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Friday, March 1, 2013

Intended consequences: HEOA edition

As an economist, I know that policies often have unintended consequences. As an ed policy researcher, I know that the unintended consequences of many education policies arise because a) policymakers generally have no idea what a teacher's job is actually like and b) local implementation of state and federal policies often focuses more on 'compliance' than 'educational quality'. I was reminded of both these problems when I received an email from our administration about Section 133 of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which deals with textbook information. Apparently, this federal law requires that students have access to information on course materials prior to registration. This, in and of itself, seems benign. I think the prices that students pay for textbooks and associated materials are often outrageous and letting students know what they're signing up for is good (pointless, but good, since I can't imagine any student chooses classes based on textbook prices, but I tend to fall in the 'more information is always good' camp). But faculty are being asked to submit our materials requisitions FOR FALL SEMESTER by the end of March. The email I received implied that failure to adhere to this deadline will put us out of compliance with HEOA, putting our students "at risk for an estimated $51 million in Federal student assistance."

So, faculty can either decide NOW, in the middle of spring semester, what books and materials we will use in the FALL, or be made to feel like we could be responsible for students losing tons of Federal aid. So what's the most likely outcome? If I'm teaching a course I've taught before, I just use the same books as last time, even if there are other books that might be better, since I'm not going to have time to think about it before summer (the requisition deadline isn't even after Spring Break). I don't know about others but I have generally used summer to re-vamp classes, including deciding on different books and materials. Sure, I can still restructure some lectures and activities but if I've already committed to the reading materials, there's only so much I can do with the course as a whole. And if I've already committed to the reading materials, why spend much time looking at new materials (which might help me keep my course current or at least give me ideas of new ways to present content) and re-thinking the course in general? I'll just make a few tweaks and keep mostly doing what I did last time.

I realize this isn't that huge a deal - I know that if I wait a couple months to get my book order in, the Feds are not going to come swarming onto campus and cut off all financial aid. What bugs me is that no one in the administration seems to recognize that there may be very good reasons for faculty to wait until summer to get their book orders in. So I can either do what I consider 'good teaching' (i.e., reflect on what has worked and what needs changing in my course) and piss off my administration; or I can 'comply with the law' and just muddle along. These are annoying bad choices...

2 comments:

  1. This is definitely a case of stupid regulation, but I would be very surprised if a simple strategy of listing the last book you used and then switching when the semester begins would actually cause real problems. The federal government doesn't have enough money to pay key civilian military personnel. It's unlikely they are going to have a lot of resources for enforcing textbook adoption rules. As long as the price of the new book is in the same ballpark as the old book, I see no harm in my approach. (Unless the gov't is going to post the book title so students wind up ordering it in advance, which would be super stupid regulation, and a real problem.)

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  2. For reasons I've never fully understood, our textbook order dates have usually been about April 15 for fall and around October 31 for spring...or four months in advance of the fall semester and 2 for the spring semester...and if we had problems, it was almost always with the fall book orders. (I speak here of the institution from which I recently retired.)

    I will admit that several years ago, I began to tell students (in some courses) that they need not buy the most recent edition of a textbook, that in general one or two editions back in the publication chain would be OK. For example, the 10th edition of Walton & Rockoff's US econ history text is fairly readily available for less than $50, but the current edition (11th) retails for $220...This semester, I'm teaching (as an adjunct--I've retired from my prior gig) a survey of intro econ for a local MBA program. The (assigned) text--I didn't choose it--is the full hardcover edition of Mankiw's principles text, over $300...the prior edition if widely available for less than $100...

    Now, for some courses and some purposes, the current edition of a textbook may be essential (things do change). But that's not universally the case.

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