Liberal Education

Diversity, Complexity, and the Mismeasure of Learning

Many imagine that the summer is a slow time in the academy. And comparatively speaking, that may be true. This year, however, the summer months have been marked by momentous highs and lows for the higher education community. Across the country, higher education leaders applauded in late June the Supreme Court's affirmation that diversity in higher education is a compelling interest for the nation. AAC&U was pleased that in her majority opinion, Justice O'Connor affirmed that there is clear evidence of the educational benefits of diversity. She cited the amicus brief that focused on the research basis for this claim filed by AAC&U, along with the American Association for Higher Education and the American Educational Research Association. The court's decision represents a breakthrough victory for everyone who has made a long-term commitment to the value of campus diversity and an important victory for all those who believe that diversity has become an essential element of excellence in higher education today. While the decisions should surely be celebrated, everyone in the academy recognizes that far more work remains to be done.

Through a common statement after the ruling, AAC&U and many other higher education associations (see reminded the public and our colleagues throughout the academy that the Michigan decisions must be seen in the context of an ongoing struggle toward meaningful inclusion, equality, and opportunities to learn. As an Association, we have taken this historical moment to recommit ourselves to the unfinished work of creating a more just democracy. As our statement suggests, we must 1) work with our K-12 colleagues to ensure that all students are prepared for both college access and success; 2) confront and close the achievement gap within higher education; and 3) ensure that students of all backgrounds acquire the knowledge and capacities they need for a world that is at once diverse, interdependent, fragmented, and deeply unequal.

Unfortunately, conversations about education here in Washington this summer do not bode well for moving this democratic agenda forward. Building on the No Child Left Behind Act passed last year, the U.S. Congress began hearings this summer in preparation for the pending reauthorization of the higher education act. In this context, Congress is considering an approach to quality and accountability that is all too likely to distort rather than assist the commitment to access and student success that most campuses want to embrace.

It is clear from our work with nearly 900 AAC&U member colleges and universities all across the country that many institutions have launched very exciting efforts to improve the quality of undergraduate learning for a much more diverse set of students with varying levels of academic preparation than the academy has ever seen before. Leaders in Washington, however, seem utterly unaware of these efforts to prepare students more successfully for a complex, turbulent, and knowledge-intensive world. Too many of those now debating "quality and accountability" hold a disturbingly impoverished view of what powerful learning in higher education is really all about. The potential damage is compounded by new proposals to cap tuition increases, at the very moment that both state support and endowments are plummeting.

The national dialogue we really need about quality in higher education isn't centered on measuring basic skills with standardized tests in which every question has a single, certifiably pre-determined "correct answer." Nor is there much quality to be gained by tracking graduation rates across higher education institutions with widely varying missions and student circumstances that include transfer and stopping out.

Instead, we need a more robust discussion about the aims of education. What do today's college students really need to know and be able to do when they graduate? Regular readers of Liberal Education know that AAC&U's report, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College, has offered an answer to this question--a vision for a New Academy. In this New Academy, students will be asked to engage with complex and contested questions and to acquire capabilities that can only be attained by learning in a diverse environment. How can we accurately assess the quality of their gains? Not by one-size-fits-all tests, but rather by examples of their learning evaluated in the context of challenges they will actually face after college: research projects and assignments completed on deadline, collaborative problem-solving, capstone exhibitions and oral presentations, supervised internships, and portfolios demonstrating cumulative accomplishment.

The challenge before us now is not only enacting these practices on our campuses, but also helping the public and our elected officials at both the state and national levels understand that only authentic performances can demonstrate the ability to apply acquired knowledge and skill to new problems. Multiple-choice and norm-referenced tests may have made (some) sense in the world of the assembly line. They make no sense at all as an index of quality for a world that puts such a high value on creativity, ingenuity, complex problem solving, and the ability to learn with and from colleagues very different from oneself.

What the articles in this issue of Liberal Education remind us is that it's all about the learning. They point to the long history and continuing vitality of scholarship that advances our understanding about how students learn and how effective educational environments can advance students' cognitive and ethical development. The pioneering work of scholars like William Perry, Lee Knefelkamp, and Patricia King has led to the work of many more contemporary scholars including those represented in this issue. This scholarship is a rich foundation on which we can build to truly improve learning outcomes for all students.

Simplistic mandates from the federal government--about retention or graduation rates, standardized testing, or caps in tuition--are far off the mark if our goal is truly to expand access to quality education for all students. The recent Supreme Court decisions will certainly help campuses create the best learning environment for today's students, but the time is ripe for higher education leaders to go beyond their work on campus to begin educating the public and their elected officials about what college learning is really all about and how today's academy is reinventing itself to advance new learning outcomes essential to the future of today's students and to the health of our diverse democracy.

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