Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Standards in Higher Education

This is Part II of a discourse on college education, a follow-up to my Feb. 13 post, "How Valuable is a College Education?" and a more recent one on testing. Several readers who contacted me via e-mail (schiffhorst@yahoo.com) suggested that I should say more.

It so happened that the Sunday NYTimes (4-8-12) ran an article on colleges measuring what students are learning. The article suggested that this was something new, yet I well remember the amount of assessment that was done in Florida universities in the 1990s. The problem is that the results were not disclosed to the public and the point of these tests seemed vague and pointless.

The Times quotes the president of Lehigh University: "I'm not sure any standardized test can effectively measure what students can gain in problem solving." Amen. Same is true of the other major goal of education: critical thinking.

It's no wonder that the Ivy League and related schools insist that what students learn "becomes evident over decades" and warn about "what is easily measured."

The folks making Big Bucks at the Educational Testing Service would not want to hear this, but it is easy for administrators to use numbers from test scores to "prove" student proficiency, and it is also misleading. It is tempting to reduce huge numbers of learners to figures on a page, overlooking all the individual differences and experiences that make up education.

I am on the faculty of the second largest university in the nation, with 58,000 students, and growing; when I came to the Univ. of Central Florida in 1970, we had about 8,000 students. Our administration opens the door to all who are able, based on the admirable democratic notion that everyone in America should have an opportunity for higher education.

This is a suspect notion: many students are not prepared intellectually or academically for a four-year degree, nor do they need one. Technical training at a 2-year institution is available for such students. It's no wonder so many incoming freshmen get discouraged, drop out, maybe return when they are older. They need life experience at 18, not necessarily four more years of study. Nearly all who do enroll are seeking future employment, not learning.

So when my faculty colleague recently asked, how do we educate the masses without lowering standards? I reply: a perennially important question, but one that assumes that the "masses" should be given a university education. I firmly believe that every American has a right to all the learning he or she can handle; I do not believe that everyone has a right to attend a university. It is not intended as a ticket to employment.

To say this raises questions about the purpose of a university or 4-year college that have been the subject of many books. Newman in the 19th century laid the groundwork in his Idea of a University. It has to do with cultivating the individual mind.

What I have seen over the years of poorly prepared and motivated students raises a more limited issue: the relation between high school and college. The late Roger Shattuck in a 1997 piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education minces no words:

Secondary schools, he says, have "increasingly allowed ill-prepared students to graduate from high school while colleges and universities willingly admitted these students into diluted undergraduate programs." Except in science and engineering, few students are required to undergo a comprehensive examination that pulls together and connects the bits of learning from disparate courses.

In reminiscing recently about my education at St. Louis University, a fellow alum agreed that the "comps," as they were called were a rigorous senior requirement: a six-hour exam that tested all the material that should have been read and learned in the major field. This was not only essential for those of us going on to the graduate level but it gave all the students a 'big picture' as they saw the relevance and historical context of the readings they had done. Passing courses is not enough.

I return to Shattuck for the second volley of his argument: "The slackened admissions requirements of all but the most prestigious institutions [of higher educaiton] deprive high schools of a major incentive to maintain rigorous standards." [emphasis added] I know of no other statement that captures as well the symbiotic relation between secondary and post-secondary education.

He goes on to point out that the responsibility for the "malfunction of our elementary and secondary schools lies in great part with the bloated system of higher education..." with its massive bureaucracy. I commented earlier on the folly of relying on Schools of Education to prepare teachers; I noted earlier the 39% national increase (between 1993-2007) in the various associate deans, vice presidents and other university administrators, while faculty hiring has been frozen or nearly so, stretching the workload of the instructors and requiring more and more reliance on underpaid and often underqualified adjunct faculty to "handle" the basic required courses, many of which have enrollents of 300 or more in a class. The other option is equally distasteful: distance learning in which the instructor seldom if ever meets his students personally; they communicate via computer.

Is this the brave new world we envisioned when new universities like mine were being created in the 1960s? Shattuck was there, at the University of Texas at Austin, where he says the enrollment grew from 17,000 to 35,000 by 1970, "with no corresponding improvement in SAT scores."

In painting such a bleak picture, I must recall all the bright, gifted young people I worked with and was proud of, some in the Honors courses, many not. They had a solid foundation and were willing to work hard and thrive in an often impersonal system. They were the all-important exception to the prevailing trends that make higher education, at least on the big scale of the state university, in need of some radical reform and re-thinking--in partnership with the public high schools.

I am grateful to Roger Shattuck and others like him for sounding the alarm. Will enough people in the bloated bureaucracy hear it?

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