spheres of influence
Last weekend my wife and I hosted guests from out of town, and at one point we drove a couple of hours away, in two cars so everyone would fit. Having a non-Angeleno riding shotgun makes me see my own driving differently, highlighting some quirks of a freeway existence we find natural.
Southern California traffic is often heavy, its drivers unpredictable. Getting somewhere efficiently requires a certain focus, on maybe two dozen cars in the immediate vicinity. And I do focus, not getting emotional or stressed, but exploiting every reasonable opening to go as fast as I safely can. That is sometimes north of the posted speed limit. Usually it’s not; there are just too many other cars.
But by putting my attention on the immediate surroundings, and not sweating what’s further off, I can make good time.
There’s a similar humility in the conventional wisdom on investing. Experts will tell you it’s impossible to time the market or outsmart the collective wisdom of every other investor, and so rather than researching every stock out there and then betting big on a few, you should spread the risk, both by buying a little bit of many things, and by not entering or leaving the market all at the same time. What you can control is the composition of your own stake, the percent of your savings that you’ll put into, say, foreign stocks vs. domestic ones vs. bonds.
In both freeway driving and personal investing, ignorance of the overall picture is a given, so we focus instead on a little sphere of influence.
I’m not sure, but I think student success is like that. The longer I’ve worked on this, the more I’ve been struck by, oh, epistemological humility. In higher ed, we have faith in quality teaching, in high impact practices, in purposeful curriculum, all as means to impart better learning and get more students to graduation. And we do have data to back up the claims.
But to a dismaying extent, a lot of it is faith. Because the effects of all that good work on grad rates and achievement gaps are hard to measure. In real-world contexts, they get swamped by factors we don’t control: boom-and-bust state economies, massive shifts in demographics, in workforce needs, in technology. It’s like rowing across a stormy ocean; there’s only so much you can ascribe to the paddle.
For a few years I’ve been coordinating efforts to improve California’s GE transfer curriculum, and in this last phase we’re assembling research and data from various pilot sites, to see whether an alternate approach would work better. We’re looking at course completion rates, grade point averages, year-to-year persistence across different socio-economic groups . . . the usual.
If we’re really lucky, the data will support a statement like “give faculty another 15% of funding to make this universal curriculum more engaging, and the publics will give back to the state an additional 30% on bachelor’s degrees produced per dollar spent.”
I don’t doubt that such a cost-benefit argument can be made, but I do wonder whether it can be demonstrated. It may simply be outside of what we can know, like saying we can cross the ocean in less time with a wider paddle, or get the kids to Legoland faster by paying ferocious attention to the road.
Sure we can, but we can quantify it?