Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Accountability in Higher Ed

Tomorrow the meetings start, followed by a few days of registration, and then classes begin. It’s that time of year again. Question is – what exactly will I and my colleagues and my students accomplish this year? There’s a great article in the September Washington Monthly by Kevin Carey called “Is Our Students Learning?” that gets at just that question – and the inability of most people to answer it.

There are no widely available measures of how much learning occurs inside the classroom, or of how much students benefit from their education. This makes the process of selecting a college a bit like throwing darts at a stock table. It also means that colleges and universities…feel little pressure to ensure that students learn.
Carey’s article is aimed mainly at elite schools, pointing out that their reluctance to publish data on student outcomes makes it impossible to assess whether their high-priced services are really worth it. But elite schools are not the only ones where this is an issue. At all levels, it’s very hard to get real data that would enable prospective students to judge whether a particular school will in fact provide them with a good education. I can’t believe that this will last. As tuition rises everywhere (more about that in a later post), parents, students, and legislators are understandably demanding to know if all that money is accomplishing anything. It’s just a matter of time before every school in the country has to start publishing data on teaching effectiveness – and that’s when things will start hitting the fan, so to speak.

I for one welcome it. We need to have our feet held to fire. Sure, it’ll be more work for me and my students, but I got into this business to teach, dang it (oh, and to have summers off). Accountability is a must, and it will spur better teaching everywhere. And here’s where I have a small bit of agreement with the wingnuts. I don’t think competition can improve public schools like they think it will, but I do think it will work for higher education (it’s a question of universal vs. selective enrollment, mainly). Publish those scores – I’m ready.


binky said...

I'm afraid that calls for accountability in higher education aren't going to be such an effective tool. My institution has recently decided we need to do assessment to see whether our majors have actually learned anything. So, all faculty had to submit 3-5 representative multiple choice questions per class, and these questions were made into a discipline wide test. The test is administered to first year students and to graduating seniors. If the seniors score higher than the first years, we have taught them something. Something vague, poorly defined and most likely meaningless in its interpretation. On the other hand, it's nearly a miracle that even this much was done, given that the common sentiment is that our department needs to overcome its reputation for good teaching and advising. [eyeroll]

Dr.T said...

It happens all too often. Still, I was just at a big faculty meeting that was something of a "Khrushchev denounces Stalin" moment in terms of the reality of student achievement, so maybe something will happen. My department has made real improvements of late. I just hope the school as a whole improves before the legislature starts to yank our chain.