Monday, August 31, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Why getting rid of bad teachers probably isn't as hard as you think

Teacher quality is the most important within-school factor influencing educational performance.  And every school should be serious about doing what it takes to recruit, develop, and retain the best teachers possible.  People complain about how difficult all three of these are, but it seems that the firing of "bad teachers" draws the most attention.

I've read countless alarmist pieces decrying the fact that only about 1-2% of teachers are rated unsatisfactory in a myriad of districts.  And the recent hit job published by the New Yorker seems to have made people even more upset.  A plaintive cry seems to be rising from the public: "why are bad teachers so hard to fire?!"  Followed, of course, by "this must stop!!"

Well, there are actually some good reasons that teachers are hard to fire -- but that's another topic for another time.  My gut feeling on this, though, is that it's not quite as hard for a principal to remove a bad teacher from a school as many seem to assume.  Before I explain why, let me add that I'm not saying it's an easy thing to do but, rather, that it's not as hard as many are making it out to be.  Here's why:

1.) It's not at all clear that there should be many more teachers receiving unsatisfactory ratings (in other words, that our schools are overrun with bad teachers).  Only about 1% of teachers in San Francisco are rated "improvement needed," "does not meet standards," or "unsatisfactory."  Yet, about 2/3 of principals report that they always or frequently assign such ratings to teachers who deserve them.  And 94% "at least somewhat agree that teachers who are not performing 'up to standards' receive Improvement Needed or Unsatisfactory ratings." (p. 43 of this report).

2.) Teachers don't need to be rated unsatisfactory to leave a school or the profession.  Untold teachers are simply "counseled out" (or succumb to threats) and leave without ever receiving a negative evaluation or filing a protest.  My principal decided to set her sights on a few teachers she didn't like my second year.  None received unsatisfactory ratings, but none were teaching at the school the following year.  In short, just because 1% are being rated unsatisfactory doesn't mean that only 1% are being fired.

3.) It's not clear that principals are doing all they can to thoroughly evaluate their staff and rid their schools of teachers they don't think are helping children.  Evaluations are regularly treated nonchalantly in a number of places.  I had an Asst. Principal my second year who simply asked for a lesson plan from teachers so she could write up evaluations and put them in their file.  I had one evaluator forget to come one day and ask me to repeat the same lesson again with the same kids the following day.  She and another one sat through about 10 minutes of the lesson, but wrote up evaluations as though they'd been there for 40.  I was never formally evaluated the mandatory three times per year for beginning teachers.  In order to make up for the lack of evaluations my first year we received vaguely worded positive (actually, glowing) evaluations from the principal to sign off on.  In the end, there were long evaluation sheets that administrators had to fill out at the end of each year rating teachers on a myriad of categories (anything you can imagine, including dress and punctuality) followed by an overall rating.  Both years I received a satisfactory evaluation in every single category.  I can assure you I did not deserve this.

Have some rules gone too far?  Undoubtedly.  Are there some teachers entrenched in positions they shouldn't be in?  Of course.  But there are some relatively simple and painless solutions to a lot of these problems.  And it's really not worth declaring that teachers and their unions are the scourge of the Earth.

Before deciding it's the end of the world, I'd like to see some evidence that there are really that many bad teachers entrenched in their positions (and, lets forget, better teachers waiting to take their places).  I'd also like to hear some calmer discussion about how to encourage teachers that aren't a good fit to go elsewhere -- and keep in mind that sometimes a "bad teacher" can become a better teacher, let's not treat them like lepers.  Lastly, I'd like to see some evidence that principals are living up to their end of the bargain.  I find it odd that when we hear about a bad teacher, people aren't asking the following questions:  How did that teacher get tenure?  Were they really good enough to earn it, or were they given a free pass by a principal who wasn't paying attention?

So please put down your pitchforks and join me in a sensible discussion of how to better ensure schools retain the best teachers they can.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-Here's a handy little post with some graphs of SAT scores by income. I was actually more interested in the comments than in the post. I guess I know I've been spending too much time in the Ivory Tower when I'm surprised at how surprised some people are by the strong correlation between income and SAT scores. On the other hand, I'm possibly more surprised by how some people seemed to toss aside the differences as though they were nothing. If you look at a chart of SAT percentiles, you'll see that the differences in SAT reading scores between the lowest and highest income brackets translate into the 27th and 70th percentiles on the test. That seems like a huge difference to me -- especially considering that those are the average scores for students coming from families in those income brackets.

-Since economics was one of my undergrad majors, I've had somewhat of an affinity for thinking like an economist. At the same time, the further I progress in my studies the stupider some of the assumptions economists make seem to me. When I started reading this post about thinking like an economist, I thought it was going to be a cute little example of it can be a good thing. And then I got to the end, where he says "When a friend asks me to help them move, I write them a check to pay professional movers instead. It’s just more efficient," and remembered why economists frustrate me sometimes. Helping somebody move isn't really about doing what's most efficient -- it's about helping out your friend(s). Aiming for efficiency can do a lot of good, but sometimes it's ok to just relax and enjoy life.

-The NY Times has a strongly-worded editorial today praising the Race to the Top funding calling it "indefensible" for unions to block tying student achievement to performance ratings for teachers. Part of me agrees. I think it's inevitable that this is going to happen, and the unions should focus on implementing a good system rather than just fighting it. On the other hand, it's also indefensible to imply that tying student achievement to performance ratings is a panacea. For three main reasons:

1.) Only about 1/3 of teachers teach a subject that is on a state test
2.) Given measurement errors, poorly formulated tests, etc. value-added and gain score measures are still highly unreliable. One recent study found a correlation of .2 between teachers scores from year to year (that's really low for you non-mathematicians)
3.) Even if we can measure growth in student achievement accurately, we're not all that sure exactly what it means. So the kid got better at taking the 6th grade state math test . . . and?

-I'm wondering exactly what bar we need to set before we declare a policy a success. Martin West says the results of a study on the NYC principals academy "suggests [the program] is yielding positive results." FYI, the study found a gain of .06 SD in math, and no gain in English test scores for principals of schools who graduated from the academy. To me, that seems utterly meaningless -- which means that we should evaluate the principals academy on some other grounds. Especially considering all the methodological problems involved with evaluating the program.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Burned Out on Burnout over Burnout Stories

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Generalizing about the problems caused by teacher turnover and attrition is generally useless. Turnover varies so widely across schools and districts that we can't say much of anything about it when it comes to the entire nation.

In the majority of schools in the United States, turnover is not the biggest problem. An awful lot of schools lose less than a handful of teachers each year. But to say that turnover isn't really a big problem is, in my eyes, worse than saying it is. Here's why:

While most schools don't have huge problems with turnover, the most troubled schools have the disproportionate share of turnover problems. And when we talk about education policy, the vast majority of discussion is focused on the most troubled districts and schools. What percentage of districts in the U.S. have even a single charter school? I'm willing to be it's far below 50%. And yet we spend an awful lot of time talking about charter schools. And rightfully so. Charter schools are a huge deal. They may or may not transform American education the way we want them too, but they're unquestionably changing the way that families experience public education in quite a few large districts.

And the same thing goes for turnover. Saying that it's not a problem is like saying that charter schools aren't a big deal. Many of the schools and districts we most want to reform have huge turnover rates. In high-poverty middle schools in the Bronx, for example, almost half of all teachers are in their first or second year in that school. And only a third have five years of experience teaching.

Coincidentally, many of the districts where charter schools are proliferating are the same ones that have had chronic turnover problems. I'm not sure how many charter schools there are in rural areas, so it's actually possible there are more districts with high turnover (say 20+% per years) in many of their schools than there are districts with charter schools.

So you can imagine my frustration when I read Jay Greene's piece about how burned out he is on stories of teacher burnout. He writes:

I suspect that these burnout stories are informed by and perpetuate a conviction that turnover in teachers in inherently a bad thing. It isn’t. What’s bad is a system that permits, through the inability to dismiss ineffective teachers, and encourages, through a a perverse pension system, people to continue teaching well after they have burned out.

First of all, I have a problem with people dismissing burnout stories, stories from which we can draw many lessons and glean many insights about our schools. Second, nobody's arguing that turnover is always a bad thing -- of course we don't want unsuccessful teachers to stay, and I have yet to hear 100% retention rate as a goal. But we're nowhere near that point in the schools and districts where turnover is a problem. Lastly, the story on pensions isn't that simple. While they undeniably disproportionately reward people who stay in the system for 20+ years (people who may or may not be burned out), they also reward people who retire in their 50s -- people who oftentimes would be willing and able to work longer.

At any rate, the next time you hear somebody say that turnover isn't a big problem, simply say "where?"

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Are Confident Students a Bad Thing?

Mark Bauerlein has a provocative post over at the new EdNext blog. In it he refers to both a report from three years ago and a study that was just released to support his position that "higher confidence does not go with better math scores" and that "the same discorrelation between confidence and performance may hold in reading." Before you decide that berating your kid is a good idea, I should explain to you why this isn't really correct.

He mentions that in the first study the authors find that countries with more confident students also perform more poorly on the math part of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). But he neglects to mention one tiny detail: that this correlation only holds up across countries, not within them. In other words, students in Japan report, on average, being less confident than students in the United States, but also score higher. On the other hand, students in the U.S. that report being confident in their mathematical abilities tend to score higher than students in the U.S. who report not being confident in their mathematical abilities. As the authors write, "In the TIMSS data, when one looks at the math scores of students within each country, those who express confidence in their own math abilities do indeed score higher than those lacking in confidence. That is true for 40 of the 46 countries with eighth grade test results" (p. 15).

This makes sense if you think about it. Let's say you live in a country where people perform very poorly in math. You know how to add double digit numbers, so you're convinced you're a genius. Meanwhile, in the next country over the kids are very good at math and your cousin thinks he's an idiot because he can only do derivatives but can't find the integral of a number. Then you both take the same test on multiplication and division; you get all the answers wrong and he gets them all right. But you were more confident than him. So confidence must be a bad thing. The problem with this argument is that you didn't base your confidence on your cousin's math ability, you based it on your performance relative to your peers. So it's really no surprise when the kid who's lacking in confidence that sits next to you in class also scores lower than you on the test. Comparing confidence levels across countries is interesting, but of somewhat limited utility because they're all relative to what's happening in their own country. If you want to determine whether or not confidence is correlated negatively or positively with achievement, you should really take a country-centered calculation (maybe even school or class-centered, one could argue), in other words, your confidence minus the average confidence level in your country.

Similarly, based on his summary of the second article one might think that the authors found that higher confidence led to lower scores. But, if one reads the article they would notice the following: "Reading [Self-Concept] was strongly correlated with reading performance in most countries, supporting the importance of this self-belief across cultures." (p. 381). In other words, more confident students scored higher. What the authors focused on is looking at the scores of students relative to their level of confidence in their ability and how under confidence and overconfidence affected scores in countries with different cultural characteristics (you probably won't be able to download the article if you're not on a campus with a subscription, but if you're interested you can e-mail me and I'll send you a copy). In the end, it seems that the underconfident tend to outperform the overconfident. It's unclear whether that's because one can only be classified as overconfident if they don't score super-high (and vice-versa), or because overconfidence is bad. But it's probably a mixture of both. I find the latter at least plausible -- if you think you're great at math, for example, you might be less likely to feel compelled to study for the test tomorrow,.

At any rate, Bauerlein's not wrong when he suggests that overconfidence may be a bad thing. But he's wrong to simply report that multiple studies have found that higher confidence yields worse results. In other words, while more confident students usually score higher on math, overconfidence can be dangerous . . . both in math class and in blogging.

Today's Random Thoughts

-Flypaper has a piece on the startling drop in enrollment in traditional public schools in Washington D.C. (down 17% from last spring). It seems enrollment is at 37,000 right now compared to a little over 44K last year. Apparently everybody is leaving city schools for charter schools. Except for one little detail that the Washington Post reports: not everybody enrolls on the first day of school. In fact, last year at this time enrollment stood at 15,000. I'm not going to pretend to know whether or not 7,000 more students will enroll before the Oct. 1st deadline (deadline for funding purposes, that is), but I think I'd wait a couple weeks before panicking if I were running the D.C. schools.

Besides, the more interesting part of the piece (to me, anyway) is why enrollment has surged from 15K to 37K. Not only was the start of enrollment moved up a couple months, but principals have been hosting BBQs and recruiting parents at other community events. I've always wondered exactly how traditional public schools would respond to competition from charter schools. It seems that this might be one way D.C. has chosen to respond. Of course, for the good of society I think we'd hope they're response would to make their schools better. But maybe BBQs are a first step in that direction.

-Tennessee has had one of the more restrictive charter school laws in the country. It's my understanding that only students who fail state tests or attend schools deemed in need of improvement are eligible to enroll in charter schools. And we have relatively few of them here. But of those few, one has had trouble dropping kids off on time (9pm one night), and another is now on academic probation for low test scores (story here). I was told a while back that the KIPP here is one of the lowest performing in the country -- I have absolutely no evidence to present of this, it's simply what I heard from somebody who volunteered there. And I can't help but wonder if severely limiting who can enroll in charters in this manner makes it much more difficult for charters to succeed. Given that these are the kids that charter laws are supposed to help, that would be somewhat troubling.

-the SAT results are being parsed, and it doesn't look good for anybody who was hoping to see a shrinking achievement gap. Aaron Pallas points out that the average Asian student in NYC outscores the average Black student in NYC by 151 points in math and Whites outscore Hispanics by 108 points in writing. Elsewhere, Checker Finn argues that the lack of closure in the gap between students of different races and socioeconomic statuses means that reform hasn't yet penetrated high schools. I think there's more to it than that, but most of the recent reform has been focused on grades 3-8.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-Very clever piece in the Miller-McCune magazine (hat tip: idea of the day blog) about evaluating schools based on how the boys' bathrooms look, along with other qualitative measures. The author says he relies mostly on test scores to judge schools, but it seems to me that he can learn more about them from the measures he mentions. In addition to looking at bathrooms, he looks for these indicators (and a number of others):

• Classroom windows and/or the vertical slits on school doors are covered over with dark construction paper. Trust me, it's seldom for purely decorative purposes.
• Students continually ask, "Will this be on the test?" (The unstated premise: "If not, we'll just ignore it.")
• Adults frequently YELL belittling language. Or: Like a restaurant with bad acoustics, the school's overall sound quality —whether too loud or too quiet — is just downright unpalatable.
• Administrators are unwilling to let credentialed visitors roam. Instead, they insist on "giving a tour" of the usual, safe suspects.

My school would have failed all of these miserably. We actually kept the bathrooms locked -- students had to ask a teacher for a key to get access (or wait by the door for another kid to come out). And only a handful of teachers had keys. Even so, they were a disaster. The janitor was constantly pulling all sorts of things out of the toilets.

-I noticed this piece in the NY Times Science section last week on how the brain deals with stress. There's new research that finds that "
chronically stressed rats lost their elastic rat cunning and instead fell back on familiar routines and rote responses, like compulsively pressing a bar for food pellets they had no intention of eating." There's already research showing that living in poverty creates stress that has multiple negative implications for people. Maybe this is another reason that kids from low SES background perform so poorly in school. "Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist who studies stress at Stanford University School of Medicine, said, 'This is a great model for understanding why we end up in a rut, and then dig ourselves deeper and deeper into that rut.'"

-Among other things that the Race to the top funds don't take into account are what types of punishments states allow. In case you weren't aware, 20 states still allow corporal punishment. I have to say that I didn't find the idea of corporal punishment nearly as distasteful while I was teaching as I did before I started, but my sense is that it's neither appropriate nor conducive to a good school environment. Though, of course, an out of control school isn't helping anybody either.

Sunday Commentary: Do Teachers (Or Schools) Know How to Improve?

Let us assume for a second that we know how to measure how good a teacher (or a school) is. We can then know exactly how well one is performing and hold them accountable for poor performance. In such accountability schemes those who underperform are essentially scolded and warned that they must do better. But we're making a huge assumption when we do this: that teachers (or schools) know how to get better.

And I'm not sure we're as safe making this assumption as many seem to, well, assume. We can berate teacher training and professional development until the cows comes home, but in the end a teacher (or a school) is on their own to figure out how to improve. And I don't think it's as easy as it looks -- or that the answer is as obvious as it might appear.

Most accountability systems seem to insinuate that those who underperform do so because they're not trying hard enough. If this is true, then improvement is easy -- one simply needs to work harder. If this is true, then accountability systems seem like a reasonably good idea -- they will help rid us of those who aren't willing to work hard.

But anybody who knows anything about teaching and schools will recognize that effort is far from the only determinant of success. And that working harder will not always yield better results. Let's use athletics as an example. If you wanted to become better at, say, tennis or golf, would you just go out and hit a ball until your hands blistered? Maybe. And it might help a little. But if you were really serious about it, you'd probably go see a coach, take a lesson, or at least read some articles or how-to books. You'd have to learn the proper techniques, practice those certain techniques, and, if you're really serious about improving, get some feedback on your practice attempts. As they say, "practice doesn't make perfect: perfect practices makes perfect." In other words, it's not a simple manner to get better -- one has to first know how to get better and then work both hard and smart. And it's certainly not a simple process.

And teaching is quite similar. The only way that an accountability system can ever work is if teachers (or schools) know how to improve. If we simply say "that's not good enough, you have to do better," we're assuming that they know how to improve. But what happens when one asks "how do I do better?" I know math and literacy coaches have proliferated in the last decade, but I'm not sure that we typically a.) have somebody to answer that question, and b.) have an answer to the question. And I'm even less sure that many teachers would know the answer to the question.

Of course, one could argue that improvement isn't necessary for an accountability system to work (though it would be for an incentive system to work), that it could also work by weeding out the bad apples in order to replace them with ripe ones. We can argue all day about whether or not there's a teacher shortage, but it's pretty clear that quite a few troubled schools also have trouble recruiting enough talented teachers. Similarly, we can extol the virtues of charter and private schools until the cows come home, but I don't think many people are under the illusion that starting new schools is a quick and easy process. In other words, in order for accountability systems to work we need to make sure that teachers (and schools) know how to get better before we decide on how to punish them for performing poorly (or rewarding them for performing well).

At some point in the coming months the National Center on Performance Incentives is going to release the initial results of the first randomized field trial using performance pay -- 100 middle school math teachers were offered bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 for three subsequent years based on gains in state test scores. And the results are going to get a lot of attention however they turn out. And most people will want to know one main thing: whether the 100 teachers in the treatment group outperformed the 100 teachers in the control group. It's an interesting an important question. But regardless of the answer, we need to find out why. How did teachers respond to the chance to earn incentives? Did they work harder? Did they change their pedagogy? Assign more homework? Spend more time on test prep? Attend more professional development? Do nothing? And what happened when they did these things? Did they become better teachers, or at least produce better test scores? In other words, did teachers who tried to improve accomplish their goal? Can we, in fact, say that teachers know how to improve? To me, those are more important questions.

We can't say that we know how to fix the educational system until we know whether teachers (and schools) know how to get better. And accountability and incentive systems will never work unless they do. And eventually people will realize this. As Nancy Flanagan put it in a comment on Robert Pondiscio's latest post: "We don’t have any helpful new ideas about classroom management in the 21st century, but we’ve decided to punish you when you fail, anyway."

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Letter A Principal Should Never Receive from a Teacher

After regaling one of my roommates with horror stories from teaching in the Bronx for the last half hour I decided to dig into my archives. The following is, verbatim (other than changing names that are italicized), a letter that I sent my principal during my second year of teaching. Why am I posting this now? Two reasons:

1.) To illustrate the discipline problems that too many teachers in urban schools encounter.
2.) To provide a template for teachers who find themselves in similar situations. If you find yourself in this situation, don't wait until February to do this.

I can see a strong argument that the letter shows my incompetence in the classroom as much as anything else. I will point out that I have never claimed to have been the best teacher in the world and will be the first to admit that I could've done many, many things differently when I taught. But I think the more salient point is that this type of behavior should never be tolerated in our schools. Blaming the problem on a wide-eyed young teacher will do nothing to solve it.

Before reading the text of the letter you should know that the behavior described within is something that was a daily occurrence at my school. This letter was not particularly unusual, I'd sent others like it to administrators in my school before. The only real difference between this letter and others was my level of frustration. NYC publishes a rather comprehensive discipline code but there was little attempt to follow it in my school (and I know mine wasn't/isn't the only one). I decided to cite the specific infractions committed by the student and the interventions mandated by the city rules in a vain attempt at helping out the other kids in my class who were suffering because of this child. Anyway, without further ado, here's the letter in full (with names changed, of course):

February 28, 2006
I am requesting that Johnny be removed from Class 6A5 and suspended. The class is unable to function while he is present in the room. We have attempted countless types of interventions and none have worked. He presents a physical danger to every person present in the room and regularly harasses (both sexually and physically) other students.

I have written countless anecdotals detailing Johnny’s detrimental behavior and his major infractions of the discipline code. A clear pattern of severely disruptive and dangerous behavior has emerged and continues every minute that Johnny is present in the class. Last week a request for suspension was made and denied. Given the severe and repetitive nature of his actions I believe that a suspension is now well-warranted.
In addition to his in-class antics, there is little doubt in my mind that he is responsible for the series of late-night obscene and harassing phone calls placed to my residence over mid-winter break. My roommates were awoken multiple times, yelled at on the phone, and called “gay.” Two messages were left on the answering machine saying that I am “a faggot,” that I looked “so ugly it wasn’t like funny,” and saying “sweet dreams sexy boy” among other lewd and obscene suggestions. The police are currently investigating the situation and do not have a definitive identification at this moment, but based on the sound of the voice and vocabulary selection, in addition to a number of damning statements that Johnny made in class, it is wholly likely he was behind the phone calls.

In addition to his previous violations, Johnny committed the following discipline code infractions yesterday (27 February):

Level 1
B06 Behaving in a manner which disrupts the educational process (e.g., making excessive noise in a classroom, library or hallway)
B07 Engaging in verbally rude or disrespectful behavior
Level 2
B14 Using profane, obscene, vulgar, lewd or abusive language or gestures
B18 Engaging in a pattern of persistent Level 1 behavior*
Level 3
B20 Being insubordinate; defying or disobeying the lawful authority of school personnel or school safety agents
B22 Fighting/engaging in physically aggressive behavior
B26 Engaging in vandalism or other intentional damage to school property or property belonging to staff, students or others
B28 Engaging in sexual harassment (e.g., sexually suggestive comments, innuendoes, propositions or inappropriate physical contact of a sexual nature such as touching, patting, pinching)
B33 Engaging in a pattern of persistent Level 2 behavior
Level 4
B36 Engaging in intimidating and bullying behavior – threatening, stalking or seeking to coerce or compel a student or staff member to do something; engaging in verbal or physical conduct that
threatens another with harm, including intimidation through the use of epithets or slurs involving race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, religious practices, gender, sexual orientation or disability
B43 Engaging in behavior which creates a substantial risk of or results in injury
B49 Engaging in repeated Level 3 behavior

The following are a few examples:
9:56 calls a female student a “dildo hopper,” and says “you’re a dick” then proceeds to hit her with a book (B06, B07, B22, B28)
10:08 throws a battery across the room (B06, B36)
10:22 tells a female student to “suck my nuts you white bitch” (B28)
11:55 enters room, screams, throws books against desk, breaking the binding and hitting my foot in the process (B26, B36)
11:56 exits the room to line up for lunch and immediately begins wrestling with another student in the hallway, he ignores my requests to stop (B20, B22)
1:52 throws the metal tip of a pen across the room, when I go to pick it up he hits me with a paper ball (B18, B43)
1:53 I send a note to the Asst. Principal or dean, Johnny screams at me calling me a “fuckin’ liar!” and then storms out of room (B14, B20, B33, B36)
1:56 throws pen at two girls who took the note, re-enters room, screams at me to “get the fuck outta here!” and says my “breath stinks like dead feet” among other things. (B14, B20, B36, B43, B49)
According to the discipline code, the minimum penalty for a B28 infraction (sexual harassment) is a parent conference, and the minimum penalty for either a B43 infraction (risking physical harm) or a B49 infraction (repeated level 3 behavior) is a principal’s suspension.

Corey Bunje Bower

Asst. Principal
Union Rep.
Regional Union Rep.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: "Johnny" was not suspended for any of the behaviors described in this letter . . . though he was suspended about a week or two later when he had a breakdown in the hallway and threatened to kill the Asst. Principal.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-By now you've probably heard that Philadelphia is planning a reality show where Tony Danza is a high school teacher. If I thought for a second that it would show what life is really like inside our urban schools, I would be all for it. But Stephen Lentz captures the likely outcome -- handpicked students, special treatment, and an unrealistic view of what's actually happening -- nicely. Nancy Flanagan has a slightly different guess of what will be shown, pointing out that tv producers wanted to show drama, not great teaching, when they came to her school. That could happen as well, but I think the odds are in favor of them scripting a happy ending one way or another -- and that's often not a realistic view into the life of a first-year teacher in an urban school. Hopefully this show never happens, but if it does I hope we're all wrong about how it will play out.

-The NY Times has a set of opinions on the value of graduate degrees for teachers. It seems like everybody these days is willing to deride the value of ed schools or the utility of rewarding teachers for earning master's degrees from such worthless institutions (Martin Kozloff wins the award for the most derisive piece), but they did find a couple people to step up and defend the idea. As little as I gained from my experience in ed school, I'm still somewhat hesitant to decry all ed schools or the whole notion of rewarding teachers for furthering their education. Can't we find a way to reward teachers for attending programs that help them become better teachers?

-Speaking of rewarding teachers, I continue to be baffled by the fact that so many seem to think that merit pay is a simple undertaking. Even if we assume that standardized test scores are accurate, around 2/3 of teachers don't teach a tested subject. Test scores are going to play some sort of role (and probably a large one) in evaluation of teachers and schools for the foreseeable future, but I hope Sherman Dorn is right and that we're also developing evaluation models that take a myriad of factors into account.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Why Charter School Advocates Should Advocate Closing Charter Schools

The biggest difference between the American system of education now and back in the 20th century is probably the spread of charter schools. Ten years ago most had never heard of them, but now they seem to be the first two words out of every politician's (of both parties) lips when they discuss education reform.

$5 billion of stimulus money has been made contingent on a number of policies being in place, perhaps most notably liberal laws regarding the founding of charter schools -- which has resulted in at least 7 states recently deciding to allow more charters. I have no idea what we'll think of charter schools in fifty years, but they seem a lock to proliferate further for at least the next five or ten. It seems that everybody (including both Bush and Obama and both Spellings and Duncan) is in favor of closing down more "failing" schools and opening up more charters.

But traditional public schools shouldn't be the only ones that are closed when failing. Advocates of charter schools should be advocating that low-performing charter schools be promptly closed as well. Why? Two main reasons, one theoretical and one practical:

1.) The theory behind charter schools is based largely on free market principles. Which is part of the reason they're so attractive on paper. The theory is that schools pop up in areas that are underserved by good public schools, then compete and win students over because they offer a superior education. Then more charter schools start and offer more competition -- ensuring that only the strong survive. Those that can raise their game to a new level draw students, those that cannot wither and die. In this way, we're left with only the best schools -- all others simply cease to exist. Like I said, it's quite attractive on paper. But one of problems with the plan is that it relies on fairly frequent school closures to work. And school closures are not usually eagerly anticipated by those involved with a school. But if charter school advocates are truly interested in charter schools succeeding they'll advocate that all low-performing charters be closed sooner rather than later to make room for more successful charters.

2.) We frequently hear about charter schools that have done something miraculous or closed the achievement gap. As such, many tend to believe that charters get results that are far superior to traditional public schools. But there is zero empirical research that supports this on a nationwide level. Every study comparing charters to traditional public schools finds somewhere near (and sometimes less than) zero advantage to attending a charter school. Maybe this is cynical to suggest, but if charters are your pet project and you're intent on proving their superiority, there's a fairly easy way to do this -- work to close all those charter schools that are seeing below average gains in student test scores. If we were only left with the KIPPesque charter schools that can turn water into wine, think what the results of national studies would look like -- then what politician, or citizen for that matter, could dispute the superiority of charters?

Still not convinced that the best way to push the propagation of more charter schools is to advocate closing more charters? Imagine a world in which charters fail: charter schools draw students because of proximity and special programs rather than performance, see their young, enthusiastic teaching corps grow old and weary, and activist parents that choose charters resist any closure plan. None of these would happen if charters were closed with the ruthless efficiency the theory would seem to dictate.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

More on Contributing to Society vs. Earning Tenure

Debra Viadero reacts to my piece on blogging and tenure by surmising that there's a "revolution brewing." That's probably too strong of a conclusion to draw based largely on my strong reaction to about an hour's worth of discussion among a group of faculty and grad students. But maybe she's right. In some ways, I hope she is.

As I made abundantly clear in the previous post, I don't really don't like the idea that doing anything besides publishing scholarly books and articles should hurt one's chances of tenure. And I'm still somewhat confused by those who say it should. Here's why:

I understand the argument that tenure should be based largely on scholarly publications. I don't necessarily agree, but I understand it. At the very least, it's the easiest way for somebody to prove that they're a scholar in their field.

But what I don't understand is the argument that faculty shouldn't reach out to the world at large and attempt to convey their knowledge. Indeed, in some circumstances professors have a social responsibility to inform others of what they know. Pretend, for example, that a city council proposed a beautification and tourism program wherein all sidewalks are painted blue. But a team of researchers has just conducted a study on blue painted sidewalks and found that they increase depression, cause cancer, and shorten lifespans (this is totally made up, obviously). If they were aware of the proposal and failed to inform anybody of their findings, they would be in the wrong. It would be like if you knew there was poison in cup of coffee but you sat and there and said nothing while somebody picked up the cup and drank it.

Obviously, most situations aren't this clear cut -- but the point still stands. In at least some circumstances, academics are obligated to report what they know to the general public. Even in less dire situations a lot of good can come from sharing a little knowledge. So not only do I disagree with anybody who argues that professors shouldn't waste their time with the outside world, I don't even understand what the rationale behind the argument is. Should they not risk wasting time on trivial matters when they could be publishing journal articles? Is that really more important than contributing to the betterment of society? Or taking care of one's children? Or feeding one's pet(s)? Guess what: writing academic articles should never be the most important thing in somebody's life.

And if there's no reason to discourage professors from spending time doing things other than academic research, I see no reason why what they do during that time shouldn't be eligible to contribute to their case for tenure.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Attempts to Change HOPE VI Residents' Aspirations and Behaviors

A little bit on the research I presented today at ASA:

HOPE VI (Housing for People Everywhere) is a federal housing program signed into law in 1992, following the report of the Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing. In short, the program razes dilapidated housing projects and replaces them with new mixed-income housing. But not only is the quality of the housing higher, the rules are also stricter. In order to reside in a publicly subsidized unit, a resident usually must prove that they have a job, a good rental history, and undergo a criminal background check. In this way, to put it crudely, the program aims to improve neighborhoods and improve people. But virtually all of the research I've seen has been on the former (my explanation: the latter is politically incorrect to discuss).

Please note that I'm not advocating a particular course of action or taking a position on whether or not public housing residents should change the way they lead their lives. I'm simply observing that a number of people are implementing a course of action with this as their goal and exploring how residents are reacting to this.

My study is a qualitative analysis of 24 interviews with residents of one HOPE VI development and explores how they react to attempts to change their behaviors and aspirations.

One of the problems with qualitative research is that it's quite difficult to summarize. The synopsis I passed out is here, full of tables and figures to help explain what I'm saying (Blogger is great, but for some reason they have yet to make it easy to insert tables or copy pictures into posts).

Anyway, here are the basics on what I found:

-The rules that are in place appear to indicate an attempt to enforce upper middle-class social norms on residents (for example, residents reported that they weren't allowed to own pit bulls, grill in their front yard, or fix their car in the street). And the rules are zealously enforced. Management frequently patrols the neighborhood with camera in hand. Small infractions (e.g. leaving a trash can curbside past the day of collection or having visible clutter outside one's house) are dealt with by immediately notifying the resident that they've been fined $25 and placing a photo and summary in their mailbox.

-Management is actively attempting to change residents' behaviors and aspirations -- and most residents are aware of this. Residents must take part in a home ownership class before taking up residence in the neighborhood and they also report meeting with counselors to set goals -- which are discussed in follow-up phone class. When residents purchase their own homes, it's publicized in the community newsletter. As one resident puts it, the development "was built for you to know to be self sufficient, gen on your feet and then move along."

-While some of the residents bristle at the strict rules ("they hold our hand to the fire" says one), complaining about "big brother," most of the residents interviewed had more positive responses. A number of residents reported that their neighborhood was clean, quite a bit better than their old neighborhood, that neighbors were responsible, and that they felt peer pressure to keep things neat and orderly. As one resident puts it, "this is not the projects anymore . . . it's homes, you know?"

-There was limited evidence that, to some extent, the rules and processes in place were leading to desired changes in residents' behaviors and aspirations. For example, various residents reported: not littering because they would be fined for it, saving money for a house after their home ownership class, and becoming better at budgeting since they had to pay their own utility bills.

Research on HOPE VI is decidedly mixed, with the biggest knock being that few of the people living in the neighborhood before redevelopment are allowed to move back in. Accordingly, most of the interviews I analyzed were of people who lived elsewhere before moving. While the evidence was decidedly mixed -- and the sample quite small -- I would say evidence I examined is more positive than negative. The neighborhood seems safer and cleaner than before, rules are routinely enforced, and residents are doing some things that the writers of the legislation would be happy about.

Now, you might be asking yourself what the heck this has to do with education. Well, as we all know by now, if there's anything upon which education researchers agree it's that student achievement is influenced more by non-school factors than in-school factors -- and the evidence is overwhelming. And even though most people don't talk about housing programs as educational interventions, the behaviors the policies seemed designed to elicit are similar to those that an educational intervention might aim for. The neighborhoods appear quieter and more orderly -- both neighborhood characteristics that are positively related to academic performance.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

ASA Day 3

Another day, another set of interesting sessions. Though not as many as the last couple days since I took the afternoon off to cycle across the Golden Gate bridge. No offense to anybody who presented this afternoon, I just thought that'd be more fun.

Anyway . . . Joshua Klugman presented an interesting paper looking at participation rates of Hispanic parents using data from ECLS. In both first grade and fifth grade, the racial makeup of the school didn't seem to affect participation of parents who were born in the country. But recent immigrants reported being significantly more likely to participate when the school enrolled of more Hispanic students. The authors made it clear that they weren't advocating more segregated schools in order to encourage parental involvement but, rather, that we should find out what, exactly, is leading to more parental involvement in these schools first. One astute audience member asked if it was possible that schools that higher participation rates also tended to have more Hispanic and/or Spanish-speaking staff members.

Matthew Desmond, a grad student from Wisconsin, presented perhaps the best paper I've seen at a conference -- though it didn't explicitly address education. Desmond spent much of the past year living in a couple of low-income neighborhoods in Milwaukee and meeting both landlords and the people they were evicting as part of an ethnography. I have to say that in all my reading on and thinking about poverty I can't say I ever recall evictions come up. It turns out that 9% of rental units are evicted each year. Black women are more likely than Black men to be evicted, but gender disparities don't seem to exist among other races/ethnicities. He had two main explanations for the gender disparity -- one was that 85% of evictions are conducted by men, who often are quite brusque with their renters and respond better to the way that males tend to respond (confrontation) to eviction notices than the way that females tend to respond (avoidance), the other was that males were often allowed to "work off" their back rent by doing odd jobs around the property -- something that females almost never thought to offer (unless that odd job involved sex). He pointed out that those who were evicted were often not the tenants who owed the most back rent but, rather, involved a combination of back rent and doing something to upset the landlord. Meanwhile, people who were evicted (unsurprisingly) found it very difficult to find new housing and almost always ended up moving to smaller units in poorer neighborhoods. So, what does this have to do with education? Well, educational outcomes are affected by about a million different things -- including various aspects of one's home life. I don't think it would be going out on a limb to speculate that being evicted and moving to worse housing wouldn't exactly help a kid perform their best in school over the week or month that it transpired.

I also noticed that Sara Goldrick-Rab has a slightly more diplomatic take on the discussion on Friday.

overheard at ASA

While searching for a bathroom, this tidbit caught my attention:

"I've been a fan of yours for a while. I am your stalker -- your academic stalker -- I hope you realize this."

I didn't know either person, but it appeared to be a grad student introducing herself to a faculty member. They were still talking when I came out, so either this seemed less weird to the faculty member than it did to me or ending awkward conversations wasn't her strong suit.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

ASA Day 2

I heard so many interesting ideas today that I'm not quite sure where to start. The first paper I heard this morning was one presented by Kate Cagney looking at neighborhood effects in Dallas. Using GIS mapping software and a dataset of health information, she was able to discern that people living in neighborhoods in which there was a spike in crime activity in one year also experienced a rise in blood pressure. I think the larger implication is that living in dangerous and stressful situations -- which tend to be concentrated in low-income neighborhoods -- have many ramifications. While higher blood pressure may not directly impact school performance, it may be part of larger set of reactions that do.

Robert Sampson also presented compelling research on moves that people and families make. Every single change of address of a sample of around 5,000 people living in Chicago was tracked over a number of years. Unsurprisingly, those who moved to the suburbs tended to earn more a few years ago, home owners were less likely to move, and whites were the most likely to move out of the city. But the main argument in the presentation was that moves aren't just a result of neighborhood characteristics -- that moves are a characteristic of a neighborhood. For example, increases in the number of hispanic and black residents in a neighborhood led more white people to move out of a neighborhood which, subsequently, led to a more racially concentrated neighborhood.

I won't go into the myriad of other presentations I saw, but I will say that we had quite an interesting discussion of blogs in academia. I got to meet the fantastic people that run Sociological Images and Thick Culture and, following yesterday's conversation I was more than eager to hear what others had to say. While there was consensus that unrelated blogs (e.g. photos of your cat) shouldn't count toward academics, I think we also agreed that it shouldn't be a strike against you -- just like having a kid or a pet. Some people at the table reported that some colleges encourage faculty blogging and outreach while others felt that it was definitely discouraged and that having a blog can make one appear to be a less than serious academic. But us younger folk around the table were somewhat mystified as to why some senior scholars seem to have a chip on their shoulder regarding blogging in particular. More than one person seemed to think that blogging threatened faculty (young and old alike) because it broke their monopoly on knowledge. Similarly, some seemed to think that the system as it is now (journal submissions bring prestige, fund conferences, and earned older scholars tenure) is simply too familiar and comfortable -- and that if everybody blogged these institutions would cease to exist. Maybe these are part of the reason, or maybe there are others. Either way, I have yet to hear a good reason why grad students and faculty should refrain from blogging and other forms of community outreach (and, no, I don't consider "it'll make it harder to earn tenure" a good reason).

Friday, August 7, 2009

Contributing to Society vs. Earning Tenure

I mentioned in my previous post that we had quite the interesting -- in a bad way -- discussion at the meeting of the sociology of education section. What transpired may have been the most frustrating experience I've had in academia. Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I try to choose my words carefully -- that I aim to provide measured responses to the issues of the day and see all sides of an issue. I think that's important, so I took a few hours, ate a good dinner, calmed down, and thought this through before beginning this post.

That said, I have never taken part in a conversation where academics were so narrow-minded, pompous, or downright illogical. Here's what happened:

Throughout the day there was much discussion surrounding ways for sociologists of education to get their voices heard by the mainstream media, to influence policymaking, and, generally speaking, reach a larger audience. In the last session of the day, one senior scholar pushed back against this theme, arguing that there was nothing wrong with doing sociological research purely for the purpose of advancing the field of sociology. A perfectly valid point, in my mind: while I often wish academia would make more of an effort to conduct practically relevant research and translate that research into a readily accessible format, this need not apply to every last paper.

Over the course of the next hour the discussion veered into the decisions of students and faculty to reach out to the popular press, write policy memos, run blogs, and so forth. In other words, commenting on their areas of expertise in places other than academic journals and books. The room was decidedly mixed on the topic, with some encouraging everybody to reach out to the nearest publicist and some expressing more reservations.

And then one senior scholar suggested that people wait until they have tenure to do such things. The argument was that one should focus on academic work until they established themselves in their field and then they could spend the next thirty years trying to make a practical impact. The statement is not completely without merit -- more experienced scholars should have more knowledge and expertise to share, so it makes sense that they would be the first ones a reporter would call. But that wasn't really the context of the statement. Eventually the conversation turned to tenure and working on non-academic research and commentaries.

Said one: "you're not going to get tenure by blogging." Said another: "you don't have to focus exclusively on academic research, you could have a pet or have a child, but that won't get you tenure either. You have to decide what's important." (quotes probably aren't exact, but I wrote down what they said at the time almost verbatim so they're pretty close)

In other words, the only thing that counts toward tenure is "academic research" -- articles that are published in selected peer-reviewed scholarly journals, or books with an academic focus. And, worse yet, contributing to society in any other way actually hurts one's chances of obtaining tenure. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that I was flabbergasted.

Now, to be fair, I can see a strong argument for academic work being the main component when considering whether somebody should earn tenure. And tenure certainly shouldn't be a popularity contest -- (s)he with the most press mentions wins. But there is absolutely no reason why a narrow definition of academic work should be the sole consideration. Besides the fact that teaching and service ostensibly play a large role in the tenure decision at many institutions, I see no reason why all activity of an assistant professor shouldn't be taken into account.

What purpose, exactly, do faculty serve? I always thought they were there to do two main things: 1.) learn about the world, and 2.) teach others about the world. Why the heck would we interpret "others" to mean only the couple dozen people who read your article in a highly specialized academic journal? When a professor helps educate a wider audience they often provide a greater service to society at large than they do when they publish an academic article. And that should be taken into account. Professors should be encouraged to write op-eds, talk to reporters, write policy memos, and even blog. If all knowledge is concentrated in the hands of but a few professors, what's the point?

Where do these senior scholars get off making the judgment that contributing to their knowledge base is more valuable than helping society at large better understand the way the world works? I was more than a little distressed to hear such thoughts come out of the mouths of sociologists -- the same group that spends so much time studying things like stratification, oppression, and equality. I don't know what the explanation is for these thoughts. Are they jealous of those who get more press? Do they simply want young scholars to make it through the same gauntlet they did?

Oddly, it seemed that those who spoke about it being tough to earn tenure when communicating with a larger audience spoke as though there were some higher being or committee that made tenure decisions. But many of these people are the ones sitting on tenure committees making these decisions. They seemed to shake their head and say "this is the way the world is" even though they were perfectly capable of changing it.

I was always led to believe that academia, perhaps more than any other field, values people who color outside the lines, develop new theories, propose new hypotheses, and change the way we see the world. So it seems more than a little hypocritical for such a group to allow only those who meet a narrowly defined set of criteria to enter their fraternity.

I don't know how many people in the room viewed it this way, but I'm sure it wasn't everybody. I wasn't the only person who voiced displeasure with this way of thinking, and other senior scholars seemed to be warning young scholars in a voice that was more cautionary than foreboding. Said one: "it's hard to write for an audience outside your discipline." Translation (I think): it will take a lot of time to prepare material for non-academic sources, so be careful about starting down this path. But, in my mind, this simply underscores the idea that we should reward, rather than punish, those who successfully reach out to a larger audience.

Beyond this, I don't understand why reaching out to a larger audience is frowned upon by some academics when colleges and universities go out of their way to encourage professors to do as such. We get an e-mail every time somebody from our department is cited in the news. The university sends out weekly e-mails that highlight any Vanderbilt research that was in the media recently -- and has an office that works very hard to get that research in the media. When Vanderbilt researchers appear in the press it's good for the school -- it helps earn not only prestige, but also more research dollars. If professors are supposed to serve the university, shouldn't they be publicizing their findings?

Let's look at a practical example. Eduwonkette was written by an ambitious grad student who thought she had something to offer to the conversation on education policy. In my mind, she was right. For over a year, she ran the best education blog around. She quickly provided insightful and revealing information about all sorts of relevant topics. She altered the course of the conversation in many circles -- in a good way. In other words, in a year or two she accomplished more than most faculty will in a lifetime. But now that she's an assistant professor, we're no longer graced with her presence. Did anybody at her new institution or elsewhere suggest that her time would be better served elsewhere? I have absolutely no idea. But if I were in charge of tenure in her department, I would have strongly recommended that she continue with the blog. Who cares if doing so cost her the time to write a couple more academic articles?

I guess the bottom line is this: there are more important things in this world than academic articles. Sure, we should judge professors by what they contribute to academia, but we're a smart group of people -- why can't we figure out a more meaningful definition of this phrase? We complain when students are reduced to a number (test scores), and yet we have no problem reducing professors to a number (of publications) as well. If academics want to be pompous and narrow-minded -- and irrelevant -- they should continue to discourage their peers from making practical contributions to society. But if they actually care about advancing knowledge, they should be rewarding those who do so -- even if it doesn't involve an academic journal.

ASA Day 1

I'm here in beautiful (and wonderfully cool, compared to Nashville) San Francisco for the 104th annual meetings of the American Sociological Association. Over the next few days I'll be reporting back on some of the things I find most interesting.

We started today with a conference just for the sociology of education folks, which was quite interesting -- both in the good and the bad sense of the word. More on the latter in the next post.

As for the good parts, I met lots of interesting people -- including fellow education blogger Sara Goldrick-Rab -- and heard lots of interesting speeches and ideas. If you're planning on hosting a get-together at the San Francisco Hilton you should be aware that they charge $42 for a box lunches with turkey sandwiches and $99 per gallon of coffee. In other news, I'm now planning on starting my own conference hotel.

Seriously though, if anybody else is at ASA please come introduce yourself. I'll be at most of the education sessions wearing colorful, and somewhat wrinkled, dress shirts. Also, a reminder that I'm looking for people to contribute Sunday Commentaries (which I'll resume next week) to publish on this site.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

I'll Pass the AP Test . . . For the Right Price

The biggest education story in the press today (NY Times) the results of the second year of a pilot program that pays students in NYC up to $1,000 for passing an AP test. I'm not quite sure of the exact details of the scheme b/c different outlets are reporting different details. The other NY papers (Post, Daily News) are reporting $500 for a 3, $750 for a 4, and $1,000 for a 5, but the Times is reporting $1,000 for a 5 if students attend Saturday prep classes and $500 if they don't and then $750/$400 for a 4. The Times doesn't mention any reward for a 3 even though say it takes a 3 to pass. The Reach website confirms the amounts reported by the Times and reports that a 3 earns test takers $500/$300.

At any rate, more students both took and passed AP tests than last year -- when more students took, but fewer passed, the tests. The passing rate only budged from 32% to 33% (still down from 35% before the program started), so the main effect may have been encouraging more students to take tests. As far as I can tell, the number of exams taken and passed were:

2007: 4,275 taken/1,481 passed by ? students (34.6%) ? per student
2008: 4,620 taken/1,476 passed by 1,161 students (31.9%) 4.0 taken/1.27 passed per student
2009: 5,436 taken/1,774 passed by 1,240 students (32.5%) 4.39 taken/1.43 passed per student

(2007 data from this article)

In order to tell exactly what effect the program had we need to know, among other things, how many students were in these 31 schools in each of the three years, how many (if any) students re-took exams that they'd failed in a previous year, and whether there were any demographic changes among the school populations and test takers. Not to mention how many students took the tests in 2007, before the program started (I'll keep looking for that figure).

My first reaction to the news was "of course more students passed, I'd have taken and passed more AP tests in high school if I got $1,000 for each one," but then I read more of the details. Without knowing how many total students are in the schools, the results don't seem very impressive. I'd expect the possibility of earning thousands of dollars to yield more of a reaction from high school students. Also note that, nationwide, AP tests have about a 57% pass rate.

For a second, though, let's assume a best-case scenario for the program -- school populations shrunk, and the growth in test-taking was due to weaker and younger students signing up. In other words, let's assume that the numbers actually tell us that the rewards led more students to take and pass AP exams. Even then, I'm not really sure what to think.

The program is doling out nearly $1,000,000 in bonuses per year to students at only 31 schools. And I'm not sure exactly what it means to take or pass an AP test. I don't think most would recognize that as a goal within itself. I think we really need to know the secondary effects of the trial: do students view AP exams and/or school more positively? Do students study more for non-AP subjects? Are students more likely to enroll in college? Are students more likely to complete college now that they have a head start on earning credits? These seem like the real goals of the program.

In other words, the numbers tell us almost nothing other than that the program seems unlikely to have fomented a revolution within these schools. But to actually know what the results are we need to let it play out for a couple more years and, more importantly, answer the questions above.

update: I've been told three interesting pieces of information:

1.) The enrollment for the 31 schools is about 44,000 students

2.) Students were paid for passing the Spanish Literature AP exam in 2008, but only underclassmen were paid for doing so in 2009

3.) Virtually all of the increase in tests taken/passed is black/latino students

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

College in Three Years?

Interesting blog post here about an idea thrown out in a forthcoming book by Robert Zemsky from Penn -- an excerpt of which can be found here -- that college could be reduced to three years. Here are the pros and cons I see with the idea:


-Most (though certainly not all) college students waste a fair amount of time and could easily learn in three years what they now learn in four.

-There would be a good bit of potential cost savings. I'm not buying that it would immediately reduce the cost of attending college by 25%, but it couldn't hurt.

-It seems likely that more students would finish college and more would enter grad school.

-If it was coupled with the idea to reduce high school to three years, then virtually all college students would be under 21 . . . making alcohol policies on campus a bit clearer


-As someone who was a college student not that long ago, it sure seems that a lot of college students are awfully immature even after four years of school . . . what would they be like after only three?

-It seems likely that condensing the timeframe would also condense the curriculum . . . goodbye breadth requirements?

-It also seems likely that college would be viewed more as a stepping stone . . . which could be good in a number of ways, but could harm those who aim for a bachelor's degree as their ultimate goal

I also have to say that I was somewhat taken aback by this part of the argument:

"Though the community colleges will see themselves as threatened, a nationally adopted three-year baccalaureate degree could well prove to be a boon to them by clearly identifying and funding them as the places where students go to complete their precollegiate education."

Spoken like somebody who's been locked up in the Ivory Tower of the Ivy League a bit too long. Anybody who believes that community colleges should only function as a precursor to real college is woefully out of touch with reality.

All in all, it's not the worst idea -- though I seriously doubt that we'll see it on a wide scale anytime soon. Our ultra-decentralized system of education has a lot of advantages, but one drawback is that it's tough to implement radical reforms such as this one (assuming we agreed it was a good idea).