January 31, 2008

Higher education and the wrong battle

At Education Sector, Kevin Carey (a 4 out of 5 in my book) has an institutionalist lens that is sometimes incisive (4.5 out of 5) , sometimes frustrating (2 of 5), and occasionally both. Such as his complaint yesterday about the "Higher Ed Lobby" (my quotation marks, which are probably 1 out of 5 on style). Here's the gist in his complaint about accreditation agency politics:

But accreditation does a terrible job of creating or providing any kind of public, comparable information about institution-level academic quality.

I'd rate that comment as a 3 out of 5, and the post in general a 2.5 (in comparison with Eduwonkette, whose posts are averaging about 4.87 in the last few months). There are multiple arguments layered into that one statement, but let me focus on two:

  • Lax accreditation has played a significant role in letting the quality of (undergraduate) instruction be lower than it could be.
  • What we need to improve undergraduate instruction is predigested comparisons of quality between institutions.

Thus, yesterday's statement of principles by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation is unlikely to satisfy Carey's concerns because it resists the notion that creating quantitative comparisons of student outcomes is a necessary part of the accreditation process. Delving into the broader issue at length requires more energy and time than I have this morning, but I'll put out a few counterclaims:

  • As long as millions of parents and students perceive that they are buying a degree from a college, there will be an inevitable tension between credentialism and the "use value" of a college education. In this environment, accreditation has to answer the face-value "does this college provide an opportunity to learn, and is the degree legitimate?" question.
  • The most savvy students and parents want more than U.S. News rankings, but they're not going to give a hoot about what irks Carey and me about the rankings. Instead, savvy students and parents want to know what happens in the classroom, the lab, the studio, and the field. A case in point: last year, one teen acquaintance of mine was looking for colleges with performing arts programs. In the end, she was accepted to two schools with outstanding reputations, one with local connections that are unbeatable in this subfield, and the other that's in another region, perfectly reputable, but without those networking opportunities. She had the opportunity for one last visit to each place, and what made the difference was watching students rehearse and perform. There was no faux objectivity. My young friend watched students work and decided that the less-networked place had the better education because there was a pop to the work in one place that just didn't exist in the other.

My friend and her parents (whom I've known for years) cared about comparisons, but not predigested ones. They made their own ranking. Kevin Carey, Charles Miller, and others may want to see predigested measures, but they'll be swimming upstream against credentialism, against the needs of students and families who really do want information about educational quality, and against the professional judgment of faculty. Framing the issue as one of the White Hats against the Higher Ed Lobby does everyone a disservice.

One more thing: Last week I tried an experiment and allowed readers to rate my posts on a 1-5 scale. I tried priming the pump by rating a few of them (no, not all 5's), but no one else participated, and I pulled that option. I guess maybe some people are interested in ratings, but not my blog's readers.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on January 31, 2008 11:47 AM |