Idea of the day: using e-books to learn about learning tells me that the Kindle is the hottest holiday gift this holiday season.  And not long ago, several law professors had a lively discussion of law e-textbooks on a prominent law blog.  It seems that, ready or not, widespread use of e-textbooks are just around the corner.

To be sure, traditional paper textbooks will not disappear immediately, but e-textbooks will surely gain more popularity as prices for e-readers fall, technologies become perfected, and more publishers make textbooks available electronically.

I must admit that I am not yet enamored by e-readers, and do not own one.  I prefer the texture, the weight, the craftsmanship of real books.  I love certain publishers just because I like the designs of their paperbacks, and a beautiful book cover always sends a little shiver of pleasure down my spine.  To think that a new generation of children will be weaned on a screen and never know the loveliness of paper makes me a bit sad.

Nonetheless, lately I have gotten more excited about the prospect of e-textbooks when I realized that e-readers might be used — indeed, is probably already being used — to track the reading habits of its readers and to generate data and trends.

To average adult readers reading for pleasure, the idea that their reading habits may be meticulously tracked by a machine might seem like an enormous invasion of privacy.  But collecting such data may be indispensable to educators who are trying to understand effective learning behavior.

Most of the data that we collect about education measures the output of the learning process.  We test student knowledge in standardized, nationwide or state-wide exams that are given periodically, and then analyze the test scores generated by these exams to determine how well the learning process has succeeded.  But e-readers and similar devices can generate enormous amount of data about the learning process itself.

What type of data might be collected?  The possibilities are virtually endless.  The e-device might track how much time a student spends per day reading, what he reads, the speed at which he reads, the amount of time he spends reading particular pages, etc.  If, as I believe would inevitably happen, such devices would come equipped with quizzes and problem sets and exams, students can also be tracked based on how long they spend doing a particular problems and, of course, their score.

There is a bonanza of information that researchers could use to study learning behavior.  But the tracking could be used not only for academic purposes, but also as a way for schools and teachers to ensure that students are completing their homework.  Many employers already do a form of this type of tracking by, for example, requiring their employees to take an on-line training program that consists of powerpoint slides with periodical questions to ensure that the content of the slides are being read and understood.

There are a few well-known problems in education that researchers have long puzzled over.  Take, for example, the problem of the racial achievement gap.  Why do children of different races perform differently in standardized exams even when one accounts for other factors, such as socio-economic background?  Elsewhere in this blog, I have argued that we have an unhealthy focus on race, and that other, even wider achievement gaps should trouble us more.  But it is undeniable that the racial achievement gaps exist.  Learning more about children’s learning habits might give us insights into this and other puzzles.

Of course, understanding how students learn is not the only or even the most important goal.  Through better understanding of how people learn, educators can figure out ways to improve the way students learn and the way teachers teach.

Does all of this sound Big Brother-esque?  Perhaps.  But like it or not, retailers, advertisers, and website developers already do very similar things in order to understand and track consumer behavior.  Information about the amount of time a shopper spends on a webpage, the types of links that he clicks, the search criteria that brought him there, are all meticulously tracked and then fed into sophisticated programs.  It is time that our educators take advantage of these tools, for the sake of our students.

10 things you should know about Race to the Top

The biggest story in education last week was the release of the final application for the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” funding that the federal government has made available for states. But what is the fund?  What are its objectives?  How do states actually receive the money?  Here are 10 things you should know about the fund.

1). It is a lot of money, but it is a small percentage of the annual education budget.

Qualifying states could receive as much as $700 million, which sounds like a lot.  But the $4.35 billion fund actually represents a small fraction of the annual U.S. spending in K-12 education, which was estimated to be about $667 billion in the 2008-2009 school year.  Cash-strapped states in this recession year will of course be more than happy to receive this funding. 

2). The fund is designed to encourage education reform and reward the best proposals by the states.

States must submit applications that explain in detail how they plan to reform their education system and to implement a comprehensive data collection and evaluation system to measure whether they have met these goals. 

3). The state applications are evaluated based on a 500-point scale.

A detailed summary and explanation of the scoring system and the scale can be found here.

4). There are two phases in the application process.

The funding application process is divided into two phases.  States that are ready now can apply in Phase I, which has a deadline on January 19, 2010.  Those that need more time can apply during Phase II, which has a deadline of June 1, 2010.  States that received grants in Phase I cannot reapply during Phase II, but states that did not receive grants are invited to reapply in Phase II.

5). The fund encourages linking teacher evaluation to student performance.

States are not eligible to receive the funds unless they do away with statutory or regulatory barriers to link student test scores and performance to teacher evaluation. Many states currently have this barrier, and several state legislatures have already moved to pass legislation that abolish these prohibitions in order to be eligible for the funding.

6). The fund encourages charter schools.

Both President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan have been outspoken supporters of charter schools.  Race to the Top encourages states to create more charter schools.  Ten state legislatures have already responded by raising or repealing caps on the number of charter schools within the state.

7). “Common standards” and “data” are key words in the application process. 

This mean (mostly) student test scores.  The states are encouraged to develop and adopt “standardized assessment” of student performance, implementing data systems to track and evaluate the performance over time, and score teachers and principals based on performance data.  

Altogether, tho parts of the application that deal with standard and data-collection are worth 175 points.  Moreover, “demonstrating progress” (30 points), demonstrating the turnaround of low-performance schools (40 points), and the effective implementation of other measures all rely on common standards and the development of a comprehensive data collection and evaluation system.

8). The biggest opposition has (and will continue to) come from teacher’s unions.

Unsurprisingly, the emphasis on using student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, and the move towards “merit pay” in some states, have already met with fierce criticism from teacher’s unions and educational associations.

9). There is not enough focus on implementation.

Some are troubled by how little emphasis has been put on for making sure that states actually implement the wonderful plans that they create once they receive the funding.  One commentator put it very well:

I expect the plans to be truly impressive with the level of investment that Gates is making in helping states develop the plans. But education is full of well written plans that then become shelf art. I have written some of that wonderful shelf art myself. But, putting in place mechanisms to ensure that a state and its school districts live up to the plan that they have written does not seem to get much attention in this process.

10). Public reaction to the application has been largely positive but cautious.

Many questions remain, including how strictly the Department of Education will be enforcing the stated criteria and how high it would set the bar, and how much money would be left if the four biggest states (New York, California, Texas, Florida) decide to apply in Phase I.  We will be able to learn much more after April 2010, when the winners for Phase I are announced.

School finance litigation: a neverending play

I was going to post a reply to Greta’s post, but then realized I’ll just write another post elaborating a little more on the important issue of school finance litigation.

Greta is correct in pointing out the three waves of finance litigation. The literature is unanimous on the development of these cases and on the textual anchor of each wave. Some even suggest that a fourth wave is upon us, that of socio-economic integration or relying more on state desegregation clauses. At any rate, the three waves is a correct description of where we are right now.

Where the situation gets a little trickier, however, is whether adequacy suits are successful in achieving their purpose. Here we need to take account of a host of factors, of which the courts are just one, and perhaps not even the most important one.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, adequacy lawsuits tend to succeed in a hospitable political environment. Greta points to the New York case, which is actually a great example. In New York, the litigation was driven by the Campaign For Fiscal Equity, a dedicated NGO that really mobilized (through partnering up with other organizations) the communities affected by funding disparities. Despite that great mobilization, that litigation took 13 years to complete, and although the state court determined that each year $1.93 billion must be allocated to education, it gave the legislature the discretion to decide how that money would be spent.

But even in New York, and in the rest of the country, adequacy lawsuits have proved elusive. Pioneering work on these issues was done by Michael Rebell, a professor in Columbia’s Teachers College. In an article published in 1996, in the Yale Law & Policy Review, he concludes that court intervention has been, overall, disappointing. Very few states actually changed their funding scheme, and even those that did, the long term effects are nebulous. In addition, in some states, such as California, there have been adverse results with regards to equality after the court mandated changed, and in other states, such as West Virginia, the legislature completely ignored the court’s decision. In New Jersey, court involvement triggered a longstanding conflict between the court and the legislature, where the court continually struck down legislative funding schemes, deeming them inadequate. It should be noted that Rebell does propose a solution to these problems, in the form of public engagement campaigns, also called dialogic remedies. Public engagement is promising, and perhaps I’ll blog about it some other time.

Another trend that possibly undermines Greta’s analysis is the recent reluctance of courts to continue hearing adequacy lawsuits. Adequacy suits are long, expensive, require constant monitoring by courts, and heavily criticized by other political branches and, mostly, though not uniformly, by conservatives. Erik Hanushek, perhaps the most important conservative voice in this debate, has been influential. In his many books and articles, Hanushek claims that the achievment gap is not attributable to funding, but to the lack of incentives that produce good outcomes. He is a fierce critic of judicial involvement, for a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here. Although I disagree with his conclusions, his approach has been influential in the debate.

The recent decline in the willingness of courts to hear adequacy suits stems from these concerns. Courts have noticed that adequacy litigation is complex and perhaps overextends their capabilities. They have also noted the dismal record of courts that did take on the legislature. As a result, more and more courts, between 2005-2008, have declined to take on adequacy cases, citing non-justiciability, traditional concerns for the separation of powers, and deference to legislative budgetary allocations. An empirical study conducted by Robynn Sturm and Julia Simon-Kerr confirms this.

So, what is the lesson? It seems that on the whole we cannot be too optimistic about adequacy litigation. We need to rethink the kinds of remedies that might work in the education context. Rebell’s public engagement is one of those remedies. Other scholars suggest a host of non-monetary remedies, such as expanded school choice, mandatory pre-school, increased focus on the process by which education decisions are made. Finally, a hospitable political climate is key. The adequacy suits that have been successful enjoyed legislative support, an engaged and committed civil society, and a vast support structure that accompanied such reforms. Courts, alone, cannot be the answer. And allocating more money, alone, is not the answer as well.

Related post: Suing the state for inadequate schools: a drama in 3 acts

Is higher education a luxury good?

luxury goods

Mmmmmm... luxury...

My post about merit scholarships and how they reflect on our notion of higher education got me thinking: do we in fact treat higher education like a luxury?  In economics, a “luxury” good is defined as a good for which demand rises disproportionately when income rises, and decreases disproportionately as income decreases.  In economic lingo, a luxury good exhibits high elasticity of demand.

The concept is in contrast to “necessity” goods, for which demand is not related to income and there is low elasticity of demand.  There are also “normal” goods, where demand rises proportionately as income increases, and “inferior” goods, where demand decreases as income increases.

Looking at education as any other types of goods or services that people can purchase, we might ask how its demand relate to income levels, and in turn, what type of good it is.  The question is hard to answer for primary and secondary education, because every state has some form of compulsory education laws, which usually require children to be educated up to the age of 17 or 18.  Because primary and secondary schools are free for children from low-income families, it is difficult to measure what the level of demand would have been at various levels of income.  (But private primary and secondary school education is probably a luxury good.)

Governmental subsidy for primary and secondary education suggests that at least conceptually, we treat those types of schools as necessity goods that should be guaranteed even for people who cannot afford to purchase them.  Other good examples of government subsidies include low-income housing, food stamps, and medicare/medicaid, which reflect our belief, as a society, that shelter, food, and medical care are necessity goods for our citizens.  This explains why, even in times of recessions, though states have had to cut the education budget, no one dreams of eliminating either the public school system entirely or the requirements for compulsory education.

But what about higher education?  There is no equivalent legislation to require or subsidize postsecondary education.  People are free to attend or forgo colleges and universities as they choose.  Demand (in the form of enrollment rates) is therefore easier to measure.

Conventional wisdom suggests that enrollment in colleges should increase during bad economic times, because the opportunity costs of colleges — in the form of lost income — decreases, and those who cannot find a job or are laid off would flock to the schools to improve their skills and “wait out” the recession.  As I have noted in a previous postenrollment at community colleges are indeed soaring in recent hard economic times.  Over 90% of community college presidents say that their enrollment has been more than the previous January.  Some have called the increases unprecedented.

But the same growth has not been experienced by the more expensive colleges and universities in the nation.  According to surveys conducted by several national education associations this past spring, More than 65% of high schools reported more students applying to public colleges rather than private colleges compared to previous years.  Nearly one-third of private colleges expect freshman enrollment to decline in the academic year of 2009-2010.

The data suggests that there are at least two types of education goods  There are the cheaper public 2-year colleges.  They can be deemed inferior goods because demand for them tends to rise as income drops and drop as income rises.  There are also private colleges and universities.  The more expensive public universities, especially for out-of-state students, can also be grouped in this category.  They are luxury goods because demand decreases sharply when income decreases, and climbs rapidly as income climbs.

The picture is complicated a bit by the generous financial aid that many private universities offer to its students.  At Harvard University, for example, parents in households that make less than $60,000 are not expected to contribute at all to college costs, and households that make less than $180,000 are expected to contribute about 10% of their income.  Need-based scholarships have also replaced student loans.   Other elite universities have followed suit and instituted similar financial aid programs.  An education at those universities, at least for those in the lower-middle- or middle-class families, are essentially free.  Even for upper-middle-class families it is fairly low-cost.  Demand for these “goods” should therefore exhibit relatively low elasticity.

But it seems that education at the vast majority of private, four-year colleges is a luxury good and will be hard-hit by this recession.

Too focused on the racial achievement gap?

thegapIt seems that our society has an obsession for anything related to race. Last Wednesday, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released disappointing results for math exams that the nation’s fourth and eighth graders took earlier this year. The results were worrisome, to say the least: only 39% of fourth graders and 34% of eighth graders performed above the proficiency level. In addition to the predictable stories about low scores and the lack of improvements, many media outlets also reported on the achievement gaps among the nation’s various ethnic and racial groups.

The gaps are huge, and they have widened slightly from two years ago. The New York Times reports that on the 500-points exam where the average score for eighth graders was 282, the average white students scored 293 points, black students averaged only 261 points while hispanics scored 266 points. The 32-point gap between white and black students represents about 3 years worth of learning.

According to National Center for Education Statistics, while 82% of white students have “basic” math skills and 43% have “proficient” skills, only 49% of black students have basic skills, and a dismal 12% are proficient. Hispanic students once again fare slightly better than black students (56%, 17%) but are still leagues behind white students.

These numbers are certainly cause for concern, and there is no doubt that our schools are failing a large portion of our nation’s children, but why do we focus on race? A short foray into the nifty and slightly addictive NAEP website (where you can build your own charts and compare the performance of different groups based on hundreds of different criteria) reveal a host of even more dramatic achievement gaps.

One such gap is the rich-poor gap.  While direct economic data for the students are not available from the NAEP exams, a useful proxy is whether the student is eligible for the federal free lunch program. Here, the gap is 27 points, almost as much as the black-white achievement gap and exactly the same as the white-hispanic achievement gap. Only 17% of those eligible for free school lunches have reached a proficient level, compared to 45% of those not eligible.

And what about the rich-school-district-poor-school-district gap? Here, the difference is even more dramatic.  The nation’s richest districts — those with 0% of their students eligible for free lunches — have an average score of 302 — 20 points above the national average. The poorest districts — those with 100% of eligible students, averaged a score of 258. The 44 points gap represents about four years of education.

And what about the state achievement gaps? Massachusetts eighth graders had the highest average scores in the nation with 299 points. Minnesota came in second at 294, and a slew of other states, all of them northern, follow them at 293. At the bottom, DC schools are the worst in the nation, clocking in at 254 points, 45 points behind Massachusetts. Mississippi and Alabama are at 265 and 269 points each.

I can come up with a host of other interesting achievement gaps: students whose parents graduated from college vs. students whose parents did not finish high school (30 points), students with fewer than 10 books in the home and students with 100 books or more (41 points), and a public-private school gap (14 points).

All of these achievement gaps have something to do with the socio-economic status of the students. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that students from more affluent backgrounds, whose parents are better educated and whose neighborhoods are safer, learn more in school and perform better at standardized exams. It also won’t surprise anyone that the schools in richer neighborhoods have more resources and are better run, thereby making teaching and learning more effective. The differences that these scores have shown are dramatic and infuriating.

Which is why I find it even harder to understand our fixation on race. Is it really so surprising, given that a larger percentage of this nation’s black and hispanic citizens live in poverty and have a lower average income, that their children would perform worse in school? It seems that our concern with the racial achievement gap is, in large part, a concern with the underlying socioeconomic ills that plague a disproportionate percentage of minorities in our nation. Rather than clarifying the problems that these youngsters and our schools face, our fixation on race obfuscates it.