February
21st 2011
Fix higher ed in eight easy steps! (Free nutritious recipes included.)

Posted under: American history, bad language, jobs, students

Nutritious yet slimming!

Really!  And here they are, according to yesterday’s Washington Post:  “1. Measure student learning | 2. End merit aid | 3. Three-year degrees | 4. Core curriculum | 5. More homework | 6. Encourage completion | 7. Cap athletic subsidies | 8. Rethink remediation.”  You can read the article soup-to-nuts as I did by starting here, if you like.  There are some good ideas in there, but all together they’re kind of a nightmare jello mashup of epic proportions.

Here are my responses in brief to all of these suggestions:

  1. Because standardized high-stakes testing has worked so brilliantly at the K-12 level?  Let’s just strangle this one in its crib unless and until we get some evidence that more testing = more education.
  2. Sounds great!  But it’s never going to happen.  Merit aid is the fruit of the perfect marriage of plutocracy and meritocracy that characterizes American higher education, and the kinds of institutions that offer substantial merit aid have plenty of coin to throw around and plenty of other students lining up to pay the (resulting) inflated tuition price.  As it turns out, if you’re the graduate of an elite institution, you can actually eat prestige
  3. I think there’s room for 3-year degrees, but the examples here are just degree speed-up programs that rely on AP credit and summer courses.  These are 4-year degrees earned in 3 years, and that’s something students can do already.  They don’t need some dumb committee and the marketing department to come up with the plan–they can just talk to their advisors.
  4. Why not?  But it’s going to cost money to staff all of those core humanities and science classes, and it will be impossible to put a quality core knowledge program into a 3-year degree program.
  5. Absolutely!  Bring it.  (Mind you, this might interfere mightily with idea #3!  And like #4, it’s going to cost money!
  6. As though colleges and universities don’t encourage completion?  We’re speaking here of good-faith public and private non-profit colleges and universities, of course.  For-profit unis are just instruments for sucking up public dollars and discarding the students they “educate.”  So, yeah:  bring it. 
  7. Hellz to the yes, babies!  Make all sports self-funded club sports.  Let the men’s basketball team sell danishes and coffee outside the Dean’s office on winter mornings just like the German club if they need gas money to get to their next game.
  8. This appears to apply more to community colleges, so I have no basis for an opinion on remediation.  However, I am highly skeptical that students who need remediation will be well served by computer modules instead of contact with live human instructors.  (That’s just my guess!)

I’d like to add a #9 of my own here:  Government reinvestment in higher education.  We used to understand that this was a matter of national security as well as of national pride.  No one has ever pointed convincingly to any disadvantages of having a better-educated citizenry or workforce.  How about let’s make a collective commitment for state and federal education funding at responsible and appropriate levels given the excellent work that universities do and given how much individual states and the federal government lean on these engines of innovation and job creation?

Why wasn’t that idea number f^(king one?  (And where are the nutritious recipes?)  Do any of you have direct experience of knowledge of any attempts at implementing these ideas?  Inquiring minds want to know!

64 Comments »

64 Responses to “Fix higher ed in eight easy steps! (Free nutritious recipes included.)”

  1. rustonite on 21 Feb 2011 at 9:20 am #

    I don’t understand the recent obsession with three year degrees. Is it because the EU will universally have them when the Bologna process is finished? Do people not understand that undergraduate education over there is a completely different animal?

  2. Indyanna on 21 Feb 2011 at 9:25 am #

    a) drop football b) massive “quality of life” bust programs for the on-street alcohol-driven incidents that dot the “police blotter” sections of school newspapers (Jed from Ashtabula peeing-on-the-tree kind of stuff) and extending this to the permanent closure of bars that rack up substantial violations c) I know, I know, they’d drink somewhere else, but d) expulsions when necessary for behavioral misconduct e) “encourage completion”–how f^(king dumb, but love to agree with SOMEthing here f) grow libraries with money diverted from football g) keep libraries–and student “union” buildings–open 24/7 h) throw federal money at problems: “bricks-and-mortar” is NOT “not the solution” h) encourage immortality and morality.

  3. Comrade PhysioProf on 21 Feb 2011 at 9:36 am #

    For the love of godde, please tell me those aren’t fucken olives in that motherfucken jello molde!

  4. Dr. Crazy on 21 Feb 2011 at 9:36 am #

    Regarding #1, I think the problem is that many equate “objective measures of student learning” with “standardized tests” that produce quantifiable results. Now, as I see it, there are some entirely legitimate reasons for that: 1) (and this relates to your #9) standardized tests are (relatively speaking) cheap to implement, both in terms of manpower and in terms of actual dollars, and 2) (and I think this is most important) they address a lowest common denominator that a wide range of constituencies can purport to understand.

    Let me say more about #2. What I mean here is that the benefit of a standardized test is that even if one is not an “expert” in the learning outcome being evaluated, one can bean-count about how many students successfully answered the question. 97% of students answered A, the right answer, on question 7. That means that we are successfully teaching question 7, even if I, personally, don’t understand what question 7 is asking, or if we don’t know how students arrived at that answer. We can then report that to our accrediting agency, to the state, to the general public, and everybody understands that we are “succeeding” at question 7. The effect of this is it divorces understanding of student learning from any sort of expertise (devaluing what actually happens in college classrooms and the training of faculty) and reduces student learning to a quantifiable statistic, as if “quantifiable” equals objective. Basically, it takes any sort of critical thinking out of how we understand whether “education” is working or not. Because even though we’re supposed to be *teaching students* how to think critically, critical thinking isn’t actually efficient for our own purposes, nor is it “objective.”

    We’re at work on assessment stuff at my institution right now, and there actually *are* assessment practices and tools that do a better job than standardized tests. The problem, however, is that such practices and tools constitute a huge increase in workload for tenure-line faculty, faculty who are already overburdened because of the casualization of most of the academic workforce. So how to negotiate a desire (and I’d say most faculty would have this desire) for *meaningful* assessment with increasingly scarce resources? How do we let *experts in the field* (faculty) drive the process, or facilitate them doing so, when there is no compensation for the added labor or reward to the institution for doing more than implementing a standardized test?

    I have no answers here, but all of these questions take us back to your #9.

  5. Shelley on 21 Feb 2011 at 10:10 am #

    Just a reminder that every time Michelle Rhee and such organizations are mentioned, we should also mention the mega-corporate funding behind such efforts. Unions are the last of the big-money donors that help the Democrats as much as the giant corporations help the Republicans. So the Republicans are union-busting (e.g. Wisconsin).

  6. Liz on 21 Feb 2011 at 10:25 am #

    I do institutional research as part of my lovely job – that is, I do research for LOTS of different types/sizes/shapes of higher ed and primary/secondary ed institutions, as well as cross-institutional studies. Love the ideas here (commentary especially)! One thing that could be difficult for “encouraging completion” is the ubiquity of “transfer schools” – institutions that students attend to get their partying out before transferring to a “better” school to complete their degree. How would you account for that in #6? It seems you’d need an individual-level measurement, which is not cheap and wouldn’t be effective for most institutions – unless they followed up with former students/non-completers… but again, that’s not cheap.

    Also, on a personal note, I’d support the three-year degree option. I double-majored in three years thanks to IB/AP credits, and know of others who did similar because of AP or dual-enrollment at community colleges. The cost savings I got from “skipping a year” of university, let’s say about $15-20K, left me able to pay back the debt I did incur pursuing my degree even while living on a subsistence income. (Thank you, Recession.) It is likely that we can incorporate community colleges into education (which would, effectively, mimic the “college” system of many other countries) to allow for three-year degrees on a more systemic basis than the AP/IB/dual enrollment route that only go-getters currently pursue. Of course, it’s not the whole solution, but it’s a provocative thought!

  7. quixote on 21 Feb 2011 at 10:43 am #

    (Comrade PhysioProf, if those aren’t olive, I think we don’t want to know what they are.)

  8. JackDanielsBlack on 21 Feb 2011 at 10:58 am #

    For many disciplines, it seems to me we already have standardized tests — they’re called Graduate Record Exams. Perhaps we could require all seniors majoring in covered areas to take the GRE and achieve a certain mimimum score in order to graduate with a major in that discipline. Historiann, do you support the use of GREs as a means of assessing students’ readiness for graduate programs?

    I for one would be happy if we just required potential graduates to demonstrate that they can write an intelligible grammatical paragraph or two on some assigned topic. Apparently many cannot. In fact, I have known professors who cannot!

  9. quixote on 21 Feb 2011 at 11:11 am #

    Everything is about #9. In education, you don’t get what you pay for. If you pay too little, you don’t get cheap education. You get ignorance, which is hideously expensive.

    As for 3-year degrees and core curriculum and remediation: forget the teacher side for now and think about the students. High schools are just trying to survive NCLB, so students are receiving passes and graduating who barely know how to read, let alone write. The first two years of college at non-selective schools are remedial classes for many students.

    If you sit them down in front of a computer for that remedial work, they’ll be updating FB in seconds. School work is beyond boring to them. That’s why they need handholding. And it is handholding. Pointing them at material and saying, “Go for it” will work as well as putting a mechanic among some eggs, flour and chocolate and saying, “Make brownies.”

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that when the students coming in are at about a ninth grade equivalency, saying you want them to learn lots in a core curriculum and to do it fast is magical thinking.

    Via Krugman, this reminds me of the Disappearing Zonkers Trick:

    After putting on your magician’s outfit, look around the house for a handkerchief, two hard boiled eggs, and a small piece of radium. Then take seven Zonkers and place them neatly into the exact center of the handkerchief. Two eggs are arranged near each other and under your hands. Tie a half-hitch knot in the radium. Then make the seven Zonkers disappear. Your friends will be amazed.

  10. Tom on 21 Feb 2011 at 11:30 am #

    On Advanced Placement: I was the first person at my high school (this was the early 80s) ever to take an AP test, and it let me place out of one semester of Calculus at college.

    But encouraging more and more of that means, of course, more coursework taught by teachers whose degree is often not a terminal degree in the field in question. Nothing against High School AP teachers, who have real reasons and incentives for offering such courses: but encouraging three year degrees is another way in which college instruction is “casualized” and shifted off the tenure track.

  11. Feminist Avatar on 21 Feb 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    On the more serious question of what is in the jelly- I reckon its grapes- a terrible waste of good jelly.

  12. Perpetua on 21 Feb 2011 at 12:12 pm #

    And to add to what Tom said, above, AP is of course a *for-profit* venture. So not only do lower-functioning high schools not offer such courses (or not as many as elite high schools), one has to pay a tidy little sum for the privilege. Of course college credit isn’t free either, and perhaps one could argue that all in all paying the AP gods their chunk is cheaper than the uni, but I’m not in favor of encouraging the advancement of any for-profit part of the educational industrial complex.

    On the more general issue of 3 versus 4 years, I don’t know anything about the history of universities in the modern era – how did TPTB decide that four years was the magic number? Is there any pedagogical intelligence to the structure?

  13. nemo52 on 21 Feb 2011 at 12:17 pm #

    The three – year diplomas are becoming popular among students and parents as a way of cutting a year off tuition costs. And colleges are now promoting this as a way to get at least those three years of tuition.

  14. Dr. Crazy on 21 Feb 2011 at 12:19 pm #

    JDB, at least in my field (English), my sense is that a student’s score on the GRE subject test (in literature) means almost nothing in terms of whether that student is suited to or prepared for graduate work, and it has little bearing in final decisions about who is admitted into PhD programs in the field. The GRE score may be used by the graduate school in question to weed out applications below a certain cut-off point, or it may come into play in choosing between two otherwise equal candidates, but the single-most important determining factor about whether a student gets into or will be successful in a graduate program in English is his or her writing sample. We need to know how the student can write and think, not that they have memorized who Mrs. Ramsay is and what she served for dinner.

    I’d also say that the GRE wouldn’t really serve the purpose of evaluating whether a student had achieved all of the learning outcomes of an undergraduate major in English, which encompass skills and content areas beyond the study of literature.

    Tests may work well in some fields to evaluate whether learning outcomes are achieved, but I don’t think testing is an adequate approach in many disciplines.

  15. Comrade PhysioProf on 21 Feb 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    On the more serious question of what is in the jelly- I reckon its grapes- a terrible waste of good jelly.

    I’ve been obsessively staring at that fucken molde. My conclusion is that there are slices of pimento-stuffed green olives in a circle around the top of the fucker, and the weird green things suspended in the bottom part are motherfucken lima beans.

  16. Susan on 21 Feb 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    Just to note that one reason students are doing less homework is that they are working more hours, because there is less financial aid, and people want to lower their loans, especially if they are older students or from poor families. So Historiann’s 9 serves both 5 and 6.

  17. Comrade PhysioProf on 21 Feb 2011 at 1:21 pm #

    ZOMFG!!! It *IS* lima beans!!! AUUUGGHHHH!!!!!!!

    http://momgrind.com/2008/07/15/lima-bins-in-gelatin-mmmm-tasty-wordless-wednesday/

  18. Feminist Avatar on 21 Feb 2011 at 1:29 pm #

    Dude! It turns out that there is a whole salad in jello fetish- http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2009/09/20/jell-o-for-salads/

    I now forgive my mother for making me eat carnation jelly- I never knew it could get so much worse.

  19. JackDanielsBlack on 21 Feb 2011 at 1:31 pm #

    Dr. Crazy, I guess you raise the purpose of getting an undergraduate degree in English. Is it to teach the mechanics of writing? I would hope the student would know that going in, but obviously many do not. If English is glorified technical writing for the humanities, then you could take a writing sample going in and take a writing sample coming out and evaluate the student and his teacher on the difference.

    However, having gotten a graduate degree in English literature (among other things) myself, I would hope the undergraduate would be taught more than effective composition. I remember that when I took the GRE in English (many years ago to be sure) it included questions that required appreciation of an author’s style as well as judgment — for example, was a made-up example poem more likely to have been written by author X or author Y. Of course, it also included a lot of info that could be gleaned from OHEL or CHEL — sort of “history of English literature” material, but I see nothing wrong with that. What I do object to is requiring folks to see literature through the lens of another discipline — be it psychoanalysis, Marxism, or feminism. In any case, one advantage of trying to measure the learning that occurs (in addition to the obvious one of satisfying consumers that they are getting value for their tuition money) is that it forces folks to think through issues such as these.

  20. Tom on 21 Feb 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    Perhaps this has already been covered, but while we’re cross-comparing numbers from the list, I’ll suggest that #4 (re-centralize core curriculum) almost surely means that we can’t do #1 (measure student learning). The core curriculum is at the very heart of a “liberal” education, and its central goal has never been a matter of a measurable outcome, but an intangible. To the degree that college gives students intangible benefits, some (or all) important parts of “student learning” cannot really be measured.

    The focus on measurable outcomes denies the very possibility that an intangible outcome might be a valuable one.

  21. Indyanna on 21 Feb 2011 at 2:27 pm #

    Second what Tom says. One hates to sound like a Bushie, even in a remote rhetorical sense, but in a lot of ways liberal education from the outset has been the ultimate sort of “faith based initiative,” in that an individual’s immersion in it has been at best loosely correlated with the subjective observation that the same person came to behave in a more culturally competent or effective way over time. The assumption underlying that subjective belief is what’s really under attack by the metrics and measurement mob. Hard to give good powerpoint, webinar, or “breakout” around subjective correlations.

    Until somebody actually shows how the “exit-interview” type of data collection known as outcomes assessment allows us to reliably predict which people will and/or will not be able to “act like educated persons” behaviorally and judgementally years later, assessment is still pretty much a dog-and-pony show. Even if we use the arguably “better” and much more costly tools and practices that Dr. Crazy alludes to pretty far upthread. This is why I say the best assessment “instrument” is still the obituary, although of course this drives the reform lobby nuts. How can you fire (or, for that matter, hire) people when they’re already dead?

  22. JackDanielsBlack on 21 Feb 2011 at 2:49 pm #

    Contra Tom and Indyanna, accountability is here. If I were you, I would be figuring out how to get ahead of the game by proposing measurements I could live with, rather than calling it irrelevant and hoping for the best. Just sayin’…

  23. Comrade PhysioProf on 21 Feb 2011 at 3:11 pm #

    JackDanielsBlack is not here to engage in good faith.

  24. koshem Bos on 21 Feb 2011 at 3:32 pm #

    1. Measure student learning – we already do it in the marketplace (government, academia and private sector). Artificial measures are garbage.

    2. End merit aid – why? When you do well everywhere else you enjoy “bonuses.”

    3. Three-year degrees – I got my BS in math in 3 years because we studied ONLY math for 3 years. With general studies, forming foundation and lab work, the current average student needs 4 years. This idea is particularly either stupid or conniving (attempting to dictate academic goals).

    4. Core curriculum – most programs have it. Core material differs widely; engineering need math, physic and chemistry, biologist have different needs and historian are different than the previous two.

    5. More homework – this is an idea of a person with an IQ 80. Homework is not magic; what matters is the kind of work you do. Make homework creative and analytic is the way to go more is meaningless.

    6. Encourage completion – that one is funny as if we don’t already do it.

    7. Cap athletic subsidies – has nothing to do with the topic.

    8. Rethink remediation – what?

    My suggestion is that reporters and other such professionals concentrate on doing their run of the mill jobs better; currently all they do is comment and reporting inaccurately and falsely.

  25. JackDanielsBlack on 21 Feb 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    JackDanielsBlack is not here to engage in good faith.

    No, CPP, he’s here to engage in the topic of discussion — and that ain’t lima beans!

  26. thefrogprincess on 21 Feb 2011 at 4:22 pm #

    Not much to add, other than without merit aid, I wouldn’t have been able to get a college education. So I’m a little less keen than you all to see it go, unless tuition, fees, and room & board suddenly drops to a few thousand a year.

  27. Canuck Down South on 21 Feb 2011 at 5:26 pm #

    On Advanced Placement–anecdote alert: when I was in high school in Canada, AP was just coming in as an option–and that meant taking the exams with no preparation, not being taught an entire AP-based course. While, because of other requirements in Canada, everyone passed the AP exam (I’ve noticed that my Canadian public school gave me a more solid reading foundation than my students have, and most of them are coming out of fancy American private schools–I doubt I have any students who come out of schools like this: http://www.detnews.com/article/20110221/SCHOOLS/102210355/Michigan-orders-DPS-to-make-huge-cuts). When in my first year of college I then took 200-level English instead of 100-level English, I really struggled. As a result of this experience, I now advise everyone to take the 100-level courses, no matter what AP stuff they may have done in high school (IB is better, from what I hear). Basically, this is a very roundabout way of saying that I don’t think the 3-year model, if it’s dependent upon AP-type courses, is going to aid many students, as they’ll just be hitting upper-level courses before they have the skills or knowledge for them.

  28. quixote on 21 Feb 2011 at 6:00 pm #

    Okay, JDBlack. Engagement, you want. You say “…accountability is here. … get ahead of the game by proposing measurements I could live with….”

    Because that’s worked so well at the K-12 level. They went along to get along on the whole NCLB BS and now they have real curricula and small class sizes and enough staffing so that teachers aren’t working unpaid overtime and large enough budgets so they’re not buying school supplies out of their own meager salaries. Not.

    There are no measurements anyone of integrity can live with because good teaching and good learning are not a finite, measurable quantity.

    Playing along is, as one of my colleagues said, like feeding ex-boyfriends or stray cats to make them go away. It’s not going to work.

  29. Western Dave on 21 Feb 2011 at 7:07 pm #

    AP only works, top the extent that it does, because it relies on basically free labor to grade the tests. The con teachers into coming by telling them it’s a)prestigious and b) you can’t really prepare your students for the exam until you see it graded. Yet you still get abominations like “From 1450 on” not being counted as accurately representing the time period “From 1450 to the present” in determining whether a student could get credit for the thesis. I don’t see anything in that model that can be widely adapted to colleges. I had to endure exit exams by outside examiners at my college, a trade for not getting grades in my major and minor my junior and senior year. Again, this is doable for 60 or 80 kids a year at a well-funded SLAC, can’t imagine how it would work at a Big 10.

  30. dean dad on 21 Feb 2011 at 7:42 pm #

    There’s a lot here, but I’m perplexed by your treatment of point one.

    I think you’ve oversimplified it — it’s not just about “more testing” — but never mind that. That’s too easy. The point I’m perplexed by is your call for ‘evidence.’ What would you count as ‘evidence’ one way or the other? What would you find persuasive?

    I don’t mean that to be snarky or hostile; it’s an honest question. If measurement is out of the question, then is evidence also out of the question? If not, what evidence do you have in mind? Put differently, how do you know a good teaching college when you see one?

  31. Z on 21 Feb 2011 at 8:01 pm #

    Dean Dad – all the ways one knew them until this form of assessment was added. What kinds of classes are offered? What is the quality of the faculty? What other programs are there besides classes? Do students transfer to good four year institutions and do well? Do other students, in two year programs designed to prepare them for trades / careers, actually get these? Etc.

    We’ve got assessment at my place and it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. And there are grades and papers and things. We’d actually be better off tracking progress in life of our students, keeping up with them, etc., the way they do at SLACs.

    It also occurs to me: people are worried about assessment at the same time as they are adjunctifying. I guess it’s true, you hire someone off the street and throw them into a classroom, you give people a whole degree taught by people hired and fired that way, you may wonder what you’re actually having these people taught. Having a faculty instead of a set of casual laborers is more practical in this way.

  32. Dr. Crazy on 21 Feb 2011 at 8:10 pm #

    DD – I’m not going to speak for Historiann here, or to your first paragraph, but as to your comment about “measurement” being out: What I’d say (just for me) is that *measurement* is not out of the question. I’d say that *measurement* does not equal *testing.* I don’t think assessment in itself is an evil, and (bizarrely) I actually agree with Jack Daniels Black that it’s here, and we need to get ahead of the game by proposing instruments and ways of measuring outcomes that make sense. I don’t think assessment has to be a bad thing, which puts me at odds with many commenters here, and many colleagues at my own institution. What matters to me is that we “measure” according to the values of the disciplines being measured and that we assess through the expertise of people with PhDs not in assessment (or other ed variations of that) but rather in the fields that are being assessed. Let people *in the discipline* determine the best practices for assessment, and as a demonstration of good faith, *fund those best practices.* In other words, don’t institute a standardized test on grammar to measure students’ writing ability, when all of your specialists in composition and rhetoric can tell you that such tests don’t actually tell a thing about whether a student can write or not. That’s something we’ve been fighting at my institution, by the way, and the math department has been fighting a similar test on their side of the college of arts and sciences. This isn’t about anybody thinking measurement is out: it’s about thinking that the instruments are garbage.

    Again, not speaking for Historiann here, but thinking testing sucks and rejecting it as an assessment instrument, even though nobody will fund other instruments, isn’t being against measuring student learning: it’s about thinking that testing is a crappy way to measure student learning as some sort of across-the-board solution.

  33. Historiann on 21 Feb 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    I’ll take a page out of Comrade PhysioProf’s book here and just say that “Dean Dad” is not here to engage in good faith. I’m kind of surprised that someone who has written so nastily about me bothers to climb up into my treehouse and demand that I adress his concern about my alleged “oversimplification” of one of eight issues, but maybe my surprise should be directed at Inside Higher Ed for featuring your blog at all. Or is this just a gendered game in which I’m supposed to take you seriously and address your very important concerns while you just call names and refuse to address mine?

    Everyone has his or her own blogging ethic, but mine is that we play nice here–we don’t call names and if we don’t abide by the rules we’re asked to leave. I understand that your ethic is that you attack people who blog under their own names from the relative comfort and security of your pseudonym. How very manly!

    Quixote is very wise when she writes, “Playing along is, as one of my colleagues said, like feeding ex-boyfriends or stray cats to make them go away. It’s not going to work.” She also is correct in her assessment that high stakes testing has “worked so well at the K-12 level. They went along to get along on the whole NCLB BS and now they have real curricula and small class sizes and enough staffing so that teachers aren’t working unpaid overtime and large enough budgets so they’re not buying school supplies out of their own meager salaries. Not.”

    Thanks to everyone else who had commented. Today was a travel day for me, so I’ve been just reading and following the conversation and not able to comment until now. Tom and Western Dave make great points about counting on AP credits–I agree that AP classes can start to look like “concurrent enrollment,” and that they may play a role in the casualization of academic labor. As Western Dave suggests, there’s the AP course, and then there’s the test, and that’s a whole different animal.

    To my knowledge, there is zero evidence that high-stakes testing is benefiting anyone except the for-profit companies who sell the tests.

  34. Indyanna on 21 Feb 2011 at 9:58 pm #

    I think that any form of educational practice that produces literatures with citations like this: Carlson, R. & Repman, J. (2007). “Getting Ahead of NCATE: 10 Things You Need to Know,” In R. Carlsen et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2007 (pp. 986-991). Chesapeake, VA: AACE; …. or that traffics in colloquial intra-institutional discourses about orwellian things like “electronic evidence rooms” should be viewed through a lens of “end it, don’t mend it.”

    Being “here” in the realpolitik sense can’t make something either true or workable. The dirty cultural truth about the “accountability” movement is that there is no grass roots demand for it at all in the sense that the cult suggests. It begins on about the twelfth floor of the industry’s tower of babel and goes to maybe the twenty-third. Nobody reading this comment could find a single person within ten blocks of their house, behind an actual door, who would respond (except to a “push-polling” question) that one of the ten biggest problems facing this country is “making colleges prove that students are actually learning what they say they are teaching,” which tends to be the standard rhetorical question of the accountability trade. Actual people have all sorts of opinions, good and bad, about colleges, faculties, and knowledge in general, but that one is not among them. It’s all in a special-interest sphere comprising legislators, administrators, and ED.ucators, whose specific interests in the matter are different but convergent and capable of being harmonized.

    The field of assessment is also rife with fraud, in the Federal False Claims Act sense of that word. At one institution I know fairly well the faculty were invited by provostian e-mail on about September 13 one year to go to an electronic site and report on “outcomes” for THAT semester, on any day from THAT day until about the following January 28, more than six weeks after the classes in question ended! You could tell NCATE the outcome of the semester’s learning before homecoming! The site offered a drop-down box with three choices for each student: “Target,” “acceptable,” “unacceptable.” Since there had been no previous institutional discourse relating to “targeting,” the forthcoming responses were not just unscientific, they were incoherent and incomprehensible. In one work unit I know, people just sort of proxied it to “target” = A or B, “acceptable” = C, and “unacceptable” = D or below. This isn’t standardized testing, it’s standardized voodoo.

    Testing panics are not new in American educational culture. There was a giant one in the Progressive Era, seated in the Ed. schools, but mostly about pre-collegiate learning. Even if disciplines could fathom and find “best practices” for measurement would this not in practice squeeze the last air (and especially time) out of the quaint notion that we should really be investigating our own (content) fields and adding to the stock of “new knowledge?”

  35. JackDanielsBlack on 22 Feb 2011 at 2:32 am #

    If you want Americans to take teaching seriously, you need to come up with a way to gauge teacher effectiveness in terms of student learning. This is no less true at the college than at the secondary school level. Yes, it is difficult,but it needs to be done. To claim otherwise is to engage in wishful thinking at best, and obfuscation at worst.

    “Everyone has his or her own blogging ethic, but mine is that we play nice here–we don’t call names and if we don’t abide by the rules we’re asked to leave.”

    Historiann, you can’t be serious. Consider the following recent contribution from Comrade Physioprof (just one of many posted on your site):

    Yeah, dude. Pursuing federally funded biomedical research so that greedy selfish pig-ignorant slobs like you don’t have to suffer and die in excruciating pain and misery is totally “sucking at the public teat”.

    We don’t call names? Really???

  36. Feminist Avatar on 22 Feb 2011 at 4:01 am #

    In the UK, we have things called NEETs- that stand for Not in Education, Employment or Training. And, it is a measure of where people go after different levels of education (school, college, university). The idea that high levels of NEETs are bad and should be avoided.

    It was invented because certain institutional environments said the traditional measures (like success on tests or completion rates) didn’t account for things like poverty that might effect outcomes. Instead, institutions are measured basically by their employment rates. Fancy unis also like to collect wage and work sector data to differentiate themselves from each other. Educational institutes therefore are measured by where their students go after they leave; how much their students are paid etc etc.

    It’s certainly not a perfect measure- and in times of high unemployment, like now where 25% of our 18-25 years old are unemployed- it might fall apart, but it did get away from direct interference in the curriculum or the introduction of meaningless tests.

  37. Nikki on 22 Feb 2011 at 6:15 am #

    We have assessment–they are called grades. What I object to is having to essentially duplicate my labor in multiple formats.

  38. Historiann on 22 Feb 2011 at 6:31 am #

    Jack, je repete: you’re free to bugger off any time! You and CPP appear to enjoy insulting each other but you keep it mostly to yourselves. At this point, it’s an insult comic routine. So long as you leave me out of it, it’s fine with me.

    Nikki is exactly right: assessment has for years been called “grades” at colleges and universities. The responsibility for learning rests with students as well as faculty, yet only one of the above measures (more homework, #5) suggests that perhaps students bear some responsibility. It’s strange that colleges’ and universities’ success even by marketplace values–our enrollments are booming, many colleges and unis can have their pick of applicants, etc.–isn’t ever regarded as prima facia evidence of the value of what we do, contra every other industry and sector of the economy. I wonder: do people demanding “assessment” assume that every college student (and hir parents, if applicable) are economically irrational?

    Indyanna has it exactly right, too: demands for accountability aren’t drawing huge protesting crowds in state capitals these days. It’s a manufactured problem designed to make work for people whose work is for the most part highly effective, efficient, and serving its purpose.

    I wouldn’t be so skeptical of “assessment” if I thought it would generate useful data that would be acted upon. (For example, what if we learned through “assessment” that classes capped at 30 with 40+ pages of writing per semester were more effective and valuable than classes capped at 600 with electronically graded quizzes and tests?) But something tells me that no uni really wants to increase their instructional budgets to optimize “education.”

    The above list of “suggestions” for higher ed once again completely ignores the fact that universities are not just about teaching. They’re generators of new knowledge. But perhaps I should be glad that they’re just bothering us about our teaching–lord help us if they want us to create “assessment” exercises for our research productivity, too!

  39. Feminist Avatar on 22 Feb 2011 at 6:48 am #

    Ooh, we have them in the UK too! It was previously called the RAE- research assessment framework, and from 2012 will be the REF- research excellence framework.

    Basically, we all have to submit so many pieces of research to the REF and panels of experts in the field grade it. Your dept is then given an overall mark, which then creates tables of the best depts for research. This in turn determines how much money you get towards research (ie the better you already are, the more money you get).

    Many of us are now contractually obliged to produce x amount of research in the assessment period (6-7 years). It creates shorter time to publication- which is good as it ups output and the grading is meant to ensure quality. But, the downside is that the ‘macro’ projects, that historically tooks decades (I’m thinking of the compiling of big economic studies, or even just anayses of the census) can no longer be done in these time frames- so certain types of research are no longer done.

  40. wini on 22 Feb 2011 at 7:12 am #

    I perform the only assessment of our major’s academic coursework (my program has a substantial studio component). I get what it’s supposed to be doing, tracking a student’s learning outside of the grades given. I think they reasoning in my program is that a student might get a B each semester as the coursework get harder but still improve quite a bit. No one has actually explained this to me.

    However, no one else does this assessment in their course, or if they do they don’t share it with me. So, I’m asked how I would improve the results in the future, and all I can think is “uh, grade inflation?” If we had the same “metrics” at the beginning of our coursework, it might be extremely helpful.

    I’m extremely skeptical of any call to “grade the teachers.” My state has been doing this for a long time, and what the students have learned is that if they do badly or make no effort to learn, that it is the teacher’s fault and never theirs.

  41. wini on 22 Feb 2011 at 7:13 am #

    I apparently have an “extreme” problem with possessives this morning.

  42. JackDanielsBlack on 22 Feb 2011 at 7:37 am #

    Folks, you might want to read the new study called Academically Adrift, from the University of Chicago Press. It says, among other things, that based on a widely used essay test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, as well as other measures, forty five percent of 2000 students from 24 colleges and universities failed to significantly improve their writing and reasoning skills during the first two years of college.

    This type of study may have some shortcomings, but it is only going to increase as the US Department of Education turns its attention from secondary to college-level education. (A good account of the book and critiques can be found in the February 18 Chronicle of Higher Education. With all the money we spend on higher education in the U.S., we need to know what we are getting for it, and people are determined to find out.

    Another measure of success is mentioned by Feminist Avatar — how well do students succeed after graduation? Many colleges keep some track of this and other measures of student success, but with the exception of some business schools they do not seem inclined to release this information.

    I find the measures of teaching and research effectiveness mentioned by Feminist Avatar fascinating. I would suspect these stem from Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to bring accountability to British higher education. The powers that be in U.S. higher education should take a look.

    It is likely that funding for U.S. university research will be significantly cut as part of the current budget-balancing orgy. If Universities had good objective measures for research effectiveness, and if they scored well by these measures, it might be an effective argument to mitigate such cuts. Objective measurements of effectiveness that are accepted by funders as well as funding recipients could be a force for good as well as a source of consternation, both for research and for teaching.

    Historiann, might I suggest that a (if not the) major reason so many students are flooding colleges right now is the lousy economy — they are postponing the job search as long as possible.

  43. Historiann on 22 Feb 2011 at 8:56 am #

    Jack–I blogged about that book a month ago. I agree with your suggestion that enrollments are booming because the economy’s in the tank. However, 1) enrollments were growing pretty much everywhere before 2008, and 2) I don’t think that all of these folks are being economically irrational in pursuing more education.

    Again, what’s broken in American higher ed in terms of serving our students? Higher ed needs to think more about itself as employers and administrators of free farm clubs for the NBA and NFL. That’s where I would target reforms, because the erosion of tenured and tenure-track faculty will eventually undermine both the mission of universities as well as their ability to serve the students well.

  44. Janice on 22 Feb 2011 at 9:07 am #

    Courtesy of retrofoods, let me suggest Spaghetti Jello: http://retro-food.com/2006/07/15/spaghetti-jello-recipe/

    Umm, all the goodness of spaghetti AND jello! What’s not to love in this mash-up? And can’t we say the same of the WP proposals? Why, yes we can!

    By the way, my university has long (always?) offered three year degrees. True three-year degrees that are a modest program step down, lacking, say in history, any work at the senior seminar level. They’re relatively rarely used, however, as most students realize they don’t carry the same weight with employers. However, if you’re just getting a degree to get a degree (maybe you have a job in the family business waiting for you, you lucky stiff!), it can be a decent way out.

  45. Historiann on 22 Feb 2011 at 10:59 am #

    Janice: as though spaghetti doesn’t have enough carbs? Yeesh. That’s especially disgusting! Even more than putting olives or lima beans in jello.

    My grandmother used to make a veggie-based jello salad that wasn’t so disgusting in which I think olives may have been included. It was lemon jello mixed with salad fixings like grated carrots and chopped celery, but when she dissolved the jello she used vinegar in proportion so that it kind of tasted sweety-sour and like a salad dressing. It’s nothing I make for myself–but adding vinegar might help explain the inclusion of veggies like beans and olives.

    I wonder about selling people 3-year degrees for the very reason you cite. Couldn’t we see it as more predatory and exploitative to grant people 3-year degrees that just aren’t worth the same as a 4-year degree? It seems like employers alike are very discerning. They know the difference between an accredited university and a fly-by-night for-profit operation, and they hire accordingly.

  46. Anonymous on 22 Feb 2011 at 2:01 pm #

    Historiann, what you describe sounds like tomato aspic, or as we inevitably called it in my family, ass pick. Delicious.

  47. Historiann on 22 Feb 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    Ass pick. Love it! (The name that is, not the dish.)

  48. Z on 22 Feb 2011 at 4:53 pm #

    That Dean Dad is a piece of work.

  49. undine on 22 Feb 2011 at 10:05 pm #

    Historiann, I hope I’m not repeating something (I got distracted by the Jello mold talk), but the article didn’t mention that the three-year degree is a reality in countries such as Canada where there is an extra year of high school (Grade 13). I’m just saying.

  50. JackDanielsBlack on 23 Feb 2011 at 6:36 am #

    Well, Dean Dad has a new post based on this one, and you can guess what he says!

    Sorry I overlooked your earlier post on Academically Adrift, where you made the point that the book shows that humanities students do better than others. If that is true, and if this is based on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (a standardized test, if you will) then shouldn’t you humanities folks be promoting this particular standardized test?

    In fact, you seem to suggest just that in your earlier post:
    “And, we’re crazzy if those of us in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences don’t each of us send a copy of this article to our Deans and to the Provost of our universities.”

    So it seems that you are in fact in favor of standardized testing– as long as it yields the right results!

  51. Historiann on 23 Feb 2011 at 6:47 am #

    “Admin Patriarch,” I mean “Dean Dad,” is link baiting. I’ve already informed him of what I think of him in the comments above, and I have no intention of responding or getting into a blogwar. He’s dead to me, and as I suggested above, it’s a little strange that he apparently continues to read my blog and link to me, trying to draw me out.

    This is an open blog–all are free to read and say whatever they want about what they find here. But I’m not inclined to get into it with a person who’s demonstrated such clear bad faith.

  52. JackDanielsBlack on 23 Feb 2011 at 7:21 am #

    Gee, that’s funny–he’s still on Tenured Radical’s “always informed by” list. Guess not everybody feels the same way you do!

  53. Comrade PhysioProf on 23 Feb 2011 at 9:36 am #

    Dean Dad is an interesting character. My theory is that his failure to secure a tenured position for himself at a university where he could pursue research to at least some extent has embittered him towards tenure, research universities, and anything else that reminds him of what he is missing out on.

  54. Historiann on 23 Feb 2011 at 9:47 am #

    Ya think???

  55. Comrade PhysioProf on 23 Feb 2011 at 9:51 am #

    Well, I have given a lot of deep thought to this highly sophisticated and subtle theory. Based on intensive complex analysis of the available evidence, I have concluded that it is, more likely than not, correct.

  56. Historiann on 23 Feb 2011 at 9:53 am #

    As a friend of mine once said, “A-HAHAhahahahaha!”

  57. boobkbabe on 23 Feb 2011 at 10:01 am #

    I agree that there are things colleges and universities could be doing better. No person or institution is perfect. But if colleges and unis are doing such a terrible job, why is the US the number one destination for people from every part of the world who want to further their educations? And, in spite of the hard economic times, it seems that the number of foreign students isn’t shrinking anywhere in US higher education.

    Not all of those students–or foreign faculty members, for that matter–are coming from China or India or the Caribbean. Some are even coming from the wealthier and more technologically advanced countries. Why? As a French biologist who trained at Jussieu and the Pasteur Institute told me, there are research and teaching opportunities here that don’t exist even in European countries or Japan.

    Any system that can attract talent in that way has something going for it. And that ability may be a good starting point for any changes that are worth making.

  58. Historiann on 23 Feb 2011 at 10:06 am #

    bookbabe: excellent point. U.S. Higher Ed is hardly struggling to fill seats and faculty positions. Just today, I heard that my uni has had 8,000 applicants for first-year slots and that apps are up 16%.

    I guess that’s because all of those students and their families see higher ed as a huge waste of time and money?

  59. JackDanielsBlack on 23 Feb 2011 at 10:08 am #

    Ah,

    *zap*

    *poof*

  60. Historiann on 23 Feb 2011 at 10:10 am #

    Jack, I think you’ve had enough fun this week. Buh-bye!

  61. Some Thoughts on Assessment and Higher Ed « Reassigned Time 2.0 on 23 Feb 2011 at 6:08 pm #

    [...] those of you who are interested, the reason that I’m thinking about this stuff is because of this post and then this one, though I’m not really directly responding to [...]

  62. cgeye on 24 Feb 2011 at 9:15 am #

    Just posting this here as an advisory: yeah, they’re planning for worse:

    http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/torturing-detroits-kids-racist-fun-and-profit

    60 kids in a public school classroom means 60 kids whose chances of going past high school have been measurably worse.

  63. Meaningful assessment & avoiding black holes | A Weird Fish on 27 Feb 2011 at 4:34 pm #

    [...] off of a couple of other blog posts, notably this one by Historiann, Dr. Crazy argues for a view of assessment in higher education that gets out from [...]

  64. Community College Spotlight | Public won’t buy ‘trust us, we’re experts’ on 02 Mar 2011 at 8:46 am #

    [...] isn’t a persuasive argument, writes Community College Dean in response to Historiann’s rejection of measuring student learning, one of the ways to “fix” higher education in a Washington Post series. Historiann [...]

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