Thursday, February 25, 2010

Accountability or Responsibility?

Education policy makers keep telling us that the quality of higher education has declined.  Enrollments are up, but those who oversee and fund higher ed tell us that we should be worried about whether colleges are doing their job.  That anxiety translates into calls for accountability.  YSU, like all public institutions in Ohio, has to publish statistics about things like retention and graduation rates as part of a "college portrait" created through the "Voluntary System of Accountability" (which in Ohio isn't voluntary at all).  In order to gain accreditation, we have to demonstrate (among other things) that the University is assessing students' learning.

These efforts raise two questions in my mind.  First, why the push for accountability?  And second, what kinds of information would best communicate the quality of education offered at a university?  My guest on Lincoln Avenue this week, Linda Adler-Kassner, has been examining these questions for several years.  She has worked with the Higher Learning Commission, the organization that provides accreditation to YSU, and as President of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, she has been working with colleagues who direct first-year writing programs on campuses around the country on how they should respond to the claim that colleges aren't doing their jobs. 

As she suggests, calls for accountability are nothing new, and they generally reflect both genuine concern and a belief that college faculty are  not doing our jobs well enough because we don't really understand what students need.  As a professor, I work with students every day -- much more than anyone in the Department of Education or the Ohio Board of Regents or at the Educational Testing Service.  I know both my students and my field well, and that should earn me your trust.  Policy makers disagree, and to be honest, I can understand why.  Too many faculty define their work solely in terms of research, and too many blame any difficulties students encounter on the students themselves.  That's where Adler-Kassner's focus on responsibility comes in.  If I don't want someone else telling me what I should teach and what counts as appropriate learning, then I have to take responsibility for my work as a teacher.  My colleagues at YSU do that, in part, through assessment

That said, I'm troubled by the idea that a bunch of statistics about the University as a whole can possibly reflect the complexity of what happens in our classrooms, and I wonder how useful the information is to prospective students and their parents.  The YSU College Portrait provides data on things like the ACT scores of entering students, and it uses some data from a survey on students' experiences, but if I were going to show you the quality of students' learning here, I'd invite you to QUEST, where students present their research every spring, or have you visit a few classes and listen to students discussing problems and issues and ideas.  I'd show you faculty research on student learning and have you listen in to my colleagues as they advise students on registration and MA thesis work and what to do after graduation.  Most important, I'd sit you down to talk with my students.  Of course, none of that can be captured easily. 

Real education is a messy business.  It can't be reduced to a 5-page report.  That's why it works. 

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