Thursday, March 19, 2015

Friday Fragments

Profit sharing for improved retention?

Okay, that’s a little exaggerated, since Coastal Carolina University is a non-profit.  But the logic is very much the same.  Apparently, it has challenged its faculty and staff to improve student retention numbers, with raises dependent on the results.  The more retention improves, the more everyone gets paid.

Having spent years in for-profit higher ed, I recognized the concept immediately.  It’s a sales quota.

It’s a combination of brilliant and awful.  It’s brilliant to the extent that it aligns institutional incentives with individual ones.  And it’s awful to the extent that it encourages grade inflation.

I’ve written before in support of more commonly separating teaching from grading.  When the same person does both, it becomes easy to confuse the nurturing role with the judging role.  That can lead to conflicts of interest for the instructor -- the famous mutual non-aggression pact that leads to low standards -- and anxiety and confusion for the student, who isn’t sure she can reveal vulnerabilities without having them held against her.  

It’s not a perfect concept, by any means -- it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to very specialized material, for example.  But without something like that, I could see an otherwise intriguing concept like this one quickly lead to a culture of pass-them-at-all-costs.  If CCU can figure out a way to maintain academic integrity within the incentive system, I’m intrigued.  If it can’t, or doesn’t bother, I can foresee the outcome a few years from now...


Earlier this week I had the opportunity to give a keynote address at the TASS conference in Fort Lauderdale.  TASS (Teaching Academic Survival and Success) is a smallish but upbeat conference consisting of faculty and administration from both community colleges and their four-year counterparts.  I spoke the day after someone from the Gates Foundation did;  I’m told we had distinctly contrasting styles.  It was great to connect with some kindred spirits from other places; that sort of thing can be validating.

But the real shock came from getting on the plane in Florida, where it was 80 degrees and sunny, and getting off the plane in Hartford where it was 20 degrees and windy.  New England has its charms, but that first blast of arctic air isn’t one of them.  And I had to laugh at myself and my sense of timing.  In college I never did the Fort Lauderdale Spring Break thing.  Now, at age 46, I finally make it.  Gotta work on my timing...


The Boy’s amazing run with robotics is over for the season.  His team, consisting almost entirely of junior high students, made it to the final four against high school teams from much more affluent districts.  

When his team lost, I had one of those ambivalent moments that every parent knows.  There’s probably a long German word for it. On the one hand, I was disappointed that the team’s surprising run had come to an end.  On the other, I’ll admit relief that five-nights-a-week practices were over, and that we wouldn’t have to travel hundreds of miles for regionals.  In a sense, the “near miss” was actually the best case outcome.  (On the way home, TB admitted that he felt the same way.)

The team names alone were magnificent: “Gear Ticks” and “Friends, Robots, Countrymen” were my faves.  I counted about a half-dozen cardboard-box-based human-powered robot mascots, including one that seemed to have wheels.  The kids were expected to exhibit “gracious professionalism,” and I have to admit that they mostly did.  

When I was in junior high and high school, nothing like robotics existed.  There wasn’t a fun and competitive venue for engineering.  The closest we had was Math League, but that was basically individual competition, and you didn’t get to build anything.  It wasn’t nearly as social.

At the afterparty, the coaches handed out awards to each kid.  (Okay, commenters, go ahead and note the irony of grade inflation here…)  TB won “Most likely to be president of a company someday.”  When the coach read the award, the kids all yelled in unison [TB]!!  Apparently, they see something.  I do, too.