Thursday, January 31, 2013

10th Annual EPS Conference


A Nation at Risk? Reflections on the Past and Future of U.S. Public Education
10th Annual Educational Policy Studies Conference
Madison, Wisconsin
March 21-22, 2013
All events in Room 159 of the Education Building, 1000 Bascom Mall, UW-Madison


Thursday, March 21, 2013

8:30-10:00AM: Public Discourse on American Education
            Michael Apple, Curriculum & Instruction & EPS, UW-Madison
Nancy Kendall, EPS, UW-Madison
Gloria Ladson-Billings, Curriculum & Instruction & EPS, UW-Madison
Chair: Bill Reese, EPS & History, UW-Madison
10:15-11:45 AM: Race/Ethnicity and the Evolution of U.S. Public Education
            Jack Dougherty, Trinity College
            Adrienne Dixon, University of Illinois-Chicago
            Michael Fultz, EPS, UW-Madison
            Chair: TBA


1:00-2:30 PM: The Legacies and Future of Public Higher Education in the U.S.
            Harry Brighouse, Philosophy & EPS, UW-Madison
            Sara Goldrick-Rab, EPS & Sociology, UW-Madison
            Daniel Kleinman, Sociology, UW-Madison
            Chair: TBA

3:00-4:30 PM: From “A Nation at Risk” to “No Child Left Behind”
Maris Vinovskis, University of Michigan*
Chair: Adam Nelson, EPS & History, UW-Madison


7:00-8:30: The Chicago Teachers Strike: Reframing Education Reform and Teacher Unions
            Pauline Lipman, University of Illinois-Chicago
            Discussant: Chad Alan Goldberg, Sociology, UW-Madison

Friday, March 22, 2013

8:30-10:00 AMPlace, Space, and Public Education
            Bianca Baldridge, EPS, UW-Madison
            Linn Posey-Maddox, EPS, UW-Madison
            Peter Miller, Education Leadership & Policy Analysis, UW-Madison
            Chair: TBA

10:15-11:45 AM: Future Challenges, Roles, & Opportunities for Public Education
            Robert Asen, Communication Arts, UW-Madison
Constance Flanagan, Interdisciplinary Studies, UW-Madison
            Constance Steinkuehler, Curriculum & Instruction, UW-Madison
Chair: TBA

Friday, January 25, 2013

Say What About the Flex Degree?

On June 19, the University of Wisconsin System announced an initiative called the Flex Degree which was described as competency-based online instruction.  That day, I blogged about it, noting that while I certainly had some concerns, there were enough potential positive effects of the program to withhold full judgment either way.

Friends on both sides were surprised.  Colleagues who know and respect the priority I place on access and affordability for all potential students thought I should have been more strongly supportive of the "innovative" initiative that has the promise to drive down costs.  Others, of the liberal activist persuasion, noted  Governor Scott Walker's involvement, and the strong likelihood of negative repercussions for faculty job security and the quality of education delivered.  Still, I demurred, deciding to wait to hear more.

Unfortunately, information hasn't exactly been forthcoming.  I keep up to speed, reading the papers and blogs, and talking with those "in the know" and yet, I still have no clear picture what this Flex Degree really is.  Perhaps it's because where I spend most of my time, UW-Madison, isn't involved?  Maybe faculty at Parkside and Milwaukee have a clearer picture of what's happening? Maybe this initiative doesn't involve us tenured faculty at all, leaving the process to the administrators?   I've tried to check things out-- and am hoping this blog stirs discussion so I can learn more.  All I've heard thus far is that the faculty at Parkside are seriously concerned about the effort, and had a disagreement about the program with their Chancellor, resulting in the displacement of their Provost.

The media's been the only source of information-- and the coverage alone is enough to raise concerns.  (Also, there is not one investigative reporter covering higher education in Madison now.) It's undoubtedly bad press for UW System when the Wall Street Journal leads its coverage with a headline "College Degree, No Class Time," as it did this morning. Here is what we "learn" from that story:
  • A degree obtained online will carry the same name on it that degrees earned on campus do.  You won't be able to tell if the degree was earned at Parkside, Madison, or Flex.
  • UW System official encourage students to obtain their learning from MOOCS like "Coursera, edX and Udacity."
  • The charges for the tests and related online courses haven't been set but it will be cheaper than attendance on a campus.
Wow, seriously?  Each of these aspects raise trouble.  Why try to "hide" that the degree was awarded for learning acquired elsewhere, including via under-assessed methods like MOOCs?  How could the initiative possibly get past "go" without an assessment of cost-effectiveness?

Instead of concrete planning, it seems this process relies on a set of fairly broad, vague statements. Do what's good for the workforce. Do what the Governor asks. Do something "big" (According to UW System President Reilly-- the Flex Degree is a "big new idea").  Make it "fresh."

These are platitudes that have been circulating in the education reform crowd for years.  The rhetoric is typically framed as colleges and professors are "behind" (engaged in "the monastery model") and need to catch up. Interestingly,  Jeff Selingo of the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote in his blog yesterday about the perspective held by Aaron Brower, a professor of social work at UW-Madison and the lead administrator on the Flex Degree initiative.   From Brower's point of view, "Our students have all the information that we have as professors, so there is no premium on access to information."
Hmm. Well, first, that sounds right-- and simple-- but it's not really.  The people actually working to get online education right (and many are in the for-profit industry-- which doesn't mean their knowledge should be disregarded) know that "access to information" is far from sufficient for students and that professors really enhance that access by sifting, coordinating, distilling and analyzing that information for students.   The best initiatives thus far do not rely on technology alone-- they involve technology and people.  This is because, as UW Extension Chancellor Ray Cross puts it, "faculty are the guardians of quality."

Brower knows this, and knows it well. And I think, therefore, that the biggest problem with the Flex Degree at the moment lies in how it's being rolled out and messaged.  There are far more details available about this initiative than what's reaching our ears, but one has to look to meeting minutes to find them.  For example, reading the minutes from a UW LaCrosse meeting about the Flex Degree I learned that "Faculty are at the heart of the endeavor:  they will determine the outcomes/competencies and the assessments that will provide the evidence of student learning—nobody else can do this...Without faculty and academic staff involvement, the program will not attain the quality we envision, programmatically or pedagogically."  And I'm pleased that apparently Governor Walker has told Ray Cross that he'll provide new funding for this initiative, rather than grab at our base. 

So maybe the Flex Degree is better than it appears, and its communications arm is simply failing to message it correctly.  One powerpoint talks about the "First to Flex," a physical metaphor that doesn't work well when it comes to education. There is also this wordy, vague video on You Tube.

Bad media is a huge problem that could sink the whole ship.  Let's see that turned around, fast, before the nation begins to associate the University of Wisconsin with degrees that stand for nothing.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Do Academic Incentives Appear to Augment Financial Aid Effectiveness, Particularly after Enrollment?

The field of financial aid research is rapidly growing and expanding, which is a really good thing since the reliability and validity of evidence on effects pales in comparison to the magnitude of the national investment in aid.  Policymakers shoot me emails almost daily, asking "how can this be?"

Well, it's expensive and difficult to rigorously examine the impacts of expensive, complicated programs. Financial support for aid research is often difficult to come by; seemingly because at least to some foundations and other funders, "we know it all" about aid already and need to move on.

Expert researchers like Sue Dynarski and Judith Scott-Clayton know better than this, and bother to continue studying financial aid and write comprehensive reviews of existing studies on the topic for the rest of us.  I've relied on Dynarski's work continuously since my career began, and continue to be amazed at her ability to conduct incisive, beautifully executed work year after year.  This morning, she issued not one but two new papers from NBER, both on financial aid.  For that, we owe her and her co-authors quite a big thanks.

With that sincere respect for her work in mind, I want to submit one point of disagreement with one of the new papers. It regards a particularly difficult and controversial issue: whether financial aid ought to be reformed to include academic incentives tied to college persistence, to increase its effectiveness.  The abstract for Dynarski and Scott-Clayton's paper reads "for students who have already decided to enroll, grants that link financial aid to academic achievement appear to boost college outcomes more than do grants with no strings attached." This is not a new statement from these researchers, but the paper reiterates it, reviving the debate in the midst of the Gates Foundation's efforts to rethink aid.

A close look at the evidence presented in this new paper leads me to believe that while this is a reasonable hypothesis, it has just as little empirical support today-- or perhaps even less-- than it did a few years ago when the debate over this issue was especially hot.  Let's review.

On the question of the impacts of strictly need-based grants on college persistence, the authors point to two quasi-experimental studies (one by Eric Bettinger, one by Dynarski) with "suggestive but inconclusive evidence that pure grant aid improves college persistence and completion" as well as one study of a program targeting very high achieving students (Gates Millenium Scholars, studied by Steve DesJardins) that found no effects (unsurprising since their high outcomes were hard to improve upon).

In addition, they point to an early working paper (issued in 2011) from my ongoing experimental study in Wisconsin, which at the time, using one cohort of students, found null effects for a private grant program.  This is the extent of the evidence they display about the impacts of grants with no strings attached.  So it's important to note that our paper was updated and re-released last fall 2012 (not uncommon for working papers, and it did get press coverage) to incorporate findings from four cohorts of students and take into consideration that some students saw real increases in financial aid from the grant program while others did not.  The results suggest that grants with no strings attached increased college persistence by about 3 percentage points per $1,000 -- consistent with Dynarski and Bettinger's estimates of aid's impacts from other programs. Sure, those estimates are derived from a quasi-experimental analysis within our experimental study (not dissimilar to the approaches highlighted in the other studies cited), but if you want to be a purist about it, look at the experimental evidence only. That evidence suggests positive impacts as well, and raises the possibility that program complexity is moderating the impacts (another key theme in Dynarski and Scott-Clayton's research from 2006).

On the questions of the impacts of grants with academic incentives, the authors highlight several studies, with two figuring most prominently.  First, the MDRC performance-based scholarship demonstration. They point to evidence from the first, small experiment in New Orleans, which showed positive impacts.  Then, they suggest that the ongoing replication studies of those scholarships "appear to reinforce the findings of the initial study."  Unfortunately, that comment is outdated.  The latest reports on effects are showing null results. The What Works Clearinghouse issued a Quick Review on the New York City results (published in December 2012) last week, indicating the experimental test of performance-based scholarships in that city produced no detectable effects on college retention (the title of the study is "Can Scholarships Alone Help Student Succeed?" but please note that the study is of performance scholarships-- not scholarships alone).  (Full disclosure: I am Project Director on that WWC contract.) Recent conference presentations from the project reveal similar trends-- very little improvement, if any, resulting from the additional of performance based scholarships. Project director LaShawn Richburg-Hayes has been commendably careful to also point out that these scholarships are delivered on top of aid without strings, and also noting that it's unclear why Louisiana's results haven't been reproduced elsewhere.

Next, Dynarski and Scott-Clayton highlight Scott-Clayton's rigorous dissertation study of a West Virginia program. Her quasi-experimental analysis suggests that in West Virginia, effects of tying aid to performance had positive effects.  However, the most important claim for the argument here-- that effects were stronger when academic incentives operated than when they did not--does not tell us that incentives performed better than "no strings attached" for these students.  The two treatments occurred at different points in college for these West Virginia students, with academic performance required early in college, and no performance required later in college.  In other words, there is a key confound (year in college) compromising the results.

The truth is that the experimental work needed to test the hypothesis that academic incentives tied to grant aid outperform grant aid without strings attached hasn't been conducted.  It's clear that the effects of aid are very likely heterogeneous, and there are numerous variations in how aid is designed and delivered.  For this reason, across-study comparisons are very hard to make. We need to set up a horse race between aid and aid+incentives for a sample of students much like those whom we'd hope to reform aid for-- Pell Grant recipients, most likely.   Only then will we know if academic incentives really add value.  And even then, we won't know why-- without rigorous mixed methods research.

For now, the jury is out, and policymakers who pair academic incentives with need-based aid are flying blind.  They may have other rationales for doing wanting to do this-- some people feel better about distributing money when it comes with strings-- but they shouldn't pretend it's an evidence-based decision.  And like merit aid, it emphasizes the "reward" rather than "compensatory" rationales for distributing financial aid; a political norm-laden shift that probably isn't without consequence.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Questions for the UW-Madison Chancellor Search

The search for another chancellor of UW-Madison is well underway. According to news reports, the search committee is vetting 60 candidates, sifting and winnowing these to a shorter list of people who will be interviewed off-campus, before a small group of about four comes to campus for interviews.

This is a critical point in Madison's history, as we face key decisions about how we are funded, who we enroll, and how we teach.  Formulating the questions we want to ask the candidates as they go through the process is one way to think through these hard issues.  With this post, I'm hoping to spur thinking on this -- providing a few ideas to get started, and encouraging you to write in with more questions.  With any luck, the people who get to actually ask the questions will find some good ideas here.

A starting point:

1. There has recently been much discussion about the polarization of the academy and concerns expressed about the impacts that a lack of political diversity might have on the welfare of public universities in particular.  How do you conceive of the term "political diversity" and how would you address the need to build it on the UW-Madison campus?

2. What do the terms "innovation" and "disruption" mean to you, and how are they best produced on a campus like Madison's where shared governance is a central value?

3. Many universities, including Madison, are feeling pressure to increase "productivity."  How do you define productivity when it comes to teaching? Research?  What are ways in which you think the productivity of administrators should be measured? What about productivity among faculty?

Help us find the right person-- what questions should be added to this list?