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classroom tech: heterogeneous students

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A problem with a lot of introductory level courses is that they attract heterogeneous students. In sociology, this is very apparent in the introduction to sociology class. It is not uncommon to get, in the same class, a graduating senior who wants to put in the minimal amount of effort and the very aggressive freshman who wants that 4.0 GPA for that Harvard law application. The heterogeneous class presents problems on many levels – the presentation of materials, classroom management, and so forth. In this posts, a few comments on how to handle this class.

  1. Cut the class in half. A few people have told me that it is effective to treat the first half as a chance to make sure everyone is on the same page. Then, the second half you can move into material that will be new for almost everyone.
  2. Active learning: People have also suggested that you stop lecturing. Instead, really have students to in-class work. This helps reduced the boredom for more advanced students and, at the least, gives them something to do.
  3. A third strategy is to stratify assignments. Older students can get more involved and challenging assignments. This depends on the nature of the course and if you have the patience to grade multiple assignments at once.

Use the comments to discuss your own teaching strategies for heterogeneous classes.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

October 22, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, fabio

history, the stock market, and predicting the future

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So the stock market has been freaking out a bit the last couple of weeks. Secular stagnation, Ebola, a five-year bull market—who knows why. Anyway, over the weekend I was listening to someone on NPR explain what the average person should do under such circumstances (answer: hang tight, don’t try to time the market). This reminded me of one of my pet quibbles with financial advice, which I think applies to a lot of social science more generally.

For years, the conventional wisdom around what ordinary folks should do with their money has gone something like this. Save a lot. Put it in tax-favored retirement accounts. Invest it mostly in index funds—the S&P 500 is good. Don’t mess with it. In the long run this is likely to net you a reliable 7% return after inflation, about the best you’re likely to do.

Now, it’s not that I think this is bad advice. In fact, this is pretty much exactly what I do, with some small tweaks.

But it has always struck me how, in news stories and advice columns and talk shows, people talk about how this is a good strategy because it’s worked for SO LONG. For 30 years! Or since 1929! Or since 1900! (Adjust returns accordingly.)

And yes, 30 years, or 85, or 114, are all a long time relative to human life. And we have to make decisions based on the knowledge we’ve got.

But it’s always seemed to me that if what you’re interested in is what will happen over the 30+ years of someone’s earning life (more if you’re not in academia!), you’ve basically got an N of 1 to 4 here. I mean, sure, this may be a reasonable guess, but I don’t think there’s any strong reason to believe that the next 100 years are likely to look very similar to the last 100. Odds are better if you’re just interested in the next 30, but even then, I’m always surprised by just how confident the conventional wisdom is around the idea that the market always coming out ahead over a 25- or 30-year period—going ALL THE WAY BACK TO 1929—is rock solid evidence that it will do so in the future.

Of course, there are lots of people who don’t believe this, too, as evidenced by what happened to gold prices after the financial crisis. Or by, you know, survivalists.

Anyway, I think this overconfidence in the lessons of the recent past is something we as social scientists tend to be susceptible to. The study that comes most immediately to mind here is the Raj Chetty study on value-added estimates of teachers (paper 1, paper 2, NYT article).

The gist of the argument is that teachers’ effects on student test scores, net of student characteristics (their value added), predicts students’ eventual income at age 28. Now, there’s a lot that could be discussed about this study (latest round of critique, media coverage thereof).

But I just want to point to it—or rather, broader interpretations of it—as illustrating a similar overconfidence in the ability of the past to predict the future.

Here we have a study based on a massive (2.5 million students) dataset over a twenty-year period (1989-2009). Just thinking about the scale of the study and taking its results at face value, it’s hard to imagine how much more certain one could be in social science than at the end of such an endeavor.

And much of the media coverage takes that certainty and projects it into the future (see the NYT article again). If you replace a low value-added teacher with an average one, the classroom’s lifetime earnings will increase by more than $250,000.

And yet to make such a leap, you have to be willing to assume so many things about the future will be like the past: not only that incentivizing teachers differently and making tests more important won’t change their predictive effects (which the papers acknowledge), but, just as importantly, that the effects of education on earnings—or, more specifically, of teacher value-added on earnings—will be similar in future 20-year periods as it was from 1989-2009. And that nothing else meaningful about teachers, students, schools, or earnings will evolve over the next 20 years in ways that mess with that relationship in a significant way.

I think we do this a lot—project into the future based on our understanding of a past that is, really, quite recent. Of course knowledge about the (relatively) recent past still should inform the decisions we make about the future. But rather a lot of modesty is called for when making blanket claims that assume the future is going to look just like the past. Maybe it’s human nature. But I think that modesty is often missing.

Written by epopp

October 20, 2014 at 11:01 am

affirmative action and the academic pipeline

When people discuss affirmative action, they often have a mistaken view that higher education is filled with legions of under-qualified minorities. From the inside, we have the opposite view. The higher up you go, the less likely you will find folks from under-represented groups. So, what gives?

In addition to plain ideological differences, I think people are selectively looking at the academic pipeline. Basically, at some points in the career, affirmative action is indeed at work and some folks, including myself no doubt, will receive extra consideration. But most of the time, privilege is the rule. People will disproportionately focus on the parts of the pipeline where affirmative action is a modest benefit for some people.

To grasp the argument, it helps to break down what needs to happen in order for anyone to become a tenured professor:

  1. Getting a high college GPA.
  2. Applying to the “right” grad schools.
  3. Admission to the “right” grad schools.
  4. Passing courses.
  5. Passing exams.
  6. Getting the “right” adviser.
  7. Getting published in the “right” places.
  8. Writing the dissertation.
  9. Applying to tenure track positions
  10. Getting an offer from a school.
  11. Strong teaching skills.
  12. Continuing to publish in the “right” places.
  13. Getting elites in the profession to vouch for you.
  14. Getting the department and college to sign off on your tenure case.

As you can see, academia is this insanely long career track with a long list of interdependent parts.

Now let’s get back to affirmative action. Where does that policy work? In my scheme, it shows up mainly in step #3. Most schools will look askance at graduate school cohorts that lack ethnic or gender diversity. Some may even provide funds for recruitment and fellowships. But that’s it. After step #3, affirmative is rare. Perhaps the exception is when deans or departments at the junior level look to diversity the faculty and they may approve a hire.

This helps explain the perceptions of the policy. Admissions is high profile and people are openly competing for spots.  Faculty hiring is also high visibility. In contrast, say, getting published in a journal, or joining the “right” research groups is highly invisible to most observers until after the fact. And these are structured as homophilic networks, which might work against diversifying the faculty.

So, when it come to diversity in academia, you can’t look at one link in the chain. You have to look at the whole thing.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

September 22, 2014 at 12:01 am

the politics of college admissions at Berkeley and Cal Tech

A few days ago, we got into a fruitful discussion of college admissions. Steven Pinker wrote a widely discussed article condemning the Ivy League for using non-academic criteria in admissions. I concurred with the basic point, but noted that it is all for naught because Pinker doesn’t discuss why college admissions is set up the way it is. Basically, current admissions policies are designed generate income, political legitimacy, academic respect, and other factors. People simply wouldn’t stand for an admissions policy that would turn Harvard into Berkeley or Cal Tech, where Asians are the majority and Latinos and African Americans are under represented, not to mention all the influential people whose above average kids can’t get into Harvard without the legacy program.

In the comments, Chris Martin suggested that if Cal Tech and Berkeley could do it, it wouldn’t be so bad. I think Chris under estimates the issue. To see why, let’s review Berkeley and Cal Tech:

  • Berkeley: This was a school that had a policy where students were given an index that combined a number of factors, such as GPA, SAT, race, extracurriculars and so forth. This system was not changed internally and race was only dropped due to a ballot initiative and various judicial battles.
  • Cal Tech: Even though Cal Tech is probably a more elite school than Harvard, it is very different in that the political pressures on engineering and science schools are much weaker. Roughly speaking, every smart kid in America dreams of the Ivy League, but only the nerdiest kids want to go to Cal Tech. In other words, I’ve never heard of wealthy senators intensely lobbying Cal Tech to make sure their C+ son makes it in.

Bottom line: These two cases are not exemplars of internally driven change. Instead, they highlight how constrained college admissions policies are.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

September 11, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, ethics, fabio

steven pinker, do you want a meritocracy? YOU CAN’T HANDLE A MERITOCRACY!!!!

In case you’re wondering, I’m obviously Tom Cruise and Steven Pinker is Jack Nicholson.

Recently, Steven Pinker wrote a response to William Deresiewicz’ recent article/book, which claims that the Ivy League is a horrible soulless place. Overall, I concur with Pinker’s retort. Deresiewicz doesn’t offer evidence to show that careerism has gotten any worse, he makes a broad over generalization about non-elite college students, and he overstates the cases that non-elite colleges are under appreciated refuges of learning (although a few are). The bottom line for Pinker is that the Ivy League is where talented kids should go and we should spend our efforts making it more academic by emphasizing standardized tests in admissions and de-emphasizing things likes sports and music.

I could quibble here and there, but instead, I’d like to focus on what I think is a profound problem with Pinker’s retort. I share Pinker’s desire to create a more academic environment in higher education, but nowhere in the essay does Pinker come to grips with why the system of elite college admissions is the way it is. Why, exactly, does Harvard, and most other competitive schools, use a mix of academics, extra-curriculars, race, legacy, and geography? Here’s the simple answer:

Race. And money. But really, race.

Here’s a more subtle answer:

College admissions policies are the result of multiple political and financial pressures. Management scholars call it “resource dependence.” Your organization must be set up in a way to keep the resources flowing. Elite colleges need political legitimacy, scientific & scholarly legitimacy, prestige, a positive self-image, and loads of cash. A purely academic admission policy does not accomplish this complex goal. The current admission policy does.

Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen is the most comprehensive study ever conducted on elite college admissions and it explains in detail why the admissions system at Harvard looks the way it does. He focused on Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but versions of the policies are now standard at other leading research universities.

Roughly, it goes something like this. First, the “docket system” (sorting people into geographical regions) was intended to limit Jews from the Northeast, mainly from New York and New Jersey, and favor specific private schools. Second, the emphasis on being “well-rounded” was designed to limit Asians who had trouble with English and didn’t do “artsy” things. Third, affirmative action was introduced to bolster African American and Latino enrollments in the post-Civil Right era. Fourth, legacy is simply a fancy word for “pay to play.” Fifth, the types of people who give the most back in donations are not the artists or painters that Pinker rightfully praises. They are those who do “Wall Street,” and related careers like “Big Law,” and they can be identified by extra-curricular activities in high school. College admissions has evolved beyond these basic policies but the overall structure remains. Academic performance is one very important factor, but there are others.

If Pinker were to have his way and shift to a strictly academic admissions system, the following would happen:

  • A huge increase in Asian enrollments
  • A modest decrease in White enrollments, but with strong Jewish  enrollments
  • A substantial reduction of African American and Latino enrollments
  • An increase in people who don’t give back
  • A very angry group of industry leaders, senators, governors, and other powerful people who are really angry that their kid didn’t get in.

Harvard as we see it today would cease to exist. You’d instead see it turned into something like Berkeley or Cal Tech, which are White minority institutions. How would he deal with the inevitable blow back?

I applaud Steven Pinker for decrying the dilution of academic culture. I’ve spent my entire career in places like Berkeley, Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Bloomington and I don’t regret it. But still, unless he can explain how he’ll solve this complex political problem that admissions policies are designed to solve, his preening is more of a show and not serious attempt at academic reform.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

September 8, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, ethics, fabio

does organizational sociology have a future? the final part

This is the third and final installment of the “Does Organizational Sociology Have a Future?” panel from ASA, featuring Ezra Zuckerman’s presentation and the Q&A. Here’s part 1 and part 2.

Ezra Zuckerman closed on an up note with “some reasons to be bullish.” Rather than reviewing the past or summarizing trends, Zuckerman highlighted three pieces of work he’s excited about by younger scholars.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by epopp

September 4, 2014 at 1:24 pm

Posted in academia, education

does organizational sociology have a future? the answer, part 2

[This is a continuation of the summary of the "Does Organizational Sociology Have a Future?" ASA panel. Part 1 featured Howard Aldrich and Lis Clemens; tomorrow I'll wrap up with a recap of Ezra Zuckerman's presentation and the Q&A that followed the panel.]

Harland Prechel spoke third. He described himself as being located outside organizational sociology early in his career but was drawn to its useful analytical tools and incorporated organizational sociology into his research over time. Organizational sociology has a lot to offer. So why is it in decline?

A central problem is there is no integrated theory of organizations. Instead, there are numerous competing perspectives that rise and decline over time.  This occurs, in part, because each perspective has a narrow scope that constrains what can be examined, explained, and predicted. For example, given that the behaviors that contributed to the 2007-2008 financial crisis occurred inside organizations, why did organizational researchers failed to predict or anticipate it? One viable answer is the prevailing theories did not direct researchers’ attention toward the underlying structures that permitted the risk-taking behaviors associated with the crisis.

Another part of the explanation for the decline in organizational sociology is that business schools have begun to produce their own PhDs in organizational studies and have become less dependent on sociology departments. Also, organizational sociology is perceived to be less relevant to managing organizations. Given these conditions, it is likely that the job market for organizational sociology in business schools will decline in the future.

Given all this, should we do more of the same? Or, should we be doing something different?

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by epopp

September 3, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Posted in academia, education

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