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Thursday, September 26, 2013

New study finds teaching specialists are better teachers

Unfortunately, that isn’t the headline on any of the media articles about the NBER working paper by Northwestern economists David Figlio, Morton Schapiro (who is also Northwestern’s President) and Kevin Soter. I wasn’t actually going to write about this, mostly because David is a really good friend (not to mention an outstanding economist) and I haven’t had the time to figure out how to say what I wanted to say without sounding like I was unjustly criticizing his work. But fortunately, a couple of other people have made the points I wanted to make (mostly without sounding overly critical of the authors). The basic gist is this: the Figlio, et al, paper got a ton of press last week for supposedly finding that “Adjuncts are better teachers than tenured professors” (that’s the headline from the Chronicle), thus causing many in the higher ed community to freak out. But what most of those stories seemed to miss (or glossed over) was that the non-tenured (or non-tenure-track) instructors in the Northwestern sample are NOT your typical ‘adjuncts’, at least not in the sense that most people in higher ed think of (i.e., I think most of us associate 'adjunct' with short-term, temporary part-timers). Rather, the Northwestern non-tenured/non-tenure-track folks included in the study are mostly full-timers with long-term stable contracts*. And as noted in this Atlantic article by Jordan Weissmann, they are generally paid much more than your typical adjunct.

So, the way I interpret the findings of the Northwestern study are that instructors who are hired to specialize in teaching end up being better at teaching than instructors who are hired to produce both teaching AND research. Hmmmm. Not exactly a shocker to economists. But I can see why '”Are Tenured Professors Better Teachers?” makes a better headline…

If you are interested in what the research has to say about whether typical adjuncts are better teachers, Weissmann’s Atlantic article has a great overview of the literature. The upshot:
This isn't a complete rundown of all the research on this topic, nor are any of these studies definitive. Each has its own shortcomings and methodological challenges. But read together, I think they can begin to tell us a few things. Tenured professors don't necessarily make the best teachers in every subject or school. Adjuncts might be excellent for teaching certain pre-professional courses. But as a whole, students, and especially at-risk students like young freshmen and community colleges attendees, appear to be better off with a full-time professor, whether they're tenured or not.
I think that last point – that full-time/part-time matters more than tenured/non-tenured – is particularly key. But as Weissman points out, more research is needed…

* The one thing I do fault David and his co-authors for is that the explanation about the nature of Northwestern’s non-tenured instructors is stuck in a footnote. But I have a feeling the next iteration of the paper will have a much bigger discussion of this.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Where is the market failure in marriage?

In honor of National Unmarried and Single Americans Week, I’m going to pose a question that may be somewhat controversial: Is there an economic rationale for government incentives to get married? By ‘government incentives to get married’, I’m talking about all the ways in which the government (and society in general) privileges married people. Of course, this is something that the gay community has been yelling about for a long time but I think many straight people don’t really, fully grasp the extent of the issue.* One widely-cited statistic is that there are over 1000 benefits, rights and protections in Federal laws that are based on marital status. Some of these benefits can still be obtained by the unmarried, with additional work (e.g., I can manually change the beneficiary for my retirement accounts or sign an advanced health directive so my partner can make medical decisions for me) but many are simply not available to unmarried people, period. It’s no wonder that single-sex couples are so eager to gain access to legal marriage (completely aside from the social acceptance aspect, of course).

But to me, the bigger question is: why should people have to get married to get these benefits in the first place? Is there any economic rationale for government policies that confer benefits on the married? In my Principles course, I teach my students that government intervention may be warranted in situations of market failure; that is, where the market outcome may be inefficient, such as when there are externalities, asymmetric information, natural monopolies, public goods or common resources. Alternatively, the government may want to intervene in some scenarios where the market outcome seems inequitable. But do either of these apply to marriage today?

Many of the pro-marriage laws on the books today were actually adopted decades ago, when the marriage market looked very different. In the 1950’s, few women worked so I can imagine that policies to encourage marriage and protect housewives could have been justified on equity grounds (i.e., marriage was a way for women to avoid poverty). But that obviously doesn’t make sense today. From an efficiency standpoint, the only argument I can think of must involve externalities somehow. That is, people other than a particular couple presumably benefit somehow from that couple being married. I guess the conservative argument is that married couples are more “stable” and better behaved (?) and this is therefore better for society than if those people were running around just cohabitating or being single. I don’t know that there is really much evidence of this – a quick Google search turned up lots of rhetoric along the lines of ‘family values’, and studies about how marriage benefits the people IN the marriage (though the psychologist Bella DePaulo has also written a lot about how those studies often don’t actually show causality), but I couldn’t find much showing that marriage, per se, has positive externalities, such as causing people to act any better (for society) than before they were married. The closest I could find was arguments about the impact on children (i.e., kids do better when their parents stay together) but if that’s the basis for government incentives, then all the benefits should only go to couples with kids, not just anybody who is married.

Although I can’t think of a good argument for marriage benefit policies based on the standard idea of economic efficiency (i.e., the market ‘underprovides’ marriage so the government needs to provide incentives to boost consumption/production), I can imagine an argument based on administrative efficiency – i.e., some policies were probably adopted simply to reduce paperwork (e.g., most people would name their spouse as their beneficiary/spokesperson in most situations anyway so making that the default saves time and effort), or because “legal spouse” seems like an easy shortcut to identify “Very Important Person in my life”. But given that 46 percent of American households are now maintained by unmarried men or women (including 6.7 million specifically ‘unmarried-partner’ households), and the increasing trend in the percentage of couples choosing cohabitation over marriage, it seems like perhaps we should starting questioning whether marriage as the ‘default’ is really the most efficient way to go…

* Full disclosure: I am in a committed lifetime relationship but with no plans to get married because my partner is a relatively staunch Libertarian who doesn't think the government should be involved in the marriage game (for people of any sexual orientation). Because of this, I've been learning a lot about the things people have to do to work around policies that privilege the legally married.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Mind map as task manager

How to Mind Map

Do you use mind maps? I don’t. Or at least, I didn’t, before a few weeks ago. I’d heard/read about other people who use them but I’ve never been that interested, I think partly because the examples I’ve always seen have looked kind of, well, messy, with circles and branches all over the place (the example I found for this post being a case in point!). So I associated mind maps with more creative, non-linear thinking. In contrast, I am very much a structured-outline kind of girl. Along those lines, I am also a huge maker of To Do lists, mostly organized the old-fashioned way: written on random bits of paper, kept together and loosely organized on a clipboard.

But a few weeks ago, I read an article that, for some reason, got me thinking that maybe I should give mind mapping a try. Even though the article contains one of those really messy mind map examples I find completely intimidating, I happened to read it when I was in the middle of going through all the different projects I’m working on and trying to find some way to get everything organized. My problem is that each project has its own To Do list, and although very few of the items are urgent (in the sense of ‘must get done by some deadline in the near future’), I know I need to make steady progress on each of them. I previously had kept a page on my clipboard where, for each project, I had my To Dos listed but a) as I crossed off items, it became harder to keep track of what still needed to get done, b) I would run out of space to add new items so I found myself re-doing the whole list every couple weeks, and c) I had a hard time keeping track of which projects needed my attention most. All of these issues suggested that I needed an electronic solution but I’ve tried many different task list applications and have never found anything that I felt worked well for me.

So I figured I’d see how a mind map app would work. I did some digging around for a cloud-based application because I want to be able to access my Task List map on my phone or tablet. I ended up trying Mindomo and pretty quickly made my first map. From the starting core, I added branches that represent the main areas of my work life (i.e., Teaching, Research, Department, Other) and then added branches from there for each project (e.g., below Teaching, I have a branch for each of my classes plus one for this blog and one for a workshop I’m developing for the San Diego Council for Economic Education). Below each project, I have branches for each To Do task.

In structure, this isn’t all that different from what I could do with an outline made in Word. But there are several things that are easy to do with Mindomo that mesh well with the way I think about my tasks:
  • I can expand and collapse different branches, making it easy to focus on my tasks for a specific project or all the projects within a specific work area. I can expand the map so just the first and second levels are showing, which basically shows me a list of all my projects, or I can expand all the branches so looking at the outer-most ring gives me an idea of ALL the tasks I have for ALL my projects. Or say I want this to be a Research week, I can look at just the tasks related to my Research projects, or the tasks related to just one paper.
  • I can move tasks from one branch to another easily. I have a ‘completed’ branch for each project so as I complete tasks, I move them to that branch and then keep that branch collapsed so I don’t see those tasks when I’m looking at what needs to still get done.
  • I can add tasks anytime and anywhere, and I can re-order branches to visually reflect which projects and tasks I need to prioritize.
  • The free version of Mindomo allows me to store three maps on their server (you can have unlimited maps on your local machine). So I can see all my tasks on my phone if I’m away from my computer (technically, I can also edit my cloud-based maps, which I might do if I were on a tablet but it’s a bit hard on a phone).
I’ve only been working with this for a few weeks but so far, I’m liking it. It also has made me more willing to try mind mapping for other purposes, like brainstorming ideas. What do you use mind maps for?