No One is Talking Precarious Labour. Why Not?

When it comes to labour on university campuses, a divide has emerged between tenure-track professors, and sessional (temporary) instructors.[1] Sessional workers are precarious workers. And they are far from the only precarious workers. In fact, precarity exists across the labour market, and it’s growing. Despite these facts, few Canadians outside of universities even know what “precarious labour” is, let alone identify themselves as precarious workers. So what’s the deal?

Let’s start with a definition. In essence, a member of the precariat is one is who is involuntarily, insecurely employed and/or underemployed. That definition can include a lot of people, Continue reading

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Career Building and My Big Fat Data Analytics

Legwarmers

“Big data” lets you monitor your social reach, but at what price?

True Story: When I was in junior high, I was very, very concerned with getting my social status right. Who wasn’t? But it was particularly loaded for me because I had proven, to that point in my short life, to be a pretty abysmal failure at all things “social.” In my quest to achieve ever-elusive popularity, I learned to listen to music I didn’t particularly like. I did my level best to appear older than I was, and to at least give the appearance of sexual worldliness. I obsessed about my clothes and my hair. God it was painful.

I don’t think I am unique in this revelation about my adolescence. That’s why adolescence sucks. All the world is a mirror for a frail ego, confronted with a terrifyingly vast array of possible answers to the question “Who am I?”[1] I also don’t think I am unique in reflecting on this stormy period of life and thinking “Oh thank God that’s over with.” Or so we thought. Continue reading

Alberta Education’s Task Force on Teacher Excellence Report: There’s Some Serious Cherry-Picking Going On Here

It is hard to anticipate the outcomes of the brewing political war in Alberta over The Education ministry’s release of the “Task Force for Teaching Excellence.” Nor can I begin to address the array and complexity of the issues it raises within one short blog. For the moment, I want to use a small segment of the report to highlight the partisan nature of the “teacher excellence” debate. The segment in question may be absorbed without too much question by a reader, which is why I wish to draw attention to it. Namely, it is the report’s citation of two US studies correlating student achievement with teacher effectiveness.[1] What is so disturbing about this aspect of the report (and it is not at all the only disturbing aspect) is that the inclusion of a couple of sexy graphs gives the whole thing a roundly undeserved air of scientific rigour.

Few would argue that there is a link between teacher effectiveness and student learning, and few would disagree that this link is of central importance. Measuring the link is another matter entirely – a matter so complex as to warrant reams – and I mean reams – of academic research focusing on the challenges of such measurement.

“Value Added” Measures of Teachers: A Taste of Methodology Concerns

“Methodology” describes researchers’ efforts to come up with the best ways to do their work. In addition to doing research, researchers are always debating the accuracy and reliability of the methods used to collect data, represent it, and draw conclusions from it. Such debates occur in both quantitative (statistical) research, and qualitative research. An even cursory search of research databases yields some of the methodological concerns around measuring the impacts of teacher effectiveness on student learning.[2] Here, I’ll implore you to read just until your eyes glass over (it won’t take long) and stay with me by jumping down to the point of this very boring sample of material I’ve pulled from studies concerning the measure of a teacher’s “value added”:

  • Value-added models have been widely used to assess the contributions of individual teachers and schools to students’ academic growth based on longitudinal student achievement outcomes. There is concern, however, that ignoring the presence of missing values, which are common in longitudinal studies, can bias teachers’ value-added scores.
  • Value-added approaches to teacher evaluation have many problems. Chief among them is the commonly found class-to-class and year-to-year unreliability in the scores obtained.
  • In this article, the authors provide a methodological critique of the current standard of value-added modeling forwarded in educational policy contexts as a means of measuring teacher effectiveness. An alternative statistical methodology, propensity score matching, [would] allows estimation of how well a teacher performs relative to teachers assigned comparable classes of students.
  • Despite questions about validity and reliability, the use of value-added estimation methods has moved beyond academic research into state accountability systems for teachers, schools, and teacher preparation programs (TPPs). Prior studies of value-added measurement for TPPs test the validity of researcher-designed models and find that measuring differences across programs is difficult.
  • Empirically, we reject nearly all assumptions underlying value-added models.

I want to make it clear that I did not spend hours picking out snippets to support my position. I am not a statistician, and I cannot even comment on the validity of the studies just sampled. My point in including the above segments from research papers is to illustrate just how complex this measurement problem is. Which should lead one – anyone, statistically inclined or not – to challenge the authority of a report that cites exactly two quantitative studies on the matter and declares “problem solved.”

It’s Not “About the Kids”

In media interviews accompanying the release of this report, Task Force Chairperson Glen Feltham declared that “the interest of the student was paramount – the child came first.” Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson echoed, “If we truly want to do what’s best for kids and students, we’ve got to have the guts to have these conversations.” The thing is, saying you want what’s “best for kids” is like saying you like kittens, puppies and ice-cream. Who doesn’t? The Alberta Teachers’ Association backs its position with the same language.

Really, then, who isn’t in it “for the kids?” The Task Force for Teacher Excellence report is “about the kids,” sort of. But it’s much more about a high stakes ideological battle for the hearts and minds of Alberta’s electorate. And here is where it’s important to note that the two studies cited in the report are not contextualized politically any more than they are by academic research. The cited studies come out of the United States: a country so rife with partisanship as to warrant skepticism when it comes to almost any public policy research it produces. It is about the last place we should be looking to for education research, and it is certainly the last place on which we should be modelling public policy debates.

There is little doubt that there are a few (very few) Alberta teachers who ought to be put out to pasture. But this report isn’t any more about teacher excellence than it is “about the kids.” It’s about a political battle represented chiefly by two organizations – Alberta’s Ministry of Education and the Alberta Teachers’ Association – and reflecting two very different perspectives on the extent to which education ought to remain public, or move toward the PC government’s preferred vision of increasing privatization. And it is endlessly frustrating to see research “cherry-picked” on ideological grounds rather than assessed on its own merits. I call Data Abuse. When an entire policy platform is built around the premise that there is a solid causal link between teacher “excellence” (however that’s defined, but that’s a whole other problem) and students’ learning, we ought to have some confidence that this link is sound. I’m not seeing it.

 

[1] Chetty, R., Friedman, J., & Rockoff, J. (2011). The long-term impacts of teachers: Teacher value-added and student outcomes in adulthood. Working paper 17699, National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from http://www.nber.org/papers/w17699.pdf. The lengthy report concludes with (sensible) caution about the application of its findings to policies impacting teacher pay, assessment, and retention.

Sanders, W. & Rivers, J. (1996). Cumulative and residual effects of teachers on future student academic achievement. University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center. Retrieved from http://www.cgp.upenn.edu/pdf/Sanders_Rivers-TVASS_teacher%20effects.pdf

[2] Here I jumped into the University of Alberta’s subscription to ProQuest, which aggregates peer-reviewed research from many different academic journals and disciplines. The search terms “value added” and “teachers” yielded 562 hits, and I skimmed the abstracts (the article descriptions) for the first two dozen of these hits.

Trans/Modalities and Re/Representations of Something or Other: What the Hell? (Or: Why Do Academics Talk Like That?) *

*… and why do they use so many colons?

It’s “conference season” here for us Canadian academics working in education. Every year we get together with other academic types at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. In anticipation of Congress, we received an invitation to an allegedly “public” lecture to be held there. Follow along if you can:

Cancer Knowledge in the Plural: Communicability of Presence,Trans/Media and the QueerBiopolitics of Prosthetic Mobilities Media(tions)

In this lecture, Dr. XXX explores the logics of participation, narration and mobility that inform current communications models of “culturally competent healthcare” and “media engagement”, both of which articulate a particular story about diversity, informed participatory modes of citizenship and democratization. As she argues, comparative analysis of “the mirror” and “the glory hole”-as prosthetics of attachment, relationality, transit, experience and affect-fleshes out a modality of critically queer attention to the problematics of a politics of recognition, rights and of visibility, at work in sites of subjectification and sociality. She provides us with analytic means to deal with complexities attendant to the mobilities of cancer’s plural knowledges in the present.

Now if your reading experience was anything like mine, you were scratching your head by the second line of the text. By the third line, it goes something like “blah blah blah… democracy…. blah blah blah… mirror….blah blah… glory hole??? Isn’t that sex in bathrooms?…. Wow. Weird….Oh wait! Maybe it’s about cancer!”[1]

Sadly, the incomprehensible business you just had the pleasure of reading is not unusual in the academic world. Continue reading

More Perspectives on “Hedgehog” Graduate Degrees

Joyce Chang was a guest on Part II of the Agenda’s feature on employment in recession. She has a masters degree in sports administration, and has been pounding the pavement for some months now:

“It’s true… this is a very frustrating time. You go through your entire life – I think Generation X – is that you can obtain anything. It’s kind of like the dream or a lifestyle. You just work hard get your education, and then when you graduate you’ll have a job and everything will be okay and you know money will flow and everything will be great. And it isn’t happening. Recession is something that we can’t control, and we’re so used to controlling things…we don’t know how to equip or deal with it.”

Joyce is actually a “Gen Y,” which the Agenda episode pegs as younger adults aged 15-29. The educated among this cohort have high expectations. But, as the Agenda series suggests, the jury is out with regard to whether these expectations will be met. Do GenYs just, as Linda Duxbury suggests, just need to wait for a promised wave of Boomer retirements, or is the present purgatory of underemployment and precarious employment something more ominous and enduring?

The Agenda’s discussion of present employment prospects for Gen X and GenY, coupled with a February 1st editorial piece on the value of a masters degree raises questions about the wisdom of pursuing graduate studies when the undergrad degree doesn’t pan out right away.

Two significant issues are raised. First is whether a graduate degree close on the heels of a bachelors degree will help or hinder job prospects. There is a case to be made that further education with little work experience niches you at the wrong stage of your career development. U of T economics professor Philip Oreopoulos suggests that maximum flexibility early in the career trajectory is an asset. Flexibility is compromised by over-qualification or over-specialization, but also, significantly, by high levels of student debt. Chained to servicing large debt loads, these new workers potentially price themselves out of of entry level jobs that might provide valuable work experience. It creates an “all or nothing” scenario for that important first career job.

Jerema’s “The Old M.A. Just Ain’t What it Used to Be” also points to the growing signficance of professionally-oriented graduate degrees (discussed by the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (http://www.cags.ca/media/docs/cags-publication/CAGS-Master.pdf). Usually taken after some experience has been gained in one’s professional field, these degrees can provide some bang for the buck — particularly when they are undertaken with partial or full employer support, and hold the direct promise of salary increases and promotions. In my opinion, these degrees also make the most of past professional (field) experience by bringing together theory to generate meaningful learning.

The ultimate point to consider? There are better and worse times to think about pursuing graduate level education. It is difficult to find reliable statistical information that might determine whether the likes of Joyce are in purgatory or hell, but anecdotes like hers leave me skeptical of the long term effectiveness of the “hedgehog” strategy: Stay in school and lay low until the recession blows over. Could this just further entrench the likelihood of underemployment down the road? I guess we’ll see…

Internships: Working For Free

On October 9th, 2009, CBC’s The Current ran a feature on the latest wave in voluntary internships…work you perform for a low wage or for free in order to gain work experience for your resume or CV. So now not only can you work for little or nothing… you can, if you choose pay for the privilege!

If you’ve got several thousand dollars lying around (or would like to carry even more student loans than you already have) check out California’s University of Dreams. The firm will set you up with a great work experience opportunity…for a hefty price. What’s interesting about this organization is that it exists at all. What does it say about the need for work experience when a market exists for internships that you pay for? Will good work experience, in some fields, be available only to those who can afford it?