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  • College For All, Profit For Some

    by Esther Quintero on March 30, 2011

    The ideal of "College for All”—usually interpreted as meaning the acquisition of a four-year degree—is every bit as noble as it is unattainable, at least judging from actual graduation rates. It is within this tension that for-profit colleges wish to live—a kind of pseudo knight in shining armor riding gallantly into the battle for equal opportunity. But too many for-profit colleges (a.k.a., career colleges) are not solving educational issues. Rather, they are perpetuating inequalities and obscuring the fact that what is preached (e.g., “College for All”) has nothing to do with what gets achieved.

    Many have pointed out that, by enshrining a path so few end up traveling (to say nothing of completing), we may be doing a great disservice to our youth. This argument is loud and clear; what may not be totally obvious is the variegated ways in which this constitutes a disservice. By idealizing the B.A./B.S. path, not only are we discouraging young people from exploring equally valid post high-school options, but we inadvertently may have also made them more vulnerable to the allure of disreputable for-profit colleges and/or encouraged for-profits to exploit this vulnerability.

    As a matter of fact, one consequence (unintended, I am sure) of the “College for All” ideal may have been to widen the niche for for-profit career colleges. I am hardly the first to point out that the worst career colleges sell fake dreams by arm-twisting and sweet-talking potential students into taking out unsustainable—often federally-subsidized—loans for products of uncertain value. For-profit colleges did not create this dream. We did. They have only done what we would expect a for-profit entity to do: Exploit it.

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  • Teacher Quality Is Not A Policy

    by Matthew Di Carlo on March 29, 2011

    I often hear the following argument: Improving teacher quality is more cost-effective than other options, such as reducing class size (see here, for example). I am all for evaluating policy alternatives based on their costs relative to their benefits, even though we tend to define the benefits side of the equation very narrowly - in terms of test score gains.

    But “improving teacher quality” cannot yet be included in a concrete costs/benefits comparison with class size or anything else. It is not an actual policy. At best, it is a category of policy options, all of which are focused on recruitment, preparation, retention, improvement, and dismissal of teachers. When people invoke it, they are presumably referring to the fact that teachers vary widely in their test-based effectiveness. Yes, teachers matter, but altering the quality distribution is whole different ballgame from measuring it overall. It’s actually a whole different sport.

    I think it is reasonable to speculate that we might get more bang for our buck if we could somehow get substantially better teachers, rather than more of them, as would be necessary to reduce class sizes. But the sad, often unstated truth about teacher quality is that there is very little evidence, at least as yet, that public policy can be used to improve it, whether cost-effectively or otherwise

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  • Among Charter Schools, Inconsistency Begets Opportunity

    by Matthew Di Carlo on March 23, 2011

    Andrew Rotherham – who writes the blog "Eduwonk" – has also recently started writing a weekly column for Time Magazine. Most of his articles have been interesting and relatively fair, even on the controversial issues. He has a point of view, just like the rest of us, but usually makes a good-faith effort to present alternate viewpoints and the relevant research.

    His most recent piece was a partial disappointment. In it, Rotherham takes up the issue of charter schools. His overarching argument is that too many people focus on whether or not charter schools are “better” or “worse” than regular public schools, rather than why – which policies and practices are associated with success or failure.

    As I stated in my very first post on this blog (and others), I completely agree. Given the overt politicization of the charter school discussion, the public desperately needs a move away from the pro/anti-charter framework, towards a more useful conversation about how and why particular schools do or don’t work. Their inconsistent performance has caused controversy, but it also an opportunity.

    But, when Rotherham lays out the characteristics (“ethos and operations”) that these successful charters supposedly share, the factors he specifies are vague and unsubstantiated – it’s hard to figure what they mean, to say nothing of whether they actually have the stated effect.

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  • Settling Scores

    by Matthew Di Carlo on March 21, 2011

    In 2007, when the D.C. City Council passed a law giving the mayor control of public schools, it required that a five-year independent evaluation be conducted to document the law’s effects and suggest changes. The National Research Council (a division of the National Academies) was charged with performing this task. As reported by Bill Turque in the Washington Post, the first report was released a couple of weeks ago.

    The primary purpose of this first report was to give “first impressions” and offer advice on how the actual evaluation should proceed. It covered several areas – finance, special programs, organizational structure, etc. – but, given the controversy surrounding Michelle Rhee’s tenure, the section on achievement results got the most attention. The team was only able to analyze preliminary performance data; the same data that are used constantly by Rhee, her supporters, and her detractors to judge her tenure at the helm of DCPS.

    It was one of those reports that tells us what we should already know, but too often fail to consider.

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  • Egypt: Workers Urged To Reject Constitutional Amendments In March 19 Referendum

    by Heba F. El-Shazli on March 18, 2011

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli. She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

    Egypt’s fledgling independent unions have urged members to reject proposed constitutional amendments that are up for a referendum vote on March 19 and to demand a "new constitution that lays the foundations for a new Egypt." In a statement released March 17, the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS), and the newly established Independent Trade Union Federation in Egypt, called the referendum a "constitutional patching"  

    The unions noted that the proposed amendments, which introduce term limits to the presidency and guarantee judicial supervision of elections, are identical to reforms proposed by former President Hosni Mubarak. They argued that the current constitution has no legitimacy, which, after the January 25th Revolution, resides in the Egyptian people.

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  • In Performance Evaluations, Subjectivity Is Not Random

    by Esther Quintero on March 18, 2011

    Employment policies associated with unions – e.g., seniority, salary schedules – are frequently criticized for not placing the highest premium on performance. Detractors also argue that such policies, originally designed to protect workers against discrimination (by gender, race, etc.), are no longer necessary now that federal laws are in place. Accordingly, those seeking to limit collective bargaining among teachers have proposed that current policies be replaced by “performance-based” evaluations – or at least a system that would make it easier to reward and punish based on performance.

    Be careful, argues Samuel A. Culbert in a recent New York Times article, “Why Your Boss is Wrong About You." Culbert warns that there are serious risks to deregulating the employment relationship, and leaving it even partially in the hands of the employer and his/her performance review:

    Now, maybe your boss is all-knowing. But I’ve never seen one that was. In a self-interested world, where imperfect people are judging other imperfect people, anybody reviewing somebody else’s performance ... is subjective.
    This viewpoint may sound obvious, but social science research reminds us that the whims of subjective human judgment are not random. The inefficiencies that Culbert mentions are inevitable, but so is the fact that bias tends to operate in a manner that disproportionately affects workers from traditionally disadvantaged social groups, such as women and African Americans. What’s worse – it’s just as likely to occur within as between groups, and we often do it without realizing.
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  • How Many Teachers Does It Take To Close An Achievement Gap?

    by Matthew Di Carlo on March 17, 2011

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

    Over the weekend, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof made a persuasive argument that teachers should be paid more. In making his case, he also put forth a point that you’ve probably heard before: “One Los Angeles study found that having a teacher from the 25 percent most effective group of teachers for four years in a row would be enough to eliminate the black-white achievement gap."

    This is an instance of what we might call the "X consecutive teachers” argument (sometimes it’s three, sometimes four or five). It is often invoked to support, directly or indirectly, specific policy prescriptions, such as merit pay, ending tenure, or, in this case, higher salaries (see also here and here). To his credit, Kristof’s use of the argument is on the cautious side, but there are plenty of examples in which it used as evidence supporting particular policies.

    Actually, the day after the column ran, in a 60 Minutes segment featuring “The Equity Project," a charter school that pays its teachers $125,000 a year, the school’s principal was asked how he planned to narrow the achievement gap with his school. His reply was: “The difference between a great teacher and a mediocre or poor teacher is several grade levels of achievement in a given year. A school that focuses all of its energy and its resources on fantastic teaching can bridge the achievement gap."

    Indeed, it is among the most common arguments in our education policy debate today.  In reality, however, it is little more than a stylistic riff on empirical research findings, and a rough one at that. It is not at all useful when it comes to choosing between different policy options.

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  • Are Americans Really Unwilling To Pay More To Prevent Education Cuts?

    by Matthew Di Carlo on March 14, 2011

    In a speech earlier today, President Obama asserted, “We will not cut education," and implied that doing so would be “reckless” and “irresponsible." The president’s heartening remark, however, comes as  education funding is taking a massive hit at the state and local levels in most states, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, and, yes, Wisconsin. The damage will likely last for many years.

    In all the debate about what to cut and how deeply, there seems to be an assumption that an increase in revenue for education – to avert these massive cuts - is not an option. Although there are exceptions, very few Democratic governors are supporting tax increases to make up their states’ shortfalls, while Republicans governors are, of course, adamantly opposed.

    Among many members of both parties, the presumption seems to be that raising revenue is simply a non-starter, because the American people are unwilling to pay more.

    I’m not so sure. There is some evidence to suggest that this assumption deserves a second look.

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  • K-12 Standardized Testing Craze Hinders Enthusiasm And Creativity For The Long Haul

    by William Schmidt on March 14, 2011

    Our guest author today is Bill Scheuerman, professor of political science at the State University of New York, Oswego and a retired president of the United University Professions. He is also a member of the Shanker Institute board of directors.

    A recent study by Richard Arum, Josipa Roksa, and Esther Cho, entitled Improving Undergraduate Learning: Findings and Policy Recommendations from the SSRC-CLA Longitudinal Project, should make us all take a closer look at student learning in higher education. The report finds that students enter college with values at odds with academic achievement. They party more and work less, but this lack of effort has had little or no effect on grade point averages. The study indicates that some 36 percent of current college graduates did not improve their critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills, despite having relatively high GPAs. In other words, more than a third of new graduates lack the ability to understand and critically evaluate the world we live in.

    Nobody is arguing that we should go back to the good old days when college access was limited to the elite. Politicians and business are united in the goal of the United States once again attaining the highest percentage of college graduates in the world.

    Notably, in the face of rising global competition from China and India, President Obama has called this the "Sputnik moment" for math and science education in the U.S.

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  • Fundamental Rights At Work

    by Randall Garton on March 11, 2011

    As Wisconsin public employees reorganize for a long fight in the wake of the state GOP’s "midnight strike" at collective bargaining rights, it brought to my mind one of guest blogger Heba El-Shazli’s posts on Egypt. In it, she notes that Egypt’s new, independent unions are demanding reformed labor laws that incorporate the International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

    For many people, this reference probably begs the question: What the heck is actually in the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work?  The startlingly intense loathing of collective bargaining rights by Gov. Scott Walker, the Wisconsin GOP, and their supporters, is incentive enough to elaborate on this document.  

    Adopted in 1998, the Declaration commits ILO members " to respect and promote workers’ rights and principles”  in four categories:  freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of forced or compulsory labor; the abolition of child labor; and the elimination of discrimination in respect to employment and occupation. These are the “core” principles of the ILO, and are incorporated into its "conventions" – an expression of the ILO labor standards. This is the heart of this venerable, tripartite organization, in which business, labor, and government representatives share a place at the table.

    These conventions are not simply some amorphous “rights” dreamed up by union leaders. They are well-established international law, approved and reviewed by employers, unions, and government representatives.

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