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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Give the students what they pay for: the "consumer model" of education

There's a meme afoot that says we should bemoan what's called the "consumer model" of education. As I understand it, this "model," as its critics view it, is not really a "model" at all, but refers to the growing trend of treating a college or university education as something that is "purchased." A student spends time and money until he or she has bought enough credit hours and then gets a degree. Among the negative effects that I've heard attributed to this trend are the following:
  1. It encourages students to see their education as merely another commodity.
  2. It emphasizes credentialing at the expense of a "true" education. In other words, students care only about passing the class and getting a high grade and not about the pursuit of knowledge or skills.
At first glance, these two negative effects might seem to be redundant. Doesn't treating education as a "commodity" necessarily imply the overemphasis on education? I argue that it does not, and that we should embrace the "consumer model" of education.

First, a definition. By "commodity," I mean something that is purchased. I don't not mean what most, whether or not they realize it in these precise words, mean: "an undifferentiated bulk good."

Second, a caveat. I do not wish to imply that I believe it to be a good thing for students to focus myopically on merely purchasing credits.

Here is how I believe the consumer model should be embraced. Students are paying money, usually big money, to take classes. Even if they receive grants or scholarships, they are foregoing time they might have spent on working and saving money. (In a recession-economy like ours, maybe that's less of an opportunity foregone; still, it is a consideration.) Students are in a very real sense already encouraged, even required, to "purchase" credits to gain credentials. We should recognize that fact. I would go further than merely "recognizing" it: I would offer students a guaranteed "C" if they do a prescribed minimum amount of work, provided they don't plagiarize, cheat, etc. (I have never tried this out because such experimentation is probably ill-advised for a TA or an adjunct who doesn't, or even for a professor who doesn't have tenure.) The "minimum C" would have the following good effects:
  1. It might actually reduce grade inflation because it would revalue B's and A's as something for which extra work will be done. (I don't believe the reduction of grade inflation will necessarily result, but it is a probable outcome.)
  2. It gives students credential-minded students a sound footing: you will get your credit, but if you want a higher grade, you will have to take the lessons seriously.
In keeping with takings "the lessons seriously," teachers should emphasize that what is being purchased is not primarily a set of credit hours. What is being purchased--the "commodity" qua differentiated good--are, primarily, lessons. When one takes a history class, one is in a sense purchasing lessons in history and (I argue) lessons in writing. When one is taking a math class, one is taking lessons in math and logic.

Other than the "minimum C" idea, I don't know how to implement any of this at the policy level (i.e., university-wide or classroom-level policy levels). But I do suggest that if there is a way to encourage students to embrace the "consumer model" on the level of "purchasing lessons" over "purchasing credits," it should be explored.

But in addition to "policies" that might be adopted, I think instructors should embrace the "consumer model" in one very important respect. They should realize that the students, in a very real sense, write their paychecks.

Maybe it's not obviously so. At public universities the instructor is usually paid by the state, via the university. In some heavily subsidized community college systems (and other public university systems), a large number of students might receive aid either directly--e.g., through government grants--or indirectly, through funding of the schools with tax money or through legislatively imposed tuition caps. Universities, public or private, often enjoy private endowments that suppposedly go to meet university expenses and that, probably, free up money to pay instructors.

Still, the instructors would not have a job without the students. At least, they wouldn't have a job as instructors. They might, for example, have jobs as researchers or administrators, but not as instructors (and even administrators depend on the students).

To my mind, this is a very important thing to keep in mind. To look at students as customers whom the instructors are serving. This means giving the students the lessons they are paying for, just like a customer service rep in a private business needs to give customers what they are paying for. Conscientiously adopting this mindset would have the following good effects:
  1. It would encourage instructors to honor their office hours and turn back papers, etc., on time.
  2. It would encourage instructors to focus on teaching the nuts and bolts of their subject matter without pontificating on issues only tangentially (if at all) related to the course material.
  3. It would, in short, encourage instructors to respect their students.
Obviously, the usefulness of embracing the "consumer model" breaks down at certain points. It should not extend, for example, to letters of recommendation: a student must earn a recommendation in a way that's not 100% consistent with looking at the classroom as a "commodity," even under my definition of commodity. Also, there's an element of education that is done for the joy of it--for intellectual stimulation--that cannot be addressed by the consumer model.

But I can't help wondering if it is not necessarily for the better to adopt a consumer model. At one university where I was a TA, remember overhearing a conversation that an undergraduate had about one of her professors. (She was talking loudly on a cell phone and it was hard not to drop eaves listening to her.) She was complaining about something the professor did or said, and she added "some people think that just because they have a PHD they can treat students like sh--." (This is not an exact quotation, but only the gist of what I remember.) I don't know much about this student's situation, and maybe her complaints about this particular professor (whose name I never found out) were off-base.

But that last complaint resonated with me. Some people who are hired to teach sometimes don't treat students well: they don't keep office hours, they cancel classes (or make their TA's teach the canceled classes on short notice), they are difficult to reach outside of their office hours. (One professor informed a graduate student friend of mine who was trying to study for PHD exams that she (the professor) simply "didn't come to campus" on certain days and therefore couldn't meet with my friend who really needed help.) There are a lot of causes behind this, one of which is the "adjunctization" of college teaching that makes it hard for adjuncts to be available, and research universities in practice prioritize research and publication over teaching. These problems by themselves are not likely to be solved completely by embracing the "consumer model" of education, but the model may help to reorient a given university's treatment of students.

As instructors, we need to treat students better. And a good way toward this end is to realize that their jobs depend on having students.

(I might add that I am here talking only of college-level education. I have never taught high school or lower, and therefore don't know the challenges of teaching at those levels. My prescriptions might or might not be relevant there. But if they are, I am too poorly qualified to speak on teaching at those levels.)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Things I learned from teaching: there's a lot I don't know about my students

In my brief experience teaching, one thing I've learned is something that's obvious but deceptively hard to put into practice: realizing that we see only one side of our students. The corollary to this realization is that we should not judge students based on facts not in evidence.

To illustrate, when I was a TA, I had a student who came rarely to discussion section, and when he did come, he sat in the back and dozed off. He was a rather big guy and when I saw him in class, he was rather gruff and surly when I tried to talk to him. One might imagine that my impression of him was not particularly favorable.

Then one day I was at the campus student center for some errand, and ran into him. It turned out that he worked there. He approached me and we started talking, and one thing I noticed was how friendly he was. As far as I could tell, he wasn't being merely sycophantic and trying to play up to someone who had the power to pass or fail him. But he explained to me that he worked a lot and that was why he missed the sections he did and was so tired whenever he came to class.

He was quite personable, and while I'm the first to admit that I have a hard time knowing when someone is lying to me or otherwise pulling the wool over my eyes, I was willing at least to have some empathy for his situation.

I try to think of this and similar episodes when I think of my students. Knowing what I found out about him did not really help his grade: he did rally in the last third of the semester, but only enough to scrape by with a D, but it reminded me that he was not necessarily a mean person, just someone trying to get by.

The rare encounters I have with students outside the classroom almost always drive home to me the fact that my responsibility is to judge them primarily by their performance in class. As a teacher or a TA, I have only limited insight to other aspects of their personality, and I'm not paid to be their moral judge. There are times when I am invited to write recommendations, and at those moments, I am often required to opine on the students' morals, work ethic, etc. Still, it is best to keep in mind that I can judge only by what I have seen.

I also try to remember this lesson when I "bust" a student for plagiarism or cheating. Here, I'm talking about instances of obvious plagiarism and cheating, not (what is more common) the misuse of secondary sources. Supposedly, plagiarism says that the plagiarizer is someone dishonorable and who cannot be trusted. True enough as far as it goes. If a student who I caught plagiarizing or cheating asked me to write a recommendation, I would decline (instead of writing a damaging recommendation), because I would know them primarily as my student and a plagiarizing student at that.

Yet I still must remember that the act of plagiarism really tells me only a little about that student as a person. Maybe the fact that he or she plagiarized means that they cannot be trusted with even more delicate matters, on the assumption that if someone is untrustworthy when the stakes are so low, how can that person be trusted when the stakes are higher. This is reasonable enough, but there is a counter-supposition: maybe that person is untrustworthy on something so unimportant but could be trusted with something much more important. Maybe the person who is honest when the stakes are low will turn to dishonesty when the stakes are high.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

It makes sense, but....

The "public option" is the idea that the federal government would run its own insurance program that people can buy into instead of buying into private insurance. Such a plan would have cheaper premiums because it would be subsidized by the federal government and would supposedly enjoy economies of scale. Those in favor say that the plan will force private insurers to compete more effectively.

One of the critics' arguments--that such a plan would drive private insurers out of the market--is plausible. The government, they say, would have an unfair advantage vis-a-vis private insurers, which would not be able to compete. One by-product of driving out private insurers, they say, would make health care as a whole inefficient and deny choice to those seeking health care.

Their argument is plausible. The critics' anticipated outcome--driving private insurers from the market--is presumably also anticipated by some of the plan's supporters. And its not clear, as Vincent Carroll of the Denver Post has pointed out in this column, that private insurers are not already having a hard time making ends meet.

The critics' argument makes sense, in broad brushstrokes. But I'm not so sure that a public option would be the death knell its critics say it would. Perhaps it would create niche-markets for some private insurers, or as my plan would (in theory) do, it might make the market for preventive care more competitive.

I say all this without having looked closely enough at the issue to make a prediction. I just urge caution before assuming that we know what would happen.

The Baucus plan

Senator Max Baucus has presented a health care proposal (a summary is here (pdf)). The summary, which I have only skimmed, is about 18 pages long, but the gist of his plan is as follows:
  • There will be no "public option"insurance plan.
  • All citizens and legal residents (but not undocumented immigrants) will be required to buy health insurance or enroll with an employer's plan, under threat of a tax penalty.
  • Certain curbs are put on the costs of premiums that insurance companies can offer.
  • Insurance companies cannot deny coverage.
  • The law imposes certain incentives, both carrots and sticks, to encourage or compel employers to offer health care.
  • The plan would increase the number of people eligible for medicaid, and enrollment in medicaid can be used to avoid the tax penalty.
  • The bill would authorize insurance cooperatives, which would be eligible for federal loans and grants and which could make purchases collectively.
  • States are given authority to expand health coverage
I hope I have represented the plan accurately. There are a lot of other, more technical features of the plan that I either do not understand or have not fully thought over. But it seems interesting.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A death remembered

The first time I ever saw someone die was two years ago today.

I arrived at Denver International Airport sometime in late morning or early afternoon on September 7, 2007, and my sister and her partner picked me up at the airport. They asked if I was comfortable going to the hospice, especially since it was all just a matter of time before my father would pass. I wasn't sure if I was comfortable, but I went anyway.

My oldest brother and his wife were there. My siblings, except the one who, like me, didn't live in Colorado, had been visiting my father in shifts. My father, who was a tall person (over 6 feet) and rather heavyset, seemed very small on the bad, as he gasped regularly for breaths of air.

My father shared his room with another person who was also dying. Two of this person's friends were there. It was clear that they had gotten to know my siblings in the past couple of weeks. The shared experience was some sort of bond for them.

We all left briefly to get some sandwiches for ourselves and for these other people in the room.

We ate in the cafeteria of the hospice. My brother and sister talked about the times when they left home and started out on their own. To my surprise, because I had remembered it all differently, they described it as "running away" from home.

We came back and my father was much obviously closer to death. He continued to breathe, but he was noticeably paler than even a half hour or so before. The hospice nurse said that patients tend to keep from dying while family are around, and when we had left, he must've progressed much more to that end because we were not around.

My brother talked to him. Told him it was okay to die. Told him they would all have coffee together on the other side, like they used to at Denny's (or whatever the name of that restaurant was they used to go to).

My father's breathing was more and more labored. He opened his eyes in my direction. My sister's partner told me "he's looking at you." He breathed in but didn't seem to breathe out again. For some reason a line from James Joyce's Dubliners (from the short story called "A Painful Case") flashed through my head: "His father died. The president of the bank retired."

We all cried for a few minutes. The crying started spontaneously and stopped just as suddenly.

The two other people, who were staying with their friend in the same room, stood up and bowed their heads out of respect.

The hospice nurse came in and verified that my father had died.

On the cusp of death, he had seemed small and frail. Now, after dying, his body re-assumed the proportions I had been familiar with. He was obviously not alive. His spirit, soul, elan vital--whatever it's called--was no longer there.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mea Culpa

I have often been critical of James Lindgren, who posts at the Volokh conspiracy (see my posts here and here). I have accused him, in the past, of being partisan hack, who writes snide jibes at the Democrats and who doesn't allow for comments on his post. However, in his most recent post (here), he looks into a speech to school children that George Bush I gave and notes striking similarities to the one Obama is widely criticized for. He concludes by saying:
While perhaps not "on all fours," this 1991 precedent seems to be a solid one for President Obama's speech — indeed, in some respects it's uncannily similar.
While not completely laudatory of Mr. Obama, Mr. Lindgren's post allows for the possibility that the recent outcry against Mr. Obama's speech is so much smoke and mirrors.

Perhaps I'm just flattered that Mr. Lindgren responded to one of my posts below. Still, I should give credit where credit is due.

Friday, September 4, 2009

One reason why I don't own a gun

I've not fully hopped on to the pro-gun control bandwagon, although I do favor regulation and very strict registration requirements. The recent D.C. v. Heller decision seems more or less valid, to me, as far as it goes. And I see a natural right and, potentially, a constitutional right to firearm possession for self-defense. So while I fully admit guns and the ready availability of guns can be a problem (guns don't kill people but they do make it a lot easier), I'm not prepared to ban them altogether.

But I choose not to own a gun for self-defense (or for any other purpose). I have a lot of reasons, but here's one of them:

I could probably not defend myself with a gun. The mostly likely scenario, if I were attacked and had a gun, would be the following: I would brandish the gun and the attacker would take it from me. I know myself well enough to know that's what would happen. I imagine that part of the power of a gun for self-defense is to convince the other person you're willing to use it, and I'm too timid.

I suppose I could take courses on how to use a gun for self-defense, and maybe such courses would work. But I won't. And I have other reasons for choosing not to own a gun; reasons which I won't disclose right now.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Health Care: My Proposal

Here is my proposal for a health care plan. I should admit at the outset that I'm borrowing/stealing some of these ideas from others, and I also realize that I know too little of how health care and health insurance work, but here is my plan:

  • Make a government health care plan available to anyone who has been denied private insurance for any reason or to people who cannot pay their private insurer's premiums or deductibles or co-payments. (In other words, the private insurer would have the right of first refusal.)
  • The government plan's coverage of any one person will be retroactive to the date coverage was denied by the private insurer and or the date that the insured person determined that he or she could not pay the premiums. The private insurer, when it denies coverage, will have to pay the first month's premium for the government plan for the person who is denied coverage. The private insurer must also pay the first month of the plan for any of its insured's who make the determination that he or she cannot pay the premiums.
  • Tort reform such as that suggested by Charles Krauthammer in this article.
  • The private insurer will have to cover everything that is covered by the government plan (in other words, because someone cannot have the government plan and a private plan at the same time, the private plan will have to at least cover what the government plan covers). But the private insurer may do the following:
  1. Cut off treatment, provided it pay the insured's first month premium as he/she goes on the public plan.
  2. Insure additional treatments that aren't covered by the government plan.
  • The government plan will be administered independently, with administrators appointed for a set number of years. The administrators will set premiums, deductibles and co-payments (for short, I'll say "premiums") and be statutorily required to make a 1% profit. They will be required to make this profit only by the premiums they set and not by denying service.
  • People who cannot meet the government's premiums must provide proof of income stating that the premiums, etc., would exceed 10% (or whatever) of income.
  • The plan will make it legal for private insurers to enter interstate competition.
  • The plan will be funded by the following:
  1. An increase in the income tax
  2. A special tax on employer provided health care
  3. The premiums set by the independent administrators.
  4. The first two taxes would be meant as reserve funds to cover any unexpected shortages. The third is meant to pay for the bulk of the government plan.
  • The government plan at least (and at first) will cover emergency care, catastrophic care and terminal illnesses and a select other number of treatments. (For example, hospital stays for women who give birth.)
  • For the type of care covered by the government plan, health care providers will be forbidden from asking what, if any insurance, the patient has. For example, the health care provider will have to operate under the assumption that the patient is covered under emergency care. If after the fact it is evident that the patient had no insurance, he or she will be required to buy insurance within a month (or get insurance with affidavits that disclose proof of income), or be charged by the IRS for reimbursement of the premiums the government would have received.
  • To discourage "free riding"--i.e., waiting until one is sick before buying insurance--people with insurance will be able to deduct the amount they spend on insurance from their income taxes. The deduction will be possible on all of the tax forms, not just the 1040, but also the 1040A and 1040EZ.

There are a lot of potential problems with this plan:
  • The income affidavits might be onerous.
  • The premiums are likely to be high.
  • I haven't yet figured out how this plan would cover homeless people or undocumented immigrants. For some people, this isn't a problem, but I would like to see everyone covered.
  • Some of the requirements, such as the proof of income requirement, and the IRS charges against patients endanger individual liberty.
  • The program as I propose it would at first probably offer only coverage for the "un-insurable" and for those treatments that are most expensive. It would probably not cover individual visits for physicals or mammograms or other very necessary care.
  • I'm sure words like "catastrophic" and "emergency" care have meanings in the insurance world of which I'm unaware. So, I hope I'm not using these terms incorrectly.

The virtues of my plan:
  • It provides incentives to combat the free rider problems, and most of these incentives are "carrots" and not "sticks." In other words, it's not a "mandate" in the way that term is commonly (though perhaps not legally) understood.
  • It would free up the market for non-catastrophic, non-emergency health care, and, I hope, make such care cheaper to afford while at the same time making it possible for private insurers to earn profits.
  • While it would not necessarily guarantee that undocumented workers or homeless people get coverage, it would hopefully make it easier for them to do so.
  • It would divorce health coverage from employment.
  • It goes a little way, at least, to lessen the fear that going to a doctor might saddle someone with a diagnosis for a fatal pre-existing condition without any hope of being able to pay for treatment.
  • The government premiums would be functionally a "progressive" tax.
  • It avoids the cumbersome joint state and federal administration that we have with medicare and medicaid, but yet does not appear to violate principles of federalism, at least given the legal precedents that are currently in effect. (I would argue that the government plan is more like the "bank of the US" that the Court upheld in 1819 than it is like the "socialistic" Social Security Act that the Court upheld more than 100 years later. In other words, from a constitutional perspective, it's less extreme than commonly accepted programs. This won't please constitutional purists, but it will go a long way toward living up to a 21st-century jurisprudence.)
  • It is politically doable:
  1. It gives less traction to the charge that the public plan is simply "single payer lite," a backdoors way to introduce Canadian-style single payer system. (I'm not saying that this system is bad, but it would probably not get the necessary support.)
  2. It incorporates some Republicans' (notably John McCain's) ideas on tort reforms and taxing employer benefits.
  3. It's a baby-step. It covers a little but might be expanded.
  4. It pays for itself.
  5. It divorces costs from services, although it offers only a limited number of services, at least at first.
  6. It avoids hot-button issues such as payments for abortions and stipulates that only those procedures approved by congressional enactment will be covered.
  7. it would probably stand up to Court challenges.
I haven't read any of the actual bills under consideration, so I cannot comment to what extent my "plan" approximates those under discussion. But it has the virtue of modesty and doability, and it would at least cover the most pressing cases, which might be all we can ask for at this stage of the game.

UPDATE 9-4-09: Thanks to those who commented. Three comments is the most I've ever gotten on this monument to my vanity blog, and these are from complete strangers. Things are looking up for Pierre Corneille!

It appears that the "Corneille plan" is 1 for 3 in the voting, but David Schwartz voted twice (and the one "pro" vote was the one I cast for myself). Still, I appreciate the comments, and David Schwartz does have some very interesting objections that probably need to be addressed and that I only partially addressed in the comments.

Mr. Obama's speech

Next week, President Obama will reportedly give a speech to a joint session of Congress to rally support for his health care program. Here's what I hope to see in the speech:

  • A clear statement of which House or Senate Bill he supports.
  • An honest explanation of how the plan will be paid for.
  • An honest detailing of what people will have to give up.
The last is the most important, but is probably the least likely to be discussed. In his public statements, e.g., his press conference about a month ago that is perhaps best remembered for his remark on the Gates arrest controversy, the president has insisted that nothing will change for those who already have and like their insurance policy. At that press conference, a reporter asked Mr. Obama point blank what people would have to give up, and Obama said something like "not having health care."

But surely things will not be all roses. There are trade offs and we live in a world of scarcity. Something will be lost. If nothing will be lost, then that must be proven. Simply pointing out that none of the bills in question requires people to give up their current health insurance--a common tactic for supporters of Obama's not yet existent plan--is honest, but also disingenuous: nobody in the know argues that there is such a provision. Opponents argue instead that the logical outcome of a plan result in some people losing their current insurance.

It is true that the president's opponents will seize on any admission of giving anything up. However, I suspect that making such an admission is the only way to get any bill passed because it would reassure the "public" (yes, I know that's a slippery word) that the president knows what it (i.e., the public) already knows. Charges that the supporters of the health care bill(s) are trying to pull a fast one will have much less traction. But even if I'm wrong--even if the president needs to deny what I claim to be obvious and it helps rather than hurts the chances at getting the bill passed--I still want him to be honest.

I am a firm believer in a national commitment to universal health care (although I'm not convinced that the public option is necessarily the only way to accomplish that goal), and I want Mr. Obama to succeed. But he has to square with the public. Nothing, except perhaps divine grace, comes without a cost, and health care if done right is worth the cost. But there will be a cost. Something will have to give.

I hope the president will admit it.

Heroism and Cowardice

According to a yahoo blurb, the late Senator Kennedy will soon have posthumously published book in which he expressed his regret about the Chappaquiddick incident.

This happened in 1969. He was driving a car with a former Robert Kennedy campaign worker, her name was Mary Jo Kopechne, and his car swerved on a bridge and fell into the Chappaquiddick River. Mr. Kennedy swam to safety while Ms. Kopechne drowned. Mr. Kennedy waited about 10 hours before he called police. He was found guilty of leaving the scene of an accident and given a light, suspended sentence.

I grew up around people very critical of the Kennedy's, and references to Chappaquiddick were, if not common, at least grist for their mill, the implication being that Mr. Kennedy was an unconscionable coward.

Maybe he was. But would I have necessarily performed heroic measures if I were in the same situation? Probably not. And if would, I assume it would be one of those "spur-of-the-moment" things where I weren't thinking about the consequences. I can even imagine myself being so stunned and guilty over the incident as to wait awhile before calling the cops.

Mr. Kennedy was probably wrong in what he did, and maybe he deserved the censures he subsequently received. But I'm not convinced I would have done differently.