Sunday, September 30, 2012

Concrete Suggestions to Improve HR Design

This evening my colleague Bruce Thomadsen, professor of medical physics at UW-Madison, shared several concrete recommendations for improving the HR Design plan.  I think highly of his suggestions, and thus with permission I am summarizing the most critical ones here:

  1. Affirm the continuation of genuine shared governance, a pillar of UW, in this plan.  The language implies that employees will advise on the implementation of benefits programs, but this is far weaker than the current status of shared governance at our university.  Decision-making must be shard.
  2. Amend the plan to clearly state that academic staff have the right to due process with respect to all University actions detrimental to their jobs. This is not currently clear, especially with regard to layoffs.
  3. Provide much more detail on the implementation of the layoff procedures. In particular, explain how the new system will increase, rather than decrease, job security.
  4. The plan says that hiring managers will set salaries.  Clarify how this will be accomplished, and be specific about the types of information that will be considered and in particular the role that market studies will play.
  5. The plan discusses the challenges of creating a system of job titles and compensation levels that match the titles. The difficulties and process are listed, but it is not clear that the results will eliminate the problems encountered frequently in providing adequate compensation for long-time, experienced employees, where only by changing a job title (and, therefore the job description) can increased compensation be provided. Often, such changes are not possible or allowed. The solution is to uncouple the job title from compensation to give flexibility and establish compensation based on qualifications and performance. This would eliminate the problem of adjusting the compensation for persons at the top of their job classification’s pay range. 
  6. The Guiding Principles for HR Design aimed to eliminate the disparity where 12-month faculty receive 22 leave days immediately upon hire while university staff start with a low number and work up to this through seniority and promotion. Instead, all employees should start with the full number of leave days. But this plan apparently lowers the beginning leave days for new faculty, moving in the opposite of the intended direction. To fix this, change the plan: all full-time University employees should have 22 vacation and personal leave days, with leave for employees with 9-month appointments prorated by ¾.
  7. Under this plan, it is not clear what will happen to the conversion of accrued sick leave at retirement. Clarify this, leaving sick leave separate from other vacation and personal leave, and the current sick-leave accrual policy unchanged.
  8. Eliminate the provisions to change rules regarding transferring positions. The plan eliminates the current right for employees to return to their original positions if a transfer to a different position does not work. The report states, “Also, by reducing the risk associated with accepting a new position, the current policy also reduces the incentive for both the employee and the hiring manager/supervisor to do effective onboarding and work together to address any challenges in the probationary period.” This opinion neglects to consider that the transferring employee wants to make the change and therefore has a stake in making the new situation work. The hiring manager’s incentive would likely try hard to fit the transferring employee into the working environment to avoid repeating the hiring process.

Human Resource Directors and Employee Unions

Tomorrow afternoon, the Faculty Senate at UW-Madison will hear from Bob Lavigna, the institution's Human Resources Director. Lavigna will be discussing HR Design, a new plan I've covered several times recently on this blog. It's a controversial proposal, in part because it shifts the focus on setting compensation from internal equity towards external markets.  It also reduces some of the benefits held by classified staff, who are currently unionized, and for whom perks like substantial vacation time slightly dull the pain stemming from the terrible wages.

I was therefore intrigued when this morning I delved into my Inside Higher Ed backlog of reading and found the results of a brand new national survey of HR directors and their opinions about the future directions universities need to take.  The results help to at least partially set the broader stage on which HR Design is occurring.   (Partially: the response rate for this survey is 15% and with just 324 participants, 42 of whom were at public research universities, who knows if Madison is represented.)

Here are some key highlights related to HR Design:

  • Concerns about salary equity are losing ground. Nearly 32% of HR Directors at public research universities said they are paying less attention to equity in faculty and staff salaries than they did five years ago, and just 17% are attending to those issues more often, despite the strong likelihood (given austerity practices) that inequities are growing.
  • Almost all HR Directors take a dim view of unions. Close to 90% of HR Directors at public research universities contend that unions inhibit their ability to re-deploy people and define job tasks, discourage pay for performance, and inappropriately protect poor performing employees.   Less than 1/3 of such Directors acknowledge unions' demonstrable roles in securing better salaries and benefits and ensuring fair treatment of employees.
  • Few HR Directors seem able to ground their assessments in data. Just 28.6% of HR Directors at public research universities report that they have good data on employee performance, productivity, and satisfaction, and only 21.4% say they use such data in campus planning and policy decisions.  (Sidenote: Oh. My. God.)
  • And yet somehow, HR Directors are able to attribute low morale among employees to recent budget cuts. 74% of those at public research institutions agree that budget cuts did major damage to staff rationale, and 20-30% say their offices are unfairly blamed for cuts to employee benefits and services and even layoffs.  The frequency of these statements is twice as common at public research institutions as compared to elsewhere.

These will undoubtedly form a nice backdrop to tomorrow's discussion. I'm hoping Lavigna keeps his statement short and sweet, to allow plenty of time for questions. I'm told this hasn't been the case at recent campus events; for example at last week's Academic Staff Assembly meeting the members were not given responses to ASEC's previously issued comments.  But I'm sure tomorrow will be different-- faculty like to talk, at least as much as we like to listen.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Pell Funding: Is it Out of Control-- and Who Does it Support?

Catching up on my reading from the last few weeks and want to draw your attention to this bit of reporting from Inside Higher Ed.

Key lessons here:
(1) Pell spending leveled off in the last year.
(2) A very sizable fraction of Pell dollars are still going to for-profit institutions, but this has declined a bit in the last year.
(3) We could cut total Pell spending by $15 billion dollars (almost 45%) simply by deciding that public dollars cannot be spent at for-profit institutions.  This would make Pell policy consistent with the policies of most state grant programs.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is spending $3.3 million on efforts to "re-imagine aid design and delivery." I'm hoping they will revisit the decades-old decision to offer aid through a voucher system that rests on the premise that maximizing choices in an open market will promote the well-being of all students and the national interest in an educated citizenry.

But absent that, let's hope they push to create additional charts like these, including one that shows how much debt Pell recipients had to accrue in order to use their Pells at these institutions. In other words, let's get a sense of which states and institutions are matching this federal investment-- and which ones require students to make the match.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Revisiting Compensation Plans in Higher Education

Like many universities throughout the country, UW-Madison is undergoing a restructuring of its human resources policies, aiming to make them more cost-effective by stimulating higher productivity-- bottom-line thinking encouraged and facilitated by the Wisconsin Legislature.

Among the planned changes in the new HR Design plan, released last Friday, is a shift to use of "new compensation structures...with market data... gathered to inform compensation decisionsPay adjustments will reflect a broad range of factors (e.g., market, equity, performance) within defined parameters, and will be based on objective performance evaluations...These decisions will have to be made through fair, objective and transparent performance evaluations. Supervisors will be provided with training on how to conduct effective and bias-free performance evaluations and how to ensure that the supervisors who report to them are doing the same with their staff. Deans and directors will be responsible for ensuring that compensation decisions are fair and merit-based."

Unfortunately, the scholarly literature  suggests that some elements of this approach may be problematic. Here are some examples:
  • The application of market data is subject to misapplication. The HR Design Plan says, "For example, for positions that require unique or advanced skills, the university must be very responsive to external labor markets in order to recruit and retain talent" (p.24). While this is commonly accepted wisdom, research discussed in yesterday's New York Times challenges it. Specifically, the use of market data has been shown to needlessly inflate the compensation of "stars" who are said to be flight risks, despite significant doubt about their transferability. Even though the article  focused on CEOS, given that these are jobs with unique or advanced skills too, the lessons seem quite applicable to high-level university administrators, athletic coaches, and "star" faculty-- who would likely find it very difficult to simply move to operating in an entirely different academic setting, moving their labs and students, etc.  There are big costs to doing so, and we have seen the results, since those stars often return to Madison after a few years away, and others seek to do so-- too late, when we no longer have space or desire to employ them. 
  • The plan makes statements about "considering" internal equity but does not make explicit the rank order in which internal equity should be prioritized by departments.  Admittedly, this is a highly de-centralized campus, but that should not come at the expense of equitable human resources practices. In the meantime, evidence continues to emerge from top scholars in economics and business suggesting that job satisfaction for university employees is really affected by relative pay in their workplace rather than absolute levels of pay such as those that would be constructed by setting pay within an institution based on pay given outside the institution. 
A few additional thoughts on that last point...We saw the anxiety about faculty pay that forms some of the ground for these changes emerge and grow quite heated during the New Badger Partnership discussion last spring.  I blogged extensively about this,  raising questions about the use of extra-institutional peer comparisons in defining "low" pay,  rather than intra-institutional comparisons (in other words, am I underpaid because my colleagues at Penn State make more money, or because my colleague in the office next door makes more?)   I argued that while Madison faculty (and many staff) operate in a national and even international marketplace, there are selection mechanisms operating that mean that many of us place a lower priority on such distinctions compared to other people who choose to work at notoriously well-paid places.  In other words,  people on whom the future of the university rest knew when they were hired that Madison wasn't known for its high salaries, recognized the low cost-of-living in the area and the great benefits, and while they have little tolerance for being inequitably paid among people on campus (nor look kindly on salary compression), didn't rank pay relative to other institutions as a top priority.  (Admittedly, it is hard to test the merits of my claim, since I cannot locate any high-quality surveys of our university community which provide an array of responses to questions about compensation and achieve high response rates-- and it's safe to say that those who step forward with complaints are a selected bunch upon whom new policies should probably not be based.  So, if this is incorrect, get the data and let's examine it.)

The shift to new compensation structures is part and parcel of wider efforts seeking to bring corporate models to higher education.  They convey a set of neoclassical economic constructs, such as self-interest, scarcity, maximization, choice, efficiency, value, and competition, with which we are all too familiar.  The effects of such models can be observed in conflicts like the one that arose at UVA this summer, when an external, bottom-line focus and disrespect for internal collaborative processes led Rector Helen Dragas to make an extraordinarily ill-advised attempt to oust President Terry Sullivan.

To be completely fair,  many disagree with me regarding this claim of corporatization. The HR Design team produced a document that proclaims, "Misconception: UW-Madison is moving to a corporate model. Fact: UW-Madison will be adopting a personnel system that meets the needs of our educational mission and culture. Our university will implement a new personnel system tailored to the needs of our higher education environment. Implementation will include working with governance and other stakeholder groups to ensure that the new HR system makes sense for our mission, culture and environment. We will also continue to identify and apply best practices from other educational and public sector organizations. (This point is emphasized throughout the plan.)."

I don't doubt the sincerity of this statement at all. But the problem is that the "needs" assessment is marked against the demands of external (and internal) stakeholders that seek to promote a focus on efficiency above other values, and among whom some politically seek an austerity budget for public institutions that will create room for new business opportunities for profiteering institutions.  Moreover, it's getting harder and harder to find practices in the public sector that are unlike those used by the corporate sector, given the longstanding conversion of universities and their brethren to this model.  So, it will be very easy to say "our friends do it, and we don't want to fall behind," even though this may serve to justify a model that is effectively destroying those friends.

So what are the alternatives? Absent the availability of a list of already-considered alternatives and their pros and cons, such as what could have been offerred by the HR Design team, I will turn to the work of noted scholars like Stanford's Myra Strober, and University of Massachusetts-Amherst's Nancy Folbre.  My assessment of their work leads me to suggest that we would benefit from shifting to focusing explicitly on the following in a revised HR Design plan:

(1) Ensure that first and foremost the university offers all employees compensation consistent with the UW-Madison community's collective norms. To do this, we must explicitly agree on and state our norms and values. When did we last (or ever) do this?   UW-Madison prides itself on developing in its students a sense of civic commitment and responsibility, and avoiding hypocrisy requires that we exert the value of altruism to be inherent in how we treat each other--including when it comes to pay.  While the HR Design plan pays attention to ensuring we pay a living wage, I think we can all agree that that's really the bare minimum.  To ensure we hire people committed to UW-Madison and retain them for the long haul, we need to make explicit a set of institutional priorities placed on internal equity and long-term employee performance.   Focus on ensuring that all campus units promote a culture of fairness among employees, where equity concerns are addressed proactively rather than reactively (as they are now).

(2) Focus on rewarding the type of work that produces high-quality outcomes for our students. As an educational institution, we engage in work that is inherently process-based, and the outcomes of which can take a long time to emerge. We should be explicit about discouraging units from emphasizing short-term gains that are often illusory and can serve to too quick elevate a "rising" star who may lack institutional commitment or perform very little "non-market" work.   Much of what the best members of our community do is essentially volunteer work-- service above and beyond the call of duty-- and unless we explicitly commit ourselves to paying for that work, it goes unacknowledged and will inevitably decline.

(3) Distribute gains effectively.  If employees at UW-Madison want to be national leaders in stemming the rising tide of inequality, we should actively discourage the "Matthew effect" on campus. In other words, we should prevent a winner-take-all system and ensure that gains come to those who have not typically be rewarded.  (There was some language about this in the Critical Compensation Fund guidelines this spring-- that was a good start).  For example, we will gain much more from ensuring the continuity of strong programs in the humanities because they are being decimated elsewhere, and because emphasizing the importance of the humanities in the teaching of our students will help our students stand out not only as workers but as human beings.  Humanities faculty need adequate support staff just as much as science labs do, and we collectively benefit from recognizing that.  The plan needs to be very clear on this point, lest departments be less to be seemingly "rational" but practically ineffective decisions.

(4) Focus on the distribution of abundant resources rather the adaptation to scarcity. The HR Design could leverage this opportunity to become part of a larger effort rejecting the claims that the university must tighten its belt because of tough times-- it is not because of a lack of a tax base that these changes are occurring, but because of particular policy choices.  Scarcity is being created and advertised to us-- and we are buying it.  But the psychological effects of scarcity rhetoric undermine any additional compensation and have long-lasting effects.  We should encourage in our community a sense of selflessness, and write a plan that maximizes everyone's benefits under conditions where we are wealthy, not poor.  This will effectively de-emphasize internal competitiveness, which creates strife, and create more opportunities to achieve intrinsic satisfaction in one's work. In the last 5 years, I have felt my colleagues grow more tense and worried, feeling as it everything is a zero-sum game and we are under siege. That's remarkably destructive, and should be addressed.

In summary, I am grateful for the work of all on campus who contributed to the HR Design effort. I think they worked within parameters and expectations which are common to campuses across the United States.  But therein lies the problem-- we need to better engage a process of sifting and winnowing that is open to thinking from outside the box lest we  perpetrate on ourselves a system that has demonstrably diminished the flourishing of so many Americans.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Share the Wonderful -- But Keep Hope Alive

UW-Madison has a new fundraising campaign called "Share the Wonderful," which I first learned about through the alumni magazine On Wisconsin.  In a time of fiscal austerity, all creative efforts to improve the university's resources are welcome and laudable.  Moreover, I understand that the relatively low rate of giving among Madison's alumni (10%) frustrates some people.  (Although, please note that last year Madison ranked 15th in the nation in total dollars from alumni--down from 2006 but not shabby.)

But I think we should also consider how "Share the Wonderful" relates to UW System and UW-Madison's other goals and aims, such as improving the relationship with the legislature and the people of the state, and moving towards reinvigorated state financial support.  Nearly every action has an unintended consequence or two, and this one isn't likely an exception.

Despite frequent and vehement proclamations to the contrary, the future of state support for higher education, and explanations for its decline, is not a settled matter.  Treating it as such only serves to cut off public debate and end the sifting and winnowing for better answers, for which UW is rightly famous.  

Yes, some people believe the ship has sailed, and there is no way the state will find reason to do anything but continue to cut investments in UW System and Madison.  The reasons, they say, are clear: the state's tax base is weak, the populace views the universities as elitest and unproductive, and the model of state supported institutions is simply "old" and done. The On Wisconsin article suggests that UW Foundation President Mike Knetter embraces this perspective.

On the other hand, many analysts (including members of the faculty, students, and community members) note that while the state's economy is indeed weak, its residents pay substantial taxes, and the issue of university funding is really about how that tax revenue is allocated. It is clear that Wisconsin has money for its priorities, and that higher education is losing out to competing priorities like prisons. Moreover, there is evidence (including from Kathy Cramer Walsh, as cited in the On Wisconsin article), that the attitudes of Wisconsin residents towards their universities are shaped by the degree to which they are engaged and served by those schools.  The current situation, in this view, is a political choice and a construction resulting from current practices, and thus is amenable to change.

Unfortunately, the case that "Share the Wonderful" seems to make (based on what I read in On Wisconsin and online) rests on the assertion that it's time to accept facts, recognize the crisis in funding, and donate to show the legislature and Wisconsin residents that alumni believe Madison is a wonderful institution and are willing to sustain it.  This language has echoes of the New Badger Partnership campaign, and is typical of moral persuasion techniques used by higher education administrators who embrace the perspectives of business professors like Clayton Christianson, who urge them to think "rationally"about their fiscal problems, and operate as corporations do to protect their bottom line.

This effort may well succeed in generating more alumni donations.  But it may also lead alumni to continue their mostly apathetic stance toward public funding for UW-Madison, and to think that alternative approaches often taken by alumni elsewhere-- e.g. using their considerable influence in lobbying business leaders and legislators-- are no longer needed.  Moreover, their demonstration of support could lead taxpayers to abdicate their responsibility as well, as it has in Virginia, where UVA's powerful alumni network is widely viewed as more than capable of meeting that university's needs.  What this effectively does is reinforce the perception of a UW education as a private benefit accruing mainly to individuals, who are thus responsible for its costs.  Sure, that's one way to look at things, but here is another:  alumni are people who already paid tuition in exchange for that private benefit, and now they are taxpayers and voters contributing greatly to the public good in Wisconsin--and we are asking them to pay again.  One could argue that such a responsibility is not theirs alone and should be shared, and yet that emphasis on shared responsibility is lost in a campaign framed by a declaration that state support is going away.  If alumni are not sufficiently activated to protect public higher education, the sharing will be between current students and families paying tuition, and alumni -- period.  With that, the university will cease to have any explicit incentive to serve the public good, and will be solidly and squarely working for individual benefits.

Fundraising among alumni is inevitable and healthy.  But in my view it would be more productive in the current setting if "Share the Wonderful" were explicitly linked to a campaign to revive the public investment, and overt advertisement of collective and social goods produced by the university: its research, community service, public spaces, stimulation of difficult conversation, etc.  In one sense, "Share the Wonderful" is doing this, by working to increase unrestricted gifts, those that can be used for more than specific individual purposes-- that's excellent. And, there is a section on the fun website about the university's "impact on the world."  But that page mainly highlights important moments in UW-Madison's life, and the degrees it awards (private benefits). It would be terrific to augment this with actual evidence of how the activities stimulated changes in the state's landscape, health, and flourishing.  More importantly, given that the marketing research done by UW suggests alumni aren't inspired to give more when threatened with the fallout from state support, provide opportunities for them to do more -- beyond money-- to protect the institution. For example, when a alumni seeks to "amplify" his or her donation-- or can't afford to make a donation--why shouldn't the Foundation provide information about how to communicate with community members and legislators regarding the need to support the university.  For example, at the bare minimum, mention or link to this page at the Wisconsin Alumni Association. Better yet, involve people like Kathy Cramer Walsh and others who work with the people of Wisconsin to improve that page (and ones like it) to provide real, effective options for opening such conversations.

So yes, "Share the Wonderful." But please, don't frame our solicitations by quashing hope for turning the tide in public higher education.  Ensuring the future of Madison means turning more alumni into activists, as well as donors.  Every monetary donation should be accompanied by a letter to Wisconsin's leaders and legislators, putting them on notice.  We will hold them accountable for their role in providing postsecondary education and all of its benefits to Wisconsin residents, and our memories are long.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Back to School (Part 2)

We are now in my son's third week of public school, and as expected his experience is providing much fodder for discussion and laughter around our dinner table.

For example, his favorite part of the day is lunch -- specifically hot lunch.  He started getting it during the middle of last week, after we finally figured out how to pay for it, and he's now enthralled. Yesterday he had pancakes and red peppers (yep, breakfast for lunch but they didn't forget the vegetables), and tomorrow there's bok choy on the menu. Next week, I noticed beets and jicama. Since I love to cook, and he chows edamame, he's going to fit right in. I'm delighted, since when I was in school I used to take the $1.50 my parents gave me and buy 2 packs of french fries and an ice cream sandwich to wash down with a lemonade.

During the rest of the day, he's clearly learning things.  His handwriting has improved, he sings many new songs (including with words he says are "from Africa") and he has dozens of new "favorite" books.  Moreover, he seems to earn a new smiley faced sticker each day, and brought home a green slip that says he follows directions well (glad someone does!).  While he's definitely a kid who reads above grade level, we have no indication or boredom, or frustration about the limited recess (twice a day, 15 minutes each).

My greatest amusement came this evening when I opened the school fundraiser packet from Cherrydale Farms. Here, among my options to contribute to his school, are the following items:

  • frozen Auntie Anne's pretzels (WHY?)
  • a ceramic zebra teapot (really?)
  • a potato dicer (heard of a knife?)
  • gummi worms (this seems to conflict with healthy hot lunches, yes?)
  • a calendar featuring puppies doing yoga (!!!)
  • a plaque that says "Our house is just a little house...but God knows where we live."
  • a candy dish shaped like a Menorah

Thank goodness for the art supply kit, our choice.  Or really, how about a check?

I'm curious, how do you feel about selling things to raise money for your kids' schools? What are your favorite products to buy?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Guest Blog: Billionaire Philanthropy and the Chicago Teachers' Strike

The following is a guest posting by Robin Rogers, associate professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). Robin's last post was the popular "Billionaire Education Policy." She can be reached via email at
Follow her on Twitter: @Robin_Rogers

Earlier this week I was a guest panelist for Al Jazeera English’s news program Inside Story. The half-hour feature – provocatively entitled “Should U.S. schools be run like businesses?” – focused on the Chicago teachers’ strike that had begun that morning. The two other guests were Joanne Barkan, who writes on economic, labor and education issues, and her clear foil Matthew Chingos, a fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. – and, I should note, currently in a heated debate with Sara Goldrick-Rab.

Barkan and Chingos are formidable thinkers and articulate advocates for their positions on the Chicago strike, Barkan siding with the Chicago Teachers Union and Chingos making a case against it. And then there was me. I’d be delighted to say I was brought onto this panel as the rational moderate—or as I prefer to think of it, immoderately rational. But rather, I was brought on as “an expert on the role of billionaire philanthropy in shaping public policy.” Taking a step back, it’s important to ask why a panel on the teachers’ strike needs an expert on billionaire philanthropy. My very presence at the table is telling. The truth is, you can’t understand what’s happening in Chicago without factoring billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Michael Dell, and Michael Bloomberg into the equation.

To be clear, billionaire-financed education reform is not the only reason for this strike. The city of Chicago is facing debt in the billions. The schools are under-performing and among the most segregated in the country. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his education reformers have genuine problems to solve and good points to make. On the other hand, Chicago teachers are facing a serious and well-financed effort to cut their pay and benefits while the school system is reorganized to permit their wholesale firing. They have some good points, too.

The strike, however, is about much more than these bread and butter issues. The strike is about the heart and soul of American public education. I don’t buy the claims being tossed around by both sides that this is all about the kids. (It is never all about the kids: they don’t vote.) This particular strike, in many ways, has become a referendum on how “public” public schools should be. Increasingly, public officials like Rahm Emanuel are teaming up with private education reformers and private foundations. The question of who controls public education – an institution that is at the core of democracy – has become open-ended.

One of the biggest issues in the Chicago strike is teacher evaluation. For many observers, this issue makes teachers seem unsympathetic, as if they’re afraid of being evaluated. But evaluation in and of itself isn’t the real issue—even many unions support strong evaluation and reform. In today’s debate, teacher evaluation has become something of a code word or a Trojan horse for a package of other reforms, many of which lead toward the privatization and de-professionalization of teaching. On the surface, it might seem trite or suspicious for teachers to be striking over their evaluations, or their pensions and healthcare. In truth, for both sides the strike is about much more than that.

When anti-union reform advocates talk about teacher evaluations, they’re also talking about a new type of education system—the type supported by billionaire philanthropists— that rewrites the rules of seniority, tenure and credentialing, while shifting funding priorities into public charter schools and other new models. Pro-union opponents, on the other hand, support some types of evaluation and reform, but they also want to strengthen and preserve what we currently understand to be the public education system.

The aspect of this debate that’s very frustrating to me as a social scientist is the idea that we can look to scientific studies for “objective” answers as to “what works” in education. Today’s education reformists often believe that they have found the “solution” to public education. Based on what is presented as clear-cut research, reformists will shut down longstanding neighborhood schools and open charter schools that reflect the latest, trendiest “solution.”

Meanwhile, most education researchers will tell you that we wish we could handpick the perfect teacher based on the perfect parameters or evaluation schema, but we can’t. Teacher evaluation models have turned out to be very iffy predictors of how well a teacher performs – and, of course, there is not an endless supply of brilliant teachers. This doesn’t mean there aren’t solutions or strategies for hiring good teachers, but rather that public education is more complicated than many number-crunching reformers realize.

There is mounting evidence that charter schools don’t perform particularly better or worse than regular public schools, despite the money invested in charters. Of course there are examples of outstanding charter schools just as there are examples of outstanding public schools. I went to Stuyvesant High School in New York City, an outstanding public school, and yet I don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest that Stuyvesant could be duplicated all over the country – “scaled up” to use the language of philanthrocapitalist education reformers.

There are three important points that I want to make away from the heated rhetoric on both sides of the strike – point that I think many involved would agree with but that are being lost in the fray. First, we are at a turning point in American education that will impact our ability to sustain our democratic system as well as our economic competitiveness. Second, education research is being mangled and abused as people – again on both sides – try to turn questions that are fundamentally about our values and priorities into technical questions that can be solved with a spreadsheet or regression analysis. Third, billionaire philanthropists have an outsized role in public education policy that is financed by tax dollars as well as private contributions. If we can focus on these three issues and use education research in good faith, then perhaps we can build a public education system worthy of our county’s children – even if they don’t vote.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Experimental Study Finds Vouchers Don't Boost College Attendance

It all started on Twitter, and then on this blog.... now this!

BOULDER, CO (September 13, 2012) – A recent Brookings Institution report that looked at college enrollment rates of students attending voucher schools in New York City acknowledged no overall impacts of the vouchers on college attendance, but its authors trumpeted large, positive impacts for a subgroup of the voucher students: African Americans.
A new review of the report, however, questions the claim of a strong positive impact even for that group.
The Effects of School Vouchers on College Enrollment: Experimental Evidence from New York Citywas written by Matthew Chingos and Paul Peterson and published jointly by Brookings and by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard.
The report examines college enrollment rates of students participating in an experimental voucher program in New York City, which in the spring of 1997 offered 3-year scholarships worth up to $1,400 annually to low-income families.
In her review of the Brookings report, Goldrick-Rab observes that the study identifies no overall impacts of the voucher offer, but that the authors “report and emphasize large positive impacts for African American students, including increases in college attendance, full-time enrollment, and attendance at private, selective institutions of higher education.”
This strong focus on positive impacts for a single subgroup of students is not warranted. Goldrick-Rab notes four problems:
  • There are no statistically significant differences in the estimated impact for African Americans as compared to other students;
  • There is important but unmentioned measurement error in the dependent variables (college attendance outcomes) affecting the precision of those estimates and likely moving at least some of them out of the realm of statistical significance;
  • The authors fail to demonstrate any estimated negative effects that could help explain the average null results; and
  • There are previously existing differences between the African American treatment and control groups on factors known to matter for college attendance (e.g., parental education).

“Contrary to the report’s claim, the evidence presented suggests that in this New York City program, school vouchers did not improve college enrollment rates among all students or even among a selected subgroup of students,” Goldrick-Rab writes.
Consequently, this new study’s contribution to discussions of education policy is the opposite of what its authors intend. Goldrick-Rab concludes that the report “convincingly demonstrates that in New York City a private voucher program failed to increase the college enrollment rates of students from low-income families.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Food for Thought

Last Saturday night my family attended a benefit concert for Haiti Allies, a local program that has been worked in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere for over 20 years.

One of the volunteers relayed a story that I cannot simply to stop turning over in my mind.

On a recent visit, he cut the hair of a local man, and while doing so the man stopped him and say "Hey, are you rich?"  To which my fellow Madisonian replied, "I don't know. What's rich?"

"Do you eat every day?" the man asked

"Yes I do."

"Well then," the man from Haiti replied, "you're rich. If you eat every day, you are rich." 

As America struggles in political turmoil over how to regain its "economic footing" and we observe the 11th anniversary of September 11, a date on which some of the world's people expressed clear hatred of who we are, this is a conversation I think we must seriously consider.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Public School Observations (Part 1)

In honor of our son's transition to kindergarten, I'm beginning a new series of observations of public schooling, which I hope my husband may join me in.  I'm partly doing this because I seek your input as to whether these are common occurrences, and whether you share my feelings about them, but also it will help me always remember these formative experiences with public schooling from the parent point of view.

  1. There is something a bit terrifying about putting your kid on the school bus.  For one, there are lots of moving bodies not wearing seat belts. That seems counter to the messages we give our children each time we carefully buckle them into the car.  Second, that's a lot of kids in one place unobserved by an adult who can pay attention-- the one adult is driving. I haven't seen any patrols on these buses- I used to be a patrol (!), are these now a thing of the past?  Third, it's not clear what happens on the other end.  Our little boy has to get off the bus and find his way to his classroom, 2 floors and several hallways away. We were told he'd be escorted, and yet he came home the second day and said that no one was there, and he simply went classroom to classroom saying "Hi, I'm Conor and I'm supposed to be in Mrs. X's kindergarten."  Huh?
  2. There are fancy ways to talk about discipline but they send mixed messages. Our school uses different colored pieces of paper to let parents know what kind of day the kid had. Green is good, yellow is ok, and red is bad. In a 4 day week we got 1 green piece of paper, and three days he came home with nothing, annoyed that he had been good but not gotten a green.  Is his meant to work towards a green, or away from a red? Or not care, and just do his thing?  We're not sure, but we're hearing a lot about it.
  3. The sociologist in me is noticing where Bowles and Gintis were right. Tonight Conor shared a set of pictures he made.  He reported that after completing one, his teacher said "Is that the best you can do?" She then gave him another sheet, and he completed the second.  Which one do you think made her happiest? Which one did he like best?

         While unfortunately I have managed to include my shadow in both pictures (argh!), I'm betting       
         you know the answer-- my son was told it is preferable to color within the lines.  That's a first for
         him, previously educated in a Waldorf school. And I'm just not sure how I feel about it. What I
         know is that my son said he preferred the blue picture, and that he didn't like being told it wasn't
         good enough.

Anyway, it's a new beginning, and we're just getting our feet wet. Rest assured, we don't pretend for a moment that this tells us anything about the quality of his teacher or the school.  We haven't raised any objections, and have no plans to. But this is, as expected, a fascinating experience.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Back to College

UW-Madison students are happy students, as we recently learned from the Huffington Post. This high ranking of our institution is a coup when it comes to attracting more applications, and since we rise in rankings by rejecting more applicants (and rightly care about happiness), this will likely be seen as a good thing.

Of course I'm delighted that our students are happy. Pleased as punch that they rate our sports culture and political activity highly (a 9 and an 8 out of 10 respectively), and the opportunities for things to do "endless."  It's wonderful-- they are spirited, free-thinking, and enthusiastic, and as all of my students well know, I love to teach them.

But with love (yes, really) I need to offer a little constructive critique. We have some things to work on and they directly pertain to the educational mission (and indirectly the affordability mission) of our school.   In that same set of rankings we scored just a 6 on "professors accessible" and a 7 on "intellectual life."  Maybe I'm hopelessly old-fashioned, but those are the things that students and families are purportedly paying tuition for-- courses and learning.

Or not.  I suppose, really not.  If you take a look at the latest video produced by the UW-Madison Administration, apparently my framing is not theirs, and a high-quality education offered by professors is not the message Madison seeks to attract and retain students with.

Here is WELCOME BACK to UW-MADISON.  It's definitely maximizing the sports culture rating. But I'll buy you a scoop of Babcock ice cream if you can glean any sense of an academic message about school from it.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Back to School

Today our son entered public school. The first day of kindergarten was the theme of my Facebook news feed, as dozens of my fellow moms and dads sent their kids off on yellow buses, lunches packed, shoes carefully tied. I felt a part of that moment, but I was conscious of an additional layer to the experience in my home, where my husband and I spend so much time consciously agitating for the preservation of public education.

Until today, Conor attended the Madison Waldorf School.  We enrolled him there partly because of a lack of a public preschool option, of course, but also because we felt that what he'd most benefit from was what Paul Tough calls in his wonderful new book How Children Succeed "character education" -- lessons in perseverance and generosity, grit and compassion. For three years we watched him flourish in this setting, where the 3 R's were ignored in favor of spirited play, outdoor romps, and fervent social interactions.  He developed into a wonderful child, taught to love and care for his classmates, discouraged from righteous competition and commercial desires, and nurtured whole-heartedly by the best teacher I've ever experienced in real life: Itzel Butcher.

The truth is, the experience at Waldorf was so good, and Itzel so talented, that last spring I wavered on what to do, sometimes leaning towards keeping Conor there, avoiding what I feared public schools had become-- dull prisons focused on tracing letters, staring at smart boards, and moving in lock step from room to room.

But it didn't take me long before I realized not only the irrationality of my fears, but the sheer hypocrisy they hinted at.  Did I really think that being a good citizen would result in my being a bad parent? How could I possibly consider a private school for my child unless I really believed the public schools were awful? The question, I came to realize, was not whether Conor might be somewhat better off at Waldorf, but whether I believed that the public schools would offer him a sufficiently good education that he would be absolutely fine-- and that with our actions, we could help buttress the nation's public schools. What did I really believe? Could I match my conscience with my actions?  Yes. Of course I believe in the public schools-- if they were not offering a good education, I would not be vehemently defending them.  This really wasn't a dilemma.

I write this while watching Deval Patrick tear it up at the Democratic National Convention. His passionate plea for liberals to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe -- to stand up for public education-- is heard in our home. We act personally, locally for what we believe is good public policy for all of the nation's children.  And the fact is, that is the kind of character we most want our son to possess.

The good news is that today Conor had a wonderful time at school.  He was a bit scared at the moment he climbed onto the school bus, but returned home with a terrific report.  Just watch, and see for yourself.  We can't stop smiling.

Postscript: Read Adam Swift's "How Not to Be A Hypocrite." It's worth the effort to wade through the philosophy.  And ponder this additional sociological critique-- it is admittedly far harder if your household is less economically secure than ours, and thus much more concerned with downward mobility. It's my privilege to be confident that my son will be fine in nearly every circumstance, as I do not worry often about losing my job or our home, nor do I fear (often) for his safety.  My privileges do make this back-to-school moment easier, and I realize it.