Tag: education policy

Crossing borders in the sciences


In an essay in this month’s Scientific American, Alice Gast, president of Lehigh University, makes a case for the benefits of international collaboration in the sciences:

It has become cliche that great discoveries come from interdisciplinary thinking… [F]ew realize how much science is energized when team members have different cultural approaches to problem solving. International diversity is just as important as diversity of discipline.

She notes that years ago when she began a collaboration with researchers in Mexico and Germany, the “approaches seemed irreconcilable:”

…my Mexican cohorts wanted to relax the rules to make the mathematics more tractable and later put htem back in. This set our German friends on edge. They kept reminding us of the constraints and the boundary conditions to make sure we did not stray too far. My American training left me somewhere in the middle: I worried about the constraints but was tentatively willing to relax them.

…The need to reach across national boundaries places greater demands on scientists. While scientists become more specialized as they proceed through their studies, broadening and collaborative experiences make them better able to “think differently” and “connect the dots” to discover new things. Ultimately it leads to better science.

I think it’s important to take note of this observation. Today, more students than ever are experiencing international learning experiences through study abroad and internships — roughly 40% of the students in liberal arts institutions now study abroad (in IR, that number is somewhere around two-thirds of the students).

In the sciences, and in physics and chemistry in particular, the number of students with some type of international learning experience or collaboration at the undergraduate level is substantially lower — often well below 10%. Most undergraduate science students are reluctant to study abroad because of fears they won’t land positions in research labs, or get into graduate school or medical school. Too many science departments and faculty reinforce this view by stressing earlier professional tracking — even in liberal arts institutions. Not all science students would necessarily benefit from international learning experiences, but if there is merit to international collaboration, it makes sense to cultivate these experiences at the beginning of specialized science education.

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Mortenson declines Education Grawemeyer

In addition to filling an open faculty line in international relations (IR), I was hired in 1991 by the University of Louisville with the idea that I would eventually direct the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. The World Order award was then one of four Grawemeyer Awards and at the time I was hired, I knew virtually nothing about any of them. The prize was worth $150,000, making it the largest award in Political Science. Nonetheless, it was not especially well-known even within the discipline, nor much publicized outside of it, though the earliest prizes were awarded to prominent IR scholars and Political Scientists like Samuel Huntington, Robert Jervis, Robert Keohane and Richard Neustadt.

The annual awards in Education and Religion were also relatively unknown. The award in Music Composition, however, apparently became a major global award and typically receives media coverage in the New York Times and other global outlets. The award amount eventually increased to $200,000 (though it decreased after the 2008 stock market dip) and a fifth award in Psychology was added in 2001. Sporadically, awards other than Music Composition have received a modicum of publicity.

The World Order Award winner received a great deal of publicity in 1994 when Mikhail Gorbachev visited Louisville to speak and collect his payment. Though this selection occurred just before I assumed leadership of the World Order Award, I recall that most of the coverage concerned his missing pants truly. While I have never believed that the lack of media interest in the World Order winners reflected anything in particular about the field or the winning ideas, it can be frustrating laboring in relative obscurity. Many people reading this post have perhaps reviewed for the award in the past — and I know that many had never really heard about the prize until I asked them to read for it.

In any case, there are clearly far worse fates than being unknown to the wider world. Earlier this year, on April 14 — after months of delay and behind-the-scenes negotiation — the Education winner for 2011 was announced: Greg Mortenson, author of the bestselling book, Three Cups of Tea.

Was this the academic equivalent of the Grammy award for Milli Vanilli?


A few days later, “60 Minutes” ran the famous story questioning his honesty, humanitarianism, and research integrity. A couple of days after that story broke, best-selling author Jon Krakauer published a digital book slamming Mortenson for lying and losing “his moral bearings.”

Needless to say, this created a publicity nightmare for the University of Louisville and for my colleagues in the School of Education, who administer the prize. Time magazine ran a piece detailing the trouble and the story of the university’s apparent gaffe made more news than most of the awards ever have.

This weekend, roughly one week before Mortenson was scheduled to visit Louisville, speak, and collect his prize, the University announced that Mortenson had decided not to accept the award.

“We, like millions of others, have been inspired by Greg’s work and we share his commitment to education and to his belief that we can provide a more peaceful future for all our children through knowledge and friendship,” [Provost Shirley] Willihnganz said.

While UofL will not give the 2011 Grawemeyer Award in Education, Willihnganz said the university will provide $50,000 in privately funded scholarships (unrelated to the Grawemeyer endowment) to students who decide to major in education and agree to teach in Louisville’s poorest schools.

I have watched this affair unfold with both a sense of distance and uncomfortable proximity. Most of what I know about the Mortenson case has been learned by reading the newspapers and press releases. Each of the awards is quite distinct and I rarely see the faculty involved in the other awards — Psychology is a bit of an exception since it is part of Arts & Sciences. However, Education, Music, and Religion are located in completely different colleges within the University organizational chart.**

For months, people in Louisville and fellow scholars have asked me about Mortenson because they assume my involvement in World Order grants me access to the inside scoop. That is not the case.

Over the years, as you might expect, the World Order award has received nominations supporting fairly prominent political figures. Most of them, like Gorbachev, have baggage associated with their work even if they are best known for remarkable ideas or (more likely) for engineering dramatic political changes. Reviewers and the screening committee are supposed to focus on the nominated material, but these external issues inevitably loom in the background — and press against the foreground. I have no doubt that some ideas were considered more seriously at some steps in the multi-stage selection process precisely because they emanated from famous figures.

The Grawemeyer review process involves nearly a full year of hard work to select a single work — and awarding the prize to a well-known figure can bring immediate attention to the entire effort. I do not believe that the Education committee selected Mortenson because of his name recognition. However, I do think that the selection serves as a cautionary tale for anyone involved in the review process. It could be read, in fact, as another point in favor of blind review.

Before closing, I should note that I resigned my position directing the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World order in the spring, effective June 30, 2011. Our department chair had announced his intention to depart for another university, the faculty elected (and the Dean selected) me to succeed him, and I had a one semester sabbatical coming in fall 2011 that I did not want to interrupt. It seemed like a good time for a transition. As it happens, the chair of our Political Science department serves on the Final Selection Committee for the World Order award, meaning that I will again have some important Grawemeyer duties in fall of 2012.

** Correction/note: The Religion award is administered by a University faculty committee in conjuction with the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The long-time coordinator of the award, Susan R. Garrett, holds a faculty position at the Seminary.

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Did it take you (or your assistant) five minutes to Google that?

Anyone think Kathryn Lopez (of the National Review) actually reads the social-scientific articles she links to? This is from a screed attacking college co-ed housing:

And, if you want to get even more practical, W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, points out: “Needless to say, binge drinking and casual sex tend to distract students from their studies. For instance, young women who engage in such activities are more likely to be depressed, and tend to do poorly when they get distracted by drinking and sex.”

The first article she links to, independent of its merits and some of its other purported findings, studies a cohort from Grades 7-12. That’s right: it doesn’t even deal with sexual activity among college students.

The second article requires some significant stretching to lead the conclusions that having sex in college negatively impacts educational outcomes. It looks at the relationship between lifetime sex partners for women age 22-24 and different levels of educational attainment. The authors find that the average college attendee had 5.73 partners and respondents who did not had, on average, 6.35 sex partners. Put differently, it does not measure the impact of sex in college on anything at all.

And people wonder why “it has lots of footnotes” doesn’t carry much weight with academics when we evaluate popular nonfiction…..

Update: James Joyner, a week ago, no less, on the source of the whole thing.

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F for the Professor?

Have you heard about a new study, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, authored by academics Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa and released by University of Chicago Press? Their research question should be of interest to most of the people reading this blog: “are undergraduates really learning anything once they get” to college?**

The results are disturbing:

Their extensive research draws on survey responses, transcript data, and, for the first time, the state-of-the-art Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester and then again at the end of their second year. According to their analysis of more than 2,300 undergraduates at twenty-four institutions, 45 percent of these students demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills—including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing—during their first two years of college.

According to press reports, “36 percent of students ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ over four years of college.”

The linked press report quotes education experts who frame this as a moral issue and describe the findings as “devastating.” The halls of academe, write the authors, are filled with too many students “drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose.”

According to Arum and Roksa, the greatest problem from the institution’s perspective is lack of rigorous expectations for undergraduates:

They review data from student surveys to show, for example, that 32 percent of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week, and that half don’t take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester.

The findings do suggest some good news for liberal arts majors:

Students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains.

Greek life, extracurricular activities, study groups, and other social experiences tend to be associated with reduced learning outcomes. Students who study alone for many hours per week achieve more.

Grade inflation is apparently another important part of the problem as students “earn” top grades without really learning anything. At an Arts and Sciences assembly last week, I learned that more than one-third of students receive a grade of A+, A or A- in University of Louisville classes. The portion of students earnign an A of any type in my classes is less than half of that number and I found the statistic quite disheartening.

The Social Science Research Council has published a short report “Improving Undergraduate Learning: Findings and Policy Recommendations from the SSRC-CLA Longitudinal Project” by the scholars (and Esther Cho of SSRC) that is available for free download.

What are the key recommendations of this SSRC report? Unsurprisingly, the authors call for more rigorous requirements:

Enhanced curriculum and instruction associated with academic rigor. More rigorous, appropriately demanding course requirements and standards must be put in place to ensure the development of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication skills (i.e., increased academic assignments requiring greater student effort, adequate student reading and writing, and high expectations by faculty).

They call for students, faculty and administrators to demand rigor — and for additional assessment to assure that it works (though not really via standarized tests). More funding would be needed to implement these measures at the undergraduate level. One huge current problem is that undergraduate education is often near the bottom of the priority list for major research institutions that are nonetheless considered top-notch institutions of higher learning.

** Faithful readers may recall that I have an additional personal stake in this topic.

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The decline of American math and sciences?

I attended a forum on the math and science curriculum last night at my kids’ school and we had an interesting presentation and discussion on the general state of math and science education in the United States. Several of the parents present at the forum were math and science faculty members from Smith College and from UMass. One prominent theme was the lament that the US was falling behind China and India in the math and sciences.

One of the parents referred me to an article and data published last summer in Money magazine. A key finding:

As math and science talent accumulates abroad, companies do more of their hiring there, reducing demand in the U.S. That’s partly why undergraduate engineering majors are a shrinking proportion of the total, down from 6.8% to about 4.5% over the past 20 years. Employers then claim they can’t find engineers in the U.S. — so they have to hire abroad.

Another passage generated a sharp response from several parents:

The fastest-growing college majors in America as of 2007, says the U.S. Education Department, were parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies, as well as security and protective services.

Then this morning, Thomas Friedman’s column added another plug for the decline of American math and sciences in American education.

I’m certainly not pollyannaish on the state of math and science education in the United States. My 12-year-old son loves math and sciences but complains about “math limbo” at his school — as he puts it: “They keep lowering the bar and asking us to go under it.” OK, that may be a bit of pre-teen bravado speaking, but in the era of underfunded No Child Left Behind mandates, teachers are increasingly incentivised to teach to the state tests and discouraged from using a range of differentiated teaching techniques to meet a broad range of student interest and aptitudes.

But, my broader objection to this discussion and to the broader debate on relative decline, power transition, and the “rise of China and India,” is the failure to understand or examine the complexities and challenges that both China and India face. No one can dispute the extraordinary economic transitions and growth rates realized by China and India over the past twenty-five years. But most of the political discourse on power transition (and the lament of American decline) seems to assume linear trends over the next twenty-five to fifty years.

I’m not sure I see it that way. I co-edited a volume last year on China and it included interesting chapters by Iain Johnston and Sheena Chestnut from Harvard, by Susan Shirk from UCSD, by Cheng Li from Brookings, and by Kelly Sims Gallagher at Tufts among others, that all presented significant internal contradictions within China and questioned the viability and sustainability of current trend lines. With all due respect to the challenges facing the United States, both China and India face far greater obstacles in terms of internal political challenges and vulnerabilities, in terms of the relative disparities in the distribution of wealth, in terms of dealing with abject poverty, in terms of rural to urban migration and the subsequent social and cultural dislocations, as well as in terms of environmental degradation and resource scarcity. Given these challenges, I’m not sure I see China’s rise as inevitable — we may see it, but we may not….

All of this has implications for the more immediate discussion on the current state of American math and sciences. Prachi Patel has a nice summary of some of the contradictory indicators in last month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum Magazine (the flagship magazine of the leading professional organization for advanced technologies). She writes there remain significant quality gaps in the education standards in India and Chinese engineering programs. While students at the elite Chinese and Indian institutions graduate with skills on par with the top American students, these elite students account for only a fraction of the total graduates with these degrees:

Lower-tier colleges and universities in both India and China suffer from passive learning styles. Design and project work is typically absent, the curricula do not focus on problem solving or building project management and communication skills, and there are no internships or other work experience….

….[Vivek]Wadhwa [an executive in residence at Duke University’s engineering programming] adds that the quality of the educators is very poor, and there’s not enough depth or funding. The main problem, though, is the sheer mass of students enrolled in engineering classes. ”When you have 100 students per teacher, you really can’t get hands-on and be interactive,” he says.

The result is that most of the engineering graduates in these countries are not landing jobs nor are they fundamentally transforming their societies at the expense of the United States. I understand the instrumental claims, but we (especially Thomas Friedman) invoke(s) national security imperatives for everything these days. We should be able to discuss and address the current problems and weaknesses of math and science education in the United States without the constant drum beat of power transitions and interstate competition — especially when the analytic claims are so dubious.

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Summer Vacation Discriminates Against Poor Kids

I have just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s latest book Outliers. For those who haven’t picked it up, yet, the key thesis is that extraordinary individuals are actually not extraordinary as individuals, but simply happen to be the lucky beneficiaries of chance, opportunity and social structures that unwittingly favor some over others by accident of birth – in ways we seldom recognize and even more seldom legislate to balance out.

Bill Gates? Not a genius, just one of the lucky kids who by random chance happened to have access to an early computer terminal in the 1960s, giving him a leg up on the computer revolution. Gifted athletes? Most of them just happen to be born between January and March, helping them benefit from the arbitrary cut-off dates associated with sports league eligibility – kids with those birthdays will always be a little stronger and faster than those slightly younger than them lumped on the same team, and this will translate into a slight advantage at first, compounded over time by the validation and extra sports opportunities that their perceived “giftedness” relative to their “peers” earns them.

Gladwell’s book is full of interesting anecdotes about how random circumstance (rather than either individual merit or overt discrimination) accounts for people’s success at math, computers, social relations, finance, even at landing airlines safely. But the study that most caught my eye is toward the end of the book, when he explains why long summer vacations (a peculiarly American invention) may be at the root of our education crisis – and in fact do more than anything else to explain the learning gap between wealthy and economically disadvantaged kids.

Gladwell cites research by Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander, who studied test scores among Baltimore elementary-schoolers by income level, and how they changed throughout the school year, and again between spring and fall. Although the oft-cited “achievement gap” appears to suggest that high-income kids do better in school overall, Alexander shows by disaggregating scores between September and May and scores between May and September that low-income kids actually do as well or better than their peers during the school year.

“Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they’re not in school.”

Like, summer camp, museums, road trips, having reading material and educational computer games lying around the house.


According to Gladwell:

What Alexander’s work suggests is the way in which education has been discussed in the United States is backwards. An enormous amoutn of time is spent talking about reducing class size, rewriting curriculua, buying every student a shiny new laptop and increasing school funding – all of which assumes that there is something fundamentally wrong with the job schools are doing. But the problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.

Well, I don’t like Gladwell’s comparison to the Asian model of up to 243 school days a year, or other recent calls to get rid of summer vacation altogether.Summer vacation is a good thing, if only because kids need some downtime, and it gives parents who can afford it an opportunity to be more involved in structuring and selecting their children’s learning opportunities along lines that suit the kids’ and parents interests. (I know summer is really the only time my kids get to explore a variety of extracurricular pursuits there is simply no time for in a heavily regimented school year or to travel.)

The issue is about how to make sure that these opportunities are not solely dependent on the free market. How could we as a society ensure that every parent, regardless of his or her wealth, had access to a menu of non-formal schooling and travel options for their children during summer vacation?

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