Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Signal and the Noise in Ed Reform

Saw this in Leonard Mlodinow's review of Nate Silver's new book The Signal and the Noise (New York Times on-line this morning):
Healthily peppered throughout the book are answers to its subtitle, “Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t”: we are fooled into thinking that random patterns are meaningful; we build models that are far more sensitive to our initial assumptions than we realize; we make approximations that are cruder than we realize; we focus on what is easiest to measure rather than on what is important; we are overconfident; we build models that rely too heavily on statistics, without enough theoretical understanding; and we unconsciously let biases based on expectation or self-interest affect our analysis.
It struck me that this is a pretty good description of the "science" of education (and teacher) evaluation espoused by contemporary "reformers" (those who Debbie Meier calls "deformers"): models sensitive to assumptions, crude approximations, measuring what can be measured rather than what is important, basing models on self-interest. Silver's point is that it is very, very difficult to distinguish the signal from the noise. A little humility is in order ...

Friday, October 12, 2012

Parents Know Best—But Does That Mean Their Curriculum Conscience or Their School Choice is Better?

 Over the past year (1/14/12, 2/11/12, and 9/9/12), I’ve offered several posts about the role of parents, their rights, and their desire for school choice. Even though these topics were not something that interested me in the past, my developing interest should come as no surprise given the dramatic increases we’ve seen in discussions of school choice and parental rights, especially in the context of the election and in light of a slew of school choice related bills being introduced in states throughout the country.

In one of my earlier posts, I discussed a bill recently passed in NH (HB 542) that allows parents to remove their child from any teaching or curriculum they find objectionable to their conscience and to demand an alternative course of study. Related bills or practices are in place in other states like Missouri and Kentucky. I want to share with you here an intriguing analysis that stems from the work of law professor Robert Vischer that shows how calls to protect parents’ rights of conscience—while seemingly aligned with the rise in calls for wider school choice—may actually pose an interesting predicament for the two parental desires.

Many parents may support wider and publicly-financed forms of school choice in hopes that it will allow them to enact their conscience by selecting a school whose views are already more aligned with that of the parent. Interestingly, professor of law Robert Vischer remarks on the implications of parental conscience in relation to school choice: “As school choice bolsters the ability of a school to create its own identity, the ability to maintain and defend that identity presupposes a reduced authority for the individual consciences of the school’s prospective constituents” because “to the extent that the implementation of a school’s mission creates tension with a dissenting student’s conscience, the student’s exit option gives the school a stronger claim to maintain its mission” (2010, p 207). In other words, while school choice may enable parents to more thoroughly enact their conscience by selecting a school more closely aligned with their views, those parents lose the ability to flex their conscience by demanding curricular changes within the chosen school because parents have the ability to remove their child from that school at any point. In a setting of substantial school choice, the child is not a captive audience to a curriculum to which the parent objects and the parent has less grounds on which to dictate it.

I’ll be curious to see how parents reconcile their claims for school choice with the right to parental conscience in control over what is taught to their children.

Photo credit:

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

University of Phoenix 3-year Default Rate: 26.4%

The U.S. Department of Education has started publishing student loan default rates, and the University of Phoenix is, as usual, at the back of the pack. 26.4% of University of Phoenix students default on their student loans within 3 years.

Americans, that's a lot of your tax money down the drain (and lining the pockets of the giant corporations that run these schools). You can go here to browse the figures on some of the other proprietary schools (e.g. Ashford, Kaplan), many of which aren't doing a whole lot better. Should you wish to search conventional public and private universities, go here.

Naturally, the for-profit schools aren't going to take this default rate problem lying down! As Salon's Andrew Leonard explains in a great article, the colleges are now providing counseling to students to help them avoid default:
Lauren Asher, president of the higher education research and advocacy think tank the Institute for College Access and Success, questioned whether Corinthian’s sharp drop in default rates actually served the interests of students. She pointed to a May 3 conference call Corinthian held with investors, in which company executives acknowledged that much of the improvement resulted from “deferment and forbearance. “In other words, Corinthian students were being counseled on how to delay paying back their student loans, in order to avoid defaulting during the three-year window tracked by state and federal governments." 
Of course, this regime of counseling isn't simply out of the goodness of the proprietary schools' hearts--the threat of federal and state sanctions is motivating them to bring default rates down. Interestingly, as Leonard points out, this counseling may actually be harmful for some students who would default anyway, since delaying default simply adds to the balance of the loan.

Social Issues has lots more coverage on University of Phoenix and its brethren--here, here, and here.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Looking for a Job? You Could Become the Canadian "Oil Sands" Professor of Early Mathematics Education

The University of Calgary's Faculty of Education is looking to fill a new job. Here's the description:
The Faculty of Education, invites applications for the position of Director, Early Mathematics Initiative. This is a 5-year Contingent Term academic position at the rank of Assistant Professor, requiring professional practice and research expertise in the area of Early Mathematics Education. The position involves teaching in the graduate and undergraduate programs in the area of Mathematics and particular responsibilities for coordination of activities associated with the Canadian Oil Sands - Early Mathematics Initiative (COS-EMI) initiative, located in the Faculty. 
The usual verbiage follows.

If the individual who eventually accepts this job is looking to be an ethical person, I'd advise them to focus their research on the development of addition and multiplication skills. That way, future generations of Albertans will be better able to calculate the additional greenhouse gases that the Tar Sands produce.

All joking aside, as academics working in education, I think it's time to start asking some hard questions about who we're really working for.

Are we prepared to accept money from anyone who is willing to donate? Or would restrictions on donations be a violation of academic freedom?