Higher ed meets NCLB?

Ah, Spring! Snow melting, birds chirping, and buds sprouting —not to mention the beginning of mandatory state testing season in most public K-12 schools. The climate in higher education is also showing signs of change, as pressure for greater accountability begins to show up more and more, particularly in the accreditation process.

I have spent most of the past year as the point guard on our community college’s reaccreditation team. This is my first such review at the college level, but I have participated in several in the K-12 sector (both as a member of a review team and of a candidate school). What’s been interesting to watch is how uncomfortable many people in higher ed are with things their elementary through high school counterparts have come to accept as standard operating procedure.

Academic deans and professors outside of the Colleges of Education are having to learn a new language: student learning outcomes, multiple assessments, standardized tests!

Remember, college professors are used to basking in “academic freedom” — which means most of them get to teach what they want, when they want, how they want, and pass or fail students as they see fit. Turning in a syllabus to your department chair or dean is not the same as turning in weekly lesson plans to your principal or having a checklist of objectives to cover this grading period. This freedom is a cherished right in the academy, and the pressures to be more accountable are seen by many as a direct threat to that right (or is it a privilege?). The vast majority of college faculty have had no pedagogical training at all and methods of teaching and assessment are all over the map.

Gerald Graff, President of the Modern Language Association, touched off a small war with his Feb. 21st piece at Inside Higher Ed called Assessment Changes Everything. Frankly, I agree with Graff that too many colleges and professors have fallen into the trap of elitism (through both admissions policies and sloppy teaching) that Graff calls “Best-Student Fetish” and describes as “a symptom of the increasingly obsessive competition among colleges for the cream of the high school senior crop.”

Graff continues: “The more I thought about the Best-Student Fetish, the more perverse its logic seemed: It is as if the ultimate dream of college admissions is to recruit a student body that is already so well educated that it hardly needs any instruction!”

I’ve had numerous discussions with college colleagues who whine about the “unprepared” students arriving in our classrooms. This would be an easy and tempting trap to fall into in any teacher’s lounge, but it begs several questions. First, why do we act as if we are unconnected and unresponsible for the education of children all along the K-16 line? (Nod to my Carnegie colleague, Kati Haycock, of Education Trust) Second, as statistics tell us, not everyone finishes high school, at least not directly. Not everyone who finishes high school is in the top 5% of the class. Especially here and at other community colleges, students are going to arrive with varying levels of abilities, experiences, and skills. That is why we call this thing we do teaching.

Education Secretary Spellings, through the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, made it clear that the Administration wanted to bring public colleges and universities under the same type of scrutiny in terms of output and student performance that it has applied to K-12 via NCLB. Certainly, college instructors should be wary of the type of problems that NCLB (and some of the ir-rationale behind it) has spawned. However, colleges, like all levels of education, should be willing to ask some hard questions about what we are teaching, why we are teaching it, and whether students are benefitting from what we do.