Thursday, February 26, 2009

Academic capitalism: College Acceptance Letters Glitzy - Rejection Letters Brutal

In these economically perilous times colleges are more worried than ever that the most desirable students will reject them in favor of other suitors.

The response has been an upgrade in the acceptance "packages" set to students. As these get more glitzy the rejection letters (or emails!) are getting more brutal, according to an article today from the Associated Press and syndicated in Yahoo News.
AP: College admissions officers are jazzing up their acceptance notifications--sending out fancy certificates, T-shirts, tubes of confetti, or Internet links to videos of fireworks--in an effort to inspire loyalty and lock in commitments from today's fickle and worried high school seniors.

Some admissions officers say rising competition and the economic downturn are forcing them to devote more money and attention in paper acceptance packets. Worried that the economic downturn might scare some students away from private schools like St. Bonaventure, admissions director James M. DiRisio upgraded his college's T-shirt package this year.

Meanwhile, Rick Shaw, Stanford's director of admissions, says the college is trying to reduce waste by encouraging the 20,000 or so rejected applicants to take their bad news electronically, though it will send a formal letter if a student asks. "We are saving a lot of trees," he explained.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Fixing our National Education System

Nicholas Kristof in a recent article, Our Greatest National Shame in the New York Times has declared that fixing our national educational system is even more important than fixing our national health system.

Kristof claims that many innovators are doing many of the right things at the K-8 level, though he is not certain that they can be "scaled up". The real problem he states is with High Schools.

What is the problem? First, great teachers count much more than anything else. The important attribute is a kind of 'withitness' that connects teachers to their charges. This counts more than prior education or intelligence or SAT scores.

Second, our current way of selecting teachers has nothing whatsoever to do with this. There is a huge disconnect between the marks of a promising teacher and the criteria we use (teacher certificates, Praxis exam scores). So we should scrap all of that! (That's a great idea, but for Kristof is merely a throwaway line).

Now, while noting that the disconnect between relevant criteria and actual selection practice exists primarily at the K-8 level and the real problem is with High School, he cannot seriously think that teaching algebra or physics or other demanding secondary school disciplines has more to do with 'withitness' than with understanding algebra or physics, which in turn must have something to do with prior educational achievements and even SAT scores.

Moreover, his solution to the problem is more effective measures for good teachers. I should think that this mistaken idea is how we got into all of this stuff about graduate record exams, certification require ments and Praxis exams in the first place.

How about a radical solution: stop measuring teachers. Go after a bunch of 'with it' folks, and for high schools, also very smart and highly educated ones. Rely on general criteria and human judgment to select them -- that's what 'with it' types do and trust.

That said, the “national educational system” Kristof refers to does not even exist, never has, and with any luck, never will. Unless I misread the constitution, education is a reserved power of the states.

The federal government has until recently been very chary about centralizing educational authority. It has tended to couch its interventions as aide to the states on issues of overwhelming national importance such as vocational education and national security.

No Child Left Behind and its kindred efforts are unconstitutional on their face, as many state level officials acknowledge. For the most part states have fallen in line because without federal money they cannot provide what a contemporary education requires. I do not know a single educational administrator at any level that thinks NCLB is anything but a disaster.

Where the federal government can be helpful is not in offering further intrusions into state educational efforts, more tresting requirements, more standardization, but rather in offering inducements to states to modernize the entire apparatus of state governance to establish "smart" educational networks much as we are now working on smart buildings and smart energy grids.

The best starting point is to realize that most of the really important learning resources from communications media to museums and universities, serve entire regions. The region, not the arbitrary school district, should be the organizing unit of smart schools. Let's encourage the states to establish regional consortia and to fade out the monopoly of the local school districts. As the central cities and suburbs become ever more differentiated by social class, the local districts are no more than the means to manage and perpetuate educational inequality.

Multi-district regional schools, under regional authority established by the states, have created amazing models for regional schools. The Harrisburg PA High School of Creative and Performing Arts, run by a consortium of 29 districts as a regional charter school, draws on all of the arts infrastructure of the region and draws kids from both poor central cities and rich suburbs. Internet technology can further enhance the scope and reach of schools under regional authority.

As in the case of charter schools, targeted federal incentives can move the states to create more of these regional solutions.

Meanwhile, pumping all of the stimulus money into "scaling up" ideas into coercive federal programs operating through the local districts only keeps gross educational inequality in place.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

John Dewey and NRA CEO: Best Friends Forever?

As most readers of this blog know, John Dewey isn't exactly a beloved figure in conservative America. Recently, Human Events Magazine asked a panel of scholars to vote on the "most dangerous books of the 19th and 20th century." Dewey's Democracy and Education showed up at #5 on the list, just behind Quotations from Chairman Mao and The Kinsey Report.

And so it was that I was quite surprised, while doing some research on the connection between Dewey and Thomas Jefferson, to discover a new edition of Dewey's little book on Jefferson (The Living Thoughts of Thomas Jefferson) published by Palladium Press, an "official affiliate of the NRA" and the publishers of a series of "immanently affordable" (perhaps after the recession?) titles known as the Firearms Classics Library.

The new edition features a fresh introduction by Wayne LaPierre (standing to the left of Cheney in the photo above), the current CEO of the National Rifle Association. LaPierre, as it turns out, is quite an interesting figure. In 1995, he referred to federal agents as "jackbooted thugs", which prompted former President G.H.W. Bush to resign from the NRA. Today, in addition to his NRA duties, he is the current host of Crime Strike, a television show "which fills in the details where Cops and America's Most Wanted fail." (One wonders: what exactly is the intellectual space that Crime Strike occupies?)

Now, if LaPierre were a passionate dyed-in-the-wool fan of Dewey's work, it would be extremely surprising. As it turns out, however, LaPierre didn't introduce Dewey's little book out of any affection for Dewey, but rather out of affection for Jefferson. The Living Thoughts is simply a collection of remarks by Jefferson that Dewey felt were particularly notable. For a variety of reasons, Jefferson appeals to a wide political spectrum, and Palladium Press and LaPierre must have felt that The Living Thoughts was an appealing collection.

There is a certain deliciousness about all of this. Dewey didn't select the remarks found in The Living Thoughts haphazardly; he selected them because they were, from his perspective, especially notable and worthwhile. By republishing Dewey's selections, then, LaPierre and Palladium endorsed (albeit perhaps unwittingly) a Deweyan spin on Jefferson.

All of this is just a trivial bit of fun. But the book that underlies it, The Living Thoughts, is worthy of more attention, as is Dewey's connection to Jefferson. Why did Dewey choose particular Jefferson selections that he did? Did reading Jefferson have any kind of an influence on Dewey? I've been starting to look into these questions recently. Hopefully, the answers that turn up will be interesting.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Open the gates: Immigration as economic recovery?

As so many of us, I am attending to economic issues these days.  In truth, I just can’t escape them.  I read a description of the “Obama plan” and pay careful attention to what the plan might mean for schools (through support to states and special ed funding).  Or I watch Congressional hearings with overpaid and unsuccessful CEOs and am appalled.  (Is “appalled” strong enough?)  Or I check the weekly email that my investment company sends and simply refuse to wrap my head around what that means for my personal (lack of) net worth.  Mostly,  I remember that I am being paid for a job I love, lock into an attitude of gratitude, and remind myself to be more generous than I ever have been in a time when many others have little to give.  Sometimes, though not often, I read something sensible.  I read something sensible the other day and it resonated with some Dewey “discovery” I was doing for another project.


Tom Friedman’s NY Times column on February 11th ( suggested that one answer to our economic woes was to loosen immigration limitations, especially for those who are highly talented in skills and ideas that can fuel entrepreneurial efforts and spark new industries.  He says he got this idea from an Indian national who notes that many Indians, Chinese and Koreans have the educational background and the will to work hard in the American tradition.


Friedman says this:


While his tongue was slightly in cheek, Gupta and many other Indian business people I spoke to this week were trying to make a point that sometimes non-Americans can make best: “Dear America, please remember how you got to be the wealthiest country in history. It wasn’t through protectionism, or state-owned banks or fearing free trade. No, the formula was very simple: build this really flexible, really open economy, tolerate creative destruction so dead capital is quickly redeployed to better ideas and companies, pour into it the most diverse, smart and energetic immigrants from every corner of the world and then stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat.”


After reading Friedman’s editorial, I happened to delving into Dewey’s Correspondence.  I came across this from a letter in 1919 to Professor Raymond Moley, a recent Columbia Ph.D.  Dewey was talking specifically about the Polish Study in Philadelphia but more generally about attitudes toward immigration:


"My own conclusions, personal, are not optimistic, and I don’t think there will be any improvement till the Americans get over their optimistic complacency, and their unwillingness to tell the truth in writing about the immigrant question.  The complacency consists in regarding the immigrants as constituting the problem and Americanization simply as a problem of assimilating them.  Going by what we learned as a sample, the following problem is almost wholly one of reforming the environment of America into which the foreigners come.  This isn’t easy because the church and the big business interests cooperate with the politicians to keep the immigrants isolated and therefore in easy subjection …”

Friedman and Dewey are both asking us to reform “the environment of America” and to understand that immigrants are not and have never been the problem.  I confess that I resonate to Friedman’s “solution.”  I want to open the borders, not control them, and certainly not to shut them.   I don’t understand how “free markets” can be the answer to improving schooling within the US but not the answer to improving economic functioning.   Open up the borders, grant the visas, and let’s see who can create new businesses and new jobs.   The people who emigrate to the US will come because there is opportunity here.  That’s what we represent.  And those with the energy and ideas to create opportunities for themselves will almost surely create economic possibilities for those among us who simply want to work for a wage.


Oh, and on a slightly different, but surely related topic, I came across this from a letter Dewey wrote to his children from Japan in 1920 about social and economic conditions in that country:


"There is no doubt a great change is going on, how permanent it will be depends a good deal upon how the rest of the world behaves.   If it doesn’t live up to its peaceful and democratic professions, the conservative bureaucrats and militarists who of course are still very strong will say we told you so and there will be a big backset.  But if other countries and especially our own behaves decently, the democratizing here will go on as steadily and as rapidly as is desirable." 


Here’s how I read it … and I agree.   The best (and first) thing the United States can do to encourage democratic interaction and economic freedom is to model that in every way possible.  We have some work to do …

Education Spending in the Obama Stimulus Bill

From Chris bowers at Open Left comes this useful sumary of the education items in the stiumlus package:

Education for the 21st Century:

Economists tell us that strategic investments in education are one of the best ways to help America become more productive and competitive. This bill will make key investments to help states avoid teacher layoffs and other damaging education cuts in this recession, help make college more affordable, and make other key education investments.

Preventing Teacher Layoffs and Education Cuts by the States

Prevents teacher layoffs and other cutbacks in education and other key services, by establishing a $53.6 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, including $40.6 billion to local school districts using existing funding formulas, which can be used for preventing cutbacks, preventing layoffs, school modernization, or other purposes; $5 billion to states as bonus grants for meeting key performance measures in education; and $8 billion to states for other high priority needs such as public safety and other critical services, which may include education.

Making College More Affordable

Increases the higher education tax credit to a maximum of $2,500. Also makes it available to nearly 4 million low-income students who had not had any access to the higher education tax credit in the past - by making it partially refundable.

Increases the maximum Pell Grant by $500, for a maximum of $5,350 in 2009 and $5,550 in 2010.

Adds $200 million to the vital College Work-Study program.

Investing in Early Childhood Development

Provides $1.1 billion for Early Head Start and $1 billion for Head Start, which provide comprehensive development services to low-income infants and preschool children - thereby providing services for 110,000 additional infants and children.

Provides $2 billion for the Child Care Development Block Grant to provide child care services to an additional 300,000 children in low-income families while their parents go to work.

Providing Other Key Education Investments

Provides $13 billion for Title I grants to help disadvantaged kids reach high academic standards - ensuring that in this period of tight state and local budgets these vital services are maintained.

Provides $12.2 billion for grants for IDEA (Special Education) to increase the federal share of these costs, and prevent these mandatory costs from forcing states to cut other areas of education.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Where are Teachers' Voices in the National Education Debate?

From the Bellingham Herald

Print version - Sunday, February 8, 2009

Feb, 7, 2009

Where are teachers' voices in national education debate?


Discussions surrounding the problems public schools face have become dichotomized in the national debate with teachers increasingly demonized and their professional expertise belittled and often ignored. The recent disagreements over the choice of a new Secretary of Education in the Obama administration along with the petitions that were circulated reveal the immense animosity and polarization of that debate.

Rather than a rational conversation on a direction for alleviating the problems that face the public schools, the problem has been presented as a great showdown between the forces of "good and evil." Even the mainstream media were not immune to this seduction. Newspapers and magazines like the New York Times and the New Republic have presented the decision over a new Secretary of Education as a battle between the "new reformers" and the "old establishment.

"Who are the new reformers? Apparently from these publications, they are the outsiders who wish to see the schools privatized and turned into a commodity on the free market. They cry out for high-stakes testing, accountability measures, merit pay for teachers, vouchers, and the expansion of charter school experiments. Who is the "old establishment?" They are the teachers and their unions, the education schools who educate them, and the local school districts that represent the public. They are seen as advocates for things like more equitable funding and smaller class size.

Nowhere in this debate do we really hear the voice of teachers whose relationship with children, their parents and the community are carried out everyday on the grassroots level. Ultimately, it is their actions in the classroom with children, and the understanding they bring from their professional knowledge and experiences that will really make a difference in the achievement of children.

How do we reconstruct the public debate that brings in their voice? With this in mind, I would like to raise six questions for readers to consider if we are to redirect the public debate.

-- Why are individual teachers often acknowledged while teachers collectively often demonized? The teachers union has been projected as a huge monolithic power structure that resists any reform on behalf of children. Unions, of course, are the mechanism that workers in our society have for a chance at equal participation in the power structure. Why are teachers as workers seen as such a threat to a schooling system of a capitalist society?

-- Why are professional expertise and training seen as a threat to reform? Why can't we talk about the nature of the professional knowledge that is required to teach effectively in a multi-cultural, multi-racial democratic society that is constantly reinventing itself? How can the institutional structures that are politically set, and out of the control of teachers, be made to be more conducive with what teachers know about the developmental learning stages of their students? Without a serious conversation at this level, the charges and counter-charges are useless and banal.

-- Why does so much of the discussion on teacher incentives rely on a business or corporate model? The assumption that if teachers receive merit pay, they will perform better has been repeated as an unexamined mantra throughout these debates. Of course, teachers should get more pay. But all teachers deserve a decent wage for what they do. Are teachers going to be more motivated because they earn more than the teachers down the hall? Perhaps, what inspires teachers' work is the support they receive, the respect they have earned, the opportunities to learn more from each other as part of their daily work, the collegiality with their colleagues in purposeful dialogue and goal setting, and the voice of the profession in decision-making over meaningful changes that will bring about real achievements for children.John Goodlad, the longtime critic of American schools, has called this process "educational renewal" as opposed to "educational reform."

-- Why are experiments like new charter schools articulated in the public debate as the prerogative of one side only? In reality, many teachers across the nation participate in these initiatives and are part of these experiments.

-- Why is the high-stakes accountability movement allowed to appropriate and dominate the language of accountability?In today's climate, to argue against high-stakes testing and its effects is seen as an argument against accountability itself and used as an example of the status-quo. Why can't we take a serious look at what accountability can and should entail as a moral responsibility to assure equal chances for all our students rather than success on a high-stakes test?

-- Why can't we openly and honestly discuss the class disparities in this country and the legitimate concerns of parents and communities over the achievement gaps in student populations without using it for exploitation and a pretext for privatization and corporate gains?

-- Why can't we openly and honestly debate the public purposes of schooling in America? If advocates for the privatization of schooling really want to take public education in this direction, then let's debate what that means for the future of this nation's public school experiment.

At the beginning of President Obama's new administration that harbingers change and collaboration, a new national conversation is needed that brings all voices to the table. The dichotomization, polarization, simplification, and demonization must give way to a new, more inclusive public conversation that includes the voice of teachers and their communities on a grassroots level.

Lorraine Kasprisin is a professor in the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University. She is also president of the Educational Institute for Democratic Renewal and editor of "Journal of Educational Controversy."