A Philosopher's Blog

Assessment, Metrics & Rankings

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 26, 2014


Having been in academics for quite some time, I have seen fads come, go and stick. A recent fad is the obsession with assessment. As with many such things, assessment arrived with various acronyms and buzz words. Those more cynical than I would say that all acronyms of administrative origin (AAO) amount to B.S. But I would not say such a thing. I do, however, have some concern with the obsession with assessment.

One obvious point of concern was succinctly put by a fellow philosopher: “you don’t fatten the pig by weighing it.” The criticism behind this homespun remark is that time spent on assessment is time that is taken away from the actual core function of education, namely education. At the K-12 level, the burden of assessment and evaluation has become quite onerous. At the higher education level, the burden is not as great—but considerable time is spent on such matters.

One reply to this concern is that assessment is valuable and necessary: if the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of education is not assessed, then there would be no way of knowing what is working and what is not. The obvious counter to this is that educators did quite well in assessing their efforts before the rise of modern assessment and it has yet to be shown that these efforts have actually improved education.

Another obvious concern is that in addition to the time spent by faculty on assessment, a bureaucracy of assessment has been created. Some schools have entire offices devoted to assessment complete with staff and administrators. While only the hard-hearted would begrudge someone employment in these tough times, the toughness of the times should dictate that funding is spent on core functions rather than assessing core functions.

The reply to this is to argue that the assessment is more valuable than the alternative. That is, that funding an assessment office is more important to serving the core mission of the university than more faculty or lower tuition would be. This is, of course, something that would need to be proven.

Another common concern is that assessment is part of the micromanagement of public education being imposed by state legislatures (often by the very same people who speak loudly about getting government off peoples’ backs and protecting businesses from government regulation). This, some critics contend, is all part of a campaign to intentionally discredit and damage public education so as to allow the expansion of for-profit education.

The reply to this is that the state legislature has the right to insist that schools provide evidence that the (ever-decreasing) public money is being well spent. If the legislatures did show true concern for the quality of education and were devoted to public education, this reply would have merit.

Predating the current assessment fad is a much older concern with rankings. Recently I heard a piece on NPR about how Florida’s Board of Governors (the folks who run public education) is pushing Florida public universities to become top ranked schools. There are quite a few rankings, ranging from US News & World Report’s rankings to those of Kiplinger’s. Each of these has a different metric. For example, Kiplinger’s rankings are based on financial assessment. While it is certainly desirable to be well ranked, it is rather ironic that Florida’s public universities are being pushed to rise in the ranks at the same time that the state legislature and governor have consistently cut funding and proven generally hostile to public education. One unfortunate aspect of the ranking obsession is that Florida has adopted a performance based funding system in which the top schools get extra funding while the lower ranked schools get funding cut. Since the schools are competing with each other, some of the schools will end up lower ranked no matter how well they do—so some schools will get cuts, no matter what. This seems to be an odd approach: insisting on improvement while systematically making it harder and harder to improve.

This is also a problem with assessment. To return to that in the closing of this essay, a standard feature of assessment is that the results of the previous assessment must be applied to improve each academic program. That is, there is an assumption of perpetual improvement. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, there is typically no money available for faculty salary increases. As such, the result is that faculty are supposed to better each year, but get paid less (since inflation and the cost of living increase reduces the value of the salary). As such, the system is such that perpetual improvement of faculty and schools is demanded, but there are no incentives or rewards—other than not getting fired or being the school to get the most cuts. Interestingly, the folks imposing this system are the same folks who tend to claim that taxation and government impositions kill the success of business. That is, if businesses have less money and are regulated too much by the state, then it will be bad. Apparently this view does not extend to education. But there might be an ironic hope: education is being “businessified” and perhaps once the transformation is complete, the universities will get the love showered on corporations.

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Free College?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 31, 2013
Massachusetts Hall, Harvard University, Cambri...

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The cost of college has increased considerably since I was a student. Back then, college was expensive but it was still possible for students of modest means to go to  a good school and graduate with a modest amount of debt. That is, in fact, what I did. Now that I am a professor, things are different: college is far more expensive (even factoring in inflation) and students are often burdened with crushing debt. In some cases this debt is due to poor decision making on the part of the student. In many cases it is due to a combination of the high cost of college and poor economic times.

Not surprisingly, some have suggested that the public higher education system follow the model of the K-12 education system. To be specific, it has been suggested that college should be free. While this certainly would initially appeal to parents and students, it is rather important to consider what is meant by “free” here.

In one sense, K-12 public education is free. That is, the students are not charged to attend school and the parents do not receive specific bills from the schools. In another sense, K-12 education is not free. After all, someone has to pay for the buildings, buses, salaries and so on. Those someones are, of course, people like me and (most likely) people like you. We pay for the schools through various taxes and various other means. As such, the free education is not really free. Rather, what “free” means in this context is that the cost is shifted from the students and parents to the whole population of people who pay the taxes and such used to fund the schools. That is, we have what some folks would regard as the socialization of education. While there has been an increased push towards privatization of education via voucher proposals and such, few have advocated removing the public funding of public education. The usual concern has been about where the public money is funneled.  However, we have generally had a collective agreement that public funding of K-12 education is a public good worth funding, albeit in rather unequal ways.

Following the K-12 model, free public college would be free in one sense and not free in another. That is, the students and parents would not be specifically billed by the schools and thus the education would be free. However,  someone would have to pay for all the campuses, salaries and so on and those someones would, once again, be people like me and (most likely) you.

The main benefit of shifting to “free” public higher education, is that the shift in cost from the students/parents would presumably allow more people to attend college and would, obviously, allow them to graduate without any debt (at least from the cost of education). While there is considerable debate about the value of college education (and whether or not everyone should go to college) it does seem reasonable to think that a college degree is generally a plus. Also, it would certainly be advantageous for students to graduate without facing the burden of education debt (although they would still face non-academic debt).

The most obvious concern about “free” public education is that funding it would obviously require replacing the income that was once generated by students/parents paying for school. This would most likely mean that the cost would be largely spread across the general population of taxpayers. That is, while parents and students would pay less than before, everyone would have to pay more to allow for “free” college.  Also worth considering is the fact that making college free would increase college enrollment, thus increasing the cost to the taxpayers relative to the current system (which does include some funding of public colleges/universities).

One moral concern is whether or not this shift in costs would be fair to people who did not attend college or send their children to college. However, the arguments in favor of “free” K-12 education could be modified a bit and pressed into service here. Likewise, arguments against “free” K-12 education could be modified a bit and used to argue against this. Naturally, new arguments could be forged against “free” college education because of the differences between college education and K-12 education.

Since I greatly value education and think that it is a public good, I would tend to favor “free” college n the same grounds that I favor “free” K-12 education. I would, of course, have to accept the need to put my money where my values are and be willing to pay more to allow “free” college, even though my college days are long past and I have no children. However, I obviously do not speak for everyone and the question of whether the public good generated by “free” college education would be worth the cost to the public.

Returning to the practical matter of cost, one way that the decrease in revenue would be addressed is by (ironically) reducing (or at least not increasing) enrollment. After all, rather than generating extra income each student would generate only extra cost.  While this approach would help offset the lost income, there would need to be a system of rationing education. Currently, education is distributed primarily based on wealth (and to a much lesser extent merit). That is, the ability to pay is the main selecting factor for who goes to college. When the cost of school is taken out of the matter, then another selection system will be needed, especially when “free” college would probably entail that many more people would want to go to college. While the system used might be fair and just, this seems unlikely-especially because of what already occurs in the K-12 system. In any case, making college “free” would thus not seem to broaden the access to college. Unless, of course, college is made “free” and the loss of income is not countered by reducing or maintaining enrollment.

If college were made “free” and enrollment was not reduced or kept the same, then schools would obviously need to grow enough to handle the influx of students. This would seem to have two possible results. The first is that the citizens would need to pay more for this growth. This would raise, once again, the question of whether the increased cost would be worth the gain (if any) for the general good.  The other is that resources would need to be spread ever thinner. For example, my typical class might go from 35 students to 140 (or 350) as demand surged. Or, of course, both would probably happen: people would pay more while resources are spread even thinner. Naturally, online classes could help with this, but there would still be questions about the quality of such massive education systems.

It is worth noting that even if public education was free, then private colleges and universities would still  not be free. While this might initially hurt them (why pay to go to Marietta College when the University of Maine is free?), if public education becomes rationed or diluted, then private schools could still do quite well. After all, people with adequate money sometimes chose private K-12 education over the “free” public education. There is also the fact that, for example, an expensive degree from Harvard would be worth far more than a “free” degree from a public school and thus paying for education could still be a good investment.

While “free” college” is an idea worth considering, it must always be remembered that “free” just means that the cost is shifted, not that there is no cost.

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Contingent Faculty

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 16, 2013
Tenure (film)

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When I began my career as a professor, I worked as an adjunct. There are many downsides to being an adjunct, not the least of which is that employment is entirely contingent. That is, an adjunct can be let go simply by not offering a contract for the next semester. It is also not uncommon for adjuncts to begin work with only the promise of a contract-a promise that sometimes turns out to be empty.

After being an adjunct, I became a visiting professor. This is rather better than being an adjunct, since it comes with better pay, benefits and the contract length is longer (a year or sometimes longer). However, visiting professorships are (by their very nature) limited in duration. Visiting professors also do not, as visiting faculty, earn tenure.

After being a visiting professor, I was able to get into a tenure track line and eventually earned tenure. There are various misconceptions about tenure, such as the notion that tenured faculty cannot be fired. This is not true-tenured faculty can be fired. Unlike contingent faculty, a tenured faculty member can not be simply let go. Rather, a tenured faculty member can only (in general) be fired for cause.

While tenure is presented as its detractors as a means by which inept faculty can avoid being fired as they coast towards an easy retirement, this is not its intended or actual purpose. One purpose of tenure is to serve as an incentive for success. That is, if a faculty member works hard for the better part of a decade and achieves professional success, then she can get the security of tenure. Naturally, this is not as lucrative as the rewards ladled out to comparable levels of success in the financial or business sectors-but people who go into academics tend to have somewhat different values. To steal a line from the folks who argue relentless against depriving the wealthy of even a fraction of their wealth, to remove tenure would punish success and destroy incentive. After all, if the job creators would be broken and demoralized by tax increases, then presumably the faculty would also be broken and demoralized by the loss of tenure. But perhaps significant incentives are only fit for the job creators and no one else.

A second reason for tenure is to protect academic freedom. Once a faculty member has tenure, then she has a degree of protection that can allow her to express intellectual ideas without (much) fear of being simply disposed of in retaliation. To be honest, once a person has spent years grinding away towards tenure, she has obviously learned to work within the system. One rarely sees a faculty member suddenly emerging from the caterpillar state of being tenure earning to become a radical butterfly once getting tenure. However, tenure still serves a valuable purpose by protecting intellectual freedom more than a lack of tenure would.

As might be imagined, some are opposed to tenure. These people tend to favor the business model of academics in which one key goal is to reduce labor costs. By removing tenure, faculty can be let go and replaced with cheaper faculty as needed. Also, faculty perceived as “troublesome” (such as union organizers) could be fired, thus reducing the threat of a powerful faculty union.

Some people also oppose tenure on more philosophical grounds. One common view is that employers should have the right to fire employees at any time, even without cause or reason. Going along with this view, obviously enough, is the idea that employees do not have any right to be employed. Interestingly enough, many of the same folks who hold this view also contend that the risk-takers in business should have the chance for massive rewards because of the risks they take. Interestingly, they seem to fail to see that people working without job security are rather big risk takers. After all, everyday is a day they risk being fired because their employer wants to cut expenses to boost profits.

Folks who support this view often tend to point to live outside of academics where most workers lack job security. A standard refrain is “why should tenured faculty have the job security that other workers lack?” But, a better question might be “why should other workers lack the opportunity to earn the job security that faculty enjoy?”

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Is Education a Public Good?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on February 6, 2012
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While higher education is generally regarded as a good (mainly because folks with college degrees make more than folks who lack such degrees), there has been considerable debate in the United States as to whether or not higher education is a public good.

The United States, like other Western democracies, subsidizes higher education through such means as grants and student loans. There are also numerous state schools that receive their funding primarily from public sources. This public support of education has generally been regarded as a legitimate function of the state (typically based on the view that higher education is a public good), but this has been called into question.

One stock objection against public funding of higher education is that some (or perhaps many) of the taxpayers will either not attend a public college or avail themselves of public funds for education. As such, their tax dollars are being spent in a way that does not benefit them and hence they have the right to insist that public funds not be used to support higher education.

This objection, a version of which was advanced quite some time ago by Thoreau in his discussion of taxes, does have some merit. After all, if the state is taking my money and spending it in ways that do not benefit me (or in ways that I do not approve of) then I would surely have the right to insist that this stop and that my money be spent in ways that benefit me (or that I pay less in taxes).

It might be replied that although my tax dollars might be spent on things that do not directly benefit me, as a citizen I have a duty to contribute to the general good. As a man, I will never get uterine cancer. As an adult, I will never have a birth defect.  However, it would seem odd of me to insist that the state stop spending public money in such areas merely because such spending will not benefit me directly. This can also be expanded beyond specific medical research to all those things that benefit other people but do not directly benefit me. This, as might be imagined, would include many things that those other people would regard as legitimate venues for public funding. As such, the fact that some folks do not pursue higher education at public institutes or making use of public funds hardly seems to justify not providing such funding.

It might be countered that higher education is a purely private good. After all, it could be argued, it would be as unreasonable to expect the state to subsidize my education as it would be for the state to subsidize my business, my crops or my hobbies. The advantages of my education are accrued solely by me and provide no public good-hence the state should not fund higher education on the basis of it being a public good.

One  reply to this is that funding higher education can be seen as purely self interested investing. People with college degrees generally have higher incomes than folks who do not and hence they contribute more tax revenues, thus paying back that investment many times over. Those who do not avail themselves of the public support for higher education gain directly by the fact that these other folks are contributing more in taxes than they would otherwise.

A second reply is that the people who do not avail themselves of public support for higher education benefit from the folks who do. After all, these people will need doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, teachers, and other educated people. Many of these educated folks will have been supported, to a degree, by public money (either directly or indirectly). As such, higher education does seem to be a definite public good.

A third reply is that publicly funded higher education contributes significantly to science, technology, medicine and other very practical and beneficial areas. As such, even the folks who do not avail themselves of public support for higher education gain direct advantages from the public spending in this area.

A fourth reply is that publicly funded higher education contributes to the education of citizens and provides a means by which those of lesser financial  means can achieve success, thus making this a public good.

One final objection is that while such funding might have some good results, why should “Joe the plumber” be forced to pay the bill for “Ashley the anthropologist” or “Arthur the art historian”? Or, even worse, why should “Joe” be forced to pay the bill for folks who never graduate or who never get a job?

This objection does have some bite. After all, the budget cuts caused by the meltdown and the currently dominant ideology (which seems to be “punish everyone else for the sins of the financial folks”) mean that less money is being allocated for higher education and it would make sense to ensure that this money is well spent. As might be imagined, the same concern can be raised regarding the billions spent on defense, business subsidies, special interests and so on. In fact, it might be argued that it seems odd to be  really worried that Ashley might get a small Pell grant to study anthropology when vast sums of public money have literally been lost elsewhere.

In reply, while it is reasonable to be concerned about money being wasted, the fact that some people might pursue degrees that some people look down on and the fact that some people might not complete school or get a job do not suffice to show that education should not be supported by public money. To use the obvious analogy, the fact that all investments do not yield a profit is not reason to stop investing. To use another analogy, the fact that all efforts do not succeed is not an argument to stop trying.

Looked at in purely “practical” terms, higher education certainly repays the public good for the investment made in this area.  Obviously, not every investment pays off-but that is hardly to be expected.

Naturally, there are also the other benefits of higher education that are often seen as “intangible”, but a strong enough case has been made for public support that the addition of these reasons would  be more cake piled on a well frosted cake.

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Peasent Education

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 1, 2011
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During a recent conversation with a history professor friend of mine the subject of peasant education arose. My friend noted that the current education system seems to have the same basic goal as the peasant education system that arose in Europe. Leaving out some of his nuances, the goal of the peasant education was to train them to be literate and give them the skills needed to operate in the changing economy of the time. This education explicitly avoided teaching them to think for themselves. After all, while competent workers were needed people who might question the established order were certainly not desirable.

Fast forward to today and it certainly seems that certain politicians are working to create this sort of education system (and my friend contends that for most Americans the peasant education has long been here). While the education system has long been a favorite target, recent years has seen a major step up in attacks on education. Education budgets have been cut,  standardized tests have been imposed, educators have been vilified and even higher education is being micro-managed (ironically by the very Republicans who purport to be for small government and freedom). In Florida, Governor Rick Scott recently  said

“If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs,” Scott said. “So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

He has followed up on this by sending a rather long list of questions to the state universities. These questions tend to focus on matters such as whether or not the universities are meeting the needs of employers and other job related matters.

This, one might suspect, seems to indicate a desire to push a peasant education. That is, to shape higher education so that its primary purpose is to create workers crafted to meet the needs of employers. While there is an emphasis on critical thinking and writing proficiency (after all, as my friend noted, the peasants need to be literate), these also seem to be matters relating to being fit employees rather than a concern for educating people to think for themselves (which has been a hallmark of the liberal education).

It is interesting that the fields that are typically the most subject to attack tend tend to be those that emphasize original thinking and questioning. For example, philosophy has long been bashed as being “impractical” and “useless.” Coincidentally, philosophy is focused on original thinking, questioning dogma and inquiring into matters deeply. Folks who learn too much philosophy (such as Locke, Socrates, King, Wollstonecraft and Jefferson) are often not content to go along with the status quo and have a tendency to be rather concerned about such things as ethics and justice. As another example, science has often come under attack, at least when scientists deal with matters that certain folks regard as unsettling (such as climate change, vaccines and evolution). Of course, I am sure it is just a coincidence that the fields of inquiry that are most concerned with big questions and profound inquiries tend to be the target of charges of being useless and impractical.

It might be objected that I am being rather foolish. After all, the true purpose of a university education is to be trained for a job and Governor Scott is sincerely trying to do what is best for the students and the people of Florida (including the “job creators”).

This objection does have some teeth. After all, most students are, in fact, in school to get the piece of paper that will enable them to get a decent job. By channeling resources into degrees that are mostly likely to lead to jobs and putting a greater emphasis on creating students crafted to fit into jobs these students will have a better chance of being employed (assuming that companies ever get around to doing more hiring).

It could also be said that my perception of the purpose of education is distorted by the fact that I am a philosopher and I have been influenced by troublemakers like Socrates and Locke. If I were a more practical sort of person I would see that true education, at least for the working class people who attend state schools, lies in being properly trained to meet the needs of potential employers.  The other sort of education is, of course, best reserved for the betters of society-those who attend Yale and Harvard (or their lesser cousins).





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Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 13, 2011

Image by tim ellis via Flickr

I started my college career as an undergraduate in 1984. After graduating in 1987, I went on the graduate school and then ended up as a professor. As such, I know a bit about college then and now.

College enrollment has increased significantly since then (the 1980s). Naturally, part of this is due to the increase in population: if there are more people, there will be more people in college even if the percentage of college students remains the same. Another factor is that colleges are seen as being more open to minorities, women and low income people than in the past. It is also true that people have a greater need for the college degree, thanks to degree inflation. Jobs that once required just a high school degree now require college degrees.

Ironically, as enrollment has increases, budgets for state schools have been cut. For example, my own university has been hit with massive cuts as our enrollment shoots ever upward.  One impact is that class sizes have been getting ever larger. For example, my Introduction to Philosophy class used to cap at 30. When I taught it in the fall, it had 63 students. Thanks to inflation and increases in insurance costs, I am actually making less money and teaching larger classes. There is currently talk of cutting salaries, reducing benefits, increasing class sizes and adding more classes to the faculty teaching load (I teach four classes per semester). As in the private sector, the people who do the actual nuts and bolts work are expected to do more with less.

Also somewhat ironically, as enrollment has increased and as most faculty are expected to do more for less, the cost of college has increased significantly. Back when I went to college, the average price was $2,119 per year. In 2009 the average price was $7,605. This is about twice what would be expected from inflation alone.  Some of the increase can be accounted for in terms of new technology (the cost of computer labs and smart classrooms) and energy costs. However, one large factor is the same one that occurs in business and government: administration and bureaucracy. As such, a significant slice of tuition dollars does not go to paying for the actual process of education.

What is needed is, obviously enough, efforts to control costs. The place to begin is, of course, with administrative costs. Naturally, budget cuts are currently inflicted primarily on faculty (who teach) and staff (who actually do things). In this regard, education functions exactly like business and government.

Because of the greater cost, it is no shock that students need to turn to loans to pay for school. In 1993 about 45% of students took out loans. When I was an undergraduate, I took out loans-I finally paid them off during my first year as a professor. This year about 66% of students will take out loans for school. In 1995 the typical student graduated with about $10,000 in debt. This year’s students ended up with an average of $27,000. This means that a greater percentage of students will start out with school debt and that they will have more debt, which means they will have less to spend on other things, things that would help the general economy.

To make matters worse, unemployment  is over 9%. When I was in school, it was about 6%. Salaries have improved a bit ($46,600 in 1995 and $50,034 for college graduates today), but clearly not that much relative to the increase in debt.

As such, today’s students can expect to take out loans to pay a lot  to be in larger classes taught by underpaid and overworked professors. Once they graduate, they can expect to have a lot of debt and a decent salary-if they can find a job.  Of course, with the budget cuts hitting many state schools, tomorrow’s graduates might be competing with yesterday’s faculty for jobs.

You can see some spiffy graphics of all the data here.

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For-Profit Colleges & Your Tax Dollars

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 23, 2010

When I first learned about for-profit colleges, I had mixed feelings. As a philosopher, I was somewhat appalled at the idea of transforming the education process into a crass money making machine. As an experienced academic, I had some vague hope that for-profit schools could offer more people a lower priced education by slashing away the costly bureaucratic fat (or “bureaufat”) that has accumulated at many schools. As a somewhat cynical person, I suspected that the for-profit schools would find clever ways to exploit people and siphon money from the government.

As usual, my cynical self seems to have been correct.

One rather interesting fact about the for-profit colleges is that they have less than 10% of the post-secondary students, yet get 23% of the federal aid dollars (based on data from 2008-2009. Another interesting fact is that this federal aid provides 87-93% of the income of these for-profit colleges. A third rather interesting fact is that these colleges have a profit margin ranging from 16 to 37%, which is outstanding.

The “secret” to generating such profits is hardly a secret. While there is a popular myth that private sector for-profits can deliver better services for less money, the for-profits seem to charge a great deal. For example, Kaplan intended to charge students in California $646 for a three credit hour class that would cost $78 at a community college.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with charging high fees, especially when there are alternatives. However, it seems that some for-profit schools have engaged in wrongful deeds in making money. Recent investigations have revealed significant problems with fraud and abuse. For example, students were apparently encouraged to lie on their financial aid forms so as to receive federal financial aid or increase the aid received. While the students obviously are culpable as well, encouraging people to commit fraud is not something that these schools should be doing. However, since this aid is a major source of their income, it is hardly surprising that they would do all they can to maximize their profits.

For-profit colleges like to point out that they have a higher graduation rate than community colleges and they use this to attract students. However, an analysis of the data seems to reveal that their graduation rates are not quite what they claim. What is not in dispute, however, is that students of the for-profit schools lead the nation in defaulting on their student loans. Since the loans come from taxpayer dollars, this means that the burden falls onto us. While the people who default are responsible for the loans, the for-profit schools seem to be a causal factor as well. One obvious possibility is that there is a connection between the fraud that the schools allegedly encourage so that students can maximize their financial aid and students being unable to pay back that money. Another possibility is, as noted above, the graduation rate of the for-profit schools is not as good as they claim. People who do not finish school are less able to pay off loans and perhaps less inclined to do so.

I think that properly regulated for-profit schools could have a place in education.  After all, such schools could (in theory) offer a lower cost alternative to traditional schools. However, the current crop of for-profit schools seem to be far too problematic, primarily because they seem to be placing profit above everything else, even ethics. What is especially bad, at least from the standpoint of the taxpayers, is that the for-profit schools seem to making their profits by milking the government (and hence us).

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Why So Few Excellent Teachers?

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 30, 2010
University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni Sch...
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Since I have a fair amount of experience in higher education, I will venture to answer this question. One obvious reason is that teacher salaries at the K-12 level generally are not that great. However, even when the salary is good, the rewards for excellence tend to be disproportionate to the excellence. That is, teachers often get out far less than they put in.

Interestingly enough, one drain on the pool of excellent K-12 teachers is probably higher education. If someone loves to teach and has excellent abilities, they will quickly realize that the college/university level provides far more return for the effort. The pay, status, facilities, and benefits are generally much better. The problems are far less. In my own case, I did a stint as a high school teacher. While I love to teach, running study halls, dealing with discipline problems, and so on all made the job more of an ordeal than a pleasure. So, I did the obvious thing and became a professor, thus keeping the best aspects of being a teacher and ditching most of the bad ones.

Another obvious drain on the pool of excellent teachers is that someone who has the virtues needed to be an excellent teacher (intelligence, knowledge, leadership, creativity, charisma and so on) can excel in other fields that generally offer far more to a person. Such an amazing person could start her own company, have a high paying and rewarding career, or become a major force in politics. While some people do find the rewards of teaching to be sufficient, obviously enough most people with such excellence do not. They seek other careers and far greater rewards.

While it is tempting to say that such excellent people should be suitably rewarded (bribed) into going into K-12 teaching, there is the obvious question of whether the resources spent to get such stars would yield greater benefits than spending the same resources to get more average teachers. While sports teams can often afford to pay stars cosmic wages, there are actually very few professional sports teams while there are many,  many schools.

Of course, improving salaries and fixing the problems that make teaching K-12 unpleasant can go a long way in improving the quality of education. This might well be better than trying to take a star approach.

Another reason why there are so few excellent teachers is that there are relatively few truly excellent people. After all, think about your own general experiences at stores, work, and so on. How many truly excellent and amazing people do you know? Of course, I suspect that one reason why we have few excellent people is that our educational system has some serious problems. This creates a rather unfortunate problem: we need a better education system to get better people, but we need better people to have a  better educational system.

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Engines of Conformity

Posted in Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 2, 2010
Standardized Test
Image by biologycorner via Flickr

But it is difficult to get from youth up a right training for virtue if one has not been brought up under right laws; for to live temperately and hardily is not pleasant to most people, especially when they are young. For this reason their nurture and occupations should be fixed by law; for they will not be painful when they have become customary.


In the United States this is the time of year when people go back to school. As such, it is fitting to have a brief discussion about education.

As most educated folks know, the United States used to be a world leader in K-12 education and higher education. While we still do very well in higher education, our K-12 system is something of a stricken ship. Test scores are low and drop out rates are high. These two factors cover a myriad of problems. However, one thing that rarely gets attention is the fact that a prime function of schools is that of being engines of conformity.

The basic idea is that in addition to providing a basic (though often poor) education, schools also condition children to a certain way of life. Thinking back to my own education, it worked like this: when the kids arrive in the system they are taught to stand in line, to follow a time schedule marked by bells, to sit quietly in rows, to ask permission to even go to the bathroom, to conform to authority, and to do work at the behest of someone else even when they have no interest in it nor see value in it.  The model is, as others have claimed, clearly based on getting children accustomed to working for a living. After all, that involves going some place unpleasant, living by a schedule set by someone else, and doing work one cares little for, often in an uncomfortable little chair.

Of course, things have changed a bit since I was a kid. There are now metal detectors and police at many schools. There are zero tolerance policies that result in kids being expelled for having aspirin. There are security cameras, strip searches, vehicle searches, and more. In short, the factory model has been augmented with what can be regarded as the prison, security or police state model. Presumably this is intended to properly conform the children so that they will be ready to serve their corporate masters and be prepared to live in a world in which the threat level is never below Orange.

Given these conditions, it is hardly shocking that the kids are not doing that well. Such conditions are hardly conducive to true learning. Of course, this is not the only problem-there are many, many more factors at work here, such as an obsession with standardized tests, budget problems, and a need for more good teachers.

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The End of Men III

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 30, 2010
The Feminine Mystique
Image via Wikipedia

This blog concludes my discussion of Rosin’s essay “The End of Men.”
Rosin continues by noting that the shift is not just a matter of women dominating 13 of the 15 fastest growing job fields. As she points out, women are starting to dominate the realms of middle management and the professional fields.  Women still lag behind men in engineering and the sciences.
Rosin explains this by indicating that women are better educated, brighter, more conscientious and more stable than men.  These claims are, of course, factual claims. Women are currently dominating higher education, which gives them a clear advantage over men. It might also be true that women are better than men in these areas. If so, this would help explain the current plight of men and the excellent situation of women.
However, it is well worth considering this current situation in the light of the past. When men where dominant, it was often argued by feminists that this dominance was unjust and not a “natural dominance” based on on superior abilities. Crudely put, it was often argued that the patriarchy was unfairly excluding women and using various unfair means to keep men in dominant positions. Of course, men tended to argue that they held their dominant positions because of being superior in relevant ways. In short, the situation seems to have been exactly reversed: now that woman are dominate or expanding, this is explained (mostly by women) in terms of the superiority of women. It will be interesting to see if a movement comparable to feminism will arise in any significant way to argue against this alleged superiority. In any case, one would imagine that such critics will point to affirmative action programs and other means that have provided special support to women in education, sports, and business. As such, it seems that a case could be assembled that women have taken advantage of a system that works quite well in their favor-just as men did before them.
Rosin next presents a common lament: while woman are dominating higher education and moving ahead of men economically, these is still a male bastion that remains: the top of the job pyramid. It is interesting that female dominance in an area is often lauded as a good thing, while male dominance is still cast as a problem that remains to be fixed (presumably by female dominance).
Rosin concludes by considering the changing nature of leadership-or at least the changing perception of leadership. Tied into this is, naturally enough, the nature (or alleged nature) of each sex. Interestingly enough, female leadership is cast in terms that are stereotypically female: empathy, sensitivity, communication and so on. The difference is, of course, that these stereotypical traits are now presented as those that leaders should have. The traditional male qualities and leadership styles are, not surprisingly, generally cast as being negative in character. For example, much has been made of the role of men in the economic collapse.
Rosin does not, of course, explore these matters in depth. However, there are many important issues here that are well worth considering. One is whether men and women do, in fact, have distinct qualities. For example, are women actually more empathetic and better at communication? A second is whether such sex based qualities are better or worse in terms of leadership and job success. Right now, women seem to be doing better than men. But, the cause of this needs to be analyzed more. While some are tempted to attribute this to the qualities of women, it is wise to consider the feminist arguments of the past: greater success need not be the result of better qualities-it might be due to other factors, such as unfair advantages or external circumstances. Looking back, some thinkers wrote with great confidence about the superiority of men over women and saw no injustice in this. However, these views were later subject to criticism. Now, it seems to the turn for women-they get to write with confidence about the superiority of women and see no injustice in the disparity.
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