Testing the Teachers
David Brooks with some great ideas on how to improve our colleges and universities:
There's an atmosphere of grand fragility hanging over America's colleges. The grandeur comes from the surging application rates, the international renown, the fancy new dining and athletic facilities. The fragility comes from the fact that colleges are charging more money, but it's not clear how much actual benefit they are providing.
Colleges are supposed to produce learning. But, in their landmark study, "Academically Adrift," Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that, on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that. The exact numbers are disputed, but the study suggests that nearly half the students showed no significant gain in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills during their first two years in college.
…This is an unstable situation. At some point, parents are going to decide that $160,000 is too high a price if all you get is an empty credential and a fancy car-window sticker.
One part of the solution is found in three little words: value-added assessments. Colleges have to test more to find out how they're doing.
It's not enough to just measure inputs, the way the U.S. News-style rankings mostly do. Colleges and universities have to be able to provide prospective parents with data that will give them some sense of how much their students learn.
There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don't. There has to be a better way to get data so schools themselves can figure out how they're doing in comparison with their peers.
…Given how little we know about how to test college students, the voluntary approach is probably best for now. Foundations, academic conferences or even magazines could come up with assessment methods. Each assessment could represent a different vision of what college is for. Groups of similar schools could congregate around the assessment model that suits their vision. Then they could broadcast the results to prospective parents, saying, "We may not be prestigious or as expensive as X, but here students actually learn."
This is the beginning of college reform. If you've got a student at or applying to college, ask the administrators these questions: "How much do students here learn? How do you know?"
April 19, 2012