Blog Archives

Adjuncts and Teaching

An interesting new study:

This would not be unexpected. What’s interesting is that this actually contradicts previous research on the topic, in which there is typically no relationship found between research obligations and teaching performance:

The older studies tend to focus more on student evaluations, which may explain part of the difference. The newer one focuses on learning as measured by grades in that and future courses.

The newer study also focuses on just one institution, Northwestern. This may actually be a strength for the paper, as it may be possible to create an intervention study elsewhere. If there’s a school where the relationship has been shown to be null, then that school could adopt Northwestern’s practices and see if they can get a positive shift.


This also brings up the issue of adjunct pay, which is typically atrocious, and benefits, which are typically nonexistent. I imagine that a school could recruit teaching faculty much more effectively if they were willing to pay them what they’re worth. That’s the idea behind the Teaching Fellow positions in the UK, and one of the reasons the UK is so attractive to me right now.


The Laptop Program

I mentioned the other day, in talking about online high schools and Idaho’s plan for online courses, that my alma mater ran a laptop program while I was there. A fellow alum suggested that I write about that, so why not?

They started the mandatory program in 1999 – every freshman had to have a laptop, and the school offered one at fairly steep discount (especially considering the software on it; these days it includes Maple, Photoshop, a CAD program, and a few other mid-to-high-cost items). What drove the idea is not something I’m going to get into; there are probably as many motivations as there were people pushing for the initiative, and as many counter-arguments as there were people pushing back. Either way, it happened, and so what the faculty did with it is more important at this point.

Adoption in the freshman courses, especially the more technically oriented ones, was fairly good. The physics program switched over its MBL design to the laptops rather than the existing (frankly ancient) desktops. Math recitations were computer-oriented before this even started, so the change was fairly easy. I can’t speak to the engineering courses personally, never having taken them, but I heard that many of the intro courses used the laptops well. Humanities and social science courses were slower to adapt. I assume they faced little pressure to do so. It was an engineering school, after all.

Where the program suffered was in the upperclass years. Computer  usage in sophomore-level classes was scattered. Professors in Junior- and Senior-level courses ended up saying things like “Oh that’s right, you all have laptops now.” Graduate courses? Forget it. Building technology into the curriculum of the institute as a whole seems not to have been a major goal; if it was, it’s one that was never achieved or even approached while I was there.

In terms of outside reputation, the laptop program was effective. Newspaper articles were written, the school showed up on “most-wired” lists, and the school’s PR umbrella generally expanded. Student responses to opinion surveys of the system were generally favorable. In terms of educational effectiveness, there seems to be little evidence either way. I’m fairly sure there was no consideration at the institutional level of doing any educational effectiveness studies on this matter. I was involved with the physics education research group and I hope that we would have heard about something like that if it happened.

Summary: In terms of providing a low-cost and fairly decent laptop, replacing some of the older computer labs, and getting the school some press, I have to say that the program seems to have worked very well. In terms of educational impact, I’m not sure there was any.


For those interested in how sausage is made (or just finding out the name of the school):

Exponential Growth

Middlebury College’s president got some press a while ago for capping the increase in tuition. Specifically, any tuition increases were capped at 1% over the Consumer Price Index, the standard measure of inflation in the US.

I’m not sure if whomever proposed this doesn’t understand exponential growth, or if Middlebury’s president didn’t understand it, or if he thinks that we don’t understand it, but I do, and let me explain it to you. Most of my data comes from Middlebury’s website, or comes directly or indirectly from the census bureau.

Middlebury’s total cost in 2010 was $50,400. This is a “comprehensive fee” that includes tuition, room, board, fees, and so forth. I’m going to assume that they won’t sneakily put massive increases into things other than tuition.

The median household income in the US in 2010 was $49,445.

The average rate of inflation in the US is 3.16%, averaging since 1958. Median household income grew at 0.04% over inflation since 1989. Naturally, these things fluctuate a lot as the market goes up and down, but those are the averages.

We can use this average to estimate the future tuition at Middlebury, and the future median income in the US. Here’s a graph.

Tuition forecast graph

If Middlebury’s tuition increases at their capped amount, the cost of going to school there will pass $100,000 per year in about 2027-28. This would be fine if we were all making $150,000 per year, but as you can see, we’re not.

More instructive, perhaps, is the gap between median income and tuition:

Tuition Gap

You can see that by 2040, tuition at Middlebury will cost about 35% more than the median household in the US makes per year.

Sadly I don’t have good data for the amount of financial aid available and how that changes by year, but unless it grows at more than 1% over the inflation rate, it’s not going to help.

It is a truism in science that exponential growth can’t continue forever. Eventually the graph turns either cyclic or logistic, and the growth stops. Inflation is a special case; it can keep going forever because we can just revalue the currency to take some zeroes off the end of the bills, as Mexico did with the “new peso” in 1993. When something’s cost regularly increases at more than the rate of inflation, it will eventually need to stop because no one will be able to pay for it.

Exponential growth is a real killer. Middlebury’s plan is better than the average college’s increase. The average for four-year schools is about twice the inflation rate, which would lead to a massive disparity of 160% by 2040. However, it still doesn’t genuinely make the school more affordable.

The only way to make your school more affordable is to have your tuition increase at less than the rate of inflation. Anything more is still exponential growth.

(Note: After this was posted I edited a few items for clarity.)

Random Reward

Great googly-moogly. Folks who handle internal promotions must find this sort of thing fairly insulting to them, but you can’t argue with the theoretical results. Now the trick is getting people to actually test it out and see whether it works, because I’m guessing that most places won’t go for it.

I think this is one thing that schools handle fairly well, at least in theory: you don’t promote a good teacher out of a teaching job and into one that involves pushing paperwork or talking to parents. You find someone who’s good at pushing paperwork or talking to parents, and give them that job, letting the teacher stay in the business of teaching. It creates some resentment from time to time, but it’s still common practice in education.

The drawback is that schools (and all other workplaces) incentivize higher-level positions with better pay, benefits, retirement, and so forth. Therefore, anyone who isn’t drawn to working in management has to ask themselves the question: do I want to pass up this money?

It would be one thing to stay in a lower-level job and not move to management if there were no particular intrinsic benefit to management. If the pay was the same, you liked your current job, and management sounded like a royal pain in the butt, then you wouldn’t be driven to make the leap. If your current job was getting boring and/or getting into a management position seemed more interesting, you might want to move up even without the promise of more money. Unfortunately, this isn’t how it works. Between assumed seniority, “responsibility pay,” and a desire to separate management from non-management economically, management-level positions are strongly incentivized.

Most cultures also have an expectation of ambition that provides social pressures to move up the ladder. You have to intentionally swim against the current to stay in a position you like. This can be easier or more difficult depending on your economic situation and the workplace culture.

The school workplace may be a good place to test out the random promotion hypothesis. Choosing a department head (for example) at random rather than by seniority might give some departments a needed breath of fresh air, and it’s not like someone who hates the job can’t just resign from it. Choosing your administrators from the least skilled teachers isn’t a terrible idea – they know the system, they’re probably committed to education, they just can’t cut it in the classroom. Leave the great teachers where they can help most, and move other folks into positions they might be more suited for. Flatten the pay scale. It would be an interesting experiment.

I doubt we’ll try it.

More charter school perspective

Here’s another angle on the recent study of successful charter schools.

When reading the tables at the bottom, stars indicate statistical significance.

In related news, I would hate to be a journalist, simply for the fact that I wouldn’t get to write my own non-misleading headlines.

Successful Charter Schools

A link from a friend of mine:

Five Habits of Successful Charter Schools

based on this paper (note: that link is a PDF).

I should note that “successful” here is primarily in terms of state tests, so take it with a grain of salt. It would be interesting to see the gains on tests that were more strongly designed to assess and diagnose student understanding. Still worth a read.

Answerable Questions


Will Higher Education Be the Next Bubble to Burst? (from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 2009)

may eventually be answered by this:

Financial Crisis Observatory

The first article definitely resonates, but when hearing predictions of future events I do get reminded of other articles, like The Online Education Bubble… from 2001. So just because people are saying something will happen doesn’t make it true. As someone who is interested in eventually starting an educational institution, I’d really like to link 1 and link 2 interact and hear a prediction. It would be especially interesting to see in the arena of online education, which I’ve heard folks say may also be in a bubble state. (No link for that one; that’s just hearsay.) It has such tremendous growth that even large institutions are starting to take it seriously, years after substantial meta-research on its effectiveness. See my previous post about education as an evolved organism .

If you want to hear a little more about link #2, check out this entry from the arXiv blog: Econophysicist Accurately Forecasts Gold Price Collapse . If you’re a sci-fi fan, you should also consider this link: .

Why I Don’t Believe in Dress Code

In a move that will make me less employable, I wanted to talk about why I don’t believe in dress code, why I think it’s a bad idea, and why I think it’s… well, not immoral, but of dubious moral value at best.

Many private schools (and some public schools these days, especially inner-city schools) have dress codes. The most typical code in the US is a business-oriented one, which is what I’m going to be talking about today when I refer to “dress codes.” I’ll spend some time at the end talking about other types that I find less offensive.

A business-oriented dress code is one that asks students to dress “respectably,” in the manner of bankers, lawyers, salespeople, and store managers. Typical requirements are split down gender lines. Boys are asked to wear slacks or khakhi pants, a belt, “dress shoes,” and a button-down or polo shirt. Some schools add a tie and jacket. Girls dress code varies substantially, but is typically designed with the goal of covering most of the body and distracting fewer boys in class. Some schools still require dresses or skirts and cardigans. Some sllow girls to wear boys’ style dress code; others do not. Some schools maintain the same standards throughout the academic year; others alter them for weather, special occasions, or “good behavior.”

As someone who enforced this sort of dress code for three years, I can tell you that the amount of weaseling and petty rebellion it encourages (primarily amongst the students) is monumental. In my tours of various schools I actually had a school administrator tell me that their staff psychologist recommended keeping dress code because it “gave the students something to rebel against.” When I was in high school (using that phrase makes me officially old), students and teachers organized buses to travel to Washington DC so students could join in a protest on the Mall. That is a school that believes in the value of student protests and rebellion. Give your students something worthwhile to rebel against; don’t encourage them to complain about their shoes.

Other schools have their own reasons, from preparing students for a particular career to preventing gang violence. Whether dress codes work for those reasons is a valid educational research question. The answer seems to be “yes” when it comes to the violence issue. I think there are viable alternatives and I’ll talk more about that below.

Most dress codes leave some room for interpretation. Even the typical boys’ dress code is far more vague than one might think. Administrators end up spending valuable time talking about ridiculous topics like whether a fish tie and button-down Hawaiian shirt should count as dress code, and whether “boat shoes” (whatever those are) are allowable footwear. What a waste of time.

Furthermore, the vagueness of girls’ dress code is not confined to the way I defined it above. At most schools with a dress code, girls are allowed much greater latitude in their choice of dress. For some reason we have no problem telling boys what to do, but we treat girls like delicate little flowers when every indication is that women have an emotional fortitude that matches or exceeds men’s. We also teach girls to cover up rather than teaching boys to grow up and act with respect. Both of those gender items are really a point for another day, I suppose.

Gender divisions also further marginalize students who don’t fall into traditional gender roles. At many schools girls can wear the boys’ dress code, but not vice versa. Boys who identify as girls, and sometimes vice versa, face a battle that starts with the school administrators, rather than ending there.

Students don’t like dress codes. I couldn’t care less about that. They don’t like homework, either. Most of them don’t like either writing or mathematics; tough luck, they need both. The issue is not whether we are trampling our students’ wishes, but whether what we are doing is the best thing for them in their lives. Schools shape lives.

The biggest problem I have with dress codes is this:

If we are trying to teach our students how to judge others based on their appearances, dress code is the right way to do that.

That is, in a nutshell, why I feel that dress codes are one step away from being outright immoral. The idea that we should respect people because they are dressed like bankers and businesspeople, in this day when so much of our economy is in shambles because of the actions of bankers and high-ranking businesspeople, seems rather silly. That choice of dress code also implies that people like artists, musicians, and mechanics are not worthy of emulation, and thus, by extension, of respect. A dress code based on an artistic aesthetic has exactly the same problem, with the opposite people as targets of derision.

Teachers, from kindergarten through the professor level, are role models. Students emulate their teachers in word and deed. (Note: they don’t always obey, but they do watch what we do, and they do emulate.) So when a teacher berates a student for dressing a certain way, other students learn that lesson: people who dress a certain way are not worthy of respect.

Dress codes are moral statements. They teach students to care about what people wear, and to judge the inner selves of others based on that outer presentation.

Dress codes teach disrespect at a fundamental level.

Now, I’m ok with restricting students’ dress to a certain extent. If you want to say, “Students must wear clothing that covers them from shoulder to knee,” that’s fine with me. (I’m also fine with Hampshire College’s clothing-optional days, though I don’t particularly need to see it, and I think it’s a bad idea at the high school level.) “Everyone must wear footwear” is a health issue, no argument from me. If you want to say “No swear words,” that’s fine too. Want to protest and make it a First Amendment issue? Fine: T-shirts are like TV and radio in that they are a broadcast medium for whatever’s printed on them. Swearing on broadcast media is legally restricted to late night hours; I have no problem with doing the same to T-shirts. It’s when you start asking students to dress a particular way and calling that “respectable” that you start actively teaching students how to judge others.

I’m also ok with an out-and-out uniform. On the day you show up, the school hands you a wardrobe full of the clothing you’ll be wearing, with size upgrades as you need them. Nothing else is allowed – not your own socks, not hair clips, not finger rings or earrings. If you want to really level the playing field and make clothing a non-issue, this is the way to go. No wiggle room, no personal expression, fewer arguments than a dress code. The male/female division (if there is one) would still be a question, but one fairly easily solved. If you want to be authoritarian, this is, in my mind, the right way to go.

Finally, I’m not insensitive to the issue of gang colors and the possibility of school violence, nor to the issues of students who do not yet respect their bodies or those of others. I’m incredibly insensitive when it comes to someone telling me who I should or should not respect. Handle it another way, please.

Research on the effectiveness of dress codes is, as with many opinion-laden educational issues, easy to find and fairly contradictory. Here are a few sources, chosen primarily for their density of references: