Could These Statements Actually Be True?

Thursday, April 30, 2009
Fact-checkers? Inquiring minds need to know...

"In New York City... the black unemployment rate for men is near 50 percent." Obama's 100 Days Press Conference If this is the case it is simply staggering...

"Best swine flu strategy: Stay away, everyone."
MSNBC. For another perspective, read up on the "culture of fear."

Well, thank goodness for the LA Times... "Scientists see this flu strain as relatively mild:
genetic data indicate this outbreak won't be as deadly as that of 1918, or even the average winter."

And skoolboy has now explained the first one: "The 2007 American Community Survey shows that about one-half of black men aged 20-24 in New York City are employed. In large part, this is because only 2/3 of them are in the labor force. Of those in the labor force, about 24% are unemployed. Labor force participation rates and employment rates are much higher for blacks aged 25-54."

Why I Voted Against the Madison Initiative, by Guest Blogger Dakota Kaiser

Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Today we feature a post from an undergraduate student at UW-Madison, Dakota Kaiser. Dakota is a rising senior, and recently distinguished himself as the sole member of the ASM (Associated Students of Madison) to vote against the Chancellor's Madison Initiative for Undergraduates. While many if not all students and faculty can find something to like in the proposal, Dakota has taken a stand for reasons that only he can best articulate. Therefore, today he becomes the first-ever guest blogger on the Education Optimists, here to share his views. Welcome, Dakota!

Why did I vote no? First and foremost, as a student representative on ASM, I could not ethically endorse a tuition increase. As a representative from a rural working class background and a transfer student, I don’t believe my constituency supports this proposal. Higher education is on a path to pricing students out of college every year, and I don’t want Wisconsin to follow the trend. The largest piece of evidence provided for this money is the classic bar graph of funding and financial aid for the big 10. I don’t believe pointing to other schools with high tuition and wanting to fit in is a real argument. Pointing to others actions to justify your own didn’t work on the playground as kids, and it shouldn’t work now. We should take pride in our affordability not be embarrassed and quick to change it. I also question whether or not the BIG 10 is really our peer group. When the average Wisconsin high-school student looks at college choices, it's not between UW-Madison and Penn State, it’s between UW-Madison and other UW schools and community colleges.

While this proposal argues that it will increase economic diversity on campus, I believe it will do just the opposite. Low income, first generation, and other students from disadvantaged communities are likely to suffer from sticker shock when seeing the high tuition on a website, pamphlet or other promotional material. Those students who most need the financial aid that this program is designed to create are those students who will not take it into account when making their post-secondary choices. While the administration just released their report (by no coincidence I’m sure) stating that family income has no impact on acceptance to UW-Madsion, I believe that it does affect who is applying in the first place.

Tuition is the last place a public institution should look to solve its problems, not the first. If the administration has spent a serious amount of time trying other methods to fill the gap and accomplish these same goals and then finally had to turn to tuition, this may be a different story. I also believe that many of the goals and proposals in the initiative can be solved with out such a large increase in funds. More funding doesn’t mean better advising, counseling, or instruction. We have no evidence suggesting that these areas are actually damaged, or that more funding will fix them. All we have are some anecdotal accounts, not solid data. Students were rushed to make a decision on this as it was rolled out, followed by only 6 weeks of an all out marketing, and lobbying blitz, with little time to let these ideas actually settle.

We also have been shown no evidence that changes in the area’s proposed will actually provide a better education, and there are no accountability measures or goals to judge success by. When I asked an administrator about how they will judge success in four years, I was told that they will have more faculty members, more advisers, and more services. When I responded that those are all means to the end of a better education, and asked how they would know that those things are actually making a difference, they had no answer.

In the end I believe that this proposal will not produce the intended results, and may harm our institution. In my opinion the average student doesn’t support this initiative, but they have been given no outlet to speak against it. In the one survey produced by ASM less than 20% of students supported the initiative, while over 80% were neutral or opposed. While the rest of student council was able to ignore that fact, and argue that the educated students were in favor of it and that as time goes on more will be too, I could not.

My Take on Taylor

Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Right now the blogosphere has run amok with talk of Mark Taylor's New York Times op-ed ("End the University as We Know It"), calling for the end of the university as we know it. Of course, with an op-ed like that, many will hate him. So I figured, why not highlight what's good here--and worth considering? In truth, Taylor hits a few high notes I'd like to simply echo. Such as....

1. There is far too little intra-departmental collaboration, and this may well point to the need for new models. I love the idea of cross-disciplinary organizational schemes with faculty gathered around common problems rather than traditional disciplines. But the "problem" areas have got to be more specific than simply "education" or "journalism" or "public policy." Not enough. I'm surprised Taylor didn't recognize that we already have a faculty focused on the problem of "law"-- duh.....

2. Grad students need to know how to get non-academic jobs, and know that life exists (and can be quite good) outside academia.

3. Colleges and universities need to start acting like teammates, especially those within public systems. Yes, SYSTEMS. Share resources, share students, share faculty--share. Can you tell I have a two-year-old?

The only one I strongly oppose--abolishing tenure. Not for the reasons you might think--truth be told, I'm not really focused on long-term job security. I think bright creative people tend to find jobs, somewhere (and of course I'd like to think I meet those criteria). But we need tenure, or something like it, because now is not the time to throw academic freedom into the wind. Trust me.

How Much Can Hiking the Sticker Price Hurt Poor Kids?

Monday, April 27, 2009
They just give up. Period.

My husband drew my attention to a new study published in the April issue of Psychological Science in which researchers provided low-income Chicago 7th-graders in two randomly selected classrooms with one of two kinds of information: Classroom A received information about need-based financial aid opportunities, indicating that college was a possibility for them while Classroom B was provided information about the enormous costs associated with a college education, indicating that college was not a viable option (specifically they were told that the average college tuition costs $31,160 to $126,792).

The researchers then assessed students' motivation levels and mentality towards school using questionnaires about goals, grades, and time usage.

The students in Classroom A expected to do better in school and planned to put more effort into studying and homework, compared to the students in Classroom B, who did not view college as a realistic possibility.

In a sensitivity analysis the researchers repeated the study with Detroit classrooms, and changed the second condition from info about college costs to no info at all. Results again indicated that students provided financial aid information had a more open mindset toward their future.

The authors conclude "part of the reason children begin to fall behind is that effort in school is understood to have meaning only when it leads to a path to the future. When the path to college feels closed because of a lack of financial assets, school-focused aspirations and planned effort suffer."

For more, see the work of Daphna Oyserman, University of Michigan.

The Great Debate

What's a university to do in a recession? Use the opportunity to learn how to do less with more? Use it as a convenient excuse to privatize? Stand by your constituents and struggle along with them to build political support?

Right now we're seeing it all. A few examples--

From the Chronicle: Public Colleges Consider Privatization as a Cure for the Common Recession.

In Baltimore: Regents approve tuition freeze for Maryland undergraduates, Out-of-state, graduate students to see increases

But what I'm looking for is a state or university that's using the recession as a chance to focus in on the core questions, which include:
1. What are we doing that is working? At what cost? Given that cost, is it worth it?
2. What are we doing that by no measure is having any impact? What's that costing? Do we have the stomach to stop doing it?

In other words, use this as a time to get focused on cost-effective ways to educate college students--not as a time to grow bigger and broader. Get back to your core mission. As the NY Times pointed out yesterday, right now you've got to live in the house you're in--there's no trading up. There's no upgrade in a recession, especially not one that comes at the expense of students and families.

Postscript: As I finished typing, the following news rolled in. We have a WINNER! Temple University has managed to cut its operating budget by 5% (by consolidating programs, leaving some staff positions vacant, and freezing salaries for nonunion employees) and give half of the savings (nearly $20 million) to financial aid. Tuition will rise only minimally (less than 3%). You go, Temple!

Speaking Of Colleges...

President Obama weighed in on the issue of college affordability and making universities more efficient on Friday, as reported by the New York Times's Caucus Blog ("Obama Chides Colleges To Curb Spiraling Tuition").

President Obama challenged college and university officials on Friday “to put affordability front and center as they chart a path forward.” The president’s not-so-subtle message was that America’s system of higher education should cut waste and inefficiency, just as he has urged America’s government to do, to counter spiraling tuition costs.

Mr. Obama also promised to keep battling to do away with a long-standing federal student-loan subsidy program that he said “lines the pockets of the banks” while costing American taxpayers billions of dollars a year that could otherwise go to direct student aid. His plan has run into serious opposition in Congress, with both Republicans and some Democrats concerned about its ramifications.

The president spoke after meeting with Stephanie Stevenson of Baltimore, a University of Maryland junior, and her mother, Yvonne Thomas. The university of Maryland, the president noted pointedly, has been able to freeze tuition by cutting energy costs and streamlining administrative functions, among other measures. He called on other places of higher learning to do the same.
Photo: Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images

What is the Evidence on High-Tuition High-Aid Models?

Sunday, April 26, 2009
Inquiring minds want to know... and those of us optimistic about the future of education in this country, and the future of our children, are here to provide that service.

Given declining state support to higher education, it's not at all surprising that even the most "public" state flagship universities are considering high-tuition high-aid models-- ones that jack up tuition on all or a subset of students in order to provide more aid to students from lower-income backgrounds. Sounds good, right? Those who can will pay more, and those who can't will get more aid.

As with any policy, especially one so appealing on the face of it, it's worth turning to any available empirical evidence to assess whether it should be enacted. So let's do it.

1. University of Michigan- Ann Arbor began using this model back in 1997. UM is known as the most truly affordable college in the Big 10 by virtue of its gobs and gobs of financial aid. So, is it working? "In 2008, UM reported that tuition has increased 27 percent for incoming freshmen in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts since fall 2004. Tuition cost $10,447... University officials said they've increased financial aid by a greater percentage than the annual tuition increases." But since 1997, the number of low-income UM students has decreased by 10%, while the number of wealthy students has increased by 8%. What's going on? According to the financial aid director at UM “Our cost scares people away… it’s hard for [prospective students] to reconcile that, yes, we may be more expensive, but we give more financial aid."

2. Miami University of Ohio. With a president who understood that unfortunately "high tuition makes people think a school has a lot to offer" this institution raised in-state rates to match out-of-state ones, but also offered automatic grants up to nearly $13,000 to in-staters to offset the cost. The prez promised that net costs for Ohioans wouldn't go up-- that for them costs would remain the same. A year later, applications and enrollment immediately went up. Sounds great, right!? Except over the course of that same year there was an 8 percent decrease in applications from students with high amounts of financial need, and in-state enrollment dropped 13%.

These problems are recognized by the student body at the University of Washington, where a similar model is being considered. See here for an example.

3. Two important facts from financial aid research:

A. Low SES students are particularly price sensitive and have difficulty identifying the amount of aid they can expect to receive (hey, with a FAFSA like that who's surprised?). (See the work of Don Heller). We've never found a successful way to get low-income families accurate info on net cost, so as to influence their choices, early on, before they count themselves out of higher ed.

B. "A $1,000 increase in tuition decreases the attendance rate of low income youth by an estimated 5.2 percentage points more than middle- and high-income youth." (Thomas Kane) If the aid did not match the increases in tuition dollar-for-dollar, not only in theory but in reality, what follows is pretty clear.

Moreover, many of the biggest names in financial aid research and leaders of great public institutions tend to agree. Here are the voices of a few:

Edward St. John (U. Michigan): "The reality of high‐tuition/high‐aid [does] not match the vision advocated by progressives. Institutions leverage student aid to generate tuition revenue, replace tax dollars but adding to inequalities created by the shift in public finance. While rising tuition is a fact of life in public universities, student aid remains ambiguous and uncertain."

University of California System: In 2006, UC declined to go high-tuition/high-aid to protect access for low-income and minority students. UC reviewed the relevant research in advance, and its report declared: "Practically speaking, return-to-aid does not always compensate for the effect of tuition increases. In spite of efforts to increase financial aid in keeping with increase in tuition, high-tuition universities generally do not have student bodies as diverse as their less expensive public cousins....Thus in spite of the University’s excellent intentions and unusual efforts to offset the negative effects of fee hikes, the Compact moves the University toward a high tuition-high aid model that may not be able to prevent reduced access."

Brian Levin-Stankevich, President of Eastern-Washington University: He declined to go high-tuition, high-aid, noting that "the sticker price alone can be a deterrent to even considering college." But, he found an alternative, raising class size and using more technology. (Point of fact: there is no good evidence that smaller undergraduate classes are cost-effective, producing better outcomes worth the price. That said, they are politically popular!)

Patrick Callan: The Miami model, according to Callan, was a “poor execution of a poor idea.” “Everyone thought that high tuition, high aid programs worked well until we heard from privates about their issues with access for low-income students,” said Callan. “It would be a serious mistake for schools to look at the Miami situation and conclude that this is the best way to help low-income students.”

Bruce Johnstone notes that actually translating high tuition into high aid is operationally complex and hard to implement. It would also be hard to know if a university wasn't actually spending the money in that way. Other research, by Griswold and Marine supports this -- tuition pricing and aid allocations are often poorly coordinated.

And just for balance here are the voices of advocates of high-tuition/high-aid models...

James Garland, Miami University of Ohio. “Imagine if there were, in its place, a food subsidy program by which the government paid that $27 billion directly to supermarkets. Under such a program needy families would benefit little, because most of the savings would be passed on to customers who didn't need help. That would be an inefficient use of public money. But this is precisely what happens in public higher education. When states pay their universities to hold down tuition charges, they are indirectly subsidizing wealthy and poor students alike."

Ron Ehrenberg of Cornell University. A recent article about the Madison Initiative quoted Ehrenberg as saying "it’s to be expected that flagship institutions will have to borrow from the private model to maintain quality in an environment of diminishing resources. That said, there are potential pitfalls. “This [increase] is actually going to hit a relatively large fraction of the students, and the downside risk is that there may turn out to be a lot of political opposition to it,” said Ehrenberg, a professor of economics. “There’s always sort of the fear that if you raise tuition you’re going to lose public support, and that’s going to make state appropriations go away even faster,” he added."

Research by Jim Hearn and others has shown that time and again this model becomes popular under conditions of financial stress. But stressful times are times to get creative, to think harder about efficiencies, and to take unpopular stands. They are not the time to leave the poorest citizens among us out in the cold, while we "save" our own children, and our own behinds.

Postscript: I give tons of credit to the Economic Opportunity Institute for a very good brief on the topic.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Kevin Carey visited UW-Madison this week. He spent some time with my Intro to Debates in Higher Ed Policy class, and also gave a talk at WISCAPE. I have to admit, I was jet-lagged from AERA and feeling pretty low when he arrived. But after an hour of listening to Kevin speak to my colleagues at Madison, I perked right up. I only wish more leaders of my institution, and more faculty, had been able to attend. For those of you who missed it, here are a few highlights of what he had to say:

"... We've built our higher education system from the top down...the resources given to those newly brought into the fold have never matched those who were there from the beginning. Take Wisconsin.... Madison spends far more money per student than other branches of the University of Wisconsin system, places like Oshkosh and Green Bay. Of course, Madison is a research university, a very good one, and research is expensive. So let's set all that research aside and look only at spending on what the feds classify as "instruction, academic support, and student services." Classified that way, spending at all of the other branch campuses is about the same, roughly $8,500 per student. Here in Madison, it's more than twice as much.

So here's my question: why are you so expensive to educate? Why do you deserve so much more? After all, you're supposed to the smart ones. On average, you got the best preparation, you went to the better high schools, you're more likely to come from a well-off family and less likely to come from a poor one. You're good at learning. You can do a lot of it on your own. Maybe it should take less money to help you reach your educational goals. It's not at all clear to me why it takes so much more. And Wisconsin is very typical in this regard. Run the numbers for another state university system and they usually come out the same way."

No one could offer Kevin a decent response. His comments ring loudly right now-- as students and faculty across the University come forward to support the Chancellor's Initiative that raises tuition in an effort to spend MORE per student, while at the same time stating an intention of enhancing college access. How could we be surprised? What member of the university community wouldn't like to have more money for his/her programs? Who wouldn't like a raise, or feel like they got to see professors more often? Who doesn't want to be successful as an institutional leader, and keep our constituents happy? Don't we all-- always-- want more?

But Kevin challenges us to go beyond our own personal, selfish, ambitions. He wants us to think about what we actually do for a living, and how-- and whether- it matters. If we're really concerned with access, if we really embrace the Wisconsin Idea, shouldn't we value leaders who push us to consider being generous with the rest of the students in the state? Shouldn't we listen hardest to the people who appear the least self-interested? Why aren't folks asking, why would an assistant professor work so hard to protect the ability of low-income students to access this university? What's in it for her? Let me tell you, the answer is nothing -- nothing tangible. Just the truly deep down feeling of knowing this is what I was educated to do, it's how my grandparents and parents raised me, and it's the only kind of work I'm willing to put my son in daycare to go off and do.

It's a simple fact: when we increase spending at a place like Madison, and jack the sticker price, we increase inequalities both in terms of per pupil spending, and in terms of rates of application to the UW. As Kevin says, "When people look at resource allocation numbers for our K–12 schools and see massive inequality, two-to-one spending ratios and the like, they call it injustice and file massive lawsuits. When they see the same numbers for higher education, they call it meritocracy, and a job well done."

Despite assurances of late that elitism doesn't pervade our admissions process (whoever thought it did?) the real issue remains that students and families are scared off by the sticker price. Research supports that, and no intervention's ever successfully found a way around it. No amount of discounting will solve it, and there's no reason to think that just because the problem is bad now, at price=X, that it won't be worse at X+$2,500. Especially in financial times this like. Sure more aid will be available, and that's a lovely thing, but inequities between campuses in the state will have grown, and applications among poor kids to our sttae flagship may well decline.

Maybe some just don't care. After all, we live our lives in the here and now, in our own small professional worlds where first and foremost we protect ourselves. But if you have a few minutes alone at night, try setting that aside and listening closely to our visitor from Washington. He left us with these words:

"Only by subordinating some of their self-interest...and embracing the interests of all institutions, and the students within them, and the students who aren't in an institution at all—will America's elite institutions be able to maintain the historic values of higher education that have done so much to make us the nation we are today."

I'd be so proud to be part of any college or university that took that to heart. Regardless of its so-called level of "prestige."

Bigotry Rears Its Ugly Head

Friday, April 24, 2009
Proposed laws to allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition rates have generated such controversy in recent years that it's downright embarrassing. Legislation like the DREAM Act is intended to make the American Dream possible. Work hard, go to school, and college-- along with a ticket to middle-class society-- will be in your reach. That's what we tell our kids, that's what the president tells the nation, and it's on every billboard and magazine everywhere you look.

Face it: we live in a college-for-all society. Everyone believes it should be easier to get into the college of their choice, and easier to afford it. EXCEPT when it comes to the poorest of our citizens. To them we say: No college for you! (Read it as if the Soup Nazi is speaking).

The 1996 PRWORA welfare reform did this, making it near impossible for moms of young children who need financial assistance to participate in higher education. Now we witness these 'dream' statutes in states like California and Oklahoma, among others. Despite solid evidence that we can increase the college-going rates of Latinos in this country simply by allowing the undocumented among them to enroll in college at in-state rates, too many of our fellow citizens are up in arms about the very idea.

These "college is for SOME, not for all" people are missing a key cause of this recession. Income inequality is not good for the country. It doesn't make you safer, or help you sleep better. Keeping people out of college helps ensure they'll make the lowest of wages, depend on the government for benefits, and have more trouble raising healthier, happier kids. Our goal should be to find cost-effective ways of moving more residents out of poverty-- and giving them a small price break on tuition seems a good way to do that.

Let's be clear--undocumented immigrants aren't going to leave America just because they can't get in-state rates at local colleges. Because of jobs and family ties, they'll continue to live here. But the odds are good that they will never be college graduates. As a result, they'll contribute far less to our economy, and drain government resources more.

But they will STILL BE HERE. Think about it....

Stimulus: L.A. Edition

On Tuesday the Christian Science Monitor ran a good story ("Stimulus money puts teachers in layoff limbo") on the tension between using federal stimulus dollars to ward off layoffs versus using the funds to push reform.
A look at several states and school districts sheds light on the tension between multiple goals for the stimulus money – saving jobs, reforming education, and avoiding becoming too dependent on a funding stream due to dry up in two years.
Undoubtedly, districts will use much of the formula-based funding to save teachers jobs as well they should. Hopefully, some will also use it to build infrastructure and systems that support student learning, teacher development, and data collection. Of course, there also is the $5 billion of discretionary funding that the U.S. Department of Education will allow states and districts to compete for -- those that have a proven track record of reform and results who want to accomplish even more.

But it was curious to read in the Monitor story that the Los Angeles Unified School District was planning to submit an application for the $650 million What Works and Innovation Fund portion of the competitive stimulus funding.

With a projected shortfall of $1.4 billion over the next two years, largely because of state cuts, the L.A. schools cannot avoid increasing class sizes and cutting some teachers, district leaders say. Without the stimulus, "it would have been twice as bad," says school board president Mónica García. More than 1,000 jobs are being cut from the administrative side, she notes.

The board plans to seek additional stimulus dollars that the US Department of Education will be handing out on a competitive basis to districts that pursue key reforms. "We didn't want to just preserve the status quo ... and we heard Washington say loud and clear ... 'We're going to be holding you accountable for results,' " Ms. García says.

Much as I raised questions about Milwaukee's chances for such funding ("Stimulus: Milwaukee's Odds") in a recent post, I am raising a same question about LA Unified's. In the stimulus law -- the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act-- an explicit criterion for school districts to apply for such funding is having met adequate yearly progress objectives under No Child Left Behind for at least two years in a row. LA Unified has not. So the only way for it to win competitive stimulus funding would be in partnership with a nonprofit or through a California state application for Race To The Top funding.

Someone tell me if I'm wrong here, but based on very clear statutory language and from initial explanation provided by the U.S. Department of Education (further guidance is forthcoming), it seems that districts like Los Angeles and Milwaukee will be outside the tent with the vast majority of urban school districts ineligible to apply directly for competitive stimulus dollars. Those districts will however leverage historic federal funding increases through formula-based stimulus funding -- although that won't always be enough to offset state cuts as apparently is the case in L.A.

Musical Elective of the Month

Wednesday, April 22, 2009
As I have utterly failed to meet the weekly deadlines demanded by the recurring "Musical Elective Of The Week" feature, I hereby decree that said feature will now be known as the "Musical Elective Of The Month." Phew!

I've always been a sucker for BritPop. From Duran Duran to The Smiths to Oasis to Keane, I'm all over it. Such is the same with April's Musical Elective Of The Month: Travis.

Travis is a Scottish band comprised of singer/songwriter Fran Healy, guitarist Andy Dunlop, bassist Dougie Payne, and drummer Neil Primrose. I've been enamored with them for the past decade. To be quite honest, I'm stuck on Travis's 1999 album The Man Who and 2001's The Invisible Band--both of which hit #1 on the British charts. The Man Who features the perfect pop tracks "Writing To Reach You," "Driftwood" and "Why Does It Always Rain On Me." Similarly, The Invisible Band is one of my favorite complete albums -- it offers up the singles "Sing," "Side" and "Flowers In The Window."

Travis's first album, Good Feeling, was released in 1997. And they've put out four more since time stopped for me--12 Memories in 2003, The Boy With No Name in 2007, and Ode To J Smith in 2008 as well as a singles compilation.

They are just finishing up a four-week tour of the U.S. and Canada. You lucky dawgs in DC have a chance to catch Travis at the 9:30 Club tomorrow night. Then it's onto Philly, New York, and Boston.

Check out more about Travis at the official web site.
When I first held you I was cold
A melting snowman I was told
But there was no-one there to hold
Before I swore that I would be alone forever more
--"Flowers In The Window," The Invisible Band (2001)

Visit here for prior Musical Electives

Effective Dissemination or Shameless Self-Promotion?

Sunday, April 19, 2009
On Friday and Saturday I participated in an AERA/Hechinger Institute workshop for early career education researchers, designed to help us "learn the ropes" about disseminating and translating our work effectively. Bluntly-- I signed up for this thing because of my multiple forays into a world of blogging/Facebooking/Twitter and other forms of media interactions that have made me acutely aware of my communication limitations (e.g. how poorly I write sometimes, and how often I can't quickly convey what I really mean--see prior sentence as case in point). What I didn't sign up to do was to learn how to build my own reputation. (Sadly, the surprise among some readers is palpable...)

But I worried about this throughout the workshop. Getting quoted in the paper frequently can have unintended consequences, including making others think you want it to be all about you. This is probably especially true if anyone realizes that professors often have to reach out to the media in order to gain their attention-- despite reporters' stated interest in such efforts, they come across as too-eager-beaver. So why do this kind of workshop at all? Isn't it way too risky, putting myself out there like this?? In trying to think it over, I ventured back to what Deborah Lowenberg Ball said Saturday morning to our group, and to the cadre of folks attending Wednesday's Spencer reception as well. In a nutshell, she argued the following:

1. We need to become disciplined and effective communicators of education research. Right now, those in academia who speak out tend to sound like advocates, or border on unconfident or unclear about what we do and don't know works in education. Both contribute to a less-than-positive rep for Ed Schools.

2. If we don't take this on, others will- in fact they already are. Evaluation firms are a good example. They know how to talk about education but are rarely specialized experts in education. This does not mean they can't raise the big questions or go after answers, but it does mean that more often than not they miss many of the phenomena and problems particular to this social institution; simply because they spend less time with it.

3. Outreach is part of the university mission as a "public agent of education." If we in the academia refuse to engage in the struggle to share our expertise, we essentially cut off the world from what we actually do know about how to better educate kids.

So in sum-- after a long hard week at AERA, some of us spent time learning the ropes at Hechinger, figuring out how to speak to and with the media, policymakers, and practitioners not so we can enjoy seeing our names in print more often, but so that we can really strive to do our jobs. Those jobs include disciplined and effective outreach, and we'd fail if we didn't work at it.

The next time you see my name in print, I really hope you understand (a bit better anyway) my motivations. I thank Deborah for giving me, and so many others, a way to think through them.

The EduOptimists Love to Eat

It's pretty funny that we've blogged for more than a year without getting into our favorite personal pasttime-- dining out. Perhaps because we've been so busy parenting and working.

But tonight's meal warrants our first edu-restaurant review. The place was just so darn good.

I grew up in Northern Virginia -- Falls Church to be exact -- which happens to be the 3rd largest Vietnamese community in the country. So I prefer pho to chicken noodle, and a good banh mi to tuna salad any day. Unfortunately these things are near impossible to come by in my current life, and my real favorites-- for example five-spice chicken and ca kho to -- are even harder to find.

But this week we're traveling in California, and tonight got to Fountain Valley (near Anaheim), where we dined at Xanh Bistro (pronounced Sang, it's located at 16161 Brookhurst St, at Edinger Ave. in the far corner of Albertson's shopping center). This very pretty little restaurant is run by a very talented woman, Haley Nguyen who's an associate professor at Saddleback Community College. (I swear- I chose the restaurant for that reason).

Nguyen's food stands out for so many reasons, including her use of a wide array of unusual and impeccably fresh herbs and vegetables, and insanely well-balanced mixing of salty and sweet. This is Vietnamese food at its very finest, rather than its most humble.

Here's an example: cha gio. These typical Vietnamese spring rolls are thin and fried, often greasy and rarely full of flavor. But the cha gio at Xanh Bistro come ready to be wrapped in fresh lettuce outfitted with daikon, carrot, and what I suspect was Thai basil (purple). Wrap them up, dip in the homemade fish sauce, and wham! You are hooked.

We moved from there to the Banana Blossom Salad-- a huge dish (at $7.95 completely a steal) combining shrip, por, peanutes, and these lovely shreds of banana blossom plus Vietnamese mint.

I chose two main dishes that riffed on my old favorites: five-spice short ribs (succulent and tender, falling off the bone and surrounded by baby bok choy) and caramel white fish in clay pot. We devoured them both, and complemented them with some tender grilled Japanese eggplant.

Conor was in his element, devouring everything in sight, especially the soy rice milk and the short ribs-- and especially dessert-- a durian and mango parfait. We all loved the beautiful pictures on every wall (for sale, by Red Moon photography), and the very friendly and attentive staff.

All told, we left extremely happy-- and, seriously-- we've got one night left in CA and we'll be going back for more tomorrow night!

ps. We're by far not the first to love this place. For example, check out this review with wonderful pictures.

Media Coverage of Conference Papers

Friday, April 17, 2009
The edublogosphere is rife with coverage of AERA papers right now. So is the edu-print media.

I'm not sure this is a good thing.

Remember, many academics treat the conference paper as a first, or maybe second draft. It's a chance to try out ideas in front of colleagues, not necessarily to present polished or even slightly polished work.

But when journalists write about conference papers, they often make it sound like these are vetted pieces of work. They're not. It's premature to draw conclusions from them, or make recommendations.

So here's my suggestion, particularly for the online media-- devote a column or section to "work in progress" and cover conference presentations there. That way your readers will be appropriately warned.

Why Reverse Transfer?

Today's Inside Higher Ed covers an article I wrote with UW-Madison doctoral student Fabian Pfeffer on the topic of reverse transfer. The basic gist is this: reverse transfer may be more common now, but it's certainly not benign. Students who reverse transfer tend to have parents who aren't highly educated, and therefore not as informed about how to navigate the game of 4-year college life. And in turn, the degree completion rates of these students-- who move from a 4-year to a 2-year school, are correspondingly low.

The article responds to anecdotal evidence suggesting that a lack of money drives the decision to leave a 4-year college for a community college. While we're the first to admit that money matters-- probably a LOT (see my other investigation into this) our national data indicates that the underlying reason has to do with a lack of information (since the greatest SES disparities are based on parental education not family income).

To illustrate this point, here are some examples:

Despite reasonably strong academic preparation, Joe has a C average in the first year of college. He's working nights at the local grocery store, and falling asleep in class. He doesn't see a way out-- when he calls home, Dad says he hasn't gotten any money to help, and Joe keeps working. Eventually, lacking a better solution, he leaves and moves back home to attend community college.

Mary also feels she doesn't have enough money to persist in college. Her family financial situation has changed when her mom lost her job, but she doesn't know that her financial aid officer can help. Instead of submitting a new FAFSA (a complex process), she switches to the less-expensive local community college.

Suzanne did well in high school, and has enough financial aid to get by. But when her initial grades freshman year were low B's, her feelings were hurt and she didn't know what to do. Her parents didn't go far in college, and couldn't help her understand what might explain those grades (one possibility is grade deflation; another might be her writing abilities). Demoralized, she leaves to go to a school where she thinks she can do better.

In each case we might mistake the underlying reasons for the student's reverse transfer decision. In Joe's case and Mary's it looks like money. In Suzanne's, it looks like grades. But when we look at thousands of these students, and begin to look closely- comparing apples and apples-- a common theme emerges. The underlying issue is a lack of information.

What if an advisor or a professor helped Joe find a job that let him sleep at night? What if Mary's financial aid officer checked in with her, and explained there was more aid available? What if Suzanne's professor called her in to discuss her grade, and explain how she could improve?

In each case, the information provided by the 4-year college could help fill in information these students couldn't get from their parents. Note: I do NOT fault the parents for not having more education. Since we know many students in need do not access already available services for good reasons (e.g. they are working long hours, etc), we need a multi-pronged approach (involving both faculty and staff, for example) and likely a mandatory one. How about a required check-in every term, or twice a term-- during class time? It could help.

Stimulus: Milwaukee's Odds

Monday, April 13, 2009
Recent stories suggest that policymakers and education leaders are beginning to bank on competitive funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) that in actuality will only flow to reform-minded, results-oriented states and districts. I'm talking about the competitive $4.35 billion Race To The Top grants (for states) and the $650 million What Works and Innovation Fund (for school districts and nonprofits).

With regard to the What Works and Innovation Fund (WWIF), some things are clear. In order for a school district to be eligible to apply, they must meet four specific criteria, one of which is having met or exceeded the state's Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) objectives for student achievement for at least two years.

This criterion alone will render many school districts ineligible for this competitive funding. And that's OK, says the U.S. Department of Education. This WWIF is intended to take effective innovations to scale, not to provide districts in-need with additional resources. That's what the major injection of Title I funding in ARRA was intended for.

So it was curious to see this press release cross my desk ("Governor Doyle, Mayor Barrett Announce Effort to Reform MPS"). The joint release from Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett unveils a 5-point plan "to drive innovation, school improvement and fiscal responsibility" in Milwaukee Public Schools. Plank number one is this:
Compete for American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) funding - Working together with educators, parents, and the community, Governor Doyle and Mayor Barrett will lead Milwaukee-based efforts to compete for federal incentive grant funding available through the ARRA.
These highly competitive federal grants are intended to reward states and districts that are making major reforms to successfully reduce achievement gaps and improve student learning. There are a few clarifications needed here. First, Milwaukee won't be eligible to compete directly for the WWIF because it is a district "in need of improvement" under the No Child Left Behind Act--in other words, it hasn't met AYP objectives at all (and this in a state that has tried to game the system by unrealistically projecting that nearly all achievement growth will occur in the out years). Second, Milwaukee could apply for the What Works and Innovation Fund in partnership with a nonprofit, assuming that nonprofit could demonstrate impact along those 4 objectives. Third, Milwaukee could benefit from a successful Wisconsin state application to the Race To The Top fund. But looking at the chief criteria for that competitive fund--rigorous academic standards and high-quality assessments, pre-k to college data systems, making improvements in teacher effectiveness and the equitable distribution of teachers, and intensive support to low-performing schools--suggests that Wisconsin, at best, is a 30-to-1 shot. Given its track record (or lack thereof) on some of these education policy elements in recent years, it's going to have a difficult time competing with leading states. And the Education Department has been very clear that these dollars will flow to a select number of states. My money is on Wisconsin not being one of them. I'm an optimist--but I'm not that optimistic.

If I have time, perhaps I'll explore some of these policy issues in greater depth and why Wisconsin's recent failures to lead on reform will likely cost it these additional resources.

One thing is clear: State policymakers and district leaders should do their homework--and consider the odds--before counting on these competitive monies to fuel education reform. The check may well not be in the mail.

The Best Ideas Seem to Come Out of Thin Air

Saturday, April 11, 2009
I was at dinner with a group of community college leaders last month when one administrator began to tell me about an "innovation" his college was trying. I'd asked for his thoughts on the productivity agenda in higher ed, an effort to do more with less. Doug Harris and I are working on a Lumina Foundation initiative and are tasked with identifying the most cost effective ways to increase the number of college grads-- groan, a laudable yet seemingly impossible task.

So this guy starts telling me about his program- a call center operating on a $50,000 per year budget. The center makes two kinds of calls- those focusing on recruitment, and those focusing on retention. The first set includes calls to follow-up on whether students took the ACT, did the FAFSA, finished their application etc. The second set are efforts to check in-- why aren't you enrolled this semester, what's going on with an undecided major, welcome calls to late registrants, etc. A staff of 4 has made 5,000 recruitment calls and 10,000 retention calls in just over a year.

And lo and behold-- it looks like, based on pretty solid evidence, this thing is successful- and paying for itself. Comparisons between students who were called and reached, those who were left a voicemail, and those who were called but no message were left, indicate that even the most conservative assessment reveals that the call center not only covers its own costs but GENERATES new revenue through tuitition.

Surprise surprise-- students respond when someone calls to say "I care." On some calls students reported problems that administrators were then able to resolve. In others, students gain needed information they would've otherwise gone without.

Doug and I are still working on these cost-effectiveness ratios, but I gotta tell you-- right now call centers are right there on top. Who knew? When I said this talented gentleman (Joe DeHart at Des Moines Area Community College) where the idea came from, he referred me to his president, Rob Denson. Rob reports this was a completely organic process-- someone decided to make a few recruitment calls that were well-received, it seemed like a good idea to ramp up, and so they did.

At a recent Lumina Foundation meeting no one in the room seemed to be able to name other colleges trying this. My question is, why the heck not? Backed by strong evidence that social capital is unequally distributed, that information is invaluable, and that people are often receptive to help, this program may well be succeeding--despite its incredible simplicity.

I love stumbling into new ideas like this. You can bet you'll continue to find me at dinners like these, hoping to come upon another one. In the meantime, if you've got thoughts on innovative programs or policies you've tried out in higher ed, write me a note. If you've got data we can use to estimate both costs and effects-- and oh man is that rare-- so much the better!

A Crushing View of Reality

Sunday, April 5, 2009
I've been spending a lot of time thinking about what money can buy -- $3,500 more specifically. In our project testing the effects of need-based financial aid on college students, that's how much the students attending 4-year colleges are being randomly assigned to receive. So I often ponder whether that amount is meaningful, in what ways, and why more might be needed.

This afternoon I was dealt a harsh dose of reality, bringing me down from "college-going land" to the real world. No sooner had my two-year old gone down for his nap and I'd picked up the New York Times to enjoy over a lovely and very necessary cappuccino, did my eyes fall on this front page story: "Chinese Hunger for Sons Fuel Boys' Abductions".

Know what $3,500 can buy in China? A five-year-old boy. That's right.

In a story full of weeping parents who've lost their kids--those who've had babies stolen from them, and those who unknowingly adopted stolen children--reality hits hard. It's not often that the Education Optimists write about anything outside the U.S. (and admittedly, shame on us for that). Thanks to this story, my mind is far, far from higher education on this very gray afternoon.

U. Minnesota Leads the Way

Friday, April 3, 2009
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports a new policy on academic freedom at the University of Minnesota, designed to ensure that faculty can speak truth to power on issues related to university administration. The policy defines academic freedom as “the freedom to discuss all relevant matters in the classroom, to explore all avenues of scholarship, research, and creative expression, and to speak or write without institutional discipline or restraint on matters of public concern as well as on matters related to professional duties and the functioning of the university.”

Good going UMN. We should all follow suit.

Bring Out Your Dead

"Bring out your dead," shouts the dead collector in Monty Python & The Holy Grail.

Swift & Change Able tossed state education reform onto the cart in its post yesterday ("ARRA Stabilization $: Education Reform Is Dead, Long Live Education Reform"). Well, maybe reform is not completely dead, but it looks like it certainly may be with respect to the state stabilization funding in the federal stimulus legislation (otherwise known as ARRA, or the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act).
As it turns out, there are some fundamental flaws either in the stimulus bill itself, or in the guidance issued yesterday by the Department of Education, that render it virtually useless as a vehicle for statewide education reform.

This may have merits in terms of providing a revenue stream for states and districts to backfill budgets and pay off debt. Things are tough out there, and this dynamic is perfectly understandable. But in terms of driving change in the 4 areas that Congress specified - standards and assessments, teacher effectiveness and the equitable distribution of teachers, data systems, and turning around underperforming schools - there no longer is any there there.

The stakes for the Secretary’s $5 billion "Race to the Top" fund have been raised substantially. In fact, it is now the only education reform game in town.
Ed reform's last, best hope is ARRA's $5 billion pot of incentive funding--the $4.35 billion "Race To The Top" fund for which states are eligible to apply and the $650 million What Works and Innovation Fund for which LEAs and partnerships led by nonprofit organizations are eligible.

I generally agree with this perspective. Back in late January ("Overstated"), I chided politicians and media outlets alike who were either hailing or warning of a new era of federal influence in education based on this infusion of new resources.
Listen, short of the inclusion of some major new education policy in this stimulus bill (which won't happen) - greater accountability for spending, such as Title I and Title II dollars, for example - how is this piece of legislation going to "profoundly change" the federal role in education? Answer: Apart from coughing up some new federal resources at a time of need, it's not. It won't fundamentally change the business of teaching and learning without further legislative and policy changes. We still await action on ESEA reauthorization - the next best hope for positive changes and needed reforms to current federal law.
While I'm not backing away from that basic position, I am buoyed by what Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said to date about using the twin incentive funds to truly reward results and innovation, and to build upon it. If that's how it plays out and the standards for receiving these monies remain high, ARRA truly could advance state and local education reform.

"I'm not dead." We'll just have to wait and see won't we?

It's Easton!!

Thursday, April 2, 2009
And a hip-hip-hooray! It's official: John Easton (executive director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research), new IES Director.

Hat tip to Ed Week's Politics K-12 blog.

See the CCSR press release here.

Should Colleges Require the FAFSA?

Humor me -- I want to float an idea and see what happens.

Put aside for the moment the fact that the U.S. Department of Education is considering significantly revising and/or eliminating the FAFSA. Take as a prior that this form is required to get financial aid. Also take as a prior that people tend to revert to "default" options rather than make special efforts, so we need to structure choices so that defaults result in positive rather than negative outcomes (thanks, behavioral economics and just-plain-sense people).

What if the FAFSA were a requirement for enrolling in college classes (perhaps to start at 4-year colleges with tuition exceeding $1000)? I mean AFTER admission, not before. You get into college, come to orientation and the University provides all the assistance necessary to help students complete the form, and processes it for everyone. If you don't want to file, ok, but you'd need to check a box saying "no thanks."

With FAFSA completion rates under 50% at many institutions, money is simply left on the table. Colleges worry about economic diversity but have no idea what the profile is of non-FAFSA-completers. And sometimes they want to direct special assistance at the lower-income crowds.

So why not help students and families overcome the barrier that is the FAFSA, and reward them for it?

Has anyone tried it? With what results? What are the pros and cons? Write in, let me know. Thanks!

On Tenure

A hot topic in my life lately, though unfortunately something I know next to nothing about. (All's I know is that guaranteed academic freedom is and will continue to be important in my life). So I want to highlight another person's wisdom, from a cool article from Inside Higher Ed entitled "What I Wish I'd Known About Tenure".

These days I'm especially intrigued by the following pearls:
1. "Tenure is based on the university’s needs, not the achievements of those seeking tenure, and the university sets the rules and controls the odds."
2. "...the tenure process is like a form of academic hazing...Your chances of success may also improve if you do not get mired in departmental politics or have major conflicts with powerful departmental members."

So much for the "meritocracy."

More Good News From the Obama Administration

Wednesday, April 1, 2009
The first step to transforming the role of community colleges in the American landscape is elevating their status. President Obama and Secretary Duncan took a great step in the right direction today, naming Martha Kanter, chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District (California), the new under secretary for education.

Stay tuned... next month the Brookings Institution will issue a paper in which several colleagues and I lay out an agenda we certainly hope Dr. Kanter will embrace and make her own.

Check out Mike Kirst's thoughts on Kanter here....