The Slow Death of the Higher Education Commission?

It may be too soon to write the obituary, but it is hard not to notice that the action around higher education accountability is getting weaker and weaker as the months pass. In February, higher education commission chair Charles Miller said, “What is clearly lacking is a nationwide system for comparative performance purposes, using standard formats,” raising fears of an NCLB-like system for higher education. The final report released in September warned against a one-size fits-all approach of standardized testing, urging colleges and universities to collect their own data on student learning, and create a national database that would allow students more comparative information across colleges and universities. Finding little support for the database idea in Congress, Spellings is now set to push the outputs agenda with accreditation agencies, perhaps the weakest potential tool of external reform.

What happened? I think the explanation is more institutional than political. Even before the Congress switched over to the Democrats, there was limited support for federal accountability measures as applied to higher education. As I’ve written in the past, the key factors which protect higher education are enduring: their generally strong reputation, their much greater degree of professionalization than K-12 education (longer training, body of knowledge that creates deference to expertise, higher status and pay), and the fact that they can plausibly argue that their success is due in part to the combination of decentralized professional autonomy and market competition. In my dissertation I discuss other reports in the past seeking to bring accountability to higher ed, most notably one released in 1984 modeled after A Nation at Risk, with similar fanfare at the time, and little effect after the fact.

The irony of all of this, of course, is that higher education is professionalized around research, but the professionalization of teaching is non-existent. Not only are all of the incentives set around research–from completing a Ph.D. to gaining tenure to attaining greater status, prestige and pay–but research also undergoes a professional process which ensures the improvement of practice. Writing is shared with colleagues, revised, and goes through peer review, which assures that the collective eyes of the profession work gradually towards better scholarship as defined by the disciplines (which have their own limitations, but we will leave that question for another day). Teaching at research universities has none of these things: it is largely not rewarded materially or for tenure, it does not clearly result in greater status either for individual teachers or universities as a whole, and it does not undergo any kind of collective process by which it is refined over time. As a result, some of the “best” universities get the worst marks from students in terms of engaging students in the classrooms: among the lowest scorers in “bringing material to life” according to a Princeton review survey quoted in the NY Review of books were UCLA, Texas, Michigan and Harvard.

Perhaps the best case scenario would be one in which external forces push institutions to show that they are making progress in improving teaching, but do not attempt to place federal incentives on top of a sector that is already working reasonably well, creating the pressure but leaving the specifics of the policy changes to the institutions. This would leave the federal government to do what it can do well: Address questions of access and affordability (including but not limited to student loan interest rates), topics that should be at the top of the Democrats new agenda.

— Posted by Guestblogger Jal Mehta

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