Think, Know, Prove: More Stats, More Questions

Think, Know, Prove is an occasional Friday feature, where a topic with both mystery and importance is posted for community discussion. The title is a shortened version of the Investigative Mantra: What do we think, what do we know, what can we prove? and everything from wild speculation to resource referencing fact is welcome here.

Yes, yes, I know I promised a look at the college by college numbers last week, and I meant it. But in the interim, I was contacted by somebody with a request to include the system-wide completion numbers from 2015 as soon as possible, numbers I didn’t have, but which the person provided for me (with assurances of their accuracy and the suggestion that they could be confirmed through Open Book). If you watched Chancellor Hyman’s speech to the Civic Club of Chicago, you saw a preview of these, but not the breakout by degrees (a breakout, which our Chancellor told us is just a tangle of “alphabet soup,” a rather flippant dismissal of one of our concerns, especially since it comes  RIGHT AFTER her telling the story about how her own AGS degree turned out not to have prepared her well for transfer! Amazing, again!! But I digress).

Suffice it to say that the numbers were interesting enough that I decided to delay my college-by-college account of changes in degree granting for a week (or two–I have a couple posts on “Merit Pay” that I’ve wanted to do for awhile now) to give another look at the system-wide completion numbers with our most recent year included. Here they are (click on the chart to make it bigger):

Degrees--System (2015)The numbers are astonishing. AA degrees increased almost 40% last year alone, while AS degrees more than doubled! AGS degrees are still much larger than they used to be, but down 17.4% from last year. So what happened? Something must be working…I don’t see how it could be the Pathways since they’re minimally rolled out at this point. Can’t be “Campus Solutions” Course Planner, since that just rolled out last spring. So…what the hell? I know I’m supposed to just clap and say, “Good job, everybody!” but it seems rather strange, doesn’t it? I mean, it feels kind of “Enron-y” doesn’t it? What am I missing?

I would be curious to see how many of these graduations were of students who were enrolled in 2014-2015 (and how many were students whose completion was a function of having completion credits reverse transferred from the school they transferred to. I wish I could take a survey of the recipients and find out how many were surprised to find out that they’d earned a CCC degree. Maybe none. Maybe lots?

And, per Anthony’s point (in the comments on my last week’s post) the increase probably has something to do with the huge enrollment spike we had during and over the couple years following the Great Recession of 2008. I also wonder how many of these students benefited from the relaxation of the home campus requirement to just 15 hours (when was that changed, 2014? I’m too lazy to look). But even with all of that, 575 AS degrees? I didn’t see that coming. It’ll be interesting to see what the school to school breakout is on those.

Anyway, there it is–a surprising set of numbers. What do you think? What do you know? What can you prove?

The Chancellor’s Address (Yesterday) to the City Club of Chicago

In which, the Mayor reminds everyone of what a terrible job we were doing educating a student he met in 2011 (based on pretty much nothing other than his own sense of things and our graduation rate) before announcing the new Start Scholarship partnerships with 4-year schools and offering an easy, but fallacious, equivocation between improved completion rates and “improved educational quality,” before introducing the Chancellor who announces our “preliminary” (but impressive) numbers for 2015, explains the strategies of reinvention, and engages with various criticisms of Reinvention and ‘Consolidation’ using textbook examples of various fallacies including:

~”Straw Person” (26:00–has anyone made the claim that “students don’t travel out of their neighborhoods to attend one of the City Colleges”? I don’t think that’s the point that’s been made in various critiques of consolidation. That’s obviously false. The question/doubt is about whether Child Development students will travel to Truman, which is a very different question);

~”False Dichotomy” (at one point the Chancellor says that to help students out of poverty, we must choose to provide “quality over proximity” as if the two were suddenly mutually exclusive? Can’t we provide both? If not, somebody should tell Starbucks that their business model is deeply flawed);

~and more (How many can you find?) before building to a final argument that  manages to take credit for student success on account of changes and supports that have resulted from Reinvention while deriding critics for their calls for various forms of student support. Because students need to learn the lessons of tough love. They have to want it, be hungry and make it work. So, people who provide things for students that they need are “innovative” while people who criticize those plans or ask for other kinds of supports are excuse-makers. I should try this with my classes. “I have provided you with everything you need. If you say you need more than or other than what I have provided you, I will know you are a whining excuse maker. Toughen up! It’s true that I have provided you with no textbook, but I needed no textbook and so it can be done. Make it work.”


My favorite quote? Speaking of Mayor Emanuel, the Chancellor says, “Neither of us have time for complicated deliberations when decisive action is required.” (13:55). That made me laugh out loud. In truth, this Chancellor and her Reinvention have accomplished many good things; our Student Services were a MESS for years after decades of neglect and administrative impairment, and they are much improved (or at least much expanded and much more attended to). They have some significant evidence of achievement, it’s true. It is, perhaps, too much to ask that a little intellectual honesty be invited along for the ride down victory lane. Anyway, you should watch this:

Website Wednesday: Models and Data

Website Wednesday is a (mostly) weekly feature in which we highlight one (or a couple) of sites from the Billions floating around the Intertoobz that just might help you with your Herculean task of educating inquiring minds. Any and all suggestions for future editions are welcome.

Here in week 7 of our semester, I’m a little less far behind than usual for some reason, but a little further behind than I was last week owing to a cold and so I didn’t have enough time to put up the post I’d planned (maybe next week!). Instead, in keeping with Kamran’s theme, I offer you three gifts:

~a truly great (and short) read called, “The Deception that Lurks in Our Data-Driven World,” that includes stories about bathroom scales, the German “Normalbaum” disaster that ensued from human efforts to make an unruly ecosystem easier to quantify and an overabundance of faith in their understanding of they system they were quantifying, and the sentence “Raw data is an oxymoron;”

~an even shorter, quicker read on one example of what happens when a model (even a good one) is mistaken for reality; and

~this fun, heretical presentation on “Big Data” (you can skim through the slides and summarizing text by clicking HERE if you don’t have time for the video):


And when you’re done, go read Kamran’s piece…

Non-Measurable Mondays: The Promise of Measurables and the Illusion of Competence

Non-Measurable Mondays is a weekly feature for the Fall 2015 semester, featuring stories and essays on modes of student success that cannot be grasped by data. We are seeking submissions for the full semester, which can be sent to me at For more details, see the original post here.

One of the many stories of Socrates involved the notion that he claimed he “knew nothing” while the gods claimed he was “the wisest person in the world.” “But how could this be,” he asked, “since wisdom is a sort of knowledge?” He took this as a riddle, and if the gods give you a riddle, by gum, you’d better solve it. Perhaps you know the story (Plato’s Apology, sections 20d-23b), but the great lesson he learned was that wisdom is a special sort of knowledge: it is knowing what one knows, and knowing what one doesn’t know. It is understanding the shore between one’s knowledge and one’s ignorance, and recognizing that all too often, that which appears to be sure, confident, complete knowledge, is but the illusion of knowledge: a competence in some things, but an incomplete competence.

Before I go on, I would like to start my first Non-Measurable Monday to thank our previous authors: Phil, Dave, Erica, Kristen, and Jennifer, NMM has been more successful and beautiful than I had dared hope. Indeed, what we’ve seen are just the smallest of samplings of that which goes “unmeasured.” The deep and complex lives of our students, their successes, challenges, and failures, and the relationship between professor and student, and student and student, is our subject matter. Data can paint a picture: it can create a model that allows for a rational analysis of what education and success are. But these models are, thus far, fantastically thin in comparison to the richness and depth of the world they strive to model. For the next few Non-Measurable Monday posts, we’re going to look at the notion of data itself: its promise, its hope, and its limitations.

Today’s post is a meta post. It may seem excessively academic or pretentious, but I believe that a look at the history of science, its successes, hopes, and severe limitations, can teach us something valuable about how we deal with data.

For me, one of the most astonishing and captivating stories has been the story of the history of science, because it is the story of the best forms of knowledge, confidently advancing and growing, facing the limitations of their measurements without ever knowing it.


Think, Know, Prove: Statistics I Want to Be Proud Of

Think, Know, Prove is an occasional Friday feature, where a topic with both mystery and importance is posted for community discussion. The title is a shortened version of the Investigative Mantra: What do we think, what do we know, what can we prove? and everything from wild speculation to resource referencing fact is welcome here.

So a while back, over a holiday break, I put together some numbers to try to put the lie to some suspicions that I held about Reinvention and the growth in degrees. I put it all together and then put it all up in one post and, frankly, think that it was so many numbers and so many charts that only a handful of people actually read through any of it (thanks for being one, Jen Asimow, and John Hader, and Mike Davis!).

When I did it, I found that my guess about the types of degrees that were driving the increase was a little bit right and a little bit wrong. I had guessed that the number of Associates in Arts (A.A.) and Associates in Science (A.S.) degrees might have gone up slightly, but that the vast majority would be the result of increases in Associates in General Studies (A.G.S. degrees). What’s the difference? Well, if you know, you can skip down. But if you don’t, there’s a big difference. A.A., and A.S. degrees are our traditional transfer degrees. Students completing those degrees will have completed the “General Education Core Curriculum,” including English 101, 102, Speech, 3 Humanities, 3 Social Sciences, a Math, and Two Sciences (one with a lab). It’s true that the world of Higher Ed has changed a lot in recent years so that not all of those courses are requirements of Bachelors degrees at all (even most) schools these days, but it also remains true that students who complete those classes, especially those who were underserved or mis-served by their high schools benefit from the learning. Meanwhile, A.G.S. degrees are different in that they require a few less hours (60 instead of 62), but also in that they have much less in the way of requirements. Students only have to take English 101 (not 102 or speech), students have to take one humanities, not three, one science instead of two (and no lab is required), etc. In my early years at HWC, students were always steered toward the A.A or A.S., rather than toward the A.G.S. degree. It was a degree for low ambitions or low achievers, generally. There were, of course, exceptions, but typically students who got that degree were done with their schooling.

When I looked at the degree numbers, though, I was surprised at (and happy to find) the size of the increases in our A.A. and A.S. numbers, but they were there–significant and real. Unfortunately, I also found a rapid and troubling increase in the number of A.G.S. degrees granted, and I worried that we were passing students through a set of classes and handing them a degree that said they were ready to transfer when the degree itself did little (or not enough) to actually prepare students for the reality of their upper level classes. I worried that our students would be hurt by their lack of preparation due to the reduced rigors of the degree requirements (compared to the A.A./A.S.) and that our school reputation would be hurt by having a large pool of under-educated graduates walking around with degrees from Harold Washington, hurting our mission and all of our students who walked out with a “real” General Education degree. At the time I didn’t even know about the fact that students receiving a degree from us could no longer use financial aid with us, meaning that a student who receives an A.G.S. degree and then upon transferring finds out they need English 102 or a Fine Arts class or whatever is then paying out-of-pocket for everything they take with us because they have graduated. But now I do, and so I also worry about the students who have to pay a lot of money with us or a WHOLE lot of money at their transfer institution for a class that they could have taken with us on financial aid if they’d been put on a different degree track.

Today, it’s a few years later, and I find myself seeing the increase in degree numbers being touted in the first or second paragraph of nearly every article about the city colleges and in every response to faculty. Most often, it seems, they are invoked as justification for whatever plans are being made, and I get that. It’s a powerful hammer. Their aim, at least one of them, was to increase the number of completions, and they’ve done that (and significantly). Furthermore, I’ve been reluctant to put it under the microscope because I do not want to even appear (much less actually be) in the position of denigrating the achievements of our students, many of whom are proud of their degrees and accomplishments, no matter what sort, and rightly so. But those worries still nag. I brought it up in August in an email exchange with someone who told me later that he thought it was a kind of “red herring,” and that the A.G.S. degree is actually a good option for a lot of students who were having to take classes they didn’t need and suffering credit loss upon transfer. Also, it was suggested that the increase in A.G.S. degrees was in part due to students being defaulted into A.G.S. programs a few years back, and that it had since changed so that students were now defaulted into A.A. programs. It was even suggested that many of the students receiving A.G.S. degrees had actually completed the G.E.C.C. package of classes. What percentage? The person didn’t know, but promised to get back with that data point. (Ahem.)

Anyway, what do those numbers look like now? Well, I’m not going to make the same mistake of pushing everything at you all at once. Oh, no. Working like Plato, I’m going to let you see the big picture first and then take you through the individual cases one by one. So, here is the data for the district. What do you think? What do you know? What can you prove?

District Degree Data (Through 2014)

Three for Thursday

Here are three options for you to check out to see what’s going on in a discipline other than your own:

~Declining Student Resilience: An article from Psychology Today about the massive spike in recent years of student needs for psych services. I have MANY criticisms of our district office, but I cannot deny that they did a really great thing in establishing Wellness Centers across the colleges and putting Michael Russell in charge of all of them. I have not seen as much of the kinds of things discussed in this article as they report–perhaps our students are more resilient than the typical, traditional student?

~The Hit Charade: From The Atlantic, an eye–opening article for anyone interested in Pop Culture (or with kids who listen to a lot of Top-40) about how a handful of unknowns who are the architects of the ear candy that dominates the pop radio airwaves. Also has some interesting stuff about re-use, artistry, and the music market.

~What Does the Giraffe Say: Speaking of music hits from Scandinavians, it turns out that giraffes DO have something to say, though not quite as catchy as “Jacha, chacha, chacha, chow!”