Monday, July 22, 2019

Changing The Narrative About What Happened In The 2016 Election....

....Or Pouring Spilled Milk Back Into The Bottle.

We tend to forget the recent past too easily and too quickly.  We need to keep it in mind, to get a better understanding of the present.

I wonder how many Democratic voters see the history as I do.  I continue to maintain that the Presidential election was stolen - not by votes being miscounted, but by illegal acts that preceded the voting. There were several of those.  Russian interference - fake news and trolling, continues to get some press.  The Republican attack machine going after Hillary Clinton about Benghazi and the emails; this has now been supplanted by attack on the Squad of Four.  But it is the same McCarthyite bs, pure vitriol aimed to enrage the base and to cast doubt among swing voters.  If there's smoke there must be fire, right?  In this case, it's entirely wrong.  Yet the attacks are made plausible by prior prejudice the voters have.  For Hillary Clinton, this was in good part fueled by antipathy to Bill Clinton, itself fueled by the Republican attack machine, but also by the Monica Lewinsky affair.  With the Squad of Four, the prior prejudice is obvious and requires no amplification here. 

Yet the biggest of these prior acts, now seemingly forgotten, was Mitch McConnell not taking up the nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court, a violation of his Constitutional imperative.  Logically, there is only one reason why McConnell did this.  Had Garland been considered through the normal Advise and Consent process, he would have gotten through, even with the Republicans in the majority, just as Clarence Thomas got through when the Democrats were in control.   Had that happened, as it should have, then there would have been no vacant seat to fill on the Supreme Court during the 2016 election.  In this case Evangelical voters would have stayed home, rather than hold their nose and vote for Trump, so they could get a Conservative on the Supreme Court.  Hillary Clinton would have won in the Electoral College, as well as in the popular vote.   That's how the election should have played out, if everyone played the game According to Hoyle.

While I don't read the news nearly as intensively as I used to, it's just too depressing to do otherwise, I believe that no Democratic candidate for President in 2020 has taken on this history at all.  Instead the campaigns are about economic issues, identity issues, and bringing the country together. Of these three, the first two are persistent Democratic themes.  I don't want to minimize them. They are very important. But on the third, we need a reality check.  If my premise is correct - the Republicans did steal the 2016 election - how can we possibly bring the country together until that crime has been punished?  As long as the Republicans act like they are fighting a war by other means, and especially if they feel they can keep getting away with it from here on out, there will be no reconciliation.

What follows is how I imagine a candidate who did take on this history, the policies this candidate would advocate for in taking on that history, and the tone that would be needed to make the message effective.

First, while history can't be completely undone, some of it can be reversed.  There would be repeated accusations that the election was stolen.  Given that the Republicans already had a majority in the Senate, this enabled a judicial appointments strategy that was pure tyranny. Sunshine would be placed on that consequence during the election season. While many voters at present may not care as much about judicial appointments as they care about the bread and butter issues, this would be an example of how an effective candidate cand educate the voters, rather than simply appeal to an already fixed voter preference.  Voters should care about this.  With enough education, they will.

Second, this would be coupled with the assertion that every judicial nomination made since Trump took office is illegitimate. The argument is simple enough.  Given that the election was stolen, these appointments constitute ill gotten gains.  This point would be emphasized so as to set up the remedy.  The remedy needs to be drastic, yet be seen as balancing out these gains and not otherwise advancing a Democratic alternative.  The idea is to restore true fairness to the system, not to win a game that has been cooked ahead of time.

Third, the candidate would announce during the campaign (now or in the not too distant future) that as President the powers of Commander in Chief would be exercised to combat domestic threats.  This would entail the detaining of Senator McConnell, possibly other Senators as well who were involved with shelving the nomination of Merrick Garland, and detaining all the judicial appointments who attained their positions under Trump.  These people would either remain detained till the President left office or they would be released immediately if they resigned from their positions.

Fourth, so as not to make political capital out of this act of detaining appointments, the candidate would commit to serving only one four-year term in office. Let us have good and fair elections in 2024 and not have this history remain a burden for the indefinite future.  It seems many candidates now treat running for the President as a perq and likewise for serving in the job.  We need to return to the idea that serving as President is an obligation.  Here the greater obligation is in restoring some trust into the process.  Pre-announcing that the candidate will serve just one term will help to do that.

Fifth, if vacancies in judicial appointments do arise because detained members of the judiciary resigned, there needs to be a way for replacements to be selected that doesn't appear overly partisan.  I have no bulletproof suggestion about how to do this.  But in this context I am reminded of an episode from The West Wing TV series called The Supremes.  In that episode, the President ultimately nominated one very left candidate for the Supreme Court and one very right candidate for the Supreme Court, to restore the previous balance.  And the candidates were viewed as excellent jurists by each other, rather than as merely party hacks.  I don't know how much of this is possible in actuality, but something like this should be an aspiration for this step, and perhaps considering multiple nominations simultaneously is the way to achieve this.

The above constitutes the direct steps that the candidate would take.  There are also indirect steps that need to be taken.  For example, it seems obvious that the hyper partisan political environment that we now find ourselves in has been fueled by yellow journalism which, it is sad to say, does attract eyeballs, coupled with current technology that seemingly requires the news to be entertainment as well.  A more detached and objective presentation of events is desirable, but that's not what is happening. The market is failing here.  There needs to be a remedy to this market failure.  What that remedy looks like can be argued.  One possibility to be floated seems evident - re-instituting The Fairness Doctrine.   Another example, there is too much big money in our politics now.  This is true both with regard to campaign financing and to lobbying.  Presumably, Democrats might take these on without dealing with the history of the 2016 election.  Bringing that history front and center should help amplify the case for solutions.

Let me close with the following observation, in case it is not obvious from what's been said until now.  Talking about how the election was stolen, particularly emphasizing the Merrick Garland nomination, is a way to place the focus on the enablers within the Republican party and move it off of Trump. So, apart from it being the right thing to do in terms a remedying a wrong, it is the right thing to do regarding our politics now.  And it makes sense even among those who want to bring the country together, once it is acknowledged that this can't happen as long as the Republicans want to win regardless of whether it is a fair fight or not.  In particular, calling for an alternative to gerrymandering, that the election in 2016 was stolen should be brought to bear.  While in the one case we are talking about Congressional Districts while in the other we are talking about the Electoral College, the unifying theme should be that the process must be fair.  This rigging of the the political game needs to stop.

Now all we need is for one of the candidates to take up this strategy.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Free College and the Quality of College Education

As I've been at Illinois since 1980 (now as a retired faculty member and administrator) when I think of publicly provided education I tend to think of it as state provision, since with the examples I'm familiar with, mainly the other Big Ten schools (except for Northwestern) are all very large research universities with state provision, I'm unclear on what a national free college program would look like and how it would be administered.  Also, I should note here that the expression, state provision, is more than a bit of a euphemism.  We've always operated under a mixed model which includes, state tax dollars, tuition, gifts to the university, and grants.  The shares of these have not been stable over time, with the tuition share rising and the state tax dollars share declining. And with that the composition of the student body has changed as well. The fraction of out-of-state and international students has risen.   This has happened by growing the overall undergraduate student population.  The number of in-state enrollments has pretty much remained flat.

The university does have its own free college program called Illinois Promise.  It is pretty stern in its income requirements of the student's family.  In a nutshell, the student must come from a family with income below the Poverty Line. And the student must otherwise meet the ordinary requirements for admission to the university.  The program, which started in 2005, has been growing, according to data from the most recent I-Promise Newsletter.  Based on that information and information from the Campus Profile, Illinois promise students comprise between 3.5% and 4% of the undergraduate population at Illinois.  As median family income of all students at Illinois is $109,000, roughly four times larger than the Poverty Line, I-Promise students are different income-wise from typical students and many I-Promise students find the adjustment to campus life a challenge.  For this reason there is a mentoring program targeted at Illinois Promise students (the mentoring is opt in) and students who do choose to have mentors graduate at a somewhat higher rate (though be wary about the difference between causality and correlation).  I have mentored a handful of such students.  My main conclusions from the experience are:  (1) it would be easier if first the student took a class from me so we were more intellectually on the same page, (2) the mentoring training teaches that the mentees tend to value the experience more than the mentors, but in my latest experience with the mentoring the mentee did it only because he thought he had to, and (3) such mentoring should be available far more broadly, because many students find the campus alienating in some way and/or need some coaching about how to best proceed in their classes. Further, especially first generation students, need a friend who has been through it all before and can dispense lessons from the experience.

More or less at the same time as the Illinois Promise program, though I believe there is no causality between the two, the campus has come to increasingly rely on "Specialized Faculty" who are not on the tenure track and are hired only to teach, with no expectation that they will do any research in their field.  The data on this depicted in the table below come from the Campus Profile.  It is not immediately evident what the effect is on quality of instruction when shifting from Regular Faculty to Specialized Faculty.  I've seen arguments both ways. But it is something to keep in mind regarding quality of the college experience for students.  I believe in this respect Illinois is typical of many public universities (and possibly private universities as well).  When comparing teaching loads across the types of faculty, regular faculty have much lower teaching loads and a substantial research obligation.  So the move to Specialized Faculty can bee seen as a way to deliver undergraduate education in a cost effective manner.


The impact of the Illinois Promise program stems from the access to college the program provides. Clearly, one aspect of making college free is giving access to those students who otherwise couldn't afford it.  Even with access, however, there are different ways to understand it.  As many of the I-Promise students are from the Chicagoland area, there are other public education alternatives available to them where they could live at home and attend college at the same time.  Indeed, a couple of my mentees in I-Promise were transfer students who had previously attended community college. This is a different dimension of the quality issue - which college to attend.  While there is a tendency to think of quality along a vertical axis, with selectivity of the institution an index of quality, sometimes it is better to consider what makes for a good fit between the student and the institution. Students may learn more by starting off at a community college, because they feel comfortable in that environment and being relaxed facilitates learning.  While keeping that thought in mind, to the extent that free college is about access, I believe that those who advocate for free college want to see more low-income students at elite universities.  Indeed, a reasonable case can be made that at present the elite colleges promote income inequality rather than upward mobility.  I can't but feel looking at that page, that the presentation of the data is meant to guilt out those who attend elite colleges, as well as those who have some responsibility for admissions there.  This follows from two bits of information, in particular.  One is that many very qualified low income students don't attend elite colleges.  The other is that the income gaps of the parents are largely made up in the children who do attend elite colleges.

Free college is not just about access, however.  Consider the Excelsior Scholarship Program in New York.  The language on that Website refers to middle class students rather than low income students, and the eligibility requirements include family income below $125,000.  This would put the upper end of those students eligible in the top 20% of the household income distribution nationally.  Many such students would attend college, with or without the scholarship, quite possibly at the same institution of learning.   To the extent that free college is about relieving such students of a large debt burden post graduation, that is a different focus than access.  In some sense, the Excelsior Scholarship Program is about shifting debt burden from recent alumni of the public colleges in New York to taxpayers in New York.   Before considering the merits of such wealth redistribution, let's note that possibility of a different effect.  Some of those who would have gone to private colleges or to public universities out of state and paid high tuition in either case, may now find it attractive to get an Excelsior Scholarship instead and go to one of the research universities in New York - Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, or Stony Brook, with the tuition reduction making those alternatives increasingly attractive.   I haven't seen reporting on this, but surely I would be interested to learn how it is actually playing out.

My own reaction to the Excelsior Scholarship program is to redesign it.  In my Shangri-La, college should be free for households at or below the median income, which in New York is about $65,000.  Above that, but below a higher threshold, say $100,000, there should be tuition discounts, with the discounts declining with household income, so that at the upper threshold the student pays full tuition. So my intuition is to be less generous than that actual program is.  But let's face it, this program is partly a political animal.  Governor Cuomo embraced it after Bernie Sanders championed free college in the 2016 election. The program is meant to appeal to voters.  Voter participation tends to rise with income.  Given that, a less generous program wasn't in the cards, even if it were more fiscally responsible.  The real fiscal issue with the Excelsior Scholarship program is that it represents wealth redistribution from taxpayers in general to households with college age kids, but after the kids have graduated college and the parents are ready to retire, the parents are prone to move south, to a no-income-tax state, and thus grab the benefit without reciprocating later with further tax payments. The kids have to stay in state for a while under the program, but the parents do not.   Given those stipulations, one advantage I can see for a national program is to eliminate this sort of tax avoidance. (The parents could change their citizenship, but that seems less likely to me for the time being.)

Still a different model of free college existed when I was in high school (I graduated from Benjamin Cardozo HS in Queens in 1972) when CUNY didn't charge any tuition at all. And, at least a few decades earlier, CUNY had a reputation for providing a high caliber education.  David Leonhardt refers to City College as the Harvard of the proletariat. This was at a time when there was antisemitism in admissions at Ivy League colleges.  A notable example, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Kenneth Arrow, attended City College.  I believe the entire CUNY system retained a good reputation when I was in high school.  But I want to point out that the private universities were much more accessible (financially) than they are today.  My dad's family was very poor, yet he was able to attend NYU (class of 1933) and then Columbia Law School (class of 1936).  My mother, who was an immigrant from Palestine after World War II, got an undergraduate degree from Columbia's School of General Studies.   Much later, in the mid 1960s, my mother got a Masters from Queens College, to buttress her formal teaching credentials.

Things changed with CUNY starting when I was in high school and then more so after I graduated.  Open admissions began in 1970.  But it was cut short by the fiscal crisis that New York City faced in the middle of the decade. There were no funds to supplant tuition, so tuition charges were imposed.  And at the senior colleges in the system, admission standards were notably increased.   Fast forward 40+ years and today CUNY has a far more mixed reputation.  Leonhardt writes:

More recently, these universities have seemed to struggle, with unprepared students, squeezed budgets and high dropout rates. To some New Yorkers, “City College” is now mostly a byword for nostalgia.

He goes on to say that there is actually good news, that about three quarters of the students who enroll at City College (and at institutions like City College around the country) experience upward mobility gains in income that are significant.  I wish he had unpacked that information more.  Do students who drop out still experience those income gains?  If so, how does that happen?  Alas, there isn't enough in the Leonhardt piece to answer those questions.

Here I want to make a few other points. If students are under prepared for college one might assign responsibility either to the students themselves or to the schools they attended in K-12.  It seems plausible that in most cases the real culprit is under funding of the K-12 education.  If so, does it make sense to argue that free college is the solution?  Wouldn't it be better to redirect some of the funds aimed at free college and instead allocate them to K-12 education for this particular population?  Here is a place where I'm confused about jurisdiction, state (or local) or federal.  I know that Head Start is a federal program, but I'm under the impression that most funding for public schools comes from the municipality or the state.  One would hope that the entire system, K-16 and beyond, would work well for students and that the jurisdictional issues would be incidental only.

Next, let me note that, for better or worse, graduation rates are used as a measure of how well the particular university is performing.  Yet graduation rates are largely determined by demographic factors pertaining to the students - parental income, standardized test scores, prior family members who have attended college, and other related variables.  If in considering graduation rates there isn't control for these demographic variables, and frequently it's just the raw graduation rates that seem to matter, then schools will bias their admissions to those students who are high predictors to graduate. Doing so indicates nothing about the quality of education the university provides these students. My own casual empiricism, mainly based on the one class a year I've been teaching since I've retired, is that many students get the sheepskin but are largely unchanged as thinkers while in college.  My indictment on this score can be found in this very long blog post, Why does memorization persist as the primary way college students study to prepare for exams?

Third, this one is again about politics.  And the reality is that middle class voters are rather insular.  This means they will look at free college through the lens of how they and their families benefit (or not).  A voter with no children might be against free college, assuming it implies a higher tax burden on the voter's family.  Voters with kids, who are likely to attend public universities in any event, will love it. Younger voters who are paying their own way through college obviously will love it as well.  So politically, it might very well be a winner.  But it also means there will be a bias, as in the Excelsior Scholarship program, toward debt relief for the families of those students who would have attended with or without the program, and away from the access issue for those students who wouldn't be able to afford college otherwise.  Put a different way, community college quality will be lower than the four-year college quality and that will be a feature of the system, not a bug.  The evident reason is politics.

I want to make one other point and then close.  This is about the dynamics of educational quality at free colleges.  I fear that quality will trend downwards.  There are two different ways to think about this.  The cost of college education has been hyper inflationary for the past 40 years, maybe longer.  This is certainly true at the elite universities and it is easy to understand why.  There is chronic excess demand for admission into such universities.  Indeed, a different way to look at why elite institutions focus so much on the 1% in admissions is that such students won't be liquidity constrained, regardless of the tuition that is charged, which gives the universities complete flexibility to set tuition rates for their own benefit, even though this has the effect of making an elite college education very pricey for the merely well off.  This then gets translated into faculty salaries and other perqs that enhance the faculty as researchers.  And that casts a huge shadow on universities that are the next rung down, which have some high performers among their faculty who might enter the elite ranks in the future.  Indeed the hyper inflationary costs of education will impact the free colleges as well.  Will their budgets be hyper inflationary to match these costs increases?  If not, how will they make ends meet?  One should anticipate various cost savings measures, done in the name of enhancing efficiency, but which will lower the quality of the education provided.

Advocates of free college should think these things through.  Maybe I'm wrong in my analysis.  But if I'm not, there is a reason to express concern here.  And I'm afraid there won't be much rethinking this idea, as the case for free college seems self-evident to the advocates.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Do Good Schools Make Good Students?

Ever since Senator Kamala Harris did that take down of Vice President Joe Biden in the Debate - I was that little girl who rode the bus - I have been trying to unpack the implied argument in that remark and then see where it might take us, regarding attitudes about busing to achieve integration in the schools, and policy-wise, about where the Democrats might end up on the issue.  Let me first say that a holistic approach would take on housing and other social services, notably childcare, in addition to schooling.  This opinion piece from six weeks ago makes it seem first, there will be class warfare within the Democratic Party, especially in major metropolitan areas, and second, as a consequence no holistic approach will be forthcoming, at least not yet.  But maybe there are other things that Democrats can agree upon and do so without much of a to-do.  I believe the (normative) proposition - every child is entitled to a decent education, regardless of race or parental income - would get universal assent.

No doubt operationalizing the previous proposition is harder, but maybe we can also get agreement on the (empirical) proposition - spending per pupil at a public school, and hence public school quality, tends to mirror the wealth of the community where the school is located.  Then busing might seem at least a partial answer to how children from low to moderate income families get a decent education, and it may seem all the more attractive as a solution when integrating housing is not in the cards.

My prior, however, is that there are substantial limits to what busing might achieve because of the "school within a school" phenomenon that I've written about several times, most recently in the post America in Its Addled Essence.  For both the junior high school/middle school and senior high school that I attended there was busing of African-American students to the schools.  Yet the SP classes in junior high had only one African-American student among a total of about 200 students in SP in my graduating class (determined by eyeballing photos from the yearbook).  Likewise, there was only one African-American student in Arista for my graduating class in high school.  (I'm guessing there were about 250 kids in Arista in my grade, though I've got no way to count that now.)  Incidentally, I'm about nine and a half years older than Kamala Harris and I believe I started tenth grade the same year she started kindergarten.  Of course, geographical differences may matter here.  While I lived in Bayside, the schools I attended were NYC public schools.  I'm guessing now, but I believe Berkeley has its own self-contained public school system, connected neither to the San Francisco public schools, nor to the public school systems of other communities in the Bay Area.  The year I started high school (ninth grade) was also the year of the big NYC teachers' strike.   While I saw no evidence of this in junior high school, racial tensions were obvious in high school.  And when I was in 10th grade, we were on the late session, starting school around 11:30 AM and not leaving school till about 5:40 PM. This was necessary because the school was so crowded.  There weren't enough classrooms to have all the students there simultaneously.  Both of these factors created their own sense of disorientation.

From doing some background reading on tracking in the schools, I've come to realize that my experience may not be definitive on the matter, as the system changed quite a bit after I graduated from high school.  SP classes are no more.   If there is tracking at all in middle school now, it is on a subject by subject basis.  This may have been how it was when I was in high school, for those students within the academic curriculum.  But then there was a commercial diploma and a general diploma, in addition to an academic diploma.  I seem to recall that they got rid of the other diplomas soon after I graduated.  My experience, which may not have been typical of students in Arista, of this I'm not sure, is that the only time I didn't take an academic class with an honors designation is because there was only one version of the class (e.g., earth science in 9th grade and economics in 12th grade).   Now, at least in principle, some students make take an honors class in one subject, a regular class in another subject, and a remedial class in a third subject.   And many schools have embraced having students of heterogeneous abilities within the same class, meaning no tracking whatsoever.

But it is a mistake to assume the playing field has been completely leveled now and all students have equal opportunity to excel in school. Indeed the research seems to suggest a movement back to clustering students by ability  and that much of this reinforces current socioeconomic status.  When I was a kid school was said to be an engine for upward social mobility.  But now it seems to mainly reinforce the status quo.  In this regard, the most heartbreaking thing to read is about students in the middle track who perform well there and should be boosted to the top track when they enter the next grade level, only to find that there is a slot constraint for the top track, so that if no other kid gets demoted from the top track, the high performing middle track kid stays put, which is incredibly discouraging.  I found this book review of Tracking Inequality: Stratification and Mobility in American High Schools, by Samuel Roundfield Lucas, helpful in understanding the new reality.  In the concluding paragraph the reviewer writes:

Notwithstanding the above contingencies, I find Lucas’s work to make an important contribution to the sociology of education. Its strength is its combination of thoughtful statistical analyses and grounded sociological theory. Overall, Tracking Inequality provides convincing evidence of the persisting disparities in our educational system and shows us that inequities remain, but have simply taken on a different form.

Likewise, I found the Executive Summary in this paper by Loveless useful, particularly on the efficacy issues, where much less is known than we'd like:

Heterogeneous grouping has not been adopted by enough middle and high schools to conclude whether detracking produces achievement gains—for poor, minority, and low achieving students or anyone else. In sum, research comparing tracking and heterogeneous grouping cannot conclusively declare one or the other as the better way of organizing students.

We should consider the underlying causes that support these findings.  On the persistence of tracking, it is understood that many parents game the system on behalf of their child, presumably with the goal of getting the kid into an elite college. These parents treat the top track as a gateway toward this goal so want to assure their child's membership in the top track, putting school administrators and teachers under a lot of pressure. To an economist, an obvious partial remedy to this situation is to expand the slots at elite colleges, thereby lowering the selectivity and making the competition for the slots less fierce.  I've not seen such a solution being discussed as a policy option, but maybe it should be given some consideration.  Indeed, supply of such slots has increased, by some universities that had been perceived as moderately good, e.g. NYU, now part of the elite. But the Ivy League schools and the Stanfords of the world haven't expanded their capacity, to my knowledge. Doing so would be resisted by those who already get in, as it would diminish the "economic rent" they get from the degree. But socially, I believe that would be desirable. In other words, if you want to improve the opportunities for people closer to the middle of the pack, lower the rewards for people who reach the top.  In the absence of doing that, this will simply repeat, over and over again.

On the perhaps mixed results of grouping students with heterogeneous ability, let's consider inter-student effects, which really can go both ways.  A shy student, who may lack confidence about his ability, might find it off putting to endure the the obnoxious nerd student (think of the Sheldon character in the Big Bang Theory) and those sort of interactions could be stigmatizing to the shy student.  There has been much written about the tracking causing stigma for those students in the lower tracks.  While this is likely correct, we should not assume there will be no stigma in a heterogeneous group, when some students feel uncomfortable there. Alternatively, if the nerd proves to be friendly rather than obnoxious, then the nerd might become something of a teacher and help other students in the group learn.  In my time at school, where I played the role of the nerd, while I was no Sheldon I've experienced the reaction of other students as if I were, while at other times I've experienced other students expressing gratitude for what I taught them.  So, it should also be noted that the learning is bi-directional.  The nerd stereotype is high on cognitive ability, but low on emotional intelligence.  Such interactions give the students feedback on how they are perceived by others whom they don't already know well.  The students may come to understand themselves better as a result.

One might then want to consider how to encourage the teacher effect while discouraging the off putting obnoxious alternative.  As apart from my own kids being in school I've had very little experience with K-12 since I graduated high school, I will merely speculate about this here, based on my considering the analogous questions, but in the college setting, where I feel more on terra firma.   During the first year of this blog I wrote a series of posts on Inward Looking Service Learning, where students a year or two further along would serve as peer mentors for younger students.  Some of the mentoring would be purely academic, but other parts might be more emotional and attitudinal.  It seems to me that if schools valued such peer mentoring in ways that are evident to the students, it would encourage the nerd to reconsider the value in being obnoxious and maybe soften the kid that way, and likewise it might encourage the shy student to be more outgoing and seek learning opportunities from other students. Wishing for this is definitely not the same as making it happen and surely there will be some bumps in implementing any program of this sort.  But as teachers are overburdened already, utilizing the students as a resource for helping more junior students, which in turn will encourage their own growth, should be something to try, and not just by dipping a toe in the water.

Let me close this bit with one more point and then return to busing as a near term solution for promoting equality of opportunity in education.  This is about heterogeneous grouping holding back the highest ability students regarding their measured performance.  We are now suffering through a time where many very good students learn how to please others by their performance, but never learn how to direct their own learn purely for their own satisfaction.  Documenting this phenomenon we have books like Excellent Sheep and Op-Eds like What Straight-A Students Get Wrong. Regarding my own education when I was in high school, in a recent post called Should School Be Hard Work For The Good Student? I explained that I had free time to do with as I chose, which is necessary if the kid is to learn to be self-directed.  If you talk with college educators today, many will complain that the kids are over programmed.  Boosting the resume ends up driving the activity, not the kids intrinsic interest in the matter.  We need to break this pattern, as it is inherently unhealthy for the kids and produces misery rather than satisfaction.  Yet the parents who push the teachers and school administrators into keeping their child in the top track almost surely push the child as well to care mainly, if not exclusively, about measured academic performance.  Expecting these parents to lighten up on their own seems an exercise in wishful thinking, at best.  This, then, offers another reason for expanding the number of slots for admission at elite universities.  Everyone will chill out, at least somewhat, if the competition is less fierce.

Let's now return to busing.  Brown v. Board of Education is the law of the land.  That decision was 65 years ago. If you were an optimist then, you might have hoped the issue would no longer be relevant by now.  Obviously, it still is.  Busing remains a necessary tool to avoid separate schools that are inherently unequal. The point of this essay, however, is that busing is not sufficient and the school within a school issue also needs to be addressed fully, for otherwise busing will mainly be a charade, not a real remedy. Since Kamala Harris took on the issue about busing in the debate, perhaps she can embrace this fuller view of what effective remedies should look like.   And with that let's hope that 65 years hence we are further along than we are now.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Misdirection and the Fun Theory in College Teaching

As I have been preparing some materials for my class in the fall on the Economics of Organizations and a significant part of our topic coverage will be on various compensation schemes that provide cost-effective ways to provide motivation for employee and/or contractors, it's good for the students to reflect on their own motivation in school.  Partly for that reason and partly because it is also good to begin with familiar examples before jumping into the more general approach, I start the first couple of weeks of the course on two examples that should be readily familiar - the class as an organization and then again the university as an organization. (This approach is also my way of coping with the adds and drops that happen during the first 10 days of the term and encouraging the students to get the textbook, which we will get into during the third week of the semester.)

The very first day of the class, as a I give an overview of the course, I will tell students that the course might help them think like a manager, though it is definitely an Econ course, not an MBA course.  My guess is that this will draw them in, both because they'll have aspirations to become managers themselves and also be curious about how their manager thinks when they're in their first jobs after college.  Then I'll do my little schtick about managing down and managing out.  Most of them, having done some summer job already, will think about management mainly as managing down - supervising other employees.  Managing out, which is more of what upper level management does, was my strength.  At least in the university setting, it is mainly about establishing peer relationships.  I certainly like doing this, with other faculty, with ed tech people, and with other campus administrators, as well as peers on other campuses.  It needs schmoozing that builds a trust relationship, but it also needs some quid pro quo - usually that's just information sharing, sometimes it's a service or a program to initiate or tweak. 

In contrast, I'm mediocre at best when managing down and I will let the students know I should not be their role model in that dimension. My ideal of this sort of management is Jean-Luc Picard communicating with Riker.  When I first started in SCALE, Lynn Ward also started at the same time.  My job was to be an ambassador of sort.  Hers was to manage the office. We came in as peers and remained that way when I took over SCALE, only four months later. This continued when Jolee West replace Lynn.  It was Lynn who found Jolee for the job, not me.  If I have only one person to manage I can probably do that and then I will treat it as a peer relationship.  I got overwhelmed, however, when I had 8 direct reports, when CET formed.  I really wanted the office to run itself and not devote much time to it at all.  This is not the mindset of someone who takes managing down seriously.  That someone was not me.

With this as background, I will try to make a parallel between the manager and the staff, on the one hand, and the teacher and the students, on the other.  If employees want to understand their manager they might get an initial inkling of this by asking whether as students they understand their teacher.  What does the teacher do to motivate students?  Are those attempts successful or are they flawed?  When is it one and when is it the other?  Does that depend on who the students are or is good teaching universal so provides motivation for all students?

Since this is an economics class, when considering popular examples of teaching thoughts immediately turn to Ben Stein boring the students to tears in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  The movie came out more than 30 years ago.  A decade or so later that clip, and the movie in its entirety, became iconic in ed tech circles as exemplifying the difficulties with the old pedagogy and a need for something else to replace it.  Further, while others might not have realized it Ben Stein was exactly the right person to be cast in this role of the economics teacher, because his dad, Herbert Stein, was a very well known economist and was Chairman of the Council of Economics Advisors under Nixon and Ford.  But the students may never have seen the clip from Ferris Bueller, so after polling them on that I might then show it in class, along with this clip from the little rascals about playing hooky from school.  (Will they know Spanky and Alfalfa?  I'm probably as old as their grandparents now.  Do their grandparents talk about the TV they watched as kids?)  And then there is the Pink Floyd song (and movie) Another Brick in the Wall.   Together these clips present a rather dim view of school and of teachers.

On the flip side are movies such as Mr. Holland's Opus and Stand and Deliver; the latter is based on a true story. Both movies are inspirational.  Each features a teacher with such dedication and concern for the students that the teacher is able to elevate them to performances beyond their own expectations.  Other movies in this vein, Dead Poets Society and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, deliver a similar message.  While we should all applaud such instructor dedication, the reality is that in the world of ed tech it is pedagogy that we hope saves the say and we'd like to see excellent results even from ordinary instructors, as long as they practice effective pedagogy.  So one might ask, what does effective pedagogy look like and what does it do to encourage student motivation?

Ten years ago when I was teaching a class for the Campus Honors program, one of the students in the class introduced me to this video about the piano stairs that exemplified The Fun Theory.  (I think the video was on a different site at the time.)  The idea is self explanatory - take a tedious task, one that many people avoid if they can, and redesign it in a way where it is piques one's interest, so people want to engage in it.  Are all tasks subject to such redesign provided that the designer has a good imagination?

In thinking about this I quickly remembered my high school years, particularly math with Mr. Conrad.  He was my favorite teacher and I ended up taking 4 classes from him: 9th grade algebra, analytic geometry and trig in 11th grade, math team workshop, and number theory.  Those last two classes were non-standard and probably are not offered anymore, an example of enrichment classes being crowded out by AP classes. I wrote about my experiences with Mr. Conrad in a post called Math as a gateway to creativity.  Mr. Conrad did many things to make the math fun for me.  Probably the most important was The Problem of the Week.  A nonstandard problem was posted on the bulletin board outside the Math Department Office.  You got no recognition for solving it correctly.  You did it for the challenge only. I enjoyed having to think those problems through.  But then, it's true that I was a math guy, high scorer on the Math Team as a senior, and a math major in college.  Is this sort of fun only for nerds like me?  What other fun might be more broadly encouraging of the learner?

Rather than answer that question directly, I want to note that even with the piano stairs some people continue to ride the escalator up rather than take the stairs.  If my arthritis was giving me a hard time, I'd be one of those who'd take the escalator.   We might ask, can a person do something in the person's own approach to things to make the person more likely to take the stairs when seeing something as unusual and amusing as the piano stairs?  With this question I mean to take some of the burden off the pedagogy and put some burden on the learner.  It stands to reason that more redesigns would encourage learners if the learners were eager for them.  How then might we bring that about?   When I pose this question to my students I will again bring into focus the parallel with the workplace.  The manager may want to do some redesign of tasks to make them more engaging to the employees, but the manager is also hoping for the employees to step up so that even tasks that haven't been redesigned get their full attention. Is that a reasonable quid pro quo?

In my class, I'm going to treat this redesign question just as Mr. Conrad treated the Problem of the Week.  It will be a challenge for the students to come up with their own redesign ideas.  They can either email me with them privately or post them to the class site (the latter would be a way to get some recognition, although that would only be recognition within our class as they post under an alias).  They will not get course credit for it.  And then I will challenge them with something similar about their other classes.  Can they do things to change their own orientation and thereby make other courses more engaging to them, even without those other courses going through their own redesign?  In other words, might a person choose to walk up the stairs even without the innovation of the piano, by just imaging the innovation to exist?

Let me close by talking a bit about misdirection, which until now I've not mentioned.  I'm pretty confident the students will be interested in this stuff from the supervisor-employee angle.  After all, they will soon be entering the world of work and this is an important consideration in that setting.  But in this exercise I'm using that only to keep the students interested.  I'm far more concerned with how they go about learning in my class (and in the other classes they take) and I think most of them take a far too instrumental approach.  I'd like them to reach the same conclusion, but I'm afraid that if we talk about it directly, they'll become defensive and say they have to worry about their GPA.  So rather than go that route, we'll start with the supervisor-employee angle, where I've already told them I'm no expert, and let them invent in that domain by inventing in a more familiar one.  I won't tell them my true intentions even if it works, at least not for a few weeks after that.  Then we'll see.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Long and the Short of It

I'm reacting to a couple of pieces I've read recently that talk about writing. As part of the message the authors delivered, each piece said to write less.  In my post I want to consider when that is good advice and when the advice should be challenged, perhaps even discarded altogether.  And I want to do this twice, first for more experienced writers, then for student writers.

Of the two pieces, the more recent is this one from the Chronicle of Higher Education called, Why Writing Will Make You a Better Person. (This piece is behind the Chronicle's paywall.  If you don't have access to the Chronicle but want to read the piece, contact me and I''ll send you a copy.)  The authors are two philosophy professors who want to treat writing as an ethical activity - be kind to the reader.  It is a novel approach from which to consider writing, one that made sense to me.  Yet I thought they made a rather serious error that I want to highlight, after which I will consider my alternative.   The other piece is called How to Get Every Email Returned - Or at least how to try.  The author is a former Op-Ed editor of the New York Times.  She talks about psychological factors that readers confront, which influence how they will read a piece, and then she bases her recommendations on these factors.

Now a bit about my writing online experience.  I got started with that in two different communities.  One was on campus done in FirstClass, with faculty who were teaching with ALN (what the Sloan Foundation called online learning at the time) and ed tech types who were supporting those faculty.  This started in late summer or early fall of 1995.  Then there was a discussion group for the various grantees of the Sloan Foundation in their ALN program, with representatives on many different campuses.  I found some comfort and social life in these discussions, as a parent with young children we were pretty much homebodies during the evening.  I also found I had some flair for this.  It was a way to meet interesting people and a way for me to contribute ideas to the community. This writing served as a gateway for my career change, from an academic economist to an ed tech administrator.

About ten years later I started this blog. The immediate cause was an analytic post that I wrote for a discussion that had stalled on the then Sloan-C listserv.  I received several private emails from well situated people on the list, thanking me for that post. But no subsequent discussion ensued on the list.  That bothered me, a lot.  So I thought to expand the audience for my analyses by making the writing public.  After a few months of doing that I got discovered by Scott Leslie, which served as a launch point for entering into the edu blog community.  A year or so later I met Barbara Ganley online, and along with a few others began some very interesting conversations about how to find the right sort of social adaptations to get the technology to truly work in service of learning, and about a lot of other stuff as well that all tied in. Barbara was featured in this piece about the slow blogging movement, which is a useful read now if only to show the tension to shorten online pieces and the push back from some writers who did the opposite existed even then, when Blackberry was still the smartphone market leader.  As for me, I too was a slow blogger and had something of a large following within the edu blog community, as indicated by this post.  Coincident with this I participated in several different professional listservs that stemmed from my administrator job, and I had an enormous amount of one-on-one and small group email as well.

Part of the reason to emphasize this background is to point out that how we write depends on context, in a community setting the mores of the group matter, and when there is an ongoing group discussion that you are reacting to, you need to ask - are you pushing the discussion further, providing a different framing for considering things or otherwise helping members of the group think through the issues?  Or are you mainly echoing what has been said before?  As I said earlier, I have a flair for this sort of thing, at least with respect to certain subject matter about learning and technology, and giving an analysis that takes some substantial writing to explicate may try the patience of some in the group while pleasing others who want that content.  In other words, readers are not a homogeneous group.  I believe that the philosophers who wrote the Chronicle piece linked above tacitly assumed they are.   What then should the writer do about reader heterogeneity if as a writer you want to treat readers ethically?

I'd like to illustrate the issue with some data.  We live at a time where analytics is the new buzzword. Unfortunately, for written documents online, such as this blog post, one can get measures of "hits" but hits don't indicate whether the person read through the entire piece carefully, merely skimmed it all, or didn't even get that far.  And, with tabbed browsing the norm, a person can have the piece open in the browser for quite a while, yet spend very little time on reading it.  Consequently, I want to momentarily looked at such data for video of a micro-lecture, specifically this one I made on the principal-agent model for a course I teach.  YouTube tracks not just hits, a bit more than 3,100 for this video, but it also tracks minutes viewed, with the average viewing time per hit less than 3 and a half minutes, while the video itself is over 12 minutes long.   On average, then, the video doesn't seem to be reaching the audience.  Yet there are a bunch of positive comments, only one negative comment, and a dozen likes with no dislikes.  How does one reconcile all this information and what does it tell me about how I should make other video micro-lectures in the future.  My conjecture is that the audience is bimodal, with the larger mode impatient and not willing to sit through the entire video and a smaller mode of students who watch it all the way through.  If that's right, is it ethically okay for me to focus on the smaller mode and as long as they are happy with the piece then I should feel I'm on the right track?  Or must I make content that the larger mode would watch in its entirety?

Having made that little embrace with data, let's return to talking about writing in the presence of reader heterogeneity and note that the issue has been around for some time.  Consider this essay by Saul Bellow from the New York Times series Writers on Writing, published in October 1999 when the Internet was still in its gestation period. It shows a parallel argument about writing novels in an era where most people were going to the movies (or watching TV) rather than reading books.  It is an eloquent defense that the writer is entitled to concentrate on the smaller mode, consisting of those readers who still appreciate the writing.  Of course, Bellow had won the Nobel Prize for Literature more than 20 years earlier and the audience for his writing, though much smaller than the audience for blockbuster movies, was still sizeable.  What of us writers who are not as skilled as Bellow and have a much smaller audience?  Can we still make a case that it is ethical to appeal to the smaller mode?

I think that's a tough question and I certainly don't have an ideal philosophical answer to it.  I can report what I do, which is to take a mixed mode approach.  Theses days, I definitely have more hits on my Twitter posts than on my posts at Blogger.  I do something novel with Twitter, which is to post short rhymes there (which I re-post to Facebook).  Some of them resonate with the audience and in Facebook I will occasionally get a friend to rhyme back at me - the most sincere form of flattery. But I do this longer writing too.   At this point, the blogging is not that different form an alternative  where I keep a journal only for myself.  I need to process my thinking and the writing helps with that.  Having even a little bit of an audience then encourages the proofreading after the processing and the tracking down of links to insert into the piece.  I also do a fair amount of other writing in the volunteer work I do, editing training documents, putting together grant proposals, and communicating with the others who are also volunteering.  The context determines much about the writing.  I am for clarity, always, but brevity, only some of the time.  I do think that writing supports collegial interaction and I try hard to be a good colleague. I think it is important to develop a sense of taste in these things, more so than simply follow a set of rules.  That sense of taste come from reading and finding other authors whom I enjoy reading.  (When I started the blog I tried to emulate Stephen J. Gould, as he would write in the New York Review of Books.)  Now I always try to please myself with my writing.  I can sign off when I've done that.

* * * * *

I want to switch gears here and talk about student writing.  In the class I teach I have students write weekly blog posts.  I first did this when I was teaching a class for the Campus Honors Program and wrote about the experience here.  This was before I retired so the teaching was done as an overload, work you'd only do if you really enjoy it and/or if you thought it contributed to doing your full time job better. Teaching honors students is always fun and I've learned that my little experiments with pedagogy are much more likely to give good results with honors students.  Those good results then encourage me to try the approach with regular students.

I retired just a few days after that article was published, which was more than a semester after the class had concluded. When I've taught since then it has been for the Economics Department, once intermediate microeconomics, all other times upper level courses in the majors.  From 2012 on that has been a course on the economics of organizations.  Student blogging is a mainstay of the course and what I write here is based on which I've learned from that experience.  Students post weekly, typically in response to a prompt I give them, which relates to subject matter the class will consider, though they have the freedom of writing about something else, as long as they can connect it to course themes.  There is a 600 word minimum requirement for these posts.  I don't enforce this strictly, but I mean to convey by the requirement that the students should put in real and substantial effort in the writing.  I comment on each post students make, provided the posts don't come in too late.  I also require students to comment on my comment.  That much of the mechanism is fixed now. I've also sometimes required students to comment on the posts of other students.  That has been more of a mixed success, though it does make the students aware of how their peers write.  They sometimes get discouraged when comparing their own writing to mine.

I don't think of this as teaching writing.  I think of it as using writing to build connections between the economics we are studying and the experiences the students have already had.  This is not something they do in their other classes and eventually, though definitely not early in the semester, students come to appreciate the value in making those connections for their learning.  The students do grow some as writers during the semester and I would like to mark that trajectory a bit.

I should note first that the students are writing under an alias, but then are writing out in open.  A potential employer won't know who the student is, but the student's classmates might be able to match the alias to the person.  As I assign the aliases to the students, I am not in the dark about which student is writing under an alias.  In spite of this particular form of protection, many of the students are extremely uncomfortable with the blogging early on.  It takes about a month for them to relax about the blogging.  Much of this is about poor self-image as a writer.  Apart from the required rhetoric classes and some dreaded term papers in other general education courses, the students don't do much writing academically, a downside of attending Big Public U.

Even after they relax some, many students still struggle with generating prose.  I talk about pre-writing with them in class and the necessity of that, but I don't think it sinks in, especially not at first.  The benefit from this struggle to generate prose is that the students subsequently become more amenable to suggestions from me.  They may then be ready to embrace pre-writing and come to understand why it is necessary.  Of course, writer's block happens even to experienced writers who have put in substantial time thinking prior to sitting down at the keyboard about what they will say.  I like this page from the Online Writing Lab at Purdue and especially the suggestion to start in the middle, which is very easy to do when writing on a computer, as paragraphs can be moved around via a simple copy and paste.

Eventually, most of my students find that the minimum word requirement doesn't bind (at least during weeks where they don't have exams or term papers due in their other courses).   Yet the students still often only gloss the surface of the subject they are writing about.  My comments are meant to encourage them to explore their topic further.  Sometimes they also have a cognitive issue when describing their own experiences.  They are eye witnesses, but the reader wasn't there and needs background and context to understand the experience.  Providing such context is a particular writing skill that will serve them well later and does make the the student more empathetic for the reader, but it does not lead to the student writing less.  If anything, the student needs to write more.

A very small number of students treat the blogging as if they are opening up a vein and then just let it flow, producing a large volume of prose.  If it is coherent, I will not object.  If it is scattered, I will encourage the student to spend more time on editing and them make sure the various bits connect to one another.  But such students are the exception.  For most students, getting more depth in their pieces remains the goal through the entire semester.

Therefore, I believe it is a mistake to tell such students to write less at this time in their development.  Ultimately, of course, the skill they need to develop is to be able to write a cogent memo or perhaps to be able to write a tolerably good (1 page) executive summary to accompany a white paper. Eventually, writing less will be an important lesson for them to learn.  But they need to understand that a lot of thought was put in before that cogent memo was produced.  They simply will not understand that until they've done a lot of other writing that demanded substantial pre-writing from them.

I haven't yet talked much at all about proofreading and editing.  Many students don't get why that's necessary, because they have yet to develop empathy for the reader, and feeling the writing in the class is just another hoop to get through.  As I think comments about grammar and spelling are rarely effective (except, for example, when they use a homophone for an economic term, principle-agent model is one common student error) I will not give feedback at all on that front, but will encourage proof-reading, which in the ideal should happen with some time interval after the composition of the piece.

Editing for substance is a different matter, one I don't discuss much in the class because I don't think students are ready for it.  Instead, with some of the better students I've tried a strategy where they split their blog post into pieces.  The first part is a reflection on the blog post they wrote the previous week. The second part addresses the current prompt.  The going back to what they've written earlier is in lieu of editing the earlier piece.  I only do this for the very good students, who are willing to do the extra work.

* * * * *

I want to wrap this up.   As income inequality may be the number one social issue of our time, I'm sensitive to criticism about being elitist.  Indeed with respect to my teaching I've opted to teach regular students rather than honors student partially because with my teaching I think it is right to focus my attention on the larger mode (although I continue to believe that typical students need to raise their game about what they bring to the academic table).  But I may very well be elitist in writing slow blogging posts like this one, though the few readers I still have may not consider themselves elite at all, but rather are hungry for more thoughtful analysis expressed in generalist writing, which is becoming increasingly rare.

I do think we need to be careful about sending messages to students that encourage them to put in less effort in their studies and to imitate the communication strategies they've adopted when they text with their friends.  It is a reality that the students are very busy and they tend to have their heads focused on their electronic devices at all times.  But I believe that reality needs to be combated int their class.  What I see, instead, is acquiescence.  There is no short cut to thinking well. That's a hard lesson to learn and, until it is learned, focus on the limited attention span of some readers is likely to be counterproductive.

The writer who produces long form writing regularly but is cognizant of the reader learns to be able to produce short form writing that is effective, when the need arises for it.  Along the learning curve, it is my belief that should come later.  An effective one pager has its uses, no doubt.  I'm not denying that.  I'm only questioning how people come to develop that skill.   And I want to note that many college educated people never do, which I surmise is because they haven't spent enough time writing.  If students don't have enough practice and the message from the instructor is - write less - what does that say about the amount of practice students will get?

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Do undergraduates benefit from campus and department reputation based on research?

I am preparing some content for the class I will teach this fall on The Economics of Organizations.  We begin the semester with some examples that in certain ways will be familiar to students.  I've decided to do that more slowly than in the past and to get a little deeper into the examples, to highlight the richness of the potential economic approaches one might bring to look at some of the questions raised by the examples.  Probably in the third class session we will consider the university as an organization, with some focus on the U of I.  I have a slide in my PowerPoint that says universities are brands, which is definitely true.  With each brand we associate a certain reputation.  For R1 universities, the academic reputation is typically based on well-known research done at the university.  (As everyone knows, the Four Color Map Theorem was proved at the U of I!). The issue in my title is whether undergraduates are able to internalize the benefit from that reputation.

The most obvious way such internalization might happen is by taking a course from the researcher or, if not that, then taking a course from one of the researcher's disciples.  But perhaps this only matters in a course designated as a special topic so the instructor can teach about the research  In other courses, where there is a fairly standard subject matter to cover, does the instructor's research inclinations and accomplishments matter to the student?  It's a good question, but I will defer it for a bit and then get back to it.  Let's also rule out the possibility of an undergraduate student working directly with a faculty member on the faculty member's research outside of the class setting.  That does happen some and the student clearly benefits from that, especially if the student plans on going to grad school.  I want to concentrate, however, on students who will enter the world of work after graduation and not go for an advanced degree.  Do they benefit from the U of I reputation simply by attending the university and having their resume say U of I, in the part of the document where they describe their education?

I am going to frame the question to the students this way.  For those who are from Illinois, I will ask what their next best choice of college was?  If it was a private college or university or a public university in another state, I will then note that because of the rather large tuition differential, their demand for the U of I is rather price inelastic - modest tuition increases wouldn't have changed the choice, unless they were getting a substantial scholarship from the other institution.  If it was another public university in the state, the situation is different as the U of I is the higher tuition school.  If the U of I was chosen then it must be taken to have higher quality (or some other factor is at play such as their friends are going to the U of I).  These other factors are a biggie in practice, but in our analysis we'll rule them out.  I will wave my hands a bit and say that if the students are on average better at the U of I, say as measured by their standardized test scores, then that might improve quality as students learn from other students and we can't sort out the different effects.  But then I'll want to get at the question, what makes the U of I a better school other than this student to student effect?

This much I've talked about in my classes before, but I thought to do something novel and get the class to look at some data that are publicly available.  So I built the Excel workbook linked below that has some interesting information to consider.

Excel Workbook

The are three spreadsheets. The first is from the Campus Profile that the unit which does institutional research, the Division of Management Information, provides for us.  It relates instructional staff to IUs (instructional units).  Each credit hour per student is an IU. The course I will teach gives 3 hours of credit and will have 60 students enrolled.  So I will be generating 180 IUs.  There are three categories of instructor:  Faculty and Visitors, Graduate Assistants (TAs), and Specialized Faculty.  The first category captures those who are tenured or are on the tenure track.  The third category might be referred to as adjuncts or in the Economics Department's euphemism, Teaching Faculty.  Frankly, I don't know how retirees like me are counted, but the campus is now down on using retirees for instruction, so they shouldn't impact the aggregates very much.

The data show an upward trend in undergraduate IUs, which if credit hours taken hasn't trended much at all, a reasonable assumption in my view, then it can be interpreted as an upward trend in enrollments.  There has also been an upward trend in the share of instruction done by Specialized Faculty - in introductory courses, for all undergraduate courses, and overall.  This is matched by a downward trend within each category in the share of instruction done by Graduate Assistants.  For regular faculty, my eyeballing of the overall data show the share pretty much flat until 2017, and then a big drop-off.  Off the top of my head, I can't explain that.  I need more information to understand what happened there.

The second spreadsheet gives some salary data - of Assistant Professors in Economics and of Teaching Faculty, who hold the title either of Lecturer or Clinical Professor.  Those on the tenure track who come to the U of I with their dissertation not yet completed,are also called Lecturers.  But for the Teaching Faculty, the designation means something else, as most if not all of them do have the PhD.  It is the lower peg on the rung of possible appointments for adjunct instructors.  Clinical Professor is the higher peg.  I believe the term used to refer to faculty who previously worked in industry and that their prior experience in industry was relevant for their current teaching.  But the term no longer has that connotation.

I first went to the Economics Department Website to download the names in each category.  Though they are publicly available, I decided to xxxxxx them out here so as not to get anyone bent out of shape.  I don't want to pinpoint particular individuals.  I just want to provide a general picture of what is going on.  If you click through the Assistant Professor names you get to their Web pages, many of which offer a further click through to their CVs (academic resumes).  They include when the person started at the U of I.  Starting date might matter somewhat for salary.  Indeed, the numbers seem to indicate some salary compression issues within rank, meaning newer people are hired at a salary above more experienced people.

After uploading all the names I went to the Daily Illini Salary Database and did a search by department.  Please note that when you do this you get results back for faculty and staff from the departments at all 3 campuses.  My interest here is only with the Urbana campus.  Then I simply copied and pasted the salaries for the names I had already put into the spreadsheet.

For good measure, I also put in my starting salary from back in 1980, both in 1980 dollars and inflation-adjusted to 2018 dollars, using this inflation calculator.  I know such calculations aren't beyond critique, but they are good enough for the exercise I wanted to do.  The upshot is that even adjunct instructors today are paid more in real terms than I was paid in 1980.  When I started, the standard teaching load was 2 courses per semester and I believe every instructor was tenured or on the tenure track.  I got a one course buyout my first semester to help me start my research portfolio, which in my case I used to finish my dissertation.  I also got summer money guaranteed for the first summer.  Now, I believe the standard teaching load is 3 courses a year, Assistant Professors get a course buyout every year in rank and I believe they get guaranteed summer money too, but on that last one I'm not sure.   In any event, it should be clear that Assistant Professors are given every chance to prove themselves as researchers and are well advised to devote their time to their research, if they want to get tenure. But in so doing, they become very expensive as teachers.  Is it any wonder then, that the category of Teaching Faculty emerged as a way to deal with, mainly, undergraduate instruction in a cost-effective manner.

The third spreadsheet gives a historical look at tuition, both in-state and out-of-state, base tuition and fees, as well as ancillary costs.  Alas the last 5 years are missing, but students probably are well aware of the current numbers, and the time trend from 1980 to 2014 is unmistakable.  Higher Education has experienced hyperinflation in that period.  The numbers show that.  Again I did an inflation adjustment to compare 1980 tuition to the tuition and fees in 2013-14.  There was about a 7-fold increase in real terms.  Note that the State of Illinois, which contributes tax revenue to the U of I, has had its share of the U of I budget decline substantially in this time interval.  So one explanation for the increase in tuition is to make up for that.  A second explanation is to cover the increased costs of instruction shown on the previous spreadsheet.  A third represents expenditure on capital improvements (DKH had no air conditioning back in 1980 and it was not with sufficient electric wiring to manage the needs of Internet usage).  Many business processes experienced large quality improvements (course registration is one prominent example).  There has also been a large expansion of student services.  I don't believe the Counseling Center or the Career Center existed back in 1980.  And the athletic facilities that students have access to now are a cut above what they had back then.

Nevertheless, one might focus more narrowly, just on courses and tuition.  There seems to have been a shift from research faculty to teaching faculty for undergraduates while at the same time tuition has been on the rise.  Can we translate that into saying something about quality of instruction and the tuition paid by students?

Some years ago when I used to watch Illini Football and Basketball on TV, I would make a point to watch the commercials about the university that were featured at halftime.  Invariably those commercials would feature a prominent researcher who was interacting with undergraduate students, with everyone seemingly upbeat and getting a lot out of the experience.  Some of that was obviously hype.  Was any of it reality?  As an old timer, I would like to say that there was some reality in it.  But I have to say there are reason to believe that the teaching faculty are better than the researchers at teaching undergrads.  One obvious reason is enthusiasm for the job.  Many researchers want everything they do to relate to their research in some way, shape, or form.  If they perceive that undergraduate instruction does not so relate, they will give it short shrift. How common this is I don't know, but it is something to consider.  There is also the matter of developing empathy for typical students.  Research Faculty tend to come from the top tier of students and they tend to teach to a conception of students based on their own experience that way.  It might be a wonderful way to engage future professors, but it may be a poor way to engage other students.  Further, such faculty tend to be quite theoretical in their orientation.  Students are far more practical about what they want to see in their classes.  There is a disconnect here.

Yet there are arguments that say Teaching Faculty are also compromised in their teaching.  The biggest of these is that such instructors are dependent on getting good course evaluations in order to keep their jobs.  As students are very grade conscious, the instructors design their courses so that students well understand the approach, view it is fair, and in fact it produces many high grades.  In that circumstance students will give good course ratings.  But to achieve that end there may be a lot of teaching to the test and not a lot of challenging the students to go beyond exam material.  So students may be able to notch up another A, but actually haven't learned much from the course.

If this is going on, should the students themselves be concerned about it?  Overtly, most don't appear to be, treating college as something to get through not as something to experience for itself.  And if they get better job interviews because they went to the U of I instead of Illinois State, maybe that's enough, for them.

It isn't enough for me and my instinct as a social scientist is that the market will catch up to what I perceive as a big imbalance this way.  What has been happening to students who major in the liberal arts, with regard to job opportunities after graduation, might start to happen to Econ majors.  Either the work they had been doing has been automated away or the quality of new grads is perceived as too low as to be worth the investment in developing the talent further.  But if that were to happen, then why pay the tuition in the first place?  I've been worried about this sort of unraveling for some time.  It hasn't happened yet.  And I've got my fingers crossed that it won't happen ever.  But I would like to be more proactive than that, if at all possible.  So I write blog posts, like this one.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Being Forthright Or Keeping Things To Oneself (An Out-Of-The-Box Teacher's Dilemma)

Stylistically, the way I've taught my Economics of Organizations class is quite different from the way other undergraduate economics classes are taught.  The students who end up taking the class become well aware of these differences.  By and large, they have expressed appreciation for the alternative approach.  Many students who register for the class are not aware of the style difference at the time they register.   My approach may end up being more work for them than in their other classes.  Consequently, some of them end up dropping the class, either during the first 10 days of the semester, when they can still add a different course, or somewhat later, when they begin to fall behind in the work and would prefer having fewer credit hours to focus on.

The Economics Department is somewhat aware of my alternative approach.  Each year they ask for a syllabus, which all instructors must provide.  I doubt, however, that anyone reads through it carefully.  And, while this is not surprising, nobody from the department has ever come to my classroom to see how a class session goes.   This is consistent with notions of academic freedom, where the instructor is sovereign in making these decisions about course content and how the course is taught.  When I was an administrator of campus Ed Tech, I did occasionally attend lectures of some faculty, which was mutually agreed upon ahead of time.  After the visit I would send an email where I would pass my observations onto the instructor.  It was intended as a friendly way for the instructor to get some critique of the teaching.  But it was entirely focused on method and issues that some students might confront as a result of that method.  I was not qualified to comment on appropriateness of the subject matter.  As a general matter I think there is interplay between method and subject matter, so such a critique would be better from someone in the same field.  But as I noted, that is not the common practice.

In The Economics of Organizations, my approach is substantially more labor intensive than the approach taken by other economics instructors.  I can afford to spend the extra time this labor intensive approach entails because I'm retired, so am comparatively time abundant.  I've embraced my alternative because it allowed me to learn about issues student have with the traditional way the courses are taught.  Further, I get to see if my alternative can address some of those issues, which is what has been the driver for my experimentation with the teaching.  The particular innovation that seems to have had the best result is getting students to write weekly blog posts (600 words at a minimum) in which they connect their own experiences to course themes.  I would then write extensive comments on each post and the students would write comments in response to what I wrote.  This very much makes instruction like conversation and has the instructor reacting to student formative thinking in a way that is specific to the particular student.  In other words, my comments were not canned and I didn't try to steer the students in some pre-determined direction.  My goal was to get them to see the implications of their own thinking and then push that thinking a little further.  While at the outset of the class students found this process awkward, after a month or so they would have settled down and then come to appreciate it.

Last year I was told I couldn't teach the class.  The campus was frowning on having retirees teach because of the double-dipping it entailed.  (Retired faculty get a pension from the State of Illinois.  Being paid to teach on top of that for teaching, while allowed under the rules, seemed like an extravagance that a campus struggling with its budget could ill afford.)  It wasn't impossible for departments to hire retirees, but procedures were put in place that made it more arduous to do so.  Also, the Economics Department had an abundance of other upper level course offerings, so didn't need my class as a way to increase the variety of what was being offered to juniors and seniors who majored in economics.

This year is different, not on the double-dipping but on the variety of other upper level courses in economics.  Owing to quite a bit of faculty turnover, these upper level courses for the fall have become scarce, with many of them closed now for further registration because they've reached the maximum enrollments allowed, yet with transfer students who will come to campus in August not having registered yet.  So the Economics Department offered me to teach the class again, but this time with maximum enrollments approximately double what they've been in the past.

While I had expressed interest in teaching the class again, this put me in a quandary, particularly about what to do regarding the blogging.  Because my comments were typically written over the weekend, and I had to proceed with reading the posts and writing my comments at a pace that was comfortable for me, I was already close to maxed out at the lower number of enrollments.  If I were to keep the blogging, I needed to alter my mechanism somewhat, either not comment on the posts of every student each week, or have some help from a TA who would write comments in lieu of mine. Having used undergraduate peer-mentors who had previously taken the class in the late 1990s, when I taught a large section of intermediate microeconomics, and with that pretty effective at the time, I glommed onto the idea of using a former student as a TA.

I had a particular student in mind, who was very diligent with her own blogging when she took the class and I was convinced would do a good job with the comments as my TA.   She took the class in fall 2017 and graduated immediately after the course concluded.  Indeed, as my course is an upper level course in the major, with the students juniors or seniors, any student who took my class in fall 2017 should have graduated by next fall.  So if any of them were to be my TA, they'd be alums of the university as well.  (The peer-mentors I had in the 1990s were all current students.)  There is no business model in place that I am aware of where a virtual TA is hired who is not currently enrolled at the university, though we do have the occasional virtual instructor who is a faculty member at some other university or who, perhaps, has a full time job outside of academia.

Because there is no business model for this at present, it is hard to know whether using former students who have already graduated as virtual TAs is just a silly idea (they already have a job so the TA work would be above and beyond that) or if it really might make sense for alums who had a good relationship with a professor and would be happy to have that connection continue and be extended via the virtual TA work, in spite of their other employment.  In the case of my former student, I did have some back and forth with her via email, but as she was possibly moving to a different job it wasn't clear which of these best describes her situation.

Now let me turn to the title of my post.  Being forthright in this case meant asking the Economics Department to pay me a bit more, so I could use the increment to pay the virtual TA, and letting them know that was why I was asking for more money.  Keeping things to myself, I could have simply made a side deal with my former student and never informed the department about doing that at all.

Now some things about the money, from my point of view.  The last few years in retirement, I have treated what I earn teaching as "mad money" so I can allocate it to expenditure as I see fit, unlike other household spending that my wife and I agree upon (at least in principle).  In fact, much of the earnings from teaching would go to the organization I support in my volunteer work, as a charitable contribution to the Foundation in the U.S. that supports this organization.  Last year when I didn't teach, I took an early distribution from my IRA for this purpose (plus I had substantial medical expenses that needed to be covered). This year, if I did pay my former student out of my pocket and yet earned what I had been paid for teaching the class in the past, there would be less left over for me to use as donation.

Considering money on the teaching side of things, there are two different models to consider.  In a large lecture class, where the homework is done via the online quiz tool in the LMS, exams are given on Scantron forms that are machine scored, and there is a head TA who does a good bit of the course administration, instructor time and effort are largely independent of enrollments in the class.  In this case, instructor pay and class size need not correlate very strongly, if at all.  In the opposite extreme is the seminar offering, where there is substantial interaction between the students and the instructor, and where the students will do substantial writing that is evaluated by the instructor - term papers rather than blogs in most cases. (I did have term papers in my class, but to make the evaluation of that manageable I put students into teams of three, with one term paper per team, and in weeks where drafts were due, there were no blog posts.)  In the seminar much of the instructor effort is proportional to the number of students.  Consequently, the appropriate thing to do in the case when you double the enrollments for a seminar that was previously at capacity is to offer it in two sections and pay the instructor for that. Because of the large number of students who major in economics and the size of the classrooms in DKH available for these course offerings, upper level economics classes are a bit too large to be taught as a pure seminar.  But I viewed them as closer to that extreme than to the large lecture alternative.  So I was a bit irked when the department said they'd pay the same as before in spite of the greater enrollments, implicitly sending a message to me that I should teach the class as if it is a large lecture.

Further, in the back of my head I have in mind the new budgeting rules on campus, which reward IUs taught at a much greater rate than previously.  (The IUs for a class are the number of students enrolled times the credit hours the course offers.)  While I've not been privy to campus discussions about the purpose of the new budget model, it's not rocket science to conclude that it should drive expenditure on instructors per student upwards and in that way it should improve teaching.  Yet it is not that simple.  First, instructor hours/IU spent in teaching are typically not measured and is highly idiosyncratic.  Instructors who spend more time on a class (and thus less time on something else) presumably improve the quality of instruction without it costing more (paying for the quality improvement by lowering the quality of that something else, whatever it is). Further, teaching decisions are made at the departmental level.  Budget allocations based on IUs generated are made at the college level.  Economics is but one of many departments in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.  It is unclear, at least to me, whether the budget that LAS sets for the Economics department is also IU based or not, nor whether there are substantial lags in how IUs translate into budget revenue, meaning additional IUs taught this year impact budget revenues only next year.   

Applying this to my particular situation, as the Department of Economics contacted me fairly late with regard to teaching this class, it may be that they have few funds with which to pay me, yet a sizeable hole to fill in staffing courses so that transfer students can have at upper level classes.  So I kind of understand their situation without knowing the details.  They did offer me a doctoral student as a TA, who would be paid hourly (by the Department not by me).   This is safer for the Department, as there is a business model already in place to use graduate students in this capacity.  I've not yet learned who this student will be, so I remain hopeful that I can use the TA in a productive way.  However, in the past when the department did assign me a graduate student as a grader, invariably the student would be a foreign national whose spoken English was mediocre.  Those graduate students who had high TOEFL scores would become TAs in one of the large intro courses.  Only those who didn't get assigned to the intro courses would be available as graders for other courses.  So I'm wary that whomever I do get will be able to write good comments on student blogs, no matter how competent the person is with the economics.

Let me make one more point and close.  The situation that I've described actually is an example of the alignment problem we consider in The Economics of Organizations course.   If we can assume that courses taught in seminar mode are higher quality than courses taught in large lecture mode, and courses in mixed mode have quality somewhere in between, then the issue is what quality coupled with a suitable rate of expenditure per IU does the campus want for my course, what quality does the Economics Department want again paired with an expenditure per IU number, and what quality do I want.  (And should that depend on how much I get paid or not?)  Does the transfer pricing scheme put into place achieve alignment or not?  The campus budget model, as I suggested above, seems to indicate at least a mixture of modes.  The Economics Department apparently would prefer me to offer the class as a large lecture.  Personally, I would prefer to do otherwise, but I need this to be manageable for me and not to become overwhelming.  So I'm still trying to think through how I will conduct the class and what to do about the blogging feature.

I ended up being forthright on the matter with the Economics Department and was told that it was not possible to do as I intended by using my former student as a virtual TA.  I'm now feeling some regret and wonder if I played my cards right or not.  Even if it ultimately produced the same outcome, with my former student telling me she had too much other stuff on her plate to do this, had I kept this to myself instead I would have at least had a go at my preferred alternative, so likely would not feel the same sense of regret as I'm feeling now.  On the other hand, now I will have a few more bucks to donate to the organization I support.

What if I were mentoring somebody else who was in this situation.  What advice would I give to that person.  We learn the proverb, "Honesty is the best policy" early in life.  Is it true or not?  I'm wondering about that now.