Don't worry about the government

There’s been a smattering of readings out there today on the “smack-down” the congress has given to the U.S. Department of Education’s work on the Spellings Commission, which (in my very VERY simplistic understanding of all this) is the Fed’s way of trying to bring us all of the “successes” of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and standardized testing to the realm of higher education.

It perhaps goes without saying that folks in higher education have been resisting this, but what’s interesting to me with today’s news is that the congress is stepping in and saying, more or less, we’ll pass the laws and then tell you and your pals, Secretary Spellings, how to regulate and enforce the laws. Not the other way around.

See this CHE piece, “House Panel Moves to Bloc Accreditation Changes While Increasing Pell Grant,” and this Inside Higher Ed piece, “Congressional Timeout for Spellings.”

I have to say I haven’t lost a lot of sleep over the Spellings Commission and its related topics prior to this news. There are several reasons for this, both bad and good:

  • I realize that topics like “assessment” are really important in my field of composition and rhetoric, and there is a body of scholarship out there about it, and it’s really a big deal, yadda-yadda-yadda. But I have to say that I find this kind of stuff dreadfully dull. I guess that makes me a bad compositionalist. Or a bad person. Maybe both. I will have to live with that….
  • I don’t worry about this stuff too much because there are far too many smart people already worrying about this stuff for all of us– for example, my colleague and friend, Linda “browndogsblog” Adler-Kassner. This would make for good blog fodder, Linda….
  • I think that a lot of academic-types (who are obviously looking at this issue from an insider’s perspective) are forgetting that there are a lot of “face value” problems with this kind of regulation among the public at large. Two examples immediately come to mind. First, while NCLB might (and that’s an iffy “might” in my mind, but okay) have some logic on the surface, the way it’s been implemented has been so bad that I bet if you ask parents of kids who have been impacted by this at all they would not have a favorable impression. If they knew what NCLB was at all.

    Second, the motivations for calling for regulation of K-12 Ed don’t work with higher ed. It seems to me that regulating elementary and secondary ed has been reasonably popular with the general public because of reports on how U.S. kids compare to kids in Korea or Germany or France or wherever. But the thing is people from other countries keep coming to universities and colleges in this country, despite all of the challenges of this kind of study abroad in a post 9-11 world, in large part because US universities and colleges are considered among the best in the world. So, um, if they’ve done as well as they have up to this point, what’s the reason to change the way we’re regulating/assessing/accrediting them now?

  • For the time-being, I think I am in the same boat as Bernard Fryshman who wrote the commentary titled “Have I Been Watching this Movie Backwards?” for Inside Higher Ed. It probably isn’t such a bad idea for institutions of higher education in this country to at lest think a bit more systematically about assessment and accreditation, and the fact that universities and colleges are talking about this stuff is evidence that at least one good thing has come out the Spellings Commission. But before we go all wild about standardized tests and measures and numbers and stuff, we’d best figure out just what the heck we’re trying to measure.

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