Choose your variable
It has probably been more than two decades now since I heard these words from a speaker at an accreditation gathering: About the only thing a US high school diploma tells you is that a person has been institutionalized for 12 years. The speaker argued—rather arrestingly, I would say—that this was the inevitable consequence of a primary-secondary educational system in which time is the constant and achievement is the variable. Efforts over the past two decades to restore primary-secondary education to a more achievement-based enterprise, featuring heavy doses of standardized testing, have met entrenched resistance from those invested in the status quo. Meanwhile, even the strongest proponents of testing are beginning to acknowledge the ill effects of an examination glut.
Drivers of reform
To a large extent, the time-as-constant, achievement-as-variable enterprise model also describes North American postsecondary education. Although some would protest vociferously, the assumptions of this model pervade most accreditation standards and have recently become even more deeply imbedded in federal higher education regulations. Bad actors rake in student financial aid dollars on the basis of student credit hours enrolled, irrespective of whether courses are completed and degrees earned, much less whether learning occurs. Attempts to reign in such abuses consist of new regulations requiring seat-time based credit hour, course, and program completion definitions. In an effort to stem fraud and abuse relative to student financial aid entitlement, higher education bureaucrats are managing to entrench even more deeply the fallacy that “time served” correlates to achievement. Meanwhile, the ignorance and incompetence of college graduates is the subject of crescendoing rant and ridicule.
As our societal demand for broader access to higher education and a more highly educated workforce has escalated, postsecondary education is peddled by politicians as a social entitlement and the exclusive engine of societal flourishing—which is blithely assumed to be synonymous with economic prosperity. Digital economy titans such as Bill Gates and their educational think-tank toadies are among the present system’s most vociferous and high-leverage critics. They bemoan a system that rewards plodders and penalizes “speeders.” Why, they insist, doesn’t our system acknowledge acquisition of real-world, employment-ready knowledge and skills regardless of the time and means involved? As you may imagine, their critics from within the higher education establishment are legion.
Deriders of reform
Consider the acrid and dismissive critique of liberal education scholar, Stephen C. Ward:
Resurrected from the archive of failed education experiments, CBE [competency based education] has recently undergone a conceptual makeover to become the poster child for various reform-minded groups seeking to disrupt higher education. Some see it as a way to provide a “more relevant 21st-century general education curriculum” (i.e., to turn universities into soft-skill vocational programs, aka Jebification).
Others want to use CBE as a means to “personalize learning” (i.e., to place all students in front of a screen, aka Zuckerberging). While still others see it as a way to “[de]crease time to degree completion” (i.e., to get students in and out as quickly and cheaply as possible, aka Gatesification or Merisotising). …
However, in the rush to emphasize marketable skills over a deeper liberal knowledge content, proponents of CBE in all forms are forcing students … into a “knowledge-less” version of liberal learning in order to “hurry things along” and not get in the way of their job training.
Should we jump on the Competency Based Education (CBE) bandwagon? I’ll share my perspective about that with you in my next post.
Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …
In this NY Times op-ed, David Brooks affirms Andy Crouch’s observation that our culture has shifted from a “guilt” culture–one where conscience informs us we are wrong–to a “shame” culture in which exclusion by the community constitutes the moral indictment. This observation is illuminating relative to the dynamics of contemporary social erosion and how we might better understand and address its expression through exclusion.
What can we learn from the Puritan vision for North American higher education? Plenty, says Johnson University Arts and Sciences Dean, Gary David Stratton. Check out Gary’s post, “Revival and Moral Philosophy: A Puritan Vision for American Higher Education” and Gary’s entire essay series, “The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts.” If you are not subscribed to Gary’s Two-Handed Warriors blog, you should be.