Quality as Making It through the Pipeline
Policy makers and other influential leaders responsible for tracking returns on the public investment in higher education frequently view education as a pipeline. Students who enter the educational pipeline at one end are supposed to flow through the pipeline and come out the other end with a degree. Leaks in the pipeline are often taken as evidence of potential quality problems.
We have to be careful about the assumptions this pipeline metaphor implies. Many students who register for courses never intend to pursue a program of study all the way to a degree. Traditional-age students are increasingly leading checkered careers as students, dropping in and out of college, and attending several different institutions. Adults who juggle college, family and work responsibilities are even more prone to follow "in-and-out" patterns. And many students return to college for second educational careers. In California some years ago, policy makers were surprised to learn that nearly one-third of the students enrolled in the community college system were adults who already had a bachelor's degree and were returning to college for technical programs related to new employment opportunities. From the perspective of the pipeline metaphor, these students were entering from the wrong end!
Tracking the flow of students through the pipeline is thus a tricky business. Interpreting the data is trickier still. Students leave college for many reasons, and only some of these relate to the quality of their educational experience.
Yet allowing for all these difficulties, educational researchers have concluded that retention figures are valid and telling indicators of educational quality. Retention figures at particular institutions depend heavily on the characteristics of the entering student body. First-generation students enrolling at community colleges do not persist at rates comparable with those of elite students at Ivy League universities. But even when the retention rates of institutions with similar types of student bodies are compared, these rates often vary considerably, suggesting that educational issues controlled by the colleges themselves do influence retention. In fact, an intensive study of the causes of attrition, Vincent Tinto's "Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition," concludes that most of the factors associated with leaving are in the control of the institutions. Tinto found that students' financial problems are a factor, but not a central one, in explaining attrition.
With this background, let's look quickly at the current evidence of how well students are flowing through the pipeline. First, there's the distressing picture of students' academic preparation at the point of entry. Remediation is a fact of life on most college campuses. According to a l995 national survey by the U.S. Department of Education, slightly more than three-quarters of all colleges and universities offer remedial courses. One-third of entering freshmen is enrolled in at least one remedial reading, writing or mathematics course, the highest enrollments being in mathematics. Eighty percent of all student work in mathematics courses in college is remedial.
Remedial courses are most common at public, two-year institutions and at institutions with high enrollments of minority students. According to the Department of Education survey, remedial courses are offered at 100 percent of public two-year institutions and 94 percent of institutions with high minority enrollments compared with 81 percent of public four-year institutions.
As to progress toward the degree, the best source of evidence is a Department of Education-sponsored longitudinal study that began with the cohort of students who first enrolled in 1989. Among those seeking a bachelor's degree (whether they started at two- or four-year institutions), 46 percent had a bachelor's degree five years later, 5 percent had stopped with an associate degree and 3 percent with a certificate. Another 18 percent were still enrolled. If approximately half of the 18 percent still enrolled finally finished, the result would be that a little more than half of the students who entered the pipeline intending to earn a bachelor's degree actually made it all the way through.
What shall we make of this finding? Clearly, given the remediation figures I cited, many colleges and universities are dealing with students unprepared for college-level work. These schools face a challenging educational task. But allowing for this, the fact that only slightly more than half of those students who start with the expressed intention of earning a bachelor's degree actually end up doing so is a troubling finding. The leakage begins early. In 1995, the proportion of freshman who persisted into their sophomore year was 83 percent in private universities offering doctorates, 67 percent in public institutions offering bachelor's degrees and 52 percent in public two-year institutions. For too many students, the first year of college turns out to be their last.
Quality as Learning for Understanding
Statistics about the numbers of students who flow through the pipeline tell us nothing about the kind of education these students receive. By what standard should we judge if students have really learned what they need to learn? How are colleges and universities doing when measured against this standard?
Both within and without higher education, discussions about quality typically focus on issues of the curriculum. Faculty argue endlessly about what courses are essential, and these debates are now spilling over into the national press. When Stanford University revised its core course requirements for freshmen a few years ago, substituting readings by African American authors for several classic texts of Western civilization, the Wall Street Journal editorialized at length about the triumph of "political correctness" on the Stanford campus.
To be sure, whether or not students study the "right" subjects is an important aspect of the quality of education students experience. And we don't need to resolve the endless debate between the relative value of liberal versus more technical education to ascertain that there are serious problems to ponder regarding the quality of the curriculum students experience. A l992 analysis of college transcripts by the U.S. Department of Education revealed that 26.2 percent of recent bachelor's degree recipients had not taken a single course in history, 30.8 percent took no mathematics, 39.6 percent took no English or American literature, and 58.8 percent took no foreign language. These data should disturb anyone who believes in the importance of a solid grounding in liberal education. And those who believe in the importance of technical training related to the needs of the work force might ponder this: approximately one-third of the students in two-year community colleges are enrolled in "general studies" courses that seem to lead neither to a baccalaureate degree nor to employment opportunities in our increasingly technical economy. One wonders exactly what this course of study is designed to accomplish.
Curriculum matters. But the point I'd like to press is that what students learn is not simply a matter of the subjects students study. It is also importantly a matter of how these subjects are studied. What students learn is affected by how students learn. Summarizing 20 years of research on the impact of college on student development, Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini put it this way:
Perhaps the strongest conclusion that can be made is the least surprising. Simply put, the greater the student's involvement or engagement in academic work or in the academic experience of college, the greater his or her level of knowledge acquisition and general cognitive development.
If the level of involvement were totally determined by individual student motivation, interest, and ability, the above conclusion would be uninteresting as well as unsurprising. However, a substantial amount of evidence indicates that there are instructional and programmatic interventions that not only increase a student's active engagement in learning and academic work but also enhance knowledge acquisition and some dimensions of both cognitive and psychosocial change.
In light of this point, what is even more troubling to me is the mode of teaching and learning that prevails in most classrooms today. For a large percentage of undergraduates, taking courses is primarily a matter of reading, doing homework and listening in class to what professors say about their fields. Professors impart knowledge. Students absorb this knowledge. Examinations test whether students can recall what they have learned. In short, teaching is telling; learning is recalling.
Of course, this generalization by no means characterizes every classroom. And it is too simplistic to maintain that any particular teaching technique is either good or bad. Lecturing, properly done, can be a highly engaging form of teaching and learning. And knowing about things is critically important. But the larger point is absorbing knowledge through lectures often is not enough to ensure a good understanding of the material.
Why is it not enough? We know that lecturing is not enough largely because of the results of an interdisciplinary research endeavor that has been proceeding under the banner of "cognitive science." Over the last 25 years, researchers from various fields have shed new light on what is involved in helping students realize that high bar of intellectual endeavor we call "understanding." Although many educators have long equated understanding with knowledge, cognitive science now offers persuasive evidence that students can comprehend an idea sufficiently well to pass examinations but never really understand the idea well enough to put it to use in other situations. For example, a large portion of high school students studies Algebra I and receives passing grades. But according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 5 percent of American students can perform tasks that require using the knowledge learned in Algebra I.
The problem of knowing something but not really understanding it is not limited to students of poor or average ability. Very intelligent and able students at all levels of our educational system never really understand a great deal of the information and knowledge they acquire. A videotape called "A Private Universe" is now being used in workshops around the country to illustrate this point. In the opening scene, filmed immediately after a Harvard graduation ceremony, a reporter approaches a handful of new Harvard graduates, still clad in caps and gowns, and asks, "Why is it colder in the winter and warmer in the summer?" The graduates reveal their "knowledge" from ninth-grade astronomy that the earth travels around the sun in an elliptical orbit and tilts about 20 degrees on its north-south axis. But none of these grads can use this knowledge to explain why the temperature is warmer in the summer than in the winter. A surprising number say, erroneously, that the difference is explained by the fact that the earth is farther away from the sun in the winter than in the summer.
Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, summarizing recent research, reports that many successful graduates of courses, programs and institutions leave with only fuzzy understandings of key ideas:
[What] an extensive research literature now documents is that an ordinary degree of understanding is routinely missing in many, perhaps most, students. It is reasonable to expect a college student to be able to apply in new context a law of physics, or a proof in geometry, or the concept in history that she has just demonstrated acceptable mastery in her class. If, when the circumstances of testing are slightly altered, the sought-after competence can no longer be documented, then understanding—in any reasonable sense of the term—has simply not been achieved.
The discovery that the majority of students, including the very brightest ones, consistently and predictably fail to understand the basic concepts they seemingly "know" has triggered new research on how to teach for understanding rather than simple recall. In a forthcoming book, Assessing for Excellence, Grant Wiggins points out that to really understand an idea—be it the law of supply and demand in economics or the law of motion in physics—a student must be able to carry out a variety of performances involving the idea. Understanding is the ability to explain the idea, muster evidence to support it, find examples, apply it to new situations, generalize about it and represent it in new ways. In essence, the kind of learning that leads to understanding is learning by doing. Students know about chemistry by reading and listening to lectures, but to really understand chemistry, students need to engage in the tasks that chemists perform. A saying, attributed to the Lakota Sioux Indians, captures the point nicely:
"Tell me, and I will forget.
Show me, and I will remember.
Involve me, and I will understand."
It follows that assessing whether students truly understand a subject cannot be done through conventional testing. When students dish up answers on multiple-choice tests, they reveal their ability to recall facts and ideas. Genuine understanding can be judged only by assessing a student's ability to use an idea in a variety of ways in a variety of situations. Thus, what is at stake in the debate about standardized testing versus student portfolios and other methods of "authentic" or "performance" assessment is whether we care to evaluate students' understanding of what they study, or whether we will continue to be content to test simply what they know.
Quality as Literacies for a Changing Society
Teaching for understanding, then, is one of the standards by which we might judge how well our colleges and universities are performing. But there is still another standard to be considered. College is preparation for life's varied aspects—work, citizenship and personal fulfillment. As our society changes, the knowledge, abilities and attitudes that people need in order to lead meaningful lives and be productive workers and effective citizens change as well. What do the sweeping changes now taking place in our society imply for what it is that college graduates should know and be able to do?
Looking first at the changing nature of work in our emerging global economy, I would underscore three big developments. First, of course, is that the decline in the manufacturing sector (from 29 to 15 percent of total employment since WWII) and the changed nature of production work has wiped out thousands of high-wage, low-skill jobs. As a result, to earn a middle-class wage in America now requires what economists Richard Murnane and Frank Levy call "the new basic skills": traditional academic competencies (basic mathematics, reading, writing and problem solving) plus newer, "soft" competencies (the ability to work in teams, effectiveness at oral presentation and the ability to use personal computers). America's current sense of urgency about school reform comes in no small part from the fact that only about half of our high school graduates currently possess these skills.
In the upper professional/managerial tier of the workforce that traditionally requires a college degree, we also find that the new pressures on companies to become "high-performance" organizations are generating demands for new kinds of college-educated talent. In part because the pace of specialization is so swift and relentless, employers are coming to realize that it is impossible to hire or train people for any particular job. Increasingly, employers are looking for individuals with the attitudes and underlying abilities to learn new things and move through a succession of specialities, as well as for individuals who are imaginative, enterprising and capable of working collaboratively with others. In l993, a team from the Harvard Business School visited 23 other business schools to ascertain how they were reading the new environment. The team found that business schools are shifting away from teaching about a body of knowledge and, instead, increasingly emphasizing applied learning that develops managerial skills.
A third new element in the picture, affecting all tiers of the workforce, is the increasingly freelance character of work in our new global economy. In The Age of Unreason, British author Charles Handy offers an arresting image of organizations whose workforces are looking more and more like a three-part shamrock leaf. One leaf represents a core professional staff, which is declining. The second leaf represents an "outsourced" staff that works on contract, which is growing. And the third leaf represents a contingent staff of workers hired and let go depending on changing organizational needs. Reconfiguring the workforce in this pattern has brought a new agility to organizations. But for workers themselves, "shamrock leaf" organizations mean diminishing chances for a stable, long-term job with benefits. Today's graduates are likely to find that reinventing their work life every few years will become the norm.
All in all, the changing requirements for working in the new economy place a new premium on the importance of graduating students who have the ability to take the initiative, be enterprising and take charge of their own careers. Hence, the changing character of work in our new economy reinforces the message that is coming from the cognitive sciences. Listening to lectures is not enough. Students must take charge of their own learning—and learn by doing.
And what of the changing requirements for being a citizen in America? Here we encounter some difficulty. To understand the changing character of the workforce, we turned to the classification schemes and data that the U.S. Department of Labor has been providing since the l930s. But to understand what is happening to the "citizenship force," we have no help. No federal agency has classified "citizenship occupations." There is no monthly drumbeat about "nonparticipation rates" equal to the unemployment rates.
We do, of course, have some things to go on, such as voting statistics and various indicators of social trust. And, happily for me, Paul Light has already given the board the full and disturbing picture of how American citizens are disengaging from traditional forms of civic life. The point I wish to add here is that at the very time that the "supply" of engaged citizens is declining, the "demand" for engaged citizens is increasing. Indeed, four major areas of social change are generating needs for new "literacies" on the part of American citizens.
The accelerating thrust of science and technology is creating needs for new scientific and technological literacies. For example, as our scientists and engineers develop more and more products and procedures with far-reaching public consequences (e.g., fertility therapies, genetic engineering and nuclear power), decisions about their design, location, production and use become public affairs. At the same time, the issues that these technologies raise are increasingly technical in character and exceedingly complex. Ordinary citizens now confront an agenda of issues arising from scientific and technological processes that only experts fully understand. Although making decisions on these issues requires complex assessments of possibilities, risks and consequences, as a society we cannot afford to turn over these decisions to experts, who represent only a narrow spectrum of public values. If we are to maintain our democracy and retain control over our future, all citizens will have to reach new levels of scientific and technical literacy.
Second, consider the growing complexity and interdependence of American society. In the shift from the agricultural to the industrial era, America was transformed from a collection of small towns into a new, national market, and national organizations emerged to embrace and manage the new relationships. Now we are being pulled into a vast new global market, and international organizations have emerged to manage these relationships. This process is generating the need for another set of literacies, including global awareness, sensitivity to other cultures and facility with foreign languages.
Third, consider our changing demography. As a consequence of both differential birth rates and the l965 immigration reform law, America's minorities are a rapidly growing segment of the total population. By l990, minorities had increased to 20 percent of the total population. In the under-18 age group, this figure was 31 percent. Assuming that the average annual rate of increase in the minority population of children younger than 18 continues at about 0.5 percent a year, soon after 2020, among citizens under age 18, "minorities" will become the majority.
These trends mean that American citizens are confronting new issues of cultural pluralism. Feeling at home in America requires a kind of active engagement with diversity that is new for many Americans. As citizens of an increasingly multicultural nation, we face the increasingly difficult task of appreciating the human concerns and bonds that underlie diverse people's ways. Acquiring a sense of how the world looks when perceived and pondered in another language, and how different ways of living each have their own integrity represent yet another new set of requirements for being an effective American citizen.
Finally, consider the changes taking place in our basic values and culture. Traditional values and loyalties are eroding while new values and forms of community are forming. Traditional families are breaking up while new notions of family are emerging. Neighborhood communities are eroding while workplace and "virtual" communities are emerging. In consequence, we Americans are being forced to reconsider who we are in an increasingly complex society. Some of us suffer from losing familiar roots and references; others are liberated by the new bazaar of choices before us. With fewer and fewer givens in the social structure, more and more of us are struggling to discover and define who we are—through education.
All in all, there is a growing, daunting list of "new literacies" that Americans need to learn to be effective citizens—literacies in science and technology, literacies in global awareness and foreign languages, literacies in dealing with diversity, and giving meaning to the words "us" and "them." Each of these literacies represents a possible yardstick for judging the quality of the education colleges and universities provide. No one institution needs to assume responsibility for graduating students who have all these literacies. But as we look at our total system of higher education, it is fair to ask whether the system is producing a "citizenship workforce" that meets America's needs.
And there is a final critical point. Taken together, these literacies add up to what I think of as the "new civics" of the 21st century. We have already discussed how, given both the new understandings of cognitive science and the new requirements of work, learning about things is not enough. Graduates also need to learn how to do things. Having looked at the new civics, we can further conclude that learning how to do things is also not enough. There is a third dimension of learning that graduates must acquire. They must learn not only how to do things but learn to value doing them as well.
To be a citizen one must not only be informed. One must also care, and be willing to act on one's values and ideas. Crucial to all the new civic literacies is the development of an emotional identification with the larger community and the belief that, in the face of overwhelming complexity, one individual can make a difference.
How do we learn such "habits of the heart," to use Robert Bellah's phrase? The complete answer is complicated, but the quick answer is that students acquire habits of the heart in situations in which they are intensely and emotionally engaged: not just reading a play but acting in it; not just reading about the homeless, but working in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, and then reflecting on what they have experienced.