Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: education

How the University of Florida spends its money

This is the sort of thing I’d normally just tweet about, but hey, I have a blog, so I can add stuff to the permanent human knowledge base by posting it here.

People are justifiably outraged that the University of Florida is eliminating its computer science department. As Alex Tabarrok notes at Marginal Revolution, this is an example of how the institutional incentives for universities are not well aligned with what society most needs from those universities. This story is complicated. The state government is cutting funding for existing institutions even as it creates an entirely new polytechnic university carved out of the University of South Florida.

Cutting the computer science department will save the University of Florida $1.7 million. Many people have noted the size of university’s athletic budget, and that that budget went up by $2 million this year. The athletic budget, managed by the University Athletic Association (Inc.), is available online. UF’s athletic department is financially independent from the rest of the university and in fact pays the university for general services that it uses. So while it has a huge budget, it’s not as though Florida could cut athletics to save the computer science department.

Obviously we justifiably argue that it’s a shame that people care so much more about sports than they do about sustaining important academic programs. But you can’t say that UF is funding sports over computer science.

School segregation, the ongoing issue

Dana Goldstein writes about school segregation in the modern era, on the occasion of Martin Luther King Day:

American schools are more segregated by race and class today than they were on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, 43 years ago.

What really drew me to her story is her simple explanation of how the soon to be dismantled school assignment program here in Wake County, North Carolina works. I’ve been following the story around this for years and never understood the nature of the program until I read this blog post:

The Wake County program located high-achieving, themed magnet schools within poor neighborhoods, and opened them up to any interested student. For each seat at the magnet school occupied by a middle class or affluent kid from across town, an inner city child was given the opportunity to bus to the neighborhood school the wealthier kid would have attended, if he hadn’t chosen the magnet instead.

In fact, given that participation in the program is completely voluntary, I’m not sure what’s at issue or what the goals of the new school board are.

The LA Times is grading individual teachers

The LA Times has obtained standardized test results from the Los Angeles school district and is using that information to publish ratings of individual teachers. There’s little doubt that their methodology has flaws, but that’s an argument for better metrics and analysis, not shutting down this line of inquiry. I am a huge believer in public education — it’s probably the most successful government program ever launched — but there’s a bit of a black hole when it comes to accountability. There’s some understanding of which school districts and schools are better than others, but very little information on which teachers are good at their jobs and which ones aren’t.

A lot of people are complaining already that the teachers are being judged on the basis of performance on standardized tests and that there’s more to teaching than improving test performance. I’d agree, but judging them on that basis puts them in the same boat as their students. Students are judged based on their performance on standardized tests starting at an early age and ending when they apply to graduate school. If it’s not fair to judge a teacher based on how their students do on achievement tests, how is it fair to choose which kids get to go to magnet schools based on the results of those same tests?

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

Should we have a college version of the GED?

Matthew Yglesias asks whether we should have a college version of the GED? There could be a test or series of tests you could take that gives you the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, or even an associates degree to start out. It seems like a logical idea to me — it would give the self-taught an opportunity to obtain needed credentials and provide real competition to regular universities and alternative schools like the University of Phoenix. I really think that everyone who wants a college education should have the opportunity to have one. That said, given all the lectures and course materials available online, the makings of a college education already exist if you have Internet access. What’s lacking is the granting of credentials once you’ve learned the material. It seems logical for someone to grant those credentials. On the other hand, if that happened, I suspect that many universities would pull down the courseware they currently post due to the new competition.

Links from January 24th

The truth about college admissions

The Daily Beast has a list of anonymous college admissions administrators discussing the criteria they apply to winnow out applicants. Let’s face it, our cultural fixation on merit is quaint at best.

Graduating during a recession

What I learned today: graduating from college and entering the workforce during a recession can have a lifelong negative impact on your earnings.

The trouble with college admissions exams

The New York Times has an op-ed on standardized tests that’s worth reading. Even as college administrators recognize that standardized test scores are an imperfect measure of the quality of college applicants, all of their incentives are tilted toward placing greater weight on test scores:

Consider the admissions director at our hypothetical college. He knows that college ranking systems take SAT’s and ACT’s into account. He knows that bond-rating companies look at the same scores when judging a college’s credit worthiness. And in lean times like these, he would be especially eager for a share of the so-called merit scholarship money that state legislators give students who test well.

It reminded me of a point Matthew Yglesias made with regard to the financial markets today:

Ever since the crash, there’s been a lot of self-serving talk from people in the business about how nobody could have foreseen this. That’s wrong. What would be more accurate — and more disturbing — is that it’s not clear that it actually would have been smart for people in the business to have behaved in a radically different manner even if they had understood the situation well. There are a lot of fields of endeavor where it’s more important to be in tune with the CW than it is to actually be correct, and this seems to me to mostly be one of them.

Links for April 7

  • Scott Horton: Worst. President. Ever. What interests me most about the list is that every President other than Bush (43) who could be described as the worst ever was a single termer. Bush’s main competition, Millard Fillmore, was not elected in the first place (he took over for Zachary Taylor, who died after 16 months in office) and did not receive his party’s nomination when his term expired. With Bush, we’ve had two terms and the Republican nominee wants to continue all of his worst policies.
  • Bruce Schneier: The Liquid Bomb. Some details of the liquid bomb plot are revealed. Could the plan have actually worked? Based on an extremely interesting stream of comments, I’d say that the particular plans hatched by the would-be terrorists could not have worked in a million years (they didn’t even test the explosives they planned to use), but that the general plan could have potentially worked (maybe) in the hands of terrorist masterminds.
  • The College Board has eliminated one of the advanced placement tests for Computer Science. There are two exams, and the more difficult of the two is to be discontinued. Unsurprisingly, Wikipedia has a lengthy article that describes the composition of both exams.

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