Musical Elective of the Month: May 2010

Monday, May 31, 2010
The Musical Elective Of The Month is Tift Merritt.

Tift is a 35-year-old singer/songwriter who grew up in North Carolina, but is now based in the Big Apple. Her music is in the alt-country vein, although her sophomore album went in a decidedly rock and soul direction. Tift's got a distinctive, pure voice that lends a warmth and forthrightness to her lyrics.

Sara and I recently saw her open for Amos Lee in Madison, Wisconsin. As a result of this command opening performance, she made me an even bigger fan than I was. Tift's brand-new album is released on June 1, 2010. It's called See You On The Moon, and already has received critical acclaim from the likes of The New Yorker, Paste Magazine and the Washington Post for its stripped-down production and showcasing of Tift's vocal talent.

Tift released her first solo album in 2002 and has three studio albums and one live album under her belt. Pretty good work. Her debut album, Bramble Rose, was widely heralded, making both Time Magazine's and The New Yorker's top 10 lists for that year. My favorite is 2005's upbeat Tambourine, featuring the tracks "Good Hearted Man," "Stray Paper," "Write My Ticket," and "Shadow In The Way." Tambourine was nominated for a Grammy for Country Album of The Year even though I think it is the least "country" of her three studio albums. Go figure. In 2008, Tift released Another Country, with the tracks "Broken," "Keep You Happy," and "I Know What I'm Looking For Now." She also released a live acoustic album, Buckingham Solo, on February 24, 2009. It is a great example of her clean, pure sound from her live shows.

Check out more at her official web site.
You, how did you get so wise?
I take the advice I find in your eyes.
Me, I’ve been waiting outside
Most of my life,
Oh like a rare b-side.

I’m just making you mixtapes with homemade covers.
Analog to show we’re lovers,
And here under the jacket folds inside,
I’ve taped my heart for you to find.

--"Mixtape," See You On The Moon (2010)

Click here for past Musical Electives.

Photo courtesy of

Helping Ourselves

Wednesday, May 26, 2010
There's a bit of an uproar in California over an arrangement between the for-profit Kaplan University and the California Community College Chancellor's Office that makes it possible for students locked out of community college courses to enroll in a Kaplan course at a reduced rate. The arrangement stems from the overcrowding and under-resourcing of the California community college system, which is nothing less than under siege. Of course, it also stems from a completely sensible desire of Kaplan to expand its reach and enrollment. The California State Legislature, by failing to adequately support its community colleges, created that opportunity. Kaplan is doing exactly what we'd expect any educator to do--responding to student demand. We denigrate that action only because it will also result in profits. Let's at least be honest about that.

To me the really distasteful part of the backlash against Kaplan comes from those who are outraged that an agreement was reached to ensure the transferability of credits--an arrangement in which faculty were not consulted. Faculty members are used to being consulted on which courses they will and will not accept. Professors like to sign off on what courses can count to "replace" theirs--seemingly because they want to ensure educational quality, but let's face it, it's also because it helps to protect their jobs. The more courses deemed transferrable, the more it will become clear that the current system is inefficient--if many courses equate with each other, why have so many different people in different places teaching them?

But undergraduate education isn't meant to serve faculty; it's meant to serve students. This is something people seem to ready to forget. The president of the Academic Senate of the California Community Colleges was quite straightforward about her priorities when she told a reporter, "I'm hard pressed to see where we could...make this favorable to faculty." Huh? Since when is ensuring the continuation of a degree, and the portability of credits, meant to be about helping the faculty?

I get it--this move opens the door to a lot of scary possibilities. One is that Kaplan and other for-profits will fulfill a need and let the Legislature off the hook in future funding of state higher education. The degree to which we treat that as negative should be at least partly informed by empirical evidence on how California's community college students fare at Kaplan. Kaplan is to be commended for providing the data to allow a study on that topic to take place, and Scott Lay, president of the Community College League of California is a smart guy to recognize that as a real opportunity. Make that commitment a real one, and assess the outcomes of the arrangement. Then we'll have something more solid with which to pass judgment: evidence on how this affects students.

Race to the Top's Dropouts

UPDATED 5/28/2010

The deadline for state applications in Phase Two of the Race to the Top (RttT) competition is next Tuesday, June 1st. Only two states, Delaware and Tennessee, succeeded in winning funding in Phase One. The U.S. Department of Education has estimated that 10-15 states will win funding in Phase Two.

With the higher stakes -- more states will be funded this go 'round and this could be the final competition (despite the Obama Administration's request for a third round of RttT funding) -- more skirmishes have broken out, particularly between would-be reformers and teachers' unions. The nastiest of these disputes appears to have been in Minnesota, which apparently scuttled its application as a result. Just check out these quotes:
Governor Tim Pawlenty, 2012 Republican presidential aspirant: "Unfortunately, the DFL-controlled Legislature in Minnesota refuses to pass these initiatives because the they are beholden to Education Minnesota, which is the most powerful interest group in Minnesota. What we saw in this session should be an embarrassment to the DFL-controlled Legislature. They continue to put the interests of union members ahead of the interests of schoolchildren and education accountability."

Education Commissioner Alice Seagren charged that the state had been "bought and sold" by Education Minnesota, the state teachers' union and made "legislators afraid to step up."

Education Minnesota teachers union president Tom Dooher said that Pawlenty was doing "a great disservice to the state of Minnesota" by deciding not to apply for the second-round grants. "The problem with the governor is that if you disagree with him about policy he calls you an obstructionist. Tim Pawlenty has had eight years to do something about eliminating the achievement gap. Now, given one last chance, he does nothing."
Aggressive policy action has occurred in an attempt to win Phase 2 funding. Colorado's new teacher tenure and evaluation law has been widely heralded as a potential model for the nation. Florida's simplistic, poorly designed legislation, which would have based half of a teacher's evaluation and salary on a single test score, was wisely vetoed by Charlie Crist, the state's Republican governor and now-independent candidate for U.S. Senate.

Other states where notable policy changes have passed, potentially boosting Phase Two competitiveness, include Connecticut, Louisiana, Maryland (although on-going disagreements and lack of union support may hurt), North Carolina, and Oklahoma. Legislative efforts continue at the eleventh hour in states like Kentucky, New York (5/28 update), and Pennsylvania. The District of Columbia's IMPACT teacher evaluation system and recent teachers' contract agreement could help its chances, but the lack of support from the Washington Teachers' Union and contentious relationship between the WTU and DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee won't help.

All states are busy gathering stakeholder support for their applications. The deal struck in Rhode Island to save the jobs of teachers in Central Falls should boost that state's chances in Phase Two; the recent announcement that more local teachers' unions as well as the state AFT chapter will sign onto the state's application also bodes well. The New Jersey Education Association, which opposed the state's Phase One application, announced its support for Phase Two. [6/1 Update: Apparently, Governor Christie undid this compromise at the 11th hour today.] Other states that have announced greater stakeholder support than in Phase One include Florida, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. Others have set this week as a deadline for districts and unions to support the state application.

Let's look at which states are -- and aren't -- competing in Phase Two. In total, 38 states (and DC) expressed an intent to apply in Phase Two, but by my count 35 states and DC will actually submit an application by the due date (ID, MN and WV filed intents but have since pulled out). By my count, six states which did not submit an application in Phase One are applying in Phase Two: Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada and Washington.

Here's the full breakdown:

OUT (13)
Phase One Applicants (9)
South Dakota
West Virginia

Phase One Non-Applicants (4)
North Dakota

IN (36)
Phase One Applicants (30)
California (applying in partnership with only six large urban school districts)
District of Columbia
Massachusetts (state education commish has suggested state may not apply)
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
Rhode Island
South Carolina

Phase One Non-Applicants (6)


College for "Some"

Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Richard Vedder and my wife, Sara Goldrick-Rab, squared off yesterday on Patt Morrison's radio program on Southern California Public Radio yesterday. They addressed the question, "Who needs college?"

Vedder, the founder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington DC, recently announced a joint proposal suggesting that some kids shouldn't go to college at all (as recently described in this New York Times article). At Sherman Dorn notes, making such distinctions is tricky and generally involves suggestions that "the type of people who don't benefit from college" are "other people's kids." In fact, on the radio program, Vedder acknowledged that he would not counsel his own kids from attending college. Of course. As my wife noted in the radio program, many unprepared rich kids attend college, but many better prepared lower-income students cannot, due to affordability and other constraints. And she's got good research to back that up. Between such evidence and these exclusionary advocates up on their soapbox, one's equity radar begins to ping.

Check it out for yourself.

And here are some other recent contributions on this topic:

Thoughts On Education Policy (Corey Bunje Bower)
Public School Insights - The Purposes of College (Claus von Zastrow)
Public School Insights - Should We Give Up on College? (Claus von Zastrow)

Politics, As Usual

Wednesday, May 5, 2010
The recent decision by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) to hold a news conference condemning Arizona's new immigration law was somewhat unpredictable, and according to at least a few observers, unwise. For example, Rick Hess told the Chronicle of Higher Education it wasn't "smart politics" to "baldly politicize the role of research." The Chronicle's editors fanned the flames further by titling its article, "Education-research group puts itself on the border of advocacy."

Oh, the horror--research and advocacy meeting, having coffee, perhaps even deciding to date. The children which could result are feared by PhDs everywhere, particularly those evil twins: Compromised Objectivity and Biased Conclusions.

Of course academia trains us to think, like Hess, that research is worthy only when fully divorced from politics. Our research questions should be derived from theory, stemming only from the reading of great books and dusty journals, and never from a desire to enter policy or social debates. Puhleese. Every research question is inherently political--we conceive and ask questions the way we do because we have a desire to know something. Knowledge is socially, and therefore politically, constructed.

I'm the first to admit that AERA is a deeply flawed organization, but aren't they all (Hess's included)? I think honesty and transparency are among the best qualities, and would much rather AERA's leaders and members take visible positions on issues they care about rather than pretend not to have opinions. Research lacks an agenda only in the most naïve of imaginations. But agendas lack research all-too-frequently. If AERA begins to use its members' work to create a research-backed agenda, that can only be a good thing.

I’m Gonna Be Sick

Tuesday, May 4, 2010
My email inbox is full of stories sent by friends and colleagues who share my interests in higher education and public policy. I open dozens of links each day, and once in awhile I'll pause, laugh, or stop and think. Rarely, however, do I find myself suddenly overcome with nausea.

Of course, there's a first time for everything. Business Week reports: "The boom in for-profit education, driven by a political consensus that all Americans need more than a high school diploma, has intensified efforts to recruit the homeless." No, I'm not kidding. The article goes on: "Chancellor University in Cleveland....explicitly focused recruiting efforts on local shelters after it realized that Phoenix, owned by Apollo Group was doing so."

What world are we living in? So-called educators are hitting the homeless shelters in search of financial aid-eligible students to enroll in college? And they feel good about it? Says one recruiter: "I feel the homeless are a real population that can't be ignored." If I thought him possibly pure of heart and well-equipped with a battery of successful methods to academically and socially support these folks, I might be a little ambivalent. But come on, this is much simpler-- let's find them, enroll them, and allow them to fail out of colleges into a long debt-laden life.

Not how he sees it--says the recruiter, "borrowing by the homeless to pay tuition "is no different from a middle-class student who has to take out a loan."" Huh?

Seriously, what has this world come to? Something is plain wrong. Government must intervene. Go, Department of Ed-GO!

Milk Madness

Monday, May 3, 2010
These days I’m wearing more than a few hats. I’m an untenured assistant professor, a consultant, a blogger, a daughter, a mama, a sister, a wife, a granddaughter, a friend, a boss…and also a human being’s food supply. Yes, five to six times a day I generate enough milk to satisfy the appetite and growth requirements of a nearly 15 pound 4-month-old baby girl. For the record, she consumes about 13-15% of her weight in milk every day.

Annie was born in January. I resumed work when she was just two weeks old. I resumed full-time work (e.g. at least 40 hours/week) when she was a month old. I began flying with her when she was 4 weeks, and started traveling 1-2 nights away from her on trips when she reached 3 months. Yes, you heard right-- I didn’t have a maternity leave. Sure, I was offered one: 12 weeks unpaid. I just wasn’t in a financial position to do it. So, here I am— the pumping, productive professor.

You should see the newest breastpump (even if you don’t really want to). You should see how tiny it is (it weighs less than the amount of milk I express each day). They call it the Freestyle, and its maker, Medela, advertises it with the claim that it’s now possible to pump while doing dishes. (Yippee, just what I always wanted!!) You should see how tightly I can pack its parts into my luggage, and how I can cram it and me into the tiny spaces to get our work done. The pump and I spend a lot of time together—if I’m not with Annie, I’m with my pump. In the last three weeks I’ve pumped in airplane bathrooms during turbulence (“ladies and gentleman please return to your seats”—yeah right!), in narrow toilet stalls in conference hotels, in university conference rooms and colleagues’ offices, and yes (I’m sorry), even when I’m driving (please, don’t peek in my window).

I relay all this and suddenly I feel myself typing those saddest of words: I have no choice. But even as I do, I see how silly they look. Oh poor me, with my R1 university research job, my supportive telecommuting husband, my two beautiful children, and all of the incredible speaking and travel opportunities constantly offered to me. Sure, I spend nearly two-thirds of my 9-month academic salary on childcare every year, but hey, at least I have a steady income. And I’m blessed with incredibly supportive nannies and babysitters, family members who will fly out to help when needed, and no real fear of losing my job in the immediate future. I really have it quite good.

But the milk madness always feels, no matter what the truth, like madness. Last week I took a red eye, stuck in a window seat with two sleeping gents beside me I couldn’t get out, couldn’t pump, and my laptop battery died. Full of exhaustion, full of ideas, and full of milk, I nearly lost it. Now I write this sitting in Denver airport, waiting for the last flight of the night, 2 hours delayed, trying like heck to get home and be there to nurse my baby in the morning. I have to get there—I only have two little plastic storage baggies left. Think of me.