Revamping the college admissions process

Over at Room for Debate (The New York Times), various commentators have offered ways to improve and revitalize the college admissions process.

The problems? The application process is so convoluted and complex (even with the Common Application) that students spend hours, weeks, months on applications that might get a quick read at most. Also, application numbers have soared at selective institutions, leaving students uncertain and anxious over their chances. Mixed messages abound. The admissions results often seem illogical or arbitrary, and financial aid awards (or lack thereof) can amount to acceptances and rejections in themselves.

Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, revives a suggestion he made a decade ago: Create a lottery system, where those students qualified for the college would be entered in a pool, and a given number would be chosen at random. This would eliminate the pretense that colleges select “the best.”

Alan T. Paynter, an assistant director of admissions and the coordinator of multicultural recruitment for Dickinson College, recommends that colleges give clearer information (not only in brochures but in conversations with applicants) about what they seek.

Alvin E. Roth, the McCaw Professor of Economics at Stanford University, recommends establishing a system whereby students indicate their two top choices. (The American Economic Association established a similar system for the job market.) This would cut down on the number of applications and allow colleges to admit interested students.

Ron Unz, a software developer and publisher of The Unz Review, recommends ending tuition altogether at elite colleges. The free tuition would draw a more diverse applicant pool and allow the colleges to enroll those who qualify, not just those who can pay.

There are more ideas, and most of them strike me as good. Yet I doubt that any one of them would work in isolation. A lottery system could easily lead students to apply to still more colleges. Clear communication is great, but what if colleges are communicating similar messages, even with the new clarity? Roth’s idea could leave many students without a college, and Unz’s would still leave the elite colleges with far more applicants than they could thoroughly consider.

A combination of reforms could work well. Limit the number of colleges to which a student may apply. Have students indicate their top two choices. Give priority to subject-matter tests over SATs. Simplify the financial aid application (and give students earlier information about their financial aid eligibility). Cut excessive administrative costs and increase financial aid. In short, make the process more straightforward and economical. Take the awe and hype out of it. That way, students can apply to colleges with reasonable confidence, and colleges can devote more of their attention to those likely to attend. On the other hand, the streamlining required for such an approach could create problems of its own.


Should schools raise funds for charities?

Deb Fisher, a therapist at P.S. 333 in Manhattan, has been put on 30-day suspension for raising money on Kickstarter along with a student who has cerebral palsy. Together, they were trying to fund a project intended to help children like himself. The issue, apparently, is that she sent fundraising emails while on the job, and is thus charged with “theft of services.”

Fisher is a relentless advocate for students, according to the New York Times:

During a brief period of unemployment for [the boy’s father], the family moved to a homeless shelter. Learning this by chance, Ms. Fisher began a relentless campaign to get them permanent housing in an accessible building. She helped set up swimming lessons for Aaron. Ms. Fisher, 55, is passionate and hard-driving; her phone calls and emails can be like buckshot. She and another therapist started “Master Arts” for children with disabilities, devising tools to help their painting efforts. She received a mayoral commendation.

In addition, according to the same article, the DOE’s investigation report failed to provide context. It did not mention, for instance, that the Kickstarter campaign was a schoolwide effort supported by the principal.

“We are all very excited to share our partnership with,” P.S. 333’s principal, Claire Lowenstein, wrote in an email on Jan. 11.

The goal was to raise $15,000. The school’s office regularly sent out updates like these: “7th Grader Aaron Philip is Almost 2/3 of the Way to His Goal”; “Aaron Philip is $1,621 Away From His Goal.”

In the end, he raised $16,231. The school celebrated at a town hall session.

During this time, one of Fisher’s co-workers had begun making charges against her. According to the investigators, the most serious charges were unsubstantiated, but they found Fisher guilty of fundraising for “her own charity.”

While I sympathize with Fisher’s intent and question the DOE’s response, I see how the school entered murky territory with this drive. The Chancellor’s Regulations (A-610)—not mentioned in the New York Times article—state:

Proceeds from school-sponsored fund raising activities accrue to the school’s treasury; proceeds from parent-sponsored fund raising activities accrue to the parent association treasury. In either case, proceeds must be used to supplement or complement the educational, social and cultural programs of the school.

In addition, any fundraising during school hours must be approved in writing by the principal. In other words, if it’s happening during school hours and isn’t school-sponsored, it shouldn’t be happening.

So, the Kickstarter campaign, however well intended, had several problems. The money did not go to the school’s treasury; it was not for any educational, social and cultural programs of the school; and there’s no indication, at least in the article, that the principal gave official written approval of the campaign.

Moreover, fundraising for a particular student (even a particular student’s charity) is a conflict of interest (Regulation C-110); staff members are not supposed to enter business relationships with students.

I see the ethical basis for these regulations. They are there to help ensure fair use of funds and to protect students from financial relationships with school staff. Now, it’s likely that many students, parents, and teachers raise funds for charities (and may join together to do so), but there’s good reason not to do it at school.

All that said, it seems extreme to suspend Fisher. The principal, who applauded the campaign, should have answered for the situation, and the DOE should have made allowances for the good intent. Sadly, this looks like a case of “whatever it takes” gone awry. Here’s a therapist who goes all out for her students: once commended, now suspended.

On teacher scandals and boundaries

Every so often (that is, fairly often), a story erupts in the news about a teacher who had sex with students, sent inappropriate photos to students, gave alcohol to students, or did all of this and more. One recent case is Sean Shaynak, a teacher at Brooklyn Technical High school. Although he has pleaded innocent, the evidence is plentiful and damning.

Such stories tend to come with momentary clamor followed by business as usual. The news evokes shock and disgust, but for that very reason it seems remote. Occasionally there’s some discussion, as in a New York Times article, of how technology and other factors may have facilitated the teacher’s activity. Or a talk show may interview a psychologist or other expert. There seems to be an impetus to take up the broader questions of boundaries, but it peters out fairly quickly.

What are the broader questions? I delineate sharply* between teachers (like Shaynak) who are in the profession for the wrong reasons—who seek their advantage or satisfaction over the students’ good—and teachers who do seek the students’ good but nonetheless need to define their boundaries more clearly.

I will discuss this second group. Such teachers receive two kinds of messages that can lead to blurred boundaries: (a) that they should be there for the students as much as possible; and (b) that they should try to relate to the kids on the kids’ own level, or, as some say, “meet them where they are.” (I will not take up technology here; that’s a topic in itself.)

Teachers receiving these messages (and taking them seriously) find themselves in ambiguous situations; students, for their part, don’t always know what is appropriate and what isn’t. My comments here here apply primarily to high school and earlier. College and graduate school have similar issues, but they present themselves on somewhat different terms. [Read more…]

Videos instead of transcripts?

Goucher College is piloting a new admissions policy that allows students to submit two pieces of work and a two-minute video instead of a high school transcript. The decision has already drawn criticism–for instance, from Brian C. Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, who wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, ““This move sends an awful message to high school students and to a broader public that is already fed a steady diet of nonsense about the nature and value of education.” On the whole, thought, criticism has been fairly guarded, according to The New York Times. Proponents and critics alike seem to be taking a “wait and see” attitude.

Dr. José Antonio Bowen, who became Goucher’s eleventh president this summer, believes that the new policy will be more equitable than the old.

“People have learning differences, they mature at different speeds; a lot of great people might have blemishes on the transcript, and think they can’t get in,” he said. “We get mail from teachers thanking us for this, because they have students who want to hang themselves because they got a C in algebra.”

There are at least two distinct issues here. There are students who are not academically prepared for college—or whose preparation is highly inconsistent. Then there are others who are well prepared but who, for one reason or another, don’t have stellar grades.

Will the video option help the first group of students? It may do no more than mask their lack of preparation. The only exception is if they are applying for a trade school, art school, or other program that does not rely primarily on academic work. Even there, a video may or may not represent their abilities or accomplishments.

In the second case–of students with superb academic qualifications but imperfect grades—why not simply make allowances for them? Allow them to supplement their transcript, but don’t replace it. Stop expecting students to be all-star students and athletes and leaders, and instead allow for intellect (which is rarely evenly spread) and character. What does a video accomplish here, unless it supplements the overall picture?

A video could allow a student to demonstrate specific abilities and accomplishments, such as acting, language proficiency, rhetorical skills, or musical performance. It could allow a student to comment on a course or project. It is not a viable replacement for Algebra 2 or American Literature.

Ivies get the ink

The New York Times wrote more about Harvard last year than about all community colleges combined.

Common Core math: deep or dull?

According to a New York Times article by Motoko Rich, parents and students are finding Common Core math not only confusing but tedious and slow.

To promote “conceptual” learning, many Core-aligned textbooks and workbooks require steps that may be laborious for students who already get it. A second-grade math worksheet, pictured in the article, includes the question: “There are 6 cars in the parking lot. What is the total number of wheels in the parking lot?” To answer the question, the student drew six circles with four dots within each. (Actually, this doesn’t seem new; it reminds me of “New Math” and “constructivist” math.)

One nine-year-old, apparently weary of this kind of problem, stated that she grew tired of “having to draw all those tiny little dots.”

Students with good understanding may be put through steps that seem redundant to them. If they skip those steps, they may be penalized.

“To make a student feel like they’re not good at math because they can’t explain something that to them seems incredibly obvious clearly isn’t good for the student,” said W. Stephen Wilson, a math professor at Johns Hopkins University.

One reason for emphasizing “conceptual” learning is that employers apparently are demanding critical thinking. Several questions remain to be answered, though: (a) whether Common Core math–in its current forms–really is promoting conceptual learning; (b) if so, whether it also promotes math proficiency; (c) whether the current approach is benefiting students at the upper and lower ends–and those in between, for that matter–or holding them back; and (d) whether this is the kind of “critical thinking” that will serve students well in college, the workplace, and elsewhere.

I will comment briefly on the first question; I welcome others’ insights.

Tedium and depth are not the same. One can go through a long explanation of a problem without gaining any understanding; one can solve a problem quickly and come to understand a great deal.

In sixth grade, in the Netherlands, I learned mental arithmetic: I learned to add, subtract, multiply, and divide double-digit numbers in my head, using all kinds of tricks that the teacher taught. Those tricks enhanced my understanding of what I was doing. I enjoyed the swiftness and ingenuity of it; I would have detested it, probably, if I had to write it all out, step by step, and illustrate the steps with circles and dots.

Detailing and explaining your steps is a worthwhile exercise. But part of the elegance of math has to do with its mental leaps. Sometimes, when you do steps in your head, or when you figure out which steps in a proof are assumed, you not only understand the problem at hand, but also see its extensions and corollaries. Sometimes this understanding is abstract, not visual or even verbal.

There seems to be an unquestioned assumption that one comes to understand math primarily through applying it to real-life situations; hence the Common Core emphasis on word problems. While word problems and practical problems can lead to insights, so can abstract reasoning, and so can models that bridge the abstract and the concrete, like the multiplication table.

Yes, the multiplication table–horrors, the multiplication table!–abounds with concepts. If you look at it carefully (while committing it to memory), you will see patterns in it. You can then figure out why those patterns are there (why, for instance, any natural number whose digits add up to a multiple of 3, is itself a multiple of 3). (Something similar can be said for Pascal’s triangle: one can learn a lot from studying the patterns.)

In other words, conceptual learning can happen in the mind and away from “real-life situations”; it need not always be spelled out at great length on paper or illustrated in terms of cars and wheels. Nor should students be penalized for finding shortcuts to solutions. Nor should memorizing be written off as “rote.” Yes, it’s good to understand those memorized things, but the memorization itself can help with this.

In ELA see a similar tendency toward laboriousness (that likewise long predates the Common Core). Students are required to “show their thinking” in ways that may not benefit the thinking itself. For example, they may be told to explain, at great length, how a supporting quotation or detail actually supports their point–even when it’s obvious. Students with economy of language (and, alas, clarity of thought) may lose points if they don’t follow instructions. Instead of being at liberty decide whether an explanation is needed, they receive a message along the lines of “Explain, and explain again, and then explain that you have explained what you set out to explain.”

Critical thinking is important–and one should think critically about how it is conveyed and taught.

Back to Balanced Literacy in NYC?

To those familiar with the history of New York City schools, this should come as no surprise: NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña is pushing for a return to Balanced Literacy, which she has long supported and which she sees as compatible with the Common Core.

Some dispute her claim; a New York Times article by Javier Hernández  quotes Common Core architect Susan Pimentel, who says that part of the Balanced Literacy philosophy is “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of Common Core.” Later, it states that she sees the two as potentially compatible. Compatibility aside, is this return to Balanced Literacy a good idea? I say emphatically no–and will give two reasons that weren’t mentioned in the article. It was in large part my objection to Balanced Literacy (as dogma) that spurred me to write Republic of Noise.

Balanced Literacy, which traces back to initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s, rests on the premise that children learn best when allowed to teach each other and themselves. The teacher is a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage”; students have frequent opportunities to choose their own books; and most lessons involve small group work (or sometimes independent work). The program was extensively developed in NYC schools in the 1990s. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein mandated it throughout NYC schools in 2003. It is the foundation of the Reading and Writing Project, founded by Lucy Calkins.

While certain elements of Balanced Literacy, applied prudently, could be part of good teaching anywhere, the program as a whole has dangerous weaknesses. Many critics have pointed to the lack of curricular focus and the implied disparagement of direct instruction. The NYT article quotes Robert Pondiscio, who became an eloquent and passionate critic of Balanced Literacy as a result of teaching it in the South Bronx:

“One of the best things you can do to build reading proficiency is to build a strong base of background knowledge,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research organization. “When you have 24 kids reading 24 books, you’re not accounting for that.”

Indeed. Moreover, when there’s no specific content that the students are learning together, what do they get instead? Strategies, strategies, and more strategies. Reading strategies, writing strategies, strategies for remembering your strategies. In the absence of content, such strategies become vapid. Forget about holding a candle; they can’t even hold hot air to subject matter. Also, some of these “strategies” involve sidestepping the text–for instance, a teacher might encourage students to figure out unfamiliar words (that is, to figure out what they actually are) by looking at the pictures.

Here’s my contribution to the discussion: Balanced Literacy is to be distrusted because it is an all-encompassing pedagogical package that comes with both a worldview and a fever. Moreover, its emphasis on group work discourages high-level, sustained, and original work and thought. [Read more…]

Superfun sameness

In a New York Times op-ed, editor Pamela Paul points out a “farcical reversal” of our concepts of work and play: “schoolwork is meant to be superfun; play, like homework, is meant to teach.” Video games in particular have reversed (or mixed up) these roles; schools are making increasing use of video game technology in the classroom, while many recreational video games come packaged with a purported educational purpose. This ends up compromising both study and play:

Many of the games marketed as educational aren’t as much fun as video games children would play if left to their own devices. But the added bells and whistles still make it harder for them to focus on plain old boring work sheets and exams. Imagine how flat a work sheet would seem after a boisterous round of Zap the Math From Outer Space.

I agree with Paul but would call this “superfun sameness” instead. Study and play have become more and more alike–especially when “driven” by computer games. What’s more: they are alike in a disturbing way: hyped up, cloyingly interactive, and oh, so much fun. The result: students lose tolerance for things that seem slightly boring at first.

This happens on many fronts (not only with video games). Students get the message that their studies are supposed to be immediately gratifying and tailored to them. I often hear students (not at my school specifically, but in many places) complain that this or that book isn’t “relevant” to their lives and that they don’t enjoy it. What they’re really saying is that they haven’t learned to exercise patience and stretch the imagination.

I haven’t tried this experiment, nor do I plan to do so, but I’m willing to bet on the outcome: Give a high school class a unit on Hamlet. One group gets just the book (and a few video clips of performances); the other gets an interactive Hamlet video game, where they get to take photos of their friends and dress them up as the characters, follow the ghost around the castle, reenact the final swordfight, etc. Each group is aware of the other. One week into the project, students are given a survey on their interest levels and their desire to remain in their current group. The survey is repeated at the completion of the unit and then a year later. I imagine the first survey would show many students wishing to switch from the book group to the video group (but not vice versa); the second survey would have a less pronounced result, and the final survey would show a preference for the book group.

In other words, if you can persuade kids to stick with something that’s initially difficult or not palpably fun, you see their interest grow over time. But if you give up, you encourage the “relevance” crutch: you feed their demand for studies that feel good and seem to meet their needs and wants, right now. “Relevance” and “fun” are not exactly the same, but in their shallowest form they become close to synonymous. When omnipresent, they become that shallow.

It takes a lot of energy to get students to stick with something in their studies that doesn’t immediately grab them–but it’s worth the struggle. Then they become capable of a larger range, and they overthrow the tyranny of relevance.

In contrast with Paul (or seeming contrast), I see many instances where play could be educational (for instance, working with an electronics kit) and study could be fun (for instance, learning songs in Russian). The problem lies not in the overlap but in the homogeneity, the cutesiness, and the appeal to a lazy part of the mind and character.

Big role of test scores in New York teacher evaluations

Last year, the New York State Legislature passed a measure that allowed 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on students’ scores on standardized state tests.

Now student test scores will account for as much as 40 percent of the evaluations, according to an article in today’s New York Times. This means they will count more than any other single measure. The new regulations are expected to be enacted on Monday by the state’s Board of Regents.

This change is likely due to pressure from Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, who, according to the New York Times, said that a high-quality evaluation system had to be in place before he could support Mayor Bloomberg’s push to end seniority protection in layoffs.

But is this a high-quality evaluation system? It gives a great deal of power to tests that we don’t even have yet (as they are being revised) and to a value-added formula that has turned up many eccentricities, to put it mildly.

It is especially dangerous as a means of determining who should and shouldn’t be laid off. Teachers will be compared with each other by means of measures that haven’t stood the test of time yet (and that leave much to be desired). Principals will have little power to go against value-added ratings, even if they are clearly wrong.

New York State is still reeling from the disclosure that its state tests had gotten easier over the years. It is in the midst of revising its assessments and adopting the Common Core State Standards. The outcome of all of this is uncertain. In the meantime, the value-added formula used in New York City has numerous problems. Andrew Gelman, professor of statistics and political science at Columbia, demonstrates that when teachers are graded on a curve in this manner, a few students (in a large class) doing a little better on a test can bring a teacher from the 7th to the 50th percentile. (See all the comments on his post–they are interesting.)

Why, at this uncertain juncture, would the governor choose to make state test scores such a large part of teacher evaluations? Why the push for something clearly flawed?

Seems not only unwise and reckless, but weird.

Update: A few points of clarification:

The 40 percent would apply to those districts within the state that chose to use state assessments for the local-assessment portion of the evaluation. This would require the approval of the union in the district. So, on the one hand, it’s likely that many districts would choose to use local assessments for the local-assessment portion. On the other, the possibility of using state assessments would always be open, and districts might be under considerable pressure to take that route.

In New York Magazine, Chris Smith interprets this as a bargaining chip for Bloomberg: maybe the UFT will agree to a larger role for state tests if Bloomberg agrees to reduce the number of layoffs. It seems an ominous proposition, as the layoffs are (perhaps) a one-time deal, whereas the regulations will likely be in place for a long time.

The grand sacrifice of teaching

Is teaching supposed to be a great virtuous sacrifice for the sake of the poor? One might think so from reading Fernanda Santos’s article in today’s New York Times.

Samantha Sherwood had lofty aspirations when she settled on a family-studies major at the University of Connecticut, like redrawing welfare rules or weaving together a sturdier safety net for people in need. She figured that she could change the world in big, broad strokes, and that she might pick up a fancy title and ample salary along the way.

Instead, Ms. Sherwood, 25, joined up with Teach for America, the program that puts top college graduates into the nation’s most poverty-stricken schools, deciding that the best way to make a difference would be, as she put it on Monday, “to be there, where the rubber meets the road.”

I am not passing judgment on Ms. Sherwood; I don’t know her or her teaching. She sounds very dedicated. It’s the article that seems a bit strange. Santos mentions that Sherwood earns $45,000–presumably much less than she would or could have earned as a high-profile social worker.

Is it really that great a sacrifice to go into teaching? I would hope not; I’d hope that those who do it enjoy it enough that they don’t perceive it as a sacrifice. Yes, it’s tough, but it can be immensely rewarding too. Is a salary of $45,000 so bad? Well, it isn’t much money in NYC, but one can live on it, especially if one is 25 and doesn’t have major financial obligations.

The layoffs–which were really the point of the article–will hurt veteran and new teachers alike. They will hurt the classrooms. No layoff system will mitigate that. But one of the weakest arguments on behalf of the younger teachers is that they gave up possible fame and fortune for the sake of the kids.