James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Education

  • Hugh Calkins

    An example of applying energy, abilities, and leverage to the public good. We can't have enough of these examples.

    I learned recently that Hugh Calkins, a lawyer and educational-reform leader, had died early this month at age 90. He was very well known in Cleveland, where he raised his family and spent most of his career, but I think his achievement and character deserve wider notice.

    Calkins's early years were as complete a sweep of meritocratic successes as you can imagine. He was born in Newton, Mass., and went to Exeter and then Harvard. He studied engineering, was president (editor) of the Harvard Crimson, graduated early, and enlisted in the Air Force. When he was out of the service, he went to Harvard Law School, where (like Barack Obama many years later) he was president of the Harvard Law Review. Then he was a law clerk, first for Learned Hand on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and later for Felix Frankfurter on the Supreme Court. Not yet married, he decided to move to and start his career in Cleveland, on the hunch that he would find it more satisfying to be fully engaged in the life of a "large representative city" like this.

    A tribute from Calkins's law firm, Jones Day, gives an idea of his day-job accomplishments as a long-time partner and head of the firm's tax practice. A site set up by his family lists more of his range of achievements, notably including his 61 years of marriage to Ann Clark Calkins and raising their four children.

    Hugh Calkins (Courtesy of the Calkins family)

    I met Hugh Calkins, and came to admire him, in strange circumstances. In the late 1960s, when Calkins was in his mid-40s and I was in my teens, he rose to sudden prominence at his alma mater, Harvard. I had just become president of the Harvard Crimson when he was chosen as the newest–and youngest, and first Midwestern, and by a million miles most "progressive"–member of the Harvard "Corporation." The Corporation, formally known as the President and Fellows of Harvard College, is the ultimate governing authority for the world's brand-name university. (I see that Harvard's official site now embraces the body's name, saying that "The oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere is the Harvard Corporation.") Now it is larger, but then it had only five members, so one forceful new person could make a big difference.

    The university at the time, like many others institutions and like much of the country, was all but blowing up. Poor Harvard president Nathan Pusey, a distinguished leader with the sensibility of a bygone age, had absolutely no idea how to deal with student and faculty protest over the war in Vietnam and other sources of turmoil. Hugh Calkins—who had opposed the Vietnam war and earned a place on Nixon's enemies list, who was serving on the Cleveland school board, and who had been involved in a long effort to improve finances and standards in Cleveland's over-crowded schools—represented something entirely new. Yale already had the smooth president Kingman Brewster; soon Harvard would have the smooth new president Derek Bok. But for a while in 1969 and 1970, the closest thing this institution had to a smooth conciliator was Hugh Calkins of Cleveland.

    The Crimson ran a profile at the time, "Who Is This Man Hugh Calkins?" I think I wrote it, and I know I did the reporting and interviewing of Calkins, but it's all a sixties-era blur. What I remember is the difference he made. It is embarrassing to quote oneself as a teenager, but for the record:

    In the first week of the strike, Calkins talked about dissent and ROTC and all the other issues for two straight nights on television. He ate breakfast with students in the Houses and told them about ROTC. When he saw posters in the Yard giving some students' version of what he said, Calkins trotted over to the Crimson to type out a reply and explain why the poster version was a distortion.

    With a somewhat disturbing energy and bounce, Calkins has spoken in House dining halls and appeared with SDS members on panel discussions. A few other Corporation members have tried the same thing on a smaller scale. But now, at the beginning of May, there are probably no more than five or six undergraduates who could give an accurate description of what any of the other Fellows looks like.

    Who is this man Hugh Calkins, and why is he now so present on our campus?

    That era passed, for the university, for the country, for Calkins himself. By 1984, when he was 60, he had become the senior figure on the Corporation and reached the end of his term. Through much of the rest of his career, his passion—apart from his family—was public education. He taught math in inner-city Cleveland middle schools. This former president of the Harvard Law Review went back to John Carroll University to get a teaching credential after retiring from Jones Day, and continued his teaching work. Eventually he founded a charter school and ran an organization called Initiatives in Urban Education. In the words of his son Andy, from an email letting me know about his father's death, "He cared deeply about injustice, poverty, the rule of law, and the right of every child to a high quality education." 

    I mention this because Hugh Calkins was a person of enormous talent and opportunity, who kept deciding to apply his energy, his abilities, and his leverage to the public good. It is an example worth noting. Sympathies, and admiration, to all of his family—including one of his daughters, who by chance* is now the principal of the public elementary school our children attended (before her time) in Washington D.C.

    Taking up art very late in life, with a portrait of his wife Ann.

    There will be a ceremony celebrating Hugh Calkins's life and achievement in Cleveland on September 13. My wife and I hope to be there. 


    * Although we did not realize this connection until long afterward, by chance we sort-of owe our marriage and thus the existence of our children to the indirect influence of the Calkins family. My wife Deb and her sister Sue grew up in a very small town on Lake Erie. Ann Clark Calkins was interviewing candidates for Radcliffe/Harvard from northern Ohio and ended up steering them there, which is the only way my wife and I would ever have met.

  • Raj Shaunak and the Economic Boom in Eastern Mississippi

    It's one thing to draw high-skill, high-wage jobs to a place that has historically lacked opportunities. It's something else altogether to find people qualified to fill them. A local answer to a national question.

    Raj Shaunak, who was born in Kenya and educated in England. He built a successful business in Mississippi and is now training students there. (East Mississippi Community College)

    In our previous chronicles of economic, industrial, and educational recovery in the "Golden Triangle" of eastern Mississippi, my wife Deb and I discussed the roles of Joe Max Higgins and Brenda Lathan in helping attract major modern industries to the region, and of Chuck Yarborough, Thomas Easterling, and others in helping build the (public) Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science, which got started in the 1980s with the guidance of then-governor William Winter. Links to some of those previous reports, and a Marketplace broadcast from the Golden Triangle, are at the end of this piece.

    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
    Read more

    But when you bring thousands of high-wage, high-skill jobs to an area with very low median income, poorly ranked schools, and a history of farming and low-end factories rather than advanced manufacturing, you raise another question. Where are companies going to find the right people to do these jobs? Sure, lots of people need work. But the ones who have been laid off from packing houses or "cut and sew" minimum wage garment plants, or have not held steady jobs at all, may not be ready to run a billion-dollar modern steel mill or an Airbus helicopter factory.

    This is where East Mississippi Community College, or EMCC, comes in.

    Center for Manufacturing Technology Excellence, at East Mississippi Community College. Photo by Tommy Andres of Marketplace.

                                                                     ***

    In many stops before Mississippi, we've been impressed by the emphasis on, and seeming success of, programs for "career technical" education. For example, the Camden County High School in far southern Georgia—or, with a different emphasis the Elementary School for Engineering in Greenville, South Carolina. Back at the dawn of time, when I was in high school, "vocational ed" had a patronizing, loser tone. Today's "career technical" programs, in contrast, aspire to help people avoid the minimum-wage service-or-retail trap with better-paid jobs as skilled repair technicians, in health care, in construction and design, in advanced modern factories, in law enforcement, and in other "living wage" categories.

    Brenda Lathan, part of the Golden Triangle's 
    economic development team, while being
    interviewed for Marketplace.

    Many of these schools operate on an (admirable) public-good principle. They have no way of knowing where the students they're training will end up working 10 or 20 from now. So they proceed on the belief that it will be better for the region to have a larger pool of better-skilled workers. (That way, some large corporation might open a branch there, and new startup businesses might arise.) And it is obviously a plus for the students to have more skills and options, whether they stay nearby or leave. 

    EMCC's current ambitions are more targeted. The good jobs are coming to its "Golden Triangle" region, thanks to the efforts of its promoters. The big new factories have already brought in thousands of higher-skill, higher-wage jobs. An enormous plant from Yokohama Tires, now under construction, will bring more. The challenge is to prepare local people to qualify for them. 

    This is the challenge Raj Shaunak has undertaken.

                                                               ***

    Raj's family is Indian; he was born in Kenya; and as a teenager he moved with his family to England, where he went to college. I will refer to him as Raj because that is how everyone seems to know him locally. When he picks up the phone he says slowly and in a deep voice, "Rajjjj ... " or "This is Raj..." His accent is an arresting combination of UK-Indian and Mississippi-Southern.

    In 1972 Raj paid a visit to Mississippi to see his brother, who was then at Mississippi State University in the Golden Triangle city of Starkville. He ended up staying and building a very successful manufacturing business with other family members. 

    In 1989 the family sold the business, and Raj was freed from workaday economic concerns. On October 31 of that year he dramatically threw his wristwatch into the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway outside Columbus, and began the next stage of his life. (Me: "Raj, could I call you at 11am tomorrow?" Raj: "Jim, I have no watch, call me when you would like.") Two years later, he was teaching adult-education courses and math. By 1994 he had begun what is now his major commitment: "workforce development," or preparing people in the community for the jobs that the economic development commission was trying to attract.

    Here is what the results look like in practice:

    • EMCC has brochures, billboards, ads, and other publicity (like what you see above) all over town, letting people know about its programs.

    • Students who enroll go through what Raj calls "skills-based pathways," whose details I won't go through now but are suggested by some of the charts below. The essential point, according both to Raj and to the students I spoke with at EMCC (and alumni I met at several factories), is that students are first assessed to see what they know and what they don't; they're brought up to speed in areas of weakness; and they're exposed to the skills, practices, and disciplines required in modern industrial work. These include precision measurement, ability to read graphs and blueprints, "lean manufacturing" procedures, teamwork and flexibility, trouble-shooting, "continuous improvement," and all the other traits you've heard about if you've visited any advanced factory in Japan, Europe, China, or the US.

    •  In the EMCC training facilities, students work on real versions, or sometimes scaled-down models, of the machinery and products being made in the local factories. I saw them dealing with real engines from the nearby PACCAR factory, and real computer-controlled machine tools.

    • I heard about but didn't see working models of the Yokohama Tire assembly line, preparing candidates for the 500 jobs the company plans to offer when the first stage of its new facility opens up. As part of its comprehensive training deal with Yokohama, EMCC hopes to prepare as many as 5,000 candidates for those positions. "What happens to the ones who don't get hired?" Raj asks, anticipating the question. "They will have much higher skills, and they will be more marketable—either when Yokohama opens its next phase [another 500 jobs], or anywhere else."

    "We cannot guarantee a job for anyone. We are in the business of training people to be part of a qualified pool of applicants. We're trying to move people from dependence to enterprise and independence." 

     Also as part of the Yokohama deal, all of the company's own direct hires—"its engineers, its PhDs, its technicians, everyone except the CEO!" as Raj put it—will also go through an EMCC program.

    • As a public community college, EMCC's tuition and fees are low. For instance, an initial skills assessment for the Yokohama program costs $50. Some other courses cost $120. According to Raj, about half the students don't end up paying anything themselves, because of various benefits for veterans, dislocated workers, etc.

    An EMCC classroom.

    • There may be an underside to EMCC and the programs it is carrying out; I didn't pretend to be launching a detailed investigation. But at face value, the people I asked—students at the school (without Raj or other officials present), alumni in the factories (some 1/3 of whom had been through EMCC), people around town—all described it as a plus. Just before our visit the state's Lieutenant Governor had come to town to praise Raj and others at EMCC for what they had achieved.

    • Mississippi has the highest proportion of African-Americans of all states, at around 38%. In the Golden Triangle, the balance is roughly 50%+ white, 40%+ black, with Asians, Latinos, and others making up the rest. All the classrooms, cafeterias, libraries, and also factory sites I saw were racially mixed—if not exactly in the 50/40 proportion, then with a much larger black presence than mere tokenism.

    Joe Max Higgins, Raj's friend and colleague.

    Raj, by the way, seems to enjoy and make the most of his "other" status on the black-white racial grid. He works very closely with Joe Max Higgins, a white, Arkansas-raised sheriff's son featured in this previous installment. I heard him on a call with Higgins, who was in a rush (as always) and had to hang up. "Joe, Joe, you never have time for the brown man," Raj said, obviously using a familiar joke line between the two. 

    Culinary student at Lion HIlls (EMCC
    photo).

    A few weeks ago Raj took me for catfish buffet at Lion Hills, a former private (and segregated) country club that has now become a EMCC dining center and golf course, and a training facility for its restaurant-management, chef-training, and "turf management" programs. He worked his way through the racially mixed group of diners and students there, seeming to slightly code-shift his accent from group to group. Bonus note: in most big U.S. cities where I have lived, "How are you?" is a pro-forma question to which no one expects a real answer. In this part of Mississippi, people treated it as an actual query, deserving an extended reply. Thus Raj worked the room with a series of several-round discussions with all the people there. 

    The Severstal steel mill, where many EMCC alums work.

                                                                  ***

    Does any of this matter, the industrial-recruitment efforts and the training of a work force? People in the state think it does. "The industrial boom in the Golden Triangle happened because leaders in the Golden Triangle made it possible," Tate Reeves, the lieutenant governor, said at local event in April.  "When you are competing for businesses, you have to have the infrastructure, you have to have the quality of life, you have to have the land," Raj told me by phone this week. "But most places that are competing have those things. We now have a critical mass of trained and trainable workers. Companies have told us that this makes the difference."

    That is more than I intended to write, and more than you may have wanted to read. But it is a sign of why Deb and I have found it so enlightening—and overall encouraging—to see how communities around the country are working to improve their economic, cultural, and educational prospects. We all know the problems Americans are facing, in Mississippi and elsewhere. But I'd had no idea that people like Raj Shaunak were making this kind of effort in this kind of place.    

    Recent honors graduates (EMCC photo).

                                                             


    Some previous reports on this theme:

    Marketplace on the Golden Triangle.

    • The Golden Triangle industrial boom

    • Whether strong individuals really played a part in this trend. 

    • On regional inequalities. 

    • Northern criticism of the non-union Southern industrial boom. Plus a response by me, and an eloquent one from a Mississippian

    • Deb Fallows on the importance of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, plus a cultural note linking Mississippi and the Atlantic, plus some absolutely extraordinary writing by students from MSMS. 

    • A recent Commercial Dispatch article on EMCC plans, and one on Yokohama, and a whole special "Salute to Industry."

     

  • Emancipation Day Commemoration in Eastern Mississippi

    "It's not a black thing. It's not a white thing. It's an American thing."

    Voices in Harmony chorus from Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, performing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" in historic Sandfield cemetery.
    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
    Read more

    Over the months Deb Fallows has reported on a variety of impressive and innovative public schools around the country. For instance: the Sustainability Academy in Burlington, Vermont; the Grove School in Redlands California; the Shead School in Eastport, Maine; several English immersion schools in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, South Carolina; the A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School for Engineering, also in Greenville; and the Camden County High School near St. Marys, Georgia. 

    Recently she has spent a lot of time at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS), in Columbus, Mississippi. MSMS is a public, residential high school for students from across the state, about which Deb will be reporting in detail soon. But before the day ends, we wanted to note a moving presentation by MSMS students this evening in a historic cemetery in Columbus.

    MSMS students Ben Gibbons (l) and Mamadou Fadiga enacting a discussion about a late-19th-century African-American entrepreneur, Jack Rabb.

    The Emancipation Proclamation officially took effect on January 1, 1863. But in this part of Mississippi, the 8th of May has been celebrated in the black community as Emancipation Day. It was on May 8, 1865, that Union troops arrived from across the state line in Alabama and effectively put an end to slavery. 

    For the last few years MSMS history teacher Chuck Yarborough (above, center, talking with his students before tonight's performance) has organized 8th of May presentations in Columbus's historic Sandfield cemetery, where many of the area's prominent black residents were buried. This evening's program alternated songs by the Voices in Harmony choir from MSMS, with re-enactments of African-American political, religious, and business figures from the decades after the Civil War.

    Here is student Terence Johnson, in the role of Robert Gleed, who served in the Mississippi State Senate during Reconstruction, fled to Texas with his family to avoid persecution for his political prominence, and was eventually buried back in Columbus at this same cemetery.

    Johnson and other student re-enactors and singers after the performance.

    Student Mamadou Fadiga, who is headed this fall to Vanderbilt, by the grave of the person he portrayed, entrepreneur Jack Rabb, and Rabb's wife Gillie.

    Student and choir director Tylicia Grove, opening the presentation with her poem, "An American Thing." Its refrain was, "It's not a black thing. It's not a white thing. It's an American thing." It's our thing.

    Back to the school after the show:

    Our partners from Marketplace were there for the performance; I hope and assume they'll have some of the music and sound for their report. It was an American thing. 

    Previous post                                                                                 Next post

  • High School in Southern Georgia: What 'Career Technical' Education Looks Like

    A school that is famous for football is notable in an entirely different way.

    Walkways over the marshland, and beneath Spanish-moss-draped trees, to Camden County High School (James Fallows)

    Earlier this month my wife and I spent about a week, in two visits, in the little town of St. Marys, Georgia, on the southernmost coast of Georgia just north of Florida and just east of the Okefenokee Swamp. It's a beautiful and historic town, which is best known either as the jumping-off point for visits to adjoining Cumberland Island National Seashore or for the enormous Kings Bay naval base, which is the East Coast home of U.S. Navy's nuclear-missile submarine fleet and which is the largest employer in the area.

    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
    Read more

    St. Marys is known to our family for its complicated and often-troubled corporate history, which I described long ago in a book called The Water Lords and which we'll return to in upcoming posts. But it also highlights an aspect of American education which we've encountered repeatedly in our travels around the country and is well illustrated by the school shown above, Camden County High School, or CCHS from this point on.

    CCHS is the only high school in the county, drawing a total of some 2800 students from the cities of Kingsland (where it is located), St. Marys, and Woodbine plus unincorporated areas. Each year's graduating class is around 600 students. Its size gives it one advantage well-recognized in the area: it is a perennial athletic powerhouse and has won the state football championship three times in the past 10 years. It also has another advantage that I recognized from my own time as a student in a single-high-school community: it creates an enforced region-wide communal experience, across class and race, rather than the separation-by-suburb of many public schools. This part of Georgia has relatively few private or religious schools. 

    As a matter of statistics, the CCHS student body is more or less like the surrounding area: about one-quarter black, most of the rest white, and small numbers of other ethnic groups (including from Navy-related families). About 40% of the students qualify for reduced-price lunch, the main school proxy for income level, and about 60% go to post-high school training of any sort.  Each year, a small number go away to out-of-state schools, including selective ones. In 2001, only 50.5% of the school's students graduated from high school. Now that is up to 85%, a change that Rachel Baldwin, the CCHS Career Instructional specialist who showed us around, attributed mainly to the school's application of programs from the Southern Regional Education Board. CCHS has the best AP record of high schools in its part of the state.  

    That's the background. Now what struck us, which was the very practical-minded and well-supported embrace of what used to be called "vocational education," and now is called the "career technical" approach.

    Hallway sign showing stats for the six different "academies" at CCHS.

    In practice what this means is dividing a large, sprawling campus and student body into six "academies," with different emphases. One of them is the Freshman Academy, to get the new students acclimated. ("I don't know if you've seen ninth graders recently," one person there told us. "But some of them look big and old enough to be parents of some others. It's a big range, and it helps to have a special place for them.")

    The other five academies each have a "career technical" emphasis. After freshman year, all students enroll in one of the five. While they still take the normal academic-core range of subjects, they also get extensive and seemingly very-well-equipped training in the realities of jobs they might hold.

    A few examples:

    Rich Gamble, head of the CSI course at CCHS

    - In the "law and justice" curriculum, which is part of the Government and Public Service Academy, a former Navy-Kings Bay NCIS official named Rich Gamble (right) trains students in conducting mock crime investigations, and preparation for testimony in court.

    On the day we were there, he had staged a mock robbery, in which the perp grabbed a cashbox from an office, ran through the hallways, and dumped the box as he was escaping. (The students acting out the scenario wore their white CSI lab coats, so other teachers would know what they were up to.) Then Rich Gamble divided his students into three teams to investigate the crime -- making plaster casts of footprints (below), taking evidence, filing reports, preparing a case. "We emphasize a lot of writing," he said. "I give them issues where they have to defend themselves, in very few words, because courts don't like you to waste words. Some of these papers are as good as any written by NCIS."

    Plaster casts of three footprints, by three of Rich Gamble's CSI student-teams.

     In the Engineering and Industrial Technology Academy, students design and build doghouses and other structures, which they sell in the community; do welding (and compete in state and national welding competitions); run an auto-repair shop that handles county vehicles; do extensive electrical work, and other activities I'll suggest by the photos below. Wood-frame construction:

    Student-built houses.

    Inside the wood-and-electric shop:

    Masonry:

    Welding:

    Auto shop:

    This same academy also includes computer-aided design and robotics programs, under the direction of Fred Mercier. The houses in the first photo are ones his students had designed and built, sitting on top of a 3D printer they use. The contraption in the second is part of the school's entry in a national robotics competition. 

    3D printer above, catapult-throwing arm for robot (with Fred Mercier) below.

    (These photos show young men, but that is happenstance of where it was feasible to take pictures. The academies are diversified by gender and race.)

    In the Health and Environmental Sciences Academy, students were preparing for certification tests by administering care to dummies -- in this case, representing nursing-home patients. 

    There is more to show, including from the other two academies: Business and Marketing, and Fine Arts. CCHS has an industrial-scale kitchen and catering facility, overseen by a former Navy chef. It has a very large auditorium, where students not only perform plays, dances, and concerts but also learn to build scenery and make costumes. I'm running out of time, and you've got the point by now.

    Here is why we found this interesting and surprising. Among the non-expert U.S. public, the conventional wisdom about today's education system is more or less this:

      - At the highest levels, it's very good, though always endangered by budget cuts and other problems;

      - At the lower ends, it's in chronic crisis, for budgetary and other reasons;

     - And overall it's not doing as much as it should to prepare students for practical jobs skills, especially for the significant group who are not going to get four-year college degrees. Sure, the Germans are great at this, with their apprenticeship programs and all. But Americans never take "voc ed" seriously.

    Career poster from CCHS hallway

    I'm not trying now to address all levels of this perception, and one high school doesn't prove a national trend. But what struck us at Camden County High was its resonance with developments we have seen elsewhere,: schooling explicitly intended to deal with the third issue, serious training for higher-value "technical" jobs. This is theme that John Tierney has previously discussed regarding schools in Maine and Vermont, and Deb Fallows about South Carolina. "Non-college" often serves as a catchall, covering everything from minimum-wage-or-worse food-service jobs, to highly skilled hands-on technical and engineering jobs that may be the next era's counterpart to the lost paradise of assembly-line jobs that paid a family-living wage in the Fifties and Sixties.

    "In the past, we've encouraged all kids to go to college, because of the idea that it made the big difference in income levels," Rachel Baldwin told me on the phone this morning. She then mentioned a recent public radio series on the origins of success, and said: "The recent evidence suggests really goes back to something like 'grit.' I think you are more likely to learn grit in one of these technical classes. The plumber who has grit may turn out to be more entrepreneurial and successful than someone with an advanced degree. Our goal has been getting students a skill and a credential that puts them above just the entry-level job, including if they're using that to pay for college."

    And oh, yes: What the weight room looks like for a state-champion football team.

    Thanks to all at Camden County High. And Rachel Baldwin has written in with a closing thought on the career-technical/traditional-academic balance:

    As a naval community, Camden County appreciates the phrase “a rising tide raises all ships.” Our AP students at CCHS thrive in Career Technical options (we have more than 20 AP course offerings), along with students who would be considered traditionally  “vocational” in the past. Our administration and faculty, believing in "all ships rise," recognize and provide strong support for both achievement at higher academic levels and meeting the new technical demands of the workplace.

    Previous post                                                                               Next post 

  • As We Switch From Superbowl to Sochi ...

    When in doubt, try French.

    For several days I am holed up finishing an "American Futures" article for the next issue of the magazine. Later this week, more web dispatches will be coming about The Upstate of South Carolina. In the meantime, don't miss Deb Fallows's two very popular reports about innovative public schools in Greenville: the Elementary School for Engineers, and the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities. And, among many other great recent items on our site, Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay on "The Champion Barack Obama" and Derek Thompson's on Philip Seymour Hoffman

    Now two transition notes. First, about over-correction in language. A reader writes:

    I read with great interest your articles on the "Frenchified" pronunciation of Beijing as Beizhing during the 2012 Olympics. A similar phenomenon appears to be affecting announcers talking about Sochi this year. I've heard several referring to "Soshi", the latest being the ATC TV critic Eric Deggans just this evening (just a little after 5pm EST). [JF note: didn't hear it the first time through, but link is here and embedded below. In the intro you hear the host, I believe NPR's Audie Cornish, say Sochi. Then about a minute in we get Soshi.]

    Does the softer fricative just sound more "foreign"? In the case of Sochi, there can be no confusion based on spelling! 

    Here is the NPR player:

    I think there is something to the theory that when in doubt, Americans instinctively class up a foreign word by making it sound "French." I am no expert in the Slavic world, but through the magic of this delightful site I will assert that сочи, the name of the Olympic home city, is pronounced with what sounds to English speakers like more a ch- than a sh- sound. Listen for yourself. It's on the Internet, so it must be true.

    Second, and on an entirely different scale, an update about Robert Gates. Last week, as part of an Iran-sanctions reader, I linked to Mike Lofgren's criticism of Gates's tenure at DOD and his book. A professor at Texas A&M, where Gates was president for four years before he came back to DC to succeed Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, writes in to disagree. This note comes from John Nielsen-Gammon, who is the Regents Professor at A&M and also the Texas State Climatologist; I've quoted his scientific views before. Since he is criticizing Lofgren by name, and Lofgren was directly criticizing Gates, it seem fair to use Nielsen-Gammon's name too (as he agreed). Here goes:

    Been busy and just now saw your reference to Mike Lofgren's piece on Robert Gates.  I followed the link and was reading the piece with a combination of alarm and skepticism, unsure of how much I should take Lofgren's words at face value (having not read Gates' side of it yet), when I came to this paragraph:

    [Lofgren writes:] "In between the two Bush presidencies, Gates became – quelle surprise! – dean of the newly-minted George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Later he was president of that university. This is not the place to exhaustively examine the subject, but Gates's tenure at Texas A&M is another example of the corrosive effect of the revolving door between political operatives in government and the American university system. While these persons' fundraising prowess based on their extensive network of rich contacts as well as their ability to wangle federal education grants may benefit the university in the short run, the intellectually corrupting influence of such operatives, along with the growing dependence of universities on a cadre of politically motivated government elites, poses a long-term threat to the academic independence of higher education. One need only look at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the bleaching tub of the self-perpetuating American political oligarchy, to see the danger."

    [Back to Nielsen-Gammon:]   At last something of which I have personal knowledge, with which I could gauge Lofgren's credibility.  I've been on the faculty of Texas A&M University since before Gates arrived.

    Gates was surely designated the first Dean of the Bush School (no "George") of Government and Public Service because he was both a friend of the George Bush family and a veteran of governmental affairs.  His appointment was met with understandable concern among the faculty there, who saw the political appointment of a man with no higher education experience.  

    However, in his  two years as Dean, he showed himself to be a fine academic administrator and one of the best Deans in the University at working with faculty to further the academic mission of the School.  

    Robert Gates, Aggies, "senior boots." C/o Aggie Insurgency.

    When it was time to hire a new President in 2001, it came down to two men.  The overwhelming preference on campus was for Robert Gates, based on his track record at the Bush School.  However, many on the governor-appointed Board of Regents were in favor of sidestepping the search committee's recommendation in favor of sitting Sen. Phil Gramm, a former economics professor at Texas A&M.  In this instance, Gramm would have represented "the revolving door between political operatives in government and the American university system".  Eventually, in a split vote, Gates was chosen to be President, and the campus breathed a collective sigh of relief that we had avoided having the office of President of the University become politicized.

    As President, Gates inherited a broad but ambitious plan to move the University forward into the top ten of public universities by the year 2020.  He chose to focus on four key objectives, including "elevating the faculty", and was responsible for expanding the size of the faculty by over 400 members at a time when public spending for higher education in Texas was becoming a hard sell in a conservative state.  He oversaw the beginning of construction of the campus's first building dedicated to liberal arts amid outside suspicion of what "liberal arts" stood for.  His continued focus on the quality of the education Texas A&M provides its students and his strength of character to fend off harmful political interference, contribute to him being widely regarded as one of the greatest presidents in the history of Texas A&M University. 

    Offered for the record. Also on the subject of Texans in the news, congratulations to my friend and one-time employer* Rep. Lloyd Doggett. He is a Democrat who was elected from Austin in 1994 (after losing a U.S. Senate race to the same Phil Gramm and being elected to the Texas Supreme Court) and has survived a series of hostile gerrymanders since then. Now he is leading a House effort against the poison-pill Iran sanctions bill. Greg Sargent has the story here. Good for Rep. Doggett and those working with him.


    * Back in the mid-70s, when the 20-something Lloyd Doggett had just won a seat in the Texas State Senate, and my wife had just begun linguistics graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin, I worked as an aide/gofer on Lloyd's legislative staff. I wasn't there long, before joining the then-startup Texas Monthly, but nonetheless I take credit for, or at least pleasure in, his subsequent attainments.

  • 'Cal: There's an App for That!'

    'Who wouldn't rather attend Wolverine U?'

    Thumbnail image for PepperSprayCal.png

    There are other topics to catch up on, but by serendipity three similar-themed responses on the UCal Logo Wars arrived at practically the same moment.


    One by one, and even more powerfully in combination. they make the excellent point that this is not just about a logo and whether you prefer the "classic stateliness" of the old look or the "bold simplicity" of the new. These writers argue that this seemingly silly controversy in fact raises timely and surprisingly sweeping questions about the future identity, role, and financial underpinnings of great universities. I turn it over to the readers:

    Embracing the new. One reader in North Carolina says that the people in charge at UC are merely trying to get ahead of technological and market reality:
    What this logo made me think, immediately, is that U Cal is prepping for (or leaping into) a future where more of its students relate to it as a web site than a physical place.

    I think this is indicative of where higher ed is going.  It doesn't surprise me that people whose memories of the university are based on all-nighters in the dorm, hanging out in the student union or tailgating at football game would find this unrepresentative of their feelings about their college experience.  I bet someone who is 12 year old right now will find this design (when they are investigating colleges 5 years from now) spot on.
    But wait a minute. A friend in the Bay Area whose BA, MA, and PhD are all from UC Berkeley sees similar implications in the new logo but doesn't like them. Emphasis added in his note and the following one:
    [Re] the execrable new logo from my alma mater. I wanted to add something which I haven't seen articulated elsewhere, regarding what I see as the ideological implications of the logo -- or perhaps better, the mission vision that the logo speaks to. 

    (I should add that I have no knowledge whatsoever about the conversations that went into the logo, or even about who was involved in the process. So this is pure speculation.)

    My first thought when I saw the new logo was "UC: there's an app for that!" Which seemed like a joke, until I realized that there might be a subtle truth behind it. What I'd like to suggest is that the logo's dot-commish quality is no bug, but rather a very intentional feature.

    Some context: Arguably biggest story among the technorati this fall has been the explosive rise of massively open online courses (MOOCs). The hype began when over 160,000 people worldwide took Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun's introductory Artificial Intelligence course in the Fall of 2011. The stunning popularity of the course spurred Thrun to start the company Udacity, which is working with a number of different elite universities to help them put their courses online so that they can be taken by people anywhere in the world. Since then, several other similar venture have started, notably Coursera and edX, each of which is looking to make star professors' courses at elite universities available to anyone.

    There's been a vigorous debate going on concerning the implications for higher education of the MOOC phenomenon. While the entrepreneurs behind the MOOC companies have been telling a noble story about the democratization of higher education, people like Clay Shirky have been claiming it represents the first step in the "Napsterization" of higher ed. Clay's basic idea is that once MOOCs figure out a way to accredit the students who take their courses, they may rapidly displace the traditional four year college education -- the price tag for which can now run to quarter of a million dollars. All of this is taking place in the shadow of the "don't go to college, just be an entrepreneur" noise that has also been coming out of Silicon Valley over the last three years, spearheaded by venture capitalist Peter Theil, who has been telling kids to stake their single chance to go to college for the opportunity to enter the entrepreneurial game at eighteen.

    Until recently, Berkeley had not been opening itself up to the MOOC phenomenon, but in July they announced they were signing on with edX. This takes place in the wake of what has been a very tough few years for Berkeley, as the state of California's budget woes have dramatically cut into taxpayer funding of public higher education. Tuition rates have risen dramatically, leading to lamentations that the famed multiversity -- with its mission to provide the highest quality education to talented youth regardless of background and thus prime the pump for the California economy -- was coming apart at the seams. Some have claimed that the University faced a choice between abandoning its mission to serve the California economy by providing the highest quality education, and its role as an engine of social mobility by providing access at a price anyone in the state could afford. That was always a false dichotomy, but insofar as it was a choice, the University has been pretty decisive: raising prices in order to preserve funding and thus quality, even if this has undermined the accessibility of the institution to the state's poor.

    This is the context in which we need to see the new logo -- when Berkeley's logo declares "Cal: there's an app for that," it's a way to square the circle between maintaining the quality and reputation of the institution, and maintaining the democratic access to the institution. Berkeley's logo symbolizes the view that education, at least in its mass form, can be treated as an "app." 

    If the dichotomy between quality and access was always a bit false, however, then this solution is equally disingenuous. Because the silliest thing about the MOOC phenomenon is the notion that it is a substitute for an elite education. Yes, MOOCs pose a mortal threat to lousy colleges: once the accreditation element of MOOCs gets solved, one will be able to make an excellent case that you can learn more from taking the online computer science course from the smartest profs in the world at Berkeley or Stanford, as opposed to taking the same classes from the dead wood at Whatsamatta U. 

    At the same time, the MOOCs in my view present little threat to elite college education, because such an education is about so much more than just what one learns in class: elite social networks, signaling value to employers, intense intellectual engagement outside of class, participation in school clubs which are career launchpads (Hasty Pudding, Crimson, etc.), to say nothing of a great deal of coming-of-age fun. Whether those latter features can support the current price tag that most universities charge is another question -- anywhere outside the top 50 (or maybe top 20) universities, the answer is probably no. But for elite universities, MOOCs represent a way to increase their market share at the expense of the lower tier institutions. Indeed, depending on how the pricing and cost structures shake out, it may be the MOOC students (who will get a relatively low-value degree) end up sponsoring the on-campus students (who will continue to get an elite degree, not to mention a lot more fun).

    Speaking personally, I'm not sure that's the mission that Berkeley should be engaged in. 

    Go Wolverine U! Another reader in the Bay Area writes:
    It's time to revive the idea I sent you a few months back during the Penn State scandals:

    College and university image problems would immediately be solved if these "educational" institutions simply renamed themselves after the one brand identity their entire community already loves the most:  the name of their sports teams. 

    GoldenBear.jpg
    Thus UC Berkeley (in the city where I live) could simply become Golden Bear University.  One inspiring version of the requisite ursine logo prominently portraying vivid claws already adorns many sweatshirts around town, so no major new design effort would be required.  Result: an instant image upgrade with no iconic connection to the failing statewide system.

    This would have the great benefit of ending the common pretense that it's the academics that matter most on campus, when that's true only for the minority of students who actually show up to be educated.  In fact, this cohort and their alumni fellow-travelers actually function most effectively as support for the football and basketball teams and other mass-entertainment athletic efforts, helping to garner income and free publicity from widespread TV exposure.

    Once implemented at Berkeley -- ever the trend-setter -- a wave of change could swiftly spread to the rest of the UC system, soon creating Trojan University instead of boring old UCLA, etc. [JF note: Ahem, I think we mean Bruin University, as opposed to Trojan University nee USC. But still] , and culminating perhaps with the best UC rebranding of all: Anteater University instead of UC Irvine.  

    Elsewhere, what schools could resist the popular demands to rename in order to align their image with their actual priorities?  Who wouldn't rather attend Wolverine University than the U of Wisconsin [JF: Or 'U of Michigan,' but we take the point], say, or Nittany Lions U instead of Penn State?  Admittedly schools with more abstract team names would have some difficulty -- Crimson University doesn't really improve on Harvard -- but clever marketing departments everywhere would be inspired to take up the challenge.

    I think that's it for a while.

  • Some People Like the New UC Logo!

    The pepper-spraying cop as design inspiration?

    Or at least one person, and he claims not to have been part of the paid design team. We'll get to him later on. Let's build the story step by step.


    What we're talking about. Check it out below. On the left is the previous Official Seal of the University of California system. On the right, the snappy new version.

    uc-logo_620x350.jpg 
    Background on the flap. Check it out here. Summary of my argument: if you prefer the new version, you are "challenged" when it comes to visual IQ. And here is a bonanza of comments from the San Jose Mercury News

    It's not just the UC system. A reader who is a proud Carnegie Mellon alum sends this report:
    When I went to Carnegie Mellon in the 80's, they decided to update their logo with the infamous "tilted square."  It was dreadful and was universally panned, even though it cost the university a fortune. [JF note: Here it is.]
    CMUNewLogo.jpeg
    Happily, they gave up on it in favor of a plain wordmark, and today you can barely find any remnant of it.  [JF: Here's the current version.]

    CMUOldLogo.jpeg
    So, perhaps there is hope that UC will see the light.
    From another proud CMU grad:
    Ah, I feel better now.  When I was attending Carnegie-Mellon they decided to come-up with a new logo/branding to replace the very traditional court of arms/shield logo etc.  As I understand it, something like $2 million dollars (early 80's) were spent to have as a logo a square, tilted at 14 degrees, with "Carnegie" and "Mellon" starting from inside the box and going outside it.  Adding insult to injury they dropped the hyphenation.  I think they have since moved-on to other imagery, but your posting of what the U.C system is looking to do makes me feel much better for it makes that horrendous decision by CMU look so very much better.

    The Cal alums strike back. I have received many notes to this effect:

    Cal's fundraising letter arrived in my mailbox right after I first saw the new allegedly-pre-approved-by-alumni graphic travesty. So, I've been suggesting an easy protest to all my UC alum friends: tell UC to get rid of that hideous logo.  Run the new one by us first. Then we'll resume sending checks. 

    On the other hand, maybe this was to be expected from a school where one of the ugliest buildings on campus houses the architecture department.  [JF: Here's the building the alum is talking about, Wurster Hall at UCB.]

    wurster_hall.png

    . Another reader points out:

    I know it is more poignant when it strikes near home, but there has been an epidemic of bad university logos recently.

    I vacation in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and last summer was confronted with this for the first time (on a sign on M-28).
    northern-michigan-university.gif
    With no text, I might add. 

    Between this and the fiscal cliff, I fear we are doomed. [JF note: Hey, the fiscal cliff is not that bad.]

    The obvious inspiration for the new logo. A UC professor connects the dots.

    We here at Berkeley seem to uniformly hate the logo as well. I thought you might appreciate the following interpretation. A ... professor here at UC Berkeley, Mike Eisen, has added a pretty good take down of that monstrosity:

    SprayLogo.jpeg

    What many readers say. Many readers had reactions like the one described here:
    As a UCLA alumnus, I read your recent post on the new UC logo with interest and shared it on Facebook with friends and family (many of whom are also UC alumni or supporters).  The consensus view was clearly negative.  My hunch was that the logo had "designed by committee for a large consulting fee" written all over it.  Other UC friends commented that the fading "C" represented diminishing educational standards or funding.  But it was my brother who voiced probably the most concise and pointed assessment:  "It looks like a toilet flush."

    I wonder if the designers didn't see what my brother perceived in mere seconds?

    . A reader with some constructive suggestions:

    The problem with the new one is the fading letter "C", and the shield-like "U" (which might be that way to suggest solidity) that doesn't obviously scan as a U.

    I think a solid "C" and a more readable "U" isn't all that bad.

    Attached are six possibilities along that line.
    Ucal-types123drk-xp5.png

    And in the spirit of full-and-frank exchange of views, in tasteful after-the-jump placement we have some comments in favor of the new look.

    And, again, it's NOT just UC

    'I can live with it.' Here is the closest thing I got to a "you're being unfair" message. It's from a graphic designer who list his credentials at the end of the message. I don't agree with him -- but, hey, you realize that by now, and we might as well hear this side of the story.

    The original UC system "identity" was a seal. This is not the same as a brand identity in higher education. Most big schools have a seal (for diplomas, plaques, presidents stationary, proclamations) a brand identity (to market the place and identifier for signage, etc.), and an athletics identity (the UC Bear, the UConn Husky, etc.). But this was about the UC system. It just needed a brand identity. For the first time.

    Identity and brand design is more than just a logotype or symbol these days. It involves color, motifs, shapes, as well as type and symbols. Even sound (car exhaust tuning) and smell (retail). Showing just this one blue version in your article really does not show HOW it will be used and the variety of applications.

    Higher education is always slow on these kinds of things but, many campuses and systems have updated identities for decades. Check out the identities of Vanderbilt, UConn (which oddly, used to use the CT state seal), and University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. These are some nice redesigns all done in the past 15 years by living designers. But, compared to a system as large as the UC, the objective was simpler. The UC system is more complex than even a big state campus like UIUC. The UC has many more constitancies. Many campuses and facilities. It would be impossible to please everyone. So the objective cannot be to find some magical sweet spot but rather, use a design process to work toward a solution that the UC leadership, working with the designers, chooses. You can't do design by committee or by voting.

    Before you write any more on brand identities, you need to call and talk with some experts on the subject! The head of the AIGA national office in NYC or the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum or the curator of design at MOMA or Stephen Heller of the NYTimes and prolific design book author and design writer. Maybe the head of the team who did the design! Somebody who knows the subject.

    Here is a whole site dedicated to looking at brand identity changes - for better or worse. 

    Here is the article on that site on the UC identity change:

    It shows some of the applications - scroll down (trucks! totes! mugs!) and does a good overview of the design.

    If you hire a plumber to fix a pipe or a mechanic to fix your car or a lawyer to help you in court or an architect to build you a home or a fireman to save you from a fire or a doctor to cure you, how often do you question the methods used or solutions offered and decided upon by the proper authority? In this case, the UC system chancellor and an in house team of professional, award winning designers? [JF Note: I've added emphasis here. But donnez-moi un break! The "experts" are always right? Generals never screw up wars, and financial whizzes never bring the economy to the brink of ruin? I am more likely than not to believe a doctor when she tells me what a lab test or X-ray shows. That is in the category of "things an expert knows and a layman doesn't." But when we're talking about how something looks, I am supposed to disbelieve my eyes and say that because consultants approved it I have to think it's "good"?]

    If there were ever an article to write, it is about the dangers of design by novices, the mob, or design by committee! Nothing, nothing, ever good came out of that way of designing. Look at architecture in N. Korea, and you will see one kind of design by committee.

    I am not a total fan of the UC system identity design. But there are applications where it works well. I think they missed a few things in the design process (I think the team was too young and needed an older designer to guide them a bit). A design process was followed. The old seal was really limiting and hard to brand from. As an expatriate Californian, I can live with the new design. 

    [List of standing-to-speak details from this reader, which I have slightly vagued-up to avoid Google-based discovery of this person's name:]
    Fulbright Fellow in design
    MFA Graphic Design [prestigious East Coast design school]
    BFA [prestigious West Coast design school]
    20+ years experience as a graphic designer and art director
    15+ years experience as a design professor at 5 state university design programs (one in CA, two research universities in midwest, two research universities on East coast) and two top rated design schools (RISD and MICA)
    Multiple international design award winner for individual and team design projects for print and digital media.

    Thanks to all.


    What might have been

    More »

  • Hot Off the Press: Latest 'Washington Monthly' College Rankings

    'We're Number 11!' The new cheer from Cambridge, Mass.

    A year ago I explained why I considered the Washington Monthly's college-ranking standards so big an improvement over the familiar original version from US News.* For more background on these and other ranking systems, and why I have been touting the Washington Monthly's approach, see this dispatch from three years ago. The main policy point about rankings remains this one, from last year:

    It's never been realistic to expect US News or other rankings-producers to solve [the familiar distortions of the rankings process] by giving up on rankings. Rankings are simply too important as a business. Indeed, long after US News has ceased operations as a weekly magazine, it lives on mainly as a rankings agency. ("Best Heart Surgery Hospitals," "Best Law Firms," etc).

    So the only reasonable way to blunt the effect of one set of rankings is by adding many more. A wide range of rankings would more fully reflect the very wide range of criteria by which a certain school might be the "best" for a certain student. Is Julliard "better" than West Point, and is either "better" than Reed -- or Berkeley or Embry-Riddle or the University of Chicago or Smith or CCNY? They all are different, and the more that outside assessments could reflect that range, the better.

    The Washington Monthly explains the rationale for their rankings here; to get an idea of the difference this approach makes, here is a glimpse of part of its ranking spreadsheet for the top National Universities.

    WashMoRank2012.png

    So many pressures contribute to the insanity of modern American higher ed that different and more diverse rankings won't solve the problem on their own. But this is a step. Highly recommended.
    __
    * Disclosure #1: my first job in the magazine world was at the Washington Monthly, and I remain a loyal alum. Disclosure #2: in the late 1990s I was the editor of US News and was in a tussle even then with the way their rankings were done. 

  • A Little Taiwanese Animation to Start the Year Off Right

    Good news for cash-strapped U.S. universities: paying customers pouring in from across the Pacific!

    In the eventual Chronicles of Imperial Decline that will be written about our era, this may make a piquant subchapter. It's from our friends at NMA in Taiwan, and it dramatizes the ongoing squeeze on America's great public research universities. As the University of California and other proud, once-fully public systems are de facto privatizing themselves -- raising tuition, courting donors, and looking for full-freight students not eligible for in-state discounts -- one of the consequences is a dramatically larger role for paying customers from China.



    For the record, I'm all in favor of more Chinese (and other international) students at U.S. universities. It's good for the students, and it's good for the schools. It helps America if they stay here after they graduate -- and it even helps America if they leave (with U.S. outlooks, connections, and so on). Still, you have to both* laugh and wince at this NMA clip. Tip: when the popup ad appears 10 seconds in, dismiss it if you want to see the English subtitles.
    __
    UPDATE: A piece today by Kevin Carey describes the no-laughing-matter reality behind the jokey video.

    * Grammar zealots: don't bother to write. I'm putting it this way on purpose.

    Also, as a reminder, NMA is based in Taiwan, so there's a natural edge to its criticism of the Confucius Institutes and other "soft power" initiatives from the PRC. Still, it's a good video.

  • Very Much Worth Reading: Washington Monthly's 'Real' College Rankings

    Wondering which American colleges are "best"? Here's a good place to start.

    In my misspent youth I was for a while the editor of US News & World Report, which was then a weekly news magazine. One of the big challenges was to try do something about US News's annual "Best Colleges" rankings, which were important in a good way to the magazine's business strategy but had become important in a bad and distorting way to the operations of many colleges. Harvard or Caltech might not care about the rankings, but nearly every other institution had to, and their efforts to move up a place or two often did more harm than good to the long-term interests of students and institution alike. In a post two years ago I said more about background of the college-ranking problem and various proposed solutions, with links to other essays and studies.

    1109.cover.220x286.jpg

    It's never been realistic to expect US News or other rankings-producers to solve these problems by giving up on rankings. Rankings are simply too important as a business. Indeed, long after US News has ceased operations as a weekly magazine, it lives on mainly as a rankings agency. ("Best Heart Surgery Hospitals," "Best Law Firms," etc). So the only reasonable way to blunt the effect of one set of rankings is by adding many more. A wide range of rankings would more fully reflect the very wide range of criteria by which a certain school might be the "best" for a certain student. Is Julliard "better" than West Point, and is either "better" than Reed -- or Berkeley or Embry-Riddle or the University of Chicago or Smith or CCNY? They all are different, and the more that outside assessments could reflect that range, the better.

    For the past few years, some of the most useful of these additional rankings have come from the Washington Monthly magazine. (Disclosure: that's where I had my first magazine job.) A big theme in its assessments has been an attempt to measure the difference that a school makes. That is, less emphasis on how elite and highly select the students are when admitted, and more on how much they learn once they get there -- and how they use their skills later in life.

    The latest Washington Monthly rankings are just out, and they come with a set of excellent articles about how the role of higher education is changing in general. You will not regret spending time with this. Nor even subscribing to the magazine! Seriously, this is worth reading.

  • On Those 'Stunning' Shanghai Test Scores

    How frightened should we be about the latest proof of Chinese dominance?

    The most popular item on the NYT site at this moment concerns the "stunned" reaction of U.S. educators to the high scores of students in Shanghai, in the latest PISA results. PISA is the Program on International Student Achievement; it's run by the OECD and covers 15-year-olds in dozens of countries around the world; it compares their achievement on a variety of math and reading tests; and once again this year it shows U.S. students in the middle of the pack or worse. The shock was how well students in Shanghai, the only test site in China, scored on the tests. For more on PISA, see "Your Child Left Behind" in the new issue of our magazine--subscribe! If you'd like to try some questions yourself, go here.

    As with just about everything concerning modern China, the results should be taken seriously. Chinese schools are full of bright and motivated students; many of them work and study exceptionally hard; most of them are aware of the make-or-break importance of tests in their own life prospects -- and by extension for the country's continued development. No doubt these results reflect something real.

    ChineseProf.jpgBut as with just about everything concerning modern China, the results should also be viewed with some distance and possible skepticism. The 5000+ students who were tested in China's biggest and most modern city may or may not be indicative of broader progress throughout the country (as the NYT story points out). Anyone who has had experience with schools and testing in China will want to know more about how these tests were administered, supervised, and scored.

    From a reform-minded American perspective, I'm happy for people to be as startled as possible by these results. Anything that will direct attention to American fundamentals -- education, infrastructure, research, that sort of tedious thing -- is fine with me. We need every spur to action we can get! But on the merits, it's worth applying a version of Reagan's old "trust, but verify" approach toward the Soviet Union. Pay attention, and assume that the general pattern shown here is right and significant. (The best Chinese students working hard and doing well; not enough Americans bearing down hard enough.) But don't take this too literally as the next sign of Inevitable "Chinese Professor" Dominance (source of image above).

    Below and after the jump, an overnight reaction from a scientist at a major U.S. university, who explains some detailed cautions against giving too much weight to the results. He writes:

    >>I am not at all sure what these numbers mean.  But I am pretty sure that the breathless interpretation given  by US/Microsoft Secretary of Education Arne Duncan -- i.e. "the brutal truth" of the Chinese "out educating us" is quite overblown.
    Let us start by acknowledging that standardized tests can provide meaningful information on information on individual students, scholastic programs, and even different student populations. And such information if used properly can guide school and teaching reforms. For example the battery of tests administered by Educational Testing Service (ETS) which grew out of Vannevar Bush and James Conant postwar evaluation of American higher education initially played a major role in helping open up American Universities to a much broader group of talented students. But really good tests are hard and costly to write and to evaluate. And all my years of experience in education lead me to believe that no program of standardized testing has much meaning if test taking becomes an end in itself rather than a measure of other things.

    Never mind these big questions regarding the use of standardized tests.. It seems to me that even if we take these numbers at face value that there are significant numerical context issues which have not been addressed by the NY Times article.

    First, all numerical measurements have intrinsic variance or uncertainty. So if we split the sample test taking group (according to this article ~5000 students) into several random subgroups we would expect that the averages would vary. This would allow an estimate of the intrinsic random uncertainty. No error estimates are quoted here

    Second, how were the representative groups of 5,000 students selected in each study? In a city of 20 million, there might be a population of half a million 15 year olds enrolled in secondary education. That means there would be many ways to select a "representative" group.

    Third, to what extent were students trained specifically for this test? Even in the case of the SAT which was designed to be an "Aptitude" test and for which preparation was supposed to be useless, Kaplan and other test training services claimed that they could improve scores by an average of 30-50 points on the old 800 point scale (much more significant in upgrading a student's percentile ranking if the student moved from 450 to 500 or even from moved 730 to 780)

    Now some comments on the numerical data with respect to these basic statistical ideas.

    The spread for the approximately 30 countries (where are the other 35 mentioned in the article?) is around 110 points. The bottom scoring half of these cluster in an approximate 20 point range between 490 and 510; the top half spread out over an approximate 90 point range between 510 and 600; the top 3 spread out over and approximate 30 point range. If the table only gives the top countries and the distribution is Gaussian, an estimate for the distribution variance suggests that there no statistically significant contrast among the "bottom" two thirds in the table. This idea is supported by the jumbling of the ordering between the three test categories.

    The gap between Shanghai and the second place finisher for the math scores is somewhat more spread out than the corresponding segments in reading and math. The rest of the distributions appear fairly constant. So the most likely explanation for this would be that the Shanghai schools were specifically trained for the "PISA" exam and this training was most effective for the math subject test. Once again the jumbling and narrow range of scores in the top third in all test categories (except Shanghai which appears to be an outlier) is also supportive of the idea that Shanghai is "gaming" the exam.

    What we are ultimately left with from a strict statistical numerical point of view are pretty modest distinctions. Based on correlations between rankings in the three subject area tests supports the idea that there might be statistically significant outcome differences as measured by this test between countries in the top and bottom thirds of the rankings. In my view even this relatively modest inference would be weakened and might not stand up to real critical examination of the sampling (how the representative groups were chosen for comparison)

    In this vein there are some notable other puzzles which argue against attaching any validity whatsoever to these rankings. For example why are Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland Sweden, and Estonia so different? And what about Canada, New Zealand, and Australia? The variance within these similar groupings support the idea that the underlying cause of score differentiation has more to do with sampling variance than national educational effectiveness.

    it is certainly arguable the Chinese educational system and culture leads the world in training students how to take tests. But it is not clear whether this type of training prepares students for much else other than taking tests. Certainly I have seen much evidence for this proposition in the Chinese graduate students that I have worked with. My favorite examples were the Chinese students with perfect TOEFL scores who could neither read nor write English in any meaningful way.

    With regard to these type of studies in general: Statistical inference strongly depends on the quality of study design and methods. And critical analysis of data. Without these aspects this type of effort just recapitulates the sum of all prejudices. So here we have the consistent Tom Friedman/NYT/Chattering class message. Chinese: good: smart, better educated, harder working etc. Americans bad: dumb, poorly educated, lazy, and fat. We deserve to be losers

    With regard to educational policy in particular: Standardized tests my have their uses but structuring national educational systems around such tests seems to me to be a prescription for disaster. This is the road that we are on and in my view it is destroying public education. No one benefits from this unless they want public education to produce conformity and narrowly trained individuals with limited "shelf-life". So who else other than corporations like Microsoft benefit (or at least people like Bill Gates and Tom Friedman think they do) from this mad view of education?

     Perhaps the real educational deficiency here is in the sophistication with which our chattering and leadership classes understand statistics and the limitation of standardized tests in measuring student, school, and national educational system achievement. Not to mention what constitutes a good education and how it serves broader goals of national development.<<

    On the timeless principle that "I'd rather make a point too often than not make it often enough," I'll say one more time: take this seriously, and recognize that China is moving ahead in many, many ways. But recognize the fallibilities in this study, and don't go nuts.

    More »

  • Wealthy Whiners: The Institutional Perspective

    "Where fun goes to die"

    Fair warning: this is not a "serious" addition to consideration of the "whiny law professor" syndrome. But I found it droll to compare two notes about the specific institutional background of the complainant. First, a University of Chicago graduate writes to say:  UChicago.jpg

    I don't think anyone has mentioned the one reason for Professor Henderson's revelations that would be obvious to any U of C Alumni: The University of Chicago is a horrible place that makes people unhappy. See this.
     
    Filled with smart people, but not very keen on the social skills.<<

    To which I say: Now, now, now... I taught a writing class there this spring and adored (in the right sense!) the students I worked with. But even they joked about the "where fun comes to die" U of C school spirit. To be more precise: the graduate students joked. Some of the undergraduates said, What's so funny?

    Then, an administrator at Harvard wrote in umbrage about an item that I had called "Self-Pity of the Harvard 'Poor,'" because I was quoting a Harvard College/Harvard Law graduate on financial resentments as he had observed them among his peers. From the administrator:

    >>I'm sure there are whiners around Harvard, too, but the headline for that post isn't right when the self-pitier [the law professor] is a Princeton undergrad / Chicago law grad. (And from his bio I was pleased to see there's another place that refers to "the Law School.")<<

    When I wrote back saying, Lighten up! Using "Harvard" as a metaphor!, he expressed relief and returned to the policy high-road:

    >>I hope progress can be made in getting people to appreciate how the growing concentration of income in the top 0.1% is very unhealthy for the country.<<

    So far, a tactful silence from Princeton. Back to "serious" stuff shortly.

  • The Case Against Expatriation: Not Cutting the Mustard

    World travel is good -- up to a point

    In items here and with previous links, I argued that about the best thing young Americans could do for themselves and their country is to spend serious time in other parts of the world.

    A reader who has done just that writes to offer a warning. This is a long message and may not interest those who have not spent time looking at American culture from afar. But I think those who have, will find it very insightful. The phenomena the reader describes did not directly affect our family -- we were out of the US for most of four school years during our sons' childhood, starting when they were ages 6 and 9. Before and after that they were in (public) schools in the US. For our family, those years in different parts of Asia were almost all plus. But this note is about something real:

    You are correct, of course, to urge foreign travel for young Americans. It may help.

    The other side of the story is less felicitous--from the American point of view.

    HenryJames.jpgGiven the right set of circumstances, such as my own (or possibly those of your kids, I do not know), if you leave at the right time, return at the wrong time (age 10 and 14, in my case), you may very well find yourself leaving again. Then again. And again. And finally you are out altogether. The American Expatriate. You have met them. [Yes, I definitely have.] Henry James made a career out of them. Hemingway only went back to shoot himself. However, you don't have to be a literatus to find yourself unable to cut the mustard back in the States after extended time abroad.

    I believe 'cut the mustard' is the correct metaphor--for many of us. It can be more a question of square peg/round hole back in the USA than sheer attraction to the other, foreign environment. The foreign environment merely seems Normal at some point. It is the increasingly 'foreign' nature of America itself that is most apparent to the returnee. After only a few short years abroad, his/her terms of reference are near-meaningless back home because these are increasingly insular--TV, reinventing the health care wheel, anagrams that make no sense but are apparently vital, neologisms. I believe you have always made regular return trips [JF note: yes], which will help fend this unfortunate social vertigo off. If you are out long enough, however, you will find yourself at sea "back home." [also yes] Over the years, given the ever-increasing speed of change in America, this becomes a self-reinforcing spiral--upwards or downwards depends upon your point of view.
    I do not know the number of American expatriates out there. Presumably it is small. In the case of some of these, it is farewell, don't let the door hit you in the ass. In other cases, this may be less so. (Naturally, I hope I am one of the latter but you never know....) We are not clannish but we congregate from time to time (Waiter!). It is always an interesting discussion. Political opinion is surprisingly diverse in my experience. But even in this catholic political setting--to the extent it is political, which is admittedly not much--it is apparent that few of this small subset of Americans would wish to exchange their existing set of circumstances for those pertaining to the returnee.

    I sent you an e-mail shortly after your return from China, inquiring as to whether you were suffering from RR--Repat Remorse. You kindly replied that you were not, really--you had always considered yourself an American in (fill in the blank). ...

    As for us non mustard-cutters. Ah well, it happens. But even in the e-mails you quoted here, there is a sense of forlorn loss amongst the former travellers that is nearly palpable.

    So I find myself wondering if Mr MIT doesn't have a point after all. Perhaps he rightly senses a certain susceptibility and has covered his tracks with the argument presented in his e-mail?

    Still. As a general rule, travel after graduation, yes, good idea almost always. Beyond that, a person of a certain nature may want to think it over. Employment overseas is a yellow light--journalism possibly excepted, that racket seems to have some built-in 'protections.' Employment abroad prepares one for...further employment abroad; and may not be considered advantageous at home. You know the syndrome. A number of my fellow alumni (we are all doddering now) have 'lost' children just in this way.

    Again, expatriates are numerically insignificant. But we are out there and it may be slightly sad that it came to a pass where some of America's offspring finally decided at some point that Out, for them, was preferable to In.

    The number of variables at work here must be infinite and of huge variety, so I am not making a value judgment here. It worked for me and others, making the break. Just noting that possibly there may be a downside--from a certain point of view. We are still Americans. We just don't live there anymore.

    In the words of Mark Twain: "Moderation in all things. Including moderation."

    Again, this pattern is very recognizable, at least among overseas Americans I've known through the years. FWIW, this note made me think immediately of a collection of stories from an Atlantic writer in the early 1970s: The Slightest Distance, by Henry Bromell, about American kids deracinated by their time overseas. (Not much info available on line, but I think I am remembering it accurately.) The reader spells out well the goods and bads.

    More »

  • Self-Pitying Wealthy Poor: The Fancy-School Factor

    The context, of course, is the University of Chicago law school professor who feels hard pressed near the top of the income distribution. (Whole series here; kick-off installment here.)

    GatesHarvard.jpgWhen the whiny law professor went through the household budget, major expense items were for education: still-unpaid student loans for him and his wife, who is a doctor; private school expenses for their kids. ("Since we care the education of our three children, this means we also have to pay to send them to private school," he explained in his famous original post.)

    Several readers on this theme. First, about the education-bubble phenomenon in general:

    >>A common theme in the whines of the wealthy is the high cost of elite education. Speaking as a card carrying member of the 200K + club, there's no way we can afford private schools for our kids. We need to save about a trillion dollars to fund the extended dementia my wife and I are looking forward to - after we lose our grocery bagging job in our 80s. (At least we didn't inherit any debts.)

    If our kids go to an elite school they'll either need some pretty sweet scholarships or grad school stipends. For our part we did Wellesley and Caltech, funded in one case by unwise parents and the other by poverty. Tough luck for my kids, we are neither poor nor foolish -- and we know the limited value of elite undergraduate institutions.

    Snark aside, America is clearly at the popping end of a huge education bubble -- one that's been inflating for 20 years. Once it blows the whining may tail off a bit.<<

    Next, a woman who did not go to a name-brand college writes:

    >>The thing that I find most fascinating is that some people seem to forget an important fact: most people don't go to private schools and most people don't go to Ivy League or otherwise prestigious universities. And yet, some of us even turn out to be successful :-)

    I chose schools with generous scholarship programs and graduated with no debt. (It's a not-so-well kept secret that many small private schools cost well below the "sticker price" - my last year, there were only 15 of 1800 students paying full tuition.) In lieu of an expernsive education, my parents have spent 29 years giving me things that cost them so little but have been invaluable to me in my success thus far:  
        -tenacity
        -a sense of humor
        -months of help with 6th grade math homework (I'm a math-hater turned economist, go figure)
        -adaptability
        -problem-solving skills
        -a Brit-rail pass when I worked in London
        -an intense (and possibly embarrassing) inability to procrastinate
        -strong ethics
        -organizational skills
        -good-natured bossiness
        and so much more...
      
       I wouldn't trade any of that for a $200K, big name education. Not in a million years.<<

    Another reader says:

    >>If no one else says this, or no one says it more succinctly, could you please incorporate into the discussion the implicit idea that extends across pretty much all of the posts? It basically goes like this: "once professional success is achieved, life isn't supposed to be hard or uncertain anymore". It's there in the original post and it's there in the backdoor-trickle-down economics of the east-coast lawyer. Somewhere along the last 50 years our "meritocracy" started to incorporate the idea that once you achieved a certain amount in life, you wouldn't have to try anymore.

    This idea is, from my point of view (as a 30-something professional who anticipates that retirement will become an antiquated concept by the time I reach such an age) grandfather to the current state of affairs in which high school and college students expect grades to symbolize the extent of their effort rather than the quality of their work. As Clint Eastwood said snarled in "Unforgiven": "deserve's got nothing to do with it". How about we agree on this: if you need to ask yourself if you are rich (or better yet mount some kind of argument about how you aren't rich), then you probably are in fact rich.<<

    And from a relatively recent name-brand-school graduate:

    >>I wonder if part of the issue stems from the fact that there seems to be an implicit promise that attending one of these top schools will inevitably make you rich.  I went to Stanford, and from the very beginning we were reminded of all the luminaries who also hold Stanford degrees (or at least attended classes).  Larry Page came and gave a speech during freshman orientation, and Phil Knight and Jerry Yang both donated buildings while I was there.  Part of the selling point of these universities is the idea that all of these great, successful, rich people went to this school, and it impacted them so profoundly that they have donated millions of dollars for its improvement.  Even if you are making $250,000 or $500,000, it really doesn't seem like all that much when compared to what the people who are getting their names on the buildings make.  Presumably working at a university makes this even more evident.

    And in the end, you still have the same degree as these people who are actually rich.  Who's to say you won't someday get there yourself?  Why would you want to punish your future self with higher taxes?<<

    After the jump, a way to think about student loans.

    ___
    A reader with student loans to repay writes:

    >>I wanted to weigh in on your latest, the two defenders who cited the costs of private education.  I'd just like to note that these $250,000 + level professionals are getting a substantial break on their social security taxes. Every dollar of my sub-$100,000 salary is taxed at 6.2% paid by me, over and above state and federal income taxes, and 6.2% paid by my employer. In contrast, the majority of these poor, pitiable professionals' salaries are exempt from the tax. The ceiling this year is $106,800, so the rest of their salary is free and clear of this 6.2% coming out of their paycheck. To boot, the proposal is to raise their taxes on the amount exceeding $250,000, so taxwise, they have it easy, compared to the rest of us.

    I also find those veiled threats of firing their servants, gardeners, etc., just reprehensible. Of  course, anyone who is looking to take control of their finances has to look at the cost of retaining hired help versus doing the task themselves, and  it might be a good thing for their privately-schooled children to learn to mow a lawn, but that's entirely a personal matter and shouldn't be used as a bludgeon in an argument like that.  It's despicable, and it doesn't help their case, in my view.

    Finally, many, many people, including myself, are paying back student loans. It's a painful chunk out of my paycheck as well.  I figured at the time it was an investment in myself, and true enough, I wouldn't have the job I love today without having done it.  Their student loans were a choice they made, as were mine. So, zero sympathy there as well.<<

    And:

    >>My dad was a law professor, and once taught at Chicago--back when wages were a lot lower, and aspirations concerning private schools were non-existent.  We went to the local parish school.  Just living in Chicago was an education and an adventure for a second grader. << 

    More to come on education, tax, non-monetary sources of happiness, and other self-awareness issues. (Photo of Bill Gates at Harvard from here.)

    More »

  • Raymond Haight Jr. (updated)

    In the public schools of Redlands, California, I had a number of truly outstanding teachers. I think they would have been seen as such in any setting, but of course I can't compare. Mathilda Phillips, in English; Jack Nagasaki, in chemistry; William Cunningham, in physics;  Gertrude Baccus, in speech and debate -- and that's just a few from high school. (Update: How could I have forgotten Lois Gregory, in French?) This was back during what seems in retrospect California's golden age, the time of big ideas, big ambitions, big possibilities, and of course big budgets, for the state's schools, parks, universities, and freeways. Now....
     
    One of the most memorable was Raymond Haight, the history and social-studies teacher who was really my first contact with the world of politics and public affairs. I was sitting in his 10th-grade world history class when news came of John F. Kennedy's assassination; he talked about what that would mean, in ways that stood up very well over the years -- including what might become of the early commitments Kennedy had made in Laos and Vietnam. I learned long afterwards that "Mr. Haight" -- in his early 40s then -- represented a strain of California culture that was unusual in our very conservative small town in California's southern "Inland Empire." During the 1964 election, he raised questions about the locally-popular "Proposition 14," designed to overturn a "Fair Housing" act and, in effect, legalize racial discrimination in real estate sales and rentals. (Prop 14 passed but was then declared unconstitutional by the California supreme court. Too bad the disastrous Prop 13 never met the same fate.) Barry Goldwater was also locally very popular, and Mr. Haight had a few of us read Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative analytically (rather than as a holy text) and debate its strengths and weaknesses. The point is not that he was more liberal than the surrounding community, though that was so; rather, that he urged teenagers to think their way toward independent conclusions.

    Most students at the high school had at best one generation of college attendance behind them. (Ie, many but not most of my classmates had a parent who had gone to college. Very few had college-grad grandparents.) Raymond Haight's great-grandfather, Henry Haight, had gone to Yale before the Civil War and became one of California's first governors. He signed the act creating the University of California and helped establish Golden Gate Park; the Haight district of San Francisco is named for their family. Soon after I went away to college, Mr. Haight and his family moved back to central and then northern California. He launched a quixotic campaign for governor in 1970, running as an anti-Vietnam War candidate. He came in well down the list for the Democratic nomination; the nominee, Jesse Unruh, went on to lose big to Ronald Reagan, running for reelection.

    Because he'd moved away, I didn't see him on my visits to my home town, but I have often reflected on how much difference he made in my life. I learned just recently that he and his wife, the writer Mary Ellen Jordan Haight, had died this fall, within weeks of each other, at 88 and 82 respectively. I mention them to honor their memory, achievements, and influence; as testimony to what the public schools meant at that time; and as a counterpoint to the news this week of another round of teacher layoffs in my hometown's school system, as a result of California's budget disaster.  His life made a difference. The picture below is from the high school yearbook, the Makio, when he was chosen "Teacher of the Year" in his late 30s, via the Redlands Daily Facts obit.

    RHaightMakio.png

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

From This Author