All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


21 July 2011

A Quick Note About the Blog Title

A lot of people I talk to in real life mistakenly think the name of this blog is "Higher-Ed Intelligence". It's not.

It's "Highered Intelligence", six syllables (five if you really press the dipthong), not seven. It's supposed to be a pun on "Hired", as in mercenary and "Highered", as in a made-up word for "Made Higher." After all, if you're going to hire intelligence you'd want to hire the most highered you can find, no?

The fact that it is a triple pun (visually/orthographically) on college-level education, well, that's gravy.

Thoughts on the Atlanta Cheating Scandal et al.

It's all over the news, so I'm not going to bother linking to any specific discussion. I just wanted to share a few only-semi-connected thoughts:

Thought #1: I've had occasion to tell a student or two a variation on the following: "If you put as much effort into actually reading your book as you did into trying to cover up the fact that you copied this paper from the internet, you'd have been able to write it yourself." This goes for teachers, too. If they spent as much time TeaCHing as they did CHeaTing...

Thought #2: In a just world, students who lie or cheat in college would be expelled without question (see this discussion of UVa's Honor Code and the recent Perkins dust-up). High school students would be given F's and suspended.

And teachers would be fired, having their credentials revoked by the state.

There's enough outrage flying around that the latter may actually happen, but I wouldn't count on it.

Thought #3: Teachers who knew about this and said nothing are moral cowards who should be ashamed of themselves.

Thought #4: Corollary to Thought #3 -- it seems likely that there are very few people in the affected districts who aren't moral cowards.

Thought #5: Corollary to Thought #4 -- given that behavior like this isn't likely to be limited to just a few high profile districts, it seems likely that there are very few educators in this country who aren't moral cowards.

Thought #6: There's going to be a temptation to chalk this up to a few bad apples -- probably people closer to the top who can be excoriated without having to actually inflict any substantive penalties. It's not a problem of a few bad people. It's a problem of widespread moral cowardice, of institutionalized workers "going along to get along", and the hell with what's morally right.

There's a very famous saying that gets abusively misinterpreted: "You can't legislate morality." It's often thought that the saying is about how one can't really pass laws about moral issues. But really the quote is an insightful one about human nature: passing laws doesn't make people into better human beings: morality in the population is what gives laws their force, not the other way around. So we're not going to be able to address the root causes of scandals like this by passing laws, or putting in place new policies, because it's not policies that are the problem. The problem isn't that we're not watching teachers and administrators carefully enough.

It's impossible to watch them all the time.

But it's not impossible that they should watch themselves all the time. And that's what we need: teachers (and citizens generally) who understand that they must speak up, they must take a stand against what is wrong.

Much like actually enforcing penalties for misbehavior leads to having to deploy those penalties less often, a population with the courage to stand up and say, "YOU! You're misbehaving and I won't tolerate it!" finds itself in the happy circumstance that people have to stand up and speak out less often.

Thought #7: Corollary to Thought #6 -- The individual sense of moral responsibility is stronger when one considers oneself as a member of a community: whether a church, a town, or a nation. The sense of belonging can help give others the courage to stand up and say, "You're betraying us all!" I have a nagging suspicion that multiculturalism, while no doubt wonderful for many reasons, erodes the sense of community unity needed for the public enforcement of moral standards. In a "culture" with no solid, unified foundation other than law, only the law will serve to regulate behavior, and that is insufficient to the task.

Thought #8: Moral cowardice isn't the only thing to blame for the cheating scandals. Laziness plays a part, too. Enforcing standards is hard work.

In conclusion: I wish I had a solution, or even an overall point. I don't. I just have a vague sense of unease about the future of our country, and a worry that two months from now this will have all been swept under the rug in the name of convenience and not wanting to make a fuss.

16 July 2011

Who says it's easy?

Via InsideHigherEd, a survey that shows that we're overwhelmed with A's these days in colleges.

The statistics are one thing -- 40+ percent A-grades is a mere numerical fact. Some editor gave the article about the study the title "Easy A" -- but who says it's easy? Maybe 40+ percent of the students are really just that good. (I know... I have trouble saying it with a straight face, but bear with me.)

Of course, if the point of grading is differentiation rather than threshold-signalling, you're going to want finer criteria. That is what the study authors believe, by the way -- they say as much:
It is likely that at many selective and highly selective schools, undergraduate GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use . . . as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers.

Which brings us to this tidbit, quoted from the study:

"When A is ordinary, college grades cross a significant threshold. Over a period of roughly 50 years, with a slight reversal from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, America’s institutions of higher learning gradually created a fiction that excellence was common and that failure was virtually nonexistent," they write. "The evolution of grading has made it difficult to distinguish between excellent and good performance. At the other end of the spectrum, some students who were once removed from school for substandard performance have, since the Vietnam era, been carried along. America’s colleges and universities have likely been practicing some degree of social promotion for over 40 years."

Here's the study's conclusion summary:
Conclusions/Recommendations: As a result of instructors gradually lowering their standards, A has become the most common grade on American college campuses. Without regulation, or at least strong grading guidelines, grades at American institutions of higher learning likely will continue to have less and less meaning.

That's an empirical claim you see there: instructors have gradually lowered their standards. Have they?

Maybe. It may be true that common excellence is a fiction, that grades are inflated, and that the A's that are so liberally distributed aren't actually tied to superior quality work and achievement. But the mere grade numbers by themselves don't prove that. You need to do comparisons not just of grades, but of the work produced by students -- and that would require controlling for certain types of variables like changing curricular design (say, more of an emphasis on specialized, narrow-focused courses over the last few decades, which could affect student work).

Don't get me wrong -- I'm inclined to think they're right. But this is supposed to be a scholarly study, and it seems sort of slapdash, at least what I've read of it.

14 July 2011

What exactly are they doing in school?

Let me start with a caveat: I know my own experience is not generally applicable, and that I shouldn't use personal anecdotes as a basis for setting policy. As legions of very smart people have told me time and time again, I don't count. I accept this.

That said, I was struck by a sentence I read this morning over at The Chronicle of Higher Education. This post isn't about that article -- it's just about the sentence. Here it is:

Many Americans learn at a two-year college most of what they will ever learn—in a formal setting, at least—about writing, critical thinking, the history of our culture and civilization, the environment, and human behavior.

I suppose this sentence is almost trivially true for certain values of the word "Many", but the implication is for a reading where many means something like "Lots -- more than you might think", not just "more than one or two."

Anyway, I was looking at this sentence and I found myself wondering, "What the hell did they learn in high school?" I learned most of my math in 6th grade and 9th grade. I learned most of my science in 7th and 8th grade. I learned most of my history in 7th grade and on my own, and I learned most of my reading/writing/critical thinking in grades 10, 11, and 12.

That's not to say college didn't matter. I learned a great deal in college and sharpened many of my skills there. But if what Rob Jenkins is saying is true, and two years of college is where "many" students learn most of their writing, critical thinking, and history, I'm forced to ask:

What the #%$&@!? were these people doing in high school? Or even in junior high? What the hell were 12 years of formal schooling for if most of what's important in an education is going to be delivered in two years?

Now, one easy answer is that Rob Jenkins is simply wrong. He's overstating his case in a rhetorical effort to justify his existence.

But even if that's true -- it's well-established that many students heading off to "college" require remedial work. (See here, here, here, and here just for a few examples.) As a graduate assistant who spends a large chunk of his time grading undergraduate papers, I know well what is considered college-level work these days; it's not always terribly impressive, and some of it is downright embarrassing for anyone with half of a sense of shame. (In my students' defense, some of it is quite good!) And I can only grimace at what must occur at the remedial level. (I otherwise fully confess my ignorance of what is covered in these classes.)

But students are sitting in chairs for 12 years. Twelve years. You can do a lot in twelve years. You can get two PhD's, if you're really on top of things.

What is happening in those twelve years?

I don't mean this as a rhetorical question, nor as an indictment of the "school system" (as if we had a uniform school system). I'm not concerned in this post with the intractables or the schools filled with criminals and whizzing bullets. Presumably those are completely separate problems. I mean my question as a literal, interrogative question about the students who are, we should think, "successfully" taught.

Time and money are being spent and diplomas are being delivered. There's something being done.

What is it? Because it's clearly not analytical writing skills or logical fluency. (And maybe it shouldn't be.)

If we can figure out what it is we're actually doing -- and I feel like this shouldn't be that hard -- then maybe we can figure out how to do what we want to do, if it turns out that's something different. But twelve years is a lot of time. I find it hard to believe that it's being totally wasted.

But on what is it being spent?

04 July 2011

Sic Semper Tyrannis

Note: That's an ablative plural Tyrannis up there, not the traditional dative (although they look the same, down to the long vowel). I mean to say something less like "Thus do we always render up to tyrants our vengeance" and something more like "Thus always is the manner of the tyrants." It's meant as a warning not to the tyrants, but to the populus. Please enjoy the rest of your post.

What the hell is up with laws that have waivers in them? From Education Week, I learn:

Duncan, who predicts 82 percent of schools will be labeled failing this year, has declared the law broken. If Congress does not rewrite it, he has said he will grant waivers to states to bypass its key components.

The Council of Chief State School Officers, (which now represents all states but Texas), plans to lead an orchestrated effort to flood the department with waiver requests that would allow states to use their own accountability models, which would be based on a common framework.

Kentucky is out in front on this, and already has asked for permission (unlike the Idaho way of ask-forgiveness-not-permission) to use its own accountability model.

Duncan & Co., who so far have refused to articulate their waiver plan, are at risk of losing control of this debate over what happens to NCLB in the interim.

Let me back up. There's a very famous quote of which many people -- particularly but not exclusively those moderns who call themselves "progressives" -- are excessively fond. It reads thusly:

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

I've always had a sort of ambivalent appreciation for this quote. On the one hand, Anatole France has a point: when you're prosecuting people who sleep under bridges and steal bread, you're pretty much deciding to prosecute poor people. On the other, you're prosecuting them for an action, not merely because they are poor. No one is going down the street and saying, "Hmmm. You look poor. You're probably the sort of person who is going to sleep under a bridge and steal bread, and that's trouble, so we're going to arrest you for being poor." (Actually, the authorities do do just that, with vagrancy laws and startling regularity, but that's a separate issue that I'll discuss on another distant day.)

The reason I'm ambivalent is that I don't object ex ante to laws that outlaw activity, but I do object ex ante to laws that outlaw identity. In other words, I'm a fan of Equal Protection. If a law says "Black people need to ride in the back of the bus", well, supporters of the law could argue (pathetically) that the law is applied equally to whites and blacks: everyone is equally subject to the law, after all. It just has differential outcomes for different groups of people.

Of course, the differential outcome here, unlike in the case of vagrancy and theft laws, are written into the law. And that's what makes the law a bad law. The vagrancy law isn't a bad law on its face; it's just that when put in full context and coupled with biased enforcement, it becomes something nasty.

Anyway, here's what the NCLB Act says:

`(a) IN GENERAL- Except as provided in subsection (c), the Secretary may waive any statutory or regulatory requirement of this Act for a State educational agency, local educational agency, Indian tribe, or school through a local educational agency, that —

(1) receives funds under a program authorized by this Act; and

(2) requests a waiver under subsection (b)

In case you were wondering, the restrictions in section (c) aren't restrictions on how the Secretary is allowed to exercise his discretion in granting waivers, but rather restrictions on what parts of the law he is allowed to waive.

Think about a similarly crafted murder statute:

(a) IN GENERAL - Except as provided in subsection (c), the Sheriff may waive application of this homicide statute to any person who:

(1) is subject to prosecution under this act; and
(2) requests a waiver in writing

Would you feel safe, being protected by such a law? What if it were a law that forbade driving a gas-powered vehicle (for the environment, of course)? Using incandescent light bulbs? Gas for me and my friends, says the Secretary of Energy, but bicycles for you. Warm, solid light for our homes but flickering, cold light for thine.

The very idea that a law has a provision for waivers built into it is dictatorial, and a blatant violation of Equal Protection -- not in the "discrete and insular minority" sense (that would be a question of a challenge against enforcement and application of the waiver provisions), but rather in a very fundamental "This law on its face does not apply to every citizen equally, though we'll have to wait and see who gets screwed" sense.

Sic Semper Tyrannis: Gold for me, but not for thee. Freedom for me, but not for thee. Differential treatment under the law is the cornerstone of tyranny and dictatorship.

Obviously, this is just as applicable to discretionary waivers of Obamacare or waivers of any other program. If your law sucks so badly that you need to be able to waive its application, rewrite the damn law.