Monday, September 17, 2012

The inertia against reform

Well, Penn State finally won a football game, and this is likely to reinforce the football-is-all culture around here.  The Sandusky scandal has led mainly to the university implementing bureaucratic and public-relations reactions, and widespread denial-based criticism from alumni and other 'intellectuals' with some connection, even if it's only that they like tailgate parties by the stadium.

This week's NY Times Magazine has a story about the attempt to fire the University of Virginia's President, how protests reversed that decision, and how UVA seems to be going, if more slowly, in the direction the trustees wanted anyway.

At least UVA has only 10,000 students, while places like Penn State have 45,000 or so.  Public universities being run as businesses are oxymoronic, and are frantically trying to respond to the loss of the social contract by which they had received public support.  They are encouraging out of state students to come--for the deeply intellectual reason that they can be milked for higher tuition.  They are all going to me-too their way online, as if there were a legitimate academic reason for it (whatever any actual reasons, and that's unclear, the often unstated motivation is financial).

Of course, the major universities have drifted more and more towards 'research' which is a mix of pressuring faculty members to be sales agents (generating overhead for the administration to play with), glamorizing 'research' (most of which is, when you look carefully, rather narrow, restricted, and trivial) over teaching.  External funding, grant money, is often spoken of as if it is about quality, but again it's largely about money/overhead.  And in the process, we increase the number of students, contribute heavily to the notion that a college degree is necessary for a successful life, and other business-model spin.

So this all leads to debate about the business model and how it should work, and what is the best strategy in the absence of state funding.   Unfortunately, something is being lost in the shuffle.  It's called 'education'.

How not to run a railroad
The crisis too often being spoken about when education issues are discussed is the fiscal one, arising from the growth ethic.  But the more important crisis in the long run is simple: our expectations and standards have been eroding for decades.  Students are entering college knowing less, too many with less basic ability because high schools and earlier aren't doing their jobs, they aren't studying as hard, and they are learning less.  They get their degrees from the mill, but even in the good universities, like Penn State, every year many cross the stage to receive their college diploma....barely able to spell 'college diploma'.  We are dropping the ball--and we know it!

Only the bold, the best universities, are likely to have the quality and the guts to reinstate higher academic standards.  Or, the old line elites will do it, while the wannabees will talk about doing it and pay PR firms to say we're doing it--and remain in the subordinate social and economic class.  Or, nobody will really belly up to the problem until China, Brazil, India, Europe, and so on make it clear that we've fallen so far behind that we can't compete any more and our standard of living erodes materially.

This may seem like a panicky kind of over-reaction.  After all, we do have some very good students, some of whom can read and write and do math and who actually work hard at learning.  Many are even academically honest!  Maybe, even if the average has sunk, that's because there are too many here who weren't in college in days past, not because high achievers have become less numerous.  But when study after study shows decline, we should at least think hard about doing something about it.

Relevance to you
This is a rant of sorts, of course, but it is relevant to many MT readers who are academics themselves, and it's also relevant to others, because this country depends on the skills of its people and they depend on skills for jobs.  Not all people need college degrees, even if everyone should learn to read and communicate and calculate and so on for many of our daily activities, for many trades and professions, to be good citizens wise enough to see through political baloney, and to have enriched life experiences.

But some do or should have formal college-level education, and for them--and for the high tuition being demanded--we in the business should have an obligation to provide it.  Undergraduates become graduate students, but we know they (too often, unless they come from other countries with higher college standards) enter graduate programs short of breadth of knowledge and often short of basic technical skills.  Of course also, this begins with K-12, which may be the most serious issue we face--and our schools of education are perhaps especially culpable, and need to do something about it!  It seems, however, that nobody has the will to confront these issues head-on.

There is even a foundation that is paying entrepreneurs to drop out and get to real work--following the Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and others' model of success.  Meanwhile, if you want someone to fix something, like a leaky roof or refrigerator or computer, good luck!  They've all gone off to get a college degree....


Holly Dunsworth said...

Thanks for posting this piece. We've had many private discussions about this--Ken, Anne and I--but I want to post some of my thoughts out here.

Much of what is hurting the education or the learning success of students is that the learning opportunities are being taken from them. (And this is something many of them prefer...)

Pressure to be liked (student evals feature prominently in retention and promotion portfolios), makes profs hold student hands more than they should.

Pressure to get grants and publish research means profs read lectures rather than try to engage students which takes a lot more time and energy... which could/should go to research.

Huge classrooms make it hard for profs to understand how to do anything but spew out facts and ask students to regurgitate them, few of them having to show up most times or even buy the book in order to pass these sorts of classes which aren't hard enough and often teach to the lowest denominator so that everyone likes the prof in the evals or so the students who should be failing aren't kicked out for poor grades and instead keep paying dollars to the university for more "learning."

Because grading is a nightmare in these huge classes, written exams aren't administered and writing is done (iff) at home where it can be copied from a digital source and pasted into a Word document and passed off as genuine.

To have meaningful reform, universities have to support professors better in raising the standards of acceptance and supporting high standards in the classrooms. And professors have to be in the classrooms more, doing more, which will take time away from bringing money into the university for research and will diminish what they can put in the "research" category of their portfolios.

Who's gonna go for that?

Students should! But they seem to have no choice. They are told they HAVE to get a degree.

Holly Dunsworth said...

... And it's not like there is much else but college to do after high school graduation so that just adds to the trap we've created.

Ken Weiss said...

I agree with all of this! It's a 'system' that has evolved in my own direct observation over my career.

The typical argument is that we've always had students not up to snuff and it can't be helped, and state universities have to serve the state's students, etc.

Perhaps we do have to have larger classes, but we can make them rigorous and students who really are not getting much out of them would leave and go somewhere (community colleges, vocationally-oriented colleges) where their talents and abilities and background were better fits.

As it is, we have watered down college degrees (as you say), so they don't mean that much anyway. We've overstressed graduate programs that many company hirers say aren't really that necessary for the jobs they need to fill (but it's good for faculty, and our precious research).

A lot of faculty don't like the grant and research rat-race, but we've been so conditioned to think of teaching as a 'load' rather than our profession (and the students' too-often lazy, smug, customer-like attitude contributes to that) that there is resistance to change.

We cheat the many good students by watering down, giving less intense workload and brain-challenging experience. We cheat the poor students by taking their money, knowing they are not getting much out of the experience.

Online education is a fad, and a cash cow. Whether it can, or should, displace in-person education is an open question, but perhaps the race to the top (or bottom), triggered by the likes of Phoenix 'University', may pre-empt reasoned change.

Time will tell....

Dedicated young people will have to force the change.

JKW said...

Deep post for a Monday... I won't use this opportunity to complain about my "Road to Nowhere" grant from the NIH (oops, I meant "pathway to independence" award). I won't use this opportunity to complain one more time about a discipline that claims holistic understanding is tantamount but then refuses to hire those whose careers have been dedicated to breadth (not just depth) of knowledge. I won't use this opportunity to complain about a university that, as a rule, prevents those dedicated to the integrity of the institution and quality of its education and research from being hired simply because those individuals saw the value and integrity of that institution as a student and chose to earn a degree there. I won't complain about those with tenure who fail to see that every day they fail to initiate/advocate reforms they are robbing the future of the very students they have mentored.

To quote the lyrics of a very talented singer/songwriter, Hannah Bingman,

"...I know I can't complain, but I can't help myself. If they want the best of me, then they get the worst as well..." [from the song titled "Finished, Fine, Done"]

We can't find the solution unless we are asking the right question. So, I encourage everyone to read Seth Godin's "Stop Stealing Dreams: What is School For?" It's available here:

Ken Weiss said...

Older people are comfortable and vested in the current system. Many younger people have been hired to chase the research dollar and dream of making major research findings. Even if funds continue, most research, like most of human endeavors, will not be all that important.

Teaching students rigorously could be much more important, but it doesn't generate the funds or, perhaps more anthropologically relevant, doesn't play into today's status game, which glorifies research.

Huge institutions evolve for their own interests, and right now that is not the main interests of the students, our 'customers'.

Young people just starting their careers (like you!) are the only possible source of major change other than major national trauma that forces it on us. But we hire young people, as you in effect suggest, to play the game we senior people have developed. That co-opts them from the beginning, if post-doctoral fellowships, graduate, or even undergraduate school hasn't done that already.

The best students are always a minority, almost by definition. The rest are discarded or milked for tuition funds. This kind of inequity is not new to human society--it may be by far the rule rather than the exception. But we do face a national problem.

I'll look forward to reading Godin which I had not known about. That is mainly about K-12 as I gather from a quick scan. That is where the problem starts, of course.

Unless teachers gain higher status, and those who go into teaching are of higher ability or are trained more rigorously, we won't see too much change there. Schools of Education should be forced by their administration to raise the bar for admission by a huge amount. And, of course, teacher salaries and conditions (including a return to more classroom discipline apparently) need to be raised substantially.

But is it in anybody's immediate interest to do all this? Vested interests and inertia work against it.

Will there be reform? If so,where will it come from?

JKW said...

Yes, the Godin piece focuses on K-12 but it speaks beyond that (college has become the new high school, in many ways). It still is thought-provoking and anyone in education should give it a quick read.

There will be reform...and I have been and will be part of it. IMHO, the most poignant critiques (and often the most effective reforms) are internal, which is one reason why I still am on the job market to get into the system. Just because I am requesting an initial appointment on the tenure track doesn't mean I would accept tenure if offered.

PS - I don't personally fault my mentors for my circumstances. I've been fortunate to have very thoughtful, engaged, and intelligent mentors. I think that circumstances are so vastly different between what my cohort is experiencing and what would have worked even 15 years ago that no mentors are in a position to provide insight. There is no road map that anyone can share with us. Rather, we the reformers must create the path.

Ken Weiss said...

Resistance of a constructive rather than destructive sort can occur in various ways. One is to make public commitments to reform, and hope to get momentum behind it and be the leaders who 'force' other universities to copy us to try to catch up. Students would come only if they were expecting to work, because they'd know that's what they'd find.

A second way is to make minor internal changes quietly that have a difference, but are not actually realized by anybody. When they got here, students would just find it more challenging to get through unless they worked and kept extra-curricular activities (like football) really extra-curricular.

How this could be done in relation to faculty hiring is a separate question. Research universities, that wanted the top grade of students, would have to insist on more teaching effort from their main faculty--and in exchange, less pressure to churn out 10 research papers a year, etc. That would require expecting less grant overhead to be generated, of course, and there is where something would have to change. There are several ways, but here's where the real inertia really lies.