Chronicle Article: The Ups and Downs of Big Data Research!

Dear Commons Community,

Marc Parry has an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, examining the ups and downs of big data research.   While there are various definitions of “big data”,  generically, the term  assumes that the information or database system(s) used as the main storage facility is capable of storing large quantities of data longitudinally and down to very specific transactions for subsequent use in studying human behavior.  Depending upon the application, big data could involve capturing every keystroke relating to the focus or behavior of an inquiry.

Parry starts by referring to questions to David Lazer:

“In 2009, David Lazer sounded the call for a fresh approach to social science. By analyzing large-scale data about human behavior—from social-network profiles to transit-card swipes—researchers could “transform our understanding of our lives, organizations, and societies,” Mr. Lazer, a professor of political science and computer science at Northeastern University, wrote in Science. The professor, joined by 14 co-authors, dubbed this field “computational social science.”

This month Mr. Lazer published a new Science article that seemed to dump a bucket of cold water on such data-mining excitement. The paper dissected the failures of Google Flu Trends, a flu-monitoring system that became a Big Data poster child. The technology, which mines people’s flu-related search queries to detect outbreaks, had been “persistently overestimating” flu prevalence, Mr. Lazer and three colleagues wrote. Its creators suffered from “Big Data hubris.” An onslaught of headlines and tweets followed. The reaction, from some, boiled down to this: Aha! Big Data has been overhyped. It’s bunk.”

Big data is surely being hyped as have many other new technological approaches only to have to come down to earth at some point.  My opinion is that big data is a natural evolution of decision support systems that have been developing for the last fifty years.  Database technology has been evolving steadily as the use of the Internet has greatly expanded hardware and software data-capturing facilities.  For researchers using big data techniques, one of the major problems as Parry astutely mentions is;

“The emerging problems highlight another challenge: bridging the “Grand Canyon,” as Mr. Lazer calls it, between “social scientists who aren’t computationally talented and computer scientists who aren’t social-scientifically talented.” As universities are set up now, he says, “it would be very weird” for a computer scientist to teach courses to social-science doctoral students, or for a social scientist to teach research methods to information-science students. Both, he says, should be happening.”

The disconnect between disciplines is a major issue and there needs to be an integration of skills  in order to realize the potential of big data research in human behavior.  In addition, a recognition of the cultural differences among disciplines has to be recognized.  The latter is much more difficult to achieve.



Homeless and on Food Stamps: The Life of an Adjunct Professor!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has a featured article on Mary-Faith Cerasoli, 53, an adjunct professor of Romance languages, who is homeless, sleeps in her car or at friend’s houses.  A graduate of Hunter College and Middlebury College, Ms. Cerasoli had been a public school teacher but had to give it up due to an eye injury.  Trying to eke out a living as an adjunct, Ms. Cerasoli travels from one college to another in the New York City area.  As reported in the article:

“Ms. Cerasoli has been an adjunct for several years at Mercy College in Westchester and several other places in and around New York City.

She says she uses film, music, culture and food to shape her lessons and to tell students, “Worlds open up to you when you learn a foreign language.”

But while encouraging students to major in foreign languages, she does not encourage them to follow her path into adjunct college teaching. The work is rewarding, she said, but not the pay:

Ms. Cerasoli, a former New York City schoolteacher, currently teaches two Italian classes at Mercy, splitting time between its Westchester and Midtown Manhattan campuses. For her, the professorial lifestyle has meant spending some nights sleeping in her car, showering at college athletic centers and applying for food stamps and other government benefits.

After being unable to keep several apartments, Ms. Cerasoli began couch-surfing a year ago, relying on friends. There was the unheated basement in Bronxville, and the room in the Bronx with no hot water. She is currently living in a small room in a Co-Op City apartment, also in the Bronx, courtesy of a friend — who is about to be evicted.

“We’re basically squatting here,” she said, while preparing for a trip to Albany for her one-woman demonstration in front of the state’s Education Department building. She planned to urge officials to improve conditions for adjuncts at public colleges as more universities save money by reducing their full-time teaching staffs.

Until recently, Ms. Cerasoli taught at Nassau Community College on Long Island, but lacking seniority, she was not assigned any classes this year, she said.

“They call us professors, but they’re paying us at poverty levels,” she said. “I just want to make a living from a skill I’ve spent 30 years developing.”

The exploitation of adjunct professors has been going on for years.  The pay is low and has not changed much in decades.  I had my first teaching position as an adjunct at Borough of Manhattan Community College in 1971.  I was paid a little more than $3,000. for a three-credit/three hour course.  This is still the going rate in the New York City area.  With the squeeze of funding at many public colleges and tuition-dependent private colleges, adjuncts have become their financial lifelines.

For shame on all of us who have allowed this to happen.


Chris Christie Cleared by His Own Lawyers of Any Wrongdoing in Bridgegate Scandal???????????

Dear Commons Community,

A law firm hired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Thursday that the governor was not involved in a plot to create gridlock on the George Washington Bridge as part of a political retribution scheme.    As reported by the Associated Press and The Huffington Post.

“The taxpayer-funded report released by former federal prosecutor Randy Mastro relies on interviews with Christie and other officials in his administration and 250,000 documents, many of them emails and text messages.

“We found that Gov. Christie had no knowledge beforehand of this George Washington Bridge realignment idea,” Mastro said at a news conference.

He also said the lane closures were not reflective of the way the governor’s office generally operates. “We found that this was the action of the few,” he said. “This is not reflective of the whole.”

His report comes out ahead of any results from independent investigations by federal prosecutors and a special committee of state lawmakers. Some of the key figures would not cooperate with Mastro’s investigation, leading Democrats to question the credibility of the report and its thoroughness.

Defending the report at the news conference, Mastro said his team was able to review a trove of documents, including emails and text messages among Christie, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, top governor’s office staff and former staffers. “We believe we have gotten to the truth or we wouldn’t be reporting it,” he said.”

I question whether anyone other than Chris Christie believes this report.



ACE Study: College Ranking Systems Are Largely Ignored by Students

College  Rankings

Dear Commons Community,

The American Council on Education published a report indicating that prospective students largely ignore college rankings  in magazines such as US News and World Report. The ACE report is directly largely at the proposed federal ratings system that would grade colleges and universities on measures like access, affordability and student outcomes. As reported in The Huffington Post: 

“Twenty-four percent of college freshmen from wealthy backgrounds said that rankings were a “very important” factor in deciding where to go to school, the highest proportion among any demographic, according to data from the 2013 Higher Education Research Institute Cooperative Institutional Research Program cited in the report. Among low- and middle-income students, the proportion of those who said college rankings were “very important” was only about 10 percent…

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan insists that the proposed federal rating system would be significantly different from existing college rankings, such as those issued by U.S. News & World Report. But college leaders have been mostly critical of the Obama administration’s proposal.”

ACE and the college leaders are right on this issue!  In my 45 years of higher education administration and as a faculty member, I have never met a student who ever referred to a college ranking system.



Janet Napolitano – U. of California President Says Online Education is Not a Silver Bullet!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article today on an interview with Janet Napolitano, the new president of the University of California. She states that online education is not the answer to the fundamental challenges facing her system.   The article states:

“Ms. Napolitano, who took office last fall after serving four years as U.S. secretary of homeland security, sat for an interview this week with Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. Mr. Baldassare noted that online education did not figure in her stated initiatives. Here is how Ms. Napolitano responded:

I think there’s a developing consensus that online learning is a tool for the tool box, where higher education is concerned; that it is not a silver bullet the way it was originally portrayed to be. It’s a lot harder than it looks. And, by the way, if you do it right, it doesn’t save all that much money, because you still have to have an opportunity for students to interact with either a teaching assistant or an assistant professor or professor at some level. And preparing the courses, if they’re really going to be top-quality, is an investment as well.

Ms. Napolitano’s remarks contrasted with the attitude of Gov. Jerry Brown, who last year promoted a pilot partnership with the upstart online-education company Udacity as a possible way to increase the capacity of California’s public universities while lowering costs. That experiment didn’t pan out, however.

And while campuses in the University of California system do offer many online courses, the university’s centralized online initiative, UC Online, has not quite lived up to expectations.

The new president continued:

Early on, the notion was you could use online learning to help students who were getting started, for remedial English or math, to be up to speed. I think that’s false. I think those students need the teacher in the classroom working with them. I think where online learning will turn out to be the most useful is to complement the upper-division coursework that we have.”

The entire interview is below.  The online-education part begins at 31:00.




Resignation Letter of Suzi Sluyter, a Former Teacher in Cambridge (Mass) Public Schools!

Dear Commons Community,

Below is the resignation letter of a former teacher, Suzi Sluyter.  It says it all about the sorry state of education in this country brought on by the federal government mandates in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.



February 12, 2014

I am writing today to let you know that I am resigning my position as PreK and Kindergarten teacher in the Cambridge Public Schools.  It is with deep sadness that I have reached this decision, as I have loved my job, my school community, and the families and amazing and dedicated faculty I have been connected with throughout the district for the past eighteen years.  I have always seen myself as a public school teacher, and fully intended to work until retirement in the public school system.  Further, I am the product of public schools, and my son attended Cambridge Public Schools from PreK through Grade 12.  I am and always have been a firm believer in quality public education.

In this disturbing era of testing and data collection in the public schools, I have seen my career transformed into a job that no longer fits my understanding of how children learn and what a teacher ought to do in the classroom to build a healthy, safe, developmentally appropriate environment for learning for each of our children.  I have experienced, over the past few years, the same mandates that all teachers in the district have experienced.   I have watched as my job requirements swung away from a focus on the children, their individual learning styles, emotional needs, and their individual families, interests and strengths to a focus on testing, assessing, and scoring young children, thereby ramping up the academic demands and pressures on them.  Each year, I have been required to spend more time attending classes and workshops to learn about new academic demands that smack of 1st and 2nd grade, instead of Kindergarten and PreK.  I have needed to schedule and attend more and more meetings about increasingly extreme behaviors and emotional needs of children in my classroom; I recognize many of these behaviors as children shouting out to the adults in their world, “I can’t do this!  Look at me!  Know me!  Help me!  See me!”  I have changed my practice over the years to allow the necessary time and focus for all the demands coming down from above.  Each year there are more.  Each year I have had less and less time to teach the children I love in the way I know best—and in the way child development experts recommend.  I reached the place last year where I began to feel I was part of a broken system that was causing damage to those very children I was there to serve.

I was trying to survive in a community of colleagues who were struggling to do the same:  to adapt and survive, to continue to hold onto what we could, and to affirm what we believe to be quality teaching for an early childhood classroom.  I began to feel a deep sense of loss of integrity.  I felt my spirit, my passion as a teacher, slip away.  I felt anger rise inside me.  I felt I needed to survive by looking elsewhere and leaving the community I love so dearly.  I did not feel I was leaving my job.  I felt then and feel now that my job left me.

It is with deep love and a broken heart that I write this letter.


Suzi Sluyter

College Athletes Win First Battle in Labor Union Movement!

Dear Commons Community,

A group of college football players led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter has won its case against Northwestern University in the National Labor Relations Board, putting it on the path toward official unionization (see full ruling in PDF form).  As of now, the NLRB considers a group of college football players labor, determining “players receiving scholarships from the Employer are ’employees’ and therefore entitled to unionize.

This ruling is subject to appeals that will likely drag on for years.

Still this is huge news.


New Study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project: Most Segregated Schools Are in New York!

Dear Commons Community,

The Huffington Post has an article today reporting on a study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project concluding that the nation’s most segregated schools are in New York State.

“… in 2009, black and Latino students in New York “had the highest concentration in intensely-segregated public schools,” in which white students made up less than 10 percent of enrollment and “the lowest exposure to white students,” wrote John Kucsera, a UCLA researcher, and Gary Orfield, a UCLA professor and the project’s director. “For several decades, the state has been more segregated for blacks than any Southern state, though the South has a much higher percent of African American students,” the authors wrote. The report, “New York State’s Extreme School Segregation,” looked at 60 years of data up to 2010, from various demographics and other research.

There’s also a high level of “double segregation,” Orfield said in an interview, as students are increasingly isolated not only by race, but also by income: the typical black or Latino student in New York state attends a school with twice as many low-income students as their white peers. That concentration of poverty brings schools disadvantages that mixed-income schools often lack: health issues, mobile populations, entrenched violence and teachers who come from the least selective training programs. “They don’t train kids to work in a society that’s diverse by race and class,” he said. “There’s a systematically unequal set of demands on those schools.”

While segregated schools are located throughout New York State, the segregation of schools in New York City — the country’s most heterogeneous area — contributes to the state’s standing. Of the city’s 32 Community School Districts, 19 had 10 percent or fewer white students in 2010. All school districts in the Bronx fell into that category. More than half of New Yorkers are black or Latino, but most neighborhoods have little diversity — and recent changes in school enrollment policies, spurred by the creation of many charter schools, haven’t helped, Orfield argues.

Only 8 percent of New York City charter schools are considered multiracial, meaning they had a white enrollment of 14.5 percent or above, the New York City average. “Charter schools take the metro’s segregation to an extreme,” according to the report. “Nearly all charters” in the Bronx and Brooklyn were “intensely segregated” in 2010, meaning they had less than 10 percent white student enrollment. The Civil Rights Project considers 73 percent of New York City charters to be “apartheid schools,” in which less than 1 percent of students are white, and 90 percent were “intensely segregated.” (Orfield clarified that he uses the word apartheid to make “people understand what it’s like when you have a law that requires racial separation — we are very close to that level.”) Charter supporters have argued that Orfield’s methodology compares schools’ racial composition to those of boroughs or cities, but not their immediate surrounding neighborhoods.”

These results while troubling are not surprising given the socioeconomics throughout New York State and especially in its cities and suburbs.



Senate Hearing on Federal Oversight of Teacher Preparation!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education had an article on a hearing before the Senate Education Committee on how to improve federal reporting of data from the nation’s teacher education programs.  A brief recap:

“Testifying at a hearing before the Senate education committee, witnesses called for a “common set of concise but meaningful measures,” as Jeanne M. Burns, associate commissioner for teacher and leadership initiatives at the Louisiana Board of Regents, put it.

She told lawmakers that many of the existing requirements are time-consuming and meaningless, and urged them to “identify a clear purpose for the collection of data” from teacher-prep programs. She suggested that Congress start with the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation’s new standards, which will require programs to tighten their admissions criteria and to prove that their graduates are contributing to the academic growth of the students they teach.

That approach was embraced by Mary Brabeck, chair of the accreditation council’s Board of Directors. In her testimony, Ms. Brabeck argued that the current data “do not capture what we need to know about program quality, outcomes, and impacts.”

Another panel member, Edward Crowe, a senior adviser with the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, proposed replacing the 140 data elements that programs now report with eight metrics focused on the quality of teacher candidates and their professional outcomes.

Timothy Daly, president of TNTP, an advocacy group formerly known as the New Teacher Project, went a step further, urging lawmakers to start from scratch.”

It is my belief that many of the schools of education are doing a fine job.  Some are not.  However, the present reporting requirements are almost meaningless and should be simplified.


Plans for Free Community College Meet Resistance in Several States!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting that several state plans to provide free community colleges are meeting resistance mainly from other sectors of higher education.  As reported by The Chronicle:

“…a batch of higher-­education proposals for free community college in Mississippi and Tennessee, and a legislative study of that idea in Oregon…

have run into difficulty as lawmakers grapple with competing demands in a still-tenuous economy. That competition includes other sectors and groups within higher education, which are seeking to protect their own enrollment and state appropriations.

The proposal for free community college in Mississippi, which easily passed the state House of Representatives, died in a Senate committee. The Tennessee measure, a key part of the governor’s legislative agenda, has been delayed as public and private four-year colleges call for changes to protect grants for their students.”

The article expands on the issues and also discusses collective bargaining rights of adjuncts and offering four-year degrees in community colleges.

As posted in this blog, free higher education is an idea whose time has come.  Making community colleges free is a first step in the right direction.