Thursday, June 30, 2011

Accountable to Whom? The Un-measurable in Education

I don't think I need to go back over for any readers of this blog the push in education, both K-12 and higher education, towards standardization, concrete learning outcomes, and return-on-investment. One has to look no further than what is currently going on in Texas to see that what we do as professors/instructors/educators is under some heavy fire. Increasingly, my job is about counting and measuring. 

I am not saying that we shouldn't be held accountable, but I wonder to whom we should be accountable to? And if we change who we are accountable to, then we also need to change how we "measure" or evaluate the job we have done. 

As public institutions, we are accountable to the public at large that supports our work. I have some trouble with that assertion if only because the "public" has largely abandoned public higher education. If we look at California, we can readily see the impact of severely reduced public monies going to the university; the list of universities that have had the highest net increase in tuition overwhelmingly come from California. I invite you to check out the work that Remaking the University has been doing to expose the erosion of public support for higher education in California. 

But even if we still looked at the university as serving the public good, much of what the university does do (or, at least, could do) goes "un-measured" by the typical metrics. If all we measure are students taught, graduation rates, and post-graduation salaries, we are missing the rich and complex work that professors do in the university. In fact, I would argue, that it is not in the greater public's good to limit our judgement on a university's (or professor's) success based exclusively on raw numbers; it actively discourages academics from actually engaging the larger community that they are a part of. When the "public good" is defined as test scores, then you can be sure that that is the only good the public will receive. 

But as the students' burden of paying for their education increases, so, too, then, should we see the individual student as the person we are ultimately accountable to. This, of course, is problematic. There are many ways we are, as educators, already at the mercy of our students', thus accountable to them. We are, if Academically Adrift is to be believed, simplifying the curriculum, at students' demand. We are entertaining them at best, enabling them at worst, rather than educating them in order to prop up our evaluations. But these sort of accountability measures don't actually serve the students, but the administrative (or governmental) dictates of retention and completion rates. In fact, the student is not the one who is holding us accountable. 

When I look at the recent post from the educators at the University of Venus, commenting on the best part of their job, it universally comes down to the relationship we all have with individual students. In a moving defense of the humanities, a professor defends how a liberal arts education enriches the individual, making the world at large a better place. But I want to take his argument a step further and show how self-perpetuating arguments against "impractical" education have become.

Liberal arts degrees are seen as worthless because they don't provide students with any sort of "hard" skills. But they do provide students with the soft skills necessary to make good choices, both in their professional and personal life. But, why aren't they then? Why are more and more people acting badly (insert whatever definition of "bad" you'd like; the argument works no matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on)? 

Could it be because less and less students are, in fact, pursuing or even have access to this kind of enriching education? 

I teach at a rural state institution, filled with non-traditional, first-generation college students. Our completion rates are, admittedly low. Not for-profit institution low, but low nonetheless. When I see my developmental students, I know the odds are stacked against them. In my mind, I am accountable to them by trying to teach them as much as I can in 15 weeks to attempt to make them not just a better college student, but a better person, period. I teach writing, critical thinking, and, even in this age of narcissism, confidence. Even if my students never complete their degree, or even their freshman year, I act as though my course will serve them outside of university.

They will come out of my class as better writers and more aware of the importance of literacy. Maybe they'll write a better cover letter, or earn a promotion because of their improved writing and literacy skills. Maybe they'll come back later to complete a degree because they demonstrated progress in my class. Maybe they will consume media a bit more wisely, carefully, and critically. Maybe they'll read to their kids, stock their dwellings with books, and take regular trips to the library, increasing the chances that their kids will succeed where they did not. 

These are the un-measurable parts of my job. This is how I am accountable to my students. Are they better people having taken my class? That is one of my most important goals when teaching. No one measures that. I don't even know if we could. But I see it as my responsibility as a teacher, to my students and to the public, whoever they may be. 


  1. Very good observations. My most influential experiences as a student certainly never showed up on any count.

  2. That ~ not counting or being able to count what really matters, discounting narratives and the anecdotal ~ is at the core of the problem with 'learning analytics' no matter how hard you scrape the data

  3. I agree with the burdens of students is really increasing day by day.


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