Putting Higher Ed Out Of Reach
Howard Karger is professor of social work at the University of Houston and author of Shortchanged: Life and Debt in the Fringe Economy .
Margaret Spellings , Bush’s secretary of education, is a tough-talking Texan. Like the motto on her notepad—“Put on your big girl panties and deal with it!”—Spellings won’t take crap from anyone, especially Buster the animated bunny. Her first act as secretary was to ask PBS to cut an episode of “Postcards from Buster” which showed two lesbian couples. She also wanted PBS to refund the money spent on that filthy episode.
Apart from her concern about the pernicious influence of lesbians on young children, Spelling has her eye on higher education. Similar to conservatives like David Horowitz (founder of the McCarthyist Students for Academic Freedom), she is concerned with protecting the tender minds of college students from liberal professors, especially those who are tenured with academic freedom.
Since Spellings never worked in a school system, and has no formal training in education (her B.A. is in political science), she is free to make educational policy on purely ideological grounds, unencumbered by the real problems facing America’s teachers.
In 2005 Spellings created the Commission on the Future of Higher Education and empanelled 19 members who represent a cross-section of big business, foundations, think-tanks, former politicians and academics. Included was Jonathan Grayer, CEO of Kaplan, one of the world’s largest educational corporations. In 2004 Kaplan had $1.1 billion in revenues, 900,000 students, 20,000 employees and 3,000 classroom locations. For-profit corporations like Kaplan and Educational Testing Services stand to reap huge rewards from educational reform, especially if it involves standardized testing.
Margaret Spellings is right. American higher education is in a pickle. From 1995 to 2005, average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges rose 51 percent (tuition in private schools increased by 36 percent). Total U.S. per-student college expenditures were $22,000 in 2001, almost double other industrialized nations. The debt of graduates from four-year colleges rose to $15,500 for public schools and $19,400 for private ones. At the same time, state funding growth for higher education is the lowest in two decades. The U.S. college attainment rate is now 12th among major industrialized nations.
The commission’s solution was based on a free market approach that stressed more competition among colleges through the collection and reporting of student learning outcomes. Parents and students can evaluate where to best spend their money. How to measure these outcomes? Standardized testing of all graduating seniors.
Although the commission didn’t recommend standardized testing per se , they clearly set the stage for it. According to Spellings, “No current ranking system of colleges and universities directly measures the most critical point—student performance and learning ... and that’s unacceptable. Information will ... hold schools accountable for quality.” Terms like performance, accountability and quality are code words for standardized testing.
Mandatory testing of college seniors will have a profound effect on higher education. Colleges with low scores on standardized tests—often heavily minority—could be punished by reduced state funding. Federal research dollars might also be linked to student test scores. Outcomes might determine whether some colleges are even denied federal student loan funds.
If the Spellings Commission report led the horse to water, Republican governors like Texas’ Rick Perry are ready to make that pony drink. Texas is the home of standardized testing—out of a 180-day school year about 120 days are devoted to testing or preparation. So it’s predictable that Perry’s new plan for educational reform includes standardized testing for college seniors. While students initially won’t have to pass the test to graduate, high scores will mean extra money for colleges, and extra money is something that cash-starved Texas universities can’t resist. The Texas Faculty Association’s Charles Zucker says, “It’s so ironic because, just at the point where we’re beginning to develop a widespread consensus that teaching to the test has been a miserable failure in K-12, now the governor wants to do it for higher education.” The danger, of course, is that other state governors will follow suit. (By the way, standardized testing for college seniors won’t be cheap. Education Week ’s annual report found that school districts pay many millions for these tests.)
Since money will be attached to scores, college administrators will push for more basic courses geared to the test material. Math and science will increasingly replace the soft subjects like anthropology, sociology, history and philosophy. Say goodbye to diverse and interesting college courses. There’s no room for nuance or variety in an outcome-driven learning model.
College professors who reject standardized testing will either be disinvited from the academy or leave out of disgust. Most casualties will be progressive instructors interested in teaching critical content. Their replacements will be educational technicians or hungry adjuncts willing to teach for peanuts. Textbooks—like those in high school—will be standardized and used across public universities, a move that will make textbook publishers happier and richer. Since cost-cutting is a concern for the Spellings Commission, cheaper teaching models like distance education and online courses will increasingly replace traditional and more expensive classroom settings. While some private schools will still offer a rounded education, it will be only for those who can afford the $30,000 to $40,000 a year in tuition and board.