Archive for the ‘education’ Category

remaking higher education for turbulent times, wed., march 28, 9am-6pm EDT, Graduate Center

For those of you in NYC (or those who want to watch a promised live webcast at with a livestream transcript here:, the Graduate Center Futures Initiative is hosting a conference of CUNY faculty and students on Wed., March 28, 9am-6pm EDT at the Graduate Center.  Our topic is: “Remaking higher education for turbulent times.” In the first session “Higher Education at a Crossroads” at 9:45am EDT,  Ruth Milkman and I, along with other panelists who have taught via the Futures Initiative, will be presenting our perspectives on the following questions:

  1. What is the university? What is the role of the university, and whom does it serve?
  2. How do political, economic, and global forces impact student learning, especially institutions like CUNY?
  3. What would an equitable system of higher education look like? What could be done differently?

Ruth and I will base our comments on our experiences thus far with teaching a spring 2018 graduate course about changes in the university system, drawing on research conducted by numerous sociologists, including organizational ethnographers.  So far, our class has included readings from:

We will discuss the tensions of reshaping long-standing institutions that have reproduced privilege and advantages for elites and a select few, as well as efforts to sustain universities (mostly public institutions) that have served as a transformational engine of socio-economic mobility and social change.  More info, including our course syllabus, is available via the Futures Initiatives blog here.

Following our session, two CUNY faculty and staff who are taking our class, Larry Tung and Samini Shahidi will be presenting about their and their classmates’ course projects.

A PDF of the full day’s activities can be downloaded here: FI-Publics-Politics-Pedagogy-8.5×11-web

If you plan to join us (especially for lunch), please RSVP ASAP at


Written by katherinechen

March 21, 2018 at 4:53 pm

what is the sociology of education?

Over the last couple of years, a friend or colleague will occasionally turn to me and say, “people don’t think what I do is ‘sociology of education’ even though I study schools.” They will then order another round of Jim Beam and down it faster than you can say “Willard Waller.”

What gives? Why do I hear this from my buddies? Here is the answer I came up with. Within the ASA, sociology of education primarily means status attainment research. Secondarily, it may mean the social contexts of policy and instruction. Anything beyond that is not deemed “sociology of education.” Evidence for my conjecture? Check out the “most recent” articles on the Sociology of Education website.  As of Feb 26, four were directly about achievement (two on college application prep, one on income segregation, and parental involvement/achievement). The rest are about school policy and classroom practice. Go through the old issues – about 50% of the journal is about stratification in one way or another.

There is nothing wrong with this, but it does mean that a lot gets left out. Compare the contents of Sociology of Education with the various sections of the AERA. Historical work on schooling is non-existent. Or the politics of education. Or many of the other sociological aspects of education that people examine.

This isn’t a “finger pointing” post. Personally, I think Soc of Ed and the ASA section on education are great. But it is more of a “where are we today?” and “could we be different?” sort of post. It is worth thinking about.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 2, 2018 at 5:04 am

student evaluations? sad!

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how I changed my mind about student evaluations of teachers. Early evidence showed that they correlated with student learning, but newer analysis reverses this conclusion. The James G. Martin Center, with my permission, edited and reprinted the post. A teaser:

The fundamental issue is that colleges should probably not be judged using the logic of consumer satisfaction. The metric of customer happiness makes sense for products that are meant to be immediately entertaining, like watching television. But education, especially higher education, is about learning which, by nature, is a stressful and inconvenient thing. And the onus for success should be at least as much on the student as on the teacher.

Check it out!

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Written by fabiorojas

March 1, 2018 at 5:53 am

winter book forum 2018, part 3: so what?

In this last installment, I ask – “so what?” Is the argument presented in The Case Against Education important? My response is addressed to two groups – the skeptics and the persuaded.

The skeptics: I think that skeptics, people who believe that education is good because it directly improves people, should take away two main messages. First, very well meaning people will often just assert the benefits of education without a lot of evidence to back it up, especially when it comes to teaching things like “critical thinking.” More sophisticated people may justifiably cite the evidence on the college premium (i.e., college educated make more money than high school grads). But in both cases, there is often direct evidence that the hypothesis is wrong (e.g., no transfer learning), overblown (e.g., educated people are better citizens, but by a modest amount) or there is additional evidence that undermines the basic human capital story (e.g., people don’t retain what they learn or the infamous sheepskin effects). And these conclusions are not from one or two analyses, but from decades of academic work. Thus, skeptics should probably try harder to appreciate this evidence or come up with equally strong counter evidence.

A second lesson for skeptics is that we should really adopt a more humane approach to individuals with limited academic skills. One of the strongest arguments in The Case Against Education is simply that low academic skill people drop out of college at very high rates.  It’s a very simple point that is almost certainly true. This is crucial because it means that low academic skill people may spend years of their lives and thousands upon thousands of dollars for degrees they never get or benefit from. Instead of demanding more and more education for these people, the skeptics should really just admit that formal education isn’t right for these people and sensibly move people into vocational schools or workplace based apprenticeships.

The persuaded: What if you believe the gist of Caplan’s argument – that formal education may benefit individuals through signalling but are a socially wasteful signal? Caplan is a radical in that he thinks all education, not just public education, should be scaled back. Most people probably aren’t ready to “push the button” and massively de-school society. But there are some sensible policies that are worth thinking about.

The first, which Caplan, argues for is vocational training. And I understand what he means. When I was in high school, vocational training was seen as a failure – the “vo-tech kids” were the left overs. But that is a very wrong attitude. There is no dishonor in learning a trade! In today’s world, it can be exciting. Why not have high schools teach programming (not theoretical computer science) and web design? Or the basics of business management and accounting? In large urban centers, many kids could get a start in creative industries like advertising, video production, and hospitality. Once people master the basics of literacy and numeracy, surely, these topics would be much better for many students than an additional year of quickly forgotten algebra.

Second, people in higher education should start seriously re-thinking the overall structure of the American university system. Right now, we have over 8,000 institutions that award post-secondary degrees. This is insane. What should we have? In a world where we focus higher education on those who are academically strong and reduce credentialing, we’d probably still keep the research intensive institutions because there are careers where intensive educations seems to make sense (e.g., medicine or engineering, or training for the elite humanities). Then, we’d probably scale back schools that offer this education to those with weak academic skills. Ironically, there might be a case to be made for junior colleges as low-cost open access places where people could either quickly get vocational skills or get certified for more intensive education.

I hope you found this discussion of The Case Against Education useful. I’d love to hear what you think.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 27, 2018 at 5:01 am

students evaluations are garbage and so are letters of recommendation – but NOT gre scores, haters!

For a long time, I believed that student evaluations were valid measures of teaching effectiveness. My belief was based on the following issues.

  • First, there are a fair number of studies that claim a correlation between student evaluations and learning. The critics conveniently overlook this literature.
  • Second, I believed that students can spot a miserable teacher. You don’t need to be steeped in pedagogy theory to see if an instructor is disorganized, or is simply a horrid lecturer.
  • Third, most complaints about student evaluations seemed pretty self-interested. Who complains about evals the most? The professors!* Doesn’t mean they are wrong, but one should examine self-interested claims with some caution.
  • Fourth, critiques of student evaluations of faculty are often couched in bad logic. For example, if an instrument is biased against group X, it doesn’t mean automatically that the instrument is not consistent or valid. It might be the case that the instrument is less valid and consistent for group X, but still points in the right direction. You can only say that student evaluations are “worthless” if the correlation between evals and learning is zero and that is a stubbornly empirical point. Yet, critics in the popular media jump from bias to a lack of validity.

But over time, there have been a parade of better studies that explore the link between outcomes and evaluations and the answer is often null. So what should any seriously interested person do? Wrong answer: Cherry pick studies that confirm one’s belief. Better answer: look for a meta-study that combines data from new and old studies. This fall, Studies in Educational Evaluation published on such meta-study of student evaluations of teacher. Bob Uttl, Carmela White, and Daniela Wong Gonzalez performed such a meta-analysis can come to the following conclusions:

• Students do not learn more from professors with higher student evaluation of teaching (SET) ratings.

• Previus meta-analyses of SET/learning correlations in multisection studies are not interprettable.

• Re-analyses of previous meta-analyses of multisection studies indicate that SET ratings explain at most 1% of variability in measures of student learning.

• New meta-analyses of multisection studies show that SET ratings are unrelated to student learning.

There article is not perfect, but it is enough to make me seriously reconsider my long standing belief in student evaluations. I am very willing to consider that student evaluations are garbage.

However, I want to the reader to be consistent in their intellectual practice. If you believe that student evaluations are bunk, then similar evidence suggests that letters of recommendation are garbage as well. Here is what I wrote two years ago:

I slowly realized that there are researchers in psychology, education and management dedicated to studying employment practices. Surely, if we demanded all these letters and we tolerated all these poor LoR practices, then surely there must be research showing the system works.

Wrong. With a few exceptions, LoRs are poor instruments for measuring future performance. Details are here, but here’s the summary: As early as 1962, researchers realized LoRs don’t predict performance. Then, in 1993, Aamondt, Bryan and Whitcomb show that LoRs work – but only if they are written in specific ways. The more recent literature refines this – medical school letters don’t predict performance unless the writer mentions very specific things; letter writers aren’t even reliable – their evaluations are all over the place; and even in educational settings, letters seem to have a very small correlation with a *few* outcomes. Also, recent research suggests that LoRs seem to biased against women in that writers are less likely to use “standout language” for women.

The summary from one researcher in the field: “Put another way, if letters were a new psychological test they would not come close to meeting minimum professional criteria (i.e., Standards) for use in decision making (AERA, APA, & NCME, 1999).”


If you are the type of person who thinks student evaluations are lousy, then you should also think letters of recommendation are garbage as well. To believe otherwise is simply inconsistency, as the evidence is similar in both cases.

While I am at it, I also want to remind readers that similar analysis shows that standardized tests are actually not bad. When you read the literature on standardized tests, like the GRE, you find that standardized tests and grades are actually correlated – the intended purpose. And I haven’t seen many other meta-analyses that over turn the point.

To summarize: student evaluations and letters of recommendation are bunk, but standardized tests are not.

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*For the record, my evals range from slightly below average to very good. And I’ve actually won multiple teaching awards. So this is not a “sour grapes” issue for me.


Written by fabiorojas

January 5, 2018 at 4:53 am

the PROSPER Act, the price of college, and eroding public goodwill

The current Congress is decidedly cool toward colleges and the students attending them. The House version of the tax bill that just passed eliminates the deduction on student loan interest and taxes graduate student tuition waivers as income. Both House and Senate bills tax the largest college endowments.

Now we have the PROSPER Act, introduced on Friday. The 500-plus page bill does many things. It kills the Department of Education’s ability to keep aid from going to for-profit schools with very high debt-to-income ratios, or to forgive the loans of defrauded student borrowers . It loosens the rules that keep colleges from steering students into questionable loans in exchange for parties, perks, and other kickbacks.

And it changes the student loan program dramatically, ending subsidized direct loans and replacing them with a program (Federal ONE) that looks more like current unsubsidized loans. Borrowing limits go up for undergrads and down for some grads. The terms for income-based repayment get tougher, with higher monthly payments and no forgiveness after 20 years. Public Service Loan Forgiveness, particularly important to law schools, comes to an end. (See Robert Kelchen’s blog for some highlights and his tweetstorm for a blow-by-blow read of the bill.)

To be honest, this could be worse. Although I dislike many of the provisions, given the Republican higher ed agenda there’s nothing shocking or unexpectedly punitive, like the grad tuition tax was.

Still, between the tax bill and this one, Congress has taken some sharp jabs at nonprofit higher ed. This goes along with a dramatic downward turn in Republican opinion of colleges over the last two years.Capture

Obviously, some of this is a culture war. Noah Smith highlights student protests and the politicization of the humanities and social sciences as the reason opinion has deteriorated. I think there are aspects of this that are problems, but the flames have mostly been fanned by those with a preexisting agenda. There just aren’t that many Reed Colleges out there.

I suspect colleges are also losing support, though, for another reason—one that is much less partisan. That is the cost of college.

I think colleges have ignored just how much goodwill has been burned up by the rise in college costs. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been buried in data about tuition rates, net prices, and student loans. Although intellectually I knew how much prices risen, it was still shocking to realize how different the world of higher ed was in 1980.

The entire cost of college was $7,000 a year. For everything. At a four-year school. At a time when the value of the maximum Pell Grant was over $5,000, and the median household income was not far off from today’s. Seriously, I can’t begin to imagine.

The change has been long and gradual—the metaphorical boiling of the frog. The big rise in private tuitions took place in the 90s, but it wasn’t until after 2000 that costs at publics (both sticker price and net price—the price paid after scholarships and grant aid) increased dramatically. Unsurprisingly, student borrowing increased dramatically along with it. The Obama administration reforms, which expanded Pell Grants and improved loan repayment terms, haven’t meant lower costs for students and their families.

Picture1What I’m positing is that the rising cost of college and the accompanying reliance on student loans have eroded goodwill toward colleges in difficult-to-measure ways. On the one hand, the big drop in public opinion clearly happened in last two years, and is clearly partisan. Democrats have slightly ticked up in their assessment of college at the same time.

But I suspect that even support among Democrats may be weaker than it appears, particularly when it comes to bread-and-butter issues, rather than culture-war issues. Only a small minority (22%) of people think college is affordable, and only 40% think it provides good value for the money. And this is the case despite the growing wage gap between college grads and high school grads. Sympathy for proposals that hit colleges financially—whether that means taxing endowments, taxing tuition waivers, or anything else that looks like it will force colleges to tighten their belts—is likely to be relatively high, even among those friendly to college as an institution.

This is likely worsened by the common pricing strategy that deemphasizes the importance of sticker price and focuses on net price. But the perception, as well as the reality, of affordability matters. Today, even community college tuition ($3500 a year, on average) feels like a burden.

The point isn’t whether college is “worth it” in terms of the long-run income payoff. In a purely economic sense there’s no question it is and will continue to be. But pushing the burden of cost onto individuals and families, rather than distributing it more broadly, makes it feel unbearable, and makes people think colleges are just in it for the money. (Which sometimes they are.) I’m always surprised that my SUNY students think the mission of the university is to make money off of them.

This perception means that students and their families and the larger public will be reluctant to support higher education, whether in the form of direct funding, more financial aid, or the preservation of weird but mission-critical perks, like not taxing tuition waivers.

The PROSPER Act, should it come to fruition, will provide another test for public institutions. Federal borrowing limits for undergraduates will rise by $2,000 a year, to $7,500 for freshmen, $8,500 for sophomores, and $9,500 for juniors and seniors. If public institutions immediately default to expecting students to take out the new maximum in federal loans each year, they will continue to erode goodwill even among those not invested in the culture wars.

The sad thing is, this is a self-reinforcing cycle. Colleges, especially public institutions, may feel like they have no choice but to allow tuition to climb, then try to make up the difference for the lowest-income students. But by adopting this strategy, they undermine their very claim to public support. Letting borrowing continue to climb may solve budget problems in the short run. In the long run, it’s shooting yourself in the foot.



Written by epopp

December 4, 2017 at 3:55 pm

the purpose of teaching sociology

I have been asked to write a short piece on the topic of teaching social theory. My answer will have three parts. On the blog, I will post initial thoughts:

  1. What is the point of teaching sociology at all?
  2. What are the different goals and reasons we teach social theory?
  3. Why did I move to the mechanism oriented approach that I advocate in Theory for the Working Sociologist.

Why teach sociology?

I begin this brief essay with a simple question – why teach sociology? I respond with a simple answer: there are many reasons to teach sociology. We might teach sociology because it is a body of scientific and humanistic knowledge about the social world. Another reason to teach sociology is that we want people to think carefully about their social world. We might also teach simply to broaden a students knowledge. If nothing else, teaching is a variety of public sociology, where we bring our discipline to the public via the classroom.

You can also answer this question in reference to the student. Most students have a tangential interesting in sociology, only a handful will want academic careers. Thus, we teach because we want the public to have basic familiarity with sociology.

If you buy these answers, then it guides you toward a general attitude toward teaching. Most of our time we should focus on the basic facts of the social world and the ideas we can use to analyze them. We should only occasionally used oddball ideas or examples. The instructor should boil down their discipline to core ideas that will be easy to remember and relentlessly focus on them in class. It also draws toward the idea of respect for students. We care what they think and we want them to have a positive view of the field.

What do you think about teaching sociology? Use the comments.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 1, 2017 at 5:01 am