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Category: Education

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Vouchers ascendant?

The heartening (and unanimous) decision by the Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday to uphold that state’s school-voucher program further undermines a dominant but false narrative in the academy, to the effect that school vouchers are a distraction with little serious political support. The opinion is notable for several reasons, and I expect to post again about some of them. Here I note only two. First, the Indiana program makes enormous numbers of children voucher-eligible. Second, the Indiana court’s analysis makes some interesting and important moves with respect to both its constitution’s religion and education clauses.

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The Coursera Model of Central Planning for Education

An interesting conflict is developing in California over the spread of “MOOCs.” First, a bit on the business model of a leading MOOC firm, Coursera:

When and if money does come in, the universities will get 6 to 15 percent of the revenue, depending on how long they offer the course (and thus how long Coursera has to profit from it). The institutions will also get 20 percent of the gross profits, after accounting for costs and previous revenue paid. That means the company gets the vast majority of the cash flow.

It now looks as if Coursera’s model of siphoning education dollars may be challenged in California. In its race to put more courses online, the UC administration has apparently asked for the following in a provision of a proposed faculty contract with Coursera:

“I hereby irrevocably grant the University the absolute right and permission to use, store, host, publicly broadcast, publicly display, public[sic] perform, distribute, reproduce and digitize any Content that I upload, share or otherwise provide in connection with the Course or my use of the Platform, including the full and absolute right to use my name, voice, image or likeness (whether still, photograph or video) in connection therewith, and to edit, modify, translate or adapt any such Content.”

I wonder—could Coursera repurpose a course for use in, say, Singapore, by promising to cut out any critical commentary on the Singaporean government? Read More

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Gulliver, CEOs, and University Presidents

University presidents are starting to feel some of the constituency pressure visited since the 1980s on their CEO counterparts in corporate America. Until then, CEOs reigned supreme over their corporate bastions, many ruling with an iron fist. Directors were supportive and shareholders deferential.  There would be occasional upheaval but this was rare.  CEO tenures were long.  Those days have been long gone for some time.

Until the past few years, university presidents ruled their roosts as well, with helpful trustees and deferential faculty.  Not anymore.

As John Sexton of NYU found out in a “no-confidence” vote of his largest faculty group last week, the constituencies are restless.  NYU’s trustees pledge their continued support, but other NYU faculties and some of the school’s unionized employees promise further pressure. Last summer, Teresa Sullivan, president of U. Va., felt such pressure from the university’s trustees, who ousted her temporarily until the faculty came to her rescue. Similar upheaval occurred at Harvard a few years ago and more recently at Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin (and at several other places if academic leaders below the rank of president are counted).

Interestingly, presidents in quite a few of these episodes have been charged with the complaint of operating the university too much like a corporation.  That’s one of the central assertions of the NYU faculty voters, who say Sexton is too focused on growth. They cite his “Global Network University” with lucrative campus footprints worldwide and his tendency to pay high salaries to selected scholars rather than offer across-the-board increases.  Many are upset at plans to expand the Greenwich Village campus in a radical way. They despise his top-down management style. 

So presidents who run their universities like corporations now face the fate of corporate chiefs for doing so. The power of shareholders and directors increased exponentially in the past 20 years, making the all-powerful CEO a relic.  With the rising power of faculties and trustees in the university, academic presidents may soon turn into short-term caretakers as well.  

There is a good case that the pendulum swung too far in corporate America in favor of shareholder democracy and outside power. It will be a shame if a similar thing happens to America’s universities.  Maybe that’s the NYU faculty’s point. Sexton should probably not run NYU as if it were a modern corporation, given its educational mission and unique fiduciary duties to attend to student needs rather than to maximize profits for shareholders.  Running NYU that way not only subverts those goals, but will ultimately and ironically weaken the president’s position.

Photo: Gulliver’s Travels, an apt analogy for what happened to corporate CEOs from 1980 to 2000 and what may be happening to university presidents.

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MOOCs in law schools

Last week both Frank and I blogged about the MOOC, the “massive open online course.” Also last week a substantial and prominent group of academics posted an open letter to the ABA that urged legal educators to consider, among other reforms, “building on the burgeoning promises of internet-distance education.” (The letter garnered positive press in diverse fora.) Might the MOOC platform be part of that “promise”?

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Cyber-charter schools and religious education

I wrote a few days ago about the rise of the cyber-charter school, and its potential to unsettle constitutional and statutory regimes that govern K-12 education. Right now I am finishing off an article that discusses this with respect to religion. A private religious school is not allowed to operate unless it meets state requirements for all private schools, which include minimum standards for the teaching of secular subjects like math and history. But religious schools must bear the cost of that secular instruction, even though their students would receive similar instruction for free were they to enroll in public school. (States may elect to provide various kinds of aid to religious private schools at the margins, but not to the extent of absorbing the costs of secular instruction.) This minimizes interpenetration between the state-funded public school sector and the religious, private-school sector. It also makes religious schooling more expensive than it otherwise would be.

But consider a religious private school that, rather than offering secular education itself, facilitates the enrollment of its students in a state-funded cyber-charter. The instructional program of the cyberschool is completely secular. But many cyber-charters are asynchronous as well as untethered to place; students may log into school when and from where they please. So why not from inside a religious establishment? Under this model, religious school students pursue their secular studies under the physical supervision of religious teachers but the intellectual supervision of the secular charter school operators. The religious school pays for the supervision but the secular one for the teaching. So (and here I am paraphrasing an earlier piece of mine), a religious teacher might work with half the class on some religious topic while the other half, on its own for the moment, engages in secular cyber-study under the same teacher’s passive supervision. Or a cleric might begin a 45-minute English lesson with a prayer—right before secular studies begin—or interrupt a cyber-biology lesson to admonish students that the material that they are covering is a tissue of lies.

The religious school not only saves a fair bit of money by this approach, savings it can pass on to its customers, but it engineers the kind of merger between publicly funded secular education and privately funded religious schooling that our system, until now, has gone to some lengths to prohibit. But I can identify no legal problem with a religious school adopting this strategy. Unlike state aid for secular instruction in religious schools, which raises real risks either of religious schools repurposing secular funds to religious ends or heavy-handed state involvement in quotidian regulation of religious schools’ operations, cyberteaching is 100% secular and under secular state control. Conceptually its use by the religious school is very similar to such a school’s use of a public library, or of state-provided maps or films. Indeed, I think it would be unconstitutional to allow students to log on to cyberschool anywhere and anytime except while under the physical supervision of a religious teacher. It would surely be unconstitutional to prohibit religious teachers from putting their own gloss, on their own time, upon what the students are learning in their secular classes.

But logistically the model is something very new. It creates a religious school whose secular program is state-funded and largely state-directed, but whose scheduling and context is in religious hands.

Short of abolishing cybercharters (which some states have done) can such initiatives be blocked? If not, is that a reason to abolish them? Or might it be acceptable, or even welcome, that the internet can create a new kind of religious pluralism in American education, where secular schooling remains under secular direction but which lacks the firm wall between its pursuit and the acquisition of religious education?

The Centralization of Higher Ed

Last month, I noted some important innovations in teaching, while striking a cautionary note about massive, open online courses (MOOCs). But for those who prefer MOOC-thusiasm, Tom Friedman’s recent column delivers:

You may think this MOOCs revolution is hyped, but my driver in Boston disagrees. You see, I was picked up at Logan Airport by my old friend Michael Sandel, who teaches the famous Socratic, 1,000-student “Justice” course at Harvard, which is launching March 12 as the first humanities offering on the M.I.T.-Harvard edX online learning platform. When he met me at the airport I saw he was wearing some very colorful sneakers.

“Where did you get those?” I asked. Well, Sandel explained, he had recently been in South Korea, where his Justice course has been translated into Korean and shown on national television. It has made him such a popular figure there that the Koreans asked him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a professional baseball game — and gave him the colored shoes to boot!

Friedman spends much of the remaining column arguing that universities need to a) get rid of “sage on a stage” lecture courses, while substituting in for them b) sages on YouTube like Sandel. The critical link to Education 2.0: intensive, individualized assessment & problem solving. So in Friedman’s ideal world, philosophers like Sandel would teach all the intro “Ethics” or “Justice” courses for millions, while local adjuncts would apply them to particular dilemmas (such as: should columnists disclose if they are “heirs to a multi-billion-dollar business empire”?).

The irony here is twofold. Read More

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Virtual Schooling in the K-12 sector

Lots of people are talking about the accelerating penetration of virtual platforms in the higher education sector. It’s of course unknown whether the massive open online course (MOOC) will be the vector that transforms traditional higher ed the way that so many other industries are being transformed by interconnectivity.  But it seems clear that there will be some vector.  (I got my first ad for a law school MOOC this week.)

Virtuality poses two basic challenges to higher education. The first is about pedagogy: What might be gained, and what lost, from shifting from a bricks-and-mortar learning environment to a virtual one?  The second is about money and institutions:  What happens to the business model of colleges and universities as virtual platforms become cheaper, easier to access, and increasingly popular?

Less discussed but potentially just as important is the penetration of virtuality into K-12 ed.  Cyber-charter schools are becoming ubiquitous, enrolling  tens of thousands of children. Several states have created virtual school districts.  In Florida, I’m told, you cannot graduate from high school without taking at least one virtual course.

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Education Reform: Agendas, Influence, and Capital

In 21st century America, inequality is the foundational social reality. Institutions that reinforce inequality thrive; those that counteract it are targeted as socialistic or Luddite. Even more insidiously, the same movements that try to fight extreme inequality are, as often as not, co-opted by its beneficiaries.

Co-optation is a particular danger in the education sector. Aaron Bady is one of the best writers & thinkers on the topic. To understand co-optation in higher ed, one could do worse than dive in to his latest salvo against Silicon Valley-style “disruption” in the classroom:

[Clay] Shirky thinks in terms of “disruption” and what can come of it, in theory. I think in terms of what the “disruption” of the University of California system looks like in practice, as a complex of politicians, financiers, and career administrators move in lock-step to transform it into a self-sufficient corporate entity, and to enrich private industry in the bargain. I see a group of decision-makers . . . for whom “online” is code word for privatization. If I am against MOOC’s [Massive Open Online Courses], I am against the way “MOOC” is being experienced in California, in practice: as an excuse to cheapen education and free the state . . . from its responsibility to educate its citizenry.

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The Stanford Law Review Online: School Security Considerations After Newtown

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published an Essay by Jason P. Nance entitled School Security Considerations After Newtown. Professor Nance writes that strict school security measures may be ineffective but have a balkanizing effect:

On December 14, 2012, and in the weeks thereafter, our country mourned the deaths of twenty children and six educators who were brutally shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Since that horrific event, parents, educators, and lawmakers have understandably turned their attention to implementing stronger school security measures to prevent such atrocities from happening again. In fact, many states have enacted or proposed legislation to provide additional funds to schools for metal detectors, surveillance cameras, bulletproof glass, locked gates, and law enforcement officers. Because increased security measures are unlikely to prevent someone determined to commit a violent act at school from succeeding, funding currently dedicated to school security can be put to better use by implementing alternative programs in schools that promote peaceful resolution of conflict.

He concludes:

The events at Newtown have caused all of us to deeply consider how to keep students safe at school. A natural response to this atrocity is to demand that lawmakers and school administrators invest our limited public funds into strict security measures. But this strategy is misguided. Empirical evidence suggests that these additional investments in security equipment and law enforcement officers may lead to further disparities along racial and economic lines. Further, it is imperative that all constituencies understand that there are more effective ways to address violence than resorting to coercive measures that harm the educational environment. Indeed, schools can make a tremendous impact in the lives of students by teaching students appropriate ways to resolve conflict and making them feel respected, trusted, and cared for. These are the types of schools that can make a real difference in the lives of students.

Read the full article, School Security Considerations After Newtown at the Stanford Law Review Online.

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Expanding Bob Jones University v. United States

In Bob Jones University v. United States, the IRS revoked the tax exempt status of two religiously affiliated schools because they discriminated on the basis of race. One school (Goldsboro Christian Schools) refused admittance to black students, the other (Bob Jones University) barred interracial dating and marriage. Both schools claimed that the discrimination was religiously mandated, and that the loss of their tax exempt status violated the Free Exercise Clause. The schools lost. The Supreme Court characterized tax exemptions as a taxpayer subsidy for charitable organizations that, at the very least, do not contravene fundamental public policy like our commitment to racial equality, and held that racist schools did not satisfy that requirement: “[I]t cannot be said that educational institutions that, for whatever reasons, practice racial discrimination, are institutions exercising beneficial and stabilizing influences in community life or should be encouraged by having all taxpayers share in their support by way of special tax status.” In addition, the Court held that eliminating race discrimination in education was a narrowly tailored and compelling state interest. The bottom line is that a university may discriminate based on race, but it should not expect to be considered a beneficial organization entitled to tax subsidies.

Assuming Bob Jones was correctly decided, should its holding be limited to discrimination in education, or discrimination on the basis of race? I think not. In fact, the IRS denies tax exempt status to any nonprofit organization, religious or not, that invidiously discriminates on the basis of race. If you are a church that excludes blacks, or won’t let blacks become ministers, you may have the constitutional right to exist, but you won’t get any government money to help you prosper. Should the same policy apply to organizations, religious or not, that invidiously discriminate on the basis of sex?