Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Whose Race to the Top?

A new investigation into the charter schools run by Joe Biden's brother Frank, a self-proclaimed "PT Barnum" of charters, raises interesting implications for the Obama Administration's educational policy known as Race to the Top.

As many, including the U.S. Department of Education which oversees RTTT, have pointed out, states that embrace charter schools are winning the race. As DOE materials put it, "President Obama has called upon states to encourage the expansion of charter schools. A network of innovative and high-achieving charter schools can be an important part of a state's school reform effort. However, charter schools are facing significant obstacles to expansion in too many states."

Is this an entirely disinterested reform effort? Many others have raised concerns about the neoliberalism inherent in RTTT, which shapes the dominance of private business interests over common public goods. For example, in a recent article two researchers from Occidental College document the actions taken by Arne Duncan in Chicago, where Renaissance 2000 threatened participatory democracy by excluding parents from key decisions including the closing of schools, an action that the Consortium for Chicago School Research did not find to be beneficial for student outcomes.

The "unintended" consequences of capitalizing school markets are numerous, but one also has to wonder about the intended consequences as well. As it turns out, Vice President Biden, a guy I have generally liked, has family interests in the charter school movement. This most recent investigation, which in full disclosure I will say was conducted by my sister Lisa Rab, makes me further wonder whether the Race to the Top is really about the 99% of America's students-- or truly about advancing the advantages of the 1%. As usual.

PS. Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post also covered this story, on December 10, several weeks after Lisa began writing about it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Billionaire Education Policy: Part 2 (Guest Post)

The following is the second post in a two-part series by Robin Rogers, associate professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). For more about Robin and her first post, click here.

Before I jump into policy experiments, I want to reflect on the enthusiastic response that I received from last week’s Part One of Billionaire Education Policy. If I could summarize the response with one word, it would be relief.

A lot of people who work in education, philanthropy, and government are wary of the rise in billionaire policymaking, but are reticent in voicing their concerns. Perhaps this is fear of retaliation -- what Edward Skloot calls the “Brass-Knuckles philanthropy”of the Gates Foundation. But I see another, more heartening piece to this puzzle. People in the philanthropic and advocacy communities don’t want to harm the mission of philanthropy. We fear that revealing the pitfalls of billionaire philanthropy might have some unforeseen effect on the good work that these foundations support.

Billionaire policymaking is the elephant in the room, but nobody seems sure how to approach it. I say that we should name the elephant, but we don’t have to shoot him. There is a middle road.

We’ve named the elephant – it is philanthro-policymaking. It is here to stay. A small, well-networked group of the super-rich will make and fund social policy globally. We don’t have to shoot the elephant, but we need to understand its nature and learn to live happily with it. Like any powerful institution, billionaire philanthropy needs checks and balances. Our task is to develop them.

Now, to education policy. If you’re not a policy wonk, wonkette, or even a wink, as my more politically savvy friends called me in college, stay with me. Once you get past the odd language of experimentation and evaluation, it’s all politics and human folly.

Testing new policy ideas is appealing. Why have a political battle over education reform, when you can experiment with a bunch on a small scale, and then pick the one that works best? In my last post, I mentioned the recent New York Times article “Policy-Making Billionaires” by Nicholas Confessore. In his coverage of Mark Zuckerberg’s controversial 100 million dollar donation to the Newark, NJ school system, Confessore wrote that NJ officials now plan use the money to “experiment” with education policy and find “what works” and then replicate the best programs with public money: “Whatever proves most effective [in the experiments] can then be rolled out on a larger scale.”

This approach to policy reform is not new. It was a central part of welfare reform in the 1990s. Testing and measuring are particlulary attractive to super-wealthy business oriented philanthropists – philanthrocapitalists. Philanthrocapitalist apply business models to philanthropy. They want to measure everything like money.

Social good is harder to measure than money. The official U.S. poverty line was changed this year after years of debate and controversy. We are struggling to even measure poverty. How do we measure student performance? Teacher quality? Our measurements are imprecise at best and meaningless and misleading at worst. Most educators, advocates, researchers, philanthropists, and policymakers are well aware of the problem of measuring complex outcomes. That awareness disappears when we talk about policy experiments. We act as if testing these programs will lead to some empirical, objective truth about what work bests.

Sociologists talk about manifest and latent functions – for all of you Sociologists, I am not suggesting a functionalist approach to education policy, the concept is illustrative. A manifest function is what something is supposed to do. For example, the manifest function of prisons is to incarcerate people. Things also have latent functions – effects that they have in addition to the stated objective. Prisons provide jobs, for example. That is a latent function.

Policy experiments are supposed to tell us empirically how good a program or approach is. They don’t do this very well. Randomized experiments are expensive, difficult, and rare. Most policy “experiments” aren’t really experiments. They are a trial run of a program with data collection. Even then, the data is often collected haphazardly or to highlight program success and minimize failures. Politics and research also operate in different time frames – solid evaluations often take years. In short, well-funded policy evaluations take too long to actually affect policy, and ad hoc evaluations don’t produce reliable findings. If you want to read more about these issues, I recommend Education Research on Trial.

If policy experiments don’t succeed in their manifest function, why are they still around? Because they are brilliant at their latent functions.

1) Building networks of people who support a particular reform and placing many of them in administrative positions.
2) Funding the intellectual development of a new policy.
3) Political advantage. If a program is in place, opponents can’t say the program is radical, impossible or to predict catastrophe -- few social programs have immediate and obvious consequences.
4) Taking the debate out of the political realm -- what should we do -- where citizens play a role and putting them in the technical, “expert” realm -- what works.

“Experiments” is not the correct word for this process. The scientific language of experimentation trips us up. Seeding is a more accurate description.

I’m not much of a gardener, but I know that I planted the plants that grow in my backyard, and I know that their success depends on what was planted there before, the quality of the soil, and the weather. Not everything that I plant grows. Some grow for a bit and then wither. Some flowers are hearty but ugly. But none are there because they’re empirically the best possible plants to be growing in my garden.

We need to think of experimental programs as planted seeds rather than clinical experiments. We learn which of the programs that we plant thrive and which fail. We can uproot the plants that are thriving but are poisonous to the plants around them. Rather than talking about outcomes and “yields” in some Sisyphean effort to find the thing that “works best,” we should talk about program results. We should talk about the actual plants, instead of pretending that our “experiments” will one day yield a perfect plant. We should talk about whether a specific goal was met. We should talk about how the goals relate to our values. And we should keep trying to get better measures for the outcomes we care about.

Talking about “policy experiments” as what they really are – seed programs for social policy – would help us see more clearly that billionaire philanthropists have become policy makers. The power of the economic elite currently hides behind the language of science, which seems to legitimize their actions and prevents us from asking questions. If Bill Gates is funding “research” and gathering “evidence” in “experiments” that he is funding, this seems normal. If he’s funding a seed program that will help the government set education policy, the privatization of policy becomes more obvious. We must not allow the language of science to obscure the power of the economic elite. Policy seeding is an effective political strategy

Monday, December 5, 2011

Billionaire Education Policy (Guest Post)

The following is a guest posting by my colleague and friend Robin Rogers, associate professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). She is the author of “Why Philanthro-policymaking Matters” in The Politics of Philanthrocapitalism, Society 2011, The Welfare Experiments: Politics and Policy Evaluation (Stanford University Press, 2004) and numerous articles on politics and social policy. Rogers served as a Congressional Fellow on Women and Public Policy during welfare reform, as a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Scholar at Yale University, was a visiting fellow at Princeton University. She is writing a book on philanthro-policymaking, Billionaire Philanthropy. This is the first of two posts in a mini-series on the Education Optimists.

The word “policy” makes us think of politicians and bureaucrats. But what happens when powerful policy-makers aren’t elected or appointed? Today, billionaires are shaping education policy in the United States. Buying political influence—-even legally—-feels dirty, so let me try again:

Philanthropists are saving our schools!

See what happened when I replaced “political influence” with “philanthropy”?

The super wealthy—I’m talking about the .01, not the measly 1%—have more influence in American politics than the 99% because they can donate huge sums of money to political campaigns and fund Congressional lobbyists. But their power extends beyond these well-publicized campaign contributions. With the economic crisis, the government is broken and broke, leaving a vacuum for the very rich to become more directly involved with the formation and implementation of social policy.

For years, the connection between philanthropy and policy-making has flown under the radar, but last week, the New York Times published “Policy-Making Billionaires” by political reporter Nicholas Confessore. I’m surprised it took so long for an article on billionaire policymaking to hit the newsstands. The Occupy Movement focused public attention on inequality and the concentration of wealth and power, yet we rarely talk about elite, strategic philanthropy, which Mathew Bishop calls philanthro-capitalism and Chrystia Freeland calls plutocracy. Michael Edwards has argued that philanthro-capitalism erodes civil society. I have written about the rise of philanthro-policymaking. But still, the rise of co-ordinated and strategic philanthropy by the very wealthy hasn’t been covered by the media.

Very, very wealthy men—-Diane Ravitch calls them the Billionaires Boys Club-- are setting policy. Ravitch’s “Boys Club” moniker has a literal counterpart in the form of the mysterious "The Good Club," a small group of billionaires led by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates that meets with the specific intention of setting the global social agenda. To be fair, it is not only a boys club; reportedly, Oprah is a member, so it’s The Billionaire Boys Club and Oprah.

Education policy is where mega-philanthropists are making the most significant inroads in the United States. In New York, billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg and billionaire philanthropist George Soros put up $30 million each for the Young Men’s Initiative, and then the City of New York matched these contributions. The goal of the Young Men’s Initiative is to improve the health, education, and employment of young black and Latino men in New York so they don’t end up in prison. No argument here: that’s a great goal. But $60 million in matching funds? Is this just extra cash the city had on hand? No. It came at the exclusion of other policy priorities. Is the Young Men’s Initiative a better use of taxpayer dollars than other programs would have been? Maybe. Did the philanthropic agenda of Bloomberg and Soros set social policy in New York? Absolutely.

There is no sign of this trend slowing down. In Screw Business as Usual, Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson argues for more elite policy-making power – you guessed it, in the form of “doing good.”

Yesterday, Twitter was buzzing with the news that the Gates Foundation had given a grant to ALEC to, essentially, influence state budget making -- where the rubber hits the road in education policy. I heard some debate over whether this constituted a Republican takeover of the state budget process, a Gates Foundation takeover of ALEC or both. No one suggested it was a victory for democracy. Kristen McQueary recently wrote about the scandal erupting over Stand for Children’s founder Jonah Edelman’s rant last summer in Aspen. Edelman was pretty explicit about the group’s power in the legislative process. Shhhh, Jonah! To paraphrase the movie Fight Club, the first rule of philanthropolicymaking is never speak of philanthropolicymaking.

One troubling example hits at the heart of public education. Last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared on Oprah to give the city of Newark, NJ 100 million dollars. Governor Chris Christie and Mayor Cory Booker were there, too. Big photo op – and nice photo. Then it got messy. Zuckerberg formed a foundation, Startup: Education, intended to parcel out grants to schools that matched funds with the grant and fit the foundation’s priorities. Months after the Oprah announcement, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city of Newark for denying access to communications between Booker and Zuckerberg. Booker claimed that communications between him and Zuckerberg regarding the grant were personal; that he wasn’t acting as Mayor, and thus the information was private. Zuckerberg later said the money was actually for developing leaders, like Booker. Now, according to New Jersey officials, the plan is to use the money to “experiment” with education policy and find “what works” and then replicate the best programs with public money.

The idea of using policy experiments to learn what works sounds great, but the reality is more complicated. In The Welfare Experiments: Politics and Policy Evaluation, I showed that policy experiments led to the 1996 welfare reform by changing institutional structures, building networks of people in support of reform, and making the idea of time limited welfare publicly acceptable. It had nothing to do with the research findings on the programs. The role of experimental programs in education reform is complicated – and the focus of Billionaire Education Policy, Part 2 (the next installment of this post, coming next Monday on the Education Optimists). For now, I’ll say that I am skeptical of claims, such as the one Confessore suggests, that “Whatever proves most effective [in the experiments] can then be rolled out on a larger scale…” Policy experiments don’t work that way.

All over the country, variations of the New York and New Jersey story are playing out: Philanthropists give money to resource-starved school systems, and in return, they reserve the right to effectively set education policy. Consultants and for profit programs present a potential conflict of interest by creating cash cows. Booker‘s claim that he was acting as a private citizen—and the fact that Zuckerberg’s money was just a pledge, not a guarantee of funding—raises questions. What is private and what is public? Is anyone accountable for what happens to this money? Do we need more transparency for private donations?

I feel crass in suggesting that we probe philanthropic giving with the same critical eye we cast on political money and business profits. And yet, the very nature of philanthropic giving has significantly changed in recent years. A handful of wealthy individuals and families control a large amount of this country’s wealth, and their “philanthropy” is beginning to feel more like governance.

ROBIN ROGERS can be reached via email at
Follow her on Twitter: @Robin_Rogers

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Gates Foundation Makes Grant to ALEC

Liam and I were out enjoying an evening of dinner and a movie, when some astonishing news came over Twitter: the Gates Foundation just made a grant to ALEC. Yes, more than $375,000 to the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization my husband has called a self-proclaimed "free market, limited government" non-profit, which is really just a spout of Republican policy ideas. They push an agenda "focused on pet approaches to privatizing education, firing teachers and enabling home schooling that likely have little bearing on student outcomes and that have little basis in research."

As a fellow Gates grantee, colored me disconcerted.

As a professor in public higher education in Wisconsin, where ALEC has worked to intimidate the scholarship of faculty like Bill Cronon, color me outraged.

Tomorrow, watch this blog for what my colleague Robin Rogers of Queens College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York has to say about the educational policy activities of billionaires. It'll be the first in a two part series. Clearly, it's something we all need to start discussing.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Things That Make Me Go Hmm....(Part 2)

Hot off the presses, recent news that has me scratching my head, or otherwise up in arms...

(1) Raising tuition in expensive cities in the midst of an economic crisis. Yep, that's what CUNY thinks is the right thing to do. Hat tip to Tom Hilliard, who pointed me to this incredible inane comment from a CUNY administrator: "What's really driving some of the issues here is the concern about debt and debt upon graduation, and our students as a whole take out little debt, for obvious reasons. The tuition's affordable for those who can pay." Um, yeah.

(2) The White House wades into the quagmire of university admissions, promoting creative thinking on how to achieve diversity. In one sense, just in time, since it sure looks like the Supreme Court is going to end the use of race in admissions by June. On the other hand, I wish the Administration would issue some cautions about how criteria like first-generation status and high school attended are hardly clean proxies for race. Plenty of folks want to do something less controversial, which socioeconomic diversity proxies will accomplish, but they can't and shouldn't pretend the outcomes achieved will be the same.

(3) Jerry Sandusky is innocent? So he says. "I didn't do those things. I'm not the monster I've been made out to be. I didn't engage in sexual activities with those kids." Others told me similar things during a recent trip to Penn State. I don't know, call me naive but I'm inclined to believe the testimony of the 8 or more adults who say they were raped, over the guy who likes to call anal sex "horseplay." I don't care what his "motives" were-- I care what his ACTIONS were. And by the way, does he sound drugged or drunk to anyone else?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Making College More Student Friendly (Part 1: Seg Fees)

Another new Education Optimists series-- this one is focused on how to reform our colleges and universities to become more student-friendly. First up, seg fees.

Last night as I observed my Twitter feed, I noticed a tweet from a student journalist about a particular aspect of UW System policy on segregated fees. According to System financial rule F50, in order for an organization to receive seg fees, it must "require that all leadership positions in the organization be held by students enrolled on a fee-paying basis for at least half-time; as used in this policy, "half-time" status means enrollment for a minimum of six credits as an undergraduate student, and enrollment for a minimum of four credits as a graduate student, except that for UW-Colleges students "half-time" status means enrollment for a minimum of three credits."

This strikes me as a good example of a well-intentioned policy with unintended consequences.

The purpose of the policy may be to ensure that only students hold leadership positions, preventing others in the community from accessing student resources and/or controlling agendas. That makes sense. Maybe it is also intended to ensure that students who hold leadership positions have "skin in the game"--e.g. paid their seg fees. That makes less sense, since many students didn't themselves pay their seg fees: their parents or financial aid did.

But this half-time requirement systematically disenfranchises the more than 23,000 undergraduate students in the UW System who, for whatever reason, are attending college part-time. Statistics show that part-time enrollment is a temporary situation for some students, and a strategy for college attendance for others. For example, a student may be full-time throughout college, but due to family obligations or a short-fall of financial resources, or difficulty with some hard courses, may drop to part-time for a given term. Or, the student's approach to financing college may be to work 3/4 time, and take a half-time load. Such students are disproportionately first-generation, racial/ethnic minorities, and/or from low-income families. They are often somewhat older, and more likely to be women.

Participation and leadership in student organizations is important. It's not only a credit to one's resume, and a great way to build social networks, but it is also a predictor of college persistence. Thus, it is probably especially important for students who are otherwise disconnected from campus to have the opportunity--if they so choose, can fit it in, and are chosen--to take the role as a leader. Saying that they can't (or if they do, their organization can't access seg fees) is passing judgement on their abilities, rights, and opportunities based on a single atribute of their college attendance pattern: how many credits they take. This serves to preserve and maintain the advantage of students who can afford and manage to schedule full-time attendance, and perpetuates the interests of full-time students over part-time ones.

This rule could be modified in ways that maintain the intent--to ensure leaders are students--while removing the unintended consequences. For example, why not require of leaders (item 2c in F50) exactly what's required of members (item 2b): "Students enrolled for a minimum of one semester hour of credit at the UW institution for which the organization is seeking official recognition?" Or, require that the person has taken at least 6 credit hours on campus in the last 2 years? If a modification is sought, consider this: Is it really the case that there is a systematic problem of non-students taking leadership roles in student organizations, such that a blanket rule that disenfranchises 15% of UW System undergraduates is truly needed?

Lest you think this is a minor issue that hardly ever comes up, take a look at today's Badger Herald. At last night's ASM meeting, student Nneka Akubeze was nominated to fill the position of vice-chair, and "Student Services Finance Committee Chair Sarah Neibart said because Akubeze, a special student, is enrolled in four credits, she is not eligible for a leadership position in ASM." A debate ensued. I do not know Akubeze, but it seems to me that debate was long overdue.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What We're Reading: New Thinking on Financial Aid

Welcome to another new miniseries of the Education Optimists. Once in awhile we get a chance to sit and read-- it's rare, but when it happens it's crazy fun. Here's a taste of what we've liked lately.

For those pondering the reform of financial aid programs, I want to draw your attention to two papers--one very new, and one a year old.

In Postmortem for the Current Era: Change in American Higher Education, 1980-2010, Penn State historian Roger Geiger cogently tackles the many dismal trends of the last several decades. Among my most favorite of his observations is the following:

"The four vectors of the current era—-the financial aid revolution, selectivity sweepstakes, vocationalism, and research intensification—all bear an underlying signature by invoking private, as opposed to public or social, interests. They do not necessarily contradict public interests. On the contrary, to significant degrees, financial aid has allowed students with limited means to pursue postsecondary education; the selectivity sweepstakes has sorted students by academic ability so that the most able benefit from the most ample educational resources; vocationalism has prepared students for productive employment; and academic research has helped to revive and sustain the competitiveness of U.S. industry. Rather, these worthy social purposes have operated through incentives to private advantage. Thus, although public policies are involved to a greater or lesser extent, these vectors have derived their force from the market preferences of individual actors. But market relations can bring unplanned and sometimes unwelcome consequences."


Second, a new paper from a young economist just entering the job market, who tackles a critical question: how much Pell are students REALLY getting? In other words, to what degree are Pell dollars being supplanted and/or supplemented by institutions through a kind of crowding out? Leslie Turner tackles these questions, and more, in The Incidence of Student Financial Aid: Evidence from the Pell Grant Program

On average, Turner finds that colleges and universities reap the benefits of about 17% of Pell grants--but that the institutional variation is wide, and some schools are actually supplementing Pell with additional dollars, seemingly to attract more low-income students.

Both papers are worth a read in full. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Students Occupy Colleges

In a sense, this movement was inevitable.

Higher education has been transformed over the last 50 years, reshaped in many ways that bring into question what it's for, how it works, who should lead it, and most importantly who it is serving. It is the failure of colleges and universities to sufficiently grapple with and address those key questions that led students to Occupy Colleges, and faculty to stand with them, and set up college administrators to be largely inept in response.

The experience of postsecondary education today is highly polarized. Among those attending college are the kinds of students who have always attended college--those who parents and grandparents have degrees, who expected them to go, and ensured they were financially, academically, and otherwise prepared. These are the students who dominate enrollment at the private colleges, take advantage of liberal arts institutions, and who not only earn bachelor's degrees in large numbers but also graduate and professional degrees. But in addition, there is a wide swath of students for whom college was not entirely planned-- it may have felt expected of them, and they did work hard to get ready, but they were unaware of how unprepared college would be to meet their needs. Little did they know that most colleges and universities act as if it's the students' job to get "college-ready," rather than the colleges' job to be prepared to meet the needs of all who enter.

These are the students stunned by the high and rising costs of attendance, and the lack of grant aid available to them. These are the students willing to work long hours to make ends meet, but continually surprised that the faculty and administrators don't respond in turn to accomodate their needs with flexible scheduling, remote advising, and timetables for timely degree completion that don't require full-time enrollment. These are the students who attend the vast majority of our public colleges and universities, and our community colleges, and these are the students at the heart of Occupy Colleges.

Higher education is not sure about these students. Sure, the initial shots were fired long ago, during the Free Speech Movement. But that was about far more than how higher education would work; it was about how society would work. And since that time, colleges and universities have become less--not more-- hospitable to what they like to call "nontraditional" students. Those that some have labeled "tenants" rather than "landowners," decried as "academically adrift," and said to care far less about the hard work of studying. Serving these students has evolved as a speciality, rather than the primary function it ought to be when they comprise at least half of the undergraduate population.

The evidence is everywhere. The growth of the student services industry has segregated the job of meeting students' needs to administrators, letting faculty off the hook. The shift to part-time, contingent labor has lessened the ability of professors to spend the kind of time required to really get to know and address their students' needs--thus creating a stronger rationale for relying on administrators. It would be far better for people to serve dual roles, as teacher and administrator, rather than to continue to pretend the two can be effectively performed in isolation from one another. States have disinvested in public higher education at the same time that the children of the nation's leaders are more likely than ever to opt for private higher education. Public colleges and universities point to those declines in state support and rationalize that since they must have money, they should move to a more "efficient" model of high tuition/high aid, a model that works only in theory. In practical, political life, real world families take sticker prices as real, and mistrust discounting. Politicians and university administrators rarely have the appetite to tie their own hands and fully commit to increasing aid whenever tuition rises. And almost none consider the sharp hypocrisy in their support for free public k-12 education, juxtaposed against their refusal to demand free higher education.

Many, but not all, students are catching on. And therein lies the rub. The move to Occupy Colleges is not a unified front: for every student supporter, there is a student who thinks it's stupid. The students I observe decrying the effort are those who have been well-treated by the current system. Same goes for faculty: those who interact all the time with the so-called nontraditional student and know intimately how we are failing them much more often support this movement. The others, especially those who put research first, often do not.

It's clear who has long been most successful. After all, there is now a move to slash a federal financial aid program (Pell) whose costs have risen (a) because it is doing its job in serving the needs of many students from low-income families and (b) because powerful interests have ensured that government considers to subsidize private and for-profit higher education. If Occupy Colleges could end (b) then the costs of the Pell program would fall dramatically. It won't happen--because higher education refuses to even consider being more about the economically disadvantaged student.

Students are laying these issues at the feet of college administrators and they are stumbling and mumbling in response. Their power-hungry allies, including their overly-compensated athletic directors and boosters and police forces, are doing everything they can to stop it.

It should not be stopped. Students should Occupy Colleges. Let's try that again. Students should occupy colleges. Not administrators. Students, and their educators, should occupy colleges.

NOTE: This post was amended on November 23 in response to a very cogent comment submitted to the blog.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


It is a proud day for Wisconsin. Nearly 30,000 people turned out at the state's Capital for the kickoff Recall Walker rally. I had the distinct honor of being invited to speak twice today--first at the rally in front of Wisconsin Manufacturer's and Commerce, and then at the BIG rally, on behalf of Jobs Not Cuts. It was honestly one of the most awe-inspiring experiences--what a motivated, impassioned crowd. Below, I have pasted both of my speeches.


Speech at Jobs Not Cuts Rally

It's my great honor to be a professor of higher education policy at UW-Madison. I’ve worked and made my home here in Wisconsin for the last 8 years, raising two small children, paying my taxes, and educating your children.

I am a hard-working teacher, and a researcher who has created more than 2 dozen jobs for the people of Wisconsin over the last 4 years. And this year Scott Walker decided I deserved a pay cut. In September, as I earned my tenure, instead of getting a raise, his policies cut my family’s income. He cut the budget of my employer substantially, and even as we went about teaching the state’s undergraduates this fall, he cut us again.

Apparently, for Scott Walker, a college education is something to fear.

We are here today to send a strong message to the 1% of Wisconsin and the nation that intends to block educational opportunities for our kids by laying off our teachers, demoralizing our schools, privatizing every public institution in sight, and systematically ensuring that all we have access to is narrow job-training that will make us into the company yes-men that don’t think or act when they are repeatedly crapped on.

Scott Walker doesn’t believe in college—he just believes in training. Training people in the skills he and his business friends need so that they don’t have to do any dirty, hard work; training us to accept minimum wage and horrible working conditions and worse yet be GRATEFUL for it. Training us that protest and response is unacceptable, and that we should bow down to the almighty dollar.

The WMC has a clear plan: starve the public colleges and universities so that they will beg for help. In return the business community will offer them a prescribed curriculum, and pay them to train automatons. No more critical thinking skills, they want you to do what you are told—nothing more, nothing less. And they want to enlist us teachers in their service, as cheap labor.

Look I’m not saying everyone should go to college. But there is NO WAY it is good economic policy for the state of Wisconsin to ensure that the opportunity is blocked. A new report shows that within a few years, 63% of American jobs will be totally unavailable to people who don’t have college degrees. If you only have a high school education, just ONE-THIRD of the jobs you will be able to get will pay a living wage. And the vast majority of those will continue to be open mainly to men, not to women.

So by slashing and burning down our colleges and universities with $250 million budget cuts $66 million “lapses” in judgment Scott Walker is taking away job opportunities and chances for economic stability from us and from our kids.

Enough is enough. We need JOBS not CUTS. We need higher education not ‘corporate training.” We need career prospects not minimum wage.

It’s time, now more than ever, to INVEST in our people, grow our skills, and create jobs. Say Yes to Education, and NO NO NO to Scott Walker and his friends-the WMC.


Speech at Recall Walker rally

Thank you for coming out today to MAKE HISTORY! I'm Sara Goldrick-Rab from Jobs Not Cuts, a coalition that called for a national week of action in which we tell the Congressional "Super Committee" that enough is enough, no more cuts!

Earlier today we gathered at Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce to raise our voices alongside similar protests in Boston, Seattle, New York and many other cities around the country.

We all know what the face of austerity looks like here in Wisconsin. In March, Scott Walker destroyed collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin's public workers –including our children’s teachers-- and drained millions from their paychecks when he slashed their pensions and health care benefits.

But there is an even bigger axe coming down from Washington in just a few short days. At a time of record unemployment and poverty, the politicians in Washington D.C. are threatening historic cuts to the country's social safety net. Soon that so-called “Super Committee” will decide the fate of trillions in funding for federal programs that seniors, the sick, the poor, students, workers, middle-class people, women, and others depend on. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education funding, and other social services are all on the chopping block. Make no mistake people-- they are rolling back the New Deal.

The politicians tell us that we need to "tighten our belts" and learn to live with "the new normal." They tell us that the government of the richest country in the world is broke. But for decades, these same politicians have bailed out banks, slashed taxes for corporations and millionaires, and wasted trillions on wars carried out to protect profits of Exxon and BP. Those are the same policies that led to massive government debts. Now they want to gut our programs to pay for an economic crisis that Wall Street created.

The wealth harbored by the top 1% could pay off all student loan debt, all credit card debt, buy every home foreclosed upon in 2007 and 2008, finance every current mortgage for two years, triple the number of teachers, pay the annual salary of 19 million families and then some! The financial sector is sitting on $2 trillion of idle cash that could be creating jobs. Keep that in mind the next time a politician tells you that our state, or our country, is broke and that ordinary working people have to pay the price.

That is why today, all across the country, activists are taking to the streets to demand jobs, not cuts.

We're telling Washington hands off Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid! We won't tolerate any cuts to education or social services!

We need jobs, not cuts! Congress should fund a federal public works program to create millions of jobs for the unemployed. We need it now!

We want Wall St to pay for the crisis they created, not working people.

We know where Scott Walker and his cronies in the Capitol stand on the question of who has to pay for the crisis. But this fight is much bigger than Walker, much bigger than just Wisconsin. Earlier this year Wisconsin showed the country that we won't stand for these cuts, and now the rest of the country is waking up. We are rising up to say "we won't pay for your crisis!"

It's time to...

Recall Walker! Recall Walker! Recall Walker!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Get Smart About Student Loans

First, apologies for the long silence. My workload has increased tremendously post-tenure (sorry to disillusion anyone) and I'm having trouble keeping up with the blog. (This is why this post, so deserving of embedded links to sources, lacks them.)

Second, let me go on record as a supporter of the Occupy movement. Protest is powerful, period. The denigration of protest and attempts to make it look irresponsible, violent, and evil is a power tactic leveraged by elites. Ignore them.

Third, this post is a few thoughts for the OccupyCollege movement in particular. The battle cry against student loans is worthwhile but needs a more informed perspective. Yes, there is now more student loan debt than credit card debt. Yes, tuition and fees are high, and it's one reason for the growth in debt. And some schools leave students with more debt than others. Yes, Obama's recent plans will help, but only a little. Yes, this is problem that needs to be addressed.

But too little knowledge is dangerous. Protesters need to know and address the following in formulating their counter-proposals:

(1) Rising tuition is outstripped by a massive expansion of costs of room and board and student fees-- they are now the bulk of "cost of attendance." These costs are growing because colleges and universities think students are demanding them. They say you want climbing gyms, organic foods, and dorms at 2-year colleges. Do you--or don't you? Are you willing to get less in order to pay less?

(2) The growing reliance on loans is reflective of a turn away from grants, and it's not only a fiscal decision but a philosophical one. There has been push back against aid you don't have to repay, supported by a new claim that students benefit by having "skin in the game." There are accusations about the misuse of aid dollars, and discussion that states aren't getting much for their money since many students-- even middle-class ones--aren't completing college degrees. So why, they ask, shouldn't students foot the bill themselves?

(3) Colleges and universities and policymakers are loathe to rethink what being a student means, and adapt college requirements and scheduling accordingly. Large fractions of students now work, and must fit that work into their schedules. Work comes with benefits, sometimes-- which aid does not. So many students are going to work, no matter what. The fact that college doesn't accomodate work means that working students take even longer to finish college and that increases overall debt.

(4) Rising time to degree is likely a good part of the story about the ballooning debt. So those who oppose debt should join forces with those who seek to get more students to a degree in a timely fashion.

(5) Student debt, in and of itself, is not evil. When you borrow to buy a car, having that car does nothing to help you pay back the loan. But when you buy college, having the degree does help you pay off the debt. Moreover, unless you forsee some massive lottery winnings for the nation in the near future, we are never going to have enough money to meet the full financial need of everyone attending college-- and evidence suggests that grant dollars are most important and effective for students from lower-income families. So loans are likely to continue to be part of how students finance college -- the question is what fraction of the strategy should they be? By no means should students borrow to meet their entire costs of attendance, and by no means should they borrow to finance an overly expensive institution with low graduation rates. But a no-loans platform will not succeed.

(6) Yes some colleges have graduates with less debt than others. But be careful of conflating correlation with causation. Colleges enrolling wealthier students, those with larger endowments, and more investment from the state tends to graduate students with less debt. It's not like they are BETTER colleges because of that. And it doesn't mean that if you have less money and attend that school that you are guaranteed to graduate with less debt than you otherwise would-- you can't use averages to make decisions for individuals.

The biggest underlying problem facing our nation's college students is that many showed up to college totally unprepared for how to pay for it. They had next to no plan. They had no 'game' and neither did their parents. They went to college because they thought they were supposed to, and the colleges assumed they knew what they were getting into. That was wrong. There are dozens of different ways to pay for college and it requires research and education to make it work out for your own family. The goal should be to help all kids and parents get informed, and to help ensure that all colleges and universities do their due diligence in making that happen.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Under Assault? Fight Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Passing the Buck

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

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

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

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

UnitedCouncilUnited Council
in reply to @UnitedCouncil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 16, 2011

What the Nass Hearing is Really About

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow: A Day of Student Action in Madison

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

United Council: Invitation to concerned members of the Madison community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 13, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Speak Your Mind

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

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

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

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

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

Sadly, that conference session was canceled.

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

That was a mistake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Wisconsin's Economy Needs Affirmative Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 3, 2011

Task Force Named to Rethink UW System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Innovating our Educating

Last spring I blogged several times about the importance of rethinking how we deliver education at the postsecondary level. At the time, I was focused on the question of how to deliver a high-quality education in a more cost-effective manner. At this moment, I think that focus remains important, but I am also especially cognizant of whether we are teaching in a manner that truly fulfills our mission. At UW-Madison that mission is embodied in the Wisconsin Idea-- our goal of bringing the teaching and learning from this university to people all over the state.

Accomplishing that goal in the face of an increasingly heterogeneous student body and under severe financial constraints will require us to think hard about what we do and how we do it. An article from today's Inside Higher Ed provides some provocative suggestions.

1. We must consider what style(s) of thinking our faculty and students value. Do we aim to educate change agents, or those who will help maintain the status quo? We must be honest about this, since it implies different approaches to teaching. It's easy to say we "value it all" but far harder to develop metrics for performance, for example, that reward it all.

2. We should think about what drives the way we teach. Do we teach in ways that are comfortable and convenient for faculty, or ways that reflect the styles in which students prefer to learn? In other words, are we "teaching to ourselves" rather than to our students? How does this affect our willingness to try new technologies, or consider teaching online?

3. We also need to talk about what we grade or reward. We are very focused on a normative program of study, 4 year-long bachelor's degree, credits accruing to time spent in the classroom, grades based on whatever the professor decides is important. Do we favor approaches that reflect the way we've always done things, or even more importantly, reward behaviors most like our own?

Throughout these discussions I think it's essential that we avoid adopting an overly relativistic position that claims to value and reward everything, says all styles are fine and good, and essentially avoids hard discussions. In the end, with an approach like that nothing will change and this may even perpetuate a downward spiral, since the way we currently educate is expensive and not necessarily sufficiently effective to help move us through the 21st century. This is a discussion that must originate with professors and students, and that I urge administrators to encourage but not lead. Change will take hold only those who teach and those who learn tackle this together.

Conservatives Claim Liberals Are Meanies

Friday, September 23, 2011

Race Matters

There is a robust debate on campus over whether last Tuesday's event at the Doubletree constituted a "protest" (which most seem to agree is appropriate) or a "disruption" of a press conference (which most seem to agree is inappropriate). Even those who disagree with the depiction of students as "thugs" who were part of a "mob" still appear to be concerned that a disruption may have occurred.

What is noticeably absent from the responses is a candid admission that that race matters in how we understand and interpret the events. Let's be frank: a large group of mostly brown folks came into contact with a much smaller group of mostly white folks and it freaked out some of those the white folks.

I was there. First, I was in Clegg's press conference, waiting to be called on while he prioritized questions from the media. I initially observed the protest outside with my ears (it was possible to hear them) and via Twitter. Next, I was in the hallway outside the press conference, in the lobby, where I was being interviewed by media at the moment the young men race through the lobby to open the hotel doors to the protesters. I saw them go by, and I heard a loud sound, then the sound of singing as students streamed into the lobby. Literally, whatever "it" was happened right in front of me. I then watched as students sang and clapped, spoke and cried, and then finally moved into the room where the press conference was wrapping up (having gone on for 45 minutes). I watched as a white man leaving the room (Lee Hansen) put up his hands to press against a black woman as he tried to exit, and as she in turn pushed back. I heard most loudly cries of "peace" and "let them pass" and watched as no one was injured. I remained in the hotel lobby until the student press conference wrapped up, and people departed.

So unlike so many others, I am not relying on second-hand information. That sort of information is filtered and distorted not only by memory and a bad game of telephone but also by racial insecurities.

I admit it: there was a fraction of a second in that lobby, when I saw the people run by and I heard the loud sound, that I experienced fear. At first, I thought it was surprise. Then I realized that I had caught myself anticipating violence and momentarily panicking as I saw men of color move fast and loud. I recognized it, I checked it, and I questioned it. I was angry with myself--for so much has clearly changed internally since I moved from a predominantly black community (West Philadelphia) to a nearly entirely white one. This is what happens to a person when the community in which they live is overly homogenous. And it took me no more than 30 seconds to chastise myself for it, get over it, and then experience the protest as it really was: peaceful, bold, and uplifting.

I had experienced another moment of fear not 30 minutes earlier, when I watched Clegg address a young African-American woman, responding to her question about his report with a smug, paternalistic smile that to me conveyed absolutely no understanding of the powerful hand he had in intimidating her. I reacted to him, in that moment, as a white man with no sense of his own privilege. It was the whiteness of his skin combined with the Southern in his voice and his hyper-masculine demeanor that made my hands shake. I was afraid of his evidently barely-repressed disdain for this woman. The Jewish ancestry in me felt it to my toes. I'm not proud of that either.

I challenge all of us to ask ourselves if I am utterly alone in feeling this way. If we cannot all begin to admit that we are race conscious every day, we are sunk. Entire op-eds and letters to the editors about "events" that were as diverse as any that ever occur at UW-Madison but neglect the fact of RACE are untruthful. It's time for us all to come clean. What distinguishes us from the racists is our honesty, candor, and willingness to learn. Race matters. And that's why the Doubletree event was no "disruption" but rather a necessary protest against an antagonistic deliberate transgression of outsiders on a community.

Postscript: It seems some did not understand that in my original post I was critical of BOTH of my responses. I have added a single comment to the end of the next-to-last paragraph to clarify.