A Philosopher's Blog

Charter Schools I: Preliminaries & Monopolies

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on January 6, 2017

In November of 2016, president elect Trump selected Betsy DeVos as his Secretary of Education. While this appointment seems to have changed her mind about Common Core, DeVos has remained committed to expanding charter schools. Charter schools operate outside of the public-school system but are funded with public money. They can be privately owned and run as for-profit business. As might be suspected, they tend to be rather controversial.

Before discussing charter schools, I need to present the biasing factors in my background. Like most Americans, I attended public schools. Unlike some Americans, I got a very good public education that laid the foundation for my undergraduate and graduate education. Both of my parents were educators; my father taught math and computer science and my mother had a long career as a guidance counsellor. I ended up going to a private college and then to a public graduate school. This led to my current career as a philosophy professor at a state university. I belong to the United Faculty of Florida, the NEA and the AFT. As such, I am a union member. As might be suspected, my background inclines me to be suspicious of charter schools. As such, I will take special care to consider the matter fairly and objectively.

As with most politically charged debates, the battle over charter schools tends to be long on rhetoric and short on reasoned arguments. Devoted proponents of charter schools lament the ruin of public education, crusade for choice, and praise the profit motive as panacea for the woes of the academies. Energized enemies of charter schools regard them as plots against public good and profiteering at the expense of the children.

While there is some merit behind these rhetorical stances, charter schools should neither be accepted nor rejected based on mere rhetoric or ideological stances. As liberals and conservatives have both noted, there are serious problems in the American education system. Charter schools have been advanced as a serious proposal to address some of these problems and are worthy of objective consideration. I will begin with what can be called the monopoly argument in favor of charter schools.

Proponents of charter schools often assert that the state holds a monopoly on education and employ arguments by analogy to show why this is a bad thing. For example, the state monopoly on education might be compared to living in an area with only one internet service provider. This provider offers poor service, but residents are forced by law to pay for it and competition is forbidden. While this is probably better than not having any internet access at all, it is certainly a bad situation that could be improved by competition. If the analogy holds, then poor quality education could be improved by legalizing competition.

This analogy can also be used, obviously enough, to argue that people who do have children in school should not be forced to pay into the education system. This would be, to stick with the analogy, like making people who have no computers (including tablets and phones) pay for internet access they do not use. This is, however, another issue and I will return to the matter of charter schools.

While the analogy does have some appeal, the state does not have a monopoly on education. There are, obviously enough, private schools that operate without public money. These provide competition to public schools, thus showing that there is not a monopoly. By going through the appropriate procedures, anyone with the resources can create a private school. And anyone with the resources to afford a private school can attend. As such, there is already a competitive education industry in place that provides an alternative to public education. There is also the option of home schooling, which also breaks the alleged monopoly.

Supporters of charter schools can counter that there is a monopoly without charter schools. To be specific, without charter schools, public schools have a monopoly on public money. Charter schools, by definition, break this monopoly by allowing public funds to go to schools outside the state education system.

This can allow privately owned charter schools to enjoy what amounts to state subsidies, thus making it easier to start a privately-owned charter school than a privately funded private school. Those who are concerned about state subsidies might find this sort of thing problematic, perhaps because it seems to confer an unfair advantage over privately funded schools and funnels public money into private hands.

Supporters can counter these criticisms by turning them into virtues. Public money spent on charter schools is good exactly because it makes it easier to fund competing schools. Private schools without public funding need to operate in a free market—they must compete for customer money without the benefit of the state picking winners and losers. As such, there will not be very many privately funded schools.  Charter schools benefit from the largesse of the state, although they do need to attract enough students. But this is made easier by the fact that charter school education is subsidized by public money.

As such, charter schools would break the public-school system’s monopoly on public money, although there is not a monopoly on education (since privately funded schools exist). The question remains as to whether or not breaking the funding monopoly is a good thing or not, which leads to the subject of the next essay in this series, that of choice.

 

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Performance Based Funding & Disadvantaged Students

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 7, 2015

As I have discussed in previous essays, Florida state universities now operate under a performance based model of funding and Florida A&M University (FAMU), my university, has performed poorly in regards to the state standards. One area of poor performance is the six-year graduation rate. Another is student loan debts, both in terms of the debt accrued and the default rate. Currently, it has been claimed that FAMU students default on their loans at three times the state average. It has been claimed that one explanation for this poor performance is that FAMU accepts students who are ill-prepared for a four year university. It has also been suggested that such students would be better served by community colleges.

I will not dispute the claim that FAMU admits some students who are ill-prepared for a four year university. This is because the claim is true. One reason it is true is because FAMU has had an historical mission of providing an opportunity for the disadvantaged. One part of this mission is shown by the fact FAMU is an HBCU (Historically Black College and University). Before desegregation, HBCUs provided almost the only higher education opportunities for African-Americans. After the end of legal segregation, HBCUs still served a vital role in providing such opportunities. As predominantly white colleges (PWCs, also known as Predominantly White Institutions or PWIs) became more integrated, people began to argue that this old mission of HBCUs was no longer relevant. After all, if black students can attend any school they wish and racism is no longer a factor, then one might say “mission accomplished.” Unfortunately, as I discussed in my essay on performance based funding and race, race is still a significant factor in regards to economic and academic success. As such, while the dismantling of some barriers to education is to be lauded, many more still remain. Among these are numerous economic barriers.

While it could be argued that FAMU no longer has a mission to offset racism in America by offering educational opportunities to African Americans, FAMU has also had a longstanding mission of serving the economically disadvantaged. Students who come from a background of economic and academic disadvantage (these are almost always tightly linked) face many challenges to graduating and, not surprisingly, are more likely to have student debt. It is well worth considering why disadvantaged students generally perform worse than other students.

One rather obvious factor is that students from poor schools (which tend to be located in economically disadvantaged areas) will face the challenge imposed by being poorly prepared for college. While individuals can overcome this through natural talent and special effort, this poor preparation is analogous to a weight chained to a runner’s leg—she will have to run so much harder to go as fast as others who are not dragging such a burden.

Another especially disturbing factor is that poverty has been found to negatively impact brain development as well as academic performance. Poverty is quite literally damaging American children and thus doing harm to the future of America. Unfortunately, for many politicians the concern regarding children seems to end at birth, so this problem is unlikely to be seriously addressed in the existing political climate.

A third factor is that disadvantaged students, being disadvantaged, generally need to borrow more money than students from wealthier backgrounds. This entails more student debt on the part of the disadvantaged. It also creates a rather vicious scenario: a student who needs to take out loans is more likely to end up with financial challenges in school. A student who is challenged financially is more likely to drop out than a student who is not. Students who drop out are more likely to default on student loans. This provides a rather clear explanation of why disadvantaged students have low completion rates, high debts and high default rates.

As might be expected, seventy percent of African American students say that student debt is their main reason for dropping out. In contrast, less than fifty percent of white students make this claim. This is quite consistent with my own study of student performance: over the course of my study, the primary reason for missing class was work and the main reason students gave for not graduating was financial.

In terms of why students are taking out more and larger loans than any time in United States history, there are some easy and obvious answers. One is the fact that incomes for all but the wealthiest have, at best, stagnated for nearly thirty years—as such people have less money to spend on college and thus need to take out loans. Students also need to work more in college, which can make attending class and completing work challenging.

A second is the fact that state funding for education has dropped substantially as a result of both ideology and the great recession. Even after the broader economy rebounded, education funding was not restored and some states continued to cut funding. With less state funding, universities raised tuition and this, naturally enough, has led to an increased need for students to work more (which impacts graduation rates) and take out loans—which leads to debt. It is a cruel irony that the very people who have cut education funding judge schools by how well they handle the problems such cuts have created or acerbated. To use an analogy, this is like taking a runner’s shoes, striking her legs with a baton and then threatening to do more damage unless she runs even faster than before. This is madness.

Given the factors discussed above, it should hardly be surprising that a school, such as FAMU, that intentionally enrolls disadvantaged students will perform worse than schools who do not have such a mission. Since FAMU’s funding is linked to its performance, it is rather important to consider solutions to this situation.

The state legislature could address this problem in various ways. One approach would be to address the economic and academic inequality that creates disadvantaged students. This, however, seems extremely unlikely in the present political climate.

A second approach would be to restore the education funding that was cut (or even increase it beyond that). However, the current ideological commitment is to cutting education funding while, at the same time, expressing shocked dismay at greater student debt and punishing schools for not solving this problem by taking away even more money. As such, it seems reasonable, though rather unfortunate, to dismiss the state legislature as a source of solutions and instead regard them as a major part of the problem.

For schools such as FAMU, one option is to change the mission of the school to one that matches the views of those providing oversight of the schools. This revised mission would not include providing opportunities to the disadvantaged. Rather, it would involve improving the graduation and debt numbers by ceasing to admit disadvantaged students. On the plus side, this would enable FAMU to improve its performance relative to the goals imposed by the legislature that helped create the student debt crisis and helped lower graduation rates. However, the performance based funding system imposed by the state must have losers, so even if FAMU improved, it might not improve enough to push some other schools to the bottom.  Even if it does improve, it would merely shift the punishment of the state to some other school—which is certainly morally problematic (rather like the old joke about not needing to outrun the bear, just one other person).

On the minus side, abandoning this historic mission of providing opportunity to the disadvantaged would mean abandoning people to the mire of poverty and the desert that is a lack of opportunity. As a professor who teaches ethics, this strikes me as morally reprehensible—especially in a country whose politicians cry endlessly about opportunity, economic mobility and the American Dream.

As has been well-established by history, a college degree is a way to achieve greater economic success and it has been a ladder out of poverty for many previous generations of Americans. To kick away this ladder would be to say that the American Dream is only for those lucky enough to already be well off and the rest can simply stay at the bottom. This could be done, but if it is done, then we must no longer speak of this being a land of opportunity for everyone.

It might be countered that, as was suggested, the disadvantaged students could attend a two-year college. While this idea has become something of a talking point, the evidence shows that it is actually not a low cost, low debt option for students. Because of higher education costs and reduced state support, disadvantaged students will still need to take out loans to attend such schools and will face the same general challenges they would face at a four-year institute.

It could also be countered that enrolling disadvantaged students does not actually help them. After all, if they do not graduate and end up accumulating considerable debt, then it could be argued they would have been better off never making the attempt. They could, instead, go straight to work right out of high school (or complete some technical training). The money that would have been spent on them could be spent on students more likely to succeed (because they already enjoy advantages).

While I am committed to the value of education, this is a point well worth considering. If an objective and fair assessment of the data shows that disadvantage students are worse off when they attempt a four-year degree, then it would make no sense to admit such students. However, if the data shows that providing such students with this opportunity does provide positive benefits, then it would seem a good idea to continue to offer people a chance to escape to a better future from a disadvantaged past. This is, of course, a matter of value—how much is it worth to society to provide such opportunities and at what point should we, as a people, say that the cost is too high to give our fellow Americans an opportunity? Or, put another way, how much are we willing to spend to be able to speak about the American Dream without speaking lies?

 

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The University as a Money Funnel

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2015

One serious problem with American higher education is that the cost of a four-year degree is higher than ever—even when adjusting for inflation. The causes of this increase are well known and well understood—there is no mystery about this. One contributing factor is that universities tend to spend considerable money on facilities that are not connected to education. Critics like to, for example, point out that some universities spend millions on luxurious fitness facilities. These sort of expenditures are ironic (and stupid) given that education funding has been consistently reduced across the United States. To use the obvious analogy, this would be like a family putting in a pool, spa, and exercise room when they do not have enough money to pay for their actual necessities.

What seems to be the major factor contributing to costs is the ever-expanding administrative class at universities. This expansion occurs in terms of both individual salaries and overall numbers. From 2000 to 2010 the median salary for the top public university administrators increased by 39%. The top administrators, the university presidents, enjoyed a 75% increase. In stark contrast, the salaries for full-time professors increased by almost 19%.

The money for these salary increases has to come from somewhere and an obvious source is students. My alma mater Ohio State University is leading the way in milking students to pay administrators. Between 2010 and 2012 Gordon Gee, the president of OSU, was paid almost $6 million. At the same time, OSU raised tuition and fees to a degree that resulted in student debt increasing 23% more than the national average.

While some might be tempted to attribute this salary bloating as the result of the usual alleged wastefulness and growth of the public sector, private colleges and universities topped their public counterparts. From 2000 to 2010 private schools saw salary increases of about 97% for their top administrators and their presidents enjoyed a 171% increase. Full time professors also partook of the increases—their salaries increased by 50%.

What is even more striking than the salary increases are the increase in the number of positions and their nature. From 1978 to 2014 administrative positions skyrocketed 369%. This time period also marked a major shift in the nature of faculty. The number of part-time faculty (the analogues of temp workers in the corporate world) increased by 286%. The use of adjuncts is justified on the grounds that doing so saves money. While adjunct salaries vary, the typical adjunct makes $20,000-25,000.

However, the money saved does not translate to a lower cost of education—rather, it “saves” money from going to faculty so that it can go to administrators. Since the average salary of a university president is $478,896 and the number of presidents making $1 million or more a year is increasing, it should be obvious what is helping to drive up the cost of college. Hint: it is not adjunct pay.

There was also a push to reduce (and eliminate) tenured positions which resulted in an increase in full time, non-tenure earning positions by 259%. Full time tenure and tenure-track positions increased by only 23%. Ohio State University provides an excellent (or awful) example of this A&A Strategy: the majority of those hired by OSU were Adjuncts and Administrators. To be specific, OSU hired 498 adjunct instructors and 670 administrators. 45 full-time, permanent faculty were hired.

Interestingly enough, the Republicans who run many state legislatures rail against wasteful spending, impose micromanagement and inflict draconian measures on state universities yet never seem to address the real causes of tuition increase and the problems in the education system. Someone more cynical than I might note that the university seems to no longer have education as its primary function. Rather, it is crafted to funnel money from the “customer” and the tax payer (in the form of federal student aid) to the top while minimizing pay for those who do the actual work.

Tenure has been a target in recent years because tenure provides faculty with protection against being fired without cause (tenured faculty can be fired—it is not a magic shield). This is regarded by some as a problem for a variety of reasons. One is that tenured faculty cannot be let go simply to replace them with vastly lower paid adjuncts. This, obviously enough, means less money flowing from students and the state to administrators. Another is that the protection provided by tenure allows a faculty member to be critical of what is happening to the university system of the United States without running a high risk of simply being let go as a trouble maker. As you might guess, I am a tenured full-professor. So, I can use my freedom of speech with rather less fear of being fired. I also enjoy the dubious protection afforded by the fact that people rarely take philosophers seriously.

 

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Education & Gainful Employment

Posted in Business, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 5, 2015
English: Table 3 from the August 4, 2010 GAO r...

English: Table 3 from the August 4, 2010 GAO report. Randomly sampled For-Profit college tuition compared to Public and Private counterparts for similar degrees. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the years I have written various critical pieces about for-profit schools. As I have emphasized before, I have nothing against the idea of a for-profit school. As such, my criticisms have not been that such schools make money. Rather, I have been critical of the performance of such schools as schools, with their often predatory practices, and the fact that they rely so very heavily on federal funding for their profits. This article is, shockingly enough, also critical of these schools.

Assessment in and of higher education has become the new normal. Some of the assessment standards are set by the federal government, some by the states and some by the schools. At the federal level, one key standard is in the Higher Education Act and it states that career education programs “must prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” If a school fails to meet this standard, then it can lose out on federal funds such as Pell Grants and federal loans. Since schools are rather fond of federal dollars, they are rather intent on qualifying under this standard.

One way to qualify is to see to it that students are suitably prepared. Another approach, one taken primarily by the for-profit schools (which rely extremely heavily on federal money for their profits) has been to lobby in order to get the standard set to their liking.  As it now stands, schools are ranked in three categories: passing, probationary, and failing. A passing program is such that its graduates’ annual loan payments are below 8% of their total earnings or below 20% of their discretionary incomes. A program is put on probation when the loan payments are in the 8-12% range of their total earnings or 20-30% of discretionary incomes. A program is failing when the loan payments are more than 12% of their total income or over 30% of their discretionary incomes. Students who do not graduate, which happens more often at for-profit schools than at private and public schools, are not counted in this calculation.

A program is disqualified from receiving federal funds if it fails two out of any three consecutive years or it gets a ranking less than passing for four years in a row. This goes into effect in the 2015-2016 academic year.

Interestingly enough, it is matter of common ideology in America that the for-profit, private sector is inherently superior to the public sector. As with many ideologies, this one falls victim to facts. While the assessment of schools in terms of how well they prepare students for gainful employment does not go into effect until 2015, data is already available (the 2012 data seems to be the latest available). Public higher education, which is routinely bashed in some quarters, is amazingly successful in this regard: 99.72% of the programs were rated as passing, 0.18% were rated as being on probation and 0.09% were ranked as failing. Private nonprofit schools also performed admirably with 95.65% of their programs passing, 3.16% being ranked as being on probation and  1.19% rated as failing. So, “A” level work for these schools. In stark contrast, the for-profit schools had 65.87% of their programs ranked as passing, 21.89 ranked as being on probation and 12.23% evaluated as failing. So, these schools would have a grade of “D” if they were students. It is certainly worth keeping in mind that the standards used are the ones that the private, for-profit school lobby pushed for—it seems likely they would do even worse if the more comprehensive standards favored by the AFT were used.

This data certainly seems to indicate that the for-profit schools are not as good a choice for students and for federal funding as the public and non-profit private schools. After all, using the pragmatic measure of student income relative to debt incurred for education, the public and private non-profits are the clear winners. One easy and obvious explanation for this is, of course, that the for-profit schools make a profit—as such, they typically charge considerably more (as I have discussed in other essays) than comparable public and non-profit private schools. Another explanation is that (as discussed in other essays) is that such schools generally do a worse job preparing students for careers and with placing students in jobs. So, a higher cost combined with inferior ability to get students into jobs translates into that “D” grade. So much for the inherent superiority of the for-profit private sector.

It might be objected that there are other factors that explain the poor performance of the for-profit schools in a way that makes them look better. For example, perhaps students who enroll in such programs differ significantly from students in public and non-profit private schools and this helps explain the difference in a way that partially absolves the for-profit schools. As another example, perhaps the for-profit schools suffered from bad luck in terms of the programs they offered. Maybe salaries were unusually bad in these jobs or hiring was very weak. These and other factors are well worth considering. After all, to fail to consider alternative explanations would be poor reasoning indeed. If the for-profits can explain away their poor performance in this area in legitimate ways, then perhaps the standards would need to be adjusted to take into account these factors.

It is also worth considering that schools, public and private, do not have control over the economy. Given that short-term (1-4 year) vagaries of the market could result in programs falling into probation or failure by these standards when such programs are actually “good” in the longer term, it would seem that some additional considerations should be brought into play. Naturally, it can be countered that 3-4 years of probation or failure would not really be short term (especially for folks who think in terms of immediate profit) and that such programs would fully merit their rating.

That said, the latest economic meltdown was somewhat long term and the next one (our bubble based economy makes it almost inevitable) could be even worse. As such, it would seem sensible to consider the broader economy when holding programs accountable. After all, even a great program cannot make companies hire nor compel them to pay better wages.

 

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A Philosopher’s Blog: 2012-2013

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 8, 2014

A-Philosopher's-Blog-2012-2013-CoverMy latest book, A Philosopher’s Blog 2012-2013, will be free on Amazon from October 8, 2014 to October 12 2014.

Description: “This book contains select essays from the 2012-2013 postings of A Philosopher’s Blog. The topics covered range from economic justice to defending the humanities, plus some side trips into pain pills and the will.”

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Examining Failure

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 7, 2014

As a professor, I prefer that my students pass my classes. However, I also have a professional and moral obligation to ensure that each student receives the grade she has earned. As such, some students fail my classes. While students often prefer to say that the professor failed them, the truth is that I merely record their failure-the student does the failing.

Since I want my students to pass the class and Florida is taking a performance based approach to funding (our funding is partly linked to how well our students do–which is surely no recipe for grade inflation…) I have long examined the reasons why students fail. This past “study” has been rather informal-I would look through the grades and attendance records to get a general picture of what happened that semester. However, I decided to make a more formal examination of failure.

At Florida A&M University, a grade of F or D is considered a failing grade (although a D grade might be enough to pass a class in some cases). As such, the number of failing students is the number of F and D students, not just F students. Since students need a 2.0 or better to graduate and most programs require a minimum grade of C in required courses, treating D and F as failing grades is reasonable-although a D is still better than an F.

In the Spring 2014 Semester I had 21 students out of 140 fail with a D or F.  This is 15% failure rate and the “acceptable” failure rate is 25% (at least according to the administration). So, the results were good.

To sort out the causes of failure, I looked at attendance, grades on completed work, work that was not completed and plagiarism.

In regards to attendance, 1 failing student attended 91-99% of the classes. 30% of the students attended 61% or more of the classes while 70% attended 60% or less of the classes. 50% attended half or fewer of the classes. This is hardly surprising-there tends to be a strong correlation between class attendance and the student’s grade. I am also conducting a study on why student’s miss class-that was the subject of my previous post. One obvious reason students who have poor attendance also have poor grades is that they are missing the material. While some students can learn effectively from reading the book or notes, actually being in class seems to matter. Poor attendance also reflects the effort a student is willing to put into the class and this is also reflected on the grade. That is, the poor grades and poor attendance are both caused by the qualities of the student. I am very willing to work with students who have legitimate issues such as illness or financial problems and, as far as I know, no student has ever failed one of my classes due solely to a legitimate issue preventing them from passing. Interestingly, students generally do not seem to be aware of such problems until they are about to fail- I get emails during finals week telling me about such dire circumstances that were never even mentioned before in the previous 15 weeks.

In terms of the grade aspects of failing, 33% of the students had failing scores on completed work that contributed to the failing grade. This is hardly surprising. Interestingly, most of the failing grades are not due simply to having failing grades on the work that was done, the failure also involves (or is entirely the result of) not doing all the required work.

22% of the students who failed did not complete  the required 4 of the 5 exams in the class (I count the best 4 scores) and 14% did not complete the required 10 of the 21+ quizzes offered (the best 10 count).

In my Critical Thinking class, only 1 student out of 35 did not complete the 10 required assignments out of 27.

In my three classes with papers, 16% of the students who failed simply did not turn in a paper. There are three paper deadlines in my class: one that provides a +5 bonus to the grade for doing the paper on time, a full credit deadline a week later, and a 50% credit deadline on the last day of classes. So, students have many chances to turn the paper in.

The most easily avoided cause of failure is simply not doing the work. Since the coursework is done or turned in on Black Board and there are very generous deadlines, I cannot think of much more I can do on my end to get students to actually do the work. As noted above, the failing students who did not do the work did not contact me during the 15 weeks of the semester to inform me of issues or problems-although this is covered by the syllabus. I did have some people contact me during finals week mentioning previously unmentioned and unverified issues.

I had six cases of plagiarism this year (one student accounted for two of those cases in two classes), which was typical.  So plagiarism contributed to 13% of the failing grades. Plagiarism is a self-inflicted injury, especially since I give a speech on plagiarism, define it in the syllabus, include it in the paper video and warn people to do drafts that I can check. I think I’ve done all I can do in this regard.

 

Failing scores on completed work. 16 33%
Exams not completed. 11 22%
Quizzes not completed. 7 14%
Assignments not completed. 1 2%
Paper not completed. 8 16%
Plagiarism. 6 12%
Academic misconduct. 0 0%

 

Attendance

100% 0 0%
91-99% 1 5%
81-90% 2 10%
71-80% 3 15%
61-70% 0 0%
51-60% 4 20%
41-50% 4 20%
31-40% 0 0%
21-30% 1 5%
11-20% 2 10%
1-10% 2 10%
0% 1 5%

Reason(s) for Failing Grade

Failing scores on completed work. 16 33%
Exams not completed. 11 22%
Quizzes not completed. 7 14%
Assignments not completed. 1 2%
Paper not completed. 8 16%
Plagiarism. 6 12%
Academic misconduct. 0 0%
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Why College Students Miss Class

Posted in Universities & Colleges by mclfamu on May 5, 2014
Lecture Hall I, UMBC, Wednesday night, fall se...

Lecture Hall I, UMBC, Wednesday night, fall semester, 2010 (Photo credit: sidewalk flying)

Cutting class is a time-honored practice among college students and it is to be expected that students will honor this practice by spending some class time away from class. However, state colleges and universities are being pushed to gather and assess data in order to justify the funding provided by the state. A key part of retaining funding is to provide data showing that students are graduating in a timely manner. As might be imagined, when students fail classes, this tends to slow down their graduation.

At two recent meetings I attended there was a discussion about classes with high failure rates and the question was raised as to why students were failing these specific classes. While my classes had failure rates well within the expected norm, I decided to formalize what I had been doing informally for years, namely generating a picture of why students fail my classes.

Not surprisingly, I generally noticed a correlation between a student’s attendance and her grade: low attendance generally correlated with a low grade. I have also noticed that attendance has grown worse in my classes over the years. Based on conversations with other faculty, the same is true of other classes. As such, it seems reasonable to consider that lack of attendance helps contribute to the failure rate and thus to the slower and lower graduation rate.

The hypothesis about low attendance does not get to the heart of the matter-what is needed is information about why students skip classes. To this end, I set up an initial study in which students self-reported their attendance and selected the reasons why they missed classes. I also inquired about the main reason students missed classes. Naturally, I also gather data about student attendance using the class roll.

At the end of the semester, I had 54 responses out of 140 students.  Interestingly 73% reported attending at least often, with the largest percentage (30%) claiming to attend 80-90% of the time. 26% claimed to attend 90-100% of the time. As might be suspected, this self-reported data is not consistent with my attendance records. This can be explained in various ways. One obvious possibility is that students who would take the time to respond to a survey would be students who would be more likely to attend class, thus biasing the survey. A second obvious possibility is that people tend to select the answer they think they should give or the one that matches how they would like to be perceived. As such, students would tend to over-report their attendance. A third obvious possibility is that students might believe that the responses to the survey might cause me to hand out extra points (which is not the case and the survey is anonymous).

In regards to the reasons why students miss class, the highest (by far) self-reported reason is work. While this might be explained in terms of students selecting the answer that presents them in the best light, it is consistent with anecdotal evidence I have “collected” by overhearing students, speaking with students, and speaking with other colleagues. It is also consistent with the fact that many students need outside employment in order to pay for college-work schedules do not always neatly fit around class schedules. If this information is accurate, addressing the attendance problem would require addressing the matter of work. This could involve the usual proposals, such as finding ways to increase support for students so they do not need to work (or work as much) in college. It might also involve considering some new or alternative approaches to the problem.

I also found that of the primary reasons students report for missing class, the fact that the coursework is on Black Board was in second place. This certainly makes sense. Since the graded coursework is completed and turned in through Black Board, a pragmatic student who is focused primarily on simply getting a grade as a means to an end would see far less reason to attend class. Since the majority of college students now report that they are in school primarily to get a job, it makes sense that many students would take this approach to class.  However, there is the obvious risk in this pragmatic approach: as noted above, low attendance tends to correlate with low grades, so students who skip the class on the assumption that they can just do the work on Black Board and pass might find themselves having chosen poorly.

Based on this information and other findings, Black Board is a double edged sword. On the one hand, Black Board has resulted in an improved completion rate for work precisely because students can do the work or turn it in more conveniently and around the clock. On the other hand, using Black Board as the sole means for turning in work does allow students to skip class while still being able to do the work. What needs to be determined is which edge cuts more. That is, is the (possible) reduction in attendance outweighed by the advantages of Black Board.

As a final point, the current sample (54 students) is rather small (leading to a margin of error of  about +/- 14%) and not as diverse as it should be (the sample is made up entirely of my students). The sample, as noted above, could also suffer from bias since students freely elected to participate.

However, the initial findings do provide some useful information.

 

How regularly do you attend Dr. LaBossiere’s class?

Always or Nearly Always (90-100%) 14 26%
Very Often (80-90%) 16 30%
Often (60-79%) 9 17%
More Often Than Not (51-59%) 6 11%
Not Often (30-50%) 3 6%
Rarely (10-29%) 4 7%
Almost Never or Never (0-9%) 2 4%

If you miss class, why do you miss it?

Work. 23 24%
Family/Personal issues. 11 11%
Illness. 12 13%
I am too tired. 7 7%
Athletic event. 0 0%
Social activity/event. 0 0%
Job interview. 4 4%
I need to spend the time on other classes. 6 6%
I am not interested in the subject. 3 3%
I do not value the subject. 1 1%
I already know the material. 3 3%
I do not like the professor. 1 1%
The professor is not very good. 1 1%
There is no penalty/punishment for missing class. 0 0%
I can learn the material on my own. 5 5%
Exams & quizzes are on BlackBoard and not in class. 11 11%
I can pass without attending. 5 5%
Other 3 3%

If you do not attend class regularly, what is the primary reason?

Work. 15 28%
Family/Personal issues. 3 6%
Illness. 6 11%
I am too tired. 3 6%
Athletic event. 0 0%
Social activity/event. 1 2%
Job interview. 1 2%
I need to spend the time on other classes. 2 4%
I am not interested in the subject. 2 4%
I do not value the subject. 0 0%
I already know the material. 2 4%
I do not like the professor. 0 0%
The professor is not very good. 0 0%
There is no penalty/punishment for missing class. 0 0%
I can learn the material on my own. 1 2%
Exams & quizzes are on BlackBoard and not in class. 10 19%
I can pass without attending. 3 6%
Other 5 9%

 

 

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Gainful Employment & Education

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 25, 2014
For-Profit Education

For-Profit Education (Photo credit: Truthout.org)

Since education is rather expensive, it seems reasonable for a student to expect a return on her investment. Given that the taxpayers often contribute to the education of students, it also makes sense that they also receive a return on their investment.

As it now stands, the return on the student’s investment is supposed to be a job that is proportional to the cost of education. Roughly put, a student should be able to reasonably work out of her school debt with the job that education is supposed to get her. In terms of the return on the taxpayer’s investment, the return is similar: the students funded by the taxpayers are supposed to get jobs and repay the investment through the taxes they pay. The student becomes the taxpayer, thus enabling the next generation of students to also become taxpayers.

Because the cost of education is so high these days, it is natural for some folks to place their hopes in the free market. The ideal is that for-profit schools will provide a high quality product (education that leads to a job) at a lower cost than the (supposedly) bloated state and traditional private schools. As might be suspected, the ideal is rather different from the real.

While state schools obviously receive state funds, the for-profit schools receive massive federal support—about $26 billion per year in grants and loans. Unfortunately, this money seems to be ill-spent: 20% of the for-profit school students default on student loans within three years of entering the repayment period. About half of all student loan defaulters went to such for-profit schools, although these schools make up 13% of the student population. The estimate is that about half of the loans funneled through students to the for-profit schools will be lost to default, which is hardly a good investment.

One of the main reasons a student defaults on loans (though not the only one) is financial hardship. As might be imagined, not earning an adequate paycheck is a clear way to end up in such hardship. While there are over 2,000 programs where the students had load debt but who paychecks were not adequate to keep them above the poverty line, 90% of these programs are at for-profit schools. As such, these schools seem to be a bad investment for both taxpayers and students. While public and traditional private schools do account for the other 10% that need to be addressed, they are quite clearly a better investment for taxpayers and students. This is not to say that such schools do not need improvement—but it is to say that the current for-profit model in not the solution.

There have been some attempts, such as those in 2011, to impose regulations aimed at addressing the predatory exploitation of students (and taxpayers) by institutions. Not surprisingly, these were countered by the well paid lobbyists working at the behest of the for-profits.

Interestingly, some states are pushing hard for performance based funding for public institutions. For example, my adopted state of Florida has seen the Republican dominated state legislature engage in what some might regard as micro-managing of education. In any case, we are been transitioned to a performance based model in which funding is linked to achieving goals set by the state. Naturally, for-profit schools are not impacted by this since they are private institutions. As such, the current trajectory seems to be for state schools to be state regulated in accordance with performance measures while the for-profit schools enjoy unfettered access to the federal largesse.

Some might suspect that the performance based funding approach being taken towards public universities and colleges is cover for reducing funding even more. This seems reasonable since one of the main effects has been to cut funding for some state schools (such as my own). It is also the case that the approach is designed to shift funding to schools that have more political influence—which is supported by looking at where the money goes.

It might also be suspected that the performance based funding is also designed to harm public schools and push students towards the for-profit schools. These schools typically enjoy excellent political connections and certainly would benefit from reduced public education opportunities. Of course, the profits of such schools come largely at the expense of students and taxpayers—they are thus well-subsidized by the state in a new twist on the old corporate welfare system.  Shockingly enough, there is little conservative rage at this wasteful socialism and these welfare queens.

 

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Education & Negativity Bias

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 3, 2014
StateLibQld 1 113036 Cartoon of students recei...

S (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In general, people suffer from a wide range of cognitive biases. One of these is known as negativity bias and it is manifested by the tendency people have to give more weight to the negative than to the positive. For example, people tend to weigh the wrongs done to them more heavily than the good done to them. As another example, people tend to be more swayed by negative political advertisements than by positives ones. This bias can also have an impact on education.

A colleague of mine asks his logic students each semester how many of them are planning on law school. In the past, he had many students. Now, the number is considerably less. Curious about this, he checked and found that logic had switched from being a requirement for pre-law to being a mere recommendation. My colleague noted that it seemed irrational for students who plan on taking the LSAT and becoming lawyers to avoid the logic class, given that the LSAT is largely a logic test and that law school requires skill in logic. He made the point that students often prefer to avoid the useful when it is not required and only grudgingly take what is required. We discussed a bit how this relates to the negativity bias: a student who did not take the logic class when it was required would be punished by being unable to graduate. Now that the class is optional, there is only the positive benefit of a likely improvement on the LSAT and better performance in law school. Since people weigh punishments more than rewards, this behavior makes sense—but is still irrational. Especially since many of the students who skip the logic class will end up spending money taking LSAT preparation classes that will endeavor to spackle over their lack of skills in logic.

I have seen a similar sort of thing in my own classes. At my university, university policy allows us to lower student grades on the basis of a lack of attendance. We are even permitted to fail a student for excessive absences. While attendance is mandatory in my classes, I do not have a special punishment for missing class. Not surprisingly, when the students figure this out around week three or four, attendance plummets and then stabilizes at a low level. Before I used BlackBoard for quizzes, exams and for turning in assignments and papers, attendance would spike back up for days on which something had to be done in class. Since students can do their work via BlackBoard, these spikes are gone. They are, however, replaced by post-exam spikes when students do badly on the exams because they have not been in class. Then attendance slumps again. Interestingly, students often claim that they think the class is interesting and useful. But, since there is no direct and immediate punishment for not attending (just a delayed “punishment” in terms of lower grades and a lack of learning), many students are not motivated to attend class.

Naturally, I do consider the possibility that I am a bad professor who is teaching a subject that students regard as useless or boring. However, my evaluations are consistently good, former students have returned to say good things about me and my classes, and so on. That said, perhaps I am merely deluding myself and being humored. That said, it is easy enough to draw an analogy to exercise: exercise does not provide immediate rewards and there is no immediate punishment for not staying fit—just a loss of benefits. Most people elect to under-exercise or avoid it altogether. This, and similar things, does show that people generally avoid that which is difficult now but yields lasting benefits latter.

I have, of course, considered going to the punishment model for my classes. However, I have resisted this for a variety of reasons. The first is that my personality is such that I am more inclined to want to offer benefits rather than punishments. This seems to be a clear mistake given the general psychology of people. The second is that I believe in free choice: like God, I think people should be free to make bad choices and not be coerced into doing what is right. It has to be a free choice. Naturally, choosing poorly brings its own punishment—albeit later on. The third is the hassle of dealing with attendance: the paper work, having to handle excuses, being lied to regularly and so on. The fourth is the fact that classes are generally better for the good students when the students who do not want to be in class elect to not attend. While I want everyone to learn, I would rather have the people who would prefer not to learn not be in class disrupting the learning of others—college is not the place where the educator should have to spend time dealing with behavioral issues in the classroom. The fifth is I prefer to reduce the amount of lying that students think they have to engage in.

In terms of why I have been considering using the punishment model, there are three reasons. One is that if students are compelled to attend, they might very well inadvertently learn something. The second is that this model is a lesson for what the workplace will be like for most of the students—so habituating them to this (or, rather, keeping the habituation they should have acquired in K-12) would be valuable. After all, they will probably need to endure awful jobs until they retire or die. The third is that perhaps many people lack the discipline to do what they should and they simply must be compelled by punishment—this is, of course, the model put forth by thinkers like Aristotle and Hobbes.

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Researchers Discover Backwards Causation Particles

Posted in Humor, Science by Michael LaBossiere on December 13, 2013
English: Matt Smith at the 2011 Comic Con in S...

Dr. Smith answers questions about F-ons and D-ons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While time travel has long been the stuff of science fiction, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found proof of backwards causation. In the normal course of events, a cause must occur before the effect. In backwards causation, the reverse happens: the cause occurs after the effect.

The head researcher, Dr. Juanita Ocheloco said that hearing anecdotes from fellow faculty members put her on the track that led to the discovery. “At the end of every semester, I would hear stories about students who earned F and D grades experiencing retroactive problems. For example, one student who failed a statistics course lost his grandmother to backwards causation caused by his F grade. Another student who earned a D, was retroactively injured in a car accident. Although he had seemed fine all semester, his D caused him to have an accident two months before the end of the semester.”

At first the researchers considered the obvious hypothesis: students were just making up stories to play on professors’ sympathy and to try to avoid the F and D grades. However, Dr. Albert Ninestein’s research revealed that D and F grades shed D-on (pronounced “Deon”, as in “Deon Sanders”) and F-ons (pronounced “ef-ons”, not to be confused with FU-ons) respectively.

Dr. Ninestein said, ‘it was really a matter of luck—I happened to be testing out my theoretical particle detector at the end of the semester and caught all these particle flows. I traced them back to the university’s servers and got the IT folks involved. We pinpointed the emissions to the servers used for grades. A deeper analysis showed that the D and F grades were shedding these particles like mad.”

Additional investigation revealed that D-ons and F-ons, like tachyons, travel backwards in time. Unlike tachyons, D-ons and F-ons exhibit considerable malicious intent: they have been shown to kill the relatives of students, cause mysterious and unprovable illnesses and injuries, and do other bad things. Said researcher Dr. Matt Smith, “Those particles are right bastards.”

Dr. Smith added that the particles seem to travel via the internet and that they attack through smartphones, tablets and laptops. “At our request, the university has issued a warning to all students and relatives about the danger to their health and well-being posed by these particles. We are working round the clock to develop shielding to stop the particles from travelling back in time to do their damage. Until then, the university has adopted a policy of not issuing any D or F grades. This has proven to be a success: the number of retroactive cases of illness and injury has dropped to zero.”

When asked about her next project, Dr. Ocheloco said that she was working on finding the particle that “makes journalists write about whatever damn thing passes as research these days” and also a doomsday weapon made from squirrels.

 

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