Archives for category: Higher Education

In this excerpt from her recent book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, Lani Guinier describes the tight linkage between standardized testing and family income. To the extent, then, that colleges rely on the SAT (or ACT) as a filter for college admission, they disproportionately screen out students who have not had the multiple advantages of living in affluence.


She cites data demonstrating that the SAT is of little value in predicting college performance, yet it effectively excludes students of color and students who are from low-income families.


She writes:


Close to eight hundred colleges have decreased or eliminated reliance on high-stakes tests as the way to rank and sort students. In the current environment, however, moving away from merit by the numbers takes guts. The testing and ranking diehards, intent on maintaining their gate-keeping role, hold back and even penalize administrators who take such measures. The presidents of both Reed College and Sarah Lawrence College report experiencing forms of retribution for refusing to cooperate with the “ranking roulette.”


At the center of this conflict is the wildly popular US News & World Report’s annual college-rankings issue—the bible of university prestige. In the book Crazy U, Andrew Ferguson describes meeting Bob Morse, the director of data research for US News and the lead figure behind the publication’s college rankings. Morse, a small man who works in an unassuming office, is described by Ferguson as “the most powerful man in America.” And for good reason: students and parents often rely upon the rankings—reportedly produced only by Morse and a handful of other writers and editors—as a proxy for university quality. These rankings rely heavily on SAT scores for their calculations. Without such data available from, for example, Sarah Lawrence, which stopped using SAT scores in its admissions process in 2005, Morse calculated Sarah Lawrence’s ranking by assuming an average SAT score roughly 200 points below the average score of its peer group. How does US News justify simply making up a number? Michele Tolela Myers, the president of Sarah Lawrence at the time the school stopped using the SAT, reported that the reasoning behind the lowered ranking was explained to her this way: “[Director Morse] made it clear to me that he believes that schools that do not use SAT scores in their admission process are admitting less capable students and therefore should lose points on their selectivity index.”


This is the testocracy in action, an aristocracy determined by testing that wants to maintain its position even if it has to resort to fabrication. What is it they are so desperate to protect? The answer initially seems to be that the SAT can predict how well students will do in college and thus how well-prepared they are to enter a particular school. There is a relationship between a student’s SAT score and his first-year college grades. The problem is it’s a very modest relationship. It is a positive relationship, meaning it is more than zero. But it is not what most people would assume when they hear the term correlation.


In 2004, economist Jesse Rothstein published an independent study that found only a meager 2.7 percent of grade variance in the first year of college can be effectively predicted by the SAT. The LSAT has a similarly weak correlation to actual achievement in law school. Jane Balin, Michelle Fine, and I did a study at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where we looked at the first-year law school grades of 981 students over several years and then looked at their LSAT scores. It turned out that there was a modest relationship between their test scores and their grades. The LSAT predicted 14 percent of the variance between the first-year grades. And it did a little better the second year: 15 percent. Which means that 85 percent of the time it was wrong. I remember being at a meeting with a person who at the time worked for the Law School Admission Council, which constructs the LSAT. When I brought these numbers up to her she actually seemed surprised they were that high. “Well,” she said, “nationwide the test is nine percent better than random.” Nine percent better than random. That’s what we’re talking about….


Meaningful participation in a democratic society depends upon citizens who are willing to develop and utilize these three skills: collaborative problem solving, independent thinking, and creative leadership. But these skills bear no relationship to success in the testocracy. Aptitude tests do not predict leadership, emotional intelligence, or the capacity to work with others to contribute to society. All that a test like the SAT promises is a (very, very slight) correlation with first-year college grades.


But once you’re past the first year or two of higher education, success isn’t about being the best test taker in the room any longer. It’s about being able to work with other people who have different strengths than you and who are also prepared to back you up when you make a mistake or when you feel vulnerable. Our colleges and universities have to take pride not in compiling an individualistic group of very-high-scoring students but in nurturing a diverse group of thinkers and facilitating how they solve complex problems creatively—because complex problems seem to be all the world has in store for us these days.

Michael Hilzik of the Los Angeles Times reminds readers that public higher education in California used to be tuition free. It was also tuition free for qualified students at the City University of Néw York.

“President Obama’s proposal unveiled Thursday to provide free community college education to all “responsible” students is garnering immense attention. That’s as it should be, although the details still need to be fleshed out and individual states will have to agree to shoulder a share of the costs.

“But the proposal fails to address one glaring flaw in the nation’s overall system of public higher education: It should all be free. That’s the way it is in Germany, for instance, where there is a long tradition of low-cost university study. In 2014 the last German state holding out against free university education threw in the towel; now anyone, including foreign students, can study at a German university at public expense.

“Free higher education to qualified students was also the rule in California, where the University of California had no tuition for state residents until Gov. Ronald Reagan demanded it in the early 1970s. Once the door was cracked open for tuition charges, it swung wide; a Berkeley or UCLA education was pegged at $12,192 for state residents in 2014-15, plus myriad other fees….

“Free tuition has since come to be viewed as an anachronism, charming to contemplate in the abstract but simply incompatible with modern life. But the numbers don’t support that conclusion. The real obstacle to reinstating it is that it represents a path to social mobility for the working class and the poor–that’s the aspect that’s anachronistic in our grasping modern world.

“Consider this: When the corporate plutocrat Meg Whitman was running for California governor in 2010, she had no trouble proposing the elimination of the state’s capital gains tax, which brought in more than $10 billion in a decent year. Eliminating all in-state tuition, according to a UC report issued around the same time, would have cost only $3 billion.

“Which option would be an investment yielding a greater, broader return to the state? Unmistakably the latter. The roll of distinguished Californians educated for free at UC before the 1970s is a long one. It includes former Governor and U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren; Ralph Bunche (the first black Nobel Peace Prize laureate); author Maxine Hong Kingston; the discoverer of plutonium (and later Berkeley chancellor) Glenn Seaborg; and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.”

Earlier today I posted approvingly about President Obama’s proposal to make two years of community college free for all who work for it, meaning, “Students must attend community college at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and make steady progress toward completing their program.” In the announcement, the White House said that his proposal is similar to one enacted in Tennessee by Republican Governor Haslam.

Dissenting readers feared this plan would be a means of imposing NCLB, Race to the Top, and VAM on higher education.

Here is an email I received with other concerns from a professor of mathematics at the University of Memphis:

Dear Professor,

Perhaps you are aware that President Obama is visiting Knoxville, TN, today to talk about his free community college program Please see the short video in the bottom of the even shorter announcement.

I think there are many people who (should) have a less than enthusiastic take on this proposal, since it is just a manifestation of the national movement to privatize public education.

In my opinion, the idea behind this free community college proposal is to weaken high quality education (public universities), and then easily implement privatization in the form of outsourcing university/college functions (teaching, research) to private companies. Part of this future will be the wide spread use low quality forms of education, such as online courses.

Concrete example for transferring funds from high quality education to lower quality

Here is a concrete example from my university, The University of Memphis (UofM), that should give a pause to the celebration of free higher education. Last year, shortly after the announcement of a $20 million cut to UofM’s budget, came the announcement of Tennessee Promise that offers free education to all TN residents at public community colleges. In my opinion, TN Promise is a perfect example for taking money away from high quality education (UofM, in this case), and use the extra funds to invest in low quality education (community colleges). Then this lower quality education is offered to the masses as a solution to their educational needs.

To make the high-to-low quality education transformation explicit, I remark that we at UofM are now pressured to start accepting lower level courses to our major requirements to “ease the transition of students from community colleges to our university”.

This transformation to low quality education is, of course, quite similar to what’s happening in K-12 education. In Tennessee, the Achievement School District takes over schools, fires the teachers, then the teachers get replaced by young underpaid, undertrained teachers. This scheme is presented as a solution to the educational needs of the poor.

In other words, both in higher and K-12 education, low quality alternatives are offered to the poor with obvious social (and often racial) implications.

Weaken the opposition: eliminate the tenure system

The first step in the privatization movement is the weakening of the opposition. Community colleges have a much greater number of adjunct faculty than 4 year colleges. Adjuncts are much easier to control than tenured faculty. This is one of the reasons Gates is supporting community colleges instead of 4 year colleges. It’s “educational” to listen to him as he answers a question about why he focuses his efforts to community colleges and especially why he prefers adjunct professors over tenured ones; just watch this for, say, 3 minutes

At UofM, the total salary increase of all employees between 2009-2014 was $10 million. Most of this increase went to increase administration and temporary faculty. The total salary of tenured faculty during these 5 years not only didn’t increase but got reduced.

So again, the strategy of the privatizers seems clear: strengthen community colleges at the expense of 4 year colleges. Weaken the power of opposing tenured professors so that then the privatization of public higher education can be accomplished much easier with the easily controlled adjunct faculty. To be sure, the privatization has been happening. In an earlier email, I reported to you the concerete example of a $5 million/ year teacher training program to be run by Relay and TNTP on the UofM campus, but there are other examples for outsourcing university functions to private companies.

Publicize the privatization scheme and the associated statistics

In my opinion, it would be important to publicize the general scheme of the privatizers so that people would recognize them. In some cases, like TN Promise, it’s not so easy to recognize the underlying motivation.

Also, it would be important to be able to support claims by numbers. It would be great to encourage people to find out, publicize and regularly update the following numbers for their school district (they are not easy to obtain, though they are supposed to be public records)

1) The names and number of schools that are taken over by charterizers (like the Achievement School District in TN).

2) The number of teachers fired during the take over.

3) The average salary of the fired teachers.

4) The average salary of the newly hired teachers.

In (4 year) public colleges, it would be important to publicize and maintain

5) The total salary increase for the last 5 and 10 years.

6) The total salary increase of the permanent (tenured) faculty for the last 5 and 10 years.

7) The total budget allocated to private companies in each of the last 5 years.

The stats in 5) and 6) above are not difficult to do, and can be done using publicly available salary databases. I’d be happy to show anybody what and how I did at UofM.


Mate Wierdl

President Obama has proposed making two years of community college tuition-free for all. That’s an excellent plan. Too many young people are priced out of any higher educAtion, and this removes affordability as an obstacle. Community colleges were originally underwritten by state and local governments to expand access, so this plan restores the original purpose of the community college. My hope would be that this plan would not only open the doors of higher education to many students, but would undercut predatory for-profit online “universities.”

This was reported in this morning:

“By Caitlin Emma

With help from Eliza Collins and Allie Grasgreen

COMMUNITY COLLEGE FOR EVERYONE: President Barack Obama is headed to Pellissippi State Community College in Tennessee today, where he’ll propose making two years of community college free “for everybody who’s willing to work for it.” But he’ll need the approval of Congress to make it happen. So far, the plan doesn’t have a price tag – at least not officially; all White House officials will say is it’s “significant.” If all 50 states participate, the proposal could benefit 9 million students each year and save them an average of $3,800 in tuition. (David Leonhardt of The New York Times estimated the cost could reach $15 billion annually: But administration officials insist it’s “a proposal with bipartisan appeal.” The plan is inspired by – but not identical to – the Tennessee Promise, the brainchild of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. More from Allie Grasgreen: Watch Obama speak in Knoxville at 1:20 p.m. ET:

– Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was quick to state his support Thursday night, framing community colleges as “a more affordable, higher quality alternative to for-profit colleges.”

– But there are potential drawbacks, said Don Heller, dean of Michigan State University’s College of Education. Take California, he said, where many students enroll at community colleges because they aren’t admitted to the University of California. “Should we really be giving those kids free tuition when their families can pay?” Heller asked. Further, he said, why not just offer two years’ worth of tuition at any institution? “By focusing this on just community college students, are we going to lose out on some students that could benefit by going and starting at a four-year university?”

The first post this morning was about Daniel McGraw’s astonishing discovery that the pass rates on the GED literally crashed after Pearson aligned the GED with the Common Core. He wrote:


The numbers are shocking: In the United States, according to the GED Testing Service, 401,388 people earned a GED in 2012, and about 540,000 in 2013. This year, according to the latest numbers obtained by Scene, only about 55,000 have passed nationally. That is a 90-percent drop off from last year.


Daniel McGraw posted a comment later.


He wrote:


One thing I left out of this story, but wish I had put in. Many of the high academic folks I interviewed about the process in changing the GED all said the changes were made because the old test “wasn’t fair” to HS graduates. They explained saying that if a HS senior had to know a certain amt. to graduate, it wasn’t fair to them if someone passing a slightly lower standard GED got into college as well. I then said for something not “to be fair” to a party, you must prove that that party had been harmed in some way. They couldn’t pinpoint any real harm, and were sort of disgusted by that line of questioning. But their thinking was very real in that every one of them had the same talking point: that somehow a 2013 HS grad college freshman and their parents would experience some harm if they went to college and their kid was sitting next to a GED grad. The problem here is that we do not make education/economic policy based on whether some group “thinks” that policy is fair or not. We look at the bigger picture. And in this case, the college presidents and administrators overseeing this change were thinking more along the lines of fairness to their perceived constituency rather than a policy for the greater good of the country. BTW, thanks for all the comments.

The speaker of the State Assembly in Wisconsin said the first thing on his agenda when the Legislature reconvenes will be a teacher accountability bill.


Tim Slekar, dean of Edgewood College, has a better idea: Why not start with a “legislator accountability bill”?


The speaker, Robin Vos, now wants reports on professors’ workload. Slekar says, Let’s check out your daily workload first. Let taxpayers know when and where you are actually working for us.



The following letter was sent to Secretary Arne Duncan by Dean Lisa Vollendorf of the College of Humanities and the Arts at San Jose State University, in response to Duncan’s plan to rate colleges of education by the test scores of students taught by their graduates. Comments on this proposal will be accepted until January 2, 2015. Please send your to:



Dear Secretary Duncan:



As a committed educator who has devoted her life to public higher
education, I am dismayed by the onerous requirements put forth by this
proposal. At San Jose State University, which is part of the 23-campus
California State University system, we will find it fiscally impossible to
comply with so many requirements. In particular, it will cost us much more
than we can afford to track our graduates. Moreover, we are deeply troubled
by the connection between accreditation for teacher credentialing programs
and the test scores of those teachers’ students. The CSU is the largest
four-year public higher education system in the nation, and we are
committed to affordability and access. That commitment translates into
recruiting and training students who are in turn committed to working
throughout the community, including in low-income and under-served areas of
our K-12 system. By tying the test scores of those children to our
accreditation standing, the federal government is sending the message that
the only students we should be serving are those who are lucky enough to
live in privileged areas with a strong tradition of good schools. I am
proud to educate diverse students from all walks of life, and proud when
they go out into the diverse communities from which they hail to give back
and make society better. These new regulations will disincentive programs
and teachers from serving those communities. Please reconsider this overall
plan and think again about the adverse effects on those who most need
improved schools and those who prepare teachers to work in those
under-served communities. Public institutions will be so hard hit by these
regulations that we are concerned that we will no longer be able to afford
credentialing programs.



Lisa Vollendorf, PhD
Dean, College of Humanities and the Arts
San José State University

Jonathan Lovell, who has contributed several posts to this blog, has written to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about his intention to grade colleges of education by the test scores of the students of their graduates. The deadline for submitting comments is January 2. Send comments to:



Lovell writes:





Dear Mr Duncan,
As a teacher educator for the past 35 years in the field of English Education–having spent the past 27 of those years in my present institution of San Jose State University–and as someone who has observed upwards of over 2500 middle and high school English classes over the course of my career, I can say without qualification that the proposed new regulations for assessing the quality of teacher preparation programs would be an unmitigated disaster.
Others on this site have spoken eloquently about the extremely serious effects, especially to public institutions like ours, of the costs of implementing these regulations, as well as the wrong-headedness of linking the assessment of teacher preparation programs to a VAM-like measure of student performance in the classes of recent graduates.
I’d like to address a related issue, but one that has been strangely left out of the public discussion to date. It’s the effect of these new regulations on what might be called the “climate” in which teaching as a profession is perceived.
As I’m sure you are aware, there has already been a 50% decline over the past five years in the number of applicants to teacher education programs in the state of California. While we’ve countered this trend in the English Education program here at San Jose State, we’ve only been able to do so by focusing relentlessly of what helps beginning teachers improve not only their instructional practices, but their sense of personal agency in their chosen profession. The major player in this effort has been the San Jose Area Writing Project, which routinely selects exemplary K-12 teachers for an intensive four and one half week summer institute, then positions these teachers in significant roles in the preparation of new teachers.
Your proposed new regulations will be perceived as yet another iteration of all-too-familiar Bush-Obama refrain that “the whipping will continue until morale improves.” I believe it’s high time to turn from this thoroughly discredited approach to the improvement of teaching and teacher training, and to start looking more sensibly and honestly at practices that work.
The practices of the National Writing Project would be an excellent place to start.

Yours truly,

Jonathan Lovell
Professor of English and Director of the San Jose Area Writing Project
San Jose State University

Senator Tom Harkins of Iowa, who is retiring this year, has long been known as a liberal and a champion of students in higher education. However, he recently proposed to cut the Pell grant program for low-income students while increasing payments to loan contractors. This is bizarre, to say the lease.


Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate education committee and the appropriations subcommittee in charge of federal education expenditures, has proposed taking $303 million from the Pell grant program to increase revenues for some of the nation’s biggest student loan specialists, according to a July 24 version of a 2015 fiscal year spending bill now being negotiated by congressional leaders.


Student advocates and congressional aides largely missed Harkin’s move last summer — partly because the full text of the spending bill wasn’t publicly released until six weeks after Harkin’s subcommittee approved it. They only noticed it in recent days as congressional negotiators work off his bill in the rush to finalize discussions on the federal government’s 2015 spending plans….


Student advocates said they’re outraged.


“I am appalled that Senator Harkin would put servicers — who profit by hundreds of millions of dollars a year — over the needs of low-income students,” said Alexandra Flores-Quilty, vice president of the United States Student Association. “Taking funding out of Pell and using it to pay private student loan servicers goes directly against the interests of students.”


Harkin has also floated the possibility of taking $2 billion out of the Pell program to use for other federal programs, according to Democratic and Republican congressional aides. Harkin reportedly dismissed concerns that such a move would affect students, according to Politico.


It was unclear Friday whether congressional negotiators were still discussing the $2 billion cut. Student advocates warned that if it were to occur, the Pell program would face a $3.6 billion deficit in the fiscal year beginning next October and the likelihood of deep cuts.


For Harkin, a longtime liberal who retires from Congress in January after a 30-year Senate career, the move risks damaging his reputation as an advocate for college students struggling to afford rising tuition.


“Senator Harkin has built a legacy on being a champion for students trying to afford college. We’d be deeply disappointed to see his subcommittee abandon its support for the Pell grant and jeopardize the aspirations of millions of low-income young people,” said Jennifer Wang, policy director at Young Invincibles, an advocacy organization that represents 18 to 34 year-olds.





Sarah Blaine, a lawyer who wrote the earlier post explaining the absurdity of Arne Duncan’s plan to grade colleges of education in relation to the test scores of the students taught by their graduates, here responds to a question about the possibility of litigation. By the way, if you want to comment on Arne’s plan, here is where you write:



Sarah Blaine writes:


There’s a lot to be said for impact litigation, and if someone offered me the opportunity for employment working on meaningful anti-reform education-related impact litigation, I’d be the first to say yes. Education Law Center in NJ, for instance, has done great work over the years, but they’re one tiny organization (and they haven’t offered me a job). And funding is a huge issue here — impact litigation isn’t cheap, and while I do my blogging for free, I do need to earn a living from my day job.


The reality is that there are doctrines — for a reason — that prevent the judiciary from overstepping its role in our balance of powers system. Lawsuits are typically blunt instruments, and they can certainly have unintended consequences. It’s a lot easier (and less costly) to stop a specific proposed regulation or law, such as this one, from becoming the law of the land than it is to challenge that regulation or law once it’s been passed. If you don’t like the proposed regulation, take action to stop it now by calling public attention to it and filing a comment opposed to it. You’ve got 56 days for public comment (although there is a petition going around, for whatever it’s worth, seeking to extend that time).


I don’t think the sort of “umbrella” lawsuit you envision is viable or practical. Rather, lawsuits need to be brought by particular plaintiffs who have standing to sue, against particular defendants who have caused particularized and specifically stated harm. If plaintiffs don’t have standing, the suit will be thrown out on a motion to dismiss, and perhaps some problematic caselaw will be made as a result. So impact litigation needs to be carefully planned and targeted at where it will do the most good. An umbrella lawsuit that takes on standardized testing, charter schools, funding injustice, value-added measurement, and whatever else we’re so frustrated by is not something that’s realistic, regardless of whatever a lawyer-show on TV might have implied.


The proper venue for taking on the “big picture” of corporate reform is not a courthouse (although courthouses are powerful possibilities for dealing with concrete and targeted issues); rather, it’s a grassroots movement, covered by the media, that seeks to influence legislators and executive branch members to roll back the tide of their harmful policies. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t come with the possibility of a judge’s stamp of approval saying that we’re right, but it’s how we get things done in a democracy that hopefully will refuse, despite the odds allied against it, to be beholden to big money, big business, and big philanthropy.


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