The war on education moves to the college campus

Sam Smith

Barack Obama – the guy who gave us a hopelessly muddled health plan incomprehensibly comprised of the good, bad and indefinable and who has asserted more control over our public schools for no known good than any president in history – is now proposing to interfere significantly with college education. As the New York Times reported:

President Obama announced a set of ambitious proposals on Thursday aimed at making colleges more accountable and affordable by rating them and ultimately linking those ratings to financial aid.

A draft of the proposal, obtained by The New York Times and likely to cause some consternation among colleges, shows a plan to rate colleges before the 2015 school year based on measures like tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend. The ratings would compare colleges against their peer institutions. If the plan can win Congressional approval, the idea is to base federal financial aid to students attending the colleges partly on those rankings.

 “There are all kinds of issues, like deciding how far down the road you are looking, and which institutions are comparable,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a group representing colleges and universities. “Ultimately, the concern is that the Department of Education will develop a formula and impose it without adequate consultation, and that’s what drives campus administrators nuts.”

Obama described it this way:

    “I think we should rate colleges based on opportunity — are they helping students from all kinds of backgrounds succeed … and on outcomes, on their value to students and parents. So that means metrics like how much debt does the average student leave with? How easy is it to pay off? How many students graduate on time? How well do those graduates do in the workforce? Because the answers will help parents and stdents figure out how much value a college truly offers.”

Senator Lamar Alexander sees it somewhat differently:

Washington needs to be careful about taking a good idea for one state and forcing all 6,000 institutions of higher education to do the exact same thing, turning Washington into a sort of national school board for our colleges and universities

And so does Adam Falk, president of Williams College:

At Williams College, we’ve analyzed which educational inputs best predict progress in these deeper aspects of student learning. The answer is unambiguous: By far, the factor that correlates most highly with gains in these skills is the amount of personal contact a student has with professors. Not virtual contact, but interaction with real, live human beings, whether in the classroom, or in faculty offices, or in the dining halls. Nothing else—not the details of the curriculum, not the choice of major, not the student’s GPA—predicts self-reported gains in these critical capacities nearly as well as how much time a student spent with professors.

As classes resume on our nation’s campuses, amid anxiety about high tuition, student debt and other concerns, it’s worth examining what we value in college education. The question warrants consideration, in particular, following a recent recommendation by distinguished economists, appointed by the National Academy of Sciences, proposing to define the “output” of higher education as a combination of credit hours awarded and degrees earned.

That reduces the work of colleges to counting how many students they push through the system—a bit like defining a movie studio’s output as the number of feet of raw footage shot, with no consideration of whether the resulting movies are any good.

Most of us in higher education take the long view about the value of what we do. Sure, students graduate with plenty of facts in their heads. But the transmission of information is merely the starting point, a critical tool through which we engage the higher faculties of the mind.

What really matters is the set of deeper abilities—to write effectively, argue persuasively, solve problems creatively, adapt and learn independently—that students develop while in college and use for the rest of their lives…

Equally misguided is the common practice of judging a school’s success by measuring the net worth of its alumni. Is a Williams graduate who is teaching elementary school less successful, less influential, less transformed than she would be if she had become a banker? There’s no reason to think so, and anyone assessing colleges or setting public policy on that assumption is being mischievous.

The arrogance of Obama’s interference in public school education was bad enough and was accomplished with the aid of a truly unqualified education secretary. As we described it a few years back:

Between 2003 and 2007 – when Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, was running the Chicago schools – fourth grade math scores in that city rose 6 points, or less than three tenths of a percent. The scores in Chicago rose only 2 more points than in the state of Illinois at large. Eighth grade math scores rose 5 points in Chicago and 7 points nationwide between 2003 and 2007.

The Chicago Tribune reported in October 2008, shortly before Duncan was appointed, that “The percentage of Chicago public high school students who met or exceeded state standards on a test tied to the ACT college-entrance exam dropped for the third consecutive year, according to scores released Friday.”…

Duncan – like DC’s school chancellor Michelle Rhee – has fostered a dysfunctional rightwing, corporatized system of education that not only isn’t working, it is damaging our children as it trains them to be obedient worker-drones incapable of analyzing or understanding what is really going on about them. The dangers of this system include:

– Teaching our children only to give the right answers and not to ask the right questions.

– Grossly limiting education to fact accumulation and basic manipulation of data, leaving little time for analysis, creativity, judgment, philosophy social intelligence, as well as learning about, and participating in, the non-mechanical aspects of life such as art, theater and music. This system deliberately teaches our children not to think.

One of the reasons technocrats like test scores so much is that it saves them the trouble of dealing with the complexities of real education. They parade seemingly objective numbers (and hide them when they’re not favorable) and strut around with a overblown media status driven by public relations rather than experience and fact.

The damage being done to our students in the public schools amounts to nationalized child abuse. Now Obama wants to wield unconstitutional powers over our colleges and universities as well.

It is important, however, to bear in mind that this has little to do with traditional politics. In fact, the destruction of public education has been a remarkably bipartisan affair, in part because both major parties are getting money from the school wreckers.

This is a case study in the takeover of politics by class and culture. Obama and Duncan reflect a massive change in the character of Washington – from a political culture to one controlled by a gradocracy of  lawers, MBAs, economists, data drones, process perverts and raving regulators. They are stunningly weak in wisdom, judgment, imagination, social skills, mediation, and comprehension of the ecology of human existence. As long as they have the numbers and the rules, everything will be fine.

There are, for example, some 43,000 lawyers in the Washington area, a 65% increase in just 15 years. There are few in the capital today who would appreciate De Tocqueville’s assessment that lawyers are a “counterpoise” to democratic government: “They constantly endeavor to turn it away from its real direction by means that are foreign to its nature.”

Meanwhile the number of MBAs in the country has increased 310% since the 1970s, And to what end?

Jermie D. Cullip  describes a simpler time:

“From 1950 to 1959, the total number of females employed increased by 18%. The standard of living during the fifties also steadily rose. Most people expected to own a car and a house, and believed that life for their children would be even better. . . The number of college students doubled. Getting a college education was no longer for the rich or elite

“The decade of the fifties was a decade of major breakthroughs in technology. James Watson and Francis Crick won the Nobel Prize for decoding the molecular structure of DNA. Tuberculosis had all but disappeared, and Jonas Salk’s vaccine was wiping out polio in the United States. . .

“Over the decade the housing supply increased 27 percent . . . Growth in the economy also led to increasing popularity of other financial intermediaries. Life insurance companies flourished for the first half of the decade and a large number of new private firms entered the market to absorb the excesses of personal savings. Savings and Loan Association holdings of mortgage loans during the decade clearly demonstrate the boom in construction at this time. In 1950 $13.6 billion was held rising to $60.1 billion in 1960. Another important growth in the 1950s capital markets was in pension funds. This industry grew from $11 billion in 1950 to $44 billion in 1960.

All in all not a bad decade to be in if you were running a business. So much so, in fact, that some began griping about it all in books like The Organization Man and plays like Death of a Salesman.

But here is the truly amazing part – given what we have been taught in recent years: America did it all as its universities turned out less than 5,000 MBAs a year.

Now, the number is over 100,000 new MBAs a year during the worst economic crisis since the great depression.

Which is how we come to have a highly educated yet frequently unwise president proposing a rating system for our colleges and universities based on things such as the salaries of those who graduate from them.

It is hard to imagine a less intelligent way to rate a university. Do we really need more high paid and ineffectual MBAs and lawyers?  What about lower salaried teachers, social workers, small business creators, mediators, and, of yes, decent politicians? How much will a college suffer for daring to provide us with such graduates?

And, like Obama’s other proposals of complexity replacing common sense, there are issues that are hardly mentioned. For example, buried in a Washington Post story:

Now, the federal government measures how many students graduate within four years or six years of starting college. But it only measures that for students who are first-timers, who are enrolled full-time and who don’t transfer from one institution to another, omitting a huge share of the college population. Millions of students are part-timers. Community colleges with excellent records of getting students into prestigious four-year schools are not rewarded for their efforts if those students fail to pick up an associate’s degree before they transfer. Nor are four-year colleges that give transfer students or former dropouts a second chance and help them get a bachelor’s degree.

Our country is on the down slope and one of the major reasons is that we put too much faith in number bangers, regulation wigglers and picayune processors.

We have limited education to fact accumulation and basic manipulation of data, leaving little time for analysis, creativity, judgment, philosophy, social intelligence, as well as learning about, and participating in, the non-mechanical aspects of life such as art, theater and music. This system deliberately teaches our children not to think.

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