Friday, September 12, 2008

the response to our letter from the President of Harvard

In response to my letter to Harvard and other foundations about their support for the controversial large-scale experiments in NYC and DC, being carried out by Roland Fryer, to pay students for test scores, good behavior and the like, I received the following email today:

From: Drew Faust []
Sent: Friday, September 12, 2008 10:24 AM
To: Leonie Haimson
Subject: RE: re paying for high test scores vs. reducing class size

Dear Ms. Haimson,

Thank you very much for your email and for taking the time to share your concerns with me. I appreciate your candor. I must tell you, however, that academic freedom on university campuses, which serves us all well, includes the freedom to express controversial views, with which others may disagree. The views held by Professor Fryer are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Harvard University.

With my best wishes,

Drew Faust

What do you think, folks? Does this response invoking academic freedom get Harvard off the hook? And what about allowing Fryer to evaluate his own experiment and not requiring an independent assessment of the results -- which is contrary to accepted practices and was not mentioned in her reply?


Anonymous said...

I think there are a few separate questions.

The easiest is that Harvard should not dictate how the experiment is evaluated. There's the academic freedom issue.

However, no reputable journal should publish it. But that implies a question directed elsewhere.

Finally, I don't quite understand from the original post, is Harvard funding this study, beyond supplying the professor's regular salary?

If it's just her salary, than they are right. But if there is additional funding that Harvard is supplying to support this work, then that element, that support, that's not covered by the academic freedom argument, and Harvard should be called specifically on that. And if that's what just happened, and I missed it, then yes, they are hiding behind academic freedom.


Mills said...

I guess it would be really disheartening to spend all this time writing letters and blog entries and protesting in order to promote a "reform" - class size reduction - that it turns out will only improve achievement to a minimal degree, and at the expense of all other reforms. I guess I can understand why you ignore evidence and research in the name of "common sense"; you'd hate to have your life's work rebuked by simple facts.

Leonie Haimson said...

Look, Mills -- don't know if you are the former "Socrates" or "Anonymous" -- as I've pointed out many times before, class size reduction is one of only a handful of evidence-based reforms that the federal dept. of education says that rigorous evidence have been proven to work.

Nothing that this administration has tried, by the way, is on the list.

mills said...

Sorry, Leonie, my last line should have read, "'d hate to have your life's work rebuked by simpletons."

skoolboy said...


I would have been quite surprised if Faust had responded in any other way. Universities typically are extremely reluctant to intervene in the choices that individual faculty make about what to study, although they do place bets on individuals who they believe will produce useful knowledge. The fact that Roland Fryer is a tenured full professor at Harvard demonstrates the institutional commitment. The university counts on the market -- funders and publishers -- to exercise a kind of quality control over what research is supported and published. And Fryer has clearly raised funds to carry out the project.

I'm on record that I think it's a bad idea for Fryer to be evaluating his own project, because it creates the appearance of a conflict of interest, which will undermine public confidence in whatever results are observed. But most universities judge conflicts of interest in research on the basis of the magnitude of the financial stake that a researcher might have in the outcome of the research (i.e., ownership of a company that stands to make a lot of money if a new artificial heart is found to be successful), and it's not evident that Fryer has a financial stake in his projects. (A personal stake, sure; as recently as last week, he was quoted as saying that money for grades would have "absolutely" helped him stay in school, and that he has "no doubts" that financial incentives are a way to combat the incentives that youth hanging out on the street have to fall into bad habits.)

Socrates said...


Someone seems to have posted under my name. Not surprising from a crowd (the excuse-making status quo crowd) that doesn't believe in accountability.

Class size has not been proven to work, no matter how many times you say it. You can't just repeat it over and over and make it true. If that worked, Sarah Palin would be competent, John McCain would be about change, and we'd be winning the Iraq War.

The evidence is mixed. You have to acknowledge that or you look like a fringe lunatic. Even studies that show a positive effect of lowering class size show only a very minor one. And class size reduction is way too expensive to pursue when we can expect only a minor impact, at the very best.

Look, like I said, I understand that it's hard to pin your entire reputation on one "reform" and then have that reform discredited. I understand that under such circumstances you feel like you need to find new ways to support your point, or obscure the real debate. I understand that the class size myth is a very believable legend that most people accept unquestioningly, so evidence is not usually necessary to win your point. But the problem is, to thinking adults, your arguments are transparent in their flimsiness. And I think you're a smart woman (we've actually met before, and I enjoyed our conversation very much, despite your misconceptions about the topic we discussed), so I've got to believe that your desire to avoid backtracking and admitting you were wrong just overpowers your intelligence.

Leonie Haimson said...

Listen, Socrates, (though it pains me to use such a pretentious pseudonym), class size reduction is one of only a handful of education reforms that has been proven to work through rigorous evidence, according to the US Dept. of Education -- hardly a left wing crowd, would you think?

Moreover, over 80% of teachers and principals think it is the most effective way to improve the quality of teaching. Is the US Dept. of Ed wrong? Are 80% of educators crazy?

As to the small effect, Alan Krueger of Princeton, former chief economist of the US Labor Dept. estimates that class size reduction would be expected to narrow the achievement gap by 38%. As to its expense, Krueger finds it would yield twice the economic benefits as costs.

Now who am I going to believe is a simpleton -- Alan Krueger, eminent economist at Princeton? the US Dept of Education? 80% of teachers and principals nationwide?

Or a man who refuses to reveal his identity -- even though he claims to have met me, says he enjoyed our conversation, and believes I am a "smart woman" (though I honestly don't care)?

I'll take the former anytime.

Socrates said...

The part of the pseudonym you no doubt most oppose is Socrates' emphasis on the examined life. But that's neither here nor there.

Are 80% of teachers crazy? No. But they're thinking from a teacher's perspective rather than a policy perspective.

You found one guy who has ESTIMATED class size reduction advantages in the face of data to the opposite effect and that's what you're pinning your ridiculous assertions on?