spheres of influence

Soccer3SpheresLast 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.  great-wide-oceanBecause 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?

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7 thoughts on “spheres of influence

  1. You’re awesome Ken – to write about higher ed in such a poetic way – the simile……

    Your love for education comes through – You’re still my favorite screenwriting professor!

    Write on!

  2. Great post. It reminds me of how E. L. Doctorow describes novel-writing: “I tell them it’s like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

    I wonder if your observation about the big picture/ little picture of student success isn’t also true from students’ perspective, too. We put a lot of pressure on graduation, but from students’ perspective, that’s an impossibly long time away. Their experience of higher ed is day by day, course by course; it’s so hard to generalize about what makes the difference between making it for the long haul and not in a way that can be quantified, as you say, but what about for the short haul? Some real breakthroughs have come by looking at the local, rather than the global, picture. But of course, a student’s experience is only ever local. Like going through a corn maze (or driving in LA!)–it might be less helpful to have a big map than to have some well-aimed arrows (or signs) that you can see from the ground.

    Thanks again for the always-nourishing food for thought!

    1. Thanks for this, Jennifer, and for raising really good points. It’s as if, from the student perspective, there are a few different horizons — the very long term, the purpose of getting the degree, which we don’t want them to lose sight of. Then there’s the very short term, as you say, the day-to-day and course-to-course where they just need to know what they’re supposed to do. That one reminds me (and maybe you) of the current thinking around restricted choice, and the benefits of curating our material. And whatever’s going on in between the very long and the very short term just may not matter as much.

  3. My reaction echoes what what we heard at the Glendale community college meeting on research in the CCs – build the practices into the curriculum, analogous to requiring airbags in new cars. Students don’t opt in to these practices, but they are part of the undergrad experience. The practices encourage development of self-reflection that then help them be aware of their intellectual interests and then make a more thoughtful transition to the new life freeway.

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