Friday, January 31, 2014

Suburbanization & The Schools

Last fall, the Atlanta Braves announced plans to leave their relatively new ballpark to build a new park in suburban Cobb County, Georgia when their lease expires in several years. This move is partially a result of Cobb County’s willingness to foot much of the bill for constructing the new stadium while the city of Atlanta refused to pay for upgrades to the existing stadium and nearby infrastructure.  But one of the reasons that the Braves, who moved to Atlanta in the mid-1960s, publicly cited to justify their move was that their new location is more central to their base of Braves fans—an important economic consideration given their difficulty in selling out their stadium despite very successful teams.

As the Braves make a move that is cognizant of demographic trends, it is worth considering how education could also respond to such population shifts.  As we found in our study of suburban enrollments in the nation’s largest 25 metropolitan areas, the vast percentage of public school students are enrolling in suburban schools, including growing numbers of students of color. One of the most concerning trends is the way in which students of color and low-income students who move to suburbia are being confined to districts in which there is much lower exposure to white and more affluent students.  Atlanta, in fact, reflects these trends: it has very high levels of suburbanization and some of its suburban counties have also undergone rapid racial transformation since the mid-1980s. While increasingly farther out suburban communities still reflect our traditional image of a homogeneous white community with middle to upper-class residents, closer in suburban communities are replicating patterns of stratification that had been seen between the central city and the suburbs. Indeed, demographers find a growing contribution to metropolitan segregation of intra-suburban segregation.

How school district boundaries are drawn matters tremendously as to how suburbanization will impact schools. If districts are larger, such as countywide districts containing both central city and at least parts of the suburban ring, suburbanization is less likely to substantially change the district enrollment and tax base. Metropolitan areas that are more fragmented due to largely municipal school boundary lines typically are much more segregated. In such areas, inner-ring suburban districts are quite vulnerable to population shifts that can result in rapid racial transition and loss of tax base.

Given the variety of changes in the last decades alone—demographic, technological, economic, etc.—it is worth reconsidering whether it might be both more efficient and more effective to organize schooling on a broader geographical scale. If most students live in the suburbs and not the central city, thinking of a metropolitan area school district might more accurately reflect our reality and provide broader exposure to new ideas and people from different backgrounds that could positively influence the educational experiences of our young people as well as better preparing them for their lives as citizens and workers in our interconnected society. In addition, civil rights groups and other organizations that seek to ensure equal opportunity for low-income and/or students of color have traditionally focused their efforts on the central cities but they too should realize that there are important opportunities to try to create more equitable, integrated schooling opportunities for growing shares of students in suburbia.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Income Inequality: Exploring Links to PK-12 Education Funding

Vast and increasing income inequalities between the rich and poor, apparent now in many developed economies and prominent in the U.S., are receiving a great deal of attention as of late: Identified by The World Economic Forum as the world’s greatest risk and taken personally by Mr. Obama, income inequality is no longer dismissed or described solely in hushed tones. Many appear to accept the premise that income inequality itself inhibits economic growth and recovery (e.g., see here). Add to this substantial public outcry: the Occupy movement, for instance, is and was a direct protest against social/economic inequality and its perceived negative impacts upon citizens and societies. Here in the U.S., even the long-cherished notion of America as the Land of Opportunity appears to be eroding.

Against this backdrop, a variety of policy remedies (some education-related, some not) have been proposed. In this post, I consider a potentially obvious, although infrequently discussed, potential root cause that could thus use attention and remediation. I argue:  If we wish to reduce income inequality and (related) promote intergenerational social mobility, we must discuss and address the often inequitable distribution of resources (or “opportunities”) within the education system itself.

Why education (generally speaking)? A particularly intolerable state of affairs is one in which social inequalities are large and predictable, and opportunities for intergenerational mobility are limited. Education is centrally positioned to either promote or stifle social mobility (Alexander, 2008). In a knowledge-based economy, the provision of education is the systematic way for governments to enhance citizens’ knowledge, ideally in an individually and collectively beneficial manner. Economic growth in developed economies is tied much more so to brains than brawn. The mere fact that attendance in schooling is compulsory and “free” says something about its perceived fundamentality.

What’s the problem? The problem is that, in many parts of the United States, the benefits of education are distributed disproportionately to individuals who are already advantaged in other ways. This inequity stems largely from a system of local control over education, which might be (or have been) virtuous in certain respects, but that also gives rise to great geographic inequalities. In short, systems of financing public education that are tightly related to local taxable wealth confer greater school funding capacity upon the relatively well-to-do. This is especially problematic when, as often occurs in American public schools, the students who are most in need of additional supports are least likely to receive them. It follows logically that such systems will exacerbate more than combat inequality.

Recently, this issue has been helpfully framed in terms of opportunity gaps; such terminology could help to shift and improve any discussion of persistent academic achievement gaps. Eduardo Porter wrote a terrific New York Times article which includes more in-depth exploration of these topics. 

Alright, so…what to do?  Concerned citizens and politicians must confront this problem, difficult and intractable as it may seem. At minimum, as an initial step, it must be openly discussed. It is also helpful to compare and contrast the many different ways that states have approached public school funding; some states have achieved or closely approximated equity, and others most certainly have not. Lastly, we should consider the very real possibility that many of the more popular education reforms currently touted are largely a distraction from this basic issue, as stated by David Sciarra in Mr. Porter’s article.


Alexander, K. (2008).  Preface.  In K. Alexander (Ed.), Education and economic growth: Investment and distribution of financial resources (pp. 1-2).  Nashville, TN:  Linton Atlantic Books, Ltd.

Monday, January 27, 2014

New Data on State Appropriations for Higher Education

Colleagues at the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University and the State Higher Education Executive Officers released new data this past week (on 1/20/2014) on state spending on higher education. Their annual Grapevine report is a survey of state general fund appropriations for higher education. Grapevine has been published since 1960 and offers a detailed look at state spending on higher education. The media headlines this week (for instance in Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Wall Street Journal) discuss higher education funding as beginning a “rebound,” “recovery,”  or “comeback.” While I agree that the Grapevine data show that state support for higher education appears to be recovering, I also want to highlight the slow pace of recovery.

States tend to recover more slowly than does the general economy because states need to wait for taxes to be levied in order to see their state treasuries rebound. Hence, recovery on state spending for higher education tends to lag behind general economic recoveries.

My co-author, William R. Doyle from Vanderbilt University, and I have been working on an article that documents how long it takes for state spending levels to recover after higher education cuts. We use data from the Grapevine survey and consider how many years it takes to recover to prior spending levels following a cut of 5% or more in state appropriations. The Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE) has graciously published a policy brief on our work entitled, Bouncebacks in Higher Education Funding.

We show that recovery was swift in the 1980s, slowed in the 1990s, and is likely to be a decade or longer in the new millennium. If institutions need to wait more than a decade to recover following a cut, then the cuts appear to be much more permanent than they were in prior decades.

To illustrate this idea, the figure below shows state appropriations per young person in Illinois from 1979 to 2007. We see that there were only two major (greater than 5%) cuts to higher education spending in the state – in 1981 and 1991 – shown by the shaded years. Many other states faced three or more cuts during this time period, so Illinois has a relatively stable funding pattern. However, we can see that the length of time required for recovery has increased. The cut to higher education spending in 1981 lasted until 1984. The cut in 1991 lasted until 1997. Although the news this week from the Grapevine survey likely means that states like Illinois are on the road to recovery, it is likely to be a long road. Given the severity of the cuts in the last economic recession, I would not at all be surprised if this recovery took longer than a decade.

This post also appears at WISCAPE

When Incomplete Research and a Hot-Button Issue Collide: MOOCs as Case in Point

Undoubtedly, most who keep up with innovations in higher education have at least heard of massive open online courses (MOOCs), and, based on my conversations with many, have already come to a conclusion about their feasibility in higher education and their impact (or non-impact) on higher and online education. What seems to be missing is a significant body of robust research to support or discount these conclusions.

This lack of significant research is understandable. After all, MOOCs have only been in existence for a couple years, with most pointing to 2008 as an origin point for the term and concept. Additional traction was afforded to MOOCs in 2011 and 2012 as courses stemmed from online and distance education, with the added feature of being publicly accessible and reaching a wide, often international, audience. Between then and now, however, MOOCs have been receiving a lot of buzz with highly mixed reactions. With that buzz has been a flurry to begin research in order to better understand this phenomenon and its potential impact on the status quo.

For the sake of full disclosure, I want to point out a couple of important considerations:
-       I am currently serving as a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois, where I participate in a project studying MOOC courses at Illinois, through a mixed-methods examination of engagement, expectations, and outcomes, with an eye to the potential issues that may confront the expansion of MOOCs to graduate and professional education; and
-       In terms of opinions, I do not have a strong opinion either way on whether MOOCs are an innovation that will positively impact higher education and access to education. I feel there is not enough yet that is known, and am cautious to develop a strong opinion in either direction without further support from research on quality.

What follows is an (hopefully) objective look at just a couple pieces of research that have come to fore and how the media has treated the research, regardless of the whole of findings or quality of methods, as a means for showing how, when the public is very interested in knowing more about an innovation, that studies released the soonest are often used by media to make opinions on an issue of import to higher education seem more heated than they may in fact be.

What the Media is Reporting

If we are to believe what the media shares regarding MOOCs, the outlook on them is dismal. Perhaps the most recent of these reports comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education on January 16, 2014, entitled “Attitudes on Innovation: How College Leaders and Faculty See the Key Issues Facing Higher Education.” Publicity for the report in the e-mail correspondence details that the findings will show “the validity of the MOOCs business model for the future,” and reports that “60% [of] presidents think MOOCs will negatively impact the future of higher education.” Another recent Chronicle article, entitled “Doubts About MOOCs Continue to Rise, Survey Finds,” focuses on a report from the Babson Survey Research Group that showed “a growing skepticism among academic leaders about the promise of MOOCs,” namely that more of the leaders surveyed indicated concern about MOOCs’ sustainability and tended to think that “credentials for MOOC completion will cause confusion about higher education degrees.” Based off of how the media presented these findings, the take-away would be that MOOCs are all but dead-in-the-water. However, when looking more deeply at the text of the reports, it seems that limitations and important contextual considerations were overlooked.

Limits of the Research

Several points of the reports are not prominently featured by the media, or omitted entirely, either for the sake of presenting a controversial story or to save on time, elements that seem critical to understanding the findings. Some of the information that would be helpful includes:
-       Low response rates: The response rate to the president and faculty survey was only 8-10 percent, which questions the reliability and generalizability of the findings.
-       Low scope of MOOC availability: The Babson survey found that only 5.0 percent of institutions included in the survey actually implemented any MOOCs. Surveys only presented attitudinal data, a majority of which could be from faculty or administrators with no experience with these courses.
-       High emphasis on uncertainty: The reports themselves detail a large amount of uncertainty, or center-leaning opinions toward questions of the feasibility of MOOCs. This uncertainty seems lost when the articles present the findings.
-       Missing the point on online education: There is so much more that the reports present than is published in the articles. The Babson survey included more questions pertaining to online education in general and its comparison to face-to-face instruction, while the Chronicle study had interesting findings about perceived changes to higher education in the next 10 years. Neither got coverage in the article, as the limited findings related to MOOCs seemed to dominate the conversation.

Closing Thoughts

I do not intend to be overly critical of the work of the media that covers education, as they engage valuable conversations and highlight reports worth reading. However, in the case of emerging innovations such as MOOCs, to me, it appears that this media has extracted findings from reports with much more mixed results and presented a story that makes this innovation seem like it is infeasible and meeting wide resistance. While it makes for a good story, my experience suggests that there are far more individuals who are on the fence, interested in watching how things develop and getting involved in the process of developing strong practices than there are individuals who are completely pro- or completely con-MOOCs. That type of story has its own interest, and is a story worth telling. Mixed results are still results.