Top 10 education news and trends of 2009

Greta’s Note: Thank you for your interest and support for law and education, and I hope to talk to you in the new year!

Goodbye, 2009!

10. New technological innovations such as e-textbooks, tutoring software, virtual schools and distance learning, and student performance-tracking programs are helping students learn better and changing the dynamics of the student-teacher relationship.  Their widespread use, however, still lie in the future.

9. “Merit pay” and “accountability” are the buzzwords once again as state legislatures rush to eliminate barriers to link student performance and teacher evaluation in order to comply with requirements for the Race to the Top funding.

8. Chicago and other school districts around the country begin to use socio-economic data instead of race in an effort to integrate their public schools after a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that prohibited schools from using race as a factor in school assignment.

7. Education schools came under criticism, including from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, for lack of standards and rigorous methodology.

6. In a year where the courts showed much judicial restraint and deferred to the school board on education issues, the Supreme Court decided in Safford v. Redding that the strip search of a 13-year-old girl on suspicion that she had prescription-strength ibuprofen violated the Fourth Amendment.

5. Hard-hit by the economy, states across the nation cut educational funding.  Universities respond by freezing salaries, implementing hiring caps, halting construction projects, cutting services, laying off staff, and raising tuition.

4. Congress considered reform to student loans but wavers on more decisive and drastic changes to the existing structure.

3. The economic downturn drive students away from 4-year private colleges in 2009 while community colleges experienced the highest enrollment in years.  Some become so crowded that administrators devise creative ways to accommodate students, such as 2 a.m. classes.

2. NAEP scores stagnate and disappoint educators, raising fears that the U.S. will not meet achievement goals set by President Bush and No Child Left Behind.  Racial achievement gap also appears to be firmly in place.

1. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Race to the Top program that will distribute a total of $4.35 billion to states with the best school reform proposals.  Educators hope that the program would help states shape and implement wide-ranging reform measures in their public schools.

Not quite post-racial at the Chicago public schools

Has Chicago, the city that gave us Obama, arrived at a post-racial era in its public school system?  Last week, the New York Times reported that the city’s public schools have decided to use student socio-economic profiles rather than race to assign students to schools.

Those who believe that race is merely a clumsy and inaccurate proxy for socio-economic status will surely welcome the change as long overdue.  For them, removing race as a factor would allow Chicago schools to deal directly with the true underlying concerns of school integration — combating the devastating effect poverty has on the education of our children.  It would be a welcomed first step toward moving beyond our fixation on race.  The result would be more equitable and accurate, as well.

The reality in Chicago, however, is far more complicated.  For one thing, the Times article makes it clear that the Chicago officials are implementing the reform reluctantly.  They are doing so only in response to the Supreme Court decision in 2007 that prohibited Seattle and Kentucky school districts from using race as a factor in school assignments.

More importantly, the objective of using these types of criteria to sort and assign students remain peculiarly fixated on race.  The goal that the school officials say they hope to achieve, and the standard by which they evaluate their success, is racial integration, not socio-economic parity.  As a result, socio-economic profiling is perceived and spoken of as a second-best solution, a crude proxy for race.

Unfortunately, if racial integration is the objective, then the Chicago policy is likely to fail.  San Francisco, which has been using socio-economic factors instead of race in school assignment for the past few years, has seen less racial integration in its schools since adopting the new policy.  Denver and Charlotte had reported similar trends.

Part of the problem may be technical.  Defining and measuring socio-economic status turns out to be a bit more elusive than defining race.  According to the New York Times, Chicago will be using a variety of factors that evaluates the student’s neighborhood — “income, education levels, single-parent households, owner-occupied homes and the use of language other than English as the primary tongue” — in placing students in selective-enrollment schools.

Using neighborhood characteristics as a proxy for socio-economic status may be just as inaccurate as using race as a proxy.  The system is also more easily gamed, since the calculus depends on assumptions about people’s living preferences and the fact that they are reporting their actual addresses.  San Francisco, which uses a similar system, is reevaluating the effectiveness of using those factors and considering using additional factors such as whether the student has attended pre-school.

In short, if Chicago’s true objective is more racial integration, it is likely to be sorely disappointed.  None of these criticisms, however, address the largest problems that both of these methods for school integration fails to address: a paucity of middle- or upper-middle class white students.  Students who attend urban, inner-city schools are overwhelmingly minorities and poor.  In Chicago, only 9% of students are white, while 45% are African-American and 41% Latino.  According to the school district website, 85% of the public school students are from a “low-income family.”

And Chicago is not unique.  70% of Denver’s students are Latino or African-American, and roughly the same percentage are low-income students eligible for the federal free lunch program.  In San Francisco’s school district, nearly 1/3 of the students are immigrant “English language learners”, and white students only make up 10% of the student population.  More than half of the students are eligible for the free lunch program.

Integration is only meaningful and sensible when there are diverse groups to integrate.  The Chicago officials themselves acknowledge the absurdities of trying to “integrate” a district where the vast majority of students are quite uniformly low-income and non-white.  Short of busing these students to wealthy suburbs, who are Chicago integrating these children with?

Rather than achieving the ideal of running schools where race does not matter, Chicago’s new policy shows us that race is still an issue that is very much front and center in people’s minds — and at the same time, it is an issue that is beside the point.

The California tuition protests: much ado about very little?

Anger over the tuition increase at the University of California erupted into several protests and resulted in numerous arrests last week.  Protesters used tactics that included throwing incendiary devices at police cars, vandalizing the home of the chancellor of University of California, and breaking in and barricading themselves inside university buildings.

Given that students are so angry, how much money do they actually have to spend more per year?  The University of California website “estimated” pre-increase 2009-2010 tuition to be $8,700 and uniform across all campuses, while the Yahoo Financial website reported that pre-increase 2008-2009 tuition and fee to be about $8,932 per year for Berkeley students.  (Both figures exclude costs of books and living expenses, which are not affected by the tuition increase.)

Post tuition-increase, in-state students will pay $10,302 per year, so the increase comes out to be about $2,500 – $2,700 per student.  Given that about 1/3 of the tuition hike is going towards financial aid, the actual costs for low-income students may be much lower.

Post-tuition-increase, University of California will be one of the more expensive public schools in the U.S., but not the most expensive  by a long stretch.  The tuition for the University of Vermont, for example, comes at a hefty $13,554 per year.  University of Pittsburgh, another one of the most expensive public universities in the U.S., charges in-state students $13,344 per year.  Pennsylvania State University (College Park) charge in-state students between $13,014 to $14,904 per year, depending on their year in school.  Indeed, many other public universities have already been more expensive than the current sticker price of the University of California for several years now.

The University of Vermont created a somewhat defensive but helpful chart that compares some university costs.  As you can see, pre-tuition-hike, University of California was one of the least expensive public universities.  Given its stature and reputation, not just among public universities but among all universities, the students in California was getting an incredible bargain.

Post-tuition-hike, the University of California is certainly less of a bargain than before, but it is still a good value compared to other public universities.  It is an extremely good value compared to private colleges and universities that cost three or four times as much.

The pre-tuition-hike University of California was so much of a bargain that Ian Ayres, professor of law and economics at Yale, wrote shortly after the increase that he believe that the UC tuition increase was a good thing.  The problem with public universities, wrote Professor Ayres, was not that they cost too much for the poor, but that they charge the rich too little.

In other words, the University of California was under-charging those who have no problem affording a more expensive education, and not using enough of its funds to subsidize those who cannot afford the education without a lot of financial aid.  If the goal was to provide education for all who is willing and deserving, it would make sense to the charge the rich more and use that increased tuition to simultaneously increase fianncial aid for low-income students.

Indeed, the agitation over $2,500 seems like a lot of sound and fury over very little.  But the anger reflects a legitimate concern as well.  After all, the tuition hike at the University of California reflected not a concern for equity but a darker trend — the floundering economy and the subsequent hefty budget cuts that must then be made up by increased tuition.  The president of UC-Berkeley noted that the UC system received only half as much funding per student as it did in 1990.  He also spoke of his fear, not at all unfounded, of a “exodus of faculty” from the cash-strapped school for greener pastures.

Still, all the anger (and violence) seem completely misdirected.  The responsibility for the budget shortfall seems to lie more with the legislature and the governor, the decision makers who actually cut the funding, rather than the chancellor, who was merely one among the twenty trustees who voted for the tuition hike.  Perhaps, rather than occupying school buildings, disrupting class, and committing petty vandalism on private property, the protesters should direct their anger towards Sacramento and use that energy to engage with, and reform, the political process.

Giving thanks for public education

Our public education system has been criticized for many things, but today, I want to pause to think about what a remarkable system it is.

This year, a record number of 49.8 million students will be attending about 99,000 public elementary and secondary schools.  Altogether, our public school systems employ 3.3 million teachers and spend $543 billion annually.  We have a teacher to student ration of 15.2 to 1, down from 16:1 from 10 years ago, and we are expected to spend $10,844 per student this year, up from $9,683 from two years ago.

Education is not the only business of the schools.  Students must be transported somehow from their homes to schools. In 2005-2006, 55.1% of students were transported at public expense, to the tune of $18.87 billion.  Students must eat lunch in school.  The National School Lunch Program, run by the Department of Agriculture, feeds more than 30.5 million children each school day with a total expenditure of $9.3 billion in 2008.

To be sure, the quality of our education system lags behind that of other developed nations.  Our schools suffer from grave problems of inequality and inefficiency.  Only 72% of our students in our public education system are deemed “on track” academically for their age and grade level.  Only 98% of our adults are literate, compared to 100% in other developed nations.

Nonetheless, we have come a long way.  The scale and complexity of our education system is breathtaking when you consider how young our nation is, and how differently we conceived of education merely two centuries ago.  At the founding of our nation, access to education was by and large only open to the wealthy and the nobility.  When Thomas Paine advocated free universal education, his idea was considered radical and unattainable.  Neither the U.S. Constitution nor the Amendments mention school or education, and the power to regulate education was reserved for the states via the Tenth Amendment.

But sometime around mid-1800s, the idea took hold that the state should take responsibility in educating its citizenry.  By 1918, 150 short years after Paine advocated his “radical” idea, mandatory school attendance laws existed in all states.  By 1919, all states have laws providing for the transportation of children to schools.

Massachusetts bears special mentioning as a constant champion of public education. When it was still a colony, it established the first grammar school, and was also the first one among colonies to require every town that has at least 50 families to establish schools.  In 1827, it became the first state to require the establishment of a public high school open to all students in every town.  In 1852, it was the first state to enact laws that required school attendance.

The idea of public education is not a new one.  Plato’s Republic advocated compulsory education for all children in the polis so they could learn virtue and the state could sort them into different classes and professions.  The Aztecs, too, established mandatory schools for their male children where they received religious instructions and learned how to read and write.  Protestant clergymen advocated compulsory education to enable their congregation to read the Bible themselves.

But there is something new in the magnitude of the project that we have undertaken.  What is also new is our reasoning for why people should be educated.  Plato, the Aztecs, and Protestant clergymen wanted universal education because they saw education as a tool for the state or the church to instill desirable values into its students.  Their conception of education sometimes smacked disturbingly of brainwashing.  It is no surprise that communist countries were also zealous in establishing free and universal education for their children.

But we in a free and democratic society have no such narrow requirements for our students and no such strictly-defined goals of what schools ought to teach.  As a society, we provide this service to our children, not only because we believe that it would make them better citizens and more useful for our country.

We provide it because education and the chance to succeed should not be restricted to those with means to enjoy it, but be open for all who have the desire and the capacity.  We believe in a basic equality and the human potential to excel.  And yes, we also believe that when all children are given this opportunity, we will be a better society as a result.

Let us give thanks to our public schools.  Let us give thanks to our idea of public education.

California vs. Nebraska: two models of university governance

Protesters against the California tuition hike.

Two important education news items today both have to do with public universities. They invite interesting comparisons of the types of governance structure in our public universities.

First, the University of California is set to increase undergraduate tuition by 32%.  The increase is meant to make up for large cuts in state funding.

Second, the University of Nebraska is considering regulations to restrict stem cell research more severely than federal regulations.  If the regulation passes, it would be the first time that a university implements higher limits for stem cell research than either state or federal laws.

Both measures are meeting oppositions from the public.  In California, the tuition hike is being protested by thousands of students across the state.  In Nebraska, the medical research community has spoken out against the possible restrictions, arguing that a policy like this would have extremely negative effects on Nebraska’s ability to attract research funding and scholars.

Which leads to the question: how much control does the public have over the decisions and the decision-making processes at these two universities?

The answer: probably much more so at Nebraska than at California.  Though the decisions at both universities were made by the board of regents, the two boards have very different appointment processes.

In California, the state constitution mandates the appointment process for the board of regents.  There are 26 members on the board.  18 members are appointed by the governor and serve 12 year terms, 7 members are ex officio members which include the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the state assembly, and various officers of the alumni association that serve one-year terms. There is also a student member appointed by the board, who serves a one-year term.

The University of Nebraska board of regents, on the other hand, is almost entirely elected by the general public.  The board has 8 voting members serving 6-year-terms, all of which are elected by the public in the 8 districts within the state, and 4 non-voting members serving 1-year terms, who are student body presidents from each of the four campuses.

The selection process for the board of regents and the terms of service ensure that, relatively speaking, the public exerts a more direct control on the University of Nebraska.   In contrast, despite the tradition of grass-root democracy and the notorious state-wide referendum process in California, the public control over major decisions in its university system is surprisingly meager and indirect.

Sure, the governor is theoretically accountable to the public for both his policy choices about the university system and his regent appointments, but I doubt that those issues are the most salient ones on the minds of voters during any election. Thus, depending on which side of the fence you are on, you can either call the Nebraska system “more accountable to the public” or say that the University of California “enjoys a greater degree of autonomy.”

Given the more direct public control, we can expect that the decisions made by the University of Nebraska will likely reflect the mood and ideologies of its constituency more accurately than California.  The regents of the University of California, on the other hand, will more likely make controversial or unpopular decisions, because there are minimal consequences to themselves.

The drastic tuition hike that the regents of the University of California approved today once again spurred criticism that major public research universities are becoming more and more indistinguishable from private universities.  But long before its tuition begins to resemble that of a private university, the governing body of the University of California system already resembled an quasi-autonomous institution.

The inevitable question is, of course, which system is better?  More public control, or more autonomy?  That, of course, depends on what type of school you think a public university should be.

What merit scholarships say about us

Who should the college gates keep out?

Who should these gates keep out?

The College Board released data on Tuesday that shows substantial increases in tuition at public colleges in the country last year.  Prices increased by an average of 6.5% last year, despite low inflation rates and a negative consumer price index.  The tuition hike is yet another symptom of the state budgetary crisis, which have resulted in cuts in higher education spending.  This created shortfalls for state universities and colleges that must then be made up by increased payments from students.

The budgetary crisis has led some states to reconsider their merit scholarship programs.  More than 15 states currently have scholarships for the state’s public universities awarded according to  student grades, class ranks, and standardized testing scores.  While merit scholarships seem like a fairly standard and uncontroversial practice, at least for private universities, critics charge that public universities ought not to have them, because these programs drain financial resources away from students who have greater financial needs.

The argument is simple: recipients of merit scholarships–those with good grades, good SAT scores, etc.–tend to be students from more affluent families, who are more able to afford college and who would likely receive private scholarships anyway.  The limited resources should be saved for students who truly need it, who would not be able to attend college without it.

This type of criticism brings out an important debate about the educational mission of public universities.  It also reveals a tension between research universities and teaching-oriented schools such as community colleges.

My co-author on these blogs, Adam, has already written about the function of the universities as producers of knowledge.  The reality, however, is more complicated.  Realistically speaking, relatively few of the public universities in this country actually engage in the exalted activity of knowledge production.  Out of the nearly 5,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., only 150 institutions receive more than $40 million in federal research grants.  Among those, about 60 universities grant more than half of all the doctoral degrees in the country.  30 of those are public universities.  We can assume that knowledge-production goes on mostly in those large research universities.

The overwhelming number of colleges do not “produce” knowledge.  Their mission is more mundane: teaching the 18.2 million students that enroll in an undergraduate program each year.  There are, for example, nearly 1,200 2-year community colleges in the U.S., educating nearly half of the total undergraduate population.

As is typical of recessions, enrollment at these community colleges has been soaring as cost-conscious students and parents look for cheaper alternatives.  The budgetary cuts on education by many states, therefore, could not have come at a worse time.  It’s hardly surprising that merit scholarships seems like a classic example of a nonessential expense that begs to be cut.

But merit scholarships have a more complex rationale as well.  They were usually instituted to encourage top students in a state who might otherwise leave the state and go elsewhere for college to stay within the state.  Presumably, these students would then remain after college, become productive members of the workforce and contribute tax dollars to the state.  Attracting these students would also increase the prestige and the ranking of the in-state universities and in turn attract other students from out of state.

It seems that, in times of economic recession, when middle-class and upper-middle-class households are feeling most squeezed by the downturn and sensitive to price differences, this type of merit scholarships would be at its most effective.  If a state is looking to attract top students, both homegrown and abroad, it should expand, rather than contract, its merit scholarship programs right now.

Which brings me back to my original question of the basic educational mission of public universities — is it to give as many citizens as possible the opportunity to attend college, or is it to educate only, or preferably, the best and the brightest, because educating them brings more benefits to the state (and perhaps to society)?  This, in turn, probes our notion of what education is: is it a basic right that should be enjoyed by the many, or is it a kind of luxury, a privilege that society confers on the talented and skilled (and rich) few?  We can also see that in these questions, the mission of the community colleges (fulfilling the more democratic mission of educating the masses) is at tension with the mission of the public research universities (competing with the private universities and catering to the talented few).

In time of economic prosperity, it was possible that both missions could co-exist peacefully.  But a time of scarcity brings these tensions to the fore.