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Where Credit Is Due | The Nation

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Diary of a Mad Law Professor

Where Credit Is Due

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Recently, a number of colleges and universities, including Harvard, Princeton and Stanford, have instituted significant tuition relief for lower- and middle-income students. The impetus for this move has less to do with generosity than with a 2006 report by Margaret Spellings's Education Department. The document, A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education, cites concern that upwardly spiraling education costs have threatened the social mobility at the core of American identity. Subsequent legislative proposals have suggested that schools reinvest 5 percent of their endowment in student needs. Since the report also ties accreditation to this expenditure, there has been a flurry of reconsidered financial aid options, from significantly reduced cost to free tuition. This is mostly to the good, although the degree to which this requirement disproportionately affects poorer rather than richer schools remains contentious.

About the Author

Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from...

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The Spellings report, however, contains other, less salutary recommendations, which could have major implications for all higher education curriculums, from community colleges to graduate institutions. The troubling parts center on the deployment of a hyper-econometric model by which learning itself would be measured. Here's the report's bottom line: "American higher education has become what, in the business world, would be called a mature enterprise: increasingly risk-averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive.... History is littered with examples of industries that...failed to respond to--or even to notice--changes in the world around them, from railroads to steel manufacturers. Without serious self-examination and reform, institutions of higher education risk falling into the same trap, seeing their market share substantially reduced and their services increasingly characterized by obsolescence." How, one wonders, might the teaching of odes or the exploration of Kant be correlated with the marketability of railroads and steel? Let me count the ways.

First, the report relies on a cost-benefit, "money in, money out" bottom line that would require a system of tracking student performance from pre-K through college and graduate school. While basic reading and math skills can arguably be measured in relatively cut-and-dried ways, the complex nature and increasing interdisciplinarity of higher education makes such measurement a daunting proposition. The Spellings report ignores this with a breathtakingly oversimplified metric: "Student achievement, which is inextricably connected to institutional success, must be measured by institutions on a 'value-added' basis that takes into account students' academic baseline when assessing their results." Crudely put, students would have to be evaluated like a balance sheet. Take the value of what they came in with, then take the value of what they know when they get out. Subtract the former from the latter. The difference is what's known in the world of soybean futures as "value added."

If that weren't weird enough, "This information should be made available to students, and reported publicly in aggregate form to provide consumers and policymakers an accessible, understandable way to measure the relative effectiveness of different colleges and universities." In other words, the results of tests measuring "value-added" performance would be used to grade each school. Ostensibly, a school's grade would be used like the nutrient labels on tubs of potato salad. This system would then assist "consumers" as they bargain-hunt for the very best deal.

Likewise, the "relative effectiveness" of institutions would be measured by only two identified standards: efficiency and accountability. These two measures would apply not merely to financial affairs but to what an efficient steel magnate might call "the delivery" of "the product" in question--in this case, all forms of knowledge.

This new regime can mean all kinds of things, but here's what schools are worried about: standardized tests issued to all freshmen and seniors. Increasingly standardized textbooks and curriculums. Death to liberal arts--how do you measure "efficient" growth via a poetry seminar? Death to fields of study like dance, drama, music, women's or ethnic studies. Fear that universities will be subject to the kind of unhelpful measurements that many elementary schools face because of No Child Left Behind--schools with higher performing students or more creative curriculums unable to show the "required percentage of improvement" graded lower than schools where teaching is unimaginative but easily marked. Or schools with children from traumatized neighborhoods or with few English speakers being "failed" because they aren't progressing at the formulaic rate.

One of the most influential proponents of this corporatized model is Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner. Here's Posner on his blog: "The contribution of nonscientific fields to welfare is not negligible, but one does have a sense that in many of them the marginal product is slight or even negative--is there really social value in having 400 English-language philosophy journals...rather than 50?" Posner also worries that too many women are admitted to professional schools, because they are not as "productive" as men in their long-term careers: "The fact that a significant percentage of places in the best professional schools are being occupied by individuals who are not going to obtain the maximum possible value from such an education is troubling from an overall economic standpoint." Therefore, "the gender-neutral policies that govern admission to the elite professional schools illustrate discrimination in favor of women. Were admission to such schools based on a prediction of the social value of the education offered, fewer women would be admitted." Framing education as a "profit-maximizing" "industry" does more than just push women and bards back in the box. It takes aim at the joy, play and very love of lifelong learning as irrelevant externalities to be eliminated for their irrational, trade-penalizing transaction costs.

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