Sunday, March 30, 2014

So why is my college tuition so high? Or why learning no longer seems like the primary goal of colleges and universities.

This is the season.  It’s the time when high school seniors are waiting to hear from colleges regarding whether they have been accepted.  But once the joy or disappointment sets in after acceptance or rejection letters have been mailed, another set of emotions and questions kick in for students and parents who ask: “How do we know we made the right choice to get a good education and how will we pay for college?
    The simple answer is don’t look to my salary or my colleagues for the reason why college is so expensive.  Instead, one needs to understand how higher education has changed in last generation or so to realize that getting a good education is barely the major purpose or goal of colleges and universities anymore and that the real drivers of educational costs are factors that take us way beyond the classroom. 
    A recent report by the Delta Cost Project entitled Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive?: Changing Staffing and Compensation Patterns in Higher Education highlights how the changing structure and employment patterns of American colleges and universities really de-emphasize classroom learning.  In that report what we find is that over the last decade colleges are experiencing a bloat in hiring of non-teaching staff.  For the most part schools are employing more and more administrators and ancillary staff and less faculty, or at least traditional full time tenured or tenure  track faculty.  According to the report:

    *  The overarching trends show that between 2000 and 2012, the public and private nonprofit higher education workforce grew by 28 percent, more than 50 percent faster than the previous decade.
    *  Growth in administrative jobs was widespread across higher education—but creating new professional positions, rather than executive and managerial positions, is what drove the increase.
    *  As the ranks of managerial and professional administrative workers grew, the number of faculty and staff per administrator continued to decline. The average number of faculty and staff per administrator declined by roughly 40 percent in most types of four-year colleges and universities between 1990 and 2012, and now averages 2.5 or fewer faculty and staff per administrator.

The Delta Cost Project points out that several things are going on in higher education.  First, as the Millennial generation has gone off to college these students are trading in their helicopter parents for helicopter schools.  Colleges are increasingly providing more services and programs to attract and retain students, especially as the number of eighteen-year-olds are decreasing.  Tighter competition for a declining pool of students means schools are spending more and more money to woe and retain students.  More lavish dorms, sports, food, bandwidth, gee whiz technology, and campus aesthetics.
    Second, colleges and universities are experiencing administrative bloat.  As the Delta Report points out, the ratio of faculty to administrator keeps falling and falling, with it now  being overall being 2.5 or fewer faculty and staff per administrator.  Many of these administrators have little or no experience in teaching, often coming from the private sector demanding salaries comparable to what they had there.  This shift in administration is different from more than a generation ago where  colleges were run by real faculty (who actually taught and published) who rose in ranks. 
    Third, the amount of money being spent of faculty–especially full time tenured or tenure track–is going down.  In efforts to reduce teaching costs more adjuncts are employed on an as-needed  basis, or teaching loads are increased.  A recent Star Tribune article highlights this trend. Additionally, faculty salaries have more or less been flat for the last decade.  While there are many competent adjuncts, often they are overworked, undervalued, and just do not have the same commitment and time to serve students.
    The Delta report really highlights a trend in higher education I have been writing about for nearly a decade (corporate universityneo-liberal university). Colleges and universities have lost their purposes.  They have become corporate universities.  For the corporate university, many decisions, including increasingly those affecting curriculum, are determined by a top-down pyramid style of authority.  University administration often composed not of typical academics but those with business or corporate backgrounds had pre-empted many of the decisions faculty used to make.  Under a corporate model, the trustees, increasingly composed of more business leaders than before, select, often with minimal input from the faculty, the president who, in turn, again with minimal or no faculty voice, select the deans, department heads, and other administrative personnel.  The business of higher education has essentially become that–a business, often with little regard for the quality of education.
    So much of what is invested in higher education is completely incidental to learning.  Schools spend a ton on learning technologies but there is little evidence that they make much difference in  learning outcomes.  For the last five years I have edited a journal devoted to public affairs teaching and have yet to find an article or study demonstrating the value of all high tech toys in the classroom.
Such technologies impress parents and students, but they do little more than drive up costs needlessly.  Pedagogy should determine what technology is used, instead the opposite is the case.
    Additionally, expenses on bandwidth and sports are  nice amenities but secondary to what happens in the classroom.  Yes support services to help learning are needed–especially for students with disabilities–but it is not clear how necessary these expenses are.  I am the first to argue that a good chunk of college is teaching students how to grow up and take responsibility, but it is not clear  that higher education is fostering this type of social learning or maturation.
    What really encourages learning are well-trained professors who have both the substantive knowledge and teaching skills to work with students. In my 25 years+ of teaching I have largely remained a professor whose most extensive use of technology is a piece of chalk.  I assign lots of reading and writing and expect students to do both.  I ask tough questions in class, I give students the chance to rewrite assignments, and I set high standards for me and my students.  I tell my students if they work hard I will to.  I also read, write, and publish, making sure that I stay up to date with my research and that of others.  It takes two to tango, and it takes both a hardworking teacher and a hardworking student to foster good learning.  This is what colleges and universities need to encourage.
    So where are we? Today’s higher education displays all the worst traits of the private sector–top heavy with middle and upper management, expenditures on items not essential or necessary to its core mission, while spending on what really is the core mission and who generates the real value for the school–faculty–is going down.  In the private sector, a company run like this would go out of business.  Yet colleges do not because they are able to pass the costs on to the customers–students and parents–who know that a college degree is essential to most successful careers.
    So as you contemplate why your college tuition or that of your children is so high remember it is not my salary that is doing it.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What does it mean to be a progressive Democrat today?

What does it mean to be a Democrat let alone a progressive one  these days?  The question was prompted by my recent op-ed in Minnpost where in response to an argument against the State of Minnesota granting the NFL tax exemptions to host the Super Bowl, one reader wrote that he supported public funding for the stadium along with the tax breaks, and that he was a Democrat and a “fairly far to the left one too.”
    Since when does a progressive Democrat support tax subsidies and breaks for billionaires and hugely profitable private companies that generate few jobs for working people and provide entertainment (in person) that only a few can afford?  I thought that was what the Republican Party did?  With Democrats like this, who needs Republicans.
    But the debate over tax breaks for the Vikings stadium and the NFL does prompt a broader debate about what it means to be a Democrat or a progressive these days?   It is certainly not  good old-fashioned economic liberalism.  This is not Bill Clinton liberalism that supported NAFTA and welfare reform and which Mitt Romney once warmly embraced as the kind of Democratic Party politics he liked. 
    Instead, the progressive politics that appears dead is that of Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and even Teddy Roosevelt. It is about a 21st century version of the Great Society and the New Deal.  It is about redistributive politics that seek to raise those at the economic bottom, narrow the gap between the rich and poor, and wrestle control of political power in the United States from corporations and plutocrats.  It is about the spirit of John Rawls, Michael Harrington, and Dorothy Day and a commitment to believing that the government has an important role in make sure we are a nation that is  not one-third ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-housed, that kids should not go off to school hungry, and that corporations should not have the same rights as people.  It is the idea that we help out the least advantaged and most vulnerable first and that the rich have an obligation to help the poor.
    What has taken over for Democrat Party politics is warmed over Republicanism–the centrist sort of corporate politics that some GOP once represented but now have  abandoned as it races further and further to the right, embracing xenophobia, homophobia, and a market fundamentalism that Social Darwinists would embrace. Oh, and vaccines cause mental retardation and global warming does not exist, at least this is what many current Republicans believe.  Even the Republican Party of Abe Lincoln supported civil rights, but not this party–instead it is committed to fine vision that a nineteenth century politician would weep over.  But now consider the Democrats.
    Start at the top.  Obama ran promising change.  The reason why so many are disappointed in him is not that he was too far left but that instead he failed to deliver on his lofty promises.  At inauguration Obama had a window to change America but he flinched.  Carpe diem was not his motto.  But in reality, Obama was never a progressive.  He ran for president opposing a single payer health insurance plan and instead embraced the Republican plan that Mitt Romney adopted in Massachusetts.  Obama was not originally in favor of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and he did not embrace same-sex marriage until public opinion and political necessity dictated he do so.  
    Obama has deported more  individuals than any other president, he supports coal and nuclear power, and his big victory in repealing the Bush era tax cuts came with a reinstating of the payroll tax, imposing on Americans a more regressive and costly tax system than before.  Obama also defends the use of drones to kill Americans abroad, and he refuses to make any serious changes in an NSA surveillance program that  runs roughshod on the civil liberties of Americans. And in 2008 he took more money in from Wall Street than any presidential candidate in history.
    Across the board many Democrats seem confused to their identity.  They support public subsidies for downtown ball park stadiums and convention centers ahead of neighborhoods.  They defend NSA spying on Americans except when they are spied on.  They take little action to address the impact of money in politics and instead beg for money from big donors and PACs.  They offer few real substantive ideas regarding how to tackle issues such as the achievement gap and the economic discrimination against women (who still make only 77% of what men make).
    Worst of all Democrats lack the guts to fight.  Why?  Democrats (and one should not confuse the current party with progressivism) believe that they are the caretakers for government.  They believe that they need to be responsible and not run the risk of shutting the government down for fear of how it would ruin the economy or hurt people.  But conservatives know this and take advantage of the Democrats willingness to blink.  But guess what?  By blinking the Democrats are screwing over poor people and the economy slowly by giving ground one inch at a time and they seem unable to recapture it. Until Democrats are willing to fight and show conservatives they are willing to shut the government down and hold conservatives responsible they will never win.
    What passes for progressive  Democratic Party politics seems so bland.  Same-sex marriage?  Supporting it a decade ago was progressive but now that is mainstream.  Opposing NSA spying on Americans?  Even Rand Paul does that.  No one should be against strengthening anti-bully legislation.  This is not progressive politics but just common sense.  Yes, raising the minimum wage to an adequate level is good progressive politics, but few talk of living wages these days.
    Progressive politics is dead so long as it is married to the current Democrat Party.  Progressives need their own TEA Party revolution on the left–one that engineers a new rhetoric and take over of the party.  One that is not willing to play it safe and worry that if a few Democrats lose  that means the Republicans win.    It means a willingness to fight for what you believe in.  It also means believing in something worth fighting for.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Marijuana and the Criminal Justice-Prison Industrial Complex

     America has fought a losing war and it is time to end it.  No, this is not a reference to Afghanistan or the War on Terrorism.  It is to the four decade long war on drugs that has failed miserably.  It is time to shift away from a drug policy that criminalizes its use to one which treats it as a public health problem.  This should be the policy regardless of whether Minnesota endorses medical marijuana.
    Richard Nixon launched the “war on drugs” with his presidency in 1968 and coined the phrase in a 1971 speech.  Since Nixon the war on drugs has been a mainstay of Republican if not bipartisan politics.  The 1974 New York Rockefeller Drug laws penalized individuals with sentences of 15, 25 years, or even life in prison for possession of small amount of marijuana. Increased mandatory minimum sentences for crimes were ratcheted up for drugs and the move toward “three strikes and you are out laws” in the 1990s were adopted in part as a result of the drive to prosecute drug crimes.  All told in the last decade the federal government has annually spent $20-25 billion on drug enforcement with states kicking in an additional $10-15 billion if not more. What has this money purchased?
    There is little evidence that drug usage is down.  Nearly 40% of high school students have reported using illegal drugs, up from 30% a decade ago.  Some studies suggest 30 million or more Americans have used illegal drugs in any given year.  Several hundred thousand individuals per year are arrested for mere use or possession of marijuana. Hard core use is not down and in fact in some cases it has stabilized or increased over time.  Programs such as DARE show little sign of success, and the “Just say no” campaign that begin with Nancy Reagan also does not seem to have had much impact on drug usage.
    But if the war on drugs has done little to decrease demand for drugs, it has had powerful unintended consequences.  Interdiction and enforcement has created a significant and profitable market for illegal drugs both in the United States and across the world.  Estimates are the marijuana is one of the most profitable cash crops in California and the drug violence in Mexico, resulting in approximately 55,000 deaths in the last six years, is tied to American demand for drugs.  The price of cocaine is now at record lows, courts are jammed with drug dockets, and prison populations have swelled with individuals whose only crimes were minor drug possession.  States are now saddled with overcrowded bloated and aging prison populations, lives have been lost due to drug incarceration, and tax dollars that could have been spent on education, roads, or simply saved have been wasted on drug enforcement.  American politicians never seemed to lose points by ranting against drugs or demanding tougher enforcement.  Clearly they were addicted to our drug policies.
    Drug criminalization has failed.  This is not to say that drug use is not a problem.  In some cases it is.  But put into perspective, use of alcohol, tobacco, or the consumption of fatty foods and sugary drinks exacerbating obesity and heart disease are far greater problems in this country than the use of illegal drugs. In many cases recreational use of drugs is harmless, in others, such as with medical marijuana, its uses may in fact be beneficial.  For others, personal and occasional use of drugs is a matter of privacy.  But yes, one can concede that use of illegal drugs–including abuse of prescription drugs which is perhaps the biggest problem–is a public health issue.  Lives can be lost to addiction and families broken up through abuse or neglect.  Many of us know of friends or family members who lives read like a drug version of Billy Wilder’s 1945 classic The Lost Weekend.  These individuals need medical help, not a prison term.  Drug policy needs to be decriminalized and shifted to a public health approach.  But many oppose decriminalization.  Why?
    The basis for opposing the use of drugs generally rests on one of two grounds. First, there is the moral claim that drug use is inherently immoral or bad because it alters the mind, debases human nature, or reduces the capacity for autonomy. The second claim for opposing the use of drugs is social, arguing that the use of drugs and drug related activity produces certain social costs in terms of deaths, black marketing, and crime. Another variant of this claim is that drug use diminishes social productivity by sustaining bad work habits, or by generating other social costs including increased health care costs.
    Ok, one might concede that use of illegal drugs is bad or that it constitutes a public health problem that needs to be addressed.  By having acknowledged this, the question is whether the current practice of drug criminalization and using police resources is the most effective policy to addressing this problem.  One argument against the decriminalization approach is the sending signals argument.  Specifically one major objection to the strategy proposed here is the argument that it would lead to an increase in drug usage and experimentation. Legalizing drugs would send a signal to individuals that drug usage is permissible and therefore more people would use them.
    It is just not clear what impact making drugs legal or illegal has on their usage.  Conceivably making them illegal creates a “forbidden fruit” aura around them that encourages their usage that would be abated by legalizing them.  The same might be said for tobacco products and teenagers or perhaps for any other products or practices socially shunned. Regardless of the reasons why individuals choose to use drugs, there is little evidence that legalization has resulted in increased usage.  In the Netherlands, decriminalization of some drugs has not lead to an increase in usage or in users trading up from soft to harder drugs.  Five years after Portugal decriminalized many drugs in 2001, there too was little evidence that it led to increased drug use.  Portugal’s drug usage rates remain among the lowest in Europe after legalization, while rates of IV-drug user infection rates and other public health problems dropped.  In legalization of medical marijuana in California, the decriminalization might have changed attitudes towards the drug but there was no evidence of change in its use.  So far the same is true in Colorado with outright legalized marijuana. There simply is no real evidence that legalization sends a signal that drugs are permissible and therefore more people use them.
    The point here is that the war on drugs has failed.  It was a political narrative used by politicians for four decades to promote their electoral interests at the expense of public good and taxpayers.  The criminal justice-prison industrial complex has gotten addicted to the war on drugs, making billions of dollars off of criminalization of drugs, especially marijuana. If we truly wish to win the war against drugs, whatever that means, jailing people is not the way to do it. It is time to end that narrative and establish a different approach that sees drug usage as a public health issue.  The $40 or so billion expended per year on drug enforcement could be better spent on other things.  This is a taxpayer issue and maybe in these difficult fiscal times the opportunity is there to rethink drug policy in Minnesota and America.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Bridging the Achievement Gap: The Limits of Education Reform

Note:  This blog originally appeared in Politics in Minnesota.

The educational achievement gap will not be solved by better teaching, or by firing teachers or bashing unions.  Or by vouchers, charter schools, teacher pay for performance, pre-school, all day kindergarten, or simply by a new curriculum.  The achievement gap is a matter of race and class that may not be solved by the schools or educators alone.  It requires attention to the social economic forces that define the lives of students and which affect their ability to learn.
            Addressing the educational achievement gap is the issue de jure.  The Minneapolis and St Paul mayors want to be the education mayors.  R T Rybek sees his gubernatorial future in talking about the gap, and politicians and educators of all stripes are talking about it.  A recent Pew research Center Report entitled The Rising Cost of Not Going to College points to the erosion in the value of a high school degree and the need to get more students of color  into college. The gap nationally and in Minnesota is real.  Simply stated, while Minnesota has one of the highest graduation rates in the nation, with student standardized test scores second only to Massachusetts, the story is very different for people of color and for the poor.  The graduation rate and test scores between whites and students  of color in Minnesota is the largest in the country. We are largely failing (in both meanings of the term) students of color–the children who will be the future of this state.  This failure also overlaps with poverty, meaning that many poor whites also fit into this category of those victimized by the gap.
            So now the question is what to do?  Minnesota to a large extent has been an education innovator over time.  We were the first to introduce open enrollment, allowing students to cross district lines to attend school.  Yet with more than a generation of experimenting with open enrollment, few parents participate in it and there is little data that it has made much difference in outcomes.  Minnesota also led the nation in pushing for charter schools, believing somehow that these educational experiments freed from normal rules and bureaucratic constraints–and teachers unions–would be better run by a bunch of educational amateurs.  Largely the evidence here to is inconclusive regarding their efficacy, although there is powerful data offered by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity that charter schools have enhanced segregation.  Finally, Minnesota has experimented with magnet schools, tinkered with class size, and given lip service to rectifying educational funding disparities across school districts.  It has also talked of full day kindergarten and universal pre-school–both laudable adventures–but so far little money has been forthcoming for these adventures.
            In so many ways Minnesota is a terrific microcosm of the reforms many advocates proposal to fix public schools and address the achievement gap.  So many of the current ideas revolve around ideas such as vouchers, school choice, holding teachers accountable with merit pay, and closing poorly performing schools.  For the most part, as education scholar Diane Ravich points out in recent books such as Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools and The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, these fads have mostly failed.  There is little evidence that they have improved performance overall for students let alone addressed the achievement gap.  Instead, they seem more the product of ideology–conservative attacks on teachers’ unions, government, and taxes–and less about education reform.
            What Ravich is hinting at is that part of the reason why Johnny and Jane cannot read is about what schools are or are not doing, and part is about what society is or is not doing.
            Perhaps the best recent book on the failure of American education is Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World.  She examines what the best performing school systems in the world are doing by looking at South Korea, Finland, and Poland.  What she finds is that–to paraphrase President Obama–“That used to be us.”  These countries take education seriously.  Teaching and education are held out to be important.  Only the best and brightest are selected to be teachers, educated at a finite number of colleges that impose rigorous standards.  Teachers are subject to constant training and support and–mostly importantly–are paid well for their efforts.  There are also  high demands set for students, and families are expected and do support schools and their children.  Moreover the purpose of schools is clear and unambiguous–educate–and not confused with  other distractions such as sports.  In short, for those of us who grew up in the age of Sputnik and the race with the Russians to the Moon, education was culturally taken seriously.  While singer  Sam Cooke may have lamented that he did not know much about history, ignorance was not accepted as bliss.  This is part of the message that South Korea, Finland, and Poland teach.
            But what the Ripley and Ravich books also point out, and what we learned in the 1960s, is that students cannot learn if they come to school hungry, sick, or abused.  The school lunch and breakfast programs as well as Head Start started under Lyndon Johnson pointed out that Johnny cannot study if he is hungry or starts at an educational disadvantage.  That is still true today.  Income and educational achievement are powerfully correlated, and if we want to address achievement gaps we need to address poverty.  We also need to address racism–the racism that still condemns many students of color to inferior schools.  The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was supposed to desegregate schools and banish separate but equal from America.  But the reality is 60 years later America’s schools remain as segregated as ever, with race and class reinforcing one another.   One need only read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, Amazing Grace, or Fire in the Ashes to see the reality of how racial and economic discrimination  plague American education.
            So what is the point of all this when it comes to the achievement gap?  Perhaps yes there are some things we can do in the classroom to improve educational outcomes and performance, but they are not what we are currently doing.  Maybe smaller class sizes will help, but the evidence suggests only up to a point.  Tracking or separating students out by ability also lacks data supporting its efficacy.  But all day kindergarten, universal pre-school, and even all-year school demonstrate improved outcomes and life prospects for students.  Programs such as HOSTS which feature one-on-one reading with students, yield results.  Frankly, all students do better when they all do better, and that means we all of them are given the same chance and encouragement to learn.
            Perhaps the most important thing we can do to address the achievement gap is to confront  the underlying poverty and racism that prevents students from learning.  Governor Dayton was correct in proposing that the government pay for the lunches for students who cannot afford it.  We need to go further.  We need to stabilize the family situation of many students–nutrition programs, health care, housing, and other social service programs need to be strengthened so that children and family do not have to worry about where the next meal is coming from, or where their next bed will be located.  We are never going to solve the achievement gap in the classroom until such time as we address the gap that separates students before they even walk into the classroom.