know enough not to insert the inflammable term "voucher" into a bill, but a spade is a spade. There's nothing "stealth" about this thing. So any tip-toeing by respondents is merely an effort not to come on too strong.

Second, Alexandria School Board Chairman Mary "Mollie" Danforth's comment about this proposal taking money away from education is only half right, or perhaps not specific enough to mean anything. Payments from the state will technically remain the same, however the localities will lose funding based on reduced attendance. The real concern is likely that since not all student with disabilities will be eligible or even take advantage of such a proposal, schools will have to continue to fund special education at near existing levels. Whether a school educates five or twenty special education students, the school still has to hire personnel and manage curricular adjustments.

For last I've left the most pressing concern that this article fails to address: the hypocrisy of accountability. Sounds harsh doesn’t it. Many of the same folks who advocated heavily for passage of the SOLs in Virginia in the 90s--the most expansive accountability machine the state has ever seen--are now portending to ignore accountability, the very value they fought so hard to establish as rule. When money follows students to private schools the tests we use to measure their achievement, the foundation of accountability under NCLB, do not follow. This in my mind is a much stronger objection than "we'll smash anything that looks or breathes like a voucher at all costs." Why would the same people who believe strongly in accountability, support the federal law and many of its principles, if not its measures, also be willing to sell those principles up river because it's convenient? Maybe it's just another case of market ideology trumping all other values--like decency, fairness, reciprocity, and equity. Market ideas in education don’t have to ignore fairness. We are only limited by our creativity and our commitment. I'm not against giving people opportunities that could improve their lives. And we know that American's adore choice. I am against blind commitment to a side of a debate without engaging that debate at a more fundamental level.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Times They are 'a Changing

Today's New York Times reports on a new bill that will allow colleges and universities to flexibility with the 50 percent rule governing receipt of federal aid and online course offerings. Currently colleges and universities that receive federal student aid are bounded by law to provide at least half their offerings on a physical campus. This new law will change that.

The Times attacks the bill from the angle of growing influence among for profit colleges--ones that offer most, if not all their offerings online. What the article failed to cover was the enormous impact this will have on traditional colleges and universities. And I venture to suggest this could be a positive thing.

Here's one of the problems I've had the opportunity to study and witness first hand. Campuses and their physical plants are extremely expensive. Many large universities resemble small cities not quaint campuses harkening back to a simpler era. Many state systems of higher education are at or near capacity to enroll students due to wide-spread knowledge and beliefs and in human capital theory, explicit measures of habitus, and social and cultural capital (i.e. people know they get something back when the attend college). This means in order to expand they have to increase the size of their campuses. This is not as simple as hiring a few more adjuncts (another lesson in shame for another time). These universities have to build new dorms, expand dining facilities, grow student services, fin-aid, IT, and maintenance staff. It goes on and on. I study and work in a school of education. We're way beyond capacity to contain all of our varied programs, so we've distributed our faculty and staff all over town. So logically we're attempting to build a new building. The problem is that the costs of this new building are incredible. And they don't hold still. The costs of steel and labor are soaring, save nothing for the costs of real estate in 2006. The long and short of all of this is that physical campuses are exorbitantly expensive to maintain and expand. Essentially the only way to improve the bottom line of college or university at capacity is to reach more students without bringing them on campus.

Do I think a classroom experience is superior to an internet experience? Having done both I would say yes. But I know people who want to finish a degree, and I know people who want to get an advance degree in education who would be served well by distance learning. If this bill does what the Times reports it will do, then I think the better story here is not how for-profits will benefit, but how there is potential for traditional colleges and universities to maintain their campuses and respond to the need for growth, particularly from students who might not otherwise be able to afford the costs of attending a college, arguably an increasing luxury. The Times has a great angle with this story. For-profits weild significant influence in Washington. However, it's not the angle I would have taken.

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