AAC&U Statement on Spellings Commission Draft Report
The Commission's Disturbing Downward Course
The third draft of the report from the Commission on the Future of Higher Education—said to be a near-final version—combines a hollow concern for quality in undergraduate education with a practical encouragement of a cafeteria-style college curriculum.
If followed, the commission’s recommendations will—under the banner of “reform”—significantly worsen the quality of learning for many college students.
The draft report has some strengths. The main recommendations in the third part of the report are well conceived, while the discussion of college access and preparation builds on careful work by many engaged in school reform. Good ideas from other sources have been sprinkled throughout the document, such as enhancing the role of the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education and, in a nod toward the science community’s recommendations, making new investments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
But the devil is in the details. And the details of this report—if followed—chart a dismal direction for undergraduate learning in the United States and, given the report’s implicit dismissal of faculty, for the quality of American research as well. All in all, the report is deeply disappointing.
The Missing Conception of Quality
The commission calls for a primary focus on “meaningful student learning outcomes,” a position that AAC&U has taken as well. But the report does not even pretend to offer a coherent discussion of the kind of learning graduates actually need for work, life, and active citizenship in the twenty-first century. As a result, the commission's vision is both hollow and negligent.
By neglecting to discuss the outcomes that matter in a twenty-first century education and by calling nonetheless for standardized tests to assess achievement, the commission's report effectively delegates all details about the level and quality of college learning outcomes to testing agencies.
Here and there, the report mentions writing, critical thinking, problem solving, and mathematical and scientific literacy as areas in which student learning falls short. These are important priorities for college achievement, but the commission says literally nothing about college-worthy approaches to these—or any other—goals for student learning.
In the absence of further elaboration, moreover, this implied list of learning outcomes applies just as well to junior high school as it does to college. What the nation needs most is a clear understanding of how to support students’ cumulative progress toward essential learning outcomes, from school through college. The report is silent on all such questions.
Worse, the report proposes the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), which tests everyday literacies rather than higher-order learning, as a periodic check, every five years, on college achievement. (Although the authors do not say so, they seem to propose NAAL as the college equivalent of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the schools.)
De facto, "literacy" becomes the standard for achievement in this report on the future of college learning in the United States.
The complete failure even to mention the importance of history, culture, the humanities, the arts—or the social sciences and the professional fields—shows a dramatically downsized conception of college learning.
Civic knowledge and engagement? Not a concern in these pages, despite the summons on page 1 to "return to core public purposes." Ethical reasoning and action? Engagement with diversity? These are not “core purposes” either.
The sciences and international learning are given a token mention, but nothing more.
In practice the report rests all its hope for quality improvement not on a conception of important learning, or on purposeful connections from school through college, but rather on national and campus reporting of standardized test outcomes.
And yet, as everyone knows, this very same strategy has produced decidedly suboptimal results in our public schools. We are doing more testing now in the schools than ever before. But as the draft report itself notes, “Fewer than 22% of the 1.2 million students who took the ACT college-entrance examinations in 2004 were ready for college-level work in mathematics, English and science” (p. 10).
Testing—by itself—is not a strategy for educational improvement. But this—and a vague call for innovation—is what the report offers.
A Cafeteria Plan for the Curriculum
In an earlier version of this report, the authors decried the incoherent, fragmented college curriculum, although they offered no proposals that actually address this very real problem.
In this latest draft, however, the authors have set aside all concern for educational coherence.
Instead, they say only that "more students than ever before have adopted a 'cafeteria' approach to their education" and that such students care "little about the distinctions" among different kinds of colleges. Rather, "they care—as we do—about results" (p. 3).
The result that students want, of course, is the degree. To this end, the report calls repeatedly for removal of barriers and more flexibility for course transfer from one institution to another.
The fact of the matter is that many colleges and universities, and some entire states, have invested vast amounts of time in calibrating particular curricula across institutional boundaries—from two-year to four-year institutions—so that, when students do transfer, they will be well prepared for more advanced work.
The report should call for more such calibration, and much better guidance to students about educational planning for transfer. By focusing mainly on ease of course transfer, the report virtually invites an acceleration of the "grab and go" cafeteria plan—and therefore of the educational incoherence and half-learned lessons that are already serious problems for many students (and their employers).
Disdain for Faculty
It is telling that faculty—whose work has long been the recognized key to educational quality—do not actually appear in this report until page 23, where they are charged to set "educational objectives" for students and to invent measures to assess their progress. The text does not explain how these faculty-created "educational objectives" and measures are supposed to relate to the standardized tests that the report recommends with far greater detail and enthusiasm.
Apart from this cameo mention, faculty disappear altogether from the commission's vision for higher learning in America.
In truth, many faculty members have already become leaders in devising educationally powerful learning innovations across all parts of postsecondary education. The evidence is mounting that many of the innovations they have already pioneered have a particularly beneficial effect on students from less advantaged backgrounds—the very students to whom the report urges a new commitment.
As AAC&U has noted in a lengthy series of reports from its Greater Expectations initiative, college campuses are now dotted with “islands of innovation,” including many that make rich use of the educational potential of technology. The real challenge before us is not to launch innovation but to take tested innovations to scale.
The authors of this report—so determined to picture the academy as "complacent” and resistant to change—do not even hint at these results of campus and faculty creativity, or the body of emerging research on their benefits for student learning.
The report also shows no interest in the abundant evidence that close interaction between faculty and students is one of the most important predictors of college completion and achievement. Strikingly, although teacher quality is everywhere cited as the key to effective learning in the schools, this report makes no connection between faculty quality and student achievement in college.
The report says that it wants “a world-class higher-education system that creates new knowledge” (p. 3). But it seems oblivious to the role that faculty play in the academy’s world-class accomplishments.
Rather, the authors repeatedly embrace the interests and potential of the for-profit colleges that make no investment in faculty scholarship whatsoever.
A Time for Leadership and Action
It is very important that in September, when the final report is released, AAC&U presidents and trustees take the lead—in partnership with their faculty—and call for a vision of college learning that is worthy of a great democracy.
College admission is important—and so too is college completion. But the key to America's future is what happens in between. And on that all-important topic, this report charts a decidedly downward course.