The Wrong End?

One of the basic problems with Culture War 2.0 as it involves higher education is that both the critics and defenders of academia spend so much time focused on a small number of elite and well-resourced institutions. There are questions about academia that involve Harvard, Swarthmore or Michigan as much as they involve any other college or university, but many of the perennial issues under discussion look very different when we’re talking about the full range of institutions of higher education in the United States.

Take assessment, for example. It’s true that elite private and public institutions need to do a better job of figuring out whether or not their teaching is accomplishing its goals. In my view, it’s also true that standardized national testing would be a truly stupid and counterproductive way to help figure that out, and would run counter to much of the best pedagogical practices at those institutions.

The conversation is already badly malformed if it starts at that part of the spectrum. Consider, in contrast, this story from Inside Higher Education about Norfolk State University, a historically black university. A biology professor there has been denied tenure and there is a strong consensus from all parties involved about the reason why he was denied: he failed too many students. Not because he was erratic or vindictive in his grading, but because the university administration tells the faculty that 70% of their students should pass a course. The professor failed many of his students simply because they attended fewer than 80% of the class sessions, which the university maintains is the required attendance to pass a course. In fact, the average attendance in his courses was 66%, and as he notes, that means he should actually have given out even more Fs than he did.

Read the IHE story further and you see that only 12 percent of students graduate Norfolk State in four years, and only 30 percent in six. To be fair, there is a deeper question here than Norfolk State’s policies. The administration there, as many administrations in many less selective colleges and universities do, maintains that their task is to take students with inadequate K-12 preparation and find a way to compensate for that preparation, to educate the students up to a higher standard. That is a numbingly difficult mission to tackle. Four or even six years is too short a time to make up for thirteen years, especially when some of the things you’re trying to make up for are intrinsically harder for adults to absorb and learn.

This is where the debate over national standards for assessment and accreditation really should kick into gear. What do we all think is the acceptable minimum standard of ability and knowledge for a college-educated student? If I see that someone has passed biology at a college, whether it’s Swarthmore or Norfolk State, what do I have a right to expect of that student? More to the point, what do we really want to do as a nation about the problem of inadequate educational preparation? I understand that the most appropriate solution is to ensure that every student gets a good K-12 education, but as most of us are now painfully aware, that’s a daunting public policy problem that has resisted an ideologically varied spectrum of responses.

So should colleges and universities be charged with making up the difference in preparation, and what happens when an established minimum standard meets up with a seriously inadequate preparation? If you enforce the standard stringently, many students at the large number of four-year institutions like Norfolk State will fail: a graduation rate of thirty percent over six years is probably higher than what would follow on strict standards enforcement. So then what? Are we prepared as a society to say to young adults who’ve gone that far and failed, “Sorry about the terrible educational preparation provided by your government, but you’re just going to have to lump it with whatever life and career you can find for yourself”?

How will we know where the institutions are at fault and where the student is at fault, where the student could have learned or performed and simply didn’t? Whether it’s Swarthmore or Norfolk State, those are hard questions to answer. Take any two B minus grades I might give on an essay and I’ll have a private opinion about whether that’s a “B minus, because you can do better and you didn’t bother or you screwed this one up a bit” or a “B minus, because that’s about the best you can do for now, given your understanding of writing and of the subject matter”. The policy consequences of that question are different when we’re talking about the typical experience of higher education in the United States rather than the highly selective elite institutions, though. Even if there’s a social cost to the whole society to failing the students at Norfolk State who didn’t show up to half their classes, I think the institution has to enforce that standard. (Though on the other hand, if the students who didn’t show up performed strongly on appropriately challenging tests or assessment measures, that would pose a different kind of puzzler.)

A lot of the time, academic bloggers let these conversations get driven by the local circumstances and questions they face, which is only natural. But at least some of the time, we should be talking about what is typical in higher education rather than what is exceptional. This doesn’t apply only to debates about assessment or national policy. If, for example, we’re talking about a professor or instructor whose questionable pedagogy, odd scholarship or public pronouncements have drawn attention, it matters what end of the academic labor market we’re talking about. On one hand, in an ideal world, a $15,000/year full-time salary really ought to buy something less reliable than a $100,000/year full-time salary when it comes to probity, competence and commitment. On the other hand, if we have questions about academic qualifications or competence that we suspect aren’t just a matter of idiosyncratic or personal failure, those questions matter far more at the institutions that service the vast majority of college students in the United States. Or, if like Margaret Soltan, you’re worried about the misuse of instructional technology and laptops in the classroom, the most pressing question is about what the average university experience is like rather than with what an exceptional or unusual instructor might creatively choose to do with instructional technology.

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5 Responses to The Wrong End?

  1. Doug says:

    Off topic: Philippe Sands in conversation with Bill Moyers, “If people like Doug Feith and Jim Haynes had said to me, “Look, Philippe. September the 11th came. The anniversary was coming. We were getting information that there were going to be more attacks. We had people that we were told had information that we need to do something about. And we therefore felt, in those circumstances, it was right to use all means appropriate and necessarily to get the information. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we realize we fell into error, we made a mistake. We accept responsibility for that. We will learn from those mistakes. We’ll make damn sure it doesn’t happen again.” I didn’t get that at all. There was not a hint of recognition that anything had gone wrong, nor a hint of recognition of individual responsibility. When you read these chapters, when you read my account with Doug Feith and with others, you will see the sort of weaseling out of individual responsibility, the total and abject failure to accept involvement. Read Mr. Feith’s book. on how to fight the so-called war on terror. And it’s as though the man had no involvement in the decisions relating to interrogation of detainees. And yet, as I describe in the book, the man was deeply involved in the decision making from step one. So it’s about individual responsibility. And there’s been an abject failure on that account.”

    From Delong. Not much chance of that truth and reconciliation commission any time soon.

    Ok, sorry for the blogus interruptus.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    So depressing. Really, this IS the issue for me about Iraq. It’s not the war, it’s taking responsibility for mistakes. Cowboy up, guys.

  3. Carl says:

    They don’t think they made mistakes. They’d do the same things again. And insofar as they did questionable things, they were driven to it by the actions of bad others.

    And the questioners are sitting pretty in the liberties thus protected.

    They say this stuff plainly enough. The problem is that we don’t believe them.

  4. hestal says:

    Your article asks many questions and raises many issues. Many problems have been identified, and they seem to be hopeless. As I read your questions one question of my own kept bubbling up, “Who, if anyone, is responsible for solving all these problems?” Are we waiting for that task to be assigned? If so, whose duty is it to make the assignment? If not so, what are we waiting for — a volunteer?

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I think part of this is trying to figure out which piece of the solution belongs to either the federal or state governments. I’m wary of letting them dictate too much, but there’s a role for them to set and enforce standards.

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