Nice Work If You Can Get It

Interesting: A paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Cornell researchers Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams has gained a great deal of media attention, as these things go. Reading the coverage, I’d say we’re definitely a culture split between those who want to put gender bias behind us, and those who want to put any discussion of gender bias behind us.

Ceci and Williams’ report indicates that “sexual discrimination” (the quote marks capture my uncertainty about what that term means in the report, not their own) is no longer much of a factor in the hiring, promotion, grant funding or journal publication of women in the sciences.  Substantive aspects of reviewing and hiring in STEM occupations are in recovery, no longer suffering from gender bias.  The authors do find that institutional and cultural factors may be limiting the attainments of women in science: the essential conflicts between tenure clocks and biological clocks, between child- or elder care demands and competitive funding structures, etc.  These conditions, which constrain women’s choices of  career and lifestyle,  still have to be addressed if women are to attain parity with men  in math-based fields.

I agree with that last point, absolutely. But as someone who studies ideas about identity in scientific workplaces, something seems not quite right to me in the very design of this study, so I worry about how likely it is to actually encourage reform. That is:  It seems to Ceci and Williams like a good idea to differentiate between the social character of  encounters between individuals in job interviews and manuscript review processes (no longer gendered, apparently) and that of institutional policies (still somewhat discriminatory).   That differentiation lets them cast women’s successes at the application or promotion stages as nicely firewalled from the ideologies that shape tenure and family leave and funding policies; daily relationships in  academic departments are apparently post-gender despite whatever is going on down the hall in the dean’s office or HR department or Office of Research.  

But that these are distinct realms within most institutions–with bias dissolved in one unit while it survives in others– seems highly improbable. Do successful employees  (say, tenured faculty) normally maintain functionally different value systems than their bosses (those who approve their raises, and new lines for their departments)?  On some ideological level, maybe,  but in the actual day-to-day operations of an institution? Not likely. Shared standards of good performance by definition connect the two spaces; short  CV’s and slowed tenure clocks are stigmatized throughout.  I’d be very surprised if the lowered rates of  successful tenure, promotion, and funding efforts by women faculty in STEM  fields are not deriving from distributions of opportunities and resources in their home departments; after all, that’s where opportunity and resources are garnered for faculty (or not, for some) .

And I just don’t think the disunity between institutional spaces that Ceci and Williams imply is characteristic of ostensibly meritocratic enterprises like science (or law, or medicine, or the social sciences for that matter!).  But it offers a picture of scientific labor that conveniently  lets Ceci and Williams suggest that money now being spent on, say, monitoring or improving gender bias in the university departments and labs, where decisions about merit are made,  is no longer needed. The Guardian accepts the empirical findings of the NAS study but nonetheless sees the potential danger in that presumption, headlining its coverage of the new report: “Women in science face a career structure and culture that is weighted against them, rather than straightforward individual sexual discrimination”(itals mine).

Others, sadly, are leveraging Ceci and Williams’ report for deeply conservative purposes.  Leave it to John Tierney’s New York Times column of Feb. 9 to embed this news in a larger indictment of  the “liberal” professoriate’s  lock on social science research topics. Tierney centers his column on the reductive and self-serving arguments of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.  Haidt defends, to  Tierney’s apparent approval, beleaguered “conservative” social science projects,  like Larry Summer’s argument that men’s overrepresentation in math and science has a biological basis. The widespread critique of Summer’s comments and others of that ilk had awful ripple effects, we read in Tierney’s column:

“…the taboo against discussing sex differences was reinforced, so universities and the National Science Foundation went on spending millions of dollars on research and programs based on the assumption that female scientists faced discrimination and various forms of unconscious bias.”

According to Tierney,  Ceci and Williams  (like others before them we have regrettably failed to heed) correct that assumption.  But I would ask this: If institutional policies that favor men’s socialization and biology, such as those the new report points to, are not evidence of  “unconscious bias”  then what is?  Tierney’s logic  is selective, at best. I would love to know if Ceci and Williams see it that way.

Innovation? Check. Change? Not so much.

If President Obama was an ordinary orator, I’d be placing bets on the number of times “innovation,” “education” and just plain “technology” will come up in the State of the Union tonight…with side-bets on “future” and “tomorrow.” But as an eloquent stylist, he’ll likely avoid the sort of redundancy that makes for good speech-based gambling fun. (Or, in livelier social circles than mine, drinking games…or so I’ve heard). But I am worried that the generally uncritical invocation of those terms that has typified his rhetoric in the last year will continue this evening.

I’ll be back here tomorrow with some (I promise) constructive responses to the address. In the meantime, here’s my latest basis for fretting.

There’s just been announced a new initiative intended by the White House and Department of Labor to boost Americans’ readiness for higher-tech jobs, the  Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program.  It will provide $2 billion over the next 4 years to support the creation of educational and training programs in areas likely to offer jobs to those no longer finding work in, say, manufacturing or assembly. It is meant to coordinate very closely the activities of educational institutions with the current labor and skill needs of industry, to the benefit of employees and employers alike:

“The grant program will expand opportunities for workers by: accelerating progress and reducing time to completion; improving retention and achievement rates; building instructional programs that meet industry needs; and strengthening online and technology-enabled learning.”

Here’s the amazing part: The entire initiative is based on the idea that the curricular and training materials produced with the funding will be disseminated as OPEN source materials. Yes, that’s right:  free, online, to anyone who wishes to make use of them. This is a very promising step, aimed at leveraging the ingenuity and energy of  individual educators for the widest possible impact.  To repeat: That’s not trickle down we’re talking about, where the market success of a few is meant to bring benefits to many, but leveraging.

But (and you know what’s coming), let’s think about it…What jobs, exactly, will await those who receive training with these new materials? What technology-based jobs, today, will take shape on these shores, when industry feels so little reason to turn away from the lower-wage labor pools of other nations? When these announcements actually start to hold the names of firms committed to keeping manufacturing and assembly operations on U.S. shores, and of government programs that provide reasons for them to do so, I’ll get excited.

Innovation is not enough.  As we speak,  highly touted green-tech jobs, like those created in Massachusetts with state support at Evergreen Solar, are heading overseas. As Keith Bradsher reported in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago,  owners of that company built a new plant in 2008, employing 800 people, but a year later they were in talks with a Chinese manufacturer. In September 2010 the firm opened its factory in Wuhan, China, and 800 jobs-of-the-future  in Massachusetts were no more.

Yes, China could offer Evergreen cutting edge technologies that made its solar production plants more economically attractive for Evergreen.  Yes, that was partly due to China’s innovative engineers and manufacturers.  But Evergreen’s move was also due to the fact that creating and sustaining jobs in the U.S. had no obvious benefit for the firm’s owners; they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by saying good-bye to 800 American employees.

So: I welcome the new training and education grant program. I’m all for evidence of the “new era of hope” (as Hilda Solis and Arne Duncan labeled the initiative), since President Obama’s first era of hope hasn’t been too , um, hopeful.  Mostly, I’d like to hear such workforce policies tied to solid reforms in outsourcing and trade policies, so the hard work of educators and good faith of students who enroll in tech training programs have hope of being rewarded.  Unfortunately, I’m betting we won’t hear that tonight. But “Sputnik”? You bet!

Our Borders, Ourselves?: Rethinking China’s Test Scores

Be Afraid: China’s “stellar” performance on recent standardized tests, described in yesterday’s New York Times (“Top Test Scores from Shanghai Stun Educators,” by Sam Dillon), is apparently another sign that America is being “out-educated.”  We are at our very own “Sputnik” moment, President Obama tells us, our nation once again threatened by the academic attainments of another.  Only a vast increase in our educational efforts (and in our anxiety, apparently), can correct this dire situation, according to a host of  commentators who have lately weighed in on the matter. Disaster looms: The Test Scores Prove It.

It’s pretty much axiomatic that where standardized test results are invoked for political purposes, arguments will be reductive.  And if we already suspected that the prevailing Sinophobia was about as well thought out as a toddler’s tantrum, last week the writers of “The Office” confirmed it: Can anyone seriously hold onto a geopolitical perspective once  it’s come from the mouth of the supremely illogical, trend-riding, Newsweek-wielding, Michael Scott?

Unfortunately, in the real world of STEM education, sound bites about our national science and math deficiencies continue to inhibit creative reform. We are our own worst enemies.

First, how much of this political fretting about U.S. intellectual inadequacy relative to China, India and other economically rising nations has included plans to implement the steps that educators know would improve math and science education in America? For example,  vastly increasing teachers’ training opportunities and salaries, expanding public school budgets and facilities, and instituting rewards for post-secondary STEM faculty who make teaching their priority?  Hand waving and furrowed brows we have, meaningful interventions, not so much…I guess the tax hikes such reforms would require are even scarier than China’s growing mental might.

 Second, as I wrote here a few weeks ago, citing David Sirota’s  insightful commentary,  those who most anxiously demand a more highly skilled American workforce almost universally omit any mention of the powerful disincentives that global wage structures (the worldwide “race to the bottom”),  including American policies that support the outsourcing of industrial labor, offer to just this sort of educational expansion on our own shores.  President Obama’s way too smart to have missed the connection here but he apparently fears to tread on corporate toes by calling those policies into question; sadly, the more tidily packaged White House jobs and training  initiatives become (“Skills For America’s Future”? As opposed to what?),  the more I worry about that reluctance.

Finally, the idea that China’s educational growth is best framed as a problem for America (or at the very least, a “wake-up call,” according to Arne Duncan)  is downright depressing.  Not only are Cold War-worthy nationalistic sentiments fueled with these kinds of comparisons (“It’s our brains against theirs!”), with not a small racial element easily following on that fear (“It’s our brains against THEIRS!?”) …but any vision of collective innovation or shared scientific priorities among nations is also completely suppressed.  We have our brains, they have theirs.  Promoting trade linkages is one thing, but intellectual collectivities across countries, let alone hemispheres?  Too touchy-feely, too retro, too soft for a time when America’s military-industrial powers are “at risk.”

No coincidence, of course,  that science-based challenges like sustainable production, a halt to global warming, worldwide health improvements, and a reduction in world hunger (all of which would  realign flows of global capital and power) would best be met through concerted multi-nation address.   Sorry: There will be no team projects on this syllabus.

But even from a less radical ideological stance,  global scientific competition just seems like such a stale idea, no? So 20th century! Instead, I wonder: Why not throw a big, inclusive, pot-luck Invention Party for brains both Chinese and American? What about massive student and teacher exchanges?  Global summits for excited 8th graders, or innovative engineers, or creative public health experts, or start-uppers and garage tinkerers of all nations?  

Of course, we have vast differences in our national values and interests; China’s STEM attainments are achieved in a society less open than our own.  Industrial capitalism shakes out with a huge variety of undemocratic results; we can chart these in every nation where it has been tried and they are of course not all equivalent.  Very messy stuff, morally: As Scott Gabriel Knowles wrote recently after a visit to Shanghai’s World Expo, modernization today is, as it always has been, all things to all cultures as each strives to sustain its own cultural priorities, 2010’s globally shared ideals of material accumulation and flourishing financial networks notwithstanding.  

But can’t we imagine scientific and technological activity, approached carefully, critically, and equitably, transcending some of this nation-centered self-interest?  If math and science have any progressive social potential at all (and yes, that’s a big “if”),  surely earnest transnational exchanges could nurture that potential, no? Couldn’t our governments, universities and even corporate R&D labs try to pool global capacities for discovery and invention, rather than just insistently sorting and delineating which nation does what better? Perhaps using the heightened educational attainments of a given nation as a shared benchmark, for shared educational and knowledge-creating goals? 

 Probably not. Because as the many very worried voices in the Times piece show, that’s not really why such standardized testing regimes come to be. Because that’s not why we quantify and rank educational achievements. Because the whole idea of collaboration and the pursuit of mutual good is no more likely for nations comparing their standardized test scores than for high schoolers.  It’s every brain for itself.

More STEM, STAT.

Natalie Angier’s angry words about the term “STEM” in her New York Times column last week  (“STEM education has nothing to do with flowers”) are still puzzling to me. 

She made a few good points: The use of acronyms can indeed lead to confusing and exclusive language. STEM education agendas,  simply by grouping certain academic or research activities together and not others, can encourage science and technology to remain remote from social engagement and the concerns of the humanities.  But her ire seemed overblown, sweeping every invocation of STEM away before her  in a blast of almost aesthetic distate for the term. What’s going on here?

The Times published a short letter that I wrote today in response to that column, which I’m glad they titled, “STEM: Fighting Word.”  I hope it captured some other readers’ feelings about her anti-STEM eruption.  But I am left wondering: Is it possible that Angier, a science media writer I have considered among the best,  may not have known that the “STEM” label has adorned countless diversity and equity projects in the science and technical disciplines? If so, those projects are even more marginalized in the science world than I’d  feared. 

We all need to rant now and then.  There are cringe-inducing words that set me off, too:  “Staycation,”  “Spalon”…don’t get me started.  But STEM is a politically and historically complex label.  Angier miscasts it as “didactic and jargony” and thus, for readers who don’t know about STEM’s long-standing role in educational equity,  encourages quick dismissal at every encounter with the word. What a shame. Think of how much good Angier could have done with this column had she distinguished among the multiple invocations of STEM,  rather than just venting.

Erring on the Side of…Exclusion

Thank you, John Tierney!  Through your efforts, essentialist thinking about gender and intelligence may keep its hold on Americans for a while longer.  

Tierney suggests in today’s NY Times “Findings” column that we look with skepticism on a new Congressional proposal  to require workshops on gender equity for all those receiving federal science research funding.  The results of standardized tests, Tierney reports, have shown that sex differences are real, gosh darn it;  researchers have proven that gender gaps among the best-performing math and science test-takers  persist from year to year, from generation to generation…why do we insist on resisting the obvious scientific conclusion? Think of the time, trouble,  and money we could save, in classrooms, labs, and HR departments,  if we just accepted the biological fact of women’s innate science and math inability!

The column’s title alone, “Daring to Discuss the Potential of Women in Science”  (my itals.), ensures that this sort of reductive understanding of learning and thinking (something in the brain, that mysterious quaking organ,  makes math easy or hard for people!) will continue to be cast as a brave, selfless, anti-PC act of resistance against…against….Against what? The dangers of inclusive educational programming? Of erring on the side of equity?  Of maximizing occupational opportunities for every American?

No wonder the column’s accompanying illustration is a kooky, retro collage of a pretty blond 1950s “sweater girl,” with gears on her mind and a scientific formula spilling from her lips….Gals in the lab?!  Zany! Let the high-jinks begin!

I know, I know: sarcasm is petty and unattractive.  So before I lose any remaining credibility, let me defer to Troy Duster’s brilliant historical discussion of biological understandings of intellectual capacity. For almost 20 years, editions of his book, Backdoor to Eugenics, have laid out the very worrisome political and cultural implications of our pursuit of biological bases for intellectual and behavioral differences. 

Duster makes it clear that the questions we ask about what counts as aptitude, and the ways in which we measure intelligence,  themselves hide the discriminatory social forces at work in our schools and workplaces.  Where we look for inherited, biomedical, or other biological determinations of human aptitude to explain differences among groups,  we will limit our scrutiny of social, economic  and political causes behind discrepant educational or occupational attainments.  In this way the perceived value of biological research on intelligence is self-reinforcing.

Sure, experimental research on the physiological or genetic endowments associated with cognitive traits seems more objective than study of vague, illusory “social forces” or “values” or “bias.”  But ideology underlies that preference.   As Pierre Bourdieu writes in his forward to the book’s 2003 edition,

Conservatism has always  been linked to forms of thought that tend to reduce the social to the natural–the historical to the biological.

Tierney and the researchers he cites are no doubt concerned about the nature of women’s experiences in science, as they claim; after all, they are probing the matter, not ignoring it. But they don’t really seem interested in the depth and breadth of inquiry that scholars like Duster suggest…that is, in asking questions about their own questions. Those would be the truly daring discussions.

Bad News/Good News/Bad News

I could be projecting here,  but it seems to me that 2-year colleges are getting a lot more media attention these days.  The coverage brings bad news or good news by the day, depending on how you see the role of higher ed in America.

On the worrying side of things for me is a growing conservative enthusiasm for sub-baccalaureate education.  These are voices that tell us that “too many” people are going to college these days…these students are apparently wasting their own time and money, and tax dollars that go to colleges and universities,  since they are destined to become blue-collar or service workers unlikely to “make use” of costly bachelor’s degrees.  

When I first heard  Charles Murray’s  claims along these lines a couple of years ago (particularly a talk called “Education Myths,” hosted by the Cato Institute), I blanched but figured he was just going about his usual essentialist and terribly elitist business (after all, in The Bell Curve he and Richard Herrnstein famously made this kind of deeply discriminatory argument many times over).

But other voices are now joining Murray’s.  The New York Times offered us “Plan B: Skip College”  by Jacques Steinberg yesterday, about educators and analysts who share Murray’s distaste for the expenditure of higher-ed resources on citizens they deem to be lesser lights.

Apparently, we can predict that certain folks won’t get much out of a university education, even before they enroll, and we should stop them in their tracks. Plus, America ostensibly needs workers with the less sophisticated, pared down skill sets that efficiently designed, short, vocational training courses of study might provide…Now that’s a nation aiming high!

Steinberg’s piece did acknowledge that those making such arguments are “touching a third rail of the education system” (a choice of words that unfortunately makes anyone who disagrees with the conservatives sound dangerous and shocking, but still…).   The real good news is that innovative educators are today creating  community colleges programs motivated precisely by inclusion.  InsideHigherEd.com offers us “Taking the Long View,”  by David Moltz, describing transfer-oriented technical programs at 2-year colleges. 

I am quoted in that piece, but the valuable lessons it holds are provided by faculty and administrators from Greenfield Community College, in Massachusetts. That school aims to maximize, not minimize, students’ prospects in technical occupations, by gearing them almost exclusively towards preparation for transfer to 4-year engineering programs. 

Requiring more courses, instructors and facilities,  this is a more costly route, indeed, than limiting opportunities of certain demographic groups to trades training or terminal sub-baccalaureate curricula.  But only in a very short-term fiscal sense.  Simply put, transfer-focused agendas at community colleges promise America a workforce of greater productive potential, not to mention diversity,  than we have ever achieved in this country.

Alas, now back to the bad news: Inside Higher Ed reports this morning that community colleges are facing severe cuts in state and local funding, perhaps an unsurprising  byproduct of federal reductions in support for education and other public services  in recent years.  Many of the functions for community colleges that Obama himself has endorsed,  for drawing larger numbers of Americans into higher ed and improving workforce preparedness,  it is clear, are going to have a harder time than ever sustaining themselves.