Friday, June 12, 2009

Gaming the Rankings

Last week, Clemson University researcher Catherine E. Watt presented the extensive efforts her university had taken in the last few years to raise its U.S. News & World Report ranking at the Association for Institutional Research. Clemson’s clearly stated goal is to make the U.S. News top 20 public research universities, and Watt was unusually frank about the many actions a college can take to increase its numbers for individual indicators. She stirred up the Clemson administration and other higher education worthies with her talk. Reports about her presentation were e-mailed at a great rate — we’re shocked, shocked that gaming is going on here!

It follows as the day does the night that any time substantial rewards are at stake as a result of measuring performance, those being evaluated will do their best to game the system. The greater the payoffs, the stronger the impetus to game.

Colleges and universities are no different from any other organizations competing for rankings developed from performance measurement. In Clemson’s case, the university president, James F. Barker, has made becoming a top-20 public research university a cornerstone of his presidency. His own performance in the form of a “report card” to the board of trustees ties university goals and progress to the U.S. News rankings. Many other university presidents are striving for the same goal. The 2005-2008 employment contract of Arizona State University president Michael M. Crow rewarded him with a $10,000 performance bonus if his school moved up the U.S. News rankings into the top 120. Changes in reporting, accounting, and practice have undoubtedly been undertaken across the country as presidents pursue the same goal of higher rankings.

Any performance measure is ripe to be gamed. The percentage of alumni giving is a measure worth 5 percent of a ranking in U.S. News. A few years ago, Albion College made its own stir in the higher education rankings world when it increased its percentage of alumni making donations with the stroke of a pen. As The Wall Street Journal reported, the college recorded a $30 donation from a graduating senior as a $6 alumnus gift for the next five years. Clemson, in its systematic approach to raising its rank — “no indicator, no method, no process off limits to create improvement,” as Watt stated — solicited alumni donations in such a way as to increase their giving rate: Alumni were encouraged to give as little as $5 annually.

Watt, according to reports, literally drew gasps from her audience when she revealed that when Clemson administrators fill out U.S. News reputational rankings survey, they rate other universities lower than Clemson across the board. Why not? Reputation accounts for fully 25 percent of a school’s ranking score. Watt’s statement that she was confident that other colleges do the same is perfectly plausible.

Inside Higher Ed reported Monday that the University of Southern California inflated the number of National Academy of Engineering members on its full-time, tenure-track faculty. Because the number of NAE faculty is a criterion for U.S. News rankings, USC has good reason to include NAE faculty who are not full-time or tenure-track.

If we step back from higher education, we will see the same dynamic of gaming a performance measurement system in many other spheres. Hospitals receive “report cards” that measure their performance in many areas, including their mortality rates. A little thought reveals the easiest way to improve the mortality rate is to keep terminally ill patients from being admitted to the hospital in the first place or discharge them prior to death. In fact these events do occur. Nonprofit hospitals receive large tax exemptions but are expected to provide charity care to indigent patients in return. Their substantial tax benefits are currently being scrutinized in the courts and in Congress, so hospitals are certainly scrambling to alter their accounting procedures to increase their charity care levels.

No one should be gasping at the notion that colleges and universities respond to the importance of the U.S. News rankings by making changes and manipulating their reporting of data. Some changes — such as decreasing class size or the faculty-student ratio — may be beneficial in the pursuit of improved education, while others only improve the rankings metrics.

The rankings matter to the colleges and universities! Boards of trustees want to see their institutions move up the ranks and put pressure on the president and the administrators to raise the ranking. As long as presidents are themselves being evaluated by their success in raising the rankings, the sorts of systematic gaming of the rankings undertaken at Clemson will continue.

A few colleges and universities have opted out of the U.S. News rankings system. But most will strive to get ahead in a tough economic time in a very competitive industry. Unfortunately colleges and universities will be spending their time and money on ranking gamesmanship instead of trying to improve education and research. Gaming the rankings system is here to stay.


Headmistress from hell still allowed to teach in Britain

A bullying headmistress spent ten minutes calmly finishing her lunch while a pupil lay in agony crying for help with a broken leg, a tribunal heard. Rowena Brace ignored pupils’ pleas for help and finished her sandwiches before phoning the child’s father instead of calling an ambulance.

Mrs Brace’s staff were often reduced to tears as they worked in the ‘climate of fear’ she created, it was claimed. She also behaved ‘inappropriately’ toward fellow teachers at her primary school and fiddled the school’s test results, a General Teaching Council tribunal in Birmingham heard.

Isobel Hollis, Mrs Brace’s former deputy at Hope Brook Church of England Primary School in Longhope, Gloucestershire, told the tribunal how pupils began knocking on the staff room door after the boy broke his leg on the football field in May 2005. ‘They said “quick, quick”, but Mrs Brace, 57, continued to eat her lunch and only left the staff room ten to 15 minutes later,’ she said. ‘The pupil was lying on the ground, pale and shaking and Mrs Brace said he wanted his dad to come, so she had not called for an ambulance.’

Naina Patel, representing Mrs Brace, asked: ‘If the situation was so obviously urgent, why didn’t you say something?’ Miss Hollis said the climate of fear in the school was such that she did not dare interfere and admitted to being scared of the headmistress.

Yesterday Mrs Brace was found guilty of unacceptable professional conduct and issued with a reprimand, the lowest sanction. It means she can resume teaching.

Earlier, Miss Hollis said the intimidation began during the first staff meeting after Hope Brook Primary and Hopes Hill Community Primary schools merged in 2001 and Mrs Brace was installed as head. ‘Mrs Brace dismissed anything else anyone had done in the past and told us all that it was going to be done her way in the future,’ said Miss Hollis. One of the teachers became so disillusioned with the new head she resigned later that day, it was claimed. The committee panel heard that bullying, shouting and door slamming was common and ‘it was a daily occurrence for one of the teachers to be reduced to tears’.

Mair Blackman, another teacher, told the hearing that Mrs Brace informed her she had downgraded pupils’ results in an assessment at ages three to five. ‘Mrs Brace told me she had downgraded the Foundation Stage Profile results and I was both shocked and dismayed. 'If FSP results are low and then Key Stage One (ages five to seven) results are normal a year later, that makes the school sound fantastic.' When asked why she said nothing to the school governors, Miss Blackman said: 'There was such an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that I would not have dared say anything.'

Mrs Brace was suspended in 2006 and sacked in 2007 after complaints from fellow staff and parents.

The tribunal found one complaint of bullying was proved – but four were dismissed. Mrs Brace was also proved to have altered test scores and allowed pupils extra time to finish SATS test after a disturbance outside a classroom. The most serious complaint, that a child who broke his leg was left in pain while she finished lunch, was proven. However, the tribunal ruled her actions were not malicious but ‘errors of judgement’. Mrs Brace said she would seek a new teaching post ‘as soon as possible’.


Australia: Bus driver dumps school children at shopping centre in high-risk area instead of taking them home

It's now a fortnight later so has he been fired or prosecuted? No: Just "counselled"!!! Maybe he is a Muslim. They can do no wrong

A BUSLOAD of school children, some as young as seven, were dumped at a shopping centre and told to make their own way home because the driver was running late, The Daily Telegraph reports. The distraught children were dropped about 1.5km from their stop after the driver took the wrong route and then abandoned them in Blacktown - a suburb with one of Sydney's highest crime rates. "I'm running late, you all have to get off," he told the children before dropping them at busy Westpoint Shopping Centre.

Sandra Barber's children Luke, 7, and Jessica, 11, who were on the bus, had no way of contacting their parents. Mrs Barber said her children and two other frantic primary students were helped by a group of high school girls from Nagle College who were also on the bus. The girls gave them money to use a pay phone to contact their parents.

The children asked some police officers where the nearest phone was and when the officers learned why they were alone they took them to Blacktown police station and rang their parents.

Busways has failed to explain the May 28 incident to the Barbers and is now in the firing line of the Ministry of Transport for failing to report the breach until The Daily Telegraph made inquiries yesterday. About 25 children regularly catch the bus but a Busways spokeswoman refused to reveal how many were dumped as "management might not want that released".

"It was horrifying," Mrs Barber said yesterday. "When I got to the police station my son got very upset when he saw me. It hit my daughter later. She got very upset. "The bus was late, then it went a different way and the kids started getting worried. "One of the Nagle girls went to speak to the driver and he totally ignored them."

Local MP Paul Gibson said Busways' failure to deliver the children safely to their stops was abysmal and its claim there was a "miscommunication" was a poor excuse. "It is absolutely abysmal that something like that can happen, particularly when this company is being subsidised by the taxpayer," Mr Gibson said. "Anything could have happened, in this day and age, when you leave little kids and drop them off at a shopping centre without parents or anyone looking after them."

Transport Minister David Campbell wrote to Busways outlining two breaches of their obligations. The Busways spokeswoman conceded that the bus was late arriving at the school and apologised to parents, saying the driver had been counselled. She said that managers "suspected that a miscommunication was the cause of the incident".


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