The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"The ancient Romans had a tradition: whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible: he stood under the arch."...  ...Robert Armstrong.

Commentary of the Day - May 13, 2009:  What Accountability Won't do for Higher Education.  Guest commentary by Jerry M. Hatfield.

Among the controversies in American higher education are the perceptions that many students arrive at college underprepared to do the rigorous work required, that too many graduate without the requisite skills to survive the modern workplace, and that there is inadequate accountability in higher education.

It is seductively easy to confuse these issues and propose oversimplified solutions.  For example, the U.S. Department of Education suggests that greater accountability in higher education will solve the other perceived problems.  This proposal misses the mark, uses the wrong weapon and aims at the wrong target.

The call for greater accountability in higher education has undeniable merit, but its pursuit will fail to solve the problem of student underachievement.  That poor student performance results from poor instruction is far from a universal truth, and an oversimplification of a complex issue.

Public education has always been part of the ever-changing fabric of American society.  Public education as we know it today was designed in the 1800s to produce an educated populace that would support democracy.  It started in a social and economic context that was quite different from the conditions in which we live today.  Even its expectations are dwarfed by those of today. T he child born in 1890 is not the same child who sits in today's classroom.

We don't exist in a vacuum.  Each one of us is subject to multiple influences in our lives.  Children who spend six hours of each day in school are subject to influences outside the school that include poverty, racism, discrimination, fragmented communities and families, physical and mental health challenges, learning disabilities, handicaps, the quality and commitment of the school, and many more.  Taken together, these myriad influences overpower the influence of even the most effective teacher.

While this is certainly true for K-12 education, it is equally true for higher education.  In higher education, however, we see the additional stressors of adult responsibilities – students with children, jobs, disrupted families – as well as the ordinary challenges of young adult development.  The highest level of undergraduate instruction, however it is measured, simply does not have the strength to trump the other mitigating factors in students' lives.

After World War II, public education enjoyed widespread support because it was viewed as the currency necessary for the white middle class to achieve the American dream. Schoolchildren went to school to learn the "basic skills" that would enable them to gain respectable, secure and long-term employment.

But the society changed significantly throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, and those changes -- social, political, demographic and economic -- necessarily changed the context of public education.  Schools began to see students with social, health, economic and psychological needs that did not previously concern them and soon discovered that out-of-school problems impeded students' learning.  Public schools continue to adjust to the necessity of addressing these other "non-educational" needs for instruction to be effective and students to be successful.

Now public higher education must do the same.  Overstressed students hardly can be expected to get excited about our lectures on 16th-century literature without understanding that there are connections to their own lives.

The college professor no longer has the luxury of delivering a lecture and expecting that at the end of the hour, the job is complete.  In spite of modern K-12 adaptations, too many students still arrive in the college classroom with an education (and community) that failed to acknowledge and/or address their social, economic and psychological needs.  And as young adults, they must cope with a wide array of distractions.

Higher education is being criticized for its lack of accountability, and perhaps deservedly so.  But installing accountability measurements will not address the social, economic and psychological context in which students live and learn, nor how well our students are prepared for rigorous college work.

For hundreds of years the academy has basked in isolation and independence.  We have successfully rejected John Donne's thesis that "no man is an island" by protecting our unassailable domain.  We do need to examine how well we do our jobs, but instructional improvement will not necessarily improved student success.  What will produce that outcome is consideration of the modern student's social, economic and psychological context.  Students will learn to the extent that their context supports their capacity.

There are those who continue to claim that the job of the school is to teach, not to provide supportive social services.  That may have been true in 1890, and even in 1950, but it is just not consistent with today's reality.  The answer is to examine the students' context and figure out how higher education can fit, not the converse.  As our society grows and changes, so must our public education system, or it will become irrelevant and unable to support our democracy.

2009, Jerry M. Hatfield.
Jerry M. Hatfield is Chair of the Department of Human Services at the Community College of Rhode Island.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP agrees with some of Jerry's comments and disagrees with others.  The IP does agree with Jerry that more "accountability" will not necessarily improve learning at the college level.  Learning is and always has been a partnership between student and instructor.  If one member of the partnership fails to hold up his or her end of the bargain, learning will not occur.  The IP also agrees with Jerry that each generation of students is different from the previous one.  What the IP disagrees with, at least to some extent, is the notion that the student of today faces challenges that are much greater than those faced by students of previous generations.  Poverty, racism, and discrimination are still with us; but, previous generations dealt with grinding poverty both in rural America and in the big cities.  The poverty faced by generations of immigrants and native Americans in the latter part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century probably was just as bad if not worse than conditions faced by the poor today.  Racism and discrimination are still with us, but the IP thinks it fair to say that are not nearly as insidious as they once were.  Some things are worse today than they were in previous generations.  A greater percentage of young people grow up in fragmented families than they did earlier, and the there are more distractions than ever before.  But to say that students of earlier generations had many fewer challenges is to forget the Depression, World War II and the conflicts that followed.  There are two changes that are important.  They deal with opportunities and expectations.  The first change was the rapid expansion in higher education opportunities following World War II.  A college education became much more available and affordable.  The second, more recent change is the expectation that a college education is a necessity if one wants a decent job.

To an uncomfortable extent the opportunity for an affordable college education is closing.  Tuition, fees and other expenses at even the most affordable public colleges and universities have risen much faster than inflation.  It is no longer possible in most cases for enterprising and ambitious students to work their way through college or to get by on scholarships.  Instead, they and their families must take on debt that can become crushing if they are to make it through college in a reasonable time.  This does put considerable pressure on students.  At the same time, high-school graduates know that there are fewer and fewer opportunities to earn a decent living without some kind of post-secondary education.  As a result, colleges are faced with an influx of students whose preparation for college-level work is not as good on average as it was a few decades ago.  To cope with this colleges and universities offer more remediation and more student support services than they ever have in the past.  But, as Jerry notes, that often is not sufficient for some students.  Jerry's solution is for colleges and universities to change to better fit the capabilities of their students.  The IP thinks that this is a very bad idea.  Our colleges and universities should not lower their standards.  To the extent that they can, colleges and universities have an obligation to help their students meet the challenges of a college education, but that should be accomplished by raising students up wherever possible, not by watering down the college experience.


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© 2009 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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