Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Op-Ed for the other 62%

A recent op ed piece in the Washington Post has seen wide distribution (even made it into our local paper), but I wonder if anyone actually read all of it.

The authors note a study that says "only 38 percent of graduating college seniors can successfully perform tasks such as comparing viewpoints in two newspaper editorials". Not surprising to me, because I teach at a college and even attended one in the distant past. The focus for many majors is not (and was not, even in the halcyon past) on critical thinking. You don't need much of that if you major in "housing" or any number of workforce-oriented programs. Its not like every Directional State University guarantees the same kind of quality education that our President got at Yale. We do what we can, but my focus for future engineers is on thinking critically about data and the known unknowns that might make a bridge fall down, not analysis of political discourse. But I digress.

What I like about this op-ed piece is that it appears written to appeal to the 62% who don't process complex arguments that well. Lets look at the bottom of the inverted pyramid. In the third graf from the bottom they write "This problem [pushing research fame rather than learning] can't and shouldn't be fixed by government regulation." Then, with one paragraph to dull the reader's mind, they say "... and by requiring taxpayer-subsidized colleges to disclose their performance to the public, the federal government can ..." -- which sounds remarkably like a government regulation to me.

And it won't even solve the problem, which is that U.S. News chooses to emphasize one set of data over ones already available on outcomes. There are already federal regulations requiring documentation of how each college does at helping "undergraduates learn and earn degrees", with the emphasis on degrees. In addition, our accrediting agency wants to know about "engagement", generating even more data on learning. We track others ourselves, internally. Much is available on our portal, just as it is for everyone else the accrediting agencies look at. U.S. News could use those data if they wanted to. So could the "Education Sector" think tank, and produce their own ranking system.

OK, I'll give the authors the plausible deniability angle, that they were referring to a law in the last graf and a regulation in the earlier one, but maybe you see my point. If they truly respected their readers, they would not have made a logically inconsistent argument. They could have been honest about wanting a new regulation, or a revision to the existing one. I hope the talk at AERA addresses the real challenge, which is coming up with a measure that will not destroy college education with a one-size-fits-all test where art majors and engineers are held to the same math standard the way they are in high school. [We already have such a test in this state, it turns out, and it is a total joke. Fortunately, it does not skew real education too much.]

But I am not optimistic. This Op-Ed is thick with anti-intellectual attacks on research and publishing in higher education. Sorry, but as a physicist who teaches future engineers, I can tell you that their education (particularly with regard to critical thinking) is improved by access to research programs as an undergraduate, just as mine was. Research is not just for the journals, and benefits more than the faculty and the nation. It also improves undergrad education.

One size does not fit all. A future engineer needs to work with real problems, not read "four books" in their senior year. Faculty know this, and that is why they rate quality higher than mediocrity and assign capstone projects to their seniors rather than books to read. Do you want to drive over a bridge built by someone who read five books their senior year, or someone who helped design and build a steel truss during their senior year?

I have less trouble with the argument in his blog about accountability, but I have a swamp to sell him if he thinks NCLB has eliminated a caste system in our local schools. Testing did help in this area, but that was before NCLB. Word is (I don't know its reliability) that the average HS reading level went from 4th to 8th grade after they started No-Stakes testing in this state some 20+ years ago. (There were no punishments back then, just data that were used to shift resources to students who needed help.) But plenty of kids today are still being left behind, while good students are forced to waste their time prepping for a High-Stakes test they will pass easily rather than learning what they need when they get to my physics class. A test that gets their teachers a raise while taking time away from student learning.

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