Public won’t buy ‘trust us, we’re experts’

“Trust us, we’re experts” isn’t a persuasive argument for academics, writes Community College Dean in response to professors who reject measuring college students’ learning.

Also on Community College Spotlight:  The U.S. Education Department’s proposed definition of a credit hour measures “seat time” rather than learning, charges the American Council on Education.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. Cranberry says:

    As NCLB has been such a wonderful program for k-12 schooling, let’s extend it to colleges! What could go wrong?

    My elementary student complained about the practice MCAS reading assignments they’re doing this week. “They’re so…OBVIOUS. It’s BORING.” In practice, the state tests–while apparently more demanding than most other states–add nothing to the education of students who will be ready for college. They waste enormous amounts of time, and carry significant costs. The school year probably should be extended to compensate for the time devoted to the tests.

    If my child majors in physics in college, I’m not going to worry if he can’t identify the War of Jenkins’ Ear. There is a point at which government has to stop believing its intervention will improve matters. Our colleges and universities are much better than our k-12 system, in part because there is less intervention by bureaucrats and academics in academic matters.

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    Cranberry, if your students find MCAS reading assigments so boring, and I expect easy, why would you spend any significant amount of time practicing them? Why not practice them once or twice and move on?

  3. Cranberry says:

    Stacy, I’m a mother, not a teacher. I know his teacher well, and I know that the MCAS practice is mandated from above. We would all like to practice them once or twice and move on. There may be students in his class who need the extra practice–that data isn’t shared due to confidentiality.

    I can only assume that the school’s administration believes that more practice with the format will improve overall student performance on the test. There are no restraints on the amount of practice schools may put in. The school does not track, and I don’t think any public schools in Massachusetts track in elementary school.

    I hear from friends who are teachers that it can vary dramatically by school system, and our school is on the mild side of the spectrum. They don’t practice for the tests all year. If all a school system does is practice for the state tests, does that constitute a good education? Not in my book. Why would we assume it would improve college education?

  4. I’m guessing that in a homogeneous/gifted/honors classroom, test prep would be minimal to nonexistent, as it was when my kids were in ES-MS. In ES, the classes were not labelled, but everyone knew that Mrs. R had the top math class, Mrs. T the top LA etc. By MS, there were honors classes and test prep amounted to “make sure you fill out the top section (name etc) and make sure you match the number of the question to the number of the answer.” Schools/politicians are willing to sacrifice much on the altar of political correctness.

  5. Cranberry says:

    I have older children. I remember the school’s administration, more than a decade ago, claiming that the school would never “teach to the test.” I regret to say that that did not prove to be true. Any time one institutes a high-stakes test, schools and colleges will teach to the test–they have to.

    Colleges can do some things immediately to improve the education they offer. Do away with “publish or perish.” Institute internal exams for all student by major, created by all the teachers in a department, (or–better yet–national exams created by randomly chosen, unidentified professors), so one professor can’t boost his student reviews by requiring little work. Factor in overall student performance on the internal exams, as well as student reviews, when determining faculty effectiveness. So, if Professor X gives easy As, but his students bomb the department’s final exam, his students’ reviews should be discounted. Oh, and make fraternity test banks useless by requiring faculty to create new tests for in-class assessments, rather then relying on repeating old questions.

    Don’t run the liberal arts and non-scientific degrees as profit centers. If someone wants to major in English, History, or study for an ed school degree, the cost of her degree should reflect the resources needed to provide that degree. The cost for that degree should not be held artificially high in order to defray the Nuclear Engineering Department’s costs.

    End all athletic scholarships. Limit coach pay to the average professor’s compensation. Associations which accredit institutions of higher learning should refuse to grant accreditation to colleges which pay coaches more than professors.

    Don’t admit students who can’t do the work from day one of their undergraduate career. If Americans doubt the value of a college degree, it’s because they’ve run into too many nitwit college grads. That won’t be changed by testing. All testing might do is produce nitwit college grads who retain temporarily a few bits of trivia they should have learned in high school. They’ll still be incompetent nitwits.

    Proposing to institute regular testing of college students to prove they are learning is a plea to continue with the status quo. Now! With more testing! More administrators! More expense!

  6. Well, I recall going to both college and university and having my learning measured almost continuously though assignments, tests and essays assigned by a multitude of instructors and professors.

    So I think it’s a bit of a fop to say that students’ learning is not assessed.

    What is being objected to is the proposition that assessors who know utterly nothing about, say, physics, will be able to offer the definitive assessment of learning in physics.

    And I’d say the professors have a case.

  7. If someone wants to major in English, History, or study for an ed school degree, the cost of her degree should reflect the resources needed to provide that degree.

    And the state aid given to public universities should reflect the value provided by that degree.  (“Gender studies” and the like should probably be taxed.)

    The cost for that degree should not be held artificially high in order to defray the Nuclear Engineering Department’s costs.

    If you make it impossible for someoneo to get a degree in nuclear engineering without crushing student debt, all you’ll do is make it impossible for anyone to get such degrees unless they’re rich… or subsidized some other way.  Do you want all our nuclear engineers to be sponsored by the likes of Iran, Pakistan and North Korea?

  8. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    Cranberry Saith:

    If my child majors in physics in college, I’m not going to worry if he can’t identify the War of Jenkins’ Ear.

    The what? One of my undergraduate majors was history and I’d never even heard of this. The fact of the matter is that there is a god-awful lot to learn out there, and the important thing in, say, history, is building a usefully coherent picture of what history looks like, and knowing how to approach things historically in a fruitful and productive manner. (I know… that sounded like meaningless pablum, but I don’t feel like writing an essay on historical approaches just now.)

    Of course, I just looked it up on Wikipedia and was able to instantly assimilate it into my knowledge of the time period. I was aware that there were hostilities between England and Spain at the time, but I was unaware of this particular named bit of conflict. Now I’m not.

    Anyway, the point is this: Not even English majors are going to read every great book — there are simply too many. Not even Chemistry majors are going to be familiar with every chemical process. And not even History majors are going to be able to name let alone describe every war that’s ever happened (or at least that’s ever been recorded).

    An “expert” in a field — any field — simply won’t know everything there is to know about the field. That probably hasn’t been possible since around 1800, and certainly not since around 1930.

    But I think there’s something to the “trust us, we’re experts” argument nonetheless. Just because I don’t know everything about my field of expertise (let’s assume that I have one) doesn’t mean that I’m not one of the best people to design a syllabus for teaching it. And the fact that I know a lot more about it than, say, some Washington bureaucrat, is an excellent reason to think that I’d be better at designing such a course of study. I know what to measure and how because I know what it is I’m trying to get done. But you might think that the Washington Bureaucrat could be an expert, too. Why shouldn’t he design the syllabus, and install a uniform assessment?

    Well, that most fields simply aren’t unified, monolithic blocks of consensual knowledge. There is controversy and disagreement all over the place, even to the point of disagreements about the purpose and subject matter of the field itself. (Go ahead… ask 12 random literary theorists if films are a form of text. I dare you.) It’s often going to be simply impossible to design some sort of uniform assessment on a field. But the experts in the field are, in their own classrooms, going to be able to do two things that are valuable: (1) point out the controversies so that students are aware of them, and (2) teach their own point of view on the matter so that students are initiated into some substantial form of the discipline. And every expert is going to have their own ideas on how to balance these two interests, too.

    Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t a problem with college courses these days. There probably is. A huge part of the problem is the failure of college students to be adequately prepared to take advantage of the resources (i.e., the experts) that they have at their disposal. It’s hard to have a chat with your professor about the intracacies of an interpretive theory for poetry and how it’s deployed in your latest paper when the professor’s main worry is that you can’t compose a complete sentence.

    But an additional factor to the problem of college under-achievement is that the college administrations themselves do not trust the faculty — there is intense pressure at many institutions to keep graduation rates and grade point averages relatively high. Many professors would dearly love to enforce their own standards for undergraduate work in their field, but they are not trusted with the authority to do so, despite their expertise. Couple this with the fact that there are, undeniably, professors who are far more interested in their own research than with the time-consuming and high-effort work of enforcing rigorous academic standards, and what you get is an expert who really is the best person to create and enforce a syllabus for learning a particular field or sub-field, but who either doesn’t, or isn’t allowed to.

    OK, I’ve gone on long enough. I’ll shut up now.

  9. (Go ahead… ask 12 random literary theorists if films are a form of text. I dare you.)

    I think you just made a good case for literary theory not being a proper subject of undergraduate study in academe.

  10. Cranberry says:

    If you make it impossible for someoneo to get a degree in nuclear engineering without crushing student debt, all you’ll do is make it impossible for anyone to get such degrees unless they’re rich… or subsidized some other way. Do you want all our nuclear engineers to be sponsored by the likes of Iran, Pakistan and North Korea?

    It would make sense for the government to award grants to students in useful fields, such as nuclear engineering. It makes no sense to increase the debt load on the people who aspire to be mid-level managers or English teachers in order to offer below-cost education to others. After all, engineers earn much higher wages than anyone else after graduation. Why should the students who stand to earn the least after graduation underwrite the education of the students who earn the most?

    Nuclear engineers earn a mean annual wage of $100,000. Secondary school teachers earn a mean annual wage of $55,000. Why should the teachers underwrite the engineers’ training? (source: bureau of labor statistics)

    The largest problem with ed school, in my opinion, is that it’s often a cash cow for universities. There’s no incentive for the schools to shorten the enrollment period, or emphasize quality, not quantity of graduates, if they’re making a profit on each graduate.

  11. It would make sense for the government to award grants to students in useful fields, such as nuclear engineering.

    What’s so expensive about nuclear engineering degrees?  The lectures?  Grading tests and papers on highly technical subjects?  The cost of hiring professors in those fields?

    Don’t those same professors bring in research money?  Shouldn’t we then charge more for programs with expensive professors who don’t bring in grants?

    Should we base tution based on declared major and trust unaccountable administrators to allocate costs?

    It makes no sense to increase the debt load on the people who aspire to be mid-level managers or English teachers in order to offer below-cost education to others.

    Maybe people who aspire to mid-level managerhood should go to less-expensive institutions.  It would be healthy to inject some serious price competition into the system; the price of the 4-year degree is ridiculously inflated.

    Why should the students who stand to earn the least after graduation underwrite the education of the students who earn the most?

    Why should the students with the ability and inclination to take on the harder tasks in society (which makes them more sought-after) pay more up front for face time with professors who probably, unless they are superstars, cost about the same?

    Public universities get tax money, and nuclear engineers will pay a lot more taxes than teachers.  You realize that your argument works for eliminating public education and making K-12 students take out loans?

    The largest problem with ed school, in my opinion, is that it’s often a cash cow for universities. There’s no incentive for the schools to shorten the enrollment period, or emphasize quality, not quantity of graduates, if they’re making a profit on each graduate.

    Just ed school?  It looks like this is applicable to any degree that doesn’t feed into a high-earning profession like medicine or law (engineering is low-paying compared to many of those).  Are universities making profits from their English and hyphenated-studies majors, just because they can?  Should we try to stop it?  Is it even wrong, if people keep applying anyway?

    Let’s fix some of the causes of the problem, like Griggs vs. Duke Power and the insanity that is anti-discrimination law.  Then we’ll talk.