Monthly Archives: December 2005

a proposal for college reform

Last week, I wrote that it pays for colleges merely to select the most qualified high school students and then put their energy into attracting and retaining famous scholars. They don’t actually have to educate their students, because their graduates will succeed anyway. Those admitted to selective institutions are on a track for success at age 18; a college degree will certify their talent and thus give them a big income boost. Parents, students, professors, administrators, and prospective employers have little incentive to worry about how much value the college actually provides though courses. Only the state and the taxpayers have a reason to care.

Here is possible strategy for a college that wants to break the mold:

1. Select applicants who are most likely to benefit from the education that the college offers, based on a whole new admissions process that is not designed to cherry-pick the applicants who are already most advanced at age 18. When students are ready to graduate four years later, evaluate them using a comparable assessment and boast about the “value-added.” If a college uses this approach, its SAT scores and average high-school GPA may fall, and then it will sink in the US News and World Report rankings. I would make a virtue of that result and brag about adding value instead of selecting applicants who are bound to succeed.

2. Both during the application process and at graduation, assess students on their ability to address complex, multidimensional problems, ideally in cooperation with others. (My university’s Gemstone program is an example.) Set them problems that require a combination of interpretive skills, quantitative analysis, management and communication ability, and strategic thinking. Develop the assessment with input from private-sector employers and civic leaders who can certify that a high score means readiness for work and citizenship.

3. Constantly reform the curriculum and pedagogy to maximize gains for all students on the assessments described above. Perhaps a good approach would be to assign teams of students to address elaborate, multimensional problems over six weeks or longer. Given the same faculty-student ratio and the same faculty work-load that we have today, a college could reassign its professors to interdisciplinary teams that would advise teams of students working on projects. I’m not sure that this is a great idea, but it certainly seems more promising than having professors lecture to huge classes and rely on graduate students to translate their thoughts.

city of dreaming spires

Oxford–the city, not the university–figures in my memories from all stages of my life. In fact, my connection to the town predates my memory. When I was a colicky baby, my parents rented a house in Oxford one summer that came with its own punt–one of the flat, polled boats that are common on Oxford’s two placid rivers. Apparently, I was happy only when lying on my stomach at the bottom of the punt.

When I was between seven and ten, we lived for several long periods in London. My father, a British historian, could make good use of the books and papers in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. We took family day-trips to Oxford that developed certain routines. We would go to a pet store in Oxford’s Victorian covered market, buy dry food appropriate for deer, and feed them in the park of Magdalen (pronounced “Maudlin”) College. The Magdalen park is stocked with short English roe deer and surrounded by a bend in the Cherwell River along which Joseph Addison liked to walk in the 18th century. The gothic towers of Madgalen (ancient and quaint even in Addison’s day) rise above the grass and water.

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domestic spying and impeachment

The president’s direct order to conduct domestic wiretaps without warrants is a very big deal. I’m ready to change my whole view of the Bush Administration if the facts turn out for the worst. For almost five years, I have been making these arguments:

1. What’s bad about the Bush Administration are some of its overt priorities and policies. The way to respond to a public policy that you don’t like is to propose a better idea. But who knows what ideas the House Democrats support today–or what Kerry and Edwards wanted to do in 2004? To concentrate on the characters and secret behaviors of men like Bush, Cheney, and Rove is to miss the point of politics, which is supposed to be a contest of ideas.

2. It is also bad political strategy for the Democrats to concentrate on attacking Republican leaders. In times of war or terror, if the conversation dwells on personal characters and behaviors, the incumbents tend to win and the critics look merely opportunistic (especially if they don’t have plans of their own).

However, last Friday’s revelation of the domestic wiretap order adds a whole new dimension. I don’t believe that it alters the two points listed above. The country still needs policy alternatives, especially regarding Iraq. And the Democrats will still be better off if they talk about future directions, rather than attack the President. Nevertheless, to order domestic wiretaps without warrants may violate a federal criminal statute. If a president issues such an order knowingly, operating under the principle that the law doesn’t cover his behavior–and he gets away with it–then we don’t have limited government or constitutionalism.

Therefore, I think the president should face a congressional investigation to determine whether he knowingly violated ? 2511 of 18 USC I(119). If he did, then he should face an article of impeachment. An impeachment debate would be a distraction and would probably energize the Republican base in ’06, yet I don’t believe the country can ignore possible lawlessness in the White House.

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college teaching isn’t very effective

Yesterday’s post was long and meandering. I was thinking as I wrote about several different (but related) topics. I’m beginning to plan a speech that I’ll give in Texas in January, and yesterday’s post was preparatory. Anyway, I think I “buried the lead.” If anything I wrote was interesting, it was this paragraph:

College students score higher on tests of knowledge and critical thinking near the end of their undergraduate careers than at the beginning. The best estimates suggest that college exposure has a positive effect–between one quarter and one half of a standard deviation, depending on what outcomes we measure. However, there is remarkably little evidence that the type of college matters, even though colleges differ extraordinarily in size, selectivity, and mission. To me, this finding suggests that little of what a college does intentionally to educate students has an impact. Students grow, in part thanks to the college experience (which includes extracurricular activities and living arrangements); but they do not benefit to an impressive degree from college teaching.

As Hellmut Lotz noted in his comment yesterday, “course work provides valuable focus to the learning experience in dorms and friendship circles. If young adults went to … day care [for a year], they would probably learn less.” I agree. Students benefit from being congregated with other students in institutions supposedly dedicated to learning. Even the title of “student” probably has a positive effect. Nevertheless, the direct impact of the instruction that colleges offer seems remarkably small, given how much we charge for it. I blame large classes, unhelpful exercises, poorly prepared and motivated teachers, and inappropriate curricula–but the underlying problem is the incentive structure that I described yesterday. Neither colleges nor students have enough reason to care about the “value-added” from higher education.

The source, again, is Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini, How College Affects Students: Vol. 2, A Third Decade of Research (Jossey-Bass, 2005), p.145-6; 205-6.

why schools and colleges often overlook civic development

Markets may have advantages for education, but they pose special problems for civic education. The civic development of young people will be undervalued in any market system, unless we take deliberate and rather forceful efforts to change that pattern.

The degree to which markets govern education varies according to the type of institution. At one extreme, competitive research universities fight tooth-and-nail for faculty and students who have enormous choice about where to work or study. Community colleges and local universities are somewhat more insulated from markets, although they do compete with more distant institutions, for-profit colleges, and the workforce. Independent private schools compete fiercely for students, less so for faculty. Charter schools and schools funded by public vouchers have been deliberately placed in markets in which parents are the “consumers.” Finally, even a large, standard, urban public school system is in a kind of market. To the extent that parents have resources, they can choose to move away or to enroll their children in private or parochial schools. Likewise, public school teachers often have some degree of choice about where to work.

To see why the market undersupplies civic education, consider what parents want schools and colleges to do for their own children. First, they may want their children to learn the skills, values, and knowledge necessary to be good citizens who can keep track of public issues, deliberate with others, build consensus, and take appropriate action. In a 2004 poll, 71% of adults said that it was important to “prepare students to be competent and responsible citizens who participate in our democratic society” (pdf).

It benefits everyone if these attributes are widespread. However, if most people are good citizens, then it doesn’t matter much whether one’s own kid has civic skills and values: he or she will benefit anyway. And if most people are not prepared for active and responsible citizenship, then there is not much that an individual can do to improve a democratic society. Thus there are reasons for parents–and their children, once they enter adolescence–to make civic education a low priority. I heard a teacher in a focus group say that if you ask parents whether schools have a civic mission, they will agree, because they know it’s the right thing to say. But they really want their own kids to get an education that will help them to get ahead; “civic education is for other people’s kids.”

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