Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Under Assault? Fight Back

There has been so much bad news in Wisconsin (and the nation) this week, I haven't had two seconds to catch my breath. Each time I get a moment to think about what is happening here, and how powerless we seem to be in response, something else happens and my temperature rises.

Governor Scott Walker seems determined to tear apart the foundation of middle-class life here in Wisconsin, starving the University of Wisconsin System to death. I really don't care whether or not the right to "lapses" (in judgement) was contained in his godawful budget, the fact is that we have already taken a terrible $250 million cut, and now we face another $113.8 million shortfall on top of that. The effects will undoubtedly be detrimental to Wisconsin's middle class, as workers across the state are laid off, and students who can't afford to take 5 years to earn a bachelor's degree will drop out ( declining resources often lead to larger classes and waits for key courses at less-selective universities like the various UWs).

I am hard-pressed to see how destroying Wisconsin's pride and joy is a solid approach to job creation. The fact is, this isn't an economic strategy at all. It's a political one: Walker intends to reduce UW System to a shriveled raisin and then propose that we "solve" the higher education problem in the state by open the door to more private and for-profit institutions. "Businesses", he'll say. Moreover, by keeping the population from a postsecondary education, he'll help increase the likelihood they'll vote for him. (Seriously: I have NO PROBLEM with college dropouts, and don't bother sending me an email accusing me of such. My problem is with people who dropout and recommend that others do it too!)

Each week it's something new. Walker no doubt praised the heck out of Steve Nass for tormenting UW-Madison with his silly legislative hearing on affirmative action, and he's undoubtedly chuckling over what will happen when DOA gets UW System's plan for coping with the cuts. There's another Nass hearing in early November, and who knows what else around the corner.

If you can't stand this anymore, and you have the guts to say so, now's the time to get loud. Folks are organizing and together, united, we have to take action. I wish the UW-Madison football players would simply halt in the middle of their next game and tell the national television audience just what a schmo Walker really is. SCOTT WALKER IS KILLING BUCKY! We can't afford to take small steps here.

This is the Walker some of us knew was coming. This is the Walker we said you cannot trust, when others argued we could hand it to Scottie to come up with a new governance model for UW-Madison. This is the Walker who we must recall. Now. Get on it. Get to work.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Passing the Buck

This week we witnessed Steve Nass's Wisconsin Legislature hearing on the Center for Equal Opportunity's report on UW-Madison admissions, and the Walker administration's announcement that-- SURPRISE!--the state is cutting UW System's funding by an additional $65.7 million.

A common theme runs through the discourse and beliefs underlying both events: society's problems originate with and should be borne by individuals. Not policies or practices, politics or economies-- but your average, ordinary Joe and Josephine.

According to Roger Clegg of the CEO, the United States provides every child with an equal opportunity to succeed, a high-quality k-12 system, a testing system that is grounded in multicultural competencies and is thus unbiased, and equal access to the resources required to obtain college knowledge, file applications, and secure the necessary financing. Any difficulties in getting admitted, therefore, are the problems of individuals-- and society shouldn't bother addressing them.

According to Scott Walker and his administrators, the economic challenges the state faces stem at least partly from over-spending on individuals' college educations, and thus now is the time to pass the burden of payment onto individuals. Some UW alumni even appear to agree. After learning of Walker's cut, one such alum tweeted this:

UnitedCouncilUnited Council
in reply to @UnitedCouncil

@UnitedCouncil Time for the UW students to step up and offset these cuts. Just a $250 surcharge would offset the majority of the cuts.
Oct 19 via webFavoriteRetweetReply

This same person argued during discussion of the New Badger Partnership that UW-Madison students could, should, and would pay more for their college educations-- even as our economy tanked, parents were laid off, and unemployment rose (yes, even among college grads).

So here we are, faced with substantial rigorous, empirical evidence that inequalities in opportunities of all sorts are widespread, including in education, and yet still people are making arguments that these public issues are fundamentally private troubles.

What should you do when you are passed the buck? Told that your difficulty getting access to the American dream is nothing more than your own fault? Told that you are alone in holding responsibility for the opportunities offered to you? Told you just need to try a little harder, pay a little more, struggle a little longer?

First, recognize and empathize with the folks passing off the problems. They can't analyze data without filters that exclude any potential for systematic causes. Remember the words of C. Wright Mills: "When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual."

Second, note the real underlying problem-- the massive economic inequality which makes them pathologize others, and even makes them feel good while doing it. They are the real "little people," as Mills wrote, "estranged from community and society in a context of distrust and manipulation [and] alienated from work." You can't help but worry for them.

Third, keep focused and fighting to reform systems and organizations. Their efforts to demonize and individualize every single person will take far, far longer than our concerted efforts to change the spaces and places in which people live. (See, there's the Education Optimist!)

Finally, do not get frustrated and begin to believe them. Then you are truly alone in the world, and all hope really is lost.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

What the Nass Hearing is Really About

Tomorrow's hearing on equal opportunity practices at UW-Madison is but one such action being taken by organizations and individuals around the country seeking to erode access to higher education.

Writes Adam Liptak in today's New York Times, "diversity is the last man standing, the sole remaining legal justification for racial preferences in deciding who can study at public universities." And diversity is under attack. According to Liptak, a case involving the University of Texas is likely to reach the Supreme Court sometime next year. That case will challenge the right of universities to focus any part of their admissions efforts on ensuring a racially diverse campus.

Why? Because some people, even well-educated ones, even Yale law professors whose work I regularly cite, fail to see its value. Says one, "The idea of racial and ethnic diversity altering the kind of conversation that goes on in the classroom is so overrated. Any experienced, conscientious teacher, regardless of race, could and would get on the table any of the arguments that ought to be there, including ideas normally associated with racism or other analogous experiences not personally experienced by the teacher."

Really? And how widespread is that sort of highly culturally competent teaching among today's professoriate?

Folks, Steve Nass may be an outsider in the Wisconsin Legislature, but he is far from alone in his opinions. Tomorrow's hearing has national implications. Please watch it with our students at the Memorial Union. Please discuss it with your friends. The educational opportunities of millions of children across this nation are at stake.

Tomorrow: A Day of Student Action in Madison

This was posted on WisPolitics on Friday. The students are clearly being thoughtful about what this hearing on Monday aims to accomplish, and the degree to which it is a diversion from the real issues facing students. And they are not blind to the fact that the CEO and Nass want this to turn into a three ring circus, with students portrayed as "thuggish" animals. Here's to hoping that Monday is as peaceful and productive as it can be.

United Council: Invitation to concerned members of the Madison community

Contact: David Vines, Matt Guidry (608)263-3422 ext. 12

Holistic admissions is an important issue to many of us and we experience the benefits of a diverse student body in the classroom, in the lab, and on our campus every day.

We do not understand the interest in this politically motivated, misguided report and we would like to take the opportunity to share with you the real challenges facing students of all backgrounds in higher education today.

We will not be attending Monday’s hearing. Instead, we invite students, allies, and other interested persons to join us:

October 17th at 1:00pm Room 411S of the Wisconsin State Capitol

We will hold a press conference focused on the issues the legislature has a direct impact on and what we would like to see our representatives in government focus on, including: reining in the skyrocketing cost of college, reducing debilitating student loan debt, the ability to get a decent job upon graduation, and the increased discrimination that students will soon face at the polls.

Following the press conference we will lead a march down State Street to the UW Memorial Union where those who are interested will have the opportunity to view the hearing on Wisconsin Eye in a neutral setting and participate in a debrief on issues affecting students.

Asian American Student Union (AASU)
Associated Students of Madison Diversity Committee
Hood Dispora
La Pec
Multicultural Student Coalition (MCSC)
Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA)
Queer People of Color (QPOC)
Teaching Assistants Association (TAA)
United Council of UW Students

Thursday, October 13, 2011


The chatter among the education cognescenti this week is about what is and what isn't in the bipartisan ESEA draft released by Senate education chair Tom Harkin (D-IA) and ranking member Mike Enzi (R-WY).

Let me repeat my prior contention that, politically, ESEA reauthorization is an issue for 2013 -- not 2011 or 2012. The Republican-led U.S. House is not going to give President Obama any kind of a political victory, despite the solid compromise put forth by the Senate HELP Committee. For that reason, the work currently underway is in part about laying the groundwork for a future compromise, in part a genuine attempt to get something done (despite the House), and in part political cover.

The bill itself represents a sensible step back from a pie-in-the-sky accountability goal of 100% proficiency in favor of annual state data transparency, continued data disaggregation among subgroups, and greater state flexibility over educational accountability. Personally, I am not an accountability hawk and am unswayed by spotty evidence and advocates such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush who contends that it was Florida's accountability system (rather than its major investment in literacy and other interventions) that fueled student test-score gains. Chairm`n Harkin nails it by saying that the bill "focuses on teaching and learning, not testing and sanctioning." Amen to that.

Seeing as I have a day job that doesn't allow me to analyze the entirety of 800-page bills, here is my quick take on a few elements in the draft bill:

  • Accountability: Eliminates AYP. Requires states to identify 5% lowest-performing schools and 5% of schools with the largest achievement gaps.
  • CSR: Tightens up the use of Title II, Part A for class-size reduction to ensure that those dollars are directed at research-based implementation of smaller class sizes. [UPDATE: This could potentially free up some Title II, Part A dollars for teacher professional development and new teacher support.]
  • Teacher & Principal Training & Recruiting Fund: This Fund would support state & local activities that further high-quality PD, rigorous evaluation and support systems, and improve the equitable distribution of teachers. The bill's language significantly strengthens existing federal policy language regarding the elements of comprehensive, high-quality educator induction and mentoring.
  • Equitable teacher distribution: The bill would require states to ensure that high-poverty and high-minority schools receive an equitable distribution of the most effective educators as measured by new teacher evaluation systems that must include four performance tiers. Sounds good and fair. But given that teacher working conditions significantly impact an individual educator's ability to be effective in the classroom (and garner a "highly effective" rating [see DC]), wouldn't this just create a massive game of musical chairs and major disruptions in the teaching pool unless a determined effort were mounted to improve the often poor teaching and learning conditions present in high-poverty schools?
Good Coverage & Analysis

Alyson Klein - Politics K-12 - Education Week
Joy Resmovits - Huffington Post
Stephen Sawchuk - Teacher Beat - Education Week
The Quick and the Ed (Education Sector)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Speak Your Mind

The publication of a set of papers critiquing a widely-utilized national survey of college students, and the subsequent cancellation of an academic conference session aimed at discussing those papers, has caused quite a stir in the higher education research community.

Many of the details can be found in newspaper coverage here and here, so these are just the highlights:

There's a famous survey known as the NSSE (pronounced Nessie) the National Survey of Student Engagement. It is used by many colleges and universities to assess how their students experience college. The resulting data are also used by researchers who study topics such as how engagement relates to institutional resources, college graduation rates, etc. There aren't many such sources of data on the college experience, so the NSSE is a big fish in a tiny pond. For example, as states turn their attention to developing accountability metrics, some are considering NSSE metrics for that purpose.

The stature of NSSE has drawn the attention of researchers, in particular to how well NSSE does in terms of actually measuring student engagement. There are many potential flaws, most common to all data collection instruments, relating to the sort of things researchers enjoy obsessing over, stuff like sampling, question wording, constructs, etc. This is the nitty-gritty of our work as it comprises the methodology we used to answer our research questions. You know the old expression "crap in, crap out?" Well, it's why we care so much about these things and want to spend time thinking about them.

It seems that a lot of researchers care about the NSSE and its methods--so many that the Association for Higher Education's journal, Review of Higher Education, received a load of papers all about the NSSE, and decided to put them all together in a single special issue, published this fall. And that's where the trouble began. In one sense, it's understandable that a collected set of critiques can feel like an attack. The folks at NSSE were given a chance to respond in the next issue of the journal. Maybe it should have been in the same issue as the critiques, maybe not-- it happens both ways in social science and education journals. In this case, they are responding in the next issue. And researchers who authored the articles sought and were granted a presidential session at the upcoming ASHE conference to share their studies with others. This was an opportunity for open and frank discussion and debate, the kind of thing most academics thrive on.

Sadly, that conference session was canceled.

Last week, President Linda Serra Hagedorn emailed her members, saying it was up to her to schedule the session, and up to her to cancel it. She defended her choice with two rationales: (1) She's heard concerns with the content of the journal issue -- in particular she said that one of the authors may have violated the association's code of ethics, and (2) She felt that the journal issue had become too controversial. So she changed her mind, and decided the session about the set of journal articles would not be held. "It's my academic freedom to go in a different route," she said. "I don't understand what the hullabaloo is all about."

That was a mistake.

First, there has been no determination that the articles' authors violated ASHE policy—and the policy itself may violate academic freedom and need to be revised. We need more discussion and debate not less. If the tone of the issue or a particular critique was offensive, a session at the meetings might help to serve as a corrective.

Second, Hagedorn's decision to schedule the presidential session was hers to make. It does not matter if the papers were already published, if the conference program committee had rejected the session, or if all paper presenters planned to dress in purple-- no matter what this session was to look like, it was Hagedorn's to invite and plan. She did it-- and this constitutes a verbal contract, a promise to those scholars. She opened the door for them to share their ideas, and then she shut it, saying "too loud!"

Third, the assessment that a topic is too controversial is one that inherently limits academic discussion. Hagedorn's was a pre-emptive action that violates the rights of others— especially those brave enough to offer strong critique. She has limited their dissemination opportunities and academic discourse by backing out. It may be her right to decide, but the fact is that many people decide things that violate the rights of others.

I was a member of ASHE for most of the last 10 years, publishing in RHE and serving on the conference program committee, but this spring after I got tenure, I let my membership expire. The reason was simple: I usually find the discussions in the journal and the conferences dull, especially in comparison to the fierce and insightful debates I encounter at other meetings. There is a preponderance of group-think in the organization, which seems inclined to teach its members to be "team players" that do not contradict each another. This is not the way to make progress in a field desperately in need of new insights.

It is ironic that the first issue of RHE that I missed was this one on NSSE: it's the best one I've seen. And that now-canceled conference session would have been worth attending, no doubt. But it's not happening, and that's a darn shame. Critique is enriching and healthy-- it isn’t something to be avoided or frightened of.

I firmly disagree with Hagedorn's decision to cancel this session, and urge her to reconsider. The researchers and NSSE leaders should come to the same table and talk. The NSSE is a valuable resource, it is led by smart people, and they should be thrilled to engage in an academic discussion in such a prominent venue about this work. The big surveys dominate the field. In a sense, they are collective resources and thus subject to collective processes of improvement. Let's make that happen.

Finally, I hope the ASHE Board will think about the message that Hagedorn's actions has sent to scholars of higher education who seek to sift and winnow their way through difficult issues, and address any detrimental effects. Since I was until very recently an untenured professor, I can say that these sorts of actions make us very, very nervous. What if we write a paper that attracts too much attention-- will we be shut out of our association's conference? Not published? Shunned? Higher education needs researchers willing and able to speak their minds. The field deserves nothing less.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Wisconsin's Economy Needs Affirmative Action

On this, Republicans and Democrats throughout Wisconsin can agree: the state's economy is in the tank. We need to find ways to create more jobs and grow our paychecks, and fast.

An overwhelming body of evidence shows that state and local economies are greatly enhanced by educating their workforces. Employers build and expand businesses where they can find educated talent and thriving communities where their employees can live. An under-educated population in a landscape with significant pockets of poverty does not make for a hospitable place to do business.

A college education pays off. Sure, more people are going to college, and that makes some people worry that the returns will diminish. But just look around: the unemployment rate of college graduates may be up slightly, but it's still half that of workers without college degrees. You have to like those odds. The chances that you will end up mired in poverty, dependent on government benefits, unable to send your own kids to college--these are greatly reduced if you complete at least a year of college.

This is common sense, and people know it. What they may not realize is that a college education pays off MORE for the people who are least likely to get it. Those kids who we might consider "long shots" when it comes to earning a college degree face the worst labor market prospects if they don't attend college-- so going to college gives them a huge boost. And they benefit even more if they not only attend college, but attend where with the resources and advantages improve their odds of finishing -- places like UW-Madison.

Data proves this: the best way for the people of Wisconsin to maximize the contribution of a college education to their economy is to ensure that the kids who are the "long shots" get to attend its most selective universities. Yes, those individual kids will benefit-- but even more importantly, we all will. The returns to helping them avoid poverty and become gainfully employed taxpayers accrue to the whole state.

This is why affirmative action works for Wisconsin. It helps extend educational opportunities to those who will reap the biggest benefits, which spill over to us all. Without some attention paid to a student's ability to benefit from college, selective colleges would admit only the "sure things"--students who will actually benefit the least. Sure not all of the "long shots" will succeed--but large numbers of them will, far more than those who would if they only attended non-selective colleges. And as for the rest of us, working hard and raising "sure thing" kids, we are not harmed by that extra attention to the "long shots" (the idea that we are being "penalized" is a statistical fallacy), and because benefits to a college education acrrue to communities, we are actually helped.

Affirmative action is in Wisconsin's best interest, and it's within our rights. It's time to stand up for a policy that efficiently uses a college education to grow our economy.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Task Force Named to Rethink UW System

The following folks will be rethinking UW System, courtesy of the Fitzgerald Brothers who got to choose 12 of the 17 task force members.

Their choices include:
Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls
Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater
Rep. Pat Strachota, R-West Bend
UW-Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields
Wis. Technical College Board President Mark Tyler
Former UW Alumni Association Chair Renee Ramirez
Carroll University Board of Directors member Joanne Brandes
Business Owner Tim Higgins
Former UW Regent Fred Mohs
UW Colleges and Extension Chancellor Ray Cross
UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Richard Wells
Former UW Student Regent Joe Alexander

Last spring, some of these folks were strongly opposed to the New Badger Partnership--UW-Madison's effort to break from UW System.

For example, who can forget Ray Cross's astute remarks, delivered just a short time after his arrival in Wisconsin. He noted that comparisons to U. Michigan were inappropriate, and stressed the importance of keeping UW System together especially during a "contentious and partisan" period. His goals including reducing competition and duplication, helping campuses fulfill their designated missions, and yes, obtaining more flexibility.

Chancellor Richard Wells had a crisis regarding academic freedom on his hands this spring after a March 7 incident in which an Oshkosh professor encouraged his students to sign a recall petition. He used the event as a teachable moment, holding a community discussion on political activities. We can expect that disagreements over the importance of academic freedom and how to best protect it will be implicit in the task force's discussions, even if they are not explicitly on the agenda.

As for Tim Higgins, well, we Optimists featured him on the blog several months back. He, along with Renee Ramirez, endorsed the NBP.

But that was then, and this is now. What do we know about the positions of these folks on the future of UW System? Inquiring minds want to know-- so please, do write in and share.