Obama Gets It Right

Thursday, February 26, 2009
God, I love having smart people in the administration!

This morning I listened as Bob Shireman and Ceci Rouse unveiled an ambitious, thoughtful plan to increase college completion rates among low-income students. DOE is on the right track-- the story is completion, rather than access, and to make advances requires some serious restructuring of incentives.

The part of the plan to Restore America's Leadership in Higher Education that I'm most excited about is the creation of reliable Pell Grant -- making its funding mandatory rather than discretionary, and indexing the maximum grant to grow at CPI + 1%.

What's more, they're proposing a five-year $2.5 bil incentive fund to stimulate state-federal partnerships to increase degree completion. The best part? These folks actually get that we DO NOT KNOW what will work, and therefore whatever states try out needs to be rigorously evaluated. Build the knowledge base and we'll improve policy and practice. Exactly the shot in the arm higher ed needs, if only they hold true to a good definition of rigor and require states to contract out those evaluations. I'd also suggest that evals of ongoing, rather than simply new, programs be allowed -- why waste time when we can start learning now?

Lastly: one thing I didn't hear that I'd like to -- let the financial aid experiments continue. The last administration called a halt to institutional efforts to try out innovations, and this was a mistake. We need to know more about how aid can better be distributed, not less. Let 'em go on.

In Search of Adult Suspenders

Wednesday, February 25, 2009
It's hard being junior. After years of starving to get through a dissertation, swimming through the murky seas of the job market, and climbing into a jungle full of publication nightmares and man-eating beasts disguised as service, we assistant professors sometimes find it hard just to wake up in the morning.

It's not that the work is too hard. Nah, we're up for that. Working 80+ hours a week is what we're used to.

And it's not that the pay is too low. Again, we know how to get by.

But what's especially hard to take is the heaping pile of steamy stuff piled on us day in and day out by a system that rewards seniority over innovation and grizzliness over sheer effort. No matter how many times a bright new idea threatens to change the status quo (or perhaps because it does), we get shoved back down. Bring a landmark opportunity to the table? Forget about it, grow up, and go get yourself a pair of adult suspenders before you dare to wear pants. (Meaning, of course, put a real professor on your grant apps or don't bother applying.)

Everyone means well, I know. But look at the evidence: Nobel Prizes are won for the work people do when they're young (e.g. under the age of 50). We're hungry, we're tireless, we kick butt. Why deny it, and question our capacity? What are you afraid of?

Sorry, We Don't Deliver

One of Sara's favorite things in the world is The New York Times. I'll admit, I kinda like it, too. Until last fall, we were subscribers and awoke to find a copy of the Times in our driveway every day of the week. However, since moving out of the People's Republic of Madison (as some call it) to a smaller Wisconsin city, we have been utterly unsuccessful in securing home delivery of the Times.

What's that you say? Sometimes you have to give up such things for the slower pace and quality of small-town life. Sometimes. But why is it that our friends two blocks down the street get Sunday delivery and their neighbors across the street get seven-day-a-week delivery? Hmmm...

Believe me. We didn't take NO for an answer. We made more than a dozen calls to customer service. We got different answers each time, ranging from "we'll have a newspaper on your doorstep tomorrow" to "we don't deliver to your community." We talked to supervisors. We found out the local news carrier's name, called his house, and spoke to his wife. We formally canceled our subscription and initiated a new one, first for 7-day delivery, then for Sunday-only. Nothing.

We've resorted to going down to the local convenience store on Sunday mornings to pick up a full-price ($5.00) copy of the Sunday Times. But we kinda miss that home delivery and deep discount that comes with an educator subscription discount to the paper. Reading the Times online just isn't quite the same either. Maybe we're just "old school."

A recent Atlantic article ("End Times") predicts the imminent death of the print version of the Times (at least all but the Sunday edition):
Regardless of what happens over the next few months, The Times is destined for significant and traumatic change. At some point soon—sooner than most of us think—the print edition, and with it The Times as we know it, will no longer exist. And it will likely have plenty of company. In December, the Fitch Ratings service, which monitors the health of media companies, predicted a widespread newspaper die-off: “Fitch believes more newspapers and news­paper groups will default, be shut down and be liquidated in 2009 and several cities could go without a daily print newspaper by 2010.”
As a result, you would think that, if feasible, newspapers like the New York Times would do everything they can to retain existing subscribers. In our case, due to the layout of our neighborhood, we're certain that our local carrier passes within sight of our house to deliver papers to at least two other households in our community. Yet, we're told that the Times cannot deliver to our address and, as a result, they have lost needed subscription revenue and committed subscribers. Perhaps the business side of the operation is, in part, what is ailing The New York Times.

Clearly, though, larger forces are weighing on the Times and the newspaper industry as a whole: the growth of the web and the economic recession. I've seen the twin impact of these forces through a personal lens -- my sister-in-law -- who has lost jobs at newsweeklies in two different cities over the past year.

I'll confess that I have resorted to reading elements of the Times online. Through Google Reader, I am a subscriber to its RSS feeds for Education, Opinion, Paul Krugman, and Week in Review. Some of that content is just too relevant to my work or too good to pass up. But what revenue is the Times receiving from me? Zero. Ziltch.

More, from The Atlantic article:
The conundrum, of course, is that those 1 million print readers, who pay actual cash money for the privilege of consuming the paper, and who are worth about five figures a page to advertisers, are far more profitable than the 20 million unique Web users, who don’t and aren’t. Common estimates suggest that a Web-driven product could support only 20 percent of the current staff; such a drop in personnel would (in the short run) devastate The Times’ news-gathering capacity
Perhaps therein lies the problem that faces print media across the board. Readers are accessing free content and dropping subscriptions or failing to stop by newsstands to pick up physical copies of newspapers. I suppose that I am in the minority in that I am willing to pay for a print subscription -- if only the Times would let me have one.

How to fix this dynamic is a topic for blogs and outlets other than this one. Will people pay for online content is a key question? It seems to me that generally the answer is "no," which puts the traditional media in a real pickle. Sure, they can sell ad space, but do enough readers actually clicks on those online ads to generate sufficient revenue? All good questions.

Until the Times creates a new, workable business model, however, it seems to me that it should maximize revenues from its current one. I may not have a MBA, but from my perspective in this corner of Wisconsin, clearly it is not.

Obama on Education

Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Tonight, in a speech to a joint session of Congress, President Obama proclaimed three areas of investment of vital interest to the nation's economic future: energy, health care and education. Here are my favorite lines from the education portion of the President's speech (in no particular order):
  • "But we know that our schools don't just need more resources. They need more reform."
  • "...the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow."
  • "And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country - and this country needs and values the talents of every American."
  • "I speak to you not just as a President, but as a father when I say that responsibility for our children's education must begin at home."
  • "That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."
I dare say the President's education proposals have a Clintonian air to them: opportunity and responsibility.

For those of you who missed the speech, here is a transcript courtesy of the Washington Post.

The third challenge we must address is the urgent need to expand the promise of education in America.

In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity - it is a pre-requisite.

Right now, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma. And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. And half of the students who begin college never finish.

This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow. That is why it will be the goal of this administration to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education - from the day they are born to the day they begin a career.

Already, we have made an historic investment in education through the economic recovery plan. We have dramatically expanded early childhood education and will continue to improve its quality, because we know that the most formative learning comes in those first years of life. We have made college affordable for nearly seven million more students. And we have provided the resources necessary to prevent painful cuts and teacher layoffs that would set back our children's progress.

But we know that our schools don't just need more resources. They need more reform. That is why this budget creates new incentives for teacher performance; pathways for advancement, and rewards for success. We'll invest in innovative programs that are already helping schools meet high standards and close achievement gaps. And we will expand our commitment to charter schools.

It is our responsibility as lawmakers and educators to make this system work. But it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in it. And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country - and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

I know that the price of tuition is higher than ever, which is why if you are willing to volunteer in your neighborhood or give back to your community or serve your country, we will make sure that you can afford a higher education. And to encourage a renewed spirit of national service for this and future generations, I ask this Congress to send me the bipartisan legislation that bears the name of Senator Orrin Hatch as well as an American who has never stopped asking what he can do for his country - Senator Edward Kennedy.

These education policies will open the doors of opportunity for our children. But it is up to us to ensure they walk through them. In the end, there is no program or policy that can substitute for a mother or father who will attend those parent/teacher conferences, or help with homework after dinner, or turn off the TV, put away the video games, and read to their child. I speak to you not just as a President, but as a father when I say that responsibility for our children's education must begin at home.

Duncan's Team

Saturday, February 21, 2009
Linda Darling-Hammond may not be joining Team Duncan at the U.S. Department of Education (TWIE/Politics K-12), but Jo Anderson is -- as a senior advisor to the Secretary.

Who is Jo, you ask? Well, folks in Illinois know him very well as the executive director of the Illinois Education Association, a post he's held since 2005. I've gotten to work closely with him over the past three years through the New Teacher Center's work on a statewide teacher induction policy committee in the Land of Lincoln.

Jo is a dynamic presence and a thoughtful advocate for public education. He's also the type of guy who is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. He won't let Washington or a big title at the USDoE go to his head. In addition, Jo sees the big picture as well as understanding that policy details matter. He'll serve Secretary Duncan well.

Plus, he's a fellow Boston College grad. Go Eagles!

Here's a brief bio on Jo for those of you who want to know more about him:

Jo Anderson Jr.
In November of 2005, Jo Anderson Jr. was named executive director of the Illinois Education Association. IEA is an association of 120,000 members composed of Illinois elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty and staff, educational support professionals, retired educators, and college students preparing to become teachers.

Prior to becoming executive director of the IEA, Anderson was director for the IEA-NEA Center for Educational Innovation, a center created to facilitate school restructuring and reform efforts throughout Illinois. The center serves as a catalyst for positive changes in education and provides Illinois Education Association locals with the resources, expertise, and motivation to experiment with school restructuring.

Anderson has facilitated collaborative negotiations in over 60 situations in Illinois and other parts of the country. He has extensive experience in innovative negotiating processes such as win-win and interest-based bargaining. He is also a founder and facilitator of the Consortium for Educational Change (CEC), a network of 50 school districts throughout the Chicago suburbs that are working collaboratively to restructure and improve their schools. He has presented an array of training programs and workshops in Illinois and other parts of the country in the areas of collaborative labor-management relationships, professional unionism, and educational change.


UPDATE -- March 12, 2009 -- Three weeks later, here is Secretary Duncan's official announcement of Jo Anderson Jr.'s appointment. And here is reaction from Teacher Beat.

Polly, Want A Story?

A third-grade teacher in Los Gatos, California says that her students have benefited from reading to a parrot, according to a story in the San Jose Mercury-News.
Third-grade teacher Judy Quigley said her students' learning experiences have actually been enhanced quite dramatically by reading to Starbuck, a 7-year-old Timneh African Grey parrot.

During the exercise, students take a seat next to Starbuck, who generally rests atop a classroom chair or bird perch. The children read a variety of different illustrated stories aloud to the bird, holding the book open to him.
Yeah, OK. But can the parrot live up to its name and whip up a non-fat, no-foam soy latte?

Experiments, Experiments Everywhere!

Monday, February 16, 2009
As you know, the only serious education research going on these days involves randomly assigning kids or classrooms to interventions. Anything else is bogus. Ok, I'm KIDDING folks-- laugh a little!

While I totally do NOT believe that's the case, I must admit I get a little tingle when I discover that experiments are happening that I didn't know about. Probably because I'm just a sucker for the promise of new knowledge, fast.

So here's my tingly-discovery of the day:
The Experimental Sites Initiative of the U.S. Department of Education.

As reported in today's Chronicle of Higher Ed this program involved 100 colleges across the country in an effort to figure out how to make the process of delivering financial aid to students easier. Of course...drumroll please...the Bushies shut it down! Shocking, I know.

I need some more time to dig into this, learn more about what the experimenting has shown, etc.-- and I promise to report back. In the meantime, if you or someone you know has any results or details to share, please please send them my way. Inquiring minds want to know....

The Difference Between Us

Sunday, February 15, 2009
The more time I spend with my good buddy Doug Harris (we spend a LOT of time together, for why see here) the more I wonder about the real differences between sociologists and economists. What distinguishes us, really?

Back in graduate school, I knew for sure. In the old ugly McNeil Bldg at Penn I spent all my time in Sociology, 2nd floor. From the atrium couches stained with styrofoam lunch remains, I could look up to the 3rd floor and see the Economists. Boys. All boys. Around me in Sociology, all girls. So the answer was clear: Sociology, female. Economics, male. They thought people were supposed to be rational, and we knew they simply were not.

Ah, to be young and naive. Also, to be in the throes of a flush economy.

These days I find myself frequently saying that people, programs, policies are inefficient, that if they are not cost-effective they are not worth doing, and that impacts needs to be assessed with true costs in mind. That said, I also mean something different by "costs"-- I can't stand that costs are measured by what's spent instead of what needs to be spent in order to achieve a desired outcome.

But back and forth, back and forth, I also find myself very concerned about the broader implications of actions, the meanings we create just by doing, the non-monetary costs we constantly accrue. I can almost see Doug's quizzical face asking me to clarify...

So tell me readers, in an "interdisciplinary" world where many academics are concerned with creating genuine social changes, where do the disciplinary boundaries still lie-- and should they, will they, begin to lie down?

My Sister is Unemployed

Saturday, February 14, 2009
She's damn talented too. My little sister, graduate of an "elite" college, willing to work for peanuts just for the chance to put some words on a page, laid off twice in one year.

Check her out.

Looking for a good writer, make her an offer-- she, and I, will thank you.

UPDATE: Lisa landed at the Broward-Palm Beach New Times.

Musical Elective Of The Week

Thursday, February 12, 2009
The Musical Elective Of The Week is Tift Merritt.

Tift is a 34-year-old singer/songwriter based in North Carolina. Her music is in the alt-country vein, although her sophomore album went in a decidedly rock and soul direction. Tift's got a distinctive, pure voice that lends a warmth and forthrightness to her lyrics.

Tift released her first solo album only in 2002 and already has three studio albums and one live album under her belt. Pretty good work. Her debut album, Bramble Rose, was widely acclaimed, making both Time Magazine's and The New Yorker's top 10 lists for that year. My favorite is 2005's upbeat Tambourine, featuring the tracks "Good Hearted Man," "Stray Paper," "Write My Ticket," and "Shadow In The Way." Tambourine was nominated for a Grammy for Country Album of The Year even though I think it is the least "country" of her three studio albums. Go figure. Last year, Tift released Another Country, with the tracks "Broken," "Keep You Happy," and "I Know What I'm Looking For Now." Popmatters calls her latest album "nothing short of stunning in its candor, simplicity, and grace."

She'll be releasing a new live acoustic album, Buckingham Solo, on February 24, 2009. Keep an eye out for it! She'll also be touring through the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic in spring and will be part of the Bonnaroo festival this summer.

Check out more at her official web site.

I wish I were a freeway laid out clearer than a bright day.
I’d run wide open down this causeway like brand new
Singing louder than the whole block, all my love would be a straight shot
Night would dream the dreams that I got, and so would you.

But I’m broken and I don’t understand
What is broken falls into place once again.
Hand of kindness, come and gather me in like a rainstorm

--"Broken," Another Country (2008)

Click here for past Musical Electives of the Week

Working Mama Recipes

Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Liam has his music, and I have..... my food. I love, love love to cook. That said, I hate to bake. Measuring at home just isn't any fun. So, this will be my first share in a series of recipes I've come to know and love. I'm no expert, but I like to make these inexpensive, uncomplicated, and yummy things up. Humor me-- try one!

Spiced Pork Tenderloin (created 12/17/05)

Pork tenderloin, about 1.5-2 lbs
Jalapeno pepper
Serrano pepper
New Glarus Belgian Red Wisconsin Ale

Wash and salt & pepper the pork well, with plenty of pepper. Slice ginger and chilis, make slashes in the pork and insert. Wrap up and stick in the fridge for 3-5 hours. Heat the oven to 275. Brown the pork in a dutch oven with some butter. Pour in the ale, just about 1- 1.5 cups, not too much. Put in oven, cook for about an hour or 70 min, turning over once. Remove when pork is about 160 degrees. Take out the pork and set aside on cutting board, loosely covered in foil. Add 2-3 tbsp honey to the pot, and heat on high for 5 min. Drizzle the sauce on top of the pork and serve with cornbread (the good kind from Sentry, if you live in Wisconsin) and sauteed spinach with garlic. Drink a syrah.