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eduwonkette Unmasked

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For those of you who pegged me as Amy Ellen Schwartz, Diane Ravitch, Amy Stuart Wells, or Randi Weingarten – what can I say?

You were a tad off.

eduwonkette is written by Jennifer Jennings, a final year doctoral student in Sociology at Columbia University. I study many of the topics regularly covered on this blog: the effects of accountability systems on race, gender, and socioeconomic inequality, teacher and school effects on cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes, the effect of non-cognitive skills on academic achievement and attainment, school choice, and gender gaps in educational outcomes.

When I started this blog last September, it was a modest attempt to keep track of my evolving thoughts about educational research and policy and to share social science research often ignored in education policy debates. But I was concerned about how blogging would be perceived in the academic community. Academics don’t yet know what to make of blogs. At best, blogging is seen as an unnecessary distraction, and at worst, a total waste of time.

Blogging seemed like a respectable enough hobby to me – one I could partake in for an hour a day, all from the comfort of my couch. I was bad at crocheting anyway and tired of watching the Yankees lose – so why not? To be honest, I didn’t think that anyone would read it. I certainly didn’t consider the potential complications raised by anonymity; would anyone really mind another graduate student writing an anonymous blog? So I decided to write under the cover of the fetching masked superheroine in a purple dress who you have come to know well.

Why am I dropping the mask now? Over the past few months, two things happened. First, people started to wrongly finger other educational researchers as eduwonkette. Given the New York City Department of Education’s affection for my data analysis, some researchers rightfully worried that a case of mistaken identity could have negative implications for their relationships with the DOE. Second, others have started to figure out my true identity. It was a matter of time until someone else made my identity known, and I ultimately decided to introduce myself on my own terms.

Will eduwonkette change now that I’m not anonymous? Absolutely not. I stand behind everything I’ve written here, and will continue to write about research and policy issues with the playfulness that makes this blog a pleasure to write, and - I hope - fun to read as well.

eduwonkette will continue to make educational research accessible to a larger audience, to analyze data to assess the veracity of the claims made by policymakers, and to provide a forum for teachers, parents, administrators, policymakers, and researchers to reflect on how research can and should shape day-to-day life in American schools. As we move toward the one-year anniversary of eduwonkette and beyond, I look forward to more of the thoughtful debate and exchange that make this community so dynamic.

Credits: Please put your hands together for the talented Ian Toledo, animator extraordinaire and recent Teachers College graduate, who created this amazing comic strip. Head over to his site and check him out - word on the street is that Toledo's on the market to do graphic design, animation, and illustration work. When he's the next Frank Miller, we can all say we saw his artwork here first!
27 Comments

You mean this whole time a measly little grad student has been getting everybody all worked up?

OMG! After all the controversy, she is real and a fellow graduate student! Awesome!! Now finish, because a good dissertation is a done dissertation and we've got to get you into the fight with the gloves off! Kudos!

I noticed on your CV that you completed your undergraduate work in the same department for which Wendy Kopp wrote some paper. Did you work with any of the same research advisors?

Good for you! And congrats on almost being done! I, of course, will still remain anonymous...

The anonymous blog is soooo 2008 ... oh wait. Anyways, well played. Coming out of anonymity on your own terms? Beautiful. From one former anonymous blogger to another, I respect that. Keep on writing.

Thank God. Trying to keep a secret for almost a year for a yenta like me was torture.

Hi everyone,

Thanks for the good words:)

Corey - See, us grad students aren't as impotent as most folks think we are.

Donnell - You probably don't remember because it was 10 years ago, but I was an undergrad when you were a grad back in 1999 - we were in Marta Tienda's higher education class together. And I couldn't agree more that the best dissertation is a done one. Will be very happy to be eduwonkette, PhD next spring.

Ms. Miller - Kopp was at Princeton many years before me, but I did get to know Marvin Bressler, her thesis advisor, a bit.

Mimi - Can't wait for your funny teaching stories to start pouring in - though I'm sad that your summer is almost over.

Jose - Thanks! I plan to keep writing the same old stuff.

Norm - You've done good.

Yay! Now you can let us know when you're giving a talk or something. Congratulations!

Jennifer (Mind if I still call you Eduwonkette?): Your blog is a testament to the power of facts and ideas over mere authority. May it remain ever thus. In the meantime, enjoy your well-earned victory lap in the fresh air and sunshine.

Ha! Congratulations!

Hello, Jennifer! Would you prefer us to keep calling you by your title "Eduwonkette" or should we switch to using your name in the future?

From a fellow sociologist: Love your blog, read it every day. Your insights into quantitative & substantive issues are far ahead of most other education bloggers. Keep it up.

Wow! This is the most interesting and productive approach to dissertation avoidance I've seen -- my lab mates just sunk their computer hours into Rogue and Hack :-)

On a more serious note, I wonder if the blog would ever have gotten the traction it did if it hadn't been anonymous, or whether it would have been too hard for other wonks to over come the "measley grad student" (as Corey puts it) pigeon-holing.

There's probably a psychology thesis in that question somewhere...

Anyway, congratulations!

Congratulations on always steering the blog towards productive exchanges of thought. Your work should be reassurance that higher education in America is still harvesting the best talent. And glad to note that youth is not wasted on the young after all. Now it is time for skoolboy to come out!

For the past year I have regularly looked forward to your new postings. Thanks for sharing your ideas and analysis – it’s nice to actually meet you. And good luck on the dissertation.

you are my hero. i read your published work, and i read your blog. i'm so impressed with both. thank you!

Thank god you're not ex-TFA. Not that TFA'ers are bad... just that there are so many of them in education, it was starting to make me a little paranoid.

BTW, I lived in Cambridge for 3 years back in the mid 90's.

Jennifer,

Congratulations on this momentous event. Since you so kindly provided links to your published work, I took the opportunity to read your professional writing. You do some very impressive work.

However, I noticed some inaccuracies as well, mostly through matters that you left at a general level. For instance, in your TCR article, "When Race Matters" you wrote:

But the Court’s new optimism blithely assumes that the ingredients of a high-quality education can easily be decoupled from the racial composition of schools. While this may be possible for dollars and cents, it is much less likely to hold for education’s most vital resource — its high-quality teachers.

And you also wrote:

That is, given the choice, teachers prefer not to teach at schools with a high concentration of minority students.

If you mean minority students, then your thesis should also hold for Asian students. If you mean Black and Hispanic students only, then you should be specific in your writing.

We can test your hypothesis that teachers seek to avoid working in schools with high minority concentrations by looking at schools with a high proportion of Asian students, such as:

West San Jose has seen such a boom in its Asian American population over the past decade. Today, the area is about two-thirds Asian. Lynbrook, the local high school, is about 72 percent Asian. Similarly, the town of Cupertino, which was 23 percent Asian American in the 1990 census, is now 44 percent Asian. The three local high schools - Cupertino, Monte Vista, and Homestead - are 49, 67, and 33 percent Asian, respectively. On average, Cupertino's schools are half Asian.

A short way up 880 North, the Mission San Jose District of Fremont has the largest concentration of Asian Americans in the city. The area is over 50 percent Asian American, according to the 2000 census, and at the local high school, Mission San Jose High, Asian Americans account for an astounding 77 percent of the student body.

From my cursory examination of the teacher data, these schools don't have the problem that your hypothesis predicts they should have. It sure looks like the Supreme Courts assumption, that "the ingredients of a high-quality education can easily be decoupled from the racial composition of schools" is indeed valid.

"That is, given the choice, teachers prefer not to teach at schools with a high concentration of minority students."

This is an area where I disagree with Eduwonkette based on my narrow experience in terms of where I taught for many years - 99% Black and Hispanic inner city in Brooklyn, NY. I found the stability of the school administration had the most impact impact in terms of school stability. While the schools were difficult, teachers remained in those where they were treated reasonably.

What does happen is that there's a high turnover in admins and that leads to teachers leaving.

While moving to middle class neighborhoods - which was extremely difficult for many teachers due to seniority rules - may have seemed an easier teaching gig, teachers who did so said they missed the old comraderie of our school. Quite a few teachers spent their entire careers there. But of course the new Leadership Academy principal went after them with a vengreace over the last few years and the prophecy that minority schools don't keep their teachers has come to pass.

Welcome to the blogosphere. It's truly tragic indeed that you ever had to be anonymous.

Good luck!

Hi Jennifer...Congratulations on your coming out on your own terms...and thanks for all the great info and stats over the last year...I'm a regular reader of the blog and a fan..!

Thanks, everyone.

Norm and TangoMan - A few words on the racial composition issue, which will unfortunately be brief as I just arrived in Barcelona - I had to come over for a conference and decided to make it a vacation of sorts.

TangoMan, point well-taken - that language is imprecise and should have said "a high concentration of black and Hispanic students." Norm, your school may be an exception, but schools with high fractions of black and Hispanic students are much more difficult to staff than schools with lower fractions of these students. A quick look at the vacancies will demonstrate this pattern.

And this is not just about salaries - I know TangoMan doesn t like the term racially isolated, but by racially isolated in the below I mean schools with high fractions of black and Hispanic students. As Sean Corcoran and I wrote in that commentary about the research on staffing patterns:

We also know from recent research (Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2004) that teacher decisions over where to teach depend on the racial composition of schools as much or more as on relative salaries. That is, given the choice, teachers prefer not to teach at schools with a high concentration of minority students. This preference persists even after proxies for race — such as
class —are taken into account.

What mechanisms produce this pattern is a matter of continued debate, and here are a few that I ve heard tossed around:

—teachers have preferences for integrated schools over schools with high fractions of black and Hispanic students

—teachers don t have preferences for integrated schools, but non-integrated environments have worse working conditions and teachers prefer good working conditions

We need to know much more about teachers preferences — I m sorry about the sloppy punctuation, guys, but am struggling with the Spanish keyboard here - but my guess is that both processes create difficulties in staffing schools with high fractions of black and Hispanic students. Teachers use racial composition as an informational shortcut in making decisions about where to apply and work, so the reality of the working conditions is irrelevant - they use their perceptions of average working conditions in racially isolated schools to make these choices. And then for those teachers who do accept jobs in these schools, that the working conditions are often tougher help produce turnover.

Forgive me if I m AWOL in comments for the rest of the day, but am crazy jet-lagged and need to nap.

This is my first ever post on a blog, but I had to "lose my virginity," so to speak, to congratulate you on your amazing success! The comic strip was a brilliant way to announce your identity! So clever! As an actual teacher in the trenches, I appreciate your passion for "unmasking" the politicians and others who just try to bandaid current problems in education, especially urban education, and try to make it look like they're solving it all. Kudos!

—teachers have preferences for integrated schools over schools with high fractions of black and Hispanic students

You may find the work of Robert Putnam to be of some relevance here. Multiculturalism and diversity impose serious social costs on society and really aren't the road to nirvana that propaganda constantly tells us they are. If the same dynamic detailed in Putnam's work is in play then it's quite plausible that teachers are acting in their own self-interest by avoiding the shouldering of the social costs associated with working in such environments.

I have never blogged before, but am intrigued by this conversation. I have taught for 20 years. I once worked at a school with very rich parents/students, but chose a lower socioeconomic school when my family relocated. The majority of our students are Hispanic--of Mexican descent. In my opinion, there continues to be incredible societal biases against these students. Many articles have been written focusing on the lack of English language acquisition, but ignored in this whole conversation is the fact that many Mexican immigrants come from completely impoverished, uneducated backgrounds. As a teacher, I must help my students become educated despite the fact that their parents probably are illiterate and cannot speak English. I think more teachers do not choose to work in these environments because we are crushed by discouragment at every turn, when we are trying to produce miracles. Maybe I am unaware of teachers who work in difficult places and are, themselves, unqualified to do so, but the teachers I know are very qualified and work very hard--sometimes to no avail. It is disheartening.

Hola Eduwonkette,
I was not talking about my school alone but most of my district which is north Brooklyn. After the budget cuts of 1975 there were literally no openings for a decade in regular ed. Schools were tightly controlled by the district with lots of patronnage - and people wanted to work in District 14, which had basically 4-5 white schools (Greenpoint) and 23 almost totally minority schools. Th southern tier schools closer to Bed Stuy may have been harder to staff - they were in the midst of projects.

Ok. So going along with the staffing issues that you have found there is a need to take a look at the school stability factor, the turnover rate, the relative safety of the neighborhood. At my friend's kids school which was mostly white, one year 17 teachers left because of the principal.

The reality of teaching in NYC due to the seniority rules we used to have was that most teachers had to seek jobs in minority schools. Actually, seek is the wrong word. They were basically assigned. Teachers in white schools never left so openings from the mid 70's through the 90's were fairly rare. A teacher could try for a seniority transfer after many years but that process was also a minefield - principals didn't want them, teachers could get one of 5 choices, if they didn't accept they were unable to apply again for 2 years, etc. Only about 600 people a year applied - a drop in the bucket in a system the size of NYC.

Klein railed against this process and blamed it for much of the ills of the system - those poor principals had to accept transferees from the ghetto schools even though they by the nature of seniority has to have expreience. But Klein also railed about how poor schools get less experienced teachers. He tried to have it both ways by attacking senior teachers and crying that union rules kept him from putting them where needed.

Now that seniority has been eliminated Klein punishes schools that might hire experienced teachers by charging their budget for their salaries.

The point of this is to show there is a need to delve deeper than just the racial composition of a school when looking at staffing issues.

Enjoy the rest of the trip.

Been traveling in the Norwegian fjords for the past three weeks, where there is often no satellite access, hence no e-mail.

Came home and found out that Eduwonkette had unmasked herself and McCain had chosen Sarah Palin as VP. Say it ain't so. Or something like that.

As a sometime doc student in ed policy, trying to decide whether to finish or go ABD, I have greatly admired your deft handling of statistics and research. Surprisingly, research results often become large, dead fish-like entities in the hands of those who worry most about whether this study and report are going to help them get tenure or more funding.

You, however, have a gift for making mind-numbing data sets lively and engaging--one might even say relevant. As a 30-year veteran of the classroom, I appreciate that talent. Cheers.

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