Assessment At The University

We have often made the point that we, the faculty, are our own worst enemies in making us look bad in public.  Usually, we can blame it on the left but the right is not immune at George Leef proves at the NRO Corner:

In the not so distant past, college professors graded their students’ work (tests, papers, and things) and that was that. But then along came one of those ideas so typical of American education “experts,” namely that while grading might measure how well students had performed in the course, it didn’t necessarily measure their learning. Naturally, that opened the door to the growth of a new movement with campus bureaucrats eager to impose “learning standards.”

George approvingly quotes an article by Erik Gilbert at the Marin Center that starts off with this:

Universities have been assessing students by grading their work since the Middle Ages.  Sometimes students complained that the professor wasn’t fair, but nobody thought the system was fundamentally flawed.

We quoted both George and Erik to make it clear that they are fundamentally opposed to assessment from a conservative view point.  It is Colbert Conservatism and should be roundly mocked.  The difference between inputs and outputs is not nearly as complex as Arthur Thomas and arbitrary allocations.  It should be obvious to everyone that learning is different from teaching.

Sidebar One: There is a real issue of who assesses that both George and Erik mention but, as the quotes show, they are against assessment and the who problem is a just a by-product.  Part of the problem of who assesses is that some faculty members refuse to assess. It is amazing that academics, people who think for a living, can’t distinguish between inputs and output.  Why are they not interested in evidence of the outcomes of their teaching?  End Sidebar One.

Sidebar Two: Many of them also distrust student evaluation of instruction or SEI.  SEI scores, like assessment, are evidence of what goes on in the classroom.  Many faculty members seem to be evidence averse to what goes on in the classroom.  When confronted with the evidence like, “In our department SEI scores are unrelated to grades,” they will continue to believe the opposite.  End Sidebar Two.

Where George and Erik go wrong is that faculty use grades to assess overall learning.  Universities are now, correctly, being held to higher standards.  We expect the school to investigate if students are learning.  We expect that the faculty have a strategy for getting students to learn and that they evaluate its effectiveness.

Sidebar Three: For an extreme example, there were three tests and all students got 98 percent on the first and third tests and 44 percent on the second test for a nice B minus average of 80 percent.  Do you think all students have a B minus knowledge of the course material?  End Sidebar Three.

For a real example, we had a research oriented faculty member that had students write a 30 page research paper.  Did it prepare our students for the type of writing assignment they would get in the accounting profession?  It influenced their writing skills but, unless they went to grad school, they would never write anything like it ever again.  What it did, however, was to improve their research skills with various data bases and that they would need again.  There were excellent outcomes that the department supported but they were not exactly what the faculty member envisioned.  It is difficult but we should all be evidence driven in our teaching.

There are serious questions about who should assess but assessment is something that conservatives should insist on.  We want to know what students are expected to learn and if they are learning it.  Every faculty member should support assessment and that will reduce the overhead.

 

Two Tales Differing By Three Zeros

Recently we went to our old school to see some of the presentations of Money Smart Week.  One was from Adam Carroll about student loans.  Another was from Billy Corben on his documentary Broke about financial failure among professional athletes and especially successful ones.  They were great speakers with interesting stories to tell.

Upon reflection, Adam and Billy’s stories only differed by three zeros.  The athletes were typically in their early twenties when they found ways to destroy millions of dollars and wreck their financial well-being.  The students were in their late teens and early twenties when they laid waste to their financial futures by mounting up thousands of dollars in student debt.

Billy and Adam tell the same story.  Young people have been asked to make complex decisions that few people are equipped to make.  They often over borrow or over spend or both.  The usual cause is failure to understand compound interest and it is exacerbated by poor or dishonest advice.

The actions by the students were less catastrophic for them because most of them could survive their bad decisions but more catastrophic for the rest of us.  When a few hundred athletes wreck their lives it is a disaster for them but not for us.  When a generation has to put off having children and buying houses it hurts everyone.  There is lots of money in fixing the athlete problem.  There is less money in fixing the student loan problem but it is more important.  The first step in fixing the student loan problem is getting good data.  We know about the overall numbers but how do they come about?  Are they just for tuition?  How much is accumulated living expenses.

Adam talks about playing offense (making money) and playing defense (not spending money).  Because tuition has gone up everyone seems to think that that is the sole cause of student debt.  It might be.  It surely is part of it but it seems likely that once you borrow a large sum adding on a non-trivial sum is easier.  We would like to have better evidence.

Student debt is another reason for teaching financial literacy in college.  It might be a required course like personal finance, presentations like Adam and Billy, woven into the curriculum, or all three.  Money Smart Week is a great idea but the turnout at the sessions we attended were disappointing.  It is another area where colleges need to do better.

College Professors And Departments

George Leef has an article taking aim at college administrators.  Those folks have a lot to be humble about but George has a hit and and a K.  First, the hit:

His story begins in 2005, when Gouws was asked by the Springfield English department to teach a course entitled “Men in Literature.” It turned out to be a rather popular course and Gouws, who holds tenure, taught it eight times between 2005 and 2015. But in 2015 a student lodged a complaint against the course with school leaders. It wasn’t that Professor Gouws had mistreated her, but simply that the course content, focused only on men, bothered her.

In a sensible era, officials would have said, “Well, then take something else if you’re offended,” but “progressive” academics seem incapable of insisting on common sense from students these days, especially if they’re in one of our supposedly oppressed groups. At Springfield, the result of the student’s gripe was to trigger what Wood terms “a feminist jihad” against a veteran, highly capable faculty member.

It is the responsibility of the department chair to deal with student complaints.  What the chair should have said, perhaps in addition to George’s comment, is that the department is responsible for curriculum decisions.  It should not go any higher up the line.  One thing that rings a bit tinny is that Gouws’ “standard request” for a sabbatical was denied.  Sabbaticals cost the department manpower and money. The quality of any faculty request matters.  So we agree that the administration and particularly the chair failed to maintain departmental control over curriculum but the sabbatical request is less compelling evidence.

George’s second example is the other side of curriculum and grading:

Next consider Nathaniel Bork, an adjunct professor at Aurora Community College in Colorado. He’d been teaching philosophy and comparative religion at the college as an adjunct professor since 2010, without any incident.

Now Bork has lost his job because he didn’t agree with the administration’s efforts at making introductory courses easier to pass.

As we read in this Inside Higher Ed story, in September of last year Bork took a call from the chairman of his department, who told him that his employment was immediately terminated. The reason Bork was given for his abrupt termination was his supposed “lack of effectiveness in implementing the philosophy curriculum design.”

George reports that Bork had a different explanation:

He maintains that the reason for his firing was that he had complained that the department had dumbed down the introductory “gatekeeper” courses in an attempt to increase passage rates, thereby encouraging students to continue on at Aurora.

We can’t agree with George.  We have been there.  Part of the department’s responsibility for curriculum is to monitor grading and that is one of the most complicated problems the department and the chair faces.  There is natural and unnatural variation among classes.  One large department at our former university used to open a few seats every day during registration so that the early morning and late afternoon classes didn’t fill last and provide unnatural variation.  One semester we taught a class that was opened late due to our poor projection of demand.  It was the biggest group of misfits we have ever taught.  Another department at another university had prescribed percentages of each grade because they felt that even an overall GPA for the class encouraged certain behaviors that we were not convinced of but they were.  We tried an A, B, F grading scheme to encourage quality.  It didn’t work.  There were many more grading issues that came up.

In short, it is the department’s responsibility to set curriculum and grading is part of that.  George is aghast that the department fired Bork in September.  We are closer to pleasantly surprised.  The department took immediate action to solve what they saw as a problem.  The department might be wrong but it is their choice.

Sidebar One: Our department’s grades were typically the lowest in the college.  So we might support Bork but it is the department’s, not an individual’s, choice.  End Sidebar One.

Sidebar Two: Our faculty gave the lowest grades but our students got the highest grades.  A bit counterintuitive but true.  End Sidebar Two.

We are not issuing an opinion that Gouws is right and Bork is wrong.  What we are saying is that administrators, and particularly the chair, were wrong to cede departmental control of curriculum to the students the Bork case and correct to maintain control over curriculum by the department in other case.

Bad Thinking In Detroit

The Detroit News has weighed in on the Wayne State (WSU) tenure battle (h/t Tax Prof Blog):

Mark Taylor of Columbia University calculated that one tenured professor teaching for 35 years costs a private university an average of $12.2 million and a public university $10 million. Universities in 2010 averaged $168 million in debt nationwide. Removing 15 under-performing tenured professors could put a college in the black.

Students should also reap benefits of a more effective tenure system. A Stanford University researcher found replacing the lowest-performing 5 to 8 percent of teachers with an average teacher could enable American students to catch up with those in higher-performing nations. Pearson’s 2014 ranking placed the U.S. at only 14th in worldwide education system rankings.  [Emphasis added.]

Where to begin?  Rarely have two paragraphs contained as much nonsense as these two.  The colors red and black refer to the income statement.  Being in the black means that you made a profit.  Debt is from the balance sheet.  The analogy doesn’t make any sense to start with.  Taylor doesn’t say where he gets his numbers from.  If you take him at his word, the total cost of salary and benefits alone for 35 years, then the division comes out to just under $350 K per year in a private school and around $285 K for public schools.  We wish!  Fringe benefits usually figure in at 30-40 percent.  Very few faculty in public universities are making $220 K.  There are zero at my old school.

If you eliminate tenured faculty what do you replace them with?  Taylor doesn’t want itinerant adjuncts (his term).  He wants seven year renewable contracts.  We would consider that option.  We can’t speak for all the colleges but in the business school (and highly likely in WSU’s med school), the Taylor Plan (not to be confused with the Taylor Rule) is going to cost money.  New faculty make more than old faculty in the business school and you are giving them less too.  As an example, we were the lowest paid PhD in our department when we retired.  So abolishing, limiting, or making more effective tenure is unlikely to save much money.  It might be more expensive but it has a chance to increase quality.

It might, however, benefit the students. The editorial first uses one reference about K-12 and then one that seems to be about K-12 to buttress its case.  Those are unconvincing.  The Stanford study is especially misleading because in that they are going to replace the worst teachers in K-12 and replace them with average teachers.  If tenure is abolished who will be the first to go?  Those that don’t publish as TaxProf says in the WSU case:

The five professors in question are in research-centric roles, officials said, and most had no publications in the past five years.

The connection between teaching and research is weak.  We have seen prolific researcher that are great teachers but our experience shows that quality of research and quality of teaching is unconnected.  Knowing administrators and the importance of accreditation, it is at best questionable that changing tenure will lead to better teaching to students.

It is a good thing to evaluate tenure and other rules at universities.  The editorial has done a disservice by the nonsense attack.  It is hard to avoid such attacks because university tenure is so special and those attacks are one of the reasons faculty defend tenure with such tenacity.

 

Requiring Personal Finance

The WSJ has a point-counterpoint on requiring a personal finance course for college students.  First let’s agree on what requiring a personal finance course means.  It means that each school would make a decision to include person finance in what is often called General Education.  That is, a university degree typically includes General Education, required of all students along with college (assuming there are multiple colleges) and departmental requirements.  We would not support a requirement to force all schools to include personal finance but we would support any school that wants to include personal finance (PFC) as a requirement.

Professor Lauren Willis is arguing against requiring such courses.  Most college courses are three credits.  That means they meet for three university hours (50 or 55 minutes) each week for 14-16 weeks.  So each course is about 40 hours of instruction.  Lauren starts with the straw man that courses may not be effective.  As evidence she cites a study from India that had four percent of the subjects completing secondary school.  It hardly seems relevant to a requirement to complete college.  It is true, however, that no single college course is either 100% effective or comprehensive.  Students at almost every university complete a composition course but writing problems among graduates are so legendary that we don’t feel the need to cite any.  Requiring a PFC is not a silver bullet.  College courses are a start to wisdom.

Next Lauren throws up her hands at the challenges:

What’s more, even experts disagree about the right investment and retirement-savings strategies. Financial offerings change too quickly for regulators to keep up, never mind educators. In addition, compared with the salesperson across the table, consumers will never be as knowledgeable about financial products and services—or about the psychological maneuvering with which they can be sold.

Common sense thus suggests that college courses won’t enable people to make the kinds of financial decisions society currently demands.

Perhaps.  Our experience is that theses force isn’t that well educated but be that as it may, a better educated population will help with evaluating the pitches from government as well as the private sector.  The PFC won’t solve the problem but it will start some of the students on the road to wisdom.  They will drive the market and help (almost) everyone.

Next, Lauren considers the impact of exogenous events:

Making personal-finance courses a college requirement sends a message that financial success is largely the result of personal decisions. But government policies affecting employment, health care and benefits have a vastly greater effect than personal financial acumen on Americans’ financial health.

The first sentence is false.  Financial success, by and large, is the result of personal decisions.  We even know what they are even if we can’t find them right now.  It goes something get married, stay married, and start saving early.  Execution is the difficult part of financial success.

Government policies certainly can have a vast impact on American’s financial health.  We would expect that PFC would cover many of the difficulties caused by government policies.  Perhaps, among other things, it would lead to reforming Social Security rationally and sooner rather than later.

PFC will not solve all of the personal finance problems.  There is risk in the world and there are folks in and out of government that would mislead even the wary.  Folks have different risk preferences.  But PFC are a step in the right direction.  Some will be worthless but even those might cause a student to be interested in becoming informed.  These courses will help folks to become informed about financial decisions but they are just a start. Now if we can sign up Congress folks and the executive offices for PFC and some basic economics.  Of course, they need to apply it too.

 

 

Bad Math Comparison

Ericka Andersen is writing about a video on Venezuela and socialism at the NRO Corner.  We agree with her that showing the reality of socialism is critical when so many folks regard it benignly.  We want, however, to review her math comparison.  She says:

The video also showcases an epidemic of violence. The country has less than one-tenth the population of the United States but three times the murder rate.

The conjunction but implies that the one-tenth has something to do with the three.  It might, incorrectly, suggest to some that the relationship between US and Venezuela murders is a factor of thirty.  Ericka is specifying murder rate so the division by population has already taken place.  Thus, population size doesn’t matter.

 

What Should Happen

Earlier we talked about the problems of Roger and Buck.  Buck is in the most recent post.  You can go look it up if you like.  Now we see what should happen when the shoe is on the other foot.  Ann Althouse has a nice report on a course called The Problem Of Whiteness taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Ann is a law school faculty member there.  A Wisconsin lawmaker is angry:

UW-Madison must drop the class, Murphy said. “If UW-Madison stands with this professor, I don’t know how the University can expect the taxpayers to stand with UW-Madison.”

Ann approvingly quotes FIRE (send them a few bucks before the end of the year) and they are exactly right that:

Thankfully… the university offered a robust defense of free speech on campus when “Provost Sarah Mangelsdorf said the university ‘supports the First Amendment rights of its students, faculty and staff, including their use of social media tools to express their views on race, politics or other topics, in their capacity as a private citizen.’”

We cannot be entirely supportive of Ann and FIRE because universities are not known for their robust defense  of free speech.  We wish they were but we can predict when they will support free speech fairly effectively.  Try reading the 12 student demand in this article to see what students think about free speech.  Ann quotes Connor at the Atlantic:

Uniting against illiberalism on the right and left is the best course.

Again, we agree with Ann and Connor.  The problem is that we are not choosing the best course.  Or perhaps somebody thinks this is not illiberal:

In one tweet, posted at 10:36 p.m. the day the officers were killed, Sajnani [the faculty member of the course in question] included a photo of news coverage and wrote, “Is the uprising finally starting? Is this style of protest gonna go viral?” Earlier that night, Sajnani had tweeted a link to a song on YouTube called “Officer Down” and wrote, “Watching CNN, this is the song I am currently enjoying in my head.”

Madison came out for free speech but didn’t seem to care about content.  We are all for more speech as the solution.  Try tweeting “Viva President Trump,” and see what happens.  Let’s bring John Derbyshire to Madison.  Let’s have him teach a course there.  It will not happen.  Instead, taxpayers will conclude that universities can’t administer themselves and need to be either starved or micromanaged.  Both are bad outcomes.  We wish that we were on the road to free speech at the university but we don’t think so.  We still support free speech and wish that everyone did.