Sunday, May 29, 2011

Beware of Economists Bearing Education Reforms

 New Faculty Majority is committed to quality in higher education. Adjunct working conditions - our teaching conditions - are also the learning conditions for most students walking the (all too often booby trapped) higher education maze, which cannot be separated from education issues in general. That includes assessment, standardized tests, teaching to tests, falling or being pushed into lockstep "scientific measurement" and "quantifiable outcomes."  Speaking out and insisting on a greater faculty voice in higher education is key to the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education

Time then to add education, pedagogical and learning issues to the topic list. We also all know that the discussion is as much about money as it is quality and results. With that in mind, today, I offer this, posted via Defend Education discussion group, Saturday May 28, 2011. Monty Neill, Fair Test Organization, warns us to ... 

"Beware, of Economists Bearing Education Reforms" by William J. Mathis

"As I see it," wrote Paul Krugman, "the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth." Krugman himself is, of course, an economist (and a Nobel Prize winning one at that) which demonstrates that economists can indeed spot the pitfalls of their field. As an educator, when I look at economists' education reform ideas they, all too often, show manifestations of Krugman's syndrome. They confuse mathematical symmetry with truth.

When applied to education, the pathology takes three identifiable forms: unitheoryia, measuremyopia, and regressionia.

Unitheoryia manifests itself in the narrow vision of education as an economic free-market commodity. The afflicted reflexively turn to privatization and choice as ways to improve the quality of schooling. Those in advanced stages tend to explain all human and social behavior
as the pursuit of self-interest through competition. Eruptions about international competitiveness being dependent on standardized test scores are a common symptom.

The debilitating aspect of unitheoryia is that it results in a complete misreading of the purposes of schools in a democratic society. In checking these purposes in the fifty state constitutions, there's a remarkable absence of clauses centered on "education for economic competition." Instead, I found phrases like "Intelligence and virtue being the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government . . ." (Arkansas), "Knowledge and learning, generally
diffused throughout a community, being essential to the preservation of a good government; . . ." (Indiana), and ". . . the encouragement of virtue and prevention of vice, . . ." (Vermont). Virtually every state also has an equal protection clause, which is quite the theoretical obstacle when extolling the values of competitive economic Darwinism.

Measuremyopia is characterized by a fixation on indicators that are easily quantifiable and reliable. For traditional economics, that indicator is money. For schools, this leads researchers (of many persuasions) to worship at the altar of the standardized test score. The intellectual rationale seems to be, "It might not be a valid measure but it's the best we got and nobody can say we didn't uniformly apply it!" Sometimes, a researcher afflicted with measuremyopia will throw in
graduation rates or attendance data, since these are also quantifiable.

Constitutional phrases like "civic virtue" and "preservation of a democratic government" are simply beyond the conceptual consideration of most economists.These terms are too value-laden to be represented by well-behaving mathematical variables. Furthermore, the effects of schools, parents and communities are all inter-related in a tangled way. (Some acute observers may point out that test scores actually present the same problem, but this truth is forbidden in the orchid hothouse of economic analysis).

Sometimes, the real success of a school is in the shy child who bloomed and became a community leader, the artist who transformed a city-center, the needy child who found a positive role model, or the quirky kid whose creativity later led to a medical break-through. The fundamental flaw is that the really important things about schools (and about life) don't lend themselves to economic analysis.

Regressionia reveals itself when, to the exclusion of all else, the afflicted seek a statistical model to understand schools. This often leads to the use (and misuse) of various forms of a technique known as linear regression, applied in infinite color and hue. (Regression is a correlational approach based on how variables change with each other). Beta weights, dummy variables, hierarchical models, and regression discontinuities are paraded about in formulated exotica ornamented with Greek symbols. It's all very impressive and creates the impression that
truth can be found here.

Sadly, although the technique has proven quite valuable, the over-reliance on regression models is, perhaps, encouraged because it is so easy to do. No knowledge of the subject being studied is required. You don't actually have to go inside a school. It only requires a data base, a packaged statistical computer program, and a slice of the unitheory to be tested. Not surprisingly, economic (as well as other) studies tend to confirm their own theories. Scientific American laments
the epidemic of "false positives and exaggerated results."

One of countless examples is found in an Education Next article ballyhooing the successful effects of school competition. The economist authors found that having a private school within 1.1 miles of a public school increased test scores by 1.5% of a standard deviation. Such
findings can easily be "statistically significant" in a state with 2.6 million students. However, from a policy point of view, these effects are trivial. This study hits the Trifecta: measuremyopia, using
regression to force-fit a unitheory. Does the study add anything to the policy discussion of schooling other than a "beautiful" model (to paraphrase Krugman)? Not really.

Fundamentally, the problem is that none of the variables are particularly good indicators of what they are supposed to measure. For example, test scores are only a small part of schools and seniority is not a good measure of teacher quality. Further, the basic model assumes that the world is linear, relationships remain static, and that groups and individuals behave in predictable ways. This means that the exercise is often elegant numerology. For instance, a really robust regression equation might show school effects accounting for only a fourth of the variance. Now a curious person might want to know in what black hole the other three-fourths of the variance can be found.

Cohesiveness, cooperation, altruism, caring and the common good are vital to a democratic society. But these are alien concepts to economists' visions of school reforms. Thus, the richness of what education is and should be is unseen, oblivious to e.e. cummingsmessage, "While you and i have lips and voices which are for kissing and to sing with, who cares if some one eyed son of a bitch invents an instrument to measure Spring with?"

Be wary of economists bearing reforms.

William J. Mathis is the Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center, University of Colorado at Boulder. He previously served as a school superintendent in Vermont and is a member of the state board of education. The views expressed are his own.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Elvis' Computer Has Left th Building

Hi - just a quick note on a borrowed computer to let you know I am w/o computer access for the immediate future although doing my best to remedy that condition as soon as possible ~ so no email, blogging, Facebook posts or other social media. Time to catch up on reading. I promise to do my best to catch up on on back mail, posts and maybe even calendars/event announcements in as timely manner as humanly once I have dealt with the narcoleptic computer (keeps falling asleep without warning) one way or another and am re-connected.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Covering the Adjunct Beat: Call for Narratives

Via Pablo Eisenberg, NFM has been in touch with a journalist, Kristine Hines, who is interested in writing a story on adjuncts. She would like to focus on adjuncts who are or have been in dire situations as a result of contingent working conditions: on food stamps, selling blood/plasma for extra money, filing bankruptcy, experiencing major health problems, etc. while teaching classes or during the summer because of lack of access to unemployment insurance. 

If you or someone you know would be willing to be interviewed, please contact Maria Maisto at

Monday, May 16, 2011

Reminder: May 17 Future of HigherEd Launch

Elizabeth Hoffman, lecturer and CalFac member on the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education organizing committee posted the following reminder from a Contingent perspective about Tuesday's launch in DC and live streamed online across the country.

There is a Discussion Forum at the Future of Higher Education for you to discuss your comments, questions and concerns. You can also post them here or on the New Faculty Majority page on Facebook. Know of or involved with other "whither higher ed" campaigns? Please share them with us as well as your ideas for keeping adjunct faculty visible, issues front and center, in this one.

Just a reminder of the launch of the "Campaign for the Future of Higher Education" on Tuesday, May 17th. The event will be streamed live via the web from the National Press Club in Washington 1 p.m. (EDT).

 New Faculty Majority president Maria Maisto, various board members and other contingent leaders will be part of the faculty from around the country will be at the news conference in Washington and at live web cast watching parties at their local campuses, hopefully with local press who can talk with faculty and students about the impact of the defunding and the undermining of higher education in this country.

More information about how to watch or text in a question is available online. You can view the web cast from any computer. Watch with other adjuncts and invite friends to learn about the campaign. See the press release for a list of campuses across the country that are having "watching parties" of the web cast.

Learn more about the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, which began last January when more than 70 higher ed leaders from 21 states met in LA and developed seven principles campaign to ensure quality higher ed for the 21st Center, on the CalFac website. Contact the campaign by email at

Elizabeth Hoffman, Jonathan Karpf, and Leslie Bryan. Lecturers in the Cal State System

Originally posted to the Contingent Academics Mailing List, image added and links embedded

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Going Grassroots with Social Media

Recently written on adj-l (Contingent Faculty List):

Hey, I'd like to use Twitter and Facebook to get more support and awareness. What links should I pass around? Let's go Egyptian! It's gotta be grassroots or it won't work.

I've been thinking about blogging a series on just this and intend to recycle my reply by x-posting to one or more of my blogs. The listero's (Spanish for list member) question certainly adds to my motivation, so send questions, suggest topics, etc ~ the more focused and specific the better. 

How to get started?
Homework - reading articles,visiting sites, etc - helps but not unless you spend time in the media, getting familiar with it, actually using it.

What links?
If that were part of a thesis statement, I'd hand it back with your head on a platter: "too vague and general, be more specific." See above.

For starters though, post resource links, links to major adjunct related sites or ones covering adjunct issues, organizations, adjunct blogs, especially ones that represent adjunct groups and/or post regularly on adjunct and related issues (unions, academic labor, temp/precariat labor, higher education, etc).

Going Grassroots:

To build build and expand a online adjunct network, we must support, share, forward, follow, repost and recommend each other ~ even in the absence of reciprocity. That's what "grassroots" is about: not posting just to a closed list of several hundred ~ or even thousands. According to writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of internet technologies Clay Shirky in his book of the same and Joyce inspired title, social media organizing is "Here comes Everybody. Also, see Shirky's presentation on how social media are changing the way we organizeAnother, obviously Shirky inspired, SlideShare presentation, "There goes everybody," addresses social media and civic engagement. 

The Glorious Future

Can't beat University Diaries on this one so I'll just share, even if it's 2nd hand sharing of shared links (3rd hand by the time tweeted @NewFacMajority and auto-posted to NFM's Facebook page. So be. What matters is the sharing and the reading.

The Glorious Future"William Deresiewicz, in The Nation, talks about the future of university education where nearly all [proposed university reforms] involve technology to drive efficiency."

Point/Counterpoint: from there UD goes on to include: Update: From Robert Nozick’s obituary in the Harvard Gazette, "Nozick’s teaching followed the same lively, unorthodox, heterogeneous pattern as his writing. With one exception, he never taught the same course twice."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

May 2011 National CrossTalk

Intel is good, you can never have too much. Just ask Sun Tzu 

The May 2011 issue of National CrossTalk is now available on the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education website. Also included in this issue is a new report based on interviews and a Presidential Roundtable discussion with college presidents on the challenges facing higher education.

National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education
152 North Third Street, Suite 705
San Jose, CA 95112

Monday, May 2, 2011

What good do faculty unions do?

So asks the title of an article by Peter Schmidt in the current Chronicle of Higher Education. "Research," the subtitle continues, "sheds little light on quantifiable benefits of collective bargaining." Well yes, we've noticed the gaps in highered research, haven't we? Big enough to drive double wides through. Unlike other articles pointing out gaps, promising them filled by research, that all-purpose academic highway pothole packer, this article mentions adjuncts. Nine times, which may be a record, one via Marc Bousquet and ~ no surprise ~ most but not all of the rest quoting Keith Hoeller

In case you're curious, I used control + F to find and count. This was early so comments were only just starting. Hop or surf on over and have your say. Adjunct-relevant excerpts below for your reading convenience.

Across the country, unions representing public-college faculty members
 are on the brink of being stripped of collective-bargaining rights

"At institutions where a substantial number of the faculty are represented in collective bargaining, you are much more likely to have a substantial faculty voice in governance," says Marc Bousquet, an associate professor of English at Santa Clara University, regular blogger for The Chronicle, and co-chairman of an American Association of University Professors committee on the working conditions of adjunct faculty members. "It is not necessarily the case that collective bargaining addresses governance procedures directly," he says, so much as it gives faculty members more power within their institutions than they might otherwise have.

"Across the broad spectrum of institutions of higher education, faculty unions do make a difference," says Philo Hutcheson, who has monitored research on faculty unionization as an associate professor of educational-policy studies at Georgia State University. While unions can bring about improvements in faculty members' pay and working conditions, he says, "they are far stronger, in general, in terms of protecting faculty members" from arbitrary management decisions.

[David W.] Hedrick says he and the other authors of [a] paper on full-time faculty at four-year colleges [published April in Industrial and Labor Relations Review] are conducting similar studies looking at both two-year and four-year colleges and covering other types of faculty members, including adjuncts. They hope to publish results within a year.

Research on unionization's effects on two-year colleges is sparse, and the research on its effect on adjunct faculty is virtually nonexistent.

On the question of whether unionization has helped adjunct faculty members, Keith Hoeller,   [editor of the Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, author of innumerable articles on adjunct issues], and a co-founder of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association, is skeptical. Although unions that represent solely adjuncts have cropped up at many colleges, the chief national unions that they are affiliated with represent a mixture of adjuncts and tenured and tenure-track faculty members. Mr. Hoeller, who teaches in Washington State, complains that adjuncts have relatively little say in negotiations involving tenured and tenure-track faculty members, whose interests often are at odds with theirs. "When the dust settles," he says, "there are almost no gains for adjuncts from these bargaining teams."
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