Let us make education in our image, says business

In the New York Times, Sam Dillon reports on the ponderings of a higher education commission inPanel Considers Revamping College Aid and Accrediting". (To read the commission's reports, go here.) This is the same panel that has also considered introducing standardized testing into higher education. The panel is calling for more accountability in higher education and in the process attempting to remake education into a business image:

Charles Miller, a business executive who is the commission's chairman, wrote in a memorandum recently to the 18 other members that he saw a developing consensus over the need for more accountability in higher education.

"What is clearly lacking is a nationwide system for comparative performance purposes, using standard formats," Mr. Miller wrote, adding that student learning was a main component that should be measured.

Accountability is important, but the question is how to achieve it. Business doesn't have "a nationwide system for comparative performance." Of course, business has the pass/fail, or success/go-out-of-business model. Education doesn't have that "survival" accountability, although we're moving in that direction as state funding becomes less and less. Even so, would "accountability measures" be cost-effective? Just for a comparison, many businesses now are complaining about the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which implements better internal controls over financial reporting, as being too expensive. Jill D'Aquila in her article "Tallying the costs of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act" writes:

The survey also reveals that total costs of first-year compliance with section 404 could exceed $4.6 million for each of the largest U.S. companies (companies with over $5 billion in revenues). Medium-sized and smaller companies will also incur significant additional costs to comply with section 404, the survey finding an average projected cost of almost $2 million. Interestingly, the projected costs are higher than originally anticipated based on an FEI survey conducted the previous year.

... the number of senior executives describing SOA compliance as costly had nearly doubled since its enactment, from 32% to 60%.

Miller also said,

he hoped to build consensus among the panel's 19 members as they work to issue a final report in August. But he expressed impatience with some academics who, he said, seemed resistant to change and oblivious that they could be overwhelmed by increasing costs and other challenges.

"Those who are squawking the loudest are those who have a private place to play and a lot of money, much of which comes from the federal government," Mr. Miller said. "What we hear from the academy is, 'We're the best in the world, give us more money and let us alone.' "

I've heard this complaint from others interested in improving education: Educators are stubborn about change, and they want no outside interference. Actually, business can often be the same. Even so, society has a stake in learning outcomes, and universities cannot be impervious to societal influence.

Elsewhere in the article:

And the commission appears to be fulfilling that mission. In its public meetings, panelists from Wall Street and elsewhere in the business world have criticized academia as failing to meet the educational needs of working adults, stem a slide in the literacy of college graduates and rein in rising costs.

Hmm. So, literacy problems are higher education's fault. I've seen some reports in the media that students are less literate than in years past. Even assuming that it's correct, is it academia's fault? That would mean that these students entered the university at an appropriate level of literacy and in four years lost it? That seems to discount all other societal players in the literacy game. In improving literacy, we need to take an improve-the-system perspective rather than a blame-one-player perspective.

As far as rising costs, that's true of many institutions in our society. Look at medical costs and CEO salaries.

Miller, in the earlier article on standardized testing for higher ed, said:

he would like the commission to agree on the skills college students ought to be learning — like writing, critical thinking and problem solving — and to express that view forcefully. "What happens with reform," he said, "is that it rarely happens overnight, and it rarely happens with a mandate."

It's hard to disagree with wanting students to be able to write, think critically, and solve problems. How can we measure those skills in a meaningful way?

And from Nicholas Donofrio:

Another business leader on the commission, Nicholas Donofrio, an executive vice president at IBM, said he was not a strong supporter of proposals that would increase the government's regulatory role.

"But the government has some role to play because it funds the aid programs, so it has some hooks into them," Mr. Donofrio said. "We want these people in academia to get real about the problems and the issues."

There's a considerable number of accusations here. I'm not sure how justified they are. I'm also not certain that the answers to "the problems and the issues" are clear, nor that the corporate world has any answers. "For airlines, bankruptcy becomes business as usual." Consider also Ford's and GM's slide toward bankruptcy. In fact, "US company bankruptcies may surge this year." And, of course, there are always the CEOs who are paid astronomical sums. For instance, Lee Raymond, the Exxon chief who retired this past year, averaged $144,573 a day over a period of 13 years and received $400 million his last year (Greg Robb, MarketWatch.com). I suppose if universities had the option of going bankrupt, they would be able to "get real about the problems and the issues."

Education is important, and we should strive to improve it. I have no useful suggestions for doing so, just a few thoughts. It's not clear to me why a university should be run like a business, and it's not clear to me why business "experts" believe they have insights into improving university education. Do we hear much about educators advising the corporate world on business problems? It's also not clear to me why (assuming that they are) education "experts" are resistant to outside advice. Why not evaluate the advice rather than its source? I'm not even sure why this post is in my blog. I suppose it's here because I believe that although accountability is important, that present methods to measure accountability end up in dumbing down instruction and damaging student learning, as shown clearly in George Hillocks' The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning, and that disturbs me. And so does the image of education as a business. I prefer images of learning and civic responsibility.