Friday, April 1, 2011

More Thoughts on the Standardization of Higher Education

My post on the standardization of higher education from earlier this week was a hit, so to speak, driving traffic and stimulating some interesting discussions on Twitter. I've decide to address some of these concerns and continue venting on what I think is going to be the undoing of higher education in this country.

I received two tweets (one from @qui_oui and another from @rwpickard) about how a certain degree of standardization is necessary for transfer and the like. Look, I'm all for standards. We should all have a clear idea of what a 100, 200, 300, or 400 level class should contain within a discipline (how much to read, write, and the level of ideas/concepts expressed). I also understand that in other disciplines, you need to know a certain set of skills or concepts before moving on to the next level; I completely understand that Cal I has to come before Cal II, and that there has to be some standards in order for a student to make progress in their education. But, these standards would seem to grow organically from disciplinary requirements. Sometimes they are imposed by professional organizations, but often in the name of safety; I'm glad that my nurse has a standard set of skills that are required of her before being accredited.

It's when we get into the "softer" disciplines, like English, where I live, that things get dicey. I have written already about my experience teaching an upper-division Modern Literature course. I appreciated the fact that, within a set of clear guidelines (400-level class on English literature written during what is known as the Modernist period), I had the freedom to teach the texts that I wanted to using the approaches that I thought would work best. I was able to "create" arches, comparisons, contrasts, and evolutions with the works we studied. Modern literature is a huge field (much like any field in English) and each professor will teach the course differently, according to their biases and expertise, but also based on the make-up of the student body and institutional culture. What works in a Modern Literature course at Yale won't necessarily work in a Modern Literature course at Regional State U. But we can safely assume that given the guidelines and descriptions, a student coming out of an upper-division Modern Literature course should be able to do a certain set of things, from identify the major authors and features of the movement, as well as write a lengthy, in-depth research essay on a work from that period. How we get there will vary wildly.

And it should. Some may point to my characterization of the class as a disaster as a reason why we need more, not less, standardization. The argument goes that I was not to be trusted with coming up with the class, and instead I should have been given the syllabus and reading list to teach in a prescribed way (hey, just give me the script while you're at it). I say that my failure is an indication that the institution needs to invest in professors, not temp workers, to teach class. If the administration continues to undermine and devalue what goes on in the classroom, no amount of standardization and accountability measures are going to improve student learning. Saying that we should teach all students the same things in the same way, all in the name of accessibility, is not the answer.

Which brings me to the next point of contention. Faculty, then, should then take it upon themselves to develop the accountability measures. We do already; it's called the syllabus and grading. Apparently, that's not good enough anymore. But is that the faculty's fault or the fault of an administration that continually undermines the classroom experience (and professor's authority) in the classroom? I just came across this essay about how we, the faculty, are increasingly pressured to let learning slide in the name of "customer service":

Faculty members were being asked to be responsible for students instead of creating a system within the classroom that makes the students responsible for themselves.
This is what I am talking about when I say that the administration often don't support what professors and instructors are trying to do in the classroom, but then blame us when learning doesn't happen. Students are seen as tuition machines, and we are told they are to be retained, at all costs. When a student isn't happy, we hear about it and need to adapt to keep the customer satisfied.

I say, get our backs, get out of our way, and let's see what happens.

Money is being invested everywhere on campus except in front of the classroom, illustrated by increasing class sizes, the increase in online education, and the over-use of adjunct faculty. Students get the message; the professors (and learning) are the least important component on campus.

And even when faculty are involved in developing the accountability measures, it is usually because they are being required to do so and have to follow narrow guidelines with the demand for very prescriptive (and arbitrary) outcomes, in order to feed the data machine. Yes, cosmetically, faculty came up with the measures, but our hands are tied, impacting the results. Rather than having measures and standards that are organic to a given discipline, we have data driven measures that give us stats, but little else.

Time and resources are also a factor. Often, it is an already over-worked tenure-track faculty member (or committee of tenure-track faculty members) who is tasked with coming up with the measures. Those measures are then imposed on even more precariously positioned instructors and adjuncts, who are already burdened with the demands of teaching intensive introductory courses to larger and larger numbers of students. But none of that comes into the minds of the administrators requiring the extra work from their instructional staff (tenure-track and contingent). There's no course release, no reduction in class sizes, nothing. Something has to give, and it is either dropping other elements from the syllabus or devising the "easiest" measures to implement.

There's a win-win situation for student learning outcomes.


  1. I agree. Standardization in higher education, or in any arena will be as satisfying as a telephone pole for someone looking for trees. In the end students are the ones who lose.

  2. I do think using measures is useful, but it can be quite tricky figuring out if they are measuring what they are supposed to be measuring. I have pre-tests and post-tests for my classes and have been able to check to see if students are getting certain points, but these measures are not something I would call scientifically sound. Devising a measuring tool for a composition or literature course requires that I reduce certain analytical skills, such as metaphor interpretation, to a few multiple choice questions. I do learn something from the measurement, but a great deal is lost in the translation of a critical thinking skill to a Scantron question.


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