Statement on Spellings Commission Report

Friday, September 15, 2006

We have a responsibility to make sure our higher education system continues to meet our nation's needs for an educated and competitive workforce in the 21st century.

That's why today I'm announcing the formation of a new commission on higher education to lead this debate. We are calling it "A National Dialogue: The Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. " The goal is to launch a national discussion on the future of higher education and how we can ensure our system remains the best in the world and provides more opportunities for all Americans.

Secretary Margaret Spellings, September 2005

About one year ago, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings charged the Commission on the Future of Higher Education to lead a national dialogue and chart a course for higher education in America. The Commission was asked to examine “vital issues central to a quality higher education, such as accessibility, affordability, accountability and quality. ”  In March 2006, AAC&U provided the Commission with written recommendations focused specifically on the Commission’s work related to quality and accountability. In making those recommendations, we drew on the extensive work of AAC&U’s more than 1,150 institutional members and our previously released Board of Directors statement, Our Students’ Best Work: A Framework for Accountability Worthy of Our Mission (pdf).

The final report from the Commission was formally released by Secretary Spellings on September 26, 2006. In it, the Commission calls for “an unprecedented effort to expand higher education access and success. ”  We heartily endorse this commitment. We regret, however, that the Commission recommends no actions to ensure that traditionally underserved students will have full access to high quality college programs that provide them with twenty-first-century knowledge and skills.

Changes in the world around us have significantly raised the bar on the scope and level of learning students need from a college education. By saying virtually nothing about the kinds of learning that are most important in today’s world, the Commission leaves the door wide open for access without excellence.

A Vision of Educational Quality for Our Age

We applaud the Commission for calling on higher education to focus on “meaningful student learning outcomes,” a position that AAC&U has taken as well. But in its report, the Commission does not offer a coherent vision of the learning outcomes graduates actually need for work, life, and active citizenship in the twenty-first century.

Americans know that their world is being dramatically reshaped by scientific and technological innovations, increasing global interdependence and cross-cultural encounters, and a shifting balance of economic and political power. To succeed in this rapidly shifting environment, college graduates need a broader set of skills and knowledge. Today’s graduates need to be intellectually resilient, cross-culturally literate, technologically adept, morally grounded, and fully prepared for a future of continuous and cross-disciplinary learning. We must also ensure that all students—not just the fortunate few—have access to an education that fosters these capacities.

It is especially regrettable that the Commission’s report focuses almost exclusively on workforce preparation, narrowly defined. The longstanding and distinctively American goal of preparing students for engaged citizenship is ignored entirely by the Commission. In this regard, the complete failure even to mention the importance of history, culture, the humanities, the arts, or to highlight the growing service-learning movement shows a dramatically downsized conception of college learning. We are also perturbed that faculty members are mentioned only once in the entire report.  This is a remarkable and very troubling omission in a report that charts a future direction for educational quality. 

Building on a Generation of Educational Innovation

The Commission does call for the development of innovative and effective approaches to teaching and learning. However, college campuses are already filled 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.

We believe that the Commission’s report would have been stronger if it had addressed ways to build on the results of much campus and faculty creativity in developing new educational approaches and on emerging research on their benefits for student success.

For example, hundreds of programs have been developed at every kind of college and university that engage students in inquiry, innovation, and entrepreneurship. These should be expanded. Using such innovations as writing across the curriculum, service learning, problem-based learning, and undergraduate research, colleges and universities are helping at least some students master sophisticated arts of analysis, discovery, collaboration, innovation, and communication. Educational research has demonstrated the effectiveness of these new approaches to teaching and learning, but it has also revealed that only a fraction of college students actually have access to these high-impact practices. Proven methods exist, but they need further support and development to expand their use.

Assessment Practices That Deepen Learning

The report proposes that colleges and universities of all sorts can improve learning through a very small set of standardized tests administered outside of a student’s regular course-taking. While the tests the Commission recommends may be useful in some respects, they are designed to measure only a few very basic learning outcomes.

Leaders at the Educational Testing Service and the Council for Aid to Education—sponsors of the specific tests recommended by the Commission—have recently pointed out that tests do not yet exist to measure many of the most important outcomes of college. These other outcomes—including such things as intercultural learning, collaborative skills, and ethical reasoning—are far too important to ignore simply because we do not yet have adequate tests to measure their achievement.

AAC&U and many other organizations have called for more curriculum-embedded methods of assessment that would address a wide range of the most important learning outcomes within a student’s regular curricular requirements. Standardized tests that stand outside the regular curriculum are, at best, a weak prompt to needed improvement. They can perhaps signal a problem but test scores themselves do not point to where or why a problem exists. As George Kuh, the nation’s leading authority on engaged student learning, has said, “outcomes measures in the form of test scores cannot help us catch up because they are not sensitive to the factors and conditions related to underachievement. ”

AAC&U’s Board of Directors has recommended in Our Students’ Best Work: A Framework for Accountability Worthy of Our Mission that the right standard for both assessment and accountability is students’ demonstrated ability to apply their learning to complex, unscripted problems in the context of their own most advanced work. We remain committed to this approach to assessment and accountability.


While we are disappointed that the Commission missed an opportunity to provide leadership in these important areas, it remains AAC&U’s top priority to advance needed educational change to provide the most important learning outcomes for today’s world.

We will do everything we can to help all students—especially those underserved—achieve the kinds of learning they need for a new global century. Drawing from pace-setting campus leadership in every sector of higher education, AAC&U will release in January of 2007 a ground breaking report from the National Leadership Council guiding its Liberal Education and America’s Promise campaign.  This report will make specific recommendations about the learning outcomes students need and ways to raise levels of student achievement, from school to college.

It will describe an educationally productive approach to quality and accountability including the following four elements:

  • A vision of educational excellence calibrated with the needs of a complex, global, and rapidly evolving society
  • Clearly articulated educational goals which translate that vision into specific aims and outcomes for students’ learning over time
  • Best practices through which diverse learners and institutions pursue those aims and outcomes
  • Assessment practices that help everyone concerned—faculty, students, stakeholders—discern the extent to which students have achieved these key outcomes