Monday, April 20, 2009

Commodification of Education

These musings were sparked by an idea I had after reading three very different articles. The common theme is that large industries have pressure to turn their products into commodities, implying mass production and uniformity of output. We saw this with the Spellings' administration of the Department of Education, with the seeking of a uniform measure to compare learning across institutions. We see it with the misplaced trust in uniform scales like the usual standardized tests used for admissions (it's hard to justify the expense and attention, given the low amount of variance in actual performance explained by these tests).

First up are textbook factories. Edutopia, sub-headed as a George Lucas Educational Foundation, has an interesting article "A Textbook Example of What's Wrong with Education" by Tamim Ansary, who has been involved with the creation of textbooks for primary and secondary schools. He describes his preconception prior to taking the first editorial job as:
[...] filled with the idealistic belief that I'd be working with equally idealistic authors to create books that would excite teachers and fill young minds with Big Ideas.
He was quickly disillusioned. The book was almost finished, and the publisher hadn't signed an author yet. He describes how "basals" are actually created. These comprehensive collections of materials are very expensive and very cookbook, kow-towing to Texas more than any other state's requirements. To differentiate texts, the publishers must find the hot new philosophy dripping out of the university system's holding tank of bubbling theory. This is the magical ingredient that can create a big hit, or conversely cause a company to suffer through years of lost revenue if it guesses wrong. These decisions are now made by a handful of large corporations, only one of which resides in the US (McGraw-Hill).

"We pretend to teach 'em, they pretend to learn" is the title of the second piece, by Margaret Wente at It's an opinion piece about higher education in Canada based on an interview with an anonymous university professor, but it echoes complaints heard anywhere in North America, I wager. The claim is that a large percentage of students are not ready for university, and that they'd be better off in some other educational setting, but that the public equates university with education. That there's a stigma associated with other choices, presumably like two-year institutions. The author pins some of the blame on a cyncal practice of graduating students from high school who shouldn't graduate, just so the rates can improve. This is a one-size-fits-all solution that hollers 'commodity.' Students are all fed into the same hopper, with the same expectations out the other end.

I've heard others make the astute observation that this would be laughable as, say, a philosophy for setting a football roster. Obviously some players have more talent and work harder, are larger and stronger, and have more experience. Some will be more successful than others. They have specialties with concomitant strengths and weaknesses. A successful coach wouldn't dream of taking all comers and trying to turn them into generic 'players' with a common set of entrance requirements and a common set of exit requirements. It obviously makes no sense. It makes no sense in education either.

Hard research tries to answer the question "Does Affirmative Action Lead to Mismatch[?]" in this article by Scott Jaschik. Grist for the mill is a study [abstract] from the National Bureau of Economic Research (which sounds like a government agency, but isn't) about Duke University's admissions policies. At issue is the low performance of Black and Latino students. Duke should be applauded for the transparency here--they provide a generous helping of data stew. Summary tables show that particularly Black students are poorer and have lower predicted and actual first year grade averages. The predicted scores are only .07 grade points lower than white students, but the actual ones are .43 grade points lower. The question being asked is to what extent this is due to a 'mismatch' in ability relative to the performance expected by the school.

I spent the $5 to buy the full research article, to see what their methods were. I was looking for a regression model that used the variables listed in the summary table of the insidehighered article. There are sub-scores given for the admissions decision: Achievement, Curriculum, Essay, Personal qualities, Recommendations, Test scores, and SAT. This is interesting because of the insight into Duke's admissions requirements, and because of my own interest in using non-cognitive variables for that purpose. The bigger picture here is the degree to which prediction, education, and our expectations should be homogeneous. Affirmative action is inconvenient to an industry that is commodified because it makes exceptions. Therefore, expect pressure to remove or subvert such policies.

The article itself is quite mathy, and will take a day or two to digest. It has stuff like this in it:
This is some kind of maximization problem. There is some regression data used to build a grade point predictor, which is what I was looking for, but I can't do it justice in this post. Stay tuned for more tomorrow on this fascinating topic.

Data compression is attractive. Using the reducing assumption that students are the same, that they have similar needs, that our policies and actions are 'fairer' if everyone is treated identically, is attractive as a simplifying assumption, and fits the image of mass production and commodification well. It does not, however, sit comfortably with the realities that anyone who's ever raised a child knows: they're all different. This sounds to my own ears a bit too much like a straw-man argument I'm making here (arguing demagogy-style against a hypothetical and ridiculous position), but I think there genuinely is a case to be made that higher education is too much like an industry and not enough like a parent, to continue the analogy.

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