"A child's learning is the funtion more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Beginning of the Human Capital Caste System in Higher Ed

From the NY Times:

AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CHARLESTON, a not-exactly-selective institution on the banks of the Kanawha River in the capital city of West Virginia, incoming students take a standardized test designed to measure reasoning and writing skills and then take the test again after sophomore year and once again as seniors — to see if their education is doing them any good. Courses are constructed around a series of defined “liberal learning outcomes” like critical thinking and creativity, and if the students’ work shows that many of them aren’t hitting the outcomes, the teachers go back to the drawing board. Ditto with the standardized tests. “We take data seriously,” says Alan Belcher, a member of the Faculty Center that rides herd on the whole process, “and we act on it.” Apparently they act well: in its promotional materials, U.C. boasts that it posted “the largest learning gain from first to final year” of any of the 40 schools that participated in a trial of the Collegiate Learning Assessment, one test it uses.

This orientation toward measurable outcomes has already colonized many spheres of life — K-12 education, medicine, government services — but in the world of higher education, places like the University of Charleston are lonely outliers. They may soon become the vanguard. The Bush administration, having used the No Child Left Behind Act to impose accountability — and, critics would say, a sterile uniformity — on the reluctant world of public elementary and secondary schools, is now seeking to accomplish something similar in post-secondary education. A commission impaneled by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings concluded last year that colleges “should measure and report meaningful student learning outcomes,” that they should use tests to make comparison possible, that accrediting agencies should make these and other performance outcomes “the core of their assessment” and that colleges should make the results publicly available “as a condition of accreditation.” . . .

The "same sterile uniformity" is aimed only at the state schools and poor private ones. This is where corporate skill sets will replace the disciplines, and the great ideas will be replaced by a vulgar vocationalism. The Yales and the Penns and the Stanfords will continue to offer the best university education in the world, entirely out of reach by those whose parents are not a part of the leadership class. This is intended to complete the K-16 caste system of education, a system aimed to maintain white privilege, even as whites become the minority.

. . . .

The battle over accountability has many different skirmish lines. Private institutions like the University of Charleston are adapting to the marketplace. Public universities are warding off state action. State governments are talking about mandating assessment. In Washington, the great buzzing hive of associations seems, for now, to have successfully swarmed its adversary. After the commission published its report, Spellings convened a “negotiated rule-making” process. She wanted, among other things, to ensure that regional accrediting agencies demand that the institutions they accredit use objective outcome measurements. This was deemed an unprecedented attack on the autonomy of accrediting agencies and universities. Both turned to their friends in Congress. And in late May, just days before the rule-making process on accreditation was to conclude, Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, former secretary of education and ranking minority member on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, accused the Bush administration of “proposing to restrict autonomy, choice and competition.” Alexander wrote to Spellings, telling her to leave these thorny issues to Congress. Spellings promptly complied. “Congress,” says the crusty Charles Miller, “is in the thrall of the academy.”
That grip is bound to weaken. The self-accountability of our system of higher education is grounded in the optional nature of college attendance. But college isn’t really optional any longer. The economic value of higher education, on both the individual and the national levels, has given the public a stake in outcomes not so different from the stake it has in the public schools. Even private institutions, in this regard, are quasi-public entities. Almost 25 years ago, Margaret Spellings points out, the report known as “A Nation at Risk” provoked a national discussion about education that has not yet subsided. “I think,” she says, “that’s what has been precipitated” by her own report. “It’s only just begun.”

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