[Vision2020] Higher education’s $64,000 question

Art Deco art.deco.studios at gmail.com
Fri Feb 3 07:58:44 PST 2012

*The Washington Post*

Posted at 05:48 PM ET, 02/02/2012 Guest post: Higher education’s $64,000
By Daniel de Vise<http://www.washingtonpost.com/daniel-de-vise/2011/02/28/ABCdyJL_page.html>

“* Academically
a 2010 book, shook the Ivory Tower to its foundations with evidence that a
substantial share of college students show no significant learning gains
between their freshman and senior years. *

*Here, with a guest post on that theme, is David Paris, executive director
of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability.
He’s also a government professor at Hamilton College.*

“Are students learning?”

This question should be the focus of almost everyone’s efforts in higher
education: administrators, faculty members, staff. It should also be the
question asked by those interested in higher education: parents, employers,
policymakers — well, just about everyone, including students and
prospective students themselves.

Unfortunately, this question isn’t the most common topic of discussion in
higher education. Certainly many of us in higher education will talk about
the wonderful faculty and students in our colleges and universities and the
great programs and the facilities (and amenities) many institutions have.
We rightly point to the wide opportunities institutions provide for many
students who in previous generations could not have even considered
college. But we don’t typically talk about the specific learning resulting
from programs and opportunities provided in higher education.

Worse, what we do know from international comparisons and from “Academically
Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s study of gains in critical thinking in a
national sample, and from several other similar studies and surveys,
suggests our students aren’t as engaged in rigorous academic work or
learning as we would like. And most of these studies don’t even take into
account the substantial portion of students who start but do not
undergraduate education.

Why? How is it that we are not focused on what should be the primary
question for our institutions of higher education? Arum and Roksa offer a
simple explanation: “individual and institutional interests and incentives
are not closely aligned with a focus on undergraduate academic learning per
se.” To oversimplify a bit, students prioritize obtaining credentials over
learning and social life over academics; faculty view scholarship — as
opposed to (rigorous) teaching — as a source of rewards and advancement;
and institutions have no incentive to compete with regard to learning
outcomes as opposed to status and amenities.

Similarly, policymakers and others interested in higher education have
often placed more emphasis on legitimate issues of access, cost, and
completion than on quality of learning. Tuition, retention, and graduation
rates are more easily measured and (seemingly) understood. The question of
learning may seem less accessible, and officials and others are likely to
avoid discussing learning, deferring to faculty expertise, autonomy, and
academic freedom. When they have called for greater accountability for
results in higher education, their demands have seldom been well focused
and often have been fiercely resisted.

How do we focus our thinking and action on the question of student
learning? The New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and
Accountability recently published “Committing to Quality: Guidelines for
Assessment and Accountability in Higher
These guidelines provide a checklist for colleges to take responsibility
for assessing and improving student learning to set clear goals for student
achievement, to regularly gather and use evidence that measures performance
against those goals, to report evidence of student learning, and to
continuously work to improve results. “Committing to Quality” has been
endorsed by 27 higher education organizations.

“Committing to Quality” provides a guide for asking the questions that need
to be asked about higher education. Anyone interested in higher education
can use these guidelines to determine whether an institution is focusing on
the question of student learning. Anyone can take the guidelines and ask
its questions: “Is your institution setting ambitious goals?” “Is your
institution gathering evidence of student learning?” “Is your institution
using evidence to improve student learning?” “Is your institution reporting
evidence and results?” Each of these questions is followed by a checklist
that allows an assessment of how well an institution is doing in committing
to quality, in addressing the one simple question, “Are students learning?”

Addressing this question will also help respond to other issues. Paying
close attention to student engagement in learning and learning outcomes
will likely help students remain enrolled and graduate. Similarly, we
cannot completely evaluate cost without evaluating the quality of results
for students. Perhaps most important, awarding more degrees will only be
meaningful if those degrees reflect a high level of student accomplishment.
As the need for postsecondary education expands to meet the demands of the
economy and the desirability of an educated citizenry, the importance of
focusing on quality becomes even more crucial.

What now? Committing to quality is the first step in a necessary rethinking
of the professional responsibilities and policy priorities of all those
concerned with higher education. Higher education is a diffuse,
decentralized profession, with institutional and professional diversity and
autonomy being highly prized aspects of our work. However, our cherished
autonomy must be coupled with shared professional understandings about how
we can best serve our clients, students, and society more generally. The
publication of “Committing to Quality” and the endorsement by these
organizations move higher education toward speaking with one voice on the
central issue of student learning and the role of gathering, reporting, and
using evidence in improving it.

In 1940, the American Association of University Professors published
the “Statement
of Principles on Academic Freedom and
That document offered principles that it believed should govern the role of
faculty members in higher education. At the time of its publication, only
two organizations, it and the Association of American Colleges and
Universities, endorsed it, and in the time since, the number of
endorsements has risen to over 200. These principles have been adopted,
used, and modified appropriately over the years and have had a significant
impact in defining higher education in the United States.

We in the New Leadership Alliance intend “Committing to Quality” to have
the same kind of impact in establishing evidence-based improvement of
student learning as a central focus of higher education. We urge all those
in college and university communities — presidents and chancellors, faculty
members, academic and student affairs administrators — to share and discuss
these principles and, ultimately, to put them into practice. As “Committing
to Quality” concludes, “If colleges and universities focus on
evidence-based improvement of student learning outcomes, they will be true
to their societal responsibilities and serve the common good. Our students
and our nation deserve nothing less.”
By Daniel de Vise<http://www.washingtonpost.com/daniel-de-vise/2011/02/28/ABCdyJL_page.html>
|  05:48
PM ET, 02/02/2012

Art Deco (Wayne A. Fox)
art.deco.studios at gmail.com
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