23.10.11

ZEPHYR ENVY.

A recent Instavision program, "Harvard Envy: How the Quest for University Prestige is Feeding the Education Bubble," is really only peripherally about Harvard Envy.  The general themes of the piece include competition for students in the form of amenities such as food courts, climbing walls, and boutique majors and competition for professors in the form of research opportunities and higher salaries.  The competition for students is not equivalent to a competition for prestige, as those amenities might be a way of boosting enrollment at subprime party schools (if such a category exists).  The competition for professors keeps some of us from a life of poverty (chastity and obedience also optional) and it might -- at Cold Spring Shops, the maintained hypothesis is it does -- provide opportunities for students not fortunate enough or favored enough to enroll at the Ivies.  The dean at Anonymous Community also questions the Harvard envy, albeit for different reasons.
The great value of [The Innovative University, by Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring] is in showing how mindless emulation of the Harvard model -- a model that even Harvard has often struggled to maintain -- is a fool’s errand. It’s certainly true that different institutions have different strengths and missions, and that it’s better to do what you do well than to try to be someone else. Compass Direction State University will never be able to replicate Harvard in all that it does, and it would be foolish to try. Instead, it should figure out what it can do really well, and focus on that. Similarly, I’ve been arguing on this blog for years that the “comprehensive community college” model is ripe for rethinking. Nobody can be good at everything. Better to have as much diversity among institutions as within them.
On the other hand, Compass Direction State is in the same business as Harvard, and it might do better by emulating the more famous institutions, if for no other reason than some of the students enrolled are good enough, if neither fortunate enough nor favored enough, to be enrolled there.  A post a few days later shudders at the prospect of a tradeoff, but on the other hand, it recognizes the presence of a tradeoff.
Parents care more about their own kids’ schools than about other schools, so if we can enlist politically and economically influential parents, we can get some of that sweet, sweet funding.
True enough, and Tiebout competition among districts suggests some clustering of influence.  But ambition is present in quarters where influence is missing.
I’ll say, too, that I’m a fan of Honors courses and curricula at community colleges. That’s not a universally popular sentiment. But I like them because they acknowledge that the higher-achieving, more ambitious students are also part of the community, and because they acknowledge that income is not a perfect indicator of academic ability or drive. The intelligent, driven student from a single-parent family deserves the same shot as everybody else. 
It follows, however, that intelligent and driven students ought to get a fair go, rather than to be held back in order to pretend that everyone else also gets a fair go.  Here's Jay Mathews on what happens when a Maryland school district pretends that everyone is getting an Advanced Placement course.
Karen Colburn, who has a seventh-grader at Central Middle School in Edgewater, said her advanced-track son found himself in mixed math and English classes slowed to a crawl so non-honors students could catch up. “Kids are repeating things they learned in elementary school,” Colburn said. “Also, supports are not in place for special education children and some standard-level children.”
The same thing happens when a university lowers its admission standards, and mixes less-prepared students in with more-prepared students. Everybody gets dragged down.

And it is a strategic error to decide that, since Harvard got there first, and Compass Direction State can't hope to replicate Harvard, there's no point in doing something similar.  Imagine if The Milwaukee Road had decided that Burlington's Zephyrs got to the Twin Cities first, and The Milwaukee Road couldn't hope to replicate the Zephyrs, there'd be no point in doing something similar.


Nothing faster in the world. In some ways, it was a technological step backwards from the Zephyr.  In other ways, it was a step forward.  The generalization to higher education is left to the reader as an exercise.

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