About Critical Mass [dot] Writing [dot] Reviews [dot] Contact
June 23, 2010 [feather]
Refund the DC OSP

Last year, Congress defunded the historic DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, which offered scholarships for kids in underperforming public schools to attend private schools. I've met families in the program, I've visited schools participating in the program, and I've seen how transformative the scholarships have been for kids and their parents--for many, it's the difference between a child having a shot at college and a child having no shot at any kind of life at all. Setting aside academics, parents also place an understandable premium on the safety differential: At a private school, they know their sons and daughters will be safe during the school day. In public school, there is no assurance of that at all. DC has some of the worst public schools in the country--and that translates into astounding figures for adult illiteracy, poverty, and crime.

So the program was a godsend when it was created in 2004. But the program got caught up in ideological crossfire, and Congress deferred to the teachers' unions--which oppose vouchers as a threat to their interests--and to associated specious arguments about whether vouchers are actually effective. Matt Ladner explains how tragic that was and is:

The Department of Education released the final report of the evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program today. The major finding of this report, and it is MAJOR, is that students who were randomly selected to receive vouchers had an 82% graduation rate. That's 12 percentage points higher than the students who didn't receive vouchers. Students who actually used their vouchers had graduation rates that were 21% higher. Even better, the subgroup of students who received vouchers and came from designated Schools in Need of Improvement (SINI schools) had graduation rates that were 13 percentage points higher than the same subgroup of students who weren't offered vouchers--and the effect was 20 percentage points higher for the SINI students who used their vouchers!

This is a huge finding. The sorry state of graduation rates, especially for disadvantaged students, has been the single largest indicator that America's schools are failing to give every student an equal chance at success in life. Graduating high school is associated with a number of critical life outcomes, ranging from lifetime earnings to incarceration rates. And, despite countless efforts and attempts at reform, changing the dismal state of graduation rates has been an uphill battle.

Of course, the uphill battle will continue. As most are aware, Congress voted to kill the DC voucher program last year, despite evidence that the program had significantly improved reading achievement for students who received scholarships. That evidence didn't count for much when faced with opposition from teachers' unions.

In the final report, the reading achievement findings just miss the Department of Education's threshold for statistical significance. As a result, the spin put out by the administration claims that there is "No conclusive evidence that the OSP affected student achievement." This is wrong of course. Last year's (third year) report DID find conclusive evidence that the Program raised student achievement in reading. A close read of this year's final report reveals that the sample size of students in the final year was smaller because a number of the students participating in the study had graded-out of the Program. It's not surprising then that the statistical significance of the reading effects fell just short of the required level. Still, with a p-value of .06, we can say that we are 94% certain that the treatment group did outperform the control group in reading in the final year. Moreover, the final report found statistically significant achievement gains for 3 of the 6 subgroups they examined.

In sum, the five-year evaluation of the DC voucher program has shown that low-income students who recieved scholarships have higher graduation rates, higher student achievement, increased parental views of safety, and increased parent satisfaction. There was not one single negative finding over the entire course of the evaluation. I'd say that’s quite a success for a program that spent a fraction of the per-pupil amount spent in DC public schools.

So when does the re-authorization begin?

The short answer to that question is: It will begin when the public puts so much heat on Congress that it has to begin. Right now the heat comes from the unions, which can make or break you at election time.

The parents and kids in the program fought for years to get it authorized (first time around, back in the 90s, President Clinton vetoed it) and they are still fighting to keep it alive--because it's really about life or death to them. But more people have to get involved. If you remember your high school civics classes, people living in DC don't have Congressmen like everyone else. The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program must have the support of representatives and senators from the states--which means it's up to you and me to let our Congressmen know that this is an issue they ought to care about.

Did I mention that the program costs about half what the public schools do per student? And that's before we factor in the long-term costs of failing to produce educated adults who can contribute to society--as opposed to uneducated ones with a high probability of becoming dependent, one way or another, on the state.

Erin O'Connor, 6:38 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

June 22, 2010 [feather]
More cooked law school books

It's not just Loyola that's cooking law school transcripts in hopes of giving students a leg up on the job market. This morning the New York Times reports that in the past two years, at least ten schools have done the same. They include Georgetown, NYU, Tulane, and Golden Gate University.

Law schools seem to view higher grades as one way to rescue their students from the tough economic climate -- and perhaps more to the point, to protect their own reputations and rankings. Once able to practically guarantee gainful employment to thousands of students every year, the schools are now fielding complaints from more and more unemployed graduates, frequently drowning in student debt.

They have come up with a number of strategic responses. Besides the usual career counseling measures, many top schools have bumped up their on-campus interview weeks from the autumn to August, before the school year even starts, because they want their students to have a chance to nab a job slot before their counterparts at other schools do.

Others, like Duke and the University of Texas at Austin, offer stipends for students to take unpaid public interest internships. Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law even recently began paying profit-making law firms to hire its students.

"For people like me who have good grades but are not in the super-elite, there are not as many options for getting a job in advance," said Zachary Burd, 35, who just graduated from Southern Methodist University. A Dallas family law firm will receive $3,500 to "test drive" him this August.

"They'll get me for a month or two, for free, to try me out," he said. "It's safer for them, and it's a good foot in the door for me."

Along the way, SMU law school gets to cook its job placement figures.

Back to the doctored transcripts. The Times is quite interesting on this point:

the tactic getting the most attention -- and the most controversy -- is the sudden, deliberate and dubiously effective grade inflation, which had begun even before the legal job market softened.

"If somebody's paying $150,000 for a law school degree, you don't want to call them a loser at the end," says Stuart Rojstaczer, a former geophysics professor at Duke who now studies grade inflation. "So you artificially call every student a success."

Unlike undergraduate grading, which has drifted northward over the years because most undergraduate campuses do not strictly regulate the schoolwide distribution of As and Bs, law schools have long employed clean, crisp, bell-shaped grading curves. Many law schools even use computers to mathematically determine cutoffs between a B+ and a B, based on exam points.

The process schools refer to as grade reform takes many forms. Some schools bump up everyone’s grades, some just allow for more As and others all but eliminate the once-gentlemanly C.

Harvard and Stanford, two of the top-ranked law schools, recently eliminated traditional grading altogether. Like Yale and the University of California, Berkeley, they now use a modified pass/fail system, reducing the pressure that law schools are notorious for. This new grading system also makes it harder for employers to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, which means more students can get a shot at a competitive interview.

Students and faculty say they are merely trying to stay competitive with their peer schools, which have more merciful grading curves. Loyola, for example, had a mean first-year grade of 2.667; the norm for other accredited California schools is generally a 3.0 or higher.

"That put our students at an unfair disadvantage, especially if you factor in the current economic environment," says Samuel Liu, 26, president of the school's Student Bar Association and the leader of the grading change efforts. He also says many Loyola students are ineligible for coveted clerkships that have strict G.P.A. cutoffs.

"We just wanted to match what other schools that are comparably ranked were already doing," he said.

Nearby University of California, Los Angeles, made its grading curve more lenient in the fall of 2005, in part to keep up with "nationwide shifts in grading," said Elizabeth Cheadle, the dean of students at U.C.L.A.'s law school.

The University of Southern California and the University of California Hastings College of the Law responded by increasing their own curves last school year.

What's more, U.S.C.'s law school dean, Robert K. Rasmussen, said he was partly inspired by the school where he previously worked, Vanderbilt University Law School, which had also changed its curve a few years ago.

These moves can create a vicious cycle like that seen in chief executive pay: if every school in the bottom half of the distribution raises its marks to enter the top half of the distribution, or even just to become average, the average creeps up. This puts pressure on schools to keep raising their grades further.

Love the comparison to executive pay.

Of course, disingenuous pseudo-earnest protests of helplessness aside, it doesn't have to be this way. It's not, for instance, at the University of Chicago, which has long had its own tough and idiosyncratic grading system. Having dispensed with the 4 point concept long ago, Chicago stands on its own with employers, rather than in comparison and competition with everyone else.

Worth noting: all this talk of protecting and assisting students is really just another way of packaging an attempt to fool employers and law students into accepting (and financing) the unacceptable. Employers are supposed to not notice that the school is passing off a lesser product as better than it is; students are supposed to regard the cheapening of their credentials as a rationale for the enormous cost of acquiring them. Smokescreens all around--with the ultimate aim being to allow law schools to carry on with business as usual, charging extortionate fees while over-producing under-educated and under-trained young adults who would like to call themselves lawyers. If law schools really were concerned about students' future prospects, they wouldn't falsify student records or abandon evaluation altogether--they'd educate students better, they'd toughen up requirements, they'd make sure students graduate actually prepared to go to work, and they'd charge a lot less.

Law schools are technically supposed to serve students (by educating them) and society (by providing graduates with skills society needs and will pay for). But they have lost track of that, and now seem to be largely in the business of serving themselves. Keyword: business.

Erin O'Connor, 6:34 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

June 18, 2010 [feather]
Law school scam

For a long time, the conventional wisdom among humanities majors has been this: Law school is the way to go if you want a safe, secure, flexible, and lucrative way to keep reading and writing for a living. I can't count how many times I sat with English majors who were wrestling with what to do with their lives, who saw themselves as having a choice between grad school (intellectually thrilling, but with very poor job prospects) and law school (less seemingly thrilling, but with rock solid prospects for any number of career paths afterward). I didn't try to sway them one way or another--just to help them make "informed decisions," which is, of course, an alchemically obscure and irreducible process of balancing passion and pragmatics. Still, and perhaps this was because it was Penn, where the Wharton School exerts a distinctly pre-professional influence on undergraduate culture, almost all of them chose law school. For many, it wasn't even much of a choice.

Over the years, I wrote countless law school recommendations and very, very few grad school recommendations. I never worried too much about the ones who were law school-bound--the students I worried about were the ones who decided to go for PhD's in English. Grad school in the humanities is a scam. There are simply no jobs, tenure is disappearing, the culture of the academic humanities is pathological, and the sort of academic life grad students hope to acquire is ceasing to exist. But law school, I felt, was a safe bet--and would also offer its own variety of intellectual thrill. Who wouldn't want to learn to think with the precision, capaciousness, originality, and historical-mindedness that the law requires? It's beautiful and powerful and very, very useful. When done well, it's applied scholarship, scholarship with decisiveness and impact.

But bubbles are bursting everywhere we look these days. Last month I posted about how Loyola's law school is cooking transcripts to give its grads a leg up on the job market. Now comes word of widespread cynical profiteering at the expense of students' futures:

It's grim reading. The observations are raw, bitter, and filled with despair. It is easier to avert our eyes and carry on with our pursuits. But please, take a few moments and force yourself to look at Third Tier Reality, Esq. Never, Exposing the Law School Scam, Jobless Juris Doctor, Temporary Attorney: The Sweatshop Edition, and linked sites. Read the posts and the comments. These sites are proliferating, with thousands of hits.

Look past the occasional vulgarity and disgusting pictures. Don't dismiss the posters as whiners. To a person they accept responsibility for their poor decisions. But they make a strong case that something is deeply wrong with law schools.

Their complaint is that non-elite law schools are selling a fraudulent bill of goods. Law schools advertise deceptively high rates of employment and misleading income figures. Many graduates can't get jobs. Many graduates end up as temp attorneys working for $15 to $20 dollars an hour on two week gigs, with no benefits. The luckier graduates land jobs in government or small firms for maybe $45,000, with limited prospects for improvement. A handful of lottery winners score big firm jobs.

And for the opportunity to enter a saturated legal market with long odds against them, the tens of thousands newly minted lawyers who graduate each year from non-elite schools will have paid around $150,000 in tuition and living expenses, and given up three years of income. Many leave law school with well over $100,000 in non-dischargeable debt, obligated to pay $1,000 a month for thirty years.

This dismal situation was not created by the current recession--which merely spread the pain up the chain into the lower reaches of elite schools. This has been going on for years.

The law graduates posting on these sites know the score. They know that law schools pad their employment figures--96% employed--by counting as "employed" any job at all, legal or non-legal, including part time jobs, including unemployed graduates hired by the school as research assistants (or by excluding unemployed graduates "not currently seeking" a job, or by excluding graduates who do not supply employment information). They know that the gaudy salary numbers advertised on the career services page--"average starting salary $125,000 private full time employment"--are actually calculated based upon only about 25% of the graduating class (although you can't easily figure this out from the information provided by the schools). They know all this because they know of too many classmates who didn’t get jobs or who got low paying jobs--the numbers don't jibe with their first hand knowledge.

They know the score now. But they didn’t know it when they first applied to law school. They bought into the numbers provided by law schools. The mission of these sites is to educate, to warn away, the incoming crop of prospective law students--to save them from becoming victims of the law school scam.

In other words, law school is turning into grad school, only with debt. At least if you are getting a PhD in English, you can do it for free. You might live on a shoestring (I lived on $10,000/year when I was getting my PhD during the early 1990s), but your tuition is covered and you don't graduate six figures under.

Is this an argument for following your passion and getting that lit PhD after all? No. I think it's an argument for thinking practically about the handshake between educational options and career options before and during college--and for making choices along the way that are at once economically viable and personally satisfying. There are crafts and trades that don't require college, that pay well, and that are very satisfying and very stable forms of work. There are affordable colleges and unaffordable ones. There are majors that translate readily into work, and majors that don't. And there are ways to have it all--I'm the last person to tell people they shouldn't study the humanities and shouldn't care about the liberal arts. They should. But there are double majors, well-chosen internships, and other ways to make sure that one's course of study leads to paying work in the end. That may sound crassly materialistic, but unless you are independently wealthy, that's what has to happen.

Meanwhile, what about the schools themselves? For years, a few lone voices in the academic humanities have been arguing that the dire employment situation of new PhDs happened on their watch and is their fault--but they haven't convinced those who've got theirs to get off their butts, take responsibility, and reform the system that keeps them comfy at others' severe expense. Things continue, and the tenured few seem happy to live out their careers taking care of number one, leeching off the underpaid labor of others, and leaving a professional wasteland for a legacy. Go team!

Law professor Brian Tamanaha is telling law professors that they need to do better:

Wait a minute, we protest.

Law professors are not scammers. We advance the rule of law and justice. We promote efficient legal institutions. We develop legal knowledge and knowledge about law for the good of society. We are the conscience of the legal profession. Indeed, we made a financial sacrifice to become academics when we could have earned more money as practicing lawyers.

The students made their choices. They should have done more research. They should have thought more carefully about the consequences of taking on so much debt. It was their foolish over-optimism to think they would place among the top 10% of the class and land the scarce corporate law jobs. They should have known better. (If the numbers on our website are misleading it's the Administration's fault; and we don't set the high tuition.) Don't blame us.

It is their dream to become a lawyer--we provide them with the opportunity and what they make of it is up to them. Besides, a law degree is valuable even if you don't get a job as a lawyer. It improves your reasoning ability. It opens all kinds of doors.

When annual tuition was $10,000 to $15,000, these rationalizations had enough truth, or at least plausibility, to hold up. When annual tuition reaches $30,000 to $40,0000, however, it begins to sound hollow. Students at many law schools are putting out a huge amount of money for meager opportunities.

What can we do? As a start, we can provide prospective students with straightforward information about the employment numbers of recent graduates. It is open knowledge that many law schools present employment information in a misleading fashion, or don't disclose it at all. This lack of candor on the part of law schools is itself a telling indication that there is something problematic about the product we are selling to prospective students.

More crucially, law schools must shrink the number of graduates, and must hold the line on tuition increases. (The fact that many students get scholarships is no answer because it simply means that some students, those paying full fare--often the students with the worst prospects--are subsidizing others.) This will be painful: smaller raises (perhaps even salary reductions), smaller administrations, smaller faculties, more teaching, less money for research, travel, and conferences.

The longer law schools delay in undertaking these measures, the more casualties there will be. At some point, law professors can no longer disclaim responsibility for the harmful consequences of this enterprise. (These comments are not meant to point fingers at others--I too want to earn as much as I can, with lots of time for research, knowing that this is paid for by students.)

Professors at elite law schools might think this has nothing to do with them because their graduates are getting opportunities that justify the cost. In narrow terms this might be correct. But the current contraction of the legal market has spared no one (except law schools!), so their graduates are not immune. Their graduates too are burdened by massive debt.

Law school tuition has tripled in just 15 years. Annual tuition at Yale, Columbia, and Berkeley will likely top $50,000 by next year. Add $20,000 per year in living expenses, and the total cost of becoming a lawyer at these institutions will be $210,000. (That’s not counting the cost of an undergraduate degree.) Other law schools are not far behind (New York Law School projects an annual cost of $67,615).

The negative consequences for individuals and for society of the extraordinary price of entry to the legal profession will become more apparent over time. And it all happened under our watch.

Will law professors act to clean up law schools' act? They should. But if the example of the academic humanities is any indicator, they won't. Lowering costs and being honest about expectations would come out of their pockets and their comforts--and that would be just too much.

Erin O'Connor, 6:52 AM | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

June 16, 2010 [feather]
Learning to share

Right now the AAUP is calling for greater faculty involvement in shared governance, and so are prominent members of the professoriate--among them AAUP president and University of Illinois English professor Cary Nelson, whose new book, No University Is an Island, makes the case for both stronger faculty unions and more faculty power. The idea is that there are so many outside pressures on the academy--from reduced public funding to political meddling to corporate manipulation--that faculty have to band together to protect what's theirs. Bolstering this idea is the notion that trustees, who run our colleges and universities but tend not to be of colleges and universities, are intrusive, agenda-driven, anti-intellectual, and generally not to be trusted.

But "shared governance," like "academic freedom," is one of those magical terms that can mean just about whatever anyone wants it to mean. Most faculty--and, indeed, most trustees--don't really have much of a clue what the rationale for it is, or what it means for who gets to decide what. And, as often happens, confusion on such a basic point creates a vacuum that then gets filled with mischief--and so you get micromanaging trustees and absentee trustees, disengaged faculty and faculty who think they run the place. Mismanagement, paralysis, and infighting ensue.

Meanwhile, those pressures aren't going away. And higher ed has a problem. As reporters and pundits are beginning to observe, this industry has blown up like a bubble in recent years. And it's about to burst. The solution? Swift, creative, constructive action. Better shared governance--which means getting back to basics, so that faculty, administrators, and trustees actually approach governance with a shared understanding of what it is. Simple, practical, straightforward, reasonable.

This was the theme of ACTA's panel last Friday at the annual meeting of the AAUP. And to its credit, the Chronicle of Higher Ed attended the panel to see what it was all about. That was a good idea--ACTA was at the AAUP conference last year, too, and ran a very successful panel on governance. On the strength of that, ACTA returned this year to continue the conversation that began last year.

Sadly, though, the Chronicle's coverage strikes me as oddly skewed. First, ACTA is introduced as a "right-of-center" group--a gratuitous and inaccurate label (ACTA is nonpartisan) that serves, in this context, as a credentialling slur for columnist David Glenn. Second, Glenn takes another cheap shot by representing panelist Donald Drakeman as the financier behind "a high-profile effort to promote conservative scholarship on an Ivy League campus"--when what Drakeman is is a supporter of the acclaimed and nonpartisan James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton.

Really, Mr. Glenn. Doesn't this kind of thing just bore you? Or at least embarrass you--just a little bit?

Topping it off, Glenn devotes excessive attention to panelist Mark Schneider's "combative ... provocations," focussing particularly on his comment that "I have no use for the concept of tenure. None whatsoever." Schneider is a former SUNY political science professor who is also a former commissioner of the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics. He is presently a vice president at the American Institutes for Research. He doesn't speak for ACTA--but the article rather implies that he does, and some are reading it that way. As one commenter notes, "ACTA has been kind enough to put their agenda on the table. It is a fait accompli only if we accept it as such." More tarring by association. One notes that Glenn does not appear in the comments to disabuse confused commenters of erroneous assumptions that his article helped them to make.

As it happens, ACTA policy director Michael Poliakoff--formerly of the University of Colorado--has added a clarifying comment:

ACTA was pleased to be a part of the 2010 AAUP conference--for the second year--in what we hope will be an ongoing, constructive conversation. Our panel focused attention on how faculty and trustees can work together to tackle the pressing matters of cost, educational quality, and accountability in a manner that respects academic freedom and avoids micromanagement. Historically, faculty and trustees have tended to view each other with suspicion (if not outright hostility). What is lost in this standoff is true shared governance and shared expertise. Trustees are the ultimate fiduciaries of their institutions--and it is ACTA's conviction that they simply must step up and become more engaged. The Chronicle's characterizations notwithstanding, engagement of the sort ACTA recommends is not a conservative or liberal issue. Rather, in an era of shrinking funding, governmental intrusion, and declining public trust, this is a matter of higher ed's sustainability and survival--and should therefore concern everyone who cares about the future of our colleges and universities.

In this regard, one of the real takeaways of Friday's discussion was articulated by Senator Brown and echoed by the audience: Governance focused on appropriate goals, measurement of outcomes, and an informed public really does work. For example, re-directing limited resources to instruction rather than administration--as Senator Brown did at the University of Northern Colorado--does make sense. Similarly, ensuring that tenure remains robust through a rigorous system of post-tenure review--a theme ACTA has outlined at length in the AAUPs own magazine, Academe, and that Senator Brown himself develops in an article that we distributed at the session is an essential part of this equation.

A little clarification can be a beautiful thing. A pity that Glenn preferred--to borrow his own terms--"combative provocations."

Erin O'Connor, 7:14 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

June 14, 2010 [feather]
UC-Irvine gets it right

Too often, there are problems with follow through when universities respond to scandalously bad behavior on campus. When the media pressure gets intense, they say they'll look into it, buy themselves some time ... and then quietly allow matters to drop when media attention and general public furor die down.

I confess, I was starting to suspect that something of the sort might be happening at UC-Irvine, where, in February, members of the Muslim Student Union plotted to shut down Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren's talk, ignored administrators who warned them not to--and then repeatedly and rudely interfered with his ability to deliver his invited, scheduled remarks. This was classic heckler's veto behavior, and as I have noted many times on this blog, such behavior is illegitimate, should not be confused with free speech, and should not be tolerated on campus. The episode at UCI made headlines, and many called for UCI to hold the students accountable.

An investigation was launched. Months passed. Silence.

One could, perhaps, be forgiven for beginning to suspect that this was proving to be an instance of administrative cynicism--another instance of do-nothingism in the hope that the public would never notice.

Then today comes the announcement that UCI has followed through:

The University of California at Irvine has suspended the campus's Muslim Student Union for one year and placed the group on disciplinary probation after members of the group repeatedly interrupted a campus speech in February by Israel's ambassador to the United States, according to a letter released on Monday.

The hecklers shouted down the ambassador, Michael Oren, at times calling him a "killer" and scuttling parts of the speech. Video of the event drew international attention and sparked a debate about the tactics of the protesters, who said they were angry about Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

A university review found that the group had planned the disruption in advance, and that it had violated a number of campus policies, including disruption of university activities and disorderly conduct. The group will be banned from the campus until at least September 2011, and its members will be required to complete 50 hours of community service, according to the letter, supplied by the university in response to a public-records request.

A campus spokeswoman, Cathy Lawhon, said the university would not yet comment on the findings because the matter is confidential and the Muslim Student Union still has the option to appeal the findings to the dean of students. Representatives of the Muslim Student Union did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nice work.

More from Professor Mundo.

Erin O'Connor, 1:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

June 11, 2010 [feather]
Much ado?

Inside Higher Ed picks up the Cry Wolf scandal, and asks whether those who are critical of the Cry Wolf project are themselves crying wolf. I'm glad to see the story make it into the higher ed news, but disappointed by the way it's written: the article reproduces the partisan framework of the Cry Wolf project itself, describing the issues entirely in terms of political gamesmanship:

Some prominent liberal academics are soliciting short essays from faculty members and graduate students to document a pattern in American history of major social advances being opposed by conservatives who "cry wolf" about the impact of proposed reforms. The campaign -- known as the "Cry Wolf Project" -- hasn't been officially announced. But conservative bloggers obtained some of the solicitations of essays and published them this week, along with considerable criticism.

And we're off! It's all about liberals vs conservatives--just as the Cry Wolf project is all about liberals vs conservatives. Because, you know, there's no other way to think. There just isn't. Just ask the professors!

What's sad is that this is not about liberals vs conservatives. Well, maybe it is for some people, but those are the people who don't get it. What this is about is principle. That would be why, when I first posted on this, I didn't talk about liberals and conservatives--I talked about patterns of behavior, academic norms, and professional ethics. Those issues exist for me consistently, regardless of politics. I don't think academics should be paying for "research" that is actually agitprop--or soliciting "scholarship" that will only ever come to a foregone conclusion. And I think that no matter who the academic is, and no matter what political outlook dominates academic culture. I would venture to say that KC Johnson, who has also written about Cry Wolf and is also cited in the article, would say the same. And for the record, I don't think either of us can very comfortably be described as a "conservative." KC is a self-described democrat and Obama-voter. I'm an independent when it comes to voting; am very liberal when it comes to things like gay marriage, abortion rights, repealing DADT, legalizing marijuana, and so on; and am right of center, but not far right, when it comes to economic questions. I think our government should be smaller and should spend less. I think that's pretty mainstream, and I don't think that this is accurately captured by the adjective "conservative."

Anyhow, all of this is to say that on this sunny Friday, I have a dream. It's a dream of a world where we can finally let go of all the partisan crap that is poisoning our culture, our educational system, our relationships, our press, and, yes, our government. It doesn't have to be that way--and the academy is, in principle, supposed to be a place where it isn't.

UPDATE 6/14: More from KC Johnson, who notes that academic defenses of the project are actually helping to confirm the critiques you have seen here and elsewhere. KC's critique traces how the poisonously moralized framework of "conservative vs liberal," in which conservatives are implicitly bad, immoral, and anti-intellectual, while liberals are implicitly good, ethical, and academically responsible is shaping a debate that really ought to be about matters of principle, not partisan labels.

Erin O'Connor, 7:16 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

June 10, 2010 [feather]
How's your bubble?

At Naked Law, eight reasons why the college tuition bubble is about to burst:

1) Tuition is, and has been, increasing at double the rate of inflation

On average, college tuition increases at around 8 percent per year, which means the cost of college doubles every nine years. Because colleges know that students will simply borrow more money to cover tuition increases, colleges have been relying on steady tuition hikes to solve all of their money problems. If this continues a college degree will soon cost as much as a house.

2) Students are borrowing more than ever to pay for college

The number of college students graduating with over $25,000 in student loan debt has tripled in the past decade alone. Today, 66% of students borrow to pay for college, taking on an average of $23,165 in debt. Twelve years ago, 58% borrowed to pay for college, taking on only $13,172 in debt.

3) For profit colleges are paying homeless people to take out federal loans to enroll

Because student loans are so easy to acquire, enterprising colleges are paying homeless people to enroll. The math makes sense when you think about it: if paying someone a $2,000 "stipend" gets the college $20,000/year in tuition courtesy of the federal government, that's money well spent. Unfortunately, many people who accept such "stipend" offers never graduate, become overwhelmed with student debt, and destroy their already bad financial records.

4) Colleges are on a non-teaching staff hiring spree that far outpaces enrollment

Why hire a full-time professor when you can hire an "environmental sustainability officer"? According to the a New York Times article, over the past two decades colleges have doubled their non-teaching staff, while enrollment has only increased by 40%. Often times staff members have exotic duties like monitoring environmental sustainability, or their focus is on student "lifestyle." Economist Daniel Bennett, who conducted this study, says "Universities and colleges are catering more to students, trying to make college a lifestyle, not just people getting an education. There's more social programs, more athletics, more trainers, more sustainable environmental programs." Of course, much this exotic hiring and lifestyle catering is made possible by student loan money.

5) For profit reliance on federal loans has reached an all time high

According to Bloomberg, publicly traded higher education companies derive three-fourths of their revenue from federal funds, up from just 48 percent in 2001 and approaching the 90 percent limit set by federal law. The fact that colleges are almost completely relying on borrowed money to finance tuition, up to the legal limit, means we’ve almost hit the breaking point. If not for the easy student loan money sloshing around, many colleges would go belly up tomorrow.

6) Schools are spending on luxurious amenities to lure in more students

Flush with student loan money and wanting to attract even more, colleges are increasingly spending on luxury dorms, gyms, swimming pools and other amenities.

Freakonomics author Stephen Dubner noted that when he went back to his college, a chancellor told him that “[the gym] was a top priority because parents and prospective students increasingly think of themselves as customers, shopping for the most amenities for the best price, and the colleges that didn’t come to grips with this would soon see their customers going elsewhere.” But gyms are just the tip of the iceberg. At High Point University in North Carolina, students are treated to valet parking, live music in the cafeteria and Starbucks gift cards on their birthdays.

7) College president salaries are sky high, even in a historical economic downturn

USA Today reported that 23 Private College Presidents Made More Than $1 Million in 2008, while 110 made more than $500,000. In case you were wondering, this is not the norm -- as recently as 2002, there were no million-dollar presidents. And it's no wonder the college administrator gravy train continues despite the down economy. After all, when your "customers" have easy access to credit and pay you with money they don't have, the economy doesn't really matter, does it?

8) The student loan problem cuts across all schools, for profit and nonprofit

Often times the discussion about a high tuition leads to a flogging of for profit colleges. And while for profit colleges are often the worst about shamelessly fattening themselves at the trough of student loans, it's not a for profit vs. non profit issue. In fact, for profit colleges account for less than half of student loan defaults. Nor is the issue one of "good colleges" vs. "bad colleges." As this New York Times article illustrates, even students at prestigious non-profit schools like NYU can find themselves in financially ruinous circumstances because of their student loans.

My line on this is the minimalist one: Don't take on any debt, ever, that you don't have to take on. If you can't afford a private school, then do not enroll in one. There are still affordable publics in this country, and you can even still get a good education at them.

This is not to say that we don't need lots and lots of reform, within the student loan industry and within colleges and universities themselves. Student loans have been too easy to get, and they are too hard for too many to pay off. And if you read this blog, you've heard me time and time again about the way bureaucratic bloat, excessive executive pay, unnecessary country-clubbish perks, academically lame boutique programs and majors, and so on have pushed costs up way beyond what's viable--even as they have failed to do anything meaningful for improving actual education. You've also heard me over and over again about how we need to rethink the idea that a college degree is the only path to economic success. That's just dumbing it all down while wasting the considerable talents of people who are not "book smart" but are very smart, talented, and able in other ways.

But people are getting smarter--and the recession is forcing them to become just a bit more financially literate than they were before. Fewer folks are going to make decisions that they know will harm them financially--and colleges and universities are, I hope, going to have to recalibrate when they struggle to enroll, when diversity falters as a result, and when they are forced to confront their ethical lapses in recruiting students who cannot pay for the product they are selling (we need to be brutally economic in our vocabulary in this instance).

This is not a tragedy. It is an opportunity.

Erin O'Connor, 7:39 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

June 9, 2010 [feather]
Academic astroturf

Drier-Email -

A group of progressive professors is looking to recruit and hire grad students to write short policy pieces to combat conservative ideas and the conservative movement. Above is the request for proposals (RFP) for what they call the Cry Wolf Project.

Grad students can now make fifty cents per word to scramble the difference between disinterested scholarship and agenda-driven advocacy work--in other words to become a part of the Great Progressive Astroturf Movement that has brought us such luminaries as Ellie Light. Along the way, they will make great connections that could help them with future employment. After all, as Patrick Courrielche notes, the brain trust behind this plan is heavily professorial:

If this Cry Wolf program were just limited to a few faculty members at a limited number of universities, it would be of little concern. But the project reaches into some of the most prestigious public and private schools of higher learning in the U.S., including MIT, Yale, Harvard, USC, Columbia, Rutgers, UC Santa Barbara, University of Pennsylvania, and President Obama's alma mater--Occidental College.

Courrielche calls this researchprop, and goes on to detail the research agendas and organized labor ties of the faculty spearheading Cry Wolf.

On the one hand, there are no surprises--there has been a decades-long academic tradition, at this point, of discounting the notion that disinterested research is even possible, and of selling the idea that the proper response to this is to shape one's scholarship self-consciously, as a means of ensuring that it assists and justifies the kinds of social justice one would like to see in the world. On the other hand, this activist line of thought has historically had only one line of defense--and that is that it is conducted with impeccable scholarly integrity, is entirely above-board vis a vis research ethics, and is unimpeachable from within the standards of professional conduct. In other words, the ethical standards that accompany interested scholarship are, in theory, terrifically strict. That's how such scholarship can continue to call itself scholarship, and escape being dismissed as propaganda. It's a shaky edifice, but it's an edifice all the same, and it has succeeded. Arguably, though, the Cry Wolf project undermines that entire edifice, as it explicitly supports the arguments of those who would say that large swathes of academia are little more than publicly funded mechanisms for disseminating and producing an ideologically-driven world view.

So where are we here? Is this academic freedom blooming forth in its bountiful variety? Or is it a serious, even actionable violation of academic ethics, not to mention abuse of grad students, exploitation of institutional reputation, and wrongful use of taxpayer dollars? Or is it somewhere in the middle?

UPDATE: Welcome Instapundit readers! And please have a look around and have fun in the comments sections!

MORE: Kurt Schlichter of Big Journalism explains how the profs behind the Cry Wolf project are arguably in violation of their institutions' policies regarding bringing politics into the workplace--and makes the necessary links to how activities such as the Cry Wolf project arguably jeopardize those institutions' tax-exempt, non-profit status.

AND MORE: Liberty Chick has more.

You would think that the proper institutional response here would be to clarify that these profs don't speak for their institutions, make it clear that there is a difference between the exercise of academic freedom and the use of the academic setting as a cover for blatant political advocacy work, and initiate disciplinary proceedings (with proper regard for due process of course) against those faculty who have crossed the line. You might also expect academics who find the Cry Wolf project to be unethical and don't want it tarnishing the whole of academia to speak up. So far, thunderous silence.

STILL MORE 6/10: From John Leo, KC Johnson, and Frank Ross. Andrew Breitbart is also weighing in.

Erin O'Connor, 7:46 AM | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack (0)

June 8, 2010 [feather]
The Lottery

Fifty-eight percent of African-American fourth graders are functionally illiterate. Their parents are desperate for something besides the failing schools--but even in areas where there are strong charter schools, they face enormous obstacles to making sure their children have the chance to learn. Madeleine Sackler's amazing new film about the Harlem Success Academies opens today in theaters across the nation. Watch the trailer above--read the reviews from the New York Daily News, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal--and get locations and showtimes at TheLotteryFilm.com.

Erin O'Connor, 6:24 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

June 7, 2010 [feather]
Academia and damage control

In recent months, climate science has suffered a serious--and arguably well-deserved--body blow. The damage to credibility and reputation are real--and require a response from climate scientists. Here's what Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, thinks should happen:

An opinion poll at the turn of the year found that the proportion of people in the US who trust scientists as a source of information about global warming had dropped from 83 per cent in 2008 to 74 per cent. A survey carried out by the BBC in February found that just 26 per cent of British people now believe climate change is established as largely human made, down from 41 per cent in November last year.

Regaining the confidence and trust of the public is never easy. Hunkering down and hoping for the best - climate science's current strategy - makes it almost impossible. It is much better to learn from the successes and failures of organisations that have dealt with similar blows to their public standing.

Climate science needs professional help to rebuild its reputation. It could do worse than follow the advice given by Leslie Gaines-Ross, a "reputation strategist" at PR company Weber Shandwick, in her recent book Corporate Reputation: 12 steps to safeguarding and recovering reputation.

Gaines-Ross's strategy is based on her analysis of how various organisations responded to crises, such as desktop-printer firm Xerox, whose business plummeted during the 1990s, and NASA after the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003.

The first step she suggests is to "take the heat - leader first". In many cases, chief executives who publicly accept responsibility for corporate failings can begin to reverse the freefall of their company's reputations. But not always. If the leader is held at least partly responsible for the fall from grace, it can be almost impossible to convince critics that a new direction can be charted with that person at the helm.

This is the dilemma facing the heads of the IPCC and CRU. Both have been blamed for their organisations' problems, not least for the way in which they have dealt with critics, and both have been subjected to public calls for their removal. Both organisations appear to believe they can repair their reputations without a change of leadership.

The second step outlined by Gaines-Ross is to "communicate tirelessly". Yet many climate researchers have avoided the media and the public, at least until the inquiries have reported.

This reaction may be understandable, but it has backfired. Journalists following the story have often been unable to find spokespeople willing to defend climate science. In this case, "no comment" is commonly interpreted as an admission of silent, collective guilt.

Remaining visible is only a start, though: climate scientists also need to be careful what they say. They must realise that they face doubts not just about published results but also about their conduct and honesty. It simply won't work for scientists to continue to appeal to the weight of the evidence while refusing to discuss the integrity of their profession. The harm has been increased by a perceived reluctance to admit even the possibility of mistakes or wrongdoing.

The third step put forward by Gaines-Ross is "don't underestimate your critics and competitors". This means not only recognising the skill with which the opponents of climate research have executed their campaigns through blogs and other media, but also acknowledging the validity of some of their criticisms. It is clear, for instance, that climate scientists need better standards of transparency that allow for scrutiny not just by their peers but also by critics from outside the world of research.

It is also important to engage with those critics. That doesn't mean conceding to arguments based on ideology rather than evidence, but there is an obligation to help the public understand the causes of climate change, as well as the options for avoiding and dealing with the consequences.

To begin the process of rebuilding trust in their profession, climate scientists need to follow these three steps. But that is just the start. Gaines-Ross estimates that it typically takes four years for a company to rescue and restore a broken reputation. Winning back public confidence is a marathon, not a sprint. But you can't win at all if you don't step up to the starting line.

Ward's observations are right on the mark--and not just for climate science. Arguably, they could be extended to academic scientists in general, and even more broadly to academia.

Loss of public trust in academia is a real problem right now--and without it, academia can't really exist in a healthy, productive way. As the AAUP's 1915 Declaration of Principles notes, academic freedom exists as part of a public trust--the public grants it, and, if the public isn't convinced that academics are worthy of it, it can take academic freedom away. That's happening, incrementally, but decisively.

But as a general rule, academia doesn't take public concern about its conduct or value very seriously, except insofar as it sees that concern as a contemptible impediment to business as usual. But higher ed's bubble is bursting. And along the way, academic freedom is disappearing. There is a way out--but it requires humility, recommitment to first principles, openness to reform, and a willingness to engage with the public rather than build barricades.

Will that happen? I'm skeptical. As Glenn Reynolds notes in his new piece on the higher ed bubble, traditional colleges and universities are, by virtue of their costly, ineffective intransigence, taking themselves out of the game. Going forward, he suggests, "the real pioneering will be in online education and the work of 'edupunks' who are more interested in finding new ways of teaching and learning than in protecting existing interests."

In alternative higher ed delivery models, are we looking at the collegiate equivalent of the school choice movement?

Erin O'Connor, 7:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

June 3, 2010 [feather]
Hell in a handbasket

Since the world is imploding in every imaginable way, we must focus on basics. You can't personally plug the gaping oil hole in the gulf, or plug the gaping hole in the national wallet, or make Middle Eastern diplomatic relations semi-functional, or make Washington semi-functional, or rescue the euro, or get to the bottom of the climate science scandal. But you can do something simple and wonderful for underprivileged kids. Just give them your old books. Piles of them. Seriously.

USA Today explains:

Can a $50 stack of paperback books do as much for a child's academic fortunes as a $3,000 stint in summer school?
An experimental program in seven states may help answer that question this summer as districts from Nevada to South Carolina give thousands of low-income students an armful of free books.

Research has shown that simply giving children books may be as effective as summer school — and a lot cheaper. The big question is whether the effect can be replicated on a larger scale and help reduce the USA's nagging achievement gap between low-income and middle-class students.

Schools have always tried to get students to read over the summer. For middle-class students, that's not as big a deal with their access to books at home, public libraries and neighborhood bookstores, says Richard Allington, a longtime reading researcher at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

Over the past 20 years, researchers have shown that low-income students simply have less access to print. In some cases, even walking to the local public library may be too dangerous.

"A lot of parents say, 'When we're gone, you can't go to the library.' It's not an option," says Rebecca Constantino, a researcher and instructor at the University of California-Irvine.

The result: a well-documented "summer slide" in academics that, by sixth grade, accounts for as much as 80% of the achievement gap, Allington and other researchers say. Researchers note that low-income students lose about three months of ground each summer to middle-class peers.

"You do that across nine or 10 summers, and the next thing you know, you've got almost three years' reading growth lost," Allington says.

For a study to be published later this year in Reading Psychology, Allington and colleagues selected students in 17 high-poverty elementary schools in Florida and, for three consecutive years, gave each child 12 books, from a list the students provided, on the last day of school.

In all, 852 students received books each year, paid for mostly by federal Title I money. Three years later, researchers found that those students who received books had "significantly higher" reading scores, experienced less of a summer slide and read more on their own each summer than the 478 who didn't get books.

Constantino, who in 1999 founded Access Books, a group that has given away more than 1 million books, says the cause-and-effect is simple: "When kids own books, they get this sense, 'I'm a reader,' " she says. "It's very powerful when you go to a kid's home and ask him, 'Where is your library?' "

The program, piloted last year in Richmond County, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., expands to eight more cities this summer, and 1.5 million books are expected to come home with students, says Greg Worrell of children's book publisher Scholastic, which is offering the books at a discount.

Like Constantino, Worrell says many low-income families "just don't have books in their home at all." But when books come home, parents are inevitably as excited as their children, says Carmel Perkins of Chicago Public Schools, which plans to hand out books to 8,600 students this summer.

"It seems so simple, but parents see it very differently," she says.

This morning, the foam on my homemade latte resolved itself into a mysterious symbolic shape. I rather thought it was a picture of a phoenix rising -- if not from ashes, then from the dregs in the depths of my mug. My interlocutor disagreed. She thought it resembled a fist giving the finger. Perhaps it was both: hope and change, revival and resistance at once.

Gather up your old books and your kids' old books: You know they are cluttering up your shelves and that you won't re-read most of them. And pass them on. What's just taking up space for you may make all the difference for someone else.

Erin O'Connor, 8:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

June 2, 2010 [feather]
What he said
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Spilling Fields
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party
Erin O'Connor, 2:04 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)