Thursday, May 31, 2012

To My High School Classmates

To my classmates:

Four years ago we agreed not to use our class mailing list for political discussions. Now we seem to have forgotten that agreement. Rather than wearing out my welcome on that list I have posted my response to the recent chain letter about the Buffett Amendment here.

I recommend you see article on the Buffett Amendment which says
"Origins:   In July 2011, discussion about raising the debt ceiling heated up as the August 2nd deadline for resolving the issue and avoiding a shutdown of the federal government loomed. (Had the matter not been resolved, as of that date the U.S. would have been unable to fund its various programs and other expenditures.)

"Opinions about what should be done were sought from various quarters as news organizations struggled to keep up with the battle waging in Congress and behind closed doors. Business magnate Warren Buffett waded in with his opinion on the matter in an early-morning 7 July 2011 CNBC interviewconducted by Becky Quick. It was during that exchange that the Oracle of Omaha made his now famous statement about rendering ineligible for re-election all sitting members of Congress whenever the deficit exceeded 3% of gross domestic product.

"So yes, it's true that one of the most respected businessmen of modern times did indeed voice the quote now widely ascribed to him in various e-mailed forwards, although his remark was more in the nature of a wry commentary on the workings of Congress than a serious proposal for tackling the budget deficit.  (my emphasis)

"The rest of the lengthier e-mail in circulation has nothing to do with Warren Buffett. (my emphasis again) What is presented as the "Congressional Reform Act of 2011" began circulating on the Internet in October 2009 as the "Congressional Reform Act of 2009." In a nutshell, what is presented as a proposed 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution isn't something that has been put forward by any member of Congress and thus is nothing more than a bit of Internet-based politicking."

I disagree with the way that Obama has handled the budget deficit/debt problems. He should have crusaded for adoption of the Simpson-Bowles (National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform) plan even though it did not get the super majority needed to present it to Congress on an up or down vote. Instead he shrugged it off. An enormous failure of leadership!

The various Republican plans that aim to fix the federal government's financial problems with only spending cuts and tax cuts are: (A) voodoo, (B) require a suspension of the laws of mathematics, (C) a pack of lies, or (D) all of the above. (Apologies for the nonparallel construction.) There will have to be some painful and unpopular spending cuts including in the sacred-cow programs of social security benefits and medicare BUT there also have to be tax increases (not just on those making more than $250k/yr) to close the gap. Returning to the tax rates of the Clinton years would go a long way to solving the problem and could be done easily by letting the Bush tax cuts expire. But a far better solution would involved broader tax reform to eliminate the loopholes and simplify the IRS code.

Neither party has had the courage to speak the truth to the public, but the Republicans have been far worse. Don't take my word for it: read this article or the book It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of ExtremismAlso highly recommended: White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters to You.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Coming Tsunami of Innovation in Higher Education

In my April 21 post "Hard times for Higher Ed" I wrote about the problems of Assessment and Accountability, i.e. the lack of data about whether students learn anything in college or which types of institutions (if any) are more effective at producing learning gains. I also mentioned a second issue that has troubled me for many years: the lack of innovation in educational delivery systems. I am optimistic that things are about to change on that front. In the last six months there has been an explosion of experimentation and entrepreneurship focused on providing rigorous college or graduate school courses available in non-traditional ways to non-traditional students.

Perhaps we should start the clock in 2004 when Salman Khan (born and raised in  New Orleans) began to tutor a cousin who was a middle school student in math using the Yahoo Doodle instant messaging service. It didn't hurt that Khan had three degrees from MIT and one from Harvard. Khan's home brew tutorials were so effective that other students wanted to join in.  A colleague suggested he put them on You Tube. In 2006 he went live and the Khan Academy now offers over 3200 videos on line as well as numerous other teaching, learning and assessment aids.  Hundreds of thousands of students have viewed Khan's tutorials and they are integrated in the instructional strategies of a growing number of schools.  Khan has won the backing of some of the biggest names in information technology and venture capital.  Earlier this year he was included in Time Magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world and the accompanying profile of him was written by Bill Gates.

One of the people who was inspired by Sal Khan's experiment was Sebastian Thrun, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Stanford. Thrun taught a very popular artificial intelligence course and posted videos of his lectures and other learning aids on the class web site.  He was encouraged to offer an on-line version of the course to anyone in the world who could access it via the internet.  In October of last year an astonishing 160,000 students from almost 200 countries registered for the course (which did not carry any Stanford credit) and about 23,000 completed the course passing the same exam that was taken by the Stanford students taking the course for credit.  Thrun quickly resigned his tenured position at Stanford and with a few collaborators formed Udacity to offer more such courses.

Thrun's stunning achievement has been a dope slap to the pointy heads that run America's most prestigious universities. Talking about the effect higher education of such technology based distribution, Stanford's president John Hennesy says "There's a tsunami coming." (from this New Yorker article)

Stanford has quickly formed a partnership with Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan to offer a wide range of on-line courses through a new company Coursera. Now Harvard and MIT have rushed into battle with edX--a venture that might have spent a bit more time in the incubator before its clumsy public launch on May 2nd. Perhaps the most elaborate implementation of this tsunami model is the Minerva Project, headed by Ben Nelson, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who founded Snapfish, the on-line photo printing service.  Minerva aims to create budget priced campus based education with Ivy League standards.  World class faculty would pipe in their courses to classrooms around the world.  Local faculty and tutors would lead discussions, organize group work and presumably have a role in assessment and policing cheating.  Nelson's model is appealing because it offers the advantages of the residential experience that a totally internet based system lacks.  And Nelson has recruited a posse of big names for his advisory board including Larry Summers, former president of Harvard and Secretary of the Treasury.  Although Nelson has plausible responses to most all questions about his plan and has pledges of significant funding, to me he projects a note of arrogance and hype in his promotion of Minerva.  I hope that I am wrong.

I don't think that any of these innovations will put conventional higher education out of business but they will certainly force traditional institutions to raise their game.  And they will make elite level instruction accessible to anyone who has an internet connection.  For me the one important element that is missing from the discussion is the absence of defined curricula.  Most younger students (age 17-21) benefit from preset degree programs rather than the chaotic cafeteria plans offered by many universities. Most such students would also benefit from more discipline and more civic and physical education than they experience in universities today.  For many years I have imagined that such a place would look much like the military academies.  Ben Nelson may have something like that in mind for Minerva.  In a recent article on The Atlantic web site he said "We are creating a civilian West Point. The people who will get into and graduate from Minerva will be, bar none, the best students on the planet."  What he doesn't understand is that West Point does not have the best students in the world.  The students at Stanford would eat them up. (If you have any doubts go here.)  But that is not the point.  What we need are institutions that retain and develop all of their students to the greatest extent possible in mind and body and spirit.

See Charlie Rose interview Salman Khan here.  See him interview Sebastian Thrun here.

See Ben Nelson promote the Minerva Project here.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Bursting Bubble or Tsunami? Part 2

The second and final installment from Education News and covered by their Creative Commons License BY-NC-NC. Education New

Friday, April 27, 2012

Bursting Bubble or Tsunami? Part 1

Last week I ranted about universities failure to measure and disclose whether they actually contribute to their abilities to think critically, reason analytically, solve problems and communicate clearly and cogently.  Here is a graphic presentation from Education News about another troubling aspect of higher ed.  Please note that this excerpt is reproduced in accordance with the terms of Creative Commons License CC By-NC-ND granted by Education News.Education News

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hard Times for Higher Ed

American education has been a favorite whipping boy for politicians, journalists and pundits at least since the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform. Recently times have been especially tough as the economic crisis has reduced institutional revenues forcing faculty layoffs and concomitant shrinkage in course offerings. At the same time many people who cannot find work have decided to go back to school, placing greater demands on the stressed colleges and universities. In the last year or so and particularly in the last six months two threads of criticism of higher education have echoed concerns that drove me for the fifteen years when I headed first the Exxon Education Foundation and then the ExxonMobil Foundation.

Assessment and Accountability: the lack of data about whether students learned anything in college or which types of institutions (if any) are more effective at producing learning gains. Sure everyone knew that the graduates of Yale and Stanford were smarter that those of North South State University (NSSU) in Nowhere, Oklahamshire. But of course, those students were much smarter and better prepared when they entered Yale and Stanford. Perhaps they would have done as well at NSSU. In fact, insiders knew quite a bit. They knew that certain small and relatively unknown schools such as Hope College in Holland, Michigan and St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas consistently outperformed much more renowned and better endowed and larger schools, but the data was mostly anecdotal and insufficient to sway either policy makers or high school counselors. Furthermore, universities consistently blocked research that might disclose unpleasant findings about how much their students learned. I recall a massive study of student learning of science and math funded by both the National Science Foundation and the Exxon Education Foundation and conducted by Prof. Alexander Astin at Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Before the colleges and universities agreed to take part they demanded that the data would be disguised so that no one other than the researchers could see the results of any specific school. The study produced some powerful conclusions that were included in Astin's important book What Matters in College? Four Critical Years Revisited (1993). However, many other potentially game-changing findings were submerged due to the stonewalling of the participants.

This intentional lack of transparency is still a huge problem but things are beginning, very slowly, to change for the better. As the cost of higher education has continued to grow faster than inflation parents, taxpayers and state legislators are demanding that the curtain be lifted. In 2000 the Council for Aid to Education (CAE) launched the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) which presents realistic problems that require students to analyze complex materials and determine the relevance to the task and credibility. Students' written responses to the tasks are evaluated to assess their abilities to think critically, reason analytically, solve problems and communicate clearly and cogently. Scores are aggregated to the institutional level to inform the institution about how their students as a whole are performing. By 2010, over 200,000 U.S. students had tested with the CLA in over 450 institutions. In January 2010 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) asked the CAE to create an international version of the CLA for the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes project covering its 31 member countries.

January 2011 saw the publication of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska. The study using data from the CLA showed that a large fraction of undergraduates register hardly any gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving or communication skills in their first two years of college. Educational journals and blogs immediately filled with articles trying to refute Arum and Roska's findings. While some of the criticism is warranted, most is simply an attempt to deflect attention and has been unsuccessful.

Although Arum and Roska's work is ground breaking, the data is still disguised. Universities that administer the CLA still do not release data that would allow a prospective student to compare School A with School X.

Additional research research is underway and will certainly be helpful, but I say it's time to stop studying the problem and start solving it. Billions of dollars are being spent each year on largely worthless coursework. Students and their families take on crushing debt, often for no gain. These stakeholders have a right to know which institutions measure up and which are failing.

Yesterday New York Times columnist David Brooks took the issue to a wider audience in his article "Testing the Teachers."

Oh, I almost forgot that there were two threads of criticism of higher education that have caught my interest. The other is the lack of innovation in educational delivery systems and how that is about to change.

In the interests of full disclosure:
  1. I was on the Board of Trustees of the Council for Aid to Education in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the CLA was being launched.
  2. The ExxonMobil Foundation made the first grant to support the planning for the CLA.
  3. Richard H. Hersh is a former president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges and Trinity College is one of the founders of the CLA. He has a new book on related topics, We're Losing our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education. For a humorous introduction to the book watch Hersh on The Colbert Report.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Some Colorful Facts about the US Federal Tax Situation

I highly recommend this colorful set of charts about the Federal tax system. The collection was compiled by Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic.

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans make any sense when it comes to tax reform, which in my view is absolutely essential.  Just letting the Bush tax cuts expire would help a lot with the deficit but we would still have a nightmare of a tax code.  Some thoughtful ideas about how to untangle the mess are set out in Simon Johnson and James Kwak's new book White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters to You.

I have to sign off now and get to the post office with my love letter to the IRS.