Archive for the ‘education’ Category
A recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives reports a recent attempt to curb grade inflation. High GPA departments at Wellesley College were required to cap high grades. The abstract:
Average grades in colleges and universities have risen markedly since the 1960s. Critics express concern that grade inflation erodes incentives for students to learn; gives students, employers, and graduate schools poor information on absolute and relative abilities; and reflects the quid pro quo of grades for better student evaluations of professors. This paper evaluates an anti-grade-inflation policy that capped most course averages at a B+. The cap was biding for high-grading departments (in the humanities and social sciences) and was not binding for low-grading departments (in economics and sciences), facilitating a difference-in-differences analysis. Professors complied with the policy by reducing compression at the top of the grade distribution. It had little effect on receipt of top honors, but affected receipt of magna cum laude. In departments affected by the cap, the policy expanded racial gaps in grades, reduced enrollments and majors, and lowered student ratings of professors.
My sense is that this shows that grade inflation, whatever its historical origins, acts as a competitive advantage for programs that few other market advantages. If you don’t have a strong external job market or external funding, then you can boost enrollments via grade inflation. It also absolves programs by masking racial under performance. The lesson for academic management is this: If you have inequality in funding, departments will compensate by weak grading. If you have inequality by race, departments will compensate by weak grading. Thus, academic leaders who care about either of these issues should implement policies where departments don’t choose standards and are accountable for results.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m in the Poconos this week with old college friends. Three of us were housemates junior and senior years, and we knew all three of our spouses then too. We’ve stayed in touch—weddings helped for a number of years—and always talked about renting a house one summer, but never did.
In March, we went to the bat mitzvah of the oldest of our (collective) six kids. And realized that if we were going to do this, time was actually not unlimited. So here we are. It’s been a great week. There is something special about seeing your kids playing with the kids of people who knew you when you were young and unformed.
This post is about the recent experience of one of my friends, who I will call Mike because that is not his name. Mike left the practice of law last year to teach in a failing urban school—think “The Wire,” season four. He changed careers because he found law soul-sucking, not because he wanted to save the world, but was pretty comfortable with the prospect of teaching in the inner city. Mike made it four months, until he was fired a week before the school year ended—not because of trouble with the kids, but with the administration. His experience highlights some very particular ways organizations can fail—maybe idiosyncratic, certainly not generalizable, but worth thinking about nonetheless.
When I wrote about universities and the ethics of donations the other day, the takeaway was that we should 1) protect academic freedom and 2) avoid resource dependence but 3) not give donors political litmus tests. Then I threw in a line at the end about the biggest funder of all: the government.
Of course, there’s a simpler solution to this – full public funding for public universities, so that we can all Just Say No to any money with strings attached. Given our current financial reality, though, I’m curious if others have ideas about where to draw the line.
A couple of people have rightly jumped on this — August in the comments, and Graham Peterson at his own blog. They point out, fairly enough, that being government-funded just makes you dependent on bureaucrats and their agendas rather than the Koches or Bill Gates or whomever.
I’m very attuned to this possibility. During the Cold War, the government was often the biggest threat to academic freedom. There were government-sponsored Communist witch-hunts (see here for a gripping account of threats made to Robert Bellah at Harvard). There was classified research with lots of academic-freedom-stifling strings attached (see, e.g., Kelly Moore’s Disrupting Science). Government-sponsored military research was, in fact, one of the things ripping universities apart in the late 1960s.
And yet. I still prefer the government money.
The final installment in our readings on higher education:
- Why Are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care? by Neil Gross
- The American Academic Profession, edited by Hermanowicz
- The American Faculty by Schuster and Finkelstein (probably the definitive work adjunctification)
- I actually don’t know a great social science treatment of tenure.
Add more in the comments.
This week, some readings on who goes to college and why:
- College Choice in America by Charles Manski. The standard model of how students choose the college they attend. Just add $40k to the tuition bill to update it.
- Read a bunch of reports summarizing the results of the annual freshman survey fielded by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. Start with the 70s and move forward.
- How elite schools choose students: Crafting a Class by Duffy and Goldberg; Creating a Class by Mitchell Stevens; and The Chosen by Jerome Karabel. Each a classic in its own way.
- Academically Adrift by Arum and Roksa. Shows the limited learning in higher ed.
- Read Becker on human capital, Arrow & Spence on signalling, and Collins on credentialism. Each is a classic statement of different theories of how college plays into employment and income.
- Read Carnevale, Strohl and Melton on the incomes associated with different college majors.
- On student protest: Freedom’s Web by Richard Rhoads and From Black Power by myself.
Use the comments for more suggestions.
Last week, Elizabeth wrote about Finland’s educational system. Like many high performing school systems, Finland relies on a relatively elite teacher corp. However, Elizabeth and other commenters were skeptical that the same approach would work in the US. I.e., you can’t get improvement by firing the worst teachers. The commenters responded that the issue was that the “new” worst teachers would still be matched with the lowest SES students. This response is not persuasive because it conflates two issues: relative improvement and absolute improvement.
While we would love all students to get exactly equal treatment in school, the most realistic goal for an institution in the short term to seek improvements with existing resources. I.e., the typical school in the South Side of Chicago needs *better* teachers, not the exact same teachers as the elite school in Winnetka. There are two reasons for this.
First, even modest improvements in outcomes matters. The typical low SES school instructor probably won’t have the same effect as the elite math teacher in Winnetka, but improving a graduation rate from 55% to 60% would result in literally hundreds of low SES kids having the high school credential or admission to college. It matters.
Second, in a system of local control, it is not entirely clear why we should expect random assignment of teachers to schools. The way the teaching profession works is that schools compete for teachers by offering higher salaries, nicer facilities, and higher SES students that are easier to teach. One can imagine a Federal system for assigning teachers to schools, but that isn’t coming any time soon. For now, we work with what we have.
Bottom line: Yes, firing the worst teachers will almost certainly increase the educational outcomes of a school. Don’t give up real, achievable gains in an attempt to stamp out all inequality.
A loyal orghead asked for a post on readings that address the organization of higher education, to help them understand why the system is set up the way it is. Today, we’ll start with some basics:
- The Emergence of American University by Laurence Vesey.
- The Academic Revolution by Christopher Jencks.
- The Higher Education System by Burton Clark
- The Evolution of Educational Thought by Emile Durkheim
- The Organization of Higher Education edited by Michael Bastedo
The last volume is an anthology that summarizes recent work in a number of areas, including a chapter by me on movements and higher ed.