Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Innovating our Educating

Last spring I blogged several times about the importance of rethinking how we deliver education at the postsecondary level. At the time, I was focused on the question of how to deliver a high-quality education in a more cost-effective manner. At this moment, I think that focus remains important, but I am also especially cognizant of whether we are teaching in a manner that truly fulfills our mission. At UW-Madison that mission is embodied in the Wisconsin Idea-- our goal of bringing the teaching and learning from this university to people all over the state.

Accomplishing that goal in the face of an increasingly heterogeneous student body and under severe financial constraints will require us to think hard about what we do and how we do it. An article from today's Inside Higher Ed provides some provocative suggestions.

1. We must consider what style(s) of thinking our faculty and students value. Do we aim to educate change agents, or those who will help maintain the status quo? We must be honest about this, since it implies different approaches to teaching. It's easy to say we "value it all" but far harder to develop metrics for performance, for example, that reward it all.

2. We should think about what drives the way we teach. Do we teach in ways that are comfortable and convenient for faculty, or ways that reflect the styles in which students prefer to learn? In other words, are we "teaching to ourselves" rather than to our students? How does this affect our willingness to try new technologies, or consider teaching online?

3. We also need to talk about what we grade or reward. We are very focused on a normative program of study, 4 year-long bachelor's degree, credits accruing to time spent in the classroom, grades based on whatever the professor decides is important. Do we favor approaches that reflect the way we've always done things, or even more importantly, reward behaviors most like our own?

Throughout these discussions I think it's essential that we avoid adopting an overly relativistic position that claims to value and reward everything, says all styles are fine and good, and essentially avoids hard discussions. In the end, with an approach like that nothing will change and this may even perpetuate a downward spiral, since the way we currently educate is expensive and not necessarily sufficiently effective to help move us through the 21st century. This is a discussion that must originate with professors and students, and that I urge administrators to encourage but not lead. Change will take hold only those who teach and those who learn tackle this together.

Conservatives Claim Liberals Are Meanies

Friday, September 23, 2011

Race Matters

There is a robust debate on campus over whether last Tuesday's event at the Doubletree constituted a "protest" (which most seem to agree is appropriate) or a "disruption" of a press conference (which most seem to agree is inappropriate). Even those who disagree with the depiction of students as "thugs" who were part of a "mob" still appear to be concerned that a disruption may have occurred.

What is noticeably absent from the responses is a candid admission that that race matters in how we understand and interpret the events. Let's be frank: a large group of mostly brown folks came into contact with a much smaller group of mostly white folks and it freaked out some of those the white folks.

I was there. First, I was in Clegg's press conference, waiting to be called on while he prioritized questions from the media. I initially observed the protest outside with my ears (it was possible to hear them) and via Twitter. Next, I was in the hallway outside the press conference, in the lobby, where I was being interviewed by media at the moment the young men race through the lobby to open the hotel doors to the protesters. I saw them go by, and I heard a loud sound, then the sound of singing as students streamed into the lobby. Literally, whatever "it" was happened right in front of me. I then watched as students sang and clapped, spoke and cried, and then finally moved into the room where the press conference was wrapping up (having gone on for 45 minutes). I watched as a white man leaving the room (Lee Hansen) put up his hands to press against a black woman as he tried to exit, and as she in turn pushed back. I heard most loudly cries of "peace" and "let them pass" and watched as no one was injured. I remained in the hotel lobby until the student press conference wrapped up, and people departed.

So unlike so many others, I am not relying on second-hand information. That sort of information is filtered and distorted not only by memory and a bad game of telephone but also by racial insecurities.

I admit it: there was a fraction of a second in that lobby, when I saw the people run by and I heard the loud sound, that I experienced fear. At first, I thought it was surprise. Then I realized that I had caught myself anticipating violence and momentarily panicking as I saw men of color move fast and loud. I recognized it, I checked it, and I questioned it. I was angry with myself--for so much has clearly changed internally since I moved from a predominantly black community (West Philadelphia) to a nearly entirely white one. This is what happens to a person when the community in which they live is overly homogenous. And it took me no more than 30 seconds to chastise myself for it, get over it, and then experience the protest as it really was: peaceful, bold, and uplifting.

I had experienced another moment of fear not 30 minutes earlier, when I watched Clegg address a young African-American woman, responding to her question about his report with a smug, paternalistic smile that to me conveyed absolutely no understanding of the powerful hand he had in intimidating her. I reacted to him, in that moment, as a white man with no sense of his own privilege. It was the whiteness of his skin combined with the Southern in his voice and his hyper-masculine demeanor that made my hands shake. I was afraid of his evidently barely-repressed disdain for this woman. The Jewish ancestry in me felt it to my toes. I'm not proud of that either.

I challenge all of us to ask ourselves if I am utterly alone in feeling this way. If we cannot all begin to admit that we are race conscious every day, we are sunk. Entire op-eds and letters to the editors about "events" that were as diverse as any that ever occur at UW-Madison but neglect the fact of RACE are untruthful. It's time for us all to come clean. What distinguishes us from the racists is our honesty, candor, and willingness to learn. Race matters. And that's why the Doubletree event was no "disruption" but rather a necessary protest against an antagonistic deliberate transgression of outsiders on a community.

Postscript: It seems some did not understand that in my original post I was critical of BOTH of my responses. I have added a single comment to the end of the next-to-last paragraph to clarify.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What Do Comparisons of Test Scores Tell Us About Fairness in Admissions Practices?

Heard this before?

"The average test scores of minority students admitted to UW-Madison are lower than those of nonminority students admitted to UW-Madison. This is simply not fair, and is evidence of discrimination."

In other words, if minorities and nonminorities were treated equally in the admissions process, there would be no test score differences.

This claim is common and demonstrably incorrect.

Test scores in the general population are lower for minority students than for nonminority students. This means that even if UW-Madison were to rely solely on test scores for purposes of determining admission, and had the exact same cutoff point for admission (regardless of race), the average scores of minority students would be lower than those of nonminority students. In case that's unclear, try this. Say instead of a test requirement we imposed a weight requirement: you must be at least 200 pounds to be admitted. The proportion of football players admitted to UW-Madison would undoubtedly exceed the proportion of non-football players admitted. Same exact criteria, totally different chances of getting in, and totally different average weights of those admitted.

Among all of the factors you could use to assess whether two applicants are being treated equally, test scores are among the very worst, since they are more unevenly distributed than many others (e.g. minority/non-minority differences in average strength of letters of recommendation are likely much smaller than differences in average test scores).

It is for this reason that experts agree: "evidence of differences in [test] scores does not prove and almost certainly overstates the role of preferential treatment in admissions."

As we can all see, it is incredibly common to mis-interpret the significance of test score differences. Heck, the experts at the Center for Equal Opportunity do it all the time. But that doesn't make it right.


Please, read more about this-- stop the spread of incorrect information.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Where are the WAA and Badger Advocates Now?

When someone lies about your alma mater this way, will you simply stand by? Or will you use your substantial resources to act?

Guest Post: 10 Myths About Affirmative Action

The following is a guest post by Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, doctoral candidate in Sociology at UW-Madison and member of the Teaching Assistants' Association. The post originally appeared in the Socialist Worker and is reprinted here at my request. Please refer to the original post for sources for all works cited. --Sara

Students of color in the incoming freshman class at the University of Wisconsin in Madison must have had a disorienting second week of the semester. On September 13, they were greeted by a small group of old suited white men at podiums, telling them they don't belong here--and over 850 angry students telling those men they're wrong.

The press conference held by the misnamed Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO) and the debate with their uninspiring spokesperson Roger Clegg later that same day left me less than impressed with the argument that the university's affirmative action policies discriminate against white people.

But what did impress me mightily was the students who again and again stood up to share their stories, their anger that men like Clegg don't think they matter, and their determination to assert that they do. Inspired by those students, here is my defense of race-based affirmative action. Put aside that the richest country in world history treats education like a scarce commodity to be fought over. Race-based affirmative action is simply a matter of justice.

Here are ten myths that people like Clegg spin about affirmative action--and the facts that dispel those myths.

Myth Number 1: Students of color admitted under affirmative action aren't admitted on merit.

If there was one phrase Roger Clegg kept using at his debate that made the entire audience hiss, it was "lowered expectations." That's what Clegg says affirmative action means for minority students. But what he calls lowered expectations, I call recognition of a higher achievement.

According to the Black Commentator, "Wisconsin, and in particular the Milwaukee area, justly merit the invidious distinction of the Worst Place in the Nation to be Black." One reason? The staggering extent to which the criminal justice system in this state is directed at young Black men and their communities.

Sociologist Pamela Oliver has shown that Wisconsin's racial disparity in sentencing people convicted of new drug offenses dramatically dwarfs the disparity in every other state--including New York under its infamous Rockefeller Drug Laws.

In short, succeeding in high school under these conditions is a real achievement--one that frankly dwarfs managing to study SAT vocabulary in a well-funded suburban high school where students are expected to go to college.

And speaking of the SAT and other standardized tests, it's worth understanding some of the reasons for the racial discrepancies in test scores. As Adam Sanchez explained for SocialistWorker.org, since standardized tests are created to sort students, they only serve their function if some students consistently perform better than others.

This has two implications. First, test designers need questions that lots of students will get wrong, and the easiest way to do this is to use questions that draw less on classroom experiences that all children share than on home experiences that only some did. (The need for variation in scores is also why the exams are timed, even though this makes them much more artificial.)

Second, test designers need questions to agree on who the high-scoring students are--otherwise, everyone would score somewhere near the middle. This means that before new questions are added, they are vetted to make sure that they pick out the same students who already are scoring well on the tests. (In testing parlance, such questions are "reliable"--which doesn't mean they are "valid" at capturing real intellectual merit.)

These reasons help to explain why the best predictors of standardized test scores are parents' wealth and education.

Myth Number 2: White students are admitted to college solely on merit.

Underlying all the attacks on affirmative action is the idea that without it, college admissions are race-neutral and meritocratic. But as my fellow UW student Paul Pryse wrote after the last attack on affirmative action at UW:

As many as 15 percent of freshmen at America's top schools are white students who failed to meet their university's minimum standards for admission, according to Peter Schmidt, deputy editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education. These kids are "people with a long-standing relationship with the university," or in other words, the children of faculty, wealthy alumni and politicians.

According to Schmidt, these unqualified but privileged kids are nearly twice as common on top campuses as Black and Latino students who had benefited from affirmative action.

There's no such thing as a race-neutral college admissions policy in America. "Colorblind" just means the advantages and disadvantages are rendered invisible.

Myth Number 3: Affirmative action hurts students of color by putting them in environments for which they aren't prepared.

This might have been Clegg's single nastiest argument of the night--that because UW-Madison employs affirmative action, it admits students who are, in Clegg's words, "guaranteed to fail."

Students of color do have a harder road at college than most white students, but it isn't because they're unqualified--it's because discrimination and hostility don't stop at campus gates. Campus cultures have been improved by the victories of antiracist student movements over the past 50 years, but they are still alienating at best and vicious at worst for some students.

Only this past summer at UW, a fraternity hung a life-size black-clad Spiderman doll by its neck from the balcony of its house on fraternity row. If Black students find inhospitable a campus that mere months ago saw the echoes of lynching, only a racist would think that the answer is to keep them off that campus--for their own good.

Myth Number 4: Maybe affirmative action was important once, but those days are long past.

It's hard to imagine anyone making this argument seriously, but then again, Clegg--who, under student questioning, said he wasn't sure whether Black students on average attend less well-funded schools than white kids--didn't seem to be joking. Here are just a few relevant facts:

The median Black family has just 5 percent of the wealth of the median white family (with Hispanics much closer to Blacks than whites)--this is one of the most important ways that advantages and disadvantages are passed down over generations.

Another is segregated schools. A majority of Black students in Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York attend schools that are over 90 percent Black and Latino, and most white students attend schools that are overwhelmingly white. Here in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee school district, with 77 percent Black and Hispanic students, spends $3,081 less per student than the nearby Maple Dale-Indian Hill district, where 80 percent of students are white. The average Black or Latino K-12 student in the country attends a school in which most students are poor.

Meanwhile, one of the most-ballyhooed areas of progress--the narrowing gap in high school graduation rates between Black and white students--has been shown by sociologists Stephanie Ewert and Becky Pettitt to be a statistical lie: once you include prisoners, the progress disappears. The biggest change is that now the Black students who don't graduate high school are locked up.

Myth Number 5: Affirmative action policies in colleges distract attention from disparities earlier in the pipeline.

This one--which Clegg also threw out at the debate in Madison--is just bizarre. Have you ever heard any proponent of affirmative action say, "Well, I would support equal access to quality K-12 schools, but I'm too busy defending affirmative action at colleges?"

Affirmative action at every level helps future generations at every level. Many students of all races are being taught by teachers who may have benefited from affirmative action programs--and who had their sense of education's power and importance shaped by the struggle for affirmative action and civil rights at their colleges.

On the other hand, we might ask those making this argument about their commitment to reforming "the pipeline." I was next in line to question Clegg when the debate unceremoniously ended, with a long line of students still waiting to speak. My question was simple: Since he and his organization apparently want schooling to be colorblind, what have they done to combat residential segregation, by far the biggest contributor to different schooling for different races?

Myth Number 6: Eliminating affirmative action would be fairer to Asian students.

This might be the CEO's most important left cover for their position--the idea that UW-Madison is discriminating not only against white students, but Asian students as well.

As Chinese-American student government leader and Student Labor Action Coalition member Beth Huang pointed out at a pro-affirmative action rally on campus here in Madison, this argument lumps together very diverse populations into the category "Asian." In particular, Wisconsin has a large Hmong population--settled in the Midwest as refugees after the CIA had recruited them into its "Secret War" in Laos--who are largely segregated and impoverished, and should be beneficiaries of affirmative action.

However, it's also true that some "holistic admissions policies" used at universities--such as privileging certain kinds of extracurricular experiences--can function to limit the number of Chinese and Chinese-American students on campus. The main beneficiaries are not other students of color, who remain underrepresented on campuses, but wealthy white students.

Proponents of affirmative action should fight efforts to divide populations that historically have faced discrimination in the United States.

Myth Number 7: White students are only harmed by affirmative action policies.

As it happens, the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action programs in general--by far--have been white women. But this article is about race-based affirmative action, and my case is that these race-based programs are essential for white students--for the sake of their own education.

As we waited in line to question Clegg last week, the student in front of me told me that she had multiple white students in her classes tell her they'd never met a Black person before. Can it really be in these students' interest to have African American students kept out of college, so the country's Black population remains an abstraction to them?

As left-wing education expert Jonathan Kozol points out, research shows that "the strongest opposition to integrated schooling among white people is among those who have never experienced it." Kozol cites studies showing that "60 percent of young people of all races feel not only that they will receive a better education in an integrated setting, but that the federal government should make sure that it happens."

Myth Number 8: Anything that smacks of "quotas" is rigid and suspect.

Quotas became a dirty word in the 1990s, when Democratic President Bill Clinton led the effort to get rid of them--in the name of "mending, not ending" affirmative action. A series of Supreme Court decisions then sharply limited the ways that colleges are allowed to use race in admissions.

But what a quota really means is that there is accountability to stated diversity goals. Here at UW-Madison, the university's 10-year diversity initiative, Plan 2008, fell far short of its goals--which the college's Academic Planning Analysis division attributed to a lack of increased financial aid. Today, the university is less than 4 percent Hispanic, less than 3 percent Black, less than 2 percent Southeast Asian and less than 1 percent Native American. And a third of these students never graduate.

In the same 10 years, the university recruited faculty of color, but failed to increase its rates of granting tenure to them. Faculty of color often face a dilemma in which they are expected to mentor many students of color and serve on every diversity committee, but are not really rewarded for this work in the tenure system.

A system that enforced more accountability to its stated diversity aims would force departments and the university administration to address this kind of discrepancy. Without this accountability, it is far too easy to never question the basic operating and funding structures of the university, while bemoaning the lack of progress on diversity.

Myth Number 9: If we had class-based affirmative action, we wouldn't need race-based affirmative action.

Racial and economic disadvantages in education are deeply intertwined, but that doesn't mean the racial disadvantages can be reduced to class.

Because of residential segregation, even when a Black and a white family have the same household income, it's very likely that the Black family's children go to far worse schools. The "war on drugs" has led to an all-out assault on Black communities in particular. And in the current era--to quote sociologist Matt Desmond, commenting on his study of evictions in Milwaukee--"eviction is for Black women what incarceration is for Black men." It should be obvious that these processes have a tremendous effect on children.

Moreover, the most important dimensions of class--wealth, not income--are the hardest to account for in college admissions, especially when it comes to ensuring racial justice.

One reason wealth is harder to measure is that many government programs are designed to make sure the poor--as opposed to the rich--don't get benefits they don't qualify for. One result is that it is generally easy to verify whether someone is officially living in poverty, but not always whether another family has been living paycheck to paycheck, while still another with the same income has valuable assets.

Myth Number 10: We have to choose between class-based and race-based affirmative action.

Have you ever noticed that the only time Republicans seem to care about how poor kids will get to college is when they can use this concern as their battering ram against racial justice?

There is every reason to support affirmative action based on both race and class. And although I began by setting aside the way education is being made a scarce commodity, there's every reason to fight that, too.

Beneath the attack on affirmative action is the idea that not everyone is entitled to a good education. But the money is there for quality, integrated schools--in the military budget; in the bailouts going to the banks; in the taxes never paid by corporations and the extremely wealthy. Any social organization that requires children to spend their childhoods competing to see whether they'll be among the lucky few to attend the right schools isn't rational.

So at the same time that we fight for justice in college admissions--and justice means affirmative action--we should fight for more educational opportunity for all students. The rallying chant of this defense of education should be: "Black, Latino, Arab, Asian and white, rich or poor--education is a right!"

Or maybe it will be the cry that we came back to last week, over and over again: "Power to the people!"

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Securing Wisconsin's Future

When my son was a baby, we used to visit storytime at the public library together. He loved it, crawling around the floor, mouthing the toys, nibbling on books. And I enjoyed it as well, particularly because of the social time I spent with other moms.

While this was a period in which I was on unpaid maternity leave from UW-Madison, and thus not actively teaching, when moms asked what I “did” I’d hesitantly reveal I was a professor. I got a lot of “oh wows” and “what’s that like?” and then after they learned about my field of expertise (higher education) I’d field many questions about how they were supposed to ever manage to get their kids into college. Their babies weren’t even yet one year old, but I was happy to answer. At the same time, I often felt an odd kind of guilt-—I was acutely aware that this wasn’t something I really had to worry about. My son was college-bound from the time he was conceived. Some of those other kids and their moms were going to have to really work at it.

Maternal education is one of the strongest predictors of children’s outcomes. If your mom finished a bachelor’s degree rather than only a high school diploma you are more than twice as likely to earn one yourself. This is partly but not entirely because moms with college degrees are much more likely to have good jobs and enjoy full employment, and thus are more able to afford college. But there are other reasons as well. College-educated parents (and this includes dads, who are incredibly important but less-often the primary caregiver) engage with their differently from the beginning. They obtain higher-quality prenatal care, are more likely able to spend time with their newborns given their more flexible and higher-paid employment, and they are fortunate enough to have the time to invest much more of their energy in endowing their kids with large vocabularies and enrichment activities that result in measurable advantages in test scores, even as early as kindergarten.

Most if not all children have kind and loving parents who take care of them, keep them safe, play with them, etc. But the kinds of things highly educated parents can buy and do with their children seem to provide a boost that’s very hard to match. (Schools, so far, don't seem up to the herculean task.)

Since colleges and universities have raised tuition far more often than governments have increased financial aid, a college education remains a difficult, expensive thing to procure in this country. Attendance is increasingly predicated on the level of education and wealth in your family—yes, that relationship is stronger now than ever. In this country, in statistical terms, people from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds have less of everything required for college—less wealth with which to buy homes near the best schools or purchase for test prep and tuition, less educational background to utilize when sifting through potential colleges, completing applications, and filling out FAFSAs, less job security on which to rely when it comes to taking time off for college visits. The list goes on. Those facts alone mean that the chances of obtaining a bachelor’s degree are far, far less for Black, Latino, Native, and Southeast Asian children than for other children, especially if their parents don’t have college degrees—and very often, they don’t. The chance that a black student will attend college increases from 46% if his parents only attended high school to 84% if his parents graduated from college. But only 10.7% of blacks in Wisconsin hold bachelor’s degrees. Thus the cycle is long and vicious.

Many opponents of affirmative action want to ignore these facts. They want to pretend that it’s possible to compare black and white student with similar test scores, and test for “fairness” based on who is admitted. Sure, admitting a black student with a test score that is lower than that of a “comparable” white student seems unfair, but only if you insist on pretending that life begins when students file admissions applications. It is clearly eminently fair when you realize the incredible odds that most minority students had to beat in order to arrive at that same point of application, compared to the odds that most white students faced. The odds a person beat can provide important context that captures the unmeasured attributes of individuals. Admissions officers seek to admit the students most likely to benefit from and succeed in their universities. Perseverance, stamina, a family’s investment in a student’s success—all of these things are difficult to document and demonstrate in admissions files, but they enhance a student’s chances of success. Picking “winners” requires trying to include those unmeasurable factors when making decisions. Race is a proxy, and for now, the best one we’ve got.

Of course not all minority students would agree that they faced down long odds to get to the point of applying to college. Some are the children of doctors and lawyers who own their own homes and always expected their kids to get a college degree. Some blacks, like some whites, were born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple. But overwhelmingly, this is not the case. In contrast, it is far, far more common for white students to have not faced down long odds to get to the same point. This is because, as Mitchell Stevens has written, “the organizational systems that deliver students to the point of selective college entrance remain structured in ways that systematically favor white and Asian American applicants over black and Latino ones.” And that matters. Stevens reports, “as copious scholarship makes clear, black and Latino students remain considerably less likely to become candidates for admission at the nation’s most prestigious schools than their presence in the general population would have us expect.”

The goal of affirmation action is to create an opportunity for deserving kids who haven’t had the opportunities they deserve. If we refused to use a proxy like race for “deserving but often denied opportunities” we would have to collect extensive personal information that nearly everyone would object to providing. Applications would quadruple in length, and admit rates would drop because there would be even more incomplete applications. If we instead decided not to bother using either a proxy or such intense data collection to facilitate the provision of such opportunities, the average value of the college degree would likely decline, a larger fraction of Wisconsin's population would remain mired in poverty, and there would be no hope of ever not needing programs like affirmative action.

So yes, it is tempting to think that starting college is the beginning point of life—-the point at which all can be fairly determined by a single test score. But college applicants are not born; they are raised. As Stevens says they are “delivered to the point of application by social systems that send children from different groups to this particular destination at different rates.” Pretending that the road to college is race-neutral is to close one’s eyes to the realities of daily existence in the United States. Acknowledging the role that race plays in structuring opportunity, and attempting to reduce the influence of race on those opportunities is not racism—and no, it is not reverse discrimination. Racism is assuming and acting like the color of one’s skin is inherently inferior, rather than acknowledge the problem lies in the way society treats the color of one’s skin. Those who seek to level the playing field do so by explicitly acknowledging that the trouble isn’t that someone is brown, it’s that brown people are treated terribly in this country. It’s far harder to admit that and seek to do something about it, than to deny reality and cry racism.

Those seeking to end affirmative action at UW-Madison need to remember these facts. There is an enormous payoff to a state’s investment in educating its minority students at its finest schools. Research demonstrates that admitting black students to more selective schools improves their chances of finishing college—not the opposite—and furthermore, these students generate bigger individual and social returns from their college degrees than do students whose college attendance is far more expected and much easier to obtain.

Furthermore, supporting affirmative action does not equate with supporting the denial of opportunities for white students. Far from it. This is a case where the benefits for minorities are large, and the costs for individual white students are very, very small. College opportunities abound for majority students, who attend college at very high rates and appear to succeed in completing degrees almost no matter where they attend. Denial from one college nearly always results in admission at another. Data from Wisconsin show that not attending one’s top choice college and instead attending another appears to have little to no impact on whether a student enjoys in and excels at college. In contrast, the great threat to ending affirmative action is that minority students will attain far fewer college degrees. And that would undoubtedly threaten the economic security of our state. None of our families can afford that risk.

Friday, September 16, 2011

New Course Offering: Spring 2012

In response to recent student demand, I have decided to offer my higher education policy course this spring. Here's some info.

EPS 518: Introduction to Debates in Higher Education Policy
Spring 2012
Tuesdays, 225-5:25 pm

Open to Undergraduates and Graduate Students

In this course students will learn to think critically about debates in contemporary higher education policy. Our discussions will explore the tensions between key policy goals including diversity, quality, and efficiency, and the results (including unintended consequences) of those tensions. We’ll also examine the research brought to bear on policy debates, and how it is used-- or not-- to shape policy agendas.

This semester we will focus on three big debates dominating contemporary higher education policy:

(1) Who should attend higher education?
(2) Who should pay for higher education?
(3) How can federal, state, and institutional policies most effectively support students who wish to attend college and earn degrees?

We will discuss many contemporary issues, including the debates over tuition and financial aid, as well as affirmative action.


UW-Madison Deans Take the Lead

In the last 24 hours we heard from at least two UW Madison deans, weighing in on the COE debacle. I share their words with you here.

Thursday, 8:59 pm.
CALS students,

I am writing to you in my role as interim dean of CALS to respond to attacks on members of our community by Mr. Roger Clegg of the Center for Educational Opportunity. The center released a report that charges that UW-Madison discriminates against applicants on the basis of race. This conclusion is misleading and unfounded. UW-Madison uses a system based on a holistic, selective, competitive process that includes many factors to determine who is admitted. Most importantly, UW-Madison only admits students who have demonstrated the ability to succeed at Madison. On Tuesday evening, along with over 800 other members of our community, I had the opportunity to witness a debate between Mr. Clegg and Professor Church of our law school. I was deeply offended that Mr. Clegg chose to make his argument with comments that were demeaning and derogatory to members of our student body. Every one of you who has been admitted to UW-Madison has worked hard to get here and you all deserve to be here.

As scholars, I urge you to be on guard for the misuse of statistics for political gain. As Badgers I know you will continue to respect and support all the members of our community.

On Wisconsin!

William F. Tracy
Interim Dean and Director, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Friday Chair of Vegetable Research
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Friday, 11:32 am

Dear Colleagues,

The School of Education is proud of its long commitment to a diverse faculty, staff, and student body. Moreover, School faculty and staff have been major contributors to the scholarship on issues of educational access and equality. Our research and experience confirm that a diverse academic community enhances teaching and learning, enriches research, promotes vibrant intellectual discourse, and serves the professions and communities for which we prepare our students.

We affirm our conviction that all School of Education students represent the best of our campus—smart, committed, and active individuals who make a difference now and, as alumni, will shape our future. Our students compete vigorously for admission both to the campus and to our professional programs. Our School’s minimum academic requirements are among the highest on campus. For these reasons we reject the recent claims by the Center for Equal Opportunity regarding the quality of our undergraduates.

I call on the School to support and encourage every student; to take this opportunity to engage in critical discussion and analysis about access and equity in education; and to redouble our efforts to create a School that reflects the diversity of our nation and the world.

Julie Underwood, Dean
UW-Madison School of Education

How to Lie with Statistics

Interpret statistical results in misleading ways.

Change the denominator. Pretend students didn't apply who actually did.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Let's Get Our Facts Straight

There is an outrageous article by Chris Rickert in today's WSJ (shocking, I know) claiming that I am promoting (he says "publicly touting") the decrease in admissions rates for targeted minority students. Since this would literally stun anyone who knew me, let's get the facts straight.

I was asked what I thought about the statistics presented by the CEO. What I said was that they don't line up with UW-Madison statistics. If anything, they dramatically overstate the admissions rates of black students, which have been declining over time while the admissions rates of white students are rising (in recent years). This is something we at Madison are concerned about and are actively discussing. Which is why I knew CEO was out of line.

Saying two data sources don't accord is NOT AT ALL the same as saying "hey, look at us, we are proudly turning away more black students." Why in the world would I say that???? Yea that's right--I wouldn't.

I guess we know who stands with the CEO, an organization that hears what it wants to hear. He goes so far as to claim that affirmative action punishes white people. For shame. As one friend put it, this Rickert "simply writes to incite." The sad, sad, state of journalism....

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In Case You Doubted What This CEO Business is Really About...

This should remove all doubt from your mind. Here who is promoting CEO's attack on UW-Madison

(1) White Reference--a website "designed for the dissemination of news of interest to the White Nationalist community as well as others interested in such information. This includes reports of crime and oppression against White people worldwide, as well as accounts of White resistance."

(2) American Renaissance, a group advocating for a "race realism" approach, and "racial-realist" thought.

(3) TMB, who writes that "minorities going crazy in Wisconsin."

(4) The American Civil Rights Institute, "a nationally recognized civil rights organization created to educate the public about racial and gender preferences." The blog is maintained by La Shawn Barber and created by Ward Connerly. Barber is known for her writings such as "Black Pride, White Paternalism."

The list goes on.. and this has been in the works for a long time. Here is Clegg attacking us back in 2007.

Boycott the Madison Doubletree Hotel

Yesterday's student activism in response to the Center for Equal Opportunity's "study" on affirmative action practices at UW-Madison was awe-inspiring. Students were articulate, passionate, and poised. They made their voices heard in powerful ways. They brought me to tears.

On the other hand, some observers of their actions were downright racist. Most notable among them was the Doubletree Hotel, site of the morning's press conference. By evening, Madison newspapers were reporting that a Doubletree press release called the students a "mob." Yes, a group of UW-Madison students, mostly students of color, was labeled by hotel management with a word meaning "disorderly and intent on causing trouble or violence."

Nothing could be further from the truth. I was standing in the hotel lobby when the action began. The students were organized-not disorderly--and most definitely not intent on causing trouble or violence. They came to speak with Roger Clegg, who organized a public press conference, and let him hear the faces and voices students whom he claimed were admitted to Madison without proper qualifications.

There was no "mob" at the Doubletree Hotel yesterday. This local hotel, so often patronized by those associated with UW-Madison, should be ashamed of its employees who used such slander in describing Madison students. They witnessed vocal, spirited students of color and were afraid. That is appalling.

UW-Madison can choose to whom it gives University business. Until this issue is resolved to the satisfaction of the campus community, in my opinion it should boycott the Doubletree.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

This is What Hypocrisy Looks Like

The Center for Equal Opportunity and its president and general counsel, Roger Clegg, claim to advance educational opportunity by punishing colleges and universities for attempting to level a highly unequal playing field.

The CEO's name is laughable. It is the exact opposite of what the organization does. The misnomer is a deliberate deception. It is a lie so blatant that it would be considered a joke in very poor taste were it not so outrageously fallacious.

The record of CEO's lawsuits has never been in support of equality--it has always been to preserve and protect educational opportunity for those most fortunate social classes and racial/ethnic groups. There is no no record of this organization filing a lawsuit on behalf of newly emerging and underrepresented populations in higher education--it always and only files lawsuits on behalf of the already-advantaged.

One of the biggest problems with this breed of advocacy is that it is never, ever accompanied with support for government programs that address the inequities the CEO sues to deny. That is what makes the organization hypocritical, and reveals a naked agenda to preserve privilege for those who inherit it. That is not to say those born into fortunate circumstances do not work hard for what they achieve. But they are certainly blessed by luck and circumstances at birth that others do not receive at birth. That is why government programs exist--to assist those who need it. CEO does not accept this. The organization is not only dead wrong, it is unashamedly racist.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Challenge UW-Madison Faces

There is something terribly disingenuous about talking about educational practices without first describing the context in which they operate.

UW-Madison, the Center for Equal Opportunity "reveals," seeks to enroll students from many different backgrounds. It employs preferences of all kinds to do so--favoring talented musicians, athletes, people from Wyoming, and yes, people who weren't born White.

Is this unjust? That's the question you have to ask, since it certainly isn't illegal.

When weighing your response, consider this:

(1) The Wisconsin population is comprised of about 14% non-white minorities-- that's about 744,000 of the 5.4 million people.
(2) Among the population who ever graduated from high school (not necessarily on time) the proportion is about the same.
(3) Among high school graduates who were in the top half of their class and took the ACT, just about 8% are minorities. That's about 2,700 people-- the total number of minority students in Wisconsin that UW-Madison can recruit directly from public high schools.
(4) According to the CEO (and that is a HUGE caveat-- their data do not match UW's, posted on the apa.wisc.edu website), in 2007, 19,345 students applied to Madison. Just 1103 were Black or Hispanic. That includes plenty from out-of-state, from private schools, etc. We admitted 71% of the Black students and 90% of the Hispanic students. In total, that gave us just 892 students meeting those criteria.

The higher rate of admissions among Black and Hispanic students might seem unfair if you simply compared it to the rate for White students (62%) but consider the context. Look at what these students have to survive in order to get admitted-- they are the cream of their crops, regardless of their test scores. In fact, their ability to survive and thrive a sorting process that is clearly setting them up to fail at every stage is hard-core evidence of their ability to succeed at UW-Madison. It's a far better proxy than an ACT score.

Moreover, the moment they actually apply to college they are fiercely fought over by colleges and universities nationwide. Diversity is a marker of "success" now, and wooing talented non-white student is big business. If you like diversity for no other reason, you should be excited about it because it improves our U.S. News rankings. (not that I value those at all, nor should you.)

Ask your professors: Would you rather teach the student who always knew he'd go to college, always did well on tests, and doesn't have to study much to pass your class? Or would you rather teach the student who lived with lifelong uncertainty, whose mom and pop never set foot on a college campus, who always felt isolated in school, and yet still graduated from high school, having taken good coursework and finishing well, did take the ACT and simply didn't get as high test scores? That guy is working his butt off to succeed every day. And boy, if you ask me-- I want both of those students in my classroom, together, every day, to learn from each other. No, I don't think that only minority students fall in the latter category. Plenty of white students do too, and class-based affirmative action coupled with race-based affirmative action would undoubtedly make for a stronger UW-Madison, one that confers even greater benefits on all of its graduates, helping them produce rich social networks that will lead them to good jobs and happy lives.

How will we make all that happen if test scores and a false sense of "fairness" determine who we let in? The answer is clear: we won't.

Dissecting the So-Called "Research" Report: Preliminary Thoughts

Here's some stuff you gotta know.

In Wisconsin 2.5% of Blacks are in prison. That rate is 8 times higher than it is for Whites.

Just 65% of Blacks earn a high school diploma on time in Wisconsin, compared to 95% of Whites.

But for some reason, it outrages the Center for Equal Opportunity that in 2007-2008, Blacks made up 2.6% of the student body admitted to UW-Madison-- while 85.5% of those incoming classes were white.


It is common to use distort facts with percentages. So if the 72% admissions rate for Blacks at UW-Madison compared to 59% admissions rate for Whites really upsets you, consider this. The applicant pools in those years included 33,337 White students, just 923 Black students and just 1,212 Hispanics. The admissions pool included 20,249 White students, and just 1,723 Blacks and Hispanics put together. Seriously, who is at a disadvantage in this race to the top?

Have you EVER walked around UW-Madison's campus and thought "Something must be wrong. There's just wayyy too many Brown people are here." Yeah, that's what I thought.

Knowledge is Power: Get the Facts on So-Called "Reverse Discrimination"

During the coming days, the UW-Madison community is going to get an earful about the Center for Equal Opportunity's commitment to "disadvantaged minorities." In an effort to ensure they get full access to the American Dream, these "thinkers" want to ensure they compete on a "level playing field," gaining admission to higher education "like everyone else." After all, we wouldn't want to put those poor folk at a further disadvantage by putting them in over their heads, surrounded by students with higher test scores we can assume they will sink.

You will hear this from white folks, mostly. But you will hear it from some brown folks too. Perhaps unexpectedly, even those in leadership positions on our own campus. Positions like these--heck all political positions--can be adopted by anyone. They just have to "believe."

Right now you need to get the facts. Researchers and legal scholars have been tackling these hot policy questions for a long time now, and here's what we know.

(1) Access to the American Dream requires access to at least some postsecondary education. If we keep people from college by providing them with inadequate academic preparation, sticking them in poor neighborhoods where violence predominates, we are not giving them a fair shot. That's not a meritocracy.

(2) Students who graduate from high school are on a highly uneven playing field when it comes to college admissions. Those born with moms and dads who attended college themselves, especially elite universities, have more financial, social, and cultural capital that makes college both expected and extremely likely. They also have higher test scores, in no small part because of the well-resourced environment in which they were raised. Other graduates have major barriers to overcome. Their high schools didn't offer AP classes, their teachers moved on every year, they suffered from inadequate nutrition and poor health care, and so much more. Or, maybe they had a pretty darned good life--except for the constant structural barriers constraining their family's ability to accumulate wealth and therefore move them to a great neighborhood and pay for private school. The playing field is rife with potholes.

(3) There is no one way to gain admission to college. People take all sorts of routes in--legacies, athletics, musical talents, etc. Universities exercise preferences based on where students grew up, what high school they attended, how many times they visit campus when looking, how much mom and dad plan to donate, etc.

(4) Once admitted, test scores play very little role in determining your chances of success. Being surrounded by an elite environment and peers with higher test scores does next to nothing--if anything at all-- to harm your chances of graduating. What can hurt you is when the university under-invests in your financial aid, has a climate that devalues folks like you, and doesn't focus its efforts for all students on degree completion. Oh, and when the state systematically disinvests in your education. Yeah, that's bad.

These are the facts. I will annotate this with references as soon as I'm able. Believe me, as a professor of sociology and higher education policy and chair of the university committee on this topic, we've got our facts straight. All the CEO has is myths and fear-mongering. Knock it down.

References for #4:
Methods matter a lot in these studies--those that fail to distinguish student characteristics from admissions practices in assessing effects produce highly biased results. The relevant studies are about the effects of mismatching students & colleges based on test scores- since the claim is that affirmative action promotes mismatch, these test for whether mismatch has negative effects

Jesse Rothstein, 2006, no evidence of mismatch effects in law school

Alon & Tienda (2005)
. No support for the mismatch hypothesis using national data

Grove & Hussey (2011). Little evidence supporting mismatch hypothesis using data on MBA programs

Ho (2005). Yale Law Review paper find no evidence affirmative action hurts law students.

*** A Must Read

Peter Hinrichs of Georgetown. "Affirmative action bans lead to fewer underrepresented minorities becoming graduates of selective colleges."

Right Wing Think Tank Targets UW-Madison

Tomorrow the so-called Center for Equal Opportunity, a right-wing think tank headed by Linda Chavez and based in Sterling, Virginia will begin an assault on UW-Madison. The Center charges that the university seeks to advance racial equality by exercising preferences in admissions practices.

As you consider the "case" the Center will lay out-- the "study" will be released tomorrow and then we will all see the "facts"-- please note the following:

This "CEO" (I refuse to call them the CEO in all seriousness..) has a long and sordid track record. UW-Madison is one in a long line-- a line at least 60 colleges and universities long-- targeted by this group. It supports what it describes as "colorblind public policies," including the elimination or curtailment of existing racial preference and affirmative action programs, the replacement of bilingual and ESL programs with English immersion, and the adoption of policies that both welcome increased immigration while calling for the assimilation of new immigrants to the United States.

The facts are not in CEO's favor. Forget the evidence on whether preferences are being exercised--they are beside the point. At issue is how we help all students succeed. Despite claims that helping students with more modest test scores gain access to elite institutions puts them at a disadvantage--the so-called mismatch hypothesis--numerous rigorous empirical studies find exactly the opposite. I will cover them on this blog soon.

Moreover, despite claims of being post-racial, this think tank is advancing an agenda that is decidedly racial. Pushing for assimilation of new immigrants? Seriously, what century are you from?

UW Madison is replete with scholars of education and inequality who can shed light on these important concerns. I hope the community, and the media, will go searching for real, hard facts, rather than listening to ideologues.

I will write more about this soon.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reform UW System, But Don't Render it Toothless

A busy first week of classes caused me to miss last week's UW System Board of Regents meeting, an event now known for its dramatic highlights and active Twitter feed. I was especially disappointed to miss it because it was the initial unveiling of the work UW System has done over the summer to re-orient itself given the recent legislative changes granting its member institutions more fiscal autonomy.

The main thrust of the documents shared at the meeting appears to be a desire to accomodate the wishes of (some of?) the UW chancellors for more decision-making authority and less oversight from the System office. There will be a downsizing of that office, and a corresponding restructuring.

I have heard a few folks suggesting that these moves look like the New Badger Partnership policy advanced by former chancellor Biddy Martin last spring. Reportedly, they think that those of us who felt the NBP was ill-advised, given its obvious leaning towards privatization, should also be upset about the System changes. Both of these arguments seem to hold little water. First and foremost because the System changes are the result of a transparent process during which time many discussions with relevant partners were held. That in no way resembles what transpired with the NBP. With regard to the System changes there is no evidence that any individuals seek to gain personally or politically from these reforms, or that they make any institution within System more vulnerable to the influence of private interests. These appear to be modifications to bureaucratic processes, rather than large-scale changes to governance structures. There is nothing here resembling the Board of Trustees proposed by Martin and her team, which would have installed a Governor Walker-dominated set of leaders overseeing UW-Madison instantaneously.

That doesn't mean, however, that I am free of concern. On the contrary, I worry that the moves at System belie an approach of appeasing institutional leaders whose natural tendencies are to have as much control as possible over their own campuses. The preservation of statewide interests in Wisconsin public higher education requires close coordination of the work on each campus, and that kind of work isn't fun. It isn't the kind of thing people volunteer to do. And so it must be led by a System whose employees are experienced and paid to do it.

I am also especially concerned with System President Kevin Reilly's statements about the future of national initiatives in System's work. While we can all point to national initiatives that have failed, there are also those that have succeeded--in getting institutional leaders to consider what their data have to say about their policies, at convening faculty and staff from across campuses and states to learn across new practices that could help Wisconsin, etc. Two of the most important aspects provided by national initiatives are vision and cover. Making common cause with colleges and universities across the state and country renews our sense of energy and purpose. And that common work can make it possible to collectively undertake efforts that individually are politically hard to do. It can be difficult, for example, for a chancellor to convince his campus they must talk about racial gaps in their college completion rates--it is often easier if instead campus leaders are invited to become part of a larger group engaged together in these conversations. Decades of organizational research indicates that the best ideas don't come from conversations occurring in silos but rather than those where we can learn from those who've tried and succeeded, and those who've tried and failed. So I hope that Reilly will continue to make System's participation in these national initiatives a priority, and keep the talented teams in place who currently lead them.

Those of us working diligently to preserve Wisconsin public higher education need to support System's right to influence the work of its campuses. Van Hise should not be diminished into a central party-planning office, or one whose workers can do little more than rubber-stamp the offerings of campus leaders. Certainly there should be more give-and-take with talented local leaders like UW Colleges Ray Cross, and Reilly should embark on a statewide tour to interact with faculty, staff, and students at all colleges and universities so as to get in touch with their needs. They all need to get a better sense of him and System writ large, lest during the next go-around they continue to believe the fallacious tales they are told. The position of System president must remain one of power and influence. A significantly weakened System makes all of Wisconsin public higher education vulnerable to further loss of legislative support. That's the last thing Wisconsin's economy and its working families need.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Are you Ready for Some "Football"?

If there's one thing Wisconsin seems to agree on, it's the Badgers. Even if you never attended or even cared to attend UW-Madison, you're most likely a fan. Why? Honestly, I won't pretend to know--college football's never been my thing. But I do think it's cool that people throughout the state seem to feel they have a little bit of Madison they're connected to. Football-- Bucky-- makes that happen. As my late colleague and friend Doug Toma wrote in Football U, "football humanizes seemingly impersonal large universities for external audiences."

But a few recent incidents regarding UW football seem to have affected UW Madison's activities and image in ways that deserve some scrutiny.

First, last Thursday afternoon (on the eve of the first day of classes), Madison faculty and staff were urged to abandon their offices early and clear out of campus so that the crowds could take over for the season opener against UNLV. Many campus administrative offices shut down at 1 pm. People who paid sizable fees for annual parking (e.g. $1000 per year) were told they needed to leave so their spots could be sold to others for the night. Basically, we threw all real business (class prep?) aside for a beer and circus show. For more, check out this spot-on post over at Sifting and Winnowing.

The message was clear: Football comes first. Get out of the way.

Second, 6 weeks after her much-discussed departure from campus, we've come to learn that Biddy Martin has left some goodbye presents. One is the apparent revelation that she unilaterally decided that UW-Madison would vote against AAU membership for Nebraska. Reports the Lincoln newspaper: "After endorsing the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's entrance into the Big Ten Conference -- in part because of its academic strength -- leaders at the universities of Wisconsin and Michigan apparently helped oust UNL from an elite academic group."

UW Madison is famous for its shared governance of all issues, big and small. According to actions and rhetoric around campus (including last Thursday's events) football is a BIG darn deal. So why does it seem that Biddy went it alone on making such an important decision?

Honestly, I don't know. But I'd really like to hear some campus discussion of it. I'm concerned that it serves to perpetuate our elitist image, an appearance Biddy did much to reinforce. Football may have been yet another tool in her arsenal of weapons intended to barricade Madison from the public--using it in this way manages to undo its powerful ability to bring Madison to the people. I'm especially concerned that efforts by journalists to understand what's happened here have been rebuffed-- the Journal Star says that its open records requests were declined by UW. And most of all, I hope that those of us who benefit from shared governance act now to find out why we--the faculty, staff, and students--were bypassed on this one. Who knew what, and when? This institution isn't supposed to act on issues that seemingly matter most of all ... like FOOTBALL... without us.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Things That Make Me Go Hmm....(Part 1)

Sincerest apologies for the silence on our blog. The summer has wound down, school is starting, federal grant deadlines are approaching--and most importantly, our son just started 4-year-old kindergarten! All in all, it's a very busy time of year. So with that, I'm beginning a new series, intended to highlight and raise a few questions about news that intrigues me. Perhaps Liam will pick up on this too, and we'll make a series of it.

(1) Why am I so cranky/ out of shape/ exhausted / or otherwise morose? Sometimes I wonder. And the day I read the New York Times Magazine's brilliant piece on the perils of too-much decision-making I felt a tad bit better--and then a whole lot worse. Because it seems that people who are asked all day long to pick or choose, often on high-stakes tasks, tend to put decisions about themselves last. So when the question is: what will I eat tonight? the answer is often "who cares? just feed me." Where's the solution, New York Times? I really don't see one.

(2) As I send our kid off to the phenomenal Madison Waldorf School each day, I feel a pending twinge of hypocrisy. What will we do next year, when there are public school options? Will we continue to invest in private school, even though we--the Education Optimists--are deep believers in public education? Then I read an article like today's New York Times cover story on the uninhibited spending on technology in classrooms that is eating up money we could otherwise spend supporting teachers-- and without a shred of evidence to support it. I hear tales that here in Stoughton, Wisconsin my kid's kindergarten will have a Smartboard and plenty of laptops, for his focused "reading time"...and I want to run screaming in the other direction. The last thing I want to raise is a glazed-eye kid who stares at screens all day (like I do), who develops back and posture problems from the classic "slump" and who would rather listen to someone say something cool than say it himself. I suppose this makes me a Luddite. My iPhone, iPad, and Mac might say otherwise. But what I want most is for schools to invest in what we know pays off-- and that's child-human contact. Give my kid teachers who feel appreciated and well-supported, please. Forget the laptops.

(3) On a somewhat related note, that "esteemed" publication Newsweek/Daily Beast just named UW-Madison the third least rigorous university in the nation among those serving students with average test scores of 1250 or higher (SAT). While I've written about my concerns regarding the institutional focus on teaching and whether we deliver everything we're capable of, let me be the first to say: THESE RANKINGS SUCK. Look at their "methodology"--Are you kidding me? Using "College Prowler" and "rate my professor" to develop metrics? Did the writers have NOTHING better to do with their time than to craft this worthless drivel? Puhleeese.

(4) Can Scott Walker read? Survey says: No. In a recent press release, Walker claimed that the new Wisconsin-Minnesota tuition reciprocity deal, which ended some of the subsidy provided to Wisconsin students who chose to attend college out-of-state, "make college more affordable." Um...no... this kinda reminds me of someone else's recent claim that privatizing the university and jacking up tuition would make UW more affordable. Listen, I served on the legislative committee that developed this reciprocity change last summer, and the purpose was to save Wisconsin some money, and perhaps provide a little disincentive for Wisconsin students to leave the state for college. Nothing to do with affordability. My question is this--how much are you paying those staffers of yours, Governor?

That's it for today. Stay tuned for a busy year, as UW-Madison searches for a new chancellor and Wisconsin works to recall Scott Walker...and of course now that I'm tenured, I'll tell ya what I REALLY think!