Rebirth of the Research University: Is Arizona State University the Model?

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article on the future of large research universities.  Citing the vision of Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University, the article posits it may be time to rethink higher education master plans and develop a new model for the research university.  As desribed in the article (subscription required);

“The signal feature of Crow’s tenure at Arizona has been a febrile pace of experimentation and innovation. Units have been reorganized to create research and collaboration opportunities for students and faculty, such as the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the School of Earth and Space Exploration. A variety of new schemes to generate revenue have been explored, ranging from doubling down on technology transfer and philanthropy to newfangled ideas like the development of ASU Online, which doesn’t just deliver traditional content via the web but also experiments with ways of fostering online student interactions. Expanding the latter program has entailed new sorts of partnerships with corporations, like Starbucks, to recruit their employees. And the campus has also energetically promoted the expansion of the traditionally enrolled student body, adding more than 20,000 students, with special efforts made to attract more low-income and underrepresented students. Arizona State University, in short, is taking its “mass education” mission as seriously as any university in the country today.

It’s probably too early to evaluate the success of its model, though early signs are promising. Under Crow’s leadership, the percentage of students with Pell Grants (i.e. students from low-income backgrounds) has steadily increased (much higher than at most flagship public universities, though still lower than the top institutions in the University of California system), but graduation rates have stayed frustratingly low. At the same time, while Crow correctly notes that admission to Berkeley (and the University of California at Los Angeles) has steadily become more difficult (now admitting less than 20 percent of applicants), ASU has adopted admissions policies similar to those of Berkeley in the 1950s and 60s, when high-school seniors needed only to graduate with a 3.0 grade-point average to qualify.

Research productivity has also increased: Crow and Dabars report that expenditures on research are up by more than 250 percent since 2002, without significant growth in the faculty. But Arizona State is not (yet?) a member of the Association of American Universities, and many of its more-innovative programs have not been in existence long enough to measure their real contributions or ultimate success. Certainly not all these innovations have always been warmly greeted. Crow’s effort to channel resources into productive new arenas has also involved tough decisions to end programs, decision that have been met with great resistance. Perhaps the best-known case was the attempt to dismantle the Cancer Research Institute, which led to lengthy public controversy and litigation. It remains to be seen if genuinely advanced research can be productively pursued in a great many areas of endeavor, given the challenges of a student body and educational mission that resemble the Cal State system far more than they do UC.

Beyond the excitement generated by many of Crow’s proposals, what is perhaps most heartening is his commitment to the idea that research is a fundamental feature of the university, not one that can be dispensed with on the road to mass delivery of education. In this, Crow is arguing against the premise of most, if not all, for-profit education corporations, both online and off, which implicitly, if not explicitly, assume that educational “content” can be delivered to “customers” absent funding by corporate “suppliers” for the complex (and expensive) process of supporting research.”

The Arizona State University model is one to be watched.  It will probably be emulated by other publicly-funded research universities.



After a Disruptive Intervention: Cooper Union Faces Attorney General Investigation!

Dear Commons Community,

Once one of the proudest schools in the country, Cooper Union is facing an investigation by the New York Attorney General over the way it has handled its finances.   Over the past year, Cooper Union’s reputation as a world-class training ground for engineers, architects and artists has taken a back seat to headlines about the investigation, a lawsuit over the imposition of tuition, and the future of its president.  According to the Associated Press:

“..Cooper Union graduates and students hope all the turmoil results in more financial stability and maybe even a return to the tuition-free model that has been central to the school’s unique, egalitarian character.

“We know that students have had to refuse our offer because they couldn’t afford it,” said Mike Essl, a Cooper Union alumnus and faculty member who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit over the decision to charge tuition starting with this year’s freshman class. “That has never happened before in the history of Cooper Union.”

The attorney general’s investigation includes a look into the management of Cooper Union’s prime asset, the land under the Chrysler Building.

Investigators are also questioning a $175 million loan, with the landmark skyscraper as collateral, used by Cooper trustees to finance a new engineering building.

With an endowment of $735 million, Cooper Union is not in imminent danger of failing. But a leveling-off of rents from the Chrysler Building in the early 1990s triggered massive budget deficits, according to a report from Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha a few weeks ago.

According to the report, the accumulated deficits from fiscal year 1990 to fiscal year 2012 topped $300 million. Bharucha said the tuition-free model he inherited when he took over as president in 2011 was not sustainable “without a disruptive intervention.”

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is seeking to mediate the lawsuit and will reportedly push for a review of whether the school can go back to being tuition-free.”

We’re cooperating fully with the attorney general’s office,” said Cooper Union spokesman Justin Harmon, who refused to comment on a report that the trustees offered not to renew Bharucha’s contract if it would help end the investigation.

Many alumni and students feel that luxuries like the new building and Bharucha’s $650,000 salary are at odds with Cooper Union’s history as a no-frills haven for strivers.

We wish Cooper Union well and a rebound from its disruptive intervention.



“At Risk” Students Benefit from a Four-Year College Education:  Two New Studies!

Benefits of College

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times today has a featured article on the benefits of a four-year college education.  Citing two recent studies, the conclusion is that there are clear benefits in terms of employment for those earning a college degree.  Even among “at risk” students,  the benefits are quite substantial compared to those who do not have a degree.  Here are several excerpts focusing on “at risk” students:

“How much money should taxpayers spend subsidizing higher education? How willing should students be to take on college debt? How hard should Washington and state governments push colleges to lift their graduation rates? All of these questions depend on whether a large number of at-risk students are really capable of completing a four-year degree.

… two separate — and ambitious — recent academic studies have looked at precisely this issue. The economists and education researchers tracked thousands of people over the last two decades in Florida, Georgia and elsewhere who had fallen on either side of hard admissions cutoffs. Less selective colleges often set such benchmarks: Students who score 840 on the SAT, for example, or maintain a C+ average in high school are admitted. Those who don’t clear the bar are generally rejected, and many don’t attend any four-year college.

Such stark cutoffs provide researchers with a kind of natural experiment. Students who score an 830 on the SAT are nearly identical to those who score an 840. Yet if one group goes to college and the other doesn’t, researchers can make meaningful estimates of the true effects of college.

And the two studies have come to remarkably similar conclusions: Enrolling in a four-year college brings large benefits to marginal students.

Roughly half of the students in Georgia who had cleared the bar went on to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with only 17 percent of those who missed the cutoff, according to one of the studies, by Joshua S. Goodman of Harvard and Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith of the College Board. The benefits were concentrated among lower-income students, both studies found, and among men, one of them found.

…Perhaps most important, the data show that the students just above the admissions cutoff earned substantially more by their late 20s than students just below it — 22 percent more on average, according to the Florida study, which was done by Seth D. Zimmerman, a Princeton economist who will soon move to the University of Chicago. “If you give these students a shot, they’re ready to succeed,” said Mr. Zimmerman, adding that he was surprised by the strength of the findings.”

The article concluded by citing the political scientist Robert D. Putnam:

“…his new book on inequality, “Our Kids,” is a lamentation. In past decades, Mr. Putnam argued, the United States made a series of investments that essentially treated children as everyone’s children. The best example was the rise of universal high school in the 20th century, an expensive undertaking that did not directly benefit many taxpayers.

Back then, a high school education was the new ticket to the middle class. Today, a college education is. And when it comes to people’s own children, there is remarkably little disagreement about the value of college, even when it requires taking on debt. Affluent, middle-class and lower-income parents alike, in overwhelming numbers, aspire for their children to finish college.

Americans agree that “our kids” should go to college. The debate is really about who qualifies as “our kids.”

The key question:  Is America ready for college for the masses?  I say we are!



Shrinks:  The Untold Story of Psychiatry by Jeffrey Lieberman!

Dear Commons Community,

I just finished reading, Shrinks, the Untold Story of Psychiatry by Jeffrey Lieberman with Ogi Ogas.  Dr. Lieberman who as Professor and Chairman of Psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, tells the story of psychiatry as an insider.  He traces the field from its beginnings as a “pseudoscience” through its “cult of shrinks” years to its current stage as a science-driven profession that saves lives. 

Sigmund Freud and the entire area of psychoanalysis does not come off looking very good whereas the work of Eric Kandel is presented as getting psychiatry on a firmer scientific footing.  Here is an excerpt from a New York Times review:

“Freud knew he lacked evidence for many of his “daring ideas about mental illness,” Lieberman says. Yet rather than conducting research to fill in the gaps, he instead began attacking anybody who questioned him. “He demanded complete loyalty to his theory, and insisted that his disciples follow his clinical techniques without deviation,” Lieberman argues, thereby “fossilizing a promising and dynamic scientific theory into a petrified religion.”

Lieberman hails the advent of the ­Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the “bible of psychiatry” that describes in symptomatic detail all mental illnesses currently recognized by its publisher, the American Psychiatric Association, and therefore billable for insurance purposes. He recounts, at rather too much length, the infighting that erupted over different editions of the manual, including the latest version, published during his tenure as president of the A.P.A., but he makes a convincing case that its format has given the field a precision and reliability it lacked in the past. Psychiatrists have also taken advantage of new imaging technology to scan the brains of living patients, tracking subtle differences between the well and the ill that may not be obvious post-mortem.

Ultimately, though, the real secret to psychiatry’s success is drugs. One by one, the most devastating and formerly intractable mental diseases were tamed, if not completely routed, by pharmaceuticals: chlorpromazine for schizophrenia, lithium for bipolar disease, imipramine for ­depression. Lieberman describes the ­serendipity behind each spectacular discovery. He glides over the very real problem of side effects, and the fact that psychiatric drugs don’t always work or stop working over time. Still, for all the hand-wringing in some quarters that we are an overmedicated society, psychiatric drugs give patients what no rubber hose or hectoring daddy can: peace of mind, a piece of sky, a life.”

The story in Shrinks is probably known to those who have taken coursework in psychology.  As someone who has not, I found the book most helpful in clarifying the evolution and current state of the field. 




Nicholas Kristof:  Getting Beyond The Education Wars – Let’s Focus on Early Childhood Education!

Dear Commons Community,

Nicholas Kristoph yesterday reviewed the sad state of public education reform in this country and made a plea for concentrating on the one thing that all agree on and that is the expansion of early childhood education.  His opening is a blast at the way we have polarized our education system into belligerent armies of competing ideologues. 

“For the last dozen years, waves of idealistic Americans have campaigned to reform and improve K-12 education.

Armies of college graduates joined Teach for America. Zillionaires invested in charter schools. Liberals and conservatives, holding their noses and agreeing on nothing else, cooperated to proclaim education the civil rights issue of our time.

Yet I wonder if the education reform movement hasn’t peaked.

The zillionaires are bruised. The idealists are dispirited. The number of young people applying for Teach for America, after 15 years of growth, has dropped for the last two years. The Common Core curriculum is now an orphan, with politicians vigorously denying paternity.

K-12 education is an exhausted, blood-soaked battlefield. It’s Agincourt, the day after. So a suggestion: Refocus some reformist passions on early childhood.”

“Even within early education, there will be battles. Some advocates emphasize the first three years of life, while others focus on 4-year-olds. Some seek to target the most at-risk children, while others emphasize universal programs.

But early childhood is not a toxic space, the way K-12 education is now. So let’s redeploy some of our education passions, on all sides, to an area where we just may be able to find common ground: providing a foundation for young children aged 0 to 5.”

Kristoph’s observations are right.   An investment in early childhood education might be the common ground on which to detoxify the environment we call public education.




CNN Host Fareed Zakaria:  We Need the Liberal Arts More Than Ever!

Dear Commons Community,

Fareed Zakaria, at an interview for his book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, commented that a liberal arts education is the best preparation for most careers.  The CNN host stated:

“The future of a country like the U.S. rests on our ability to master how technology interacts with how humans live, work and play,” Zakaria said to The WorldPost. “And that depends on skills fostered by the liberal arts, such as creativity, aesthetic sensibility and social, political and psychological insight.”

Because of tough economic times, the rising cost of higher education and an increasingly competitive job market, too many Americans — and American politicians — are turning away from the liberal arts under a false perception that they are a poor career option, Zakaria says.

In his new book, Zakaria writes that America’s success was built on a liberal arts education — on multidisciplinary study for the sake of learning rather than vocational study for the sake of a set career path. Liberal arts subjects — such as English, philosophy and political science — teach people how to think, write and communicate; those skills remain useful through the many twists and turns of a career in today’s ever-changing digital economy, he argues. And, he says, it is dangerous to overemphasize STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education as separate from or more important than the liberal arts.

Zakaria’s sage advice is timely as a number of policymakers promote career training in our colleges and universities.



Why We Need Learning Scientists for Instructional Technology to Succeed!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article by Bror Saxberg calling for more involvement of learning scientists in the design of instructional technology.  Learning science is still relatively new but is gaining popularity in graduate education.  It is an interdisciplinary field that draws from curricula studies, computer science, instructional technology, and cognitive science.  Saxberg makes a number of excellent points:

“I wandered around the South by Southwest ed-tech conference, listening to excited chatter about how digital technology would revolutionize learning. I think valuable change is coming, but I was struck by the lack of discussion about what I see as a key problem: Almost no one who is involved in creating learning materials or large-scale educational experiences relies on the evidence from learning science.

We are missing a job category: Where are our talented, creative, user-­centric “learning engineers” — professionals who understand the research about learning, test it, and apply it to help more students learn more effectively?

…I am not suggesting that all subject-matter experts (meaning faculty members) need to become learning engineers, although some might. However, students and faculty members alike would benefit from increased collaboration between faculty members and learning experts — specialists who would respect each other’s expertise — rather than relying on a single craftsman in the classroom, which is often the case in higher education today…

…technology has only a chance to help — there is no guarantee. While we hope that only the best instructors are engaged with technology, imagine your worst college professor. In the old days, that person damaged just a few hundred students per year. Thanks to video on demand and other wonders of technology, today that person might damage a few hundred thousand students — a weapon of mass destruction. Not exactly a win for technology and learning.

…Technology is not the problem. As Richard E. Clark suggested in his book Learning From Media: Arguments, Analysis, and Evidence, education technology serves only as a delivery vehicle. All technologies can deliver effective or ineffective instruction. The key question is what you ask students to do and how you help them do it, not what tools you use.

After decades of experimental work by cognitive scientists and others, we now know a lot about how people learn. Neurons do not follow Moore’s law, the prediction by Gordon Moore in the 1960s that semiconductors would double in capacity every two years. Since our brains’ cognitive machinery does not change year after year, the good news is that investing in learning science will have long-lasting benefits.”

Lots of good insights in this article.  Well-worth a read!



Democrats Introduce Resolution Calling For Debt-Free Public College!

Dear Commons Community,

In what is mostly a symbolic action, six Democrats (three in the Senate and three in the House) issued a joint resolution yesterday calling for debt-free public college education.  As reported in The Huffington Post:

“A group of congressional Democrats introduced a resolution on Tuesday seeking to ensure that students who attend public colleges and universities can graduate without debt.

The Senate resolution was introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), while Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) introduced the House version.

The lawmakers support plans to increase financial aid, help states lower tuition and make it possible for students to earn degrees in less time…

The debt-free resolution is backed by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is hosting events at town halls at several public colleges and universities across the country this week. Some of those events are scheduled at schools in Iowa and New Hampshire, as the committee hopes to make debt-free college a key issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.

A paper co-authored by the PCCC and Demos, a liberal think tank, argues that debt can be reduced through a combination of educational offerings and accountability measures. The groups’ suggestions include increasing the number of advanced placement courses and early college high school programs that are offered, ensuring that schools aren’t using federal money for advertising and requiring schools with large endowments to guarantee debt-free college.”

The specific wording of the resolution was as follows:

Resolved, that the Senate supports efforts—

(1) to ensure that, through a combination of efforts, all students have access to debt-free higher  education, defined to mean having no debt upon  graduation from all public institutions of higher education;

(2) to provide support to States so States can  make increased investments in higher education that will result in lower tuition and costs for students;

(3) to increase financial aid to students to help them afford the total cost of college attendance without taking on debt;

(4) to encourage innovation by States and institutions of higher education to cut costs for students and make college more affordable by increasing efficiency and enabling speedy and less-costly degree completion; and

(5) to reduce the burden of existing student loan debt.

Just as President Obama’s call earlier this year for tuition-free public community college did not go very far in the Republican-controlled Congress, this resolution likewise has little chance of being enacted in the near future.  However, at some point when the Congressional and White House political stars align more favorably, it is possible that legislation establishing some form of free public college education will see the light of day.



Teachers, Parents, and the Political Right Allied Against Testing and the Common Core!

Teacher and Parents Protesting Testing

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has a featured article this morning analyzing the actions of national and local teacher unions in fighting testing, teacher evaluations, and the Common Core.  Professor Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was quoted as stating:

“…the unions’ strategy on testing follows years in which they have been under assault, by conservative leaders and by the bipartisan education-reform movement that has painted unions as a central obstacle to improving schools…testing, Mr. Lichtenstein said, offers unions a way to join forces both with parents who object to testing and with Republicans who oppose the Common Core standards as a federalization of education.

“It is a powerful issue, by virtue of the fact that the right is also against it,” he said.

The article goes on to quote several teacher union leaders:

“Secky Fascione, director of organizing for the National Education Association, the largest nationwide teachers’ union, said reining in testing was the union’s top organizing priority. In the past month, Ms. Fascione said, chapters in 27 states have organized against testing, including holding rallies; petition drives; showings of “Standardized,” a documentary critical of testing; and sessions telling parents they have a right to keep their children from taking tests, as tens of thousands of parents around the country have done.

“Does it give us a platform?” said Karen E. Magee, the president of New York State United Teachers. “Absolutely.”

The Democratic Party, historically aligned with the teachers unions, should be careful with testing, teacher evaluation, and Common Core issues.   It does not want the unions and the teachers against their candidates.  In fact, given the closeness of elections in many states, it needs strong support from teachers and parent groups.



Randi Weingarten:  A Step Forward in Washington – A Step Backward in New York!

Dear Commons Community,

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, posted a message yesterday congratulating the negotiations on a rewrite of No Child Left Behind while criticizing Governor Andrew’s Cuomo’s education proposals in New York.  She sees Washington lawmakers and specifically the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee under the leadership of Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) as listening to their constituents including business leaders, community partners, civil rights activists, parents and educators.  On the other hand, Cuomo “has bought into his hedge fund backers’ idea: that the correlation between teachers and their students’ test scores is the only thing that matters.”

Ms. Weingarten is right in her comments but I am seeing glimmers of hope that Cuomo is backing away from his most stringent positions about teachers and testing.  He has been running TV ads nightly during the past couple of weeks that comment on his accomplishments as Governor of New York.  On education, his message has been much more tempered and even than it was after the November election and during budget negotiations in January.  We will see if his message mirrors his actions.

The full text is Randi Weingarten’s message is below.



A Step Forward in Washington – A Step Backward in New York!

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers

April 19, 2015

Something stunning happened this week in Congress. The Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee voted 22-0 to overhaul No Child Left Behind. That’s right, policymakers from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) listened to the people they’re sworn to represent and found common ground on public education.

Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) led the charge. They’re the ultimate Odd Couple — he served as President George H. W. Bush’s secretary of education; she was known as the “mom in tennis shoes” who entered politics to save her local preschool.

Together, they listened to business leaders, community partners, civil rights activists, parents and educators — including nearly 20,000 AFT members. Overwhelmingly, the message was: Instead of obsessing over test scores, let’s give our students what they need to climb the ladder of opportunity and succeed. Schools should be places of learning and joy, not testing and agita. And, let’s give our teachers the latitude, supports and resources necessary to do their jobs well.

The outcome is promising: While not perfect — no compromise is — their bill restores the original intent of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as NCLB was first known, to address poverty and educational inequality with targeted funding for poor children. It moves away from the counterproductive focus on sanctions and high-stakes tests, and ends federalized teacher evaluations and school closings.

Meanwhile, in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is going down a different (albeit well-worn) path, ramming through ideology as part of his budget, ignoring those closest to the classroom.

Across the state, students, teachers, parents and community members pleaded with the governor to listen to their concerns and visit their schools. Sixty public forums were held. Thousands rallied. But the governor refused to listen. He hasn’t visited a public school in his second term. It just seems he won’t have an honest conversation about what New York’s children and families are facing.

Systemic underfunding is denying generations of New York students their right to a sound basic education. Local communities have gone through tough economic times. The courts have said that the state owes schools in high-need districts 2.3 times more in per-pupil funding than schools in wealthy districts. Yet Gov. Cuomo fails to close this gap, which is among the worst in the nation. At the same time, New York schools are the most segregated in the nation, another issue that the governor ignores.

Instead, the governor, who’s really too smart to operate in an evidence-free zone, has bought into his hedge fund backers‘ idea: that the correlation between teachers and their students’ test scores is the only thing that matters. We saw this idea play out in NCLB and Race to the Top, where the over-reliance on high-stakes testing may not have been the intention, but it’s been the end result.

Pretty much everyone agrees that it hasn’t worked. And it’s no wonder: As important a role as teachers play, they ultimately account for 10 percent of the variance in test scores, according to economists. But while most policymakers are trying to strike a new balance by addressing the other 90 percent, Gov. Cuomo is doubling down on testing and sanctions.

Thankfully, the State Assembly and some in the state Senate have stuck to their values, fighting for more funding and moving some decisions to the Board of Regents, a board with educational expertise. Still, the governor’s actions are just plain wrong. New Yorkers, who, despite their calls to curb sanctions, despite already being put through the ringer with the fixation on high-stakes testing, continue to be ignored. That’s why we’re seeing so many parents choose to opt their children out of these tests.

I’ve worked in public education for 30 years — as a teacher, a lawyer and union leader. I’ve visited hundreds of schools and districts. I’ve seen leaders from the classroom to the national stage who have been willing to set aside their differences and do the hard work that’s necessary to create real, enduring change.

It might be surprising that this kind of leadership is wilting in a state like New York, while blooming in the most unlikely of places: Congress. The U.S. Senate bill represents an important step forward and the most positive development we’ve seen in public education policy in years — because of both the bill’s content and the committee’s very intentional move to leave partisanship and politics at the door.

There’s no silver bullet when it comes to helping all children achieve. Great public schools are our best shot. But until we have more leaders willing to look past ideology, listen to those closest to the classroom, and find common ground, we won’t move forward. And, in a welcome change, it’s the U.S. Senate that has shown us what’s possible.