Archive | Education

Research and Politics: A New Open Access Political Science Journal

ResearchandPolitics4I am delighted to announce the launch of a new journal, Research and Politics, of which I am one of the general editors together with Catherine de Vries and Bernard Steunenberg. Sage will publish the new journal.R&P is going to be quite different from most existing academic publications. The journal provides a venue for scholars to communicate rapidly and succinctly important new insights to the broadest possible audience while maintaining the highest standards of quality control. We will do so by publishing short (up to 4,000 word) articles that are published on-line on an open access basis. Quality control is assured through peer review and a large team of associate editors which consists of esteemed political scientists across the subfields. We strive for speedy publication through a quick review process and continuous publication (i.e. no need to wait for the next issue), although we will uphold limits to how many articles we publish.

We expect to attract a wide range of articles. We will surely publish articles that look very much like regular research articles, only shorter. But we also expect and hope to attract articles that are less easily placed in regular peer-reviewed journals. Indeed, we suspect that some articles that would contain valuable knowledge are currently not being written because they do not fit neatly in the straight jacket of what most journals expect or can deliver.

For example, the time lags in the regular publishing process may be a real obstacle for those who wish to publish predictions or cutting edge analyses of current events or policy debates. Open access should be crucial to these types of analyses, as one would wish to reach the broadest audience possible. A strict replication policy, peer review, and the active involvement of academic specialists differentiates this journal from public affairs journals. By adopting the norms and standards of academia and thus appealing to the incentives of academics, we hope to get more academics involved in public debates without sacrificing rigor.

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A Warning to College Profs from a High School Teacher

This is from a retired high school teacher of AP U.S. Government and Politics classes:

If you, as a higher education professional, are concerned about the quality of students arriving at your institution, you have a responsibility to step up and speak out. You need to inform those creating the policies about the damage they are doing to our young people, and how they are undermining those institutions in which you labor to make a difference in the minds and the lives of the young people you teach as well as in the fields in which you do your research.

The argument is that No Child Left Behind and other laws have created testing requirements in high schools that leave little room for students to develop critical thinking and writing. I have never gone to an American high school and I must admit I know frighteningly little about what goes on there. At Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service we select students based on their ability to write and think critically. Faculty actually read the essays of applicants. I have no complaints about the level of our freshmen but I know this is a very selective example.

So what should/can higher education professionals do?

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Kevin Rarely Gets “Très Bien”


The graph is from French sociologist Baptiste Coulmont. It shows the proportion of students with a given name who received a “très bien” (meaning “very good”) on their baccalaureat, which is an exam French students take at the end of high school to qualify for university studies. The vertical axis plots the frequency of the name in the data (click on graph to enlarge).

What jumps out is the high frequency of English language names on the left hand side of the picture. People named Kevin, Anthony, Jordan, Cindy, or Dylan were much less likely to receive high scores. Although there is some evidence that names can affect how children perform in school, this more likely reflects naming preferences: parents in lower social classes are more likely to name their kids after characters from American tv shows or music groups than parents from higher social classes. Here is a response from one Kevin (in French) who is just fine.


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The Humanities and Teaching How to Write Well

Teaching students how to write well is a task that I am confronted with on a regular basis and for which I am hopelessly ill equipped. I have no training in the subject. I am not a native English speaker. I did not even attend high school or college in an English speaking country (at least not before doing graduate work). So, I want to be sympathetic to Verlyn Klinkenborg’s call in Sunday’s New York Times for a renewed role for the humanities (or really English literature) in teaching students how to write “clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts.” The humanities, writes Klinkenborg, can provide students with the gift of “clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.” I agree that all of these are good things.

Then he writes this:

Studying the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.

Sentences like this usually lead me to liberally spread red ink. What do you mean? Why should studying be like observing a coastline rather than interacting with human experience? Why the clichés? And what’s that whale all about?  You can sort of figure out what the author means with all the vague metaphors but “sort of being able to figure out” an argument is hardly an advertisement for clear and simple nonfiction writing.

I often see sentences like this in my students’ writing: unnecessary and extensive usages of metaphors that muddle rather than clarify thinking. I guess it raises the question of whether the study of English literature does really give students and teachers a good basis for becoming clear thinkers and writers on nonfiction issues. I am not entirely sure what the alternative is or whether I am being a disciplinary (or Dutch) curmudgeon who unduly favors clear precise statements over flowery language. Thoughts?

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The end of Michelle Rhee

Many of you are probably aware of this already, but it was news to me. It’s about education reformer Michelle Rhee. I’ll hand the mike over to Mark Palko:

Rhee’s record mainly shows a pattern of intense self promotion, often the expense of students:

She appears to have started her career by greatly overstating test score improvements during her Teach for America days;

As an administrator, she was charged with abusing her authority to political ends:

and covering up a major cheating scandal;

She lent her political capital to anti-labor measures only tangentially related to education (but vital to her allies);

She oversaw the creation of a convoluted metric that assigned the top ranks to schools she and her allies were responsible for (despite those schools’ terrible performance on the very metrics Rhee had previously championed);

And she endorsed a Bobby Jindal  initiative which pretty much guaranteed wide-spread fraud.

Following the links, I found some further discussion here and here from a couple years ago that makes Rhee look pretty bad.

Palko describes Rhee’s success as an “affinity con”:

Affinity cons work in large part because when people see someone with similar background and cultural signifiers, they assume other similarities: common goals, values, approaches.

Movement reformers, particularly those who came in through Teach for America (and that’s something you see a lot) often get sucked in by something similar. They look at someone like Michelle Rhee and the rhetoric and the resume feel familiar. . . . Lots of leaders in education today have that exact same bio and since the vast majority of them genuinely care about kids, they assume Rhee does as well.

I don’t know about that. I’m just speculating here, but my take on it is, if you give someone good public relations, a lot of money, and a message that people want to hear, he or she can go pretty far before getting tripped up by reality. Palko refers to Rhee’s middle-class background, but I think if she had a lower-class background, that would’ve worked fine too. Look at Barack Obama: his background was different from almost all Americans, black or white, but people just ate up his story.

As for Rhee: I suspect she’s not planning on going anywhere, but all this error, corruption, and cover-up is taking a toll on her reputation. To the extent that her movement is about education reform rather than about Michelle Rhee, at some point they’ll have to find a more credible leader, no?

My impression is that there has been a shift. A few years ago, value-added assessment etc was considered the technocratic way to go, with opponents being a bunch of Luddite dead-enders. Now, though, the whole system is falling apart. We can learn a lot from tests, no doubt about that, but there’s a lot less sense that they should be used to directly evaluate teachers. We’ve moved to a more modern, quality-control perspective in which the goal is to learn and improve the system, not to reward or punish individual workers.

This shift may have not happened yet at the political level, but it’s my sense that this is the direction that things are going. The Rhee story is symbolic of the fallacies of measurement.

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Who Needs Math?







E. O. Wilson has an interesting brief essay (excerpted from a new book entitled Letters to a Young Scientist) on the role of mathematics and mathematical expertise in science. “Most of the stereotypical photographs of scientists studying rows of equations on a blackboard,” he notes, “are instructors explaining discoveries already made.”

Real progress comes in the field writing notes, at the office amid a litter of doodled paper, in the hallway struggling to explain something to a friend, or eating lunch alone. . . . Ideas in science emerge most readily when some part of the world is studied for its own sake. They follow from thorough, well-organized knowledge of all that is known or can be imagined of real entities and processes within that fragment of existence.

Wilson acknowledges that “When something new is encountered, the follow-up steps usually require mathematical and statistical methods to move the analysis forward.” At that point, he suggests finding a collaborator. But technical expertise in itself is of little avail: ”The annals of theoretical biology are clogged with mathematical models that either can be safely ignored or, when tested, fail. Possibly no more than 10% have any lasting value. Only those linked solidly to knowledge of real living systems have much chance of being used.”

Paul Krugman concurs, but with a caveat:

[A]t least in the areas I work in, you do need some mathematical intuition, even if you don’t necessarily need to know a lot of formal theorems. . . . [T]he intuition is crucial, and not just for writing academic papers. If you’re going to talk about economics at all, you need some sense of how magnitudes play off against each other, which is the only way to have a chance of seeing how the pieces fit together. . . . [M]aybe the thing to say is that higher math isn’t usually essential; arithmetic is.

My own work has become rather less mathematical over the course of my career. When people ask why, I usually say that as I have come to learn more about politics, the “sophisticated” wrinkles have seemed to distract more than they added. Krugman’s comment seems to me to help illuminate why that might be the case. “Seeing how the pieces fit together” requires “some sense of how magnitudes play off against each other.” But, paradoxically, ”higher math” can get in the way of “mathematical intuition” about magnitudes. Formal theory is often couched in purely qualitative terms: under such and such conditions, more X should produce more Y. And quantitative analysis—which ought to focus squarely on magnitudes—is less likely to do so the more it is justified and valued on technical rather than substantive grounds.

I recently spent some time doing an informal meta-analysis of studies of the impact of campaign advertising. At the heart of that literature is a pretty simple question: how much does one more ad contribute to the sponsoring candidate’s vote share? Alas, most of the studies I reviewed provided no intelligible answer to that question; and the correlation between methodological “sophistication” (logarithmic transformations, multinomial logits, fixed effects, distributed lag models) and intelligibility was decidedly negative. The authors of these studies rarely seemed to know or care what their results implied about the magnitude of the effect, as long as those results could be billed as “statistically significant.” Competing estimates differ (once their implications are unpacked) by orders of magnitude, with no indication from anyone that anything might be amiss. Of course, there is no reason why mathematically sophisticated analyses cannot be sensibly interpreted. Nevertheless, it seems clear that this is one corner of political science—and I believe there are many others—in which “higher math” is much less urgently needed than “arithmetic.”

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Pushback from the elites

A reform can sound very reasonable, but when it comes up against the interests of powerful people, there can be a lot of resistance.

For example, in recent years there’s been a lot of talk about affirmative action for based on social class, to reserve some fraction of college admissions for people from low-income families, or kids who are the first in their family to go to college, or that sort of thing. It sounds like a good idea (potential difficulties of implementation aside), but as Mark Palko reminds us, such a plan will not make everyone happy. In particular, it would alienate privileged high school students with mediocre test scores.

Palko recounts the story of a high school senior who happens to be the sister of a former Wall Street Journal features editor, and published an article in that newspaper expressing how upset she was to get rejected from some colleges, even though she did not have “killer SAT scores,” “two moms,” or other attributes that she feels is necessary for acceptance at a top school.

I have some sympathy for this student. After all, my application to Harvard was rejected even though I did have killer SAT scores (but only one mom, malheureusement)—-I think the problem was they’d already filled their “nerd quota” that year.

What interested me was this bit from the student’s letter to the newspaper:

Like me, millions of high-school seniors with sour grapes are asking themselves this week how they failed to get into the colleges of their dreams. It’s simple: For years, they—we—were lied to.

Colleges tell you, “Just be yourself.” . . .

Of course there are a lot more applicants to Harvard than there are slots, so at some level this student and the millions of others in her cohort must have realized that “be yourself” can’t really be what you need to get into the college of your dreams.

The problem, I suspect, is that this student thought that the rules of scarcity didn’t apply to her. And if you spread that message to kids who have powerful relatives, you’ll start getting some pushback.

P.S. Palko follows up:

I had mixed feelings about about going after a high school senior; I’m pretty sure that most of the things I wrote at 17 would make me look like an idiot (albeit an idiot with high SATs). John D. MacDonald put it best when he said that when it came to most of his early work, he wished the acid content in the paper had been higher.

That said, this really did capture a certain mindset. It also illustrated my primary concern about factoring race into admissions: high perceived cost to actual benefit ratio. Applicants who never would have been accepted under any criteria convince themselves that their spot was taken away from them.

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Wake-Up Call: Coburn Amendment and the Minority Pipeline in Political Science

We are delighted to welcome back Karthick Ramakrishnan.


As is widely known in the political science community, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) failed to get the Senate to eliminate NSF funding in political science, but succeeded in placing severe limits to its use, limiting funding only to projects that “promote national security or the economic interests of the United States.”  In the days following the passage of the amendment, many began to wonder how it would affect existing programs, with some speculating the waiver might be interpreted broadly and would leave most funding efforts intact.

Now, we seem to have a clearer answer, and the implications for political science are troubling in ways that were not even appreciated or foreseen in the run-up to the Coburn amendment.

One of the first major casualties of the Coburn amendment, perhaps even the first known casualty of any size, is the cancellation of APSA’s Ralph Bunche Summer Institute (hereafter RBSI), “an annual five-week program designed to introduce minority students to the world of graduate study and to encourage application to Ph.D. programs.”

This development is deeply concerning, and will hurt the future of political science in a country that is moving inexorably towards majority-minority status by 2050.  In October 2011, APSA released a report on racial and gender diversity among political science faculty and graduate students.   While some may disagree with the diagnosis of the pipeline problem, the magnitude of the problem is indisputable, as African American, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans currently account for only 11% of the professoriate in political science (see page 40 of the report), and the primary beneficiaries of RBSI (African Americans and Latinos) account for only 14% of recent Ph.D.’s in political science (see page 65 of the report).

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David Brooks on technical knowledge and moral wisdom


The popular New York Times columnist writes:

The best part of the rise of online education is that it forces us to ask: What is a university for? . . .

My own stab at an answer would be that universities are places where young people acquire two sorts of knowledge, what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called technical knowledge and practical knowledge. Technical knowledge is the sort of knowledge you need to understand a task — the statistical knowledge you need to understand what market researchers do, the biological knowledge you need to grasp the basics of what nurses do.

Technical knowledge is like the recipes in a cookbook. It is formulas telling you roughly what is to be done. It is reducible to rules and directions. It’s the sort of knowledge that can be captured in lectures and bullet points and memorized by rote.

Brooks is citing Oakeshott, whom I haven’t read, so let me be clear here that I’m reacting here not to the original source but to the above characterization, “the statistical knowledge you need to understand what market researchers do,” etc.

In all seriousness, I think statistics and biology are like many other skills, such speaking a foreign language, playing a musical instrument, or hitting a softball: they are hard to learn, but if you put in the time you can be ok at it. To say that “memorizing by rote” is the way people learn statistics, biology, languages, music, or athletic skills—-that’s just stupid. There are some things you do need to memorize, but learning is about making connections and practice practice practice practice practice.

It’s hard for me to believe Brooks actually believes something so dumb. I think what happens is that he has a smooth writing style and the words just come out sounding right, and he never goes back to see if they make sense. When I write for the Times, an editor reads my articles and goes in and makes changes, but maybe Brooks is too much of a big shot for that or maybe his editor gives Brooks’s columns a non-literal read. I can see why it makes sense to give Brooks free rein with his prose, in that I was amused by this sentence of his: “Are universities mostly boot camps for adulthood, where young people learn how to drink moderately, fornicate meaningfully and hand things in on time?” That phrase “fornicate meaningfully” is just perfect.

One reason to suspect that Brooks does not believe that technical knowledge is “memorized by rote” is that he later writes that mooks are the solution: “as online education becomes more pervasive, universities can no longer primarily be in the business of transmitting technical knowledge. Online offerings from distant, star professors will just be too efficient.” But if you’re just memorizing, why the need for star professors? Anyone can read from a script and give you things to memorize.

Instead, Brooks wants universities to teach “the wisdom a great chef possesses that cannot be found in recipe books. Practical knowledge is not the sort of knowledge that can be taught and memorized; it can only be imparted and absorbed. It is not reducible to rules; it only exists in practice.” That’s fine too. Most of our students are not going to be great chefs or even great statisticians, but we’d like them to be the best they can be at what they do. But I don’t think they’re gonna get there if they think their technical knowledge is something to be memorized by rote.

P.S. Also, what’s with the slam on “bullet points”? Suppose I have four sentences to convey. In some contexts, they can work best in paragraph form, in other cases as a numbered list, in other cases as bullet points. I use all three, and I think Brooks is foolish to dismiss bullet points as a mode of communication. Just cos Dilbert’s boss gives bullet-ridden powerpoints, it doesn’t mean they’re always a bad idea.

P.P.S. This is a good place to link to a criticism by Jay Livingston of an earlier column where David Brooks tells just one side of the story (“Brooks’s tour did not include a stop to chat with Nechemaya Weberman. . . .”)

P.P.P.S. Please don’t take all this a criticism of Brooks. I recognize that he’s a busy man. He makes mistakes, but so do we all. To say that Brooks has written something stupid is not to say that he is stupid. I’ve written stupid things too. I just recommend that in the future he read his words more carefully, watching out for things that sound good but don’t make sense on closer inspection. I also recommend that he acknowledge the errors he’s published in the past. One reason for this is it will establish a personal incentive for him to be accurate. If he knows he will have to correct his errors and suffer the resulting (small) embarrassment, maybe he’ll be more motivated to avoid the errors in the first place.

P.P.P.P.S. I’ve added a paragraph above (“Brooks is citing Oakeshott, whom I haven’t read . . .”) to be clear that, when using the term “technical knowledge,” Brooks is referring to a particular meaning of the phrase. I still don’t think that “memorizing by rote” has anything much to do with understanding what market researchers do, etc., but I was mistaken in criticizing Brooks’s use of the term without making this clarification.

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Online Education and Jazz

Alex Tabarrok writes:

There is something special, magical, and “almost sacred” about the live teaching experience. I agree that this is true for teaching at its best but it’s also irrelevant. It’s even more true that there is something special, magical and almost sacred about the live musical experience. . . .

Mark Edmundson makes the analogy between teaching and music explicit:

Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition.

Quite right but every non-memorable class is also a bit like a jazz composition, namely one that was expensive, took an hour to drive to (15 minutes just to find parking) and at the end of the day wasn’t very memorable. The correct conclusion to draw from the analogy between live teaching and live music is that at their best both are great but both are also costly and inefficient ways of delivering most teaching and most musical experiences.

Excellent points (and Tabarrok has additional good points that I haven’t quoted).
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