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October 12, 2006

Feds' higher ed report deemed “flawed”

A report issued last month by a special national commission described U.S. higher education as “in crisis” and in need of urgent reform to remain competitive in the 21st century.

“There are disturbing signs that many students who do earn degrees have not actually mastered the reading, writing and thinking skills we expect of college students,” the commission’s report stated. It recommended the development of a “robust culture of accountability and transparency” aided by data measurement systems tracking students’ academic progress, among other reforms.

But educators nationally, including at Pitt, called the Spellings Report seriously flawed. One Pitt professor termed the report’s recommendations “a recipe for proliferating bean counters.”

Convened in September 2005 by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, the Secretary’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education was charged with examining four key higher education areas: access, affordability, quality and accountability. The commission issued its final report Sept. 19.

(For the full text of the commission’s report, go online to:

In a major policy speech to the National Press Club on Sept. 26, Secretary Spellings discussed her recommendations as a follow-up to the commission’s report. Spellings summarized a five-step action plan that she maintained would address the main concerns outlined by the commission:

• Expand principles of the No Child Left Behind Act to high schools to better assess a student’s readiness for post-secondary education.

• Streamline the federal student aid application process.

• Create a federal database to track students’ academic progress in college.

• Reward with federal matching funds colleges, universities and states that report on learning outcomes.

• Urge accrediting groups to place greater emphasis on learning measures in their accreditation processes.

In response to the commission’s report, the 45,000-member Association of American University Professors (AAUP) issued a stinging rebuttal, labeling the report “seriously flawed in its fundamental characterization of American higher education” that offered only “vaguely described goals.”

Among the AAUP’s committee on government relations criticisms are:

• “[The report provides] a framework that portrays higher education in deep crisis without establishing the grounds for this claim. … The report formulated a sense of crisis in almost purely financial and economic terms.”

• “The report largely neglects the role of the faculty, has a narrow economic focus and views higher education as a single system rather than in its institutional diversity. … Faculty appear only once in this report, as a bullet under a heading that includes the recommendation that ‘higher education must change from a system primarily based on reputation to one based on performance.’”

• “The process and quality of the educational experience, so central to the formation of a love of learning, civic virtues and social capital, are marginalized to the point of irrelevance.”

At Pitt, Provost James V. Maher, in response to a request from the University Times, issued a statement more mixed in its review of the Spellings Report.

Maher’s statement said in part: “Many aspects of the Spellings Report are important, timely and welcome. For instance, the report calls for a much-needed revamping of the very cumbersome financial aid form, which many parents of needy students find too difficult to fill out. Similarly, the public discussion of the report provides an opportunity for the nation’s universities to communicate with students and families to explain the achievements of our programs, the issues that drive college costs and the steps we are taking to improve programs and contain costs.”

On the other hand, the provost continued, “there are two really serious flaws in the Spellings Report. First, the report discusses higher education as if it was extraordinarily homogeneous, both in mission and in problems. The diversity of mission of higher education provides a richness to the American student’s range of choices that is crucial to meeting the needs of our people, and the report seems to be encouraging a ‘one size fits all’ approach to our addressing the important issues of the day. If this overly simplistic approach prevails, it is hard to imagine any good coming of it.

“And secondly, the report is written with almost no acknowledgement of the role of the faculty in framing solutions to the educational issues addressed in the report. In this case, too, I can see no successful outcome of the public discussion if this stance toward the role of the faculty is not modified.”

Lisa Brush, associate professor of sociology and women’s studies and AAUP’s Pittsburgh chapter president, questioned the practicality of implementing the Spellings Report’s recommendations.

She also chafed at the report’s implied assumption that there is waste and inefficiency in higher education.

Brush noted some apparently opposing goals in the report. She pointed out that the report focuses on the business-oriented aspects of higher education, with an approach that implies a market-driven mindset for consumers of education, an attitude she said is contradictory to the traditional liberal arts emphasis on cultivating curiosity and lifelong learning.

Developing the assessment tools to provide the learning outcome reports and information on institutional performance will be time consuming, Brush said.

“This looks like a jobs program for middle management and accounting,” she said, “or a horrific increase in the unremunerated and unrecognized service burden for people who are going to have to come up with the measurements, data and analysis involved in these assessments. It is a recipe for proliferating bean counters.”

Assessing how much students learn in college requires pre-test benchmarks, then post-testing, then parsing out differences between the two as to whether they were due to content, skills and practices or to increases in student maturity or the passage of time, Brush said. “The light at the end of the assessment tunnel is an oncoming train.”

Further, she asked, who would develop these assessment tools? “It’s not at all clear who’s going to do the work of providing the assessments, doing the benchmarking, perfecting the measurements and administering assessments once measures are developed,” she said. “Who is analyzing and archiving the data and interpreting it in a way that’s meaningful? How will efficiency be increased, as the report calls for? How do we put this into practice? Does it mean larger class sizes? Hiring more faculty? More specialization in undergraduate teaching or research? This is all costly work. Who is going to pay for it?

“Something’s gotta give,” she said. “Nobody knows how to measure these outcomes. It’s not a bad dream, it’s just a pipe dream.”

Alan Lesgold, dean of Pitt’s School of Education, echoed several of Brush’s views on the difficulty of student assessment. “The United States has an especially complex system of higher education, and also has relied heavily on college accreditation bodies that look into the strengths of programs on a individual basis,” rather than at the macro level, Lesgold said. “We’ve seen pressures from Congress to view higher education particularly as a process of earning tickets of entry into the economy, which is not its basic intention.”

He expressed concern that colleges and universities might be turned into vocational schools as a result of implementing Spellings’ recommendations. “How can that be seen as an improvement if you’re doing damage to universities’ fundamental mission to provide an educated citizenry?

“No Child Left Behind is a wonderful idea, but the problem is it makes schools be too narrowly focused,” Lesgold said.

Also, No Child Left Behind has created different standards in different states, he pointed out. “For example, Pennsylvania has among the lowest standards. Does that mean we know any better about how prepared our students are to succeed? How do you measure standards for seniors in high school? Do you get in a corner and hack something out? You can’t legislate achieving a measurement that we don’t even know how to construct.”

Brush noted that Pitt is doing well in certain areas that the Spellings Report calls attention to as problematic, such as cross-disciplinary programs, innovations that promote efficiency and translating teacher preparation into practice.

“Pitt is really good at crossing disciplinary lines,” Brush maintained. “Pitt supports faculty both financially and administratively to pursue interdisciplinary collaboration.”

Pitt’s University Center for Social and Urban Research, the University Center for International Studies, the global studies program, the Center for Race and Social Problems are examples of interdisciplinary teaching-and-research-oriented or research-oriented centers, Brush said. “It’s really one of the comparative advantages of Pitt,” she said of the University’s interdisciplinary emphasis.

She commended the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education as an important resource for faculty development and innovative teaching methods. “We’re doing quite well at supplying information and training for faculty, which is an investment in faculty development,” she said.

While the Spellings report raises concerns about declining college readiness, Brush said her own experience here indicates the opposite. “Pitt also has done a good job of recruiting an increasingly prepared cohort of students,” Brush said. “There are far fewer students who have literacy and numeracy problems” than five years ago, she said.

The report’s call for clear information is “a laudable goal, but a measurement nightmare,” Brush said. “It’s not a horrible idea to make information available. It’s a good thing to have more information in what outcomes look like compared with relying on the reputation of the institution,” which she said is based on resources and selectivity, imperfect criteria for measuring quality, she said.

“The $64,000 question is how to measure the effectiveness of teaching and the amount of learning, and how to do that in ways that will be comparable across programs and across campuses and in a way to allow parents and students to compare them meaningfully,” Brush said. “It’s a Sisyphean task.”

—Peter Hart & Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 4

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