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amazon won’t destroy college as we know it

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I’m really bad at keeping up with the media cycle.

So last Wednesday, Vox put up this cute piece with the catchy title, “How Amazon Could Destroy College as We Know It.” Written in the form of a letter from Jeff Bezos to shareholders in the year 2030, it tells the story of how Amazon came to supplant traditional higher education by developing, and selling at cost, badges that people could earn to demonstrate particular skill sets. As the value of badges became evident, companies became more and more interested in using them in hiring—to the detriment, presumably, of traditional indicators like college degrees.

It’s a clever article, and well-written. It also doesn’t quite make the claim the headline implies—that the rise of Amazon badges would destroy higher education. Nevertheless, although I think that the piece gets at something real that is going on, and that is eventually going to be an important source of change, this is not how I see it going down.

Anyway, Wednesday night I started writing a blog post using a similar Bezos-to-shareholders conceit, but from a 2030 that looked quite different. It just wasn’t quite working, I think because it’s hard to see Amazon pioneering the kind of change I can imagine. Pearson, maybe. But even I can’t name the CEO of Pearson. (Apparently it’s John Fallon.)

So the format wasn’t quite working, but the underlying point still nagged. While badges may become a thing, and perhaps Amazon may even pioneer them, they are not going to be “the” new form of educational currency. The world in which “as many as half of major US employers now consider Amazon badges to be one of their top five criteria when determining whom to hire” will remain a fantasy.

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Written by epopp

February 1, 2016 at 1:20 pm

james coleman: a rememberance

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At Education Next, Sally Kilgore offers a thoughtful overview of James Coleman’s career. For example, the aftermath of the EEOC report:

Coleman’s claims drew a vitriolic response, particularly from some fellow sociologists, who assumed he no longer favored desegregation.  At the 1976 meeting of the American Sociological Association, posters bearing swastikas and Coleman’s name were displayed in the main auditorium, and the ASA’s president, Alfred McClung Lee, led a failed attempt to have him expelled. The flap eventually subsided, and though Coleman’s work on education remained controversial for more than a decade, he was elected president of the ASA in 1990.

The attacks by colleagues must have been especially painful for a man who had actively opposed segregation. In July 1963, he and his first wife, Lucille, had taken their three boys—Tom, 8, John, 6, and Steve, 5 months—to participate in a demonstration at a whites-only amusement park outside of Baltimore. As the Colemans attempted to enter the park with a black family, they were arrested, as anticipated, along with nearly 300 fellow demonstrators.

And:

“Public and Private Schools,” which reported our results to the Department of Education, generated a new wave of controversy for Coleman. The report’s most contentious finding was that minority students attending Catholic schools had higher levels of achievement than those in public schools. The study also found that students in private schools increased their participation in extracurricular activities in each succeeding grade, while public school students appeared to decrease their participation. Critics pointed out, justifiably, that we had not adequately controlled for initial differences in the student populations as they entered either public or private schools. For instance, the family background variables we used to control for such differences may have failed to capture more nuanced variations in parental interest in education. Coleman never balked at criticism; he quickly looked for alternative methods to improve the control over initial differences. (A few years later, using survey data from the second round of “High School and Beyond,” the team showed that students in private schools had greater learning gains between their sophomore and senior years than did students in public schools. Thus, the achievement gap could not be attributed solely to the performance of the incoming freshmen.)

Read the whole thing.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

January 26, 2016 at 12:01 am

racial biases for low and higher performing students

Former BGS Yasmiyn Irizarry’s research on how teachers treat students of different races is featured in Scientific American’s podcast. From the Social Science Research article:

Education scholars document notable racial differences in teachers’ perceptions of students’ academic skills. Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort, this study advances research on teacher perceptions by investigating whether racial differences in teachers’ evaluations of first grade students’ overall literacy skills vary for high, average, and low performing students. Results highlight both the overall accuracy of teachers’ perceptions, and the extent and nature of possible inaccuracies, as demonstrated by remaining racial gaps net literacy test performance. Racial differences in teachers’ perceptions of Black, non-White Latino, and Asian students (compared to White students) exist net teacher and school characteristics and vary considerably across literacy skill levels. Skill specific literacy assessments appear to explain the remaining racial gap for Asian students, but not for Black and non-White Latino students. Implications of these findings for education scholarship, gifted education, and the achievement gap are discussed.

Check it out.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

January 15, 2016 at 12:01 am

why do universities salivate over money-losing grants?

Happy new year. Guess what my New Year’s resolution is. To that end, a few quick thoughts on universities and the grant economy to dip a toe back in the water.

We all know that American universities (well, not only American universities) are increasingly hungry for grants. When state funding stagnates, and tuition revenues are limited by politics or discounting, universities look to their faculty to bring in money through grants. Although this may be a zero-sum game across universities (assuming total funding is fixed), it is unsurprising that administrations would intensify grant-seeking when faced with tight budgets.

Of course, it’s only unsurprising if grants actually make money for the university. But a variety of observers, from the critical to the self-interested, have argued that the indirect costs that many grants bring in – the part that pays not for the direct cost of research, but for overhead expenses like keeping the network running, the library open, and the heat and electricity on – don’t actually cover the full expense of conducting research.

Instead, they suggest that every grant the university brings in costs it another 9% or so in unreimbursed overhead. In addition, about 12% of total research spending consists of universities spending their own money on research. While some of this goes to support work unlikely to receive external funding (e.g. research in the humanities), I think it’s safe to assume that most of it is related to the search for external grants – it’s seed funding for projects with the potential for external funding, or bridge funding for lab faculty between grants. (These numbers come from the Council on Government Relations, a lobbying organization of research universities.)

If that’s the case, it means that when faculty bring in grants, even federal grants that come with an extra 50% or so to pay for overhead costs, it costs the university money. Money that could be spent on instruction, or facility maintenance, or even on research itself. So how can we make sense of the fact that universities are intensifying their search for grants, even as the numbers suggest that grants cost universities more they gain them?

I can think of at least three reasons this might be the case:

1.  The numbers are wrong.

It is notoriously difficult to estimate the “real” indirect costs of research. How much of the library should your grant pay for? How much of the heat, if it’s basically supporting a grad student who would be sitting in the same shared office with or without the grant? There are conventions here, but they are just that – conventions. And maybe universities have a better sense of the “real” costs, which might be lower than standard accounting would suggest. COGR has an interest in making research look expensive, so government is generous about covering indirect costs. And critics of the university (with whom I sympathize) have a different interest in highlighting the costs of research, since they see a heavy grants focus as coming at the cost of education and of the humanities and social sciences. (See e.g. this recent piece by Chris Newfield, which inspired the line of thought behind this post.)

Certainly the numbers are squishy, and the evidence that grant-seeking costs universities more than it gains them isn’t airtight. But I haven’t seen anyone make a strong case that universities are actually making money from indirect costs. So I’m skeptical that these numbers are out-and-out wrong, although open to better evidence.

2. It’s basically political and/or symbolic, not financial.

A second possibility is that the additional dollars aren’t really the point. The point is that universities exist in a status economy in which having a large research enterprise is integral to many forms of success, from attracting desirable faculty and students, to appearing in a positive light to politicians (more relevant for public than private universities), to attracting donations from those who want to give to an institution that is among the “best”. Or, in a slight variation, maybe the perceived political benefits of having a large grant apparatus – of being on the cutting edge of science, of being seen as economically valuable – is seen as outweighing any extra costs. After all, what’s an extra 10% per grant if it makes the difference between the state increasing or cutting your appropriations over the next decade? (Again, most relevant for publics.)

These dynamics are real, but they don’t explain the intensification of the search for grants in response to tight budgets, except insofar as tight budgets also intensify the status competition. But it really seems to me that administrators see grants as a direct financial solution, not an indirect one. So I think that symbolic politics is a piece of the puzzle, but not the only one.

3.  Not all dollars are created equal.

Different dollars have different values to different people. Academic scientists often like industry grants because they tend to be more flexible than government money. Administrators, on the other hand, don’t, since such grants typically don’t cover overhead expenses.

Perhaps something related is going on with the broader search for grants. Maybe, even if grants really do cost more than they bring in for universities, administrators don’t perceive the revenues and the expenses in parallel ways. After all, those indirect costs provide identifiable extra dollars the university wouldn’t have seen otherwise. But the “excess” expenses are sort of invisible. The university is going to pay for the heat and the library either way; even if you know the research infrastructure has to be supported, you might assume that the marginal overhead cost of an additional grant doesn’t make that much difference. (Maybe you’d even be right.) And people might not see some costs – like university seed funding for potentially fundable research – as an expense of grant-seeking, even if that’s why they exist.

I think this is probably a big part of the explanation. The extra revenues of grants are visible and salient; the extra costs are hidden and easy to discount. So, rightly or wrongly, administrators turn to grant-seeking in tight times despite the fact that it actually costs universities money.

There are some other possibilities I’m not considering here. For example, maybe this is about the interests of different specific groups within the organization – e.g. about competitions among deans, or between upper administration and trustees. But I think #2 and #3 capture a lot of what’s going on.

So, if you think this dynamic (the intensification of grant-seeking) is kind of dysfunctional, what do you do? Well, pointing out how much research really costs the university – loudly and repeatedly – is probably a good idea. Make those “extra” costs as visible and salient as the revenues. (Though it would be SO NICE if the numbers were better.)

But don’t discount #2 – even if any extra costs of grants are made clear, universities aren’t going to give up the search for them. Because while the money grants bring in matters, they also have value as status capital, and that outweighs any unreimbursed costs they incur. Grants may not quite cover those pesky infrastructure costs. But the legitimacy they collectively confer is, quite literally, priceless.

Written by epopp

January 4, 2016 at 1:54 pm

summer program for academically oriented high school students interested in black studies

Do you know a bright and motivated high school student who is interested in issues of race and ethnicity? If you do, please direct them to the Telluride Assocation website. Every year, the Telluride Association sponsors summer seminars for dedicated students on a range of topics. This coming summer, I will co-teach, with Maria Hamilton Abegunde, a seminar for high school sophomores called “The Black Struggle for Freedom: An Interdisciplinary Perspective.” It will be taught at the Indiana University campus. The cost of the seminar, including housing and meals, is fully covered by donors and the Association. It is the policy of the association that cost will not be a barrier for entry.

If you know a student who might be a good match, please check out the application web site. The Telluride Association also hosts programs on other topics for sophomores and juniors – so check it out!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

December 9, 2015 at 12:01 am

critical thinking courses do not teach critical thinking any better than other courses

Critical Thinking Wars 1 and 2

A recent meta-analysis of studies of critical thinking (e.g., seeing if students can formulate criticisms of arguments) shows that, on average, college education is associated with critical thinking. From “Does College Teach Critical Thinking? A Meta-Analysis” by Christopher Huber and Nathan Kuncel in Review of Educational Research:

This meta-analysis synthesizes research on gains in critical thinking skills and attitudinal dispositions over various time frames in college. The results suggest that both critical thinking skills and dispositions improve substantially over a normal college experience.

Now, my beef with the whole critical thinking stream is that there is a special domain of teaching called “critical thinking.” The looked at studies where students were in special critical thinking instruction:

Although college education may lag in other ways, it is not clear that more time and resources should be invested in teaching domain-general critical thinking.

How the Chronicle of Higher Education blog summarizes the issue:

Students are learning critical-thinking skills, but adding instruction focused on critical thinking specifically doesn’t work. Students in programs that stress critical thinking still saw their critical-thinking skills improve, but the improvements did not surpass those of students in other programs.

Bottom line: Take regular courses on regular topics and pay close attention to how people in specific areas figure out problems. Skip the critical thinking stuff, it’s fluff talk.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

October 30, 2015 at 12:01 am

free college vs. cost-benefit thinking

Last month, Howard Aldrich made—as he often does—a good point in the comments:

There’s been an interesting subtle shift in the rhetoric regarding whose responsibility it is to pay for an individual’s post-secondary education. My impression is that there was a strong consensus across the nation 50 years ago, and certainly into the late 1960s, that governments had a responsibility to educate their students that extended up through college. However, I perceive that consensus has been under attack from both the left and the right….Liberals argue that much of the public subsidy goes to the wealthier high income students whose parents don’t really deserve the subsidy. Conservatives argue that as students benefit substantially from their college education, they should pay most of the cost.

This month, I’ve been writing about the history of cost-benefit analysis. (Why yes, I do know how to have a good time.) On the surface, it has nothing to do with universities. But there are important links to be made.

One of the arguments I’m playing with is that economic thinking—here just meaning a rational, cost-benefit, systematic-weighing-of-alternative-choices sort of thinking—has been particularly constraining for the political left. On the right, when people’s values disagree with economic reasoning, they ignore the economics and forge ahead. On the left, while some will do the same, the “reasonable” position tends to be much more technocratic. Think Brookings versus Heritage. Over time, one thing that has pulled “the left” to the right has been the influence of a technocratic, cost-benefit strain of thought.

Yes, I know these are sweeping generalizations. But stay with me for a minute.

There are a couple of big economic arguments for asking individuals, not the public, to pay for higher education. Howard’s comment gets at both of them.

One is that while there is some public benefit in educating people, individuals capture most of the returns to higher education. If that is the case, it makes sense that they should pay for it, with the state perhaps making financing available for those who lack the means. Milton Friedman made this argument sixty years ago, and since then, it has become ever more popular.

The other is that providing free higher education is basically regressive. The wealthier you are, the more likely you are to attend college (check out this NYT interactive chart), and relatively few who are poor benefit. Milton Friedman made this argument, too, but it is particularly associated with a 1969 paper by Lee Hansen and Burton Weisbrod, and continues to be made by commentators across the political spectrum.

Both of these arguments have become economic common sense (even though support for the latter is actually pretty weak). Of course it’s fair for individuals to have to pay for the education that they benefit so much from. And of course it doesn’t make sense to pay for the education of the upper-middle class while the working poor who never make it to college get nothing.

Indeed, these arguments have been potent enough that it has become hard to argue for free higher education without sounding extreme and maybe economically illiterate. Really, it kind of amazes me that free college is even being talked about seriously these days by President Obama and Bernie Sanders.

But even the argument for free college now depends heavily on claims about economic payoff. The Obama proposal headlines “Return on Investment,” arguing that “every dollar invested in community college by federal, state and local governments means more than $25 [ed: !] in return.” The Sanders statement starts, “In a highly competitive global economy, we need the best-educated workforce in the world.” The candidate who is a self-described socialist relies on a utilitarian, economic argument to justify free higher education.

So what’s the problem with thinking about college in terms of economic costs and benefits? After all, it’s an expensive enterprise, and getting more so. Surely it doesn’t make sense to just wantonly spend without giving any thought to what you’re getting in return.

The problem is, if the argument you really want to make is that college is a government responsibility—that is, a right—starting with cost-benefit framing leads you down a slippery slope. Benefits are harder to measure than costs, and some benefits can’t be measured at all. All sorts of public spending becomes much harder to justify.

Now, this might be fine if you generally think that small government is good, or that the economic benefits of college are pretty much the ones that matter. But if you think it’s worth promoting college because it might help people become better citizens, or increases their quality of life in some difficult-to-measure way, or you just want to live in a society that provides broad access to education, well, too bad. You’ve already written that out of the equation.

If you really believe there are social benefits to making public higher education freely available, then cost-benefit arguments will always betray you. But rights, on the other hand, aren’t subject to cost-benefit tests. Only a moral argument that defends higher education as a right—as something to value because it improves the social fabric in literally immeasurable ways—can really work to defend real public higher education.

Seem too unrealistic? Think about high school. There’s no real reason that free college should be subject to a cost-benefit test when free high school is not. Individuals reap economic benefits—lots of them—from attending high school, too. And high school is at least as regressive as college: the well-off kids who attend the good public schools reap many more benefits than the low-income kids who attend the crummy ones. It only makes sense, then, that families should pay for high school themselves, right? Perhaps with government loans, if you’re too poor to afford it.

And yet no one is making this argument. Because we all still agree—at least for now—that children have the right to a free primary and secondary education. We may argue about how much to spend on it, or how to make it better, but the basic premise—governments have a responsibility to educate students, in Howard’s words—still holds.

So I support the free college movement. But I’d like to see its champions stop saying it’s because we need to be globally competitive, or because it’s got a huge ROI.

Instead, say it’s because our society will be stronger when more of us are better educated. Say that knowing higher education is an option, and an option you don’t have to mortgage your future for, will improve our quality of life. Say that colleges themselves will be better when they return to seeing students as students, and not as revenue streams.

Say it’s because it’s the right thing to do.

Written by epopp

October 23, 2015 at 12:00 pm

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