Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Middle: A Response to Goldie Blumenstyk

Over the weekend, I read American Higher Education in Crisis, by Goldie Blumenstyk, because that’s how I roll.  It’s an accessible introduction to many of the major issues in higher ed, but it makes a claim in passing that I think needs a closer look.  Blumenstyk writes that

If there is a hollowing out in higher education it is more likely to happen at community colleges, regional state universities, for-profits, and other institutions that provide most of the educational opportunity for low-income and lower-middle class students. (p. 152)  

I don’t entirely buy it.

First, some context.  Blumenstyk notes, correctly, that the increases in costs of attendance for students over the past few decades have badly outpaced the growth of average household income.  Some of that is driven by cost-shifting from subsidies to students, some by Baumol’s cost disease, and, in other sectors, some by competition.  (Community colleges have been largely immune to that, since they tend to be defined geographically.)  When the Great Recession took simultaneous bites out of family income and appropriations to public colleges, the disconnect between what students had to borrow and what they could reasonably expect to pay back became too large to ignore.

As Blumenstyk notes, much of the disconnect is properly attributed to collapsing entry-level wages and opportunities, rather than to skyrocketing tuition.  Popular discourse also frequently fails to distinguish between graduates’ debt and dropouts’ debt, and often takes outliers as being far more representative than they actually are.  Still, the concern is real and valid.  Any college that asks students (and, frequently, their parents) to borrow five figures a year for four or more years is asking a lot, and it’s reasonable for the borrowers to ask about the likelihood of getting jobs that would make repayment realistic.

She also notes -- again, correctly -- that states themselves are pressured financially on multiple fronts, of which higher education is only one.  The same cost disease that afflicts higher education also afflicts K-12, corrections, and health care, for example, and neither K-12 nor corrections offer the kind of alternative revenue streams that higher ed does.  (Health care economics are far more complicated.)  As long as the political climate makes progressive taxation toxic -- again, a separate and complicated topic is its own right -- we can expect higher education to function as a sort of shock absorber in state budgets.

From that combination of factors, Blumenstyk concludes that non-elite public higher education -- here defined as everything outside of flagship research universities -- is in trouble.

It’s a possible outcome, but certainly not a necessary one.  The argument doesn’t consider the structure of the academic ecosystem, the sheer size of enrollments, or the weakness of alternatives.

Elite private institutions are largely above the economic fray, and can pretty much do what they want.  Elite public universities have research funding -- usually federal -- as well as prestige, visibility, and size.  They aren’t immune to cost pressures, certainly, but they’re in better shape than most.  But the two sectors combined aren’t nearly big enough to serve the population that wants education.  Indeed, they couldn’t expand much without giving up the exclusivity that drives their prestige.  

Which means that everyone else needs someplace to go.  Yes, a brave few will venture into the world of what Anya Kamenetz calls “DIY U,” but at this point, the do-it-yourself stuff is more about supplementing than supplanting.  As Peter Thiel himself noted in “Ivory Tower,” the autodidact model may work for a small number of hyper-capable, driven people, but it doesn’t scale.  (And the jury is still out even on Thiel’s cohort.)  Where will the masses go?

One possible answer is “nowhere.”  But I don’t see that selling, politically.  Young people still want good careers and, yes, even good educations.  And they should.  Say what you want about for-profits, but they would never have grown had they not identified a real demand.  The demand is there, and I don’t see it going away.  (Another possible answer is “prison,” and in some areas, that’s far too true.  But my sense is that we’ve passed Peak Incarceration.  And a good thing, too.)

My guess is that the sectors most likely to be hollowed out are the for-profits and the less well known privates.  The for-profits have come under sustained public scrutiny over the last few years, often with good reason.  And the privates have an increasingly difficult value proposition to sell.  As a parent, why would I spend $35,000 a year for a nothing-special degree when the same thing is available at a local public for $15,000?  An Ivy degree, sure.  But most privates aren’t Ivies, or terribly close.  Multiply that by four years per kid and multiple kids, and it adds up.  Unless the privates can answer that question -- which some can, in various ways -- I’d expect them to fall upon hard times.

Which means that the publics can actually turn a dilemma into an opportunity.  If they allow themselves to be commoditized -- to “sell” only interchangeable general education credits -- then I foresee an ugly race to the bottom.  But with more middle and even upper middle class students feeling compelled by economics to look more closely at public options, there’s a real opportunity for publics to start to fill the holes left by struggling privates. Gaining more traction with the middle and upper middle classes can bring with it not only more resources, as important as those are, but more political strength.  

In other words, the publics have a choice to make.  They can look only at their appropriations and start trying to shrink to meet them, or they can look at the larger ecosystem and start preparing to fill a niche that is slowly but surely being vacated.  With for-profits already falling away in large numbers, and many marginal privates carrying discount rates of half or higher, someone will have to do the heavy lifting.  If you can see some heavy lifting coming up, you should try to make yourself stronger.  

Admittedly, that’s a lot to put on a single sentence.  But the future matters.  Community and state colleges may be in a tight spot now, but they’re poised to become far more important if they play their cards right.  Here’s hoping they do...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


It’s almost Thanksgiving, so a moment of gratitude seems to be in order.  

We had our parent-teacher conferences last week for The Boy and The Girl.  

The Boy is in eighth grade, so he has a different teacher for each subject.  His school has parents come in with their kids and sit at tables in the cafeteria while teachers move from table to table.  It’s sort of a cross between traditional conferences and speed dating.  

The Girl is in fifth grade, so she spends most of her day with one teacher.  Her conference was in the much more traditional format of three adults sitting awkwardly on low chairs at a low table.

They’re both doing really well, which is gratifying enough in itself.  But I was especially proud to hear that they’re both confident, participatory, gracious, and just generally great to have around.  

Yes, I have Dad goggles.  But it’s also true.  

“Smart” is great.  It’s useful, and it opens up options.  With half of my chromosomes, the odds of either of them making it as professional athletes are approximately zero.  They’ll need to live on their smarts.

But it’s possible to be smart and toxic, or smart and selfish, or smart and mean.  

TB and TG are smart, but they’re also good people.  They walk through the world aware of others, and I’ve seen both of them, at various times, step aside when a group dynamic started to get weird.  Their peers like them, but also respect them.  

I’m grateful that they’re smart, but I’m more grateful that they’re genuinely good people.  Watching them grow into themselves is a privilege.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Program note: I’ll be taking a Thanksgiving break, returning next week.   Safe travels!

Monday, November 24, 2014

More of This, Please

Although much of the debate about higher education policy happens at the Federal level, the decisions that matter the most on the ground are usually made by the states.  That’s why I was so pleased to see this piece by Jessica Bowen, of the New America Foundation.

It’s a compare-and-contrast essay, of all things, looking at the plans offered by the Center for American Progress and the AASCU on guiding Federal policy to encourage greater investment in public higher education by states.  It breaks down the two proposals in simple and direct ways, noting the appeal and the shortcomings of each.  

In other words, it makes complicated policy proposals on a key issue legible.  This is no small thing.  In fact, it could be a first step towards much more productive proposals.

Federalism isn’t the sexiest topic, but it underlies many of the hot-button issues in American politics.  In the case of higher education, there’s an odd separation of responsibility: most student financial aid (and most research funding) are controlled at the Federal level, but most operating appropriations come from the states (and, in some states, from localities).  That has a subtle but important effect.

State disinvestment is partly compensated by increased Federal investment, through the indirect mechanism of financial aid. (In the research university sector, federal research funding may well play a similar role; I defer to my R1 colleagues on that.)  As public colleges and university budgets shift from state support to student tuition, they effectively shift from state and local aid to federal aid.  After decades of that, it’s unsurprising to see the feds want to have more influence.  After all, they’re paying.

But the influence can have unintended effects, since the states (and localities, where relevant) are independent actors with interests of their own.  A federal desire to support more robust public higher education can easily be defeated by states’ preferences.  That’s especially true when higher education has an alternative revenue stream -- students -- and many of the other sectors on which states spend money, don’t.  Local aid, K-12 education, and corrections don’t generate revenue in the same way that colleges do.  At the state and local levels, it can be tempting to use federal support for higher ed -- even in its indirect form -- as license to shift state money to other things.  

To my mind, the really crucial question for federal education policy is how to work with the states and localities.  Ignoring them results in defeated intentions.

It isn’t as simple as bribery.  Bribery worked reasonably well in the case of raising the drinking age.  Back then, the feds threatened to withhold interstate highway funding unless states raised the drinking age to 21.  Louisiana held out the longest, if I recall, but most states fell into line fairly quickly.  Bribery fell flat in the case of Obamacare, though, in which several states turned down free money from the feds to expand health insurance, just to make an ideological point.  In terms of complexity, competing goals, and cost spirals, higher education is much closer to health care than to highway construction.

“Maintenance of Effort” requirements -- basically, requiring states to keep up a certain level of funding in a given category as a condition of getting more money -- can work, but again, the Obamacare case suggests that some states will leave free money on the table to make a point.  

As policy dilemmas go, this one is high-stakes, expensive, and difficult.  It isn’t as easy as calling for “more.”  In this context, Bowen’s piece strikes me as exemplary of the kind of work we need to see much more often.   Making a complicated issue simple enough to enable thoughtful discussion doesn’t guarantee a good result, but it enables progress towards one.  More of this, please.  

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A “Worst Practices” Model

At a meeting last week, a colleague mentioned that he had learned some lessons about how to do a particular project through making a series of mistakes, and that if we had more time, he’d be happy to describe some of them.  And that’s when it hit me.  For all of the talk of “best practices,” wouldn’t some open discussions of “worst practices” be more useful?

The beauty of “worst practices” is that they’re concrete.  “Here’s something I did that blew up in my face.  In retrospect, here’s why.”  In many cases, the moves people made in the course of worst practices actually made some sense at the time.  The logic can be familiar.  That’s the value of it.  If you can recognize the directions that tend to lead off the rails, you can avoid them.

To be fair, I’m really talking about something closer to “worst plausible practices.”  Some practice are just so awful that there’s not much to be gained by dwelling on them -- showing up to work drunk, say. We all know, or should know, that’s bad.  I’m thinking instead of the things that seem like good ideas at the time, but later reveal themselves as disastrous.  

Institutionally, almost every incentive aligns against candid discussions of lessons learned from failure.  Drawing lessons from failure involves first acknowledging and owning it.  In many organizational cultures, that can be a career-limiting move.  If you work in a place with a strong culture of finger-pointing and blame-shifting, owning up to mistakes -- even small ones -- amounts to a kind of unilateral disarmament.  And even if you’re lucky enough to work in a setting in which people take a relatively enlightened view, you can’t assume the same will hold true externally.  I’ve been to my share of AACC and League for Innovation conferences over the last several years, and I can report that the ratio of presentations on “here’s something we did well” to “here’s something we messed up” is approximately 100:0.  

And that’s too bad, because the latter can teach lessons, too.

I’m told that something similar holds in the literature around academic science, oddly enough.  Although we’re all taught that the scientific method is all about replication and testing, papers based on replicating results are relatively scarce, and the few who do them are widely considered suspect.  They’re looked upon the same way that police look at Internal Affairs departments. But they serve a crucial function in the scientific ecosystem; to the extent that up-and-coming scientists are steered away from it, we lose a valuable method of quality control.

As more states and systems move to various forms of “performance funding,” the paradox of increased need and decreased room to learn from mistakes grows.  Performance funding schemes work on an annual basis, which means that there’s little margin for error; you can’t absorb the costs of the early stages of a learning curve, because the punishment you’d take in the next year’s allocation would prevent you from realizing gains in the later part of the curve.  (That’s part of the appeal of multi-year grants: by design, you are given the time to do the unglamorous groundwork first.)  Of course, the idea behind performance funding is to create an incentive to do things better, which usually involves doing new things. You just don’t have the room to make mistakes.  In that climate, it’s unsurprising that prepackaged solutions from various think tanks and foundations catch on; they offer the prospect of improvement without having to go through the messy process of learning first.  But those don’t always sit well in environments in which shared governance is prized.

I’m not sure how to create a space for candid and useful discussions of worst plausible practices, other than in off-the-record, informal interactions among peers who trust each other.  In other words, in the interstices.  Interstitial candor is well and good, but it’s nowhere the scale we need.  I’m just not sure how, as an industry, to get there from here.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen sustainable ways to discuss worst plausible practices?  Or is this just one of those facts of life endemic to any industry?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

CoCo Goes Pro Bono?

When The Dog is resting on her pillow, and she hears an unusual noise, one ear will pop up.  She’ll stay down, but the one ear will be at attention.  We call it “shark ear.”  When the shark ear is up, we know something weird is happening.

The story that a student loan collection agency is buying roughly half of the Corinthian College campuses, and turning them nonprofit, made my shark ear go up.  

There’s something weird about it.

ECMC -- not to be confused with EDMC, a major player in for-profit higher education -- is buying 56 campuses for $24 million, which works out to less than $450,000 per campus.  It’s keeping the widely-discredited Everest and WyoTech names, but bringing in all new management.  ECMC’s entire higher education experience has been in student loan collection; it has never run a college or any other educational institution.  When asked why ECMC is doing it, the CEO replied that “we want to help.”  Happily, ECMC has been “assembling a short list of qualified individuals” “under the radar” to step in and actually run the campuses.

To which I say, hmm.  

Loan collection agencies aren’t generally known for philanthropy.  Colleges typically cost more than single suburban houses.  Corporate management turnarounds often involve rebranding.  And I would think that an agency that had never run a college before wouldn’t start with 56 of them.  One, maybe.  56, no.

As far as I know -- and I’m open to correction on this -- ECMC has not allied itself with any particular pedagogical movement or philosophy.  This isn’t Founders College, the short-lived attempt to base a college on the writings of Ayn Rand.   If it doesn’t have a profit motive, or a religious motive, or a philosophical motive, or a pedagogical motive, what is it trying to achieve?

It  “wants to help,” but at what?  The value proposition for students is obscure, at best, since ECMC hasn’t said anything about a new academic specialty, or offering something that nearby public colleges and universities don’t already offer at lower prices.  

As regular readers know, I’m not necessarily hostile to for-profit education as a concept.  I think this piece from the Boston Globe gets a lot right; just because many for-profits have been bottom feeders doesn’t mean that all of them must be, by definition.  I remain convinced that there’s room for thoughtful entrepreneurs to add value, particularly through programmatic specialization.  

But ECMC is doing it backwards.  It’s keeping names that have been tarnished as predatory, and offering to do...what, exactly?  Instead of building a new enterprise from scratch, or radically repurposing an existing one, it’s offering to continue to run mediocre programs at slightly less inflated prices.  That doesn’t pass the sniff test.

The CEO claims that ECMC’s self-interest has nothing to do with it, since the loans that the new CoCo students will receive will be federal, and won’t be subject to collection through ECMC.  Maybe.  But if that’s true, then the motive is even more obscure.

I’m having a hard time explaining it through the self-interest of managers, either.  Managers in large-scale financial services make far more money than, say, campus deans.  I don’t think they’re hijacking capital to buy themselves sinecures.  

Wise and worldly readers, am I missing something?  Is there some narrative by which this move makes sense?  My shark ear won’t stop twitching on this one.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Other People Strike Again

Actual conversation I had with a student in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks:

Student: We should bomb ‘em back to the stone age.  That’ll teach ‘em!

Me: Hmm.  When we got attacked, how did we respond?

Student: Screw ‘em!

Me: Exactly.  And why wouldn’t they respond that way to us?

The student was dumbstruck by the prospect that the people on the other side of his proposal were three-dimensional beings, with the same emotional range he had.  He simply hadn’t thought of it.

I was reminded of that exchange in seeing the new CCRC report on the unintended impacts of performance funding on public higher education.  It suggests that performance funding models often elicit institutional or employee behavior different from that intended by the authors of the models.  In other words, three-dimensional people on the receiving end of policies will act in their own perceived self-interest, within the confines of the options they perceive.

This shouldn’t be shocking.  In fact, I predicted several of the outcomes the CCRC paper notes back in 2012 (the link is here).  It wasn’t difficult; all I had to do was to imagine how statewide mandates would play out locally.  If you take seriously the idea that people on the receiving end of policies will respond to incentives -- whether intended or not -- then it should not be surprising to discover that some of them gamed the system.  The system rewarded gaming.

The easy case of gaming is grade inflation.  In the very short term, it’s possible to increase pass rates simply by, well, increasing pass rates.  That can be done directly, as in the public school districts that responded to NCLB testing by having teachers change answers.  But it’s most often done indirectly, through dropping not-very-subtle hints to vulnerable faculty that they don’t want to fail too many people.  That kind of word travels fast. Over the long term, it’s corrosive to the academic mission.  In the short term, though, it can make numbers look better.

But gaming doesn’t even have to be as sinister as that.  A new curriculum takes a solid year to develop, if not more.  Once it’s finally running, the effects on graduation rates don’t show up for a few years.  In the meantime, the institution is struggling to meet fixed costs in the face of mercurial annual changes in funding.  When “performance” is measured annually, a one-year statistical blip can have real financial consequences.  In a context like that, a quick fix can look much more practical than a sustainable long-term change with a longer incubation period.  Over time, those quick fixes play out logics of their own.

The CCRC paper makes some smart recommendations toward the end about ways to engineer performance funding to prevent gamesmanship.  Among other things -- and I can’t agree with these enough -- it recommends paying for improved data analysis capacity on campuses, and for greater IT support.  Those may sound wonky, but they matter, and they’re both the kind of “pay now, earn rewards later” expenses that are easy to sacrifice in the face of short-term imperatives.  I’d also echo the call for basing performance measures on a college’s own past, rather than on a zero-sum battle with its counterparts; otherwise, you’ll punish the kinds of collaboration that lead to sustainable improvement.  To the extent that moving away from zero-sum is considered politically impossible, I’d suggest you’ve discovered something fundamental about the motives behind it.

At a more basic level, though, any serious attempts at improvement have to recognize that actors will respond to the incentives that are relevant to them.  As Madison noted so long ago, if men were angels, no government would be necessary.  But they aren’t, so it is.  A system that only works if everyone puts aside their own self-interest is doomed to fail.  If you’re serious about measuring performance, you have to remember the creativity of performers.  The lesson they learn from your policy may not be the lesson you had in mind.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Reaching the Range

In a group discussion recently, several professors brought up the challenge of teaching a class in which the range of student preparation levels stretches from “coulda gone anywhere, if not for money and family issues” to “not yet reading at a college level.”  When you have students at either end of that continuum, and at all points in between, in the same room at the same time, reaching all of them isn’t easy.

College professors traditionally aren’t really taught how to teach, except by example.  But the examples are usually drawn from graduate school, in which you can usually take a certain level of academic preparation and interest for granted.  (At least, I hope so!)  I recall some very talented lecturers in grad school, and some competent discussions, but I don’t recall ever being taught how to reach undergrads who struggled to read the text, when they bothered to try.  That does not seem to have changed in most fields.  (I’ll tip my cap here to the rhet/comp folk, who have made a point of reaching students where they actually are.)

Some of the academic departments try to attack the issue by gatekeeping.  Putting prerequisites on courses is a way to screen out the most academically challenged.  But outside of courses in which the content builds in a linear way, like the algebra sequence, it’s gatekeeping for the sake of gatekeeping.  It tends to create certain academic ghettos into which developmental students are herded, because they still need full-time status and they still want to make progress towards graduation.  It often starves the walled-off courses of the enrollments they need, if they’re going to run.  And based on both anecdotal feedback and pass rates, it seems to make much less difference than its proponents want it to make in the classroom.  Besides, if we want to speed up completion rates, gatekeeping is the last thing we should be doing.

Ideally, some targeted professional development to help faculty work more effectively with the students they actually have.  That way we wouldn’t have to choose between open access and high success.  This is where I’m hoping my wise and worldly readers can ride to the rescue.

We’ve all endured professional development workshops or events in which the living envied the dead.  The usual sins run the gamut from “field-specific to a field that isn’t mine” to “irrelevant for the students we actually have” to “would be nice, if we had triple the budget we have.”  And that’s without even getting into the more reductive versions of The One True Faith or There’s An App For That.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen, or found, or developed, a professional development resource that was actually helpful in the specific challenge of reaching students across a wide range of preparation levels?  Ideally, one that isn’t specific to a single discipline?  I’d love to provide faculty access to something that would actually help, and that would help across a wide spectrum of disciplines.  We aren’t moving to selective admissions, and the range isn’t getting any narrower, so anything that’s actually useful would be appreciated.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Recruiting Donors

I’ve given the New York TImes’ education coverage a hard time over the years, mostly because it’s so provincial.  But once in a while, it gets one mostly right.  This weekend’s story about donors to LaGuardia Community College wasn’t perfect, but it got the big picture right.  And it put that picture in a venue in which the donor class might actually see it.  Now we just have to do something with it.

Briefly, the Times pointed out that although community colleges enroll more students than any other sector of higher education, they receive far less philanthropic support than any of their non-profit peers.  (For-profits don’t receive philanthropy at all, for obvious reasons.)  The article even notes that charter schools receive almost twice as much philanthropic support as community colleges, even though community colleges have four times as many students.  The president of LaGuardia, Gail Mellow -- of whom I am a fan -- sends handwritten thank-you notes to anyone who donates $500 or more.  At most four-year colleges of similar size, that would be unthinkable.

Community colleges have struggled, comparatively, with donors for a host of reasons.  One is age; the average community college in America was founded in the 1960’s, and the first classes were often quite small.  They simply don’t have the length of history of an Ivy.  Another is the class background of the student body.  When you’re climbing out of the lower working class and making your way to a middle class job, you typically aren’t in a position to make five-figure donations to your alma mater.  Open-door admissions policies mean that there’s no competitive advantage for your kid if you’re a donor; the kid gets in whether you donate or not.  (Selective institutions aren’t shy about implying that donations grease the wheels.)  And many community colleges simply didn’t see it as part of their missions or identities until several decades had passed, by which point many of the first cohorts of graduates -- the ones most senior in their fields, and likely the wealthiest -- had dispersed around the country.  Reconstructing records is much harder than maintaining them.

I was disappointed, though, to see the Times publish as fact the contestable statement that “When students from a community college ascend to the affluent classes, they tend to feel a stronger affinity to the institutions that eventually graduate them than to the places where, often, they had no option but to begin.”  Maybe yes, maybe no.  At the first CASE conference on community college development a few years ago, Lisa Skari presented research from her dissertation suggesting that isn’t true.  She found that what looked like indifference was often a function of not being asked.  That rang true for me; I’ve certainly seen successful alumni show loyalty to where they started.  Skari’s findings give cause for hope; the Times’ assumption suggests fatalism.  I’ll side with Skari.

To the extent that philanthropy can go beyond alumni, though, it’s worth wondering why community colleges have been comparatively neglected. I wonder if part of the reason is the no-frills aesthetic that the sector as a whole favors.  Most cc’s don’t have high-profile athletics, for example, and they’ve generally opted out of the amenities arms race.  (At HCC, for example, we don’t have a football team, a climbing wall, or a lazy river.)  Most don’t have a homecoming weekend.  Community colleges are comfortable speaking the language of need, but many donors prefer to be part of something glamorous.  The sector as a whole has not made a point of trying to be glamorous.  It’s likelier to conjure images of workforce development programs and developmental writing than of semesters abroad in Italy.  But that’s sort of the point.

Wise and worldly readers, do you have any thoughts on ways that community colleges could become more effective players in the philanthropic world?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Relearning Algebra with The Boy

The Boy is thirteen, and in the eighth grade.  He’s taking algebra, which is to say, we’re taking algebra.

Relearning algebra at age forty-six is a very different experience.  It’s not as intimidating as it was the first time around, if only because I remember getting past it before, and some of the logic seemed to stick. “Isolate the variable” is a life lesson masquerading as a mathematical technique.  I need some prompts as reminders, but so far they haven’t been too bad.  The notation is slightly odd -- why is the slope of a line abbreviated as “m”? -- but once I know that, it’s fine.

The first time around wasn’t like that.  I remember lots of daydreaming in class, which made it difficult to keep up with demonstrations on the chalkboard.  (It was even harder to catch up once I had missed a couple of steps.)  I didn’t see the relevance of any of it, and the logic behind it was often elusive.

The Boy reports that many of the same things are true for him, now.  

I can’t blame him, really.  Depending on how it’s taught, algebra can either be a really nifty bit of puzzle solving or a mystifying group of complicated processes with no obvious connection to each other.  And I”m sure that if I had to sit through an hour of it every morning, early, with a teenager’s body clock, I’d daydream, too.  

As the parent, I see it as my job to help TB move from “this is a random set of rules to memorize” to “here’s how it fits together.”  Once you have some sense of the connective tissue, it’s easier to reconstruct a rule that you’ve forgotten.

This week he had a big test, and some reason to be nervous about it, so we spent a couple of hours studying together.

The first thing I insisted on was turning off the computer.  I brought up several sheets of blank typing paper -- for younger readers, “typing” is the old-school version of printing -- and a pen.  I wanted us to have enough room to write nice and big.  I wanted to see each step as he did it, and I wanted him to see each step as I did it.  That means having plenty of white space.

There is no substitute for speaking math out loud, slowly, as you do it.  It’s not fast or pretty, but it forces a kind of clarity.

This is where generational parenting styles really show themselves.  We Gen X types were raised in what would now be called a “free-range” style, which meant that when it came to things like homework, we were on our own.  That could be very good or very bad.  The rules have changed since then; now, difficult homework is a group activity.  The key is in making sure that you’re clear on the difference between helping him understand, which is good, and doing it for him, which is not.  

The joy of helping with algebra homework is twofold.  It’s fun to devise word problems designed to make each other laugh.  And I still get a kick out of watching the lightbulb turn on when he gets it.  

If you had told me at age thirteen that I’d bond with my future son while helping him study for an algebra test, I would have laughed out loud.  Yet here we are.  If x equals spending time making The Boy laugh and helping him learn, then I’m happy to solve for it.  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Community Partners in the Classroom

Old joke: a cop pulls Heisenberg over.  Cop: “Sir, did you know you were doing 90?”  Heisenberg: “Great, now I”m lost.”

A comment a professor made this week reminded me of Heisenberg’s rule that the act of observing something changes the thing being observed.  She has her students do presentations in class, and she mentioned that they always do a noticeably better job when she has an external observer from a local business sit in and observe.  The change in audience, even if it’s a single person, generates enough stage fright to motivate the students to raise their game.  

In the capstone course for graduating seniors at DeVry, students had to do presentations to panels of four faculty.  Just adding those three extra professors to the room changed the dynamic palpably.  The extra professors didn’t stay long and didn’t say much; they didn’t have to.  They provided enough of a charge just by their presence that the students took the task more seriously.

This is old news in fields like music, where juried performances are standard fare.  But it strikes me as applicable in far more areas.  

Of course, sometimes guests do more than observe.  Many years ago, I had an American Government class that was sort of struggling.  The students had trouble getting over their knee-jerk skepticism about all things political, and I hadn’t yet learned the importance of unteaching before teaching.  (In hot-button areas like politics, that’s a key skill.)  So we were sort of limping along.  But someone I worked with happened to mention in passing that he was friends with a local telecom lobbyist.  I invited the lobbyist to come in as a guest speaker and talk about lobbying from a lobbyist’s perspective.  He was great -- funny, smooth, slightly bawdy -- and the students came to life.  After that visit, the students really locked in; they saw that I wasn’t just making it up.  The stuff we had been studying mattered enough to some interesting people that it suddenly merited attention.

At the administrative level, when we talk about community partners, it’s usually in the context of organizations.  College A works with Agency B and Company C to help a set of students pick up the skills needed to thrive in a given field, say.  That’s terrific, necessary, and likely to expand in the coming years.  It’s good work, well worth doing, and I’m proud of the role I’ve played in helping some of those partnerships succeed.

That said, though, it’s easy to lose sight of the power of a single external visitor showing up to class and putting the students under a spotlight.  

I read somewhere that there are really only four stories, told over and over again, and that one of them is “a stranger comes to town.”  (Others include “boy meets girl” and “a hero goes on a quest.”  I forget the fourth.)  When a stranger comes to class, the effect can be startling.  The story changes.

But the story doesn’t change only in the class.  It also changes for the visitor.  (With apologies to Nietzsche, when you gaze long into English Comp, English Comp also gazes into you.)  People like to be respected, and to share their opinions.  They’ve been known to take students under their respective wings.  They can offer tips that weren’t entirely intended, but that add real value.  And the relationships that start on an individual or personal level can lead to broader organizational alliances over time.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen colleges do particularly good jobs of working with class visitors on a large scale?  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

200 or 300?

Is there a national standard on what makes a course 200 level, as opposed to 300 level?

I haven’t found one, and it’s starting to matter.

A few weeks ago, I attended a statewide conference on streamlining transfer pathways between two-year and four-year public colleges and universities.  The idea was to ensure that students who start at community colleges and then move to four-year institutions don’t lose credits when they transfer.  The DHE was smart enough to specify that the credits should actually count towards majors, rather than just vanishing into the “free elective” black hole.  Too many colleges use “free elective” status as a way to say that they “accept” credits without actually letting them count for anything.  It’s an elegant political dodge, but a dodge nonetheless.  The state has figured that out, and is isolating the actual problem.  

When moving from institutions to majors, though, the discussion has to move to the level of specific courses.  At that point, several things quickly became clear:

First, many community colleges have departments of one person in certain disciplines.  When you only have one full-timer, there will be courses you can’t cover.  If we want seamless transfer, we need parity of resources.  

Second, many of the four-year schools disagree with each other.  The premise that there are two internally consistent blocs of institutions is false; each bloc is heterogeneous.  In the absence of a consistent set of rules at the four-year level, asking the two-year schools to mirror the first two years of the four-year level doesn’t make sense.  Which ones should they mirror?

Third, and the point of today’s piece, is that there is no industry-wide standard in many fields for which courses should fall at the 200 level and which should fall at the 300 level.  In states in which community colleges are limited to the first two years, such as Massachusetts, the distinction matters.  If we teach a class that a receiving school counts as 300 level, the receiving school may decline to take it.  If they move too many classes to the 300 level, they can effectively force students to retake multiple courses.  (From their perspective, if we redesignate too many 300 level classes as 200, we’re poaching.)  

The annoying truth is that mandating streamlined transfer will require putting stricter limits on the curricular decision-making authority of individual campuses.  It can’t not.  From the perspective of an enterprising faculty member at a community college, that can amount to a cap on scholarly ambition.  “Topics in…” classes don’t lend themselves to seamless transfer in the same way that “Intro to…” classes do.  If an entire state decides that, say, these five psychology classes are what the four-years will take, then the two-year curricula are basically capped.  I’d expect some pushback from the most academically ambitious faculty who would protest, rightly, that they’re being put in their place.  But I don’t see how to get mandated transfer without some level of standardization.  From the four-year perspective, they’d be facing a mandate to take a black box of credits, and count them towards a given major.  Either way, someone has to be willing to give up some authority to make the system work.

I’ve seen the downside of too much local control.  At my last college, a branch of the state flagship only took 30 out of 60 credits towards a criminal justice degree, and most of those credits were gen eds.  Forcing students to retake a year’s worth of credits struck me as insane.  It’s probably no coincidence that the legislature stepped in shortly thereafter and mandated acceptance of transfer credits.  That could happen here, too.  

Legislation wouldn’t be an issue if it were based on a broadly-shared understanding of where the boundaries are.  Which brings me back to my first question.

In humanities and social science fields especially, is there a national authority or something similar that delineates the boundaries between 200 and 300 level in a generally accepted way?

Monday, November 10, 2014


Yesterday’s article about a college president making some staggeringly sexist comments about campus rape had some lessons beyond the obvious.  (For the record, the obvious would include “don’t be a sexist jerk.”)  

In grad school, grad students bonded by making jokes about everything and everyone.  Much of that derived from the combination of high verbal skills, extreme powerlessness, and the apparent absurdity of some of what we encountered.  We lacked the authority to change much, but we could at least validate each other’s observations, and appreciate zingers well-zung.

On faculty, some of the same habits carried over.  It was easy to cast snark at this administrative initiative or that one; at times, snark was the only sanity-maintaining response.  It built soilidarity within the ranks, and gave an accepted outlet for frustration.

When I moved into administration, though, I quickly -- and somewhat awkwardly -- discovered that comments that previously would have been considered well within bounds, suddenly weren’t.  Jokes or asides that had mostly generated smirks in one setting elicited fear in another.  And there were understandable reasons for that.  I had to make a conscious adjustment in how I framed certain things, just to prevent unproductive misunderstandings.

In writing classes, the issue was usually framed as “audience awareness.”  It’s almost a kind of code-switching.  In assessing the propriety of an explanation, a joke, or a mode of address, the question of audience matters.  I’ll make comments at home that I wouldn’t make at work.  The comments at home aren’t necessarily more true, exactly; comic exaggeration is a well-worn way of blowing off steam.  But an aside that seems funny in the context of family may seem cruel or shocking in the workplace.  The higher your rank in the workplace, the truer that gets.  Hierarchy is an amplifier.  At a certain point, you have to assume the microphone is always on.

I’ve noticed that sometimes, when someone has grown a little too comfortable in the spotlight, they start to lose their audience awareness.  Comments that might have belonged backstage, assuming they belonged anywhere at all, find their way onstage.  We usually think of stage fright as a bad thing, and it certainly can be, but a little bit of it can actually be healthy.  It keeps the speaker from forgetting that the microphone is on.  

I used to think of audience awareness as a form of lying.  I don’t see it that way anymore.  If anything, it’s a sign of respect.  The people who pride themselves on always “telling it like it is” are nearly always insufferable, because the subtext of their style is that they matter and nobody else does.  The fact of taking the trouble to couch a message so that the recipient can receive it as intended is a sign of respect for the recipient.  Yes, it’s possible to go overboard and fall into lying or manipulating.  But it’s not the same thing.

Parents generally know this from direct experience.  There are times when your kid wants your attention or participation in something, and you’re just frazzled.  In those times, it takes conscious effort not to just get snappy.  But you make the effort, because you know that in the long run, a healthy relationship with your kid is far more important than the fact that you’re wiped at a given moment.  I don’t think of that extra effort as lying; I think of it as paying attention to a longer-term truth.  
This may explain why introverted leaders often last longer than their more outgoing counterparts.  Introverts, as a group, are likelier to behave as if the microphone is on.  For them, in a sense, it always is.  They never entirely lose the sense of performance in public interactions, which means they rarely get so comfortable that they forget the onstage/offstage distinction.  Paradoxically enough, introverts often do very well on stage.  For them, daily life is a form of practice.

Diverse workplaces are probably less likely to lull leaders into a false sense of being offstage.  That’s good in itself.  Most of us are less likely to take stupid liberties when we’re at least a little bit self-conscious.  

Of course, if a leader is simply too narcissistic to register the presence of meaningful others, there’s probably no stopping him from stepping in it.  And in this case, there’s something to be said for the idea that he revealed publicly what he does privately, and that what he does privately does real harm to actual women.  To my mind, that’s grounds for removal.  

But beyond that case, I wonder if cultivating a little more self-awareness, and audience awareness, in leaders might do a world of good.  Leaders who think before they speak aren’t necessarily aloof or cunning.  They may be trying to be their best selves.  To the extent that this view suggests that diverse workplaces and self-aware leaders are less likely to end in jaw-droppingly stupid flameouts, those might be worth trying.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Assessment Done Well and Badly

If you haven’t yet seen Jeffrey Alan Johnson’s essay on faculty/administration conflicts over assessment, check it out.  It’s well worth reading, not least because it goes well beyond the usual first-level conflicts over assessment.  (The comments give a pretty good indication of what the usual first-level conflicts are.)  

Johnson’s argument is subtle enough that most commenters seemed to miss it.  In a nutshell, he argues that subjecting existing instruction to the assessment cycle will, by design, change the instruction itself.  Much of the faculty resistance to assessment comes from a sense of threatened autonomy.  Johnson addresses political science specifically, noting that it’s particularly difficult to come up with content-neutral measures in a field without much internal consensus, and with factions that barely speak to each other.  

He’s right, though it may be easier to grasp the point when applied to, say, history.  There’s no single “Intro to History” that most would agree on; each class is the history of something.  The ‘something’ could be a country, a region, a technology, an idea, an art form, or any number of other things, but it has to be something specific.  Judging a historian of China on her knowledge of colonial America would be easy enough, but wouldn’t tell you much of value.  If a history department finds itself judged on “scores” based on a test of the history of colonial America, then it can either resign itself to lousy scores or teach to the test.

The faculty whose subfields or specialities would be sacrificed can be expected, rightly, to object.  The issue isn’t necessarily that they resist any scrutiny or any change -- though, to be fair, some do -- but that the scrutiny is off-point.  

As a political theorist turned administrator, I see Johnson’s argument from both sides.  The need for some sort of thoughtful assessment process goes well beyond accreditation mandates, as important as those are.  The “distribution requirement” model of degrees is built on the assumption that the whole of a program will equal the sum of its courses.  We all know it doesn’t always work out that way, though.  Program-level assessment addresses student outcomes after taking the individual courses serially, and highlights any gaps.  That’s why the chestnut “we already do assessment -- we give grades!” misses the point.  Grades apply to individual students in individual courses.  If the sequence of courses is missing something, that won’t show up in grades.  You might get an “A” in Comparative Politics without knowing anything about political theory.

I’m proud of the model we’ve adopted locally.  We have a Gen Ed Assessment Committee (GEAC, pronounced “geek”) that looks at student work samples, submitted by faculty, and scores them against the five general education learning outcomes the college adopted through the Senate seven years ago.  The members of the GEAC are all faculty, and their workloads are adjusted so they have time to do the job right.  (Whether the adjustment is enough is always a question, but that’s another issue.)  They draw work samples from programs across the curriculum, and make recommendations to the college as a whole.  Their recommendations have been well-received, in part because other faculty respect them as colleagues, and in part because the process makes sense.

Programmatic assessment can be more of a challenge when you don’t have obvious capstone courses.  Transfer-oriented programs often don’t, at the two year level.  But there, again, it makes sense that a program would want to know where it’s doing right by its students and where it’s falling short.  Individual faculty may feel some tension between their own goals and departmental goals, but that’s not the fault of assessment.  In fact, if memory serves, those tensions pre-date the assessment movement pretty substantially.

From an administrative perspective, Johnson’s article offers worthwhile cautions.  If the goal is actual improvement, it’s crucial that faculty are on board.  (Not unanimously, of course, but broadly.)  Doing assessment stupidly -- say, as an add-on to grading -- will defeat that purpose.  Faculty need to be able to raise the difficult questions around how a given assessment mechanism fits with what’s actually being taught.  The idea isn’t to allow a sort of plebiscitary veto -- that ship has sailed -- but to make sure it’s done in an intelligent and productive way.  If it’s presented as the latest variation on Soviet-style production numbers, then it will be about that reliable.  But if it’s designed openly -- that is to say, if administrators are willing to cede a considerable amount of control over the specifics -- then it can actually accomplish something worth accomplishing.