An op-ed published yesterday by the New York Times calling for greater accountability for colleges and “more meaningful standards for academic quality” was on the most-emailed list this morning and is making the rounds of faculty listservs. It’s obviously hard to disagree with the basic concept. However, I think we need to be wary of unintended consequences of well-meaning notions such as the accountability push that don’t really address what I think is a crisis in American higher education.
First of all, having been part of a faculty that went through an accreditation process that culminated just last week with a visit by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, I just think that it’s important to be aware that while “accountability!” sounds like a concept we can all cheer for, we have to think carefully about how we want to get there. Faculty members and graduate assistants in my department spent literally thousands of hours over the last few months preparing endless, detailed documentation of everything we do as part of the accreditation process, including a detailed assessment of each our courses to determine if students are learning the desired skills. I am not exaggerating. These are hours not spent on teaching, research, or service. I don’t even want to begin to calculate the financial cost if you add up our collective time (and lucky me, I did much, much, less than some others.)
I think a much better approach to accountability would involve less paperwork and forms and binders and instead, outsider experts engaging us, our students and professionals in vigorous conversations about whether or not what we are doing is working and how we can improve, a more iterative approach that can move at the same speed as the digital tools our students need to learn. This might sound wishy-washy, but I think a process for tapping creative and intellectual forces in this way would be much more valuable than costly bureaucracy and an attempt to vigorously quantify everything.
I’m lucky enough to be on a faculty with several other engaged, caring people with whom I am nearly constantly brainstorming, discussing new assignments and syllabus tweaks, figuring out how to motivate recalcitrant students, and more. We don’t wait for a formal assessment or an accreditation visit to start working over what we can do better – it’s part of our daily lives and culture. A slow, bureaucratic accountability system has little relevance to us. So here’s another thing we could do to improve academic quality: Make hiring and retaining great teachers who truly care about students an institutional priority on par with other priorities like research. If you want to improve educational quality, hire great people and give them the resources and support to do their jobs. Don’t measure them by the number of widgets they create, e.g. graduates – you’ll end up rewarding the wrong things. Don’t burn them out and ask them to be all things to all people.
I think the real root of the problems facing higher ed are the big, messy, ugly ones: a)Rapidly declining public support for education b)A failing public education system which begins long before universities get our hands on students (many students are so ill-prepared for college work it would shock most people outside of the academy) c) A cultural shift that broadly devalues knowledge and puts the onus on the faculty and not the student to guarantee learning at the collegiate level. The last doesn’t mean I think we can’t improve. It just means that I think that at some level students need to take responsibility for their own education – I can’t force an adult to learn.
The piece, written by Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation, more specifically calls for the end of the anachronistic credit hour as a unit for measuring student learning, replacing it with “common standards for what college students actually need to know and to be able to do.” That’s fine, as far as it goes, though I’m unclear how much of a significant difference that would make to the bigger picture.