First, I want to begin this diary with acknowledging some really excellent series about education that have focused extensively on the negative trends in K-12 education. I then want to continue and comment on some trends in higher education, and finally, address a specific proposal.

Alas, this diary is a bit long.

But first, let me acknowledge some really great work on K-12 that has inspired this diary. I highly recommend  Teacher Ken's diaries and Jeffbinn's "Left Ed" series at Open Left. I also want to specifically point out and comment  Paul Rosenberg's excellent piece on some trends in higher ed.  

One of the most recent proposals that we "rethink" the role of faculty and how faculty teach, while imposing a "rich array of instruments and assessment strategies"  on faculty comes from George Mehaffey the Vice President for Academic Leadership and Change for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. As Universities confront a crisis in funding and are being asked to do more with less, Mehaffey is determined that he will not let this chance to screw faculty go to waste.

Before discussing Mehaffey specifically, I want to provide a bit of background and context about what is going in higher education. Though it matters a lot how you define "graduation rates", it is pretty clear that the U.S. has at least lost its relative position in the proportion of college graduates in the population and in the percentage of entering students graduating (see for example this data by the OECD.  

It is important to point out that this "crisis" in graduation and education attainment, like many other so called crises is often exaggerated (that's not to say that I oppose efforts to improve graduation rates-quite the contrary). Yet at the same time unrealistic and overly ambitious, and for the present, probably unatainable goals of  dramatically increasing the number of students getting a college degree are being trumpeted as gospel. But now, coupled with demands to graduate more students, Universities are facing steep budget cuts. Hence the demand is to make Universities (which seems to really mean college faculty) to do more with less. What we face is not really a graduation crisis so much as a funding crisis, whose origins and current manifestations are admirably documented by Jane Wellman (though I agree in general with her diagnosis, I take issue with some, though not necessarily all, of her prescriptions).

Yet while the funding crisis looms, the usual suspects (The Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, Margaret Spelling, Arne Duncan, State Governors, Education Bureaucrats, University Presidents, Provosts and Deans) all constantly try to pin the blame on waste, inefficiency, and poor performance by teachers in the classroom. It is the same meme over and over again: public sector bad (ahh the irony of public sector bureaucrats and private foundations sucking the government teet pushing this meme) and private sector accountability good (curious how they never discuss the financial crisis, CEO salaries, and always manage to parrot the chief purveyors of neo-liberal globaloney like Tom Friedman, while I have yet to encounter a single one who has any real solid academic training in my own area, International Political Economy-but I digress).

What's wrong with this is that firstly, there is no-absolutely no evidence (let me repeat-no evidence) that students fail to graduate college because of what is done or not done by College and University Faculty. The number one reason why students fail to graduate is as you might suspect, linked to the savage inequalities in American society: financial pressures and family pressures. In other words, lack of money. Surprisingly, lack of preparedness while **one** factor, is not the **major** or most important factor. No one has yet to present any evidence that it is the fault of what professors do or don't do in the classroom that is the cause.

More interestingly, this tendency to uphold the private sector as the model and to partner with "for profit" schools, runs smack dab into reality. Yesterday, in a very illuminating piece on for private, for profit colleges and Universities, Paul Rosenberg at Open Left (cited above) documented the abysmal graduation rates of for profit schools-in some instances, as low as 9%, and on average, only about 20%.  This compares to about 65% for private non-profit schools (read elite and selective admissions four year, liberal arts colleges) and about 55% for public Universities. One point that should be noted is that the selective admissions, flagship state Universities have graduation rates that are similar to private, not for profit Universities, while other state Universities do much worse.

In addition, let me refer you to some ofmy own past diaries to provide some specific background about what has happened in higher ed in my own state, Ohio. But as bad as things have been, things will get worse, thanks to the shitstorm about to come down on higher ed and all public employees by our governor elect, Kasich. , where thanks to the election of Kasich ( R) we will be in the center of the coming shitstorm. Will we (faculty) collaborate or will we pushback?

Again, I cannot stress enough that in contrast to the view of some of my colleagues in the Ohio Faculty Council, I was underwhelmed (to say the least) with the performance of Ted Strickland on education. Strickland, for example, decided to tie funding of higher ed to how many students finished the semester. At the same time the Chancellor insisted that Universities put more resources into STEM (Science, Technology, Education, Math) education, even though the nation already graduates more people in STEM careers than there are jobs available.

The problem with all these ideas is that they fail to address the reasons why students don’t graduate and which students don’t graduate.

Now having given you some background, let me turn to the matter at hand.

In a 2009 memo (cited above) to the Chief Academic Officers of members of the American Association of State Universities and Colleges, George L. Mahaffey, the Vice President for Academic Leadership and Change of the same organization writes in regard to the ongoing funding problems:

Yet despite the anxiety and real pain, I hope you can see this difficult period, when your leadership is so desperately needed, also as a time of opportunity. As Rahm Emanuel, the new Chief of Staff for President-Elect Obama, recently said, "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

Later in the same memo, Mehaffey cites the same article  quoted above by Jane Wellman, who urges Universities to take multiple steps to address the problems. Some of the solutions which Wellman proposes are already being implemented and if done well, are positive steps-but they are certainly not magic bullets.

But included in the "changes" are actions that will in all likelihood make matters worse-this includes, higher course loads for faculty and requiring students to earn at least 12 hours in distance or international learning (I am baffled how anyone can believe that taking a course over the internet at your own college will a) automatically improve learning or b) can be equated to studying abroad).

Mehaffey then goes on to cite-again favorably- by William Massey, and education economist, who urges improvements in "academic productivity." Massey’s "solution" is to apply a basic input-output view of academic production and measure faculty productivity in the same way one would measure worker productivity in a factory. The solution according to Massey is more students, more technology fewer professors and diminishing the role of professors in order to increase the "productivity" of faculty.

These same "insights" have now been incorporated into a very long, rambling, simplistic, article entitled "The Red Balloon Project: Re-imagining Undergraduate Education."  It is actually rather difficult to follow the point of the paper, except that it is clear that Mehaffey thinks supercomputers and Wikipedia provide a good model for student learning-thus again, requiring fewer faculty. Finally, at the end of false analogies of terrorism, paradigms, supercomputers and a whole lot of nonsense, Mehaffey finally gets to the point, which I respond to below point by point:

"To achieve those outcomes, I would hope that the project we undertake can design
new models, processes, and programs that respond to the three core challenges:

  1. Lower Costs

•Maximize cost-effectiveness (either hold costs constant while increasing the
number of students involved, or reduce costs)
•Make programs scalable (increase the number of students served while reducing
per-student costs)


There are only two possible ways to lower costs: One way, which seems to be what Mehaffey has in mind, is to increase the number of hours that professors teach, increase class sizes, use more on line instruction (more machines, fewer people), employ more adjuncts-in sum-just generally downgrade the status of faculty as a whole in an effort to lower labor cost.

A second way is to reduce the layers of bureaucratic, administrative waste.

But when you really get right down to it, unless you want to radically compromise the quality of higher ed-colleges just cannot do more with less. We can do what we do now more efficiently-by cutting administrators and overheard. But we simply cannot do "more with less" anymore than  you can make an automobile with less raw materials, fewer workers, more machines-cut the cost of producing the automobile-and still make a product people want to buy.

  1. Increase Participation

•Create more effective student engagement. Engagement is the key to greater
learning outcomes
•Produce greater learning outcomes documented by a rich array of instruments and
assessment strategies

Again, Mehaffey can’t resist the temptation to take a swipe at faculty. Faculty spend enormous amounts of time and effort attempting to engage our students-yet Mehaffey cannot acknowledge this. Instead, he believes that by turning higher ed into a vast, supercomputer a la Wikipedia, giving students more on line courses, less contact with faculty, denigrating the role of faculty as expert and having faculty do more research on their classrooms and less on their subject matter, students will become more engaged.

And to make sure that faculty buckle under Mehaffey proposes more assessment. No doubt, this "rich array of instruments and assessment strategies" will motivate students to learn-just as it has in K-12. Assessment is a necessary evil-but more assessment and richer assessment instruments don't engage people.

More interesting, richer, diverse, relevant curricula taught by faculty who know their subject matter, know how to communicate it, and are motivated as professionals does engage people.

  1. Respond to the Challenge of Technology

•Focus on the development of 21st century skills to create 21st century learning and
leadership outcomes
•Rethink teaching, learning, and faculty roles

Put as they are, these bullet points are meaningless shibboleths. That said, I believe they are in actuality code-and the translation of the code is clearly provided by the context. Mehaffey’s solution is technology, reduction in the status of faculty, treating education like access to Wikipedia-in short, just more neo-liberal crap.

Originally posted to Citizen Rat on Sat Nov 27, 2010 at 12:31 PM PST.

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