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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Why Spelling's higher education reform spells disaster for the American undergrad

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings wants to reform higher education by creating and delivering tests to measure the performance of students around the nation's universities.  Standardized testing is supposed to combat the perceived decline of the American university (its over expansion or its decline?).  But the effects of standardized testing go well beyond mere sorting of data, into the sorting and assimilating of the humans who compose institutions.  As anyone familiar with the public school system knows already, that sorting can be deadly to the very kinds of serendipity and creativity that nurture the talents of the best students or foster hope in the fallers-behind.  Standardized testing standardizes: it lays waste the creative teacher; it creates universal patterns of education where the least requirement becomes the standard. 

First, a personal anecdote.  The SAT is the universal American standardized test required for undergraduate admissions; the eight subject GRE's measure learning and performance of undergraduate achievement, and are universally used for graduate school admission, and, in many systems, ranking funding.  Now, as anyone who has read my blog knows, I represent perfect genius with words.  I got a nearly perfect score on the verbal SAT (go me).  Then I went to Harvard, where I studied Latin, Greek, French, and German.  I wrote stacks of essays every week for four years, and turned in a required, and then lauded, honors thesis of a hundred pages for the Comparative Literature department.   By all accounts, my familiarity with language should have improved.

And then I took the GRE, where my scores were disastrous.  My language skills had, by the account of the test, plummetted in four years from the 99th percentile to the seventy-fifth.  One of two things could have happened. One, four years of advanced education actually reduced my command and control of language relative to other educated individuals. Two, four years of advanced education had reoriented my understanding of what was important, and trained me to think rather than perform, to innovate rather than to regurgitate; and both of those tendencies show up, in the standardized test, as a failure.

Did it matter?  Fortunately I had good letters of recommendation, and for the particular departments to which I applied, these mattered far more than the standardized scores. The universities and major funding bodies, however, largely base their financing of graduate students on GRE scores, which allows them to report to their shareholders that they are doing an objective and merit-based job of dispersing funds. As a result, I spent my first years of graduate school teaching heavy undergraduate loads and applying heavily to external funding bodies. The GRE did matter, and it didn't like me.

Standardized testing, as historian Nicholas Lemann
pointed out in his marvelous study of the SAT's uses and origins, has
long been a tool of governments to reassure and comfort with promises
of equality and prosperity, whilst subtly picking and shading a ruling
class who look and think exactly alike, and exorcising the demons of
creative thought and serendipitous learning from the institutions of
education.

There's a lot of valid worry about what the universal requirement of higher education means in America.  The decline of public education and the postwar GI Act combined to launch a generation with virtually universal expectations of benefitting from the university system.  Once a high school degree was enough to launch a young person into a lifetime of entrepreneurship, citizenship, and self-improvement; now an undergraduate degree is recommended even for those applying to be grocery checkers at Trader Joe's. 

The shift in awareness has had real effects on institutions: the plurality of new state auxiliary university campuses; the extention of graduate school from three to six or ten year degrees in order to supply an advanced corps of professors for these colleges; the trade in online and continuing education degrees online and through the community college system.  Anecdotally the system spells the prolonging of adolescence.  The financial burden of this higher education system, unlike the system of the public schools, falls mainly onto parents. 

Spelling's plan would pitch the universities into exactly the same quandaries that now plague the public schools, without extending the benefits of the university to more bodies.  The problem is not a want of teachers.  There are thousands upon thousands of overeducated PhDs currently unable to find suitable jobs in the education system; unwilling to downgrade the years of their training to become a professional at the local community college.  These PhDs are overtrained, eager for posts in any serious department of their colleagues, prepared to dedicate an entire lifetime to educating 18-year-olds.  All that they need are departments and university structures willing to pay them to be serious scholars.  This is a problem not in the teaching or the curriculum, but only in the structure of university administration itself.  Correct balances of revenue and expenditure, of research and hiring, can only be solved through entrepreneurial action among university administrators. 

In the best possible case, a secretary of education could nurture that entrepreneurial mindset among the deans of higher education, through seminars, conferences, training programs.  In the worst possible case, a secretary of education could, instead, disband the whole reason for higher education in the first place.  The solution cannot be to treat the most overeducated and underpaid class of professionals in the world with punitive reforms, as if they were sleepy box-packers, as if they needed management to come in, as if mere rating and reproval would increase their output. 

The solution cannot be to treat higher education professionals as if they were public school teachers.  Perhaps the solution might be to treat public school teachers as if they were higher education professionals. 



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