The missing methods section: Origins of the dropout problem

A quarter century ago, the History of Education Quarterly accepted my first article, on when and why people in the United States began to use dropping out as the dominant term for people who left school without a high school diploma. Spoiler: we started using the term not because dropping out was a growing problem in the 1960s but the reverse. When graduation became expected for teenagers, we needed a term for those who violated the new norm.

Like many history articles and books, it had no formal Methods section, and if I had tried to write one, I suspect HEQ editor Bill Reese would have nixed it. So: in the spirit of tech publisher O’Reilly’s The Missing Manuals series, whose motto is “the book that should have been in the box,” I present to you the missing methods section for that article, with a postscript and a personal note.

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When Sherman went to prison

This afternoon my wife, daughter, nephew, and niece toured Taliesin West, the Scottsdale campus of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, where Wright set up shop for the winter months in the 1930s through his death. I’ll have some things to say about it in a post I want to write, and it reminded me of another time my family went visiting an historic site, about a decade ago. It wasn’t technically a school but its history had lots of connections with the history of school reform, and I ended up behind bars. So, a re-run of a post from July 2006:

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College admissions news stories are weird

The Washington Post‘s Nick Anderson has a story in today’s paper about the holistic, committee-driven process of college admissions at the University of Maryland-College Park campus, where approximately 30,000 applicants vie for half as many admissions slots. As with most college-admissions news stories, it’s richly-detailed at the micro-level, and absent some important context. We are so familiar with this type of story that we forget how weird it is that every year, a few hundred thousand applicants submit more than a million applications to flagship universities, in a process that tries to separate the pretty-well-qualified applicant from the slightly-less-pretty-well-qualified applicant. We focus on the admissions process and the very specific aspirations of applicants to the University of Maryland, Berkeley, or the University of Michigan, when the most important question for the future of these applicants is not where they start college but whether they finish.

In our forgetting the broader context, we miss the fact that the competitive college admissions process has far higher stakes for the competitive-admissions colleges and universities than for applicants. Yes, an applicant to Harvard, Princeton, or Stanford has a low probability of gaining admissions to any one of those universities, but graduating high school students will be admitted somewhere, while the University of Maryland-College Park and its peers face a prestige game in some high-visibility ranking systems, rankings that reward low acceptance rates. At the same time, the finances of many colleges and universities depend on recruiting enough students whose parents can pay tuition. Yet the process is generally portrayed as high-stakes for the applicants.

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Dean prospectus omissions

After 6 years in various administrative roles, I’ve become a Usual Suspect for a certain slice of dean searches, mostly smaller private and regional public colleges/universities. At one point rumors were apparently circulating that I was interviewing, and I’m glad that a colleague told me so I could point out that, no, I’m pretty happy in my current position, and if you knew me well enough, you’d know why I wasn’t likely to be looking around. But I receive a few contacts every year, and from the standpoint of someone who is not looking, it is pretty easy to see what the various executive-search prospectus narratives typically miss with the colleges of education I tend to receive search information on:

  • Trends in enrollment, budgets, and hiring
  • Fundraising profile of the institution, especially emphasis among areas (athletics, financial aid, health sciences, other sciences, everything else)

On the whole, the last fifteen years have not been very kind to these colleges, and I understand why this information would not be front and center. Yet, at the same time, a prospectus typically tries to signal the type of person the college or university is looking for. And for some people, specific challenges are attractive… and a provost at these institutions should want someone who looks for that challenge. Yes, everyone wants to be higher-ranked in [name your ranking magazine], have more grant funding, have a broader impact, and so forth. We all know this language, and you don’t call forth the Potential Miracle Dean by pointing out your needs in a way that cries, “Please, apply. We’re desperate.” But is there a middle path?

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Laptops and knitting in class

Twitter is burning up with discussion of Sue Dynarski’s November 22 NYT column on laptop use in class. Dynarski summarizes some of the research on how laptops affect students in classes heavy in formal presentations (such as many economics classes) and explains why she generally bans electronic device use in her classes as a result. Loads of discussion has focused on the needs of students with disabilities,1 current/former student descriptions of how they (benefitted from) taking notes in certain ways, and discussions of how general classroom policies such as on notetaking affects the relationships between faculty and students.

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  1. Dynarski does make exceptions to her general policy []