July 21, 2006

Spellings Commission draft report, redux?

The second draft of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education is now out, and the reactions are much more positive, with a few exceptions such as ACTA and its head, Anne D. Neal, who lament what she claims is the disappearance of curriculum from the second draft: "The only thing the Commission's latest draft ensures is that the academic establishment will not squeal too loudly." It's the work of the Establishment! she cries. (She's obviously a great loss to the militant revolution.)

I have news for you, Anne: You can't regain a focus that was never there. The second draft may be the result of pressure from the academic establishment (whatever that is), but there never was much about the curriculum in the first draft, either. The great themes in the first draft were human capital and the market, and they remain the themes in the second draft. And, as far as I gather, human capital and the market are the domains of the Establishment, too.

Is the second draft kinder and gentler? Yes. Importantly, the new draft acknowledges the cost-shifting away from state coffers and onto students and their families. Does the second draft retain the basic weakness I noted earlier this month? Yes, it still pretends that the market will solve problems that the market created. It still pretends that somehow technology will result in lower per-student costs than hiring faculty, and it still fails to acknowledge where the attempts of colleges and universities to lower costs with contingent faculty may be playing a role in lower quality.

There are also some quaint and romantic notions about innovation: Oh, if only colleges and universities were willing to be flexible. If only someone were willing to think outside the box! (Note to the reader: The phrase "outside the box" is now inside the box, as I've mentioned before.) My favorite is the shibboleth about academic calendars and empty classrooms:

For existing institutions, the traditional and limited use of the physical plant—traditional work hours and a rigid institutional calendar year and schedule—result in programs designed to meet the needs of faculty, not students.

On the one hand, I understand some evidence of this: One sister-in-law was frustrated because the nearby public university could not get into its thick head that teacher education courses might want to be scheduled at night, so those who wanted to move into teaching mid-career might get some education before entering a classroom. But that's the exception. Especially for public colleges and universities, higher-ed generally tries to bend backwards to schedule courses in different configurations during the day and week. Sometimes this is counter-productive, as in six-week summer courses on topics that require a longer time for students to digest, such as Milton or Joyce.

Apart from the failure to ground that accusation in reality, the reason why it brought a laugh to me is because helter-skelter scheduling would decrease the efficiency of space use. It would increase student confusion if some of their courses were six weeks long, others started partway through those six weeks and lasted ten, and others started a few weeks later and lasted fifteen, by which time they'd have started other courses. Regularity is in the interests of everyone, to some extent. If there is a "dead time" during the week, it's Fridays, because faculty generally need some travel time to get to conferences (many of which start late Thursday), and institutions need time to have meetings. There are some workarounds and ways that academic schedules can be improved, but those involve tweaking and not the destruction of regularity.

Of the "unit records" controversy, I think most of it could be avoided with a non-longitudinal approach: simply record matriculation, transfers, graduations, and other key events by age and a few other key demographic variables, without individual tagging. We can still learn a great deal from that.

My prediction: the final report will be very similar to this second report. The recommendations will be DOA, but this commission was never about policy setting. It has always been about agenda setting. And the great irony is that this draft report essentially sets higher ed on the same path it's currently on.

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Posted in Education policy on July 21, 2006 8:49 AM |