Quality Control or Just Hot Air?

Suppose that you’ve just joined a health club. Would you expect the management to worry about your progress (or lack of progress) in losing weight, gaining strength and improving your stamina? Certainly not. And if politicians summoned the CEOs of exercise equipment makers to testify on the poor state of fitness in America, demanding to know why we aren’t getting better results, we would think that was nutty. After all, it’s not their fault if Americans don’t want to work hard to get in better shape.

When it comes to physical fitness, we see the individual as responsible. Health clubs and equipment makers aren’t accountable for your condition. You are.

In the past, that’s how we looked at education, but things have changed.

These days there is talk all around on the need for colleges and universities to be accountable for their educational results. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has been pushing schools to focus on accountability and a substantial number of them have joined the College Learning Assessment movement. Suddenly, a great many people are concerned about one of higher education’s biggest embarrassments, namely that it’s now common for young people to graduate without having learned much.

Jokes about college grads who can’t even read their diplomas are nothing new, but we have some pretty hard data and not just anecdotes to show that college isn’t necessarily much of a learning experience. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy’s most recent results were released late in 2005 and they don’t inspire much confidence in our educational system. Only 31 percent of college graduates, for example, were “proficient” in prose literacy and the number had fallen substantially from the previous measurement (40 percent). NAAL also showed poor results in document and mathematical literacy.

I wrote about the dismal NAAL results here.

The weak education of many graduates has become an issue for politicians and college leaders. They all agree that schools have a responsibility to produce better results. Why?

”If you don’t bother to learn, it’s your fault,” our parents and grandparents would have said. But individual responsibility is a concept that, at least to many Americans, now has the foul odor of Social Darwinism about it. To them, there is something mean-spirited about telling people that success is their own responsibility. That’s one reason why we have reassigned responsibility for learning.

Here’s another reason — to a large extent, the taxpayer now foots the bill. Few students today pay the full cost. If the government were subsidizing health club memberships, we’d no doubt hear demands for improving results on treadmills and stair-steppers. Health clubs would be compelled to set up “accountability” programs to measure and report their members’ progress.

That brings me to my main point: I don’t think we should expect much from the educational accountability crusade. Unless the students become motivated to do better, all the “accountability” programs in the world won’t accomplish anything. And if students did become more motivated, such programs wouldn’t be needed.

Sadly, there is every reason to believe that most American students think they are putting forth just the right amount of educational effort. Given their values and expectations, increasing effort in school doesn’t make any sense. Today’s “education lite” is not some mysterious plague; it’s exactly what most kids want.

Consider this description of his students by retired history professor Thomas Reeves:

These amiable, polite, almost invariably likable young people read little or nothing. In a class of 50, not more than one or two read a newspaper daily; what tiny grasp they have of current events comes from television news. Reading books and magazines outside the classroom is not something they would even consider doing. In short, they have no intellectual life and see no need for one. They can talk about several things, including their jobs, television, sports, and Rock, but they are often baffled and sometimes irritated to hear from their professor that there is more to life. If that “more” requires reading, they aren’t interested.

Not all college students are like that, but a disturbingly large percentage are. They’re “disengaged” from real academic work and shy away from it just as a couch potato shies away from a heart-pounding, sweat-inducing workout. It isn’t enjoyable and only makes them feel lousy afterwards. No thanks!

And yet, getting a college degree is a must – or so it is widely believed. Without one, only low-pay, “dead-end” jobs are supposedly possible. Therefore, throngs of the ill-prepared and unmotivated students that our K-12 system produces in huge quantities enroll in colleges and universities every fall. Schools are desperate for the revenues they bring, so they find ways to accommodate their students’ aversion to difficult work with plenty of courses that are rather easy and fun.

Suddenly, despite decades of eroding academic standards, colleges are expected to produce better results. Can they? Will it work?

About as well as putting up a one-foot wall of sandbags to stop a tsunami.

Students who have been conditioned for twelve years to think that education is something where success comes automatically and without effort can’t be transformed into knowledge-thirsty scholars. Most of them go to college simply because they’ve heard that a degree is an occupational necessity. As they see things, they’re buying a product and expect to get it quickly and easily – just like buying a new cell phone or stylish shoes.

Faced with that mindset, colleges and universities pretend to educate students, offering an array of courses that students who don’t want to read and see no point in having an intellectual life can pass. Consequently, we have huge numbers of college grads who don’t read, write, or do math as well as high school grads did fifty years ago, as this National Association of Scholars study indicates.

That’s why I think that the talk about “accountability” is mostly hot air. The educational “customers” are getting the products they want. For some, that is a challenging and mind-expanding college experience and those who want that can still find it. For many others, however, a fluffy “education lite” is all they want and that’s what schools will keep giving them.