Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Should Colleges be More Accountable?

A few weeks ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education published my article, America’s Most Overrated Product: A Bachelor’s Degree.

One of that article’s contentions is that each college’s student recruitment materials be required to include a report card containing such information as graduation rates and average student growth in thinking skills, writing, etc. disaggregated by SAT score bands.

I’ve been pleased that the article has generated national interest: It has been republished in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Dallas Morning News, and I was interviewed about it on a number of shows including National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation. I’ve received so many supportive emails from professors, administrators, students, and former students.

The article has also generated many responses in the Chronicle’s Forum, not all positive. In this blog post, I list the major criticisms of my call for a required college report card and my response to each criticism:

Criticism #1: “Surely teaching isn’t poor at teaching-oriented institutions, of which there are thousands. In my R1 department, the quality of teaching by top-notch research profs is amazingly (emphasis mine) good, with a few glaring exceptions.”

My Response
Here are my criteria for “amazing” teaching. How many faculty members could honestly describe themselves as “amazing?”

— Providing instruction that will cause significant growth in the critical competencies:

— thinking skills

— writing skills

— responsible citizenship

— information literacy (for example, competent use of libraries, Google, etc)

— an understanding of the scientific method

— the ability to think probabilistically

— the ability to estimate accurately

— an appreciation of iconic music and art through the ages

— an appreciation of the universal themes in literature and the major definitions and tensions within, for example, love, jealousy, ambition, greed, alienation, the meaning of life, fear, prejudice, death, etc.

— Often using immersive activities such as simulations, role plays, and debates, which increase the likelihood of growth in those competencies.

— The willingness to be truly available, one-on-one, to students as intellectual and emotional mentors. That means the clichéd but invaluable long talks, walks, coffees, and dinners with students, asking them questions, for example, about their search for meaning, career, responsible citizenship, wisdom, etc.

From where I sit, that is the standard to which we should aspire. And if teaching faculty members don’t have the time or ability to be “amazing,” colleges need to change the bases on which teaching faculty are hired, provided tutelage, and promoted.

Criticism #2: “Is it colleges’ fault if students are bored? Shouldn’t they be taking more responsibility for their educations?” (My article cited the Higher Education Research Institute national study that found that 44.6% of freshmen at four-year colleges were frequently bored in class.)

My response
It is the admissions committee’s fault for admitting severely underprepared students, who are far more likely to be bored. (Wouldn’t you be bored as a student in a class for which you were severely underprepared?)

And faculty must take responsibility for not boring the fully qualified. Faculty has an obligation to choose content that reasonably qualified undergraduate students would find valuable, presented in interactive, engaging ways to ensure that they, at least, retain the critical learnings listed above.

Criticism #3: Requiring colleges to administer a test of value-added is a bad idea: It wouldn’t measure the important things and/or would cost too much to administer.

My Response
The Collegiate Learning Assessment, a non-multiple-choice, computer-administered test of reasoning, problem solving, and writing, has been widely recommended by higher education reform commissions and cogently defended in “Collegiate Learning Assessment: Facts and Fantasy,” Evaluation Review, Vol. 31, No. 4, 2007, pp 415-439.

Of course, no test measures everything, but each institution’s administering an exam such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment to a random sample of freshmen and then again to those students as seniors would provide a cost-effective index of a college’s value-added. Of course, the sample quality would be diminished by the fact that colleges will vary in the percentage and characteristics of the tested freshmen who left the college before their senior year. Nonetheless, it would be a most useful tool for comparing colleges and for helping a college to evaluate its effectiveness.


Dave said...

Your response for "amazing" teaching is BRILLIANT. Unfortunately, R1 faculty view undergraduate teaching as a necessary evil and they keep office hours to a bare minimum. I'm afraid that group is beyond your reach.

Marty Nemko said...

Unfortunately, many professors who read this post on the Chronicle of Higher Ed's blog, don't agree that my definition of amazing teaching is brilliant. They'd rather teachers focus on hermaneutics. Geez.

If you'd like to weigh in, here's the link:

Then click on my post, "Should Colleges be more accountable?"

Anonymous said...



1: (plural but sing or plural in constr) : the study of the methodological principles of interpretation (as of the Bible)

2: a method or principle of interpretation

I cannot think of anything more useless. The person that made this comment on your other blog must be an expert on hermeneutics. He would not fare well doing a job in the real world, like burger-flipping.

In my opinion, the people that ripped you on your definition of an "amazing" teacher did so because:

1. They, and most teachers, are by no definition "amazing." The best most can hope for is "average," and that's the case in any profession.

2. They believed you were implying that such standards should be applied to all teachers. They're not, and most teachers wouldn't want to do that anyway. Only a few go the extra mile, and that's why those few are "amazing."

For a bunch of professors, they sure don't seem very smart. Except in hermeneutics.

Dave said...

Your bar is set too high. Their interests are rather parochial. Their research is EVERYTHING and boy do they guard it! I ticked off one professor for openly criticizing (gently) the idea that one thing and its opposite can both be true. How dare I tread on Jacques Derrida and the Marxist-Leninist claptrap of readings! The Holy of Holies!

I'm having trouble with that link.

Dave said...

Not surprising that Harvard's golden years were also its early years.

Anonymous said...

It's rather disappointing that so many bloggers on the Chronicle are antagonistic towards your valid points. Perhaps its just one blogger pretending to be many (anti-hypocrisy, Roger or whatever). It seems to be a case of "shooting the messenger". Your criteria for amazing teaching makes sense. Perhaps those professors who comment negatively on your blogs are being defensive since they are the ones guilty of contributing to the deterioration of higher education. There must be some ulterior motive behind many of the unprofessional comments left at the chronicle (such as the name calling comments or credential questioning comments).Isn't there a moderator at the Chronicle blogs? Sometimes its necessary to "stir the pot" in order for there to be changes/improvements in higher education. Sugarcoating the issues and making nice statements to please people does nothing. Your articles have a lot of valid suggestions, on the other hand, the people who complain on your blogs do not offer any valid suggestions for higher education improvements. There seems to be a lot of wordy statements without real meaning. Please continue your fight for accountability in higher education.