Toward Pedagogies of Engagement
Held to a standard in which quality is defined as the absence of obvious defects, there are a few trouble spots in higher education, but no deep or serious flaws. Held to a standard of making it through the pipeline, there are troubling issues of quality throughout higher education but especially at institutions with open admissions. Held to a standard of learning for understanding and acquiring the literacies needed for our changing society, there are pervasive issues of quality throughout the entire system.
Throughout the whole enterprise, the core issue, in my view, is the mode of teaching and learning that is practiced. Learning "about" things does not enable students to acquire the abilities and understanding they will need for the 21st century. We need new pedagogies of engagement that will turn out the kinds of resourceful, engaged workers and citizens that America now requires.
To place this issue in its historical context, recall my early description of the colonial college. The fundamental disciplines taught in the colonial college were Latin and Greek. But everyone--students and faculty alike—understood that these subjects were means, not ends. What today we would call the "intended outcomes" of the colonial college were mental discipline and character.
With the birth of the modern university, an increasingly specialized faculty came to the university to discover new knowledge and transmit the fruits of their discoveries to their students. Along the way, however, covering the subject became an end in itself, not a means of preparing students to meet future challenges as workers and citizens. Now, there is vastly more information and knowledge to be learned than can ever be "covered." Colleges and universities need to recover the idea that the subjects are not ends, but means to developing certain basic abilities and habits of the heart. This is a challenge for every institution in the system.
Chapter V—The Challenge of Quality II: Inadequate Incentives
Having argued that the quality of undergraduate education is, indeed, a problem, we come to a further set of questions. What are the sources of this problem? Why does it persist? Part of the responsibility lies with the administrators, faculty and students who make up the college community. But the members of each college community are, in turn, influenced by the incentives embedded in the way things work in the higher education industry at large.
In this chapter, I want to take a brief tour of this surrounding environment. We start with the characteristics of the marketplace in which colleges and universities compete for students and faculty. We move on from there to the way government policies influence college and university life. From there we go to the organizations for self-regulation that higher education itself has established. These include the accrediting agencies that subject entire colleges, as well as programs within them, to processes of peer review. These entities also include the scholarly and professional communities, which peer review the work of individual members of their professional fields.
The purpose of this tour is to find out whether the incentives that are embedded in this surrounding environment encourage members of the college and university community to pay attention to continuous quality improvement. If they do not, then these particular features of the larger system add another dimension to the quality problem we must address. If they do, they are part of the solution. Obviously, if we could ever find a way to strengthen the external incentives for continuous quality improvement, we would be striking a major blow for quality.
Our tour will stop first at the marketplace for students and faculty, drive quickly by government agencies and the accreditation system, and stop once more at the scholarly and professional communities. Every site is relevant to quality concerns, but some of these sites are more fascinating to educators than to those outside higher education.
The Marketplace: The Triumph of Prestige over Quality
Relative to the rest of the world, our colleges and universities enjoy a remarkable degree of freedom from governmental control. Our earliest institutions were founded by private groups, and autonomy from governmental control has remained a strong value ever since. If the market is not king, it is nearly so. Colleges and universities compete with one another, sometimes fiercely, for just about everything—students, faculty, government funds, private funds and athletes who can bring winning football teams.
As a result, college and university presidents must pay attention to a wide variety of both internal and external constituencies: students, faculty, parents, alumni, local community groups, foundations, corporations, government and the like. And each of these constituencies not only needs attention but tends to want different things. Hence, the famous quip of Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California system, that the job of a university president was to arrange "sex for the students, parking for the faculty, and football tickets for the alumni."
This intense competition clearly has its advantages. Competition among universities for federal research funds, for example, has produced an entrepreneurial-minded, research-oriented faculty that has produced stunning breakthroughs in research. But competition in this market works reasonably well because those who make decisions by the market are reasonably able to judge the quality of the projects being proposed. In the peer review system that operates in research, faculty with acknowledged expertise decide which proposals receive support.
But in the primary marketplace that affects undergraduate education—the marketplace of competition for prospective students—the story is quite different. Prospective students and their parents pick colleges and graduate schools for a variety of reasons. Geography is a potent factor, judging by the large number of students who attend colleges within 50 miles of their homes. Many other factors—price, size, religious traditions, kinds of student bodies, athletic programs, chance encounters with students or official personnel who know the institution—also come into play.
As a consequence, the student marketplace encourages colleges to try to attract students with all sorts of special programs, facilities, activities and services that students seem to want, from housing accommodations and gymnasiums to health services and computer facilities. But the marketplace does not exert any particular pressure on colleges to work continuously to improve their contributions to student learning. Indeed, looking at the way the market has operated in the past 25 years, I think it fair to come to an even harsher conclusion. In the sectors of higher education where faculty engage in both teaching and research, the market has exerted powerful pressure against improving the quality of undergraduate teaching.
As nonprofit organizations, colleges and universities strive not to make annual profits but to achieve the more elusive goal of institutional excellence: to be "the best," whatever that may mean. The problem is, excellence is defined as having the best resources, including the most talented students and the most widely recognized faculty. Thus, the higher the SAT scores of the entering freshman class and the more renowned the faculty, the higher the "quality" of an institution is presumed to be. Few people ask whether the institution's resources are being used to produce gains in student learning.
The presence of talented students and faculty with national reputations does, of course, have something to do with quality. Students learn a lot from each other, and the student culture of a campus has an important bearing on such things as the amount of effort students generally put into their studies. Faculty who are actively engaged in research are likely not only to know more about their fields but also to communicate enthusiasm for scholarly inquiry to their students. But the mere presence of able students and talented faculty does not guarantee a powerful educational experience. A student at an Ivy League university, surrounded by the finest resources that money can buy, can have a miserable experience. And a student at the shabbiest college in America can be caught up in a thrilling educational experience. It all depends on how resources are being used to enable and produce student learning.
Although the competitive marketplace for students leaves a lot to be desired, the competitive marketplace for faculty actually undermines the quality of undergraduate education. This is so because, at least at present, the faculty members who have national reputations are faculty who do research. In contrast, being an excellent teacher brings local—not national—acclaim. So the national market for faculty talent is really only a market for faculty who do research. We do not find universities engaged in "bidding wars" for faculty members who are excellent teachers.
This in itself might not be so bad if it were not for the fact that teaching is a commodity that can be bargained away. Star faculty are lured to university positions with the promise of reduced teaching loads, which removes them from contact with undergraduates. Faculty members also are promised the opportunity of offering courses on their specialized research interests, whether or not it makes sense for such courses to be included in the undergraduate curriculum.
All in all, the competitive marketplace in higher education provides incentives to institutions to focus their attention on acquiring prestige and the resources that bring prestige rather than on improving their contributions to student learning. And here is the final rub. This effect is now being given an enormous boost by the decision of mass circulation magazines to publish academic quality rankings based largely on reputational and resource measures of quality.
For years, people have been doing reputational and resource surveys of colleges and universities. But these were typically published in rather obscure journals and read principally by administrators and faculty interested in seeing where they stood among the "best" in their fields. But then in l983, U.S. News and World Report, with a circulation of 2.3 million, published its first college-ranking issue. Business Week, with a circulation of 900,000, entered the field in l988. This past fall, Newsweek, partnering with Kaplan Testing Service (both owned by The Washington Post Corporation), produced its inaugural guide to choosing a college. Time, partnering with Princeton Review, recently came out with its inaugural issue. College ranking by mass circulation magazines is now something of an industry in its own right. A recent study by several researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) estimated that the five publishers now in the ratings game are generating nearly $16 million per year in sales with their college issues.
So in recent years, for the first time, large numbers of prospective students and their parents have easy access to rankings of what are considered the "best" colleges. It is important not to exaggerate the influence of these rankings on applicants themselves. One recent study suggested that students who say that the rankings were very important to their decision process tend to be the high-achieving students who are applying to selective colleges—a distinct minority of all college-goers. Yet they are a very influential segment of the population. The more important point is that the rankings affect the behavior of the colleges themselves. To the extent that being "best" is determined by such things as entering students' test scores, the incentive for colleges and universities to focus on recruiting students who can enhance their reputation, rather than on educating the students they have, is strengthened ever more.
Government: Groping for Handles
Our tour now takes us to where the gorillas are kept. The federal government is, of course, a source of powerful incentives to pay attention to research. And through its student-aid programs, the government also puts its financial power on the side of student choice. Twenty-five years ago, debate raged over whether the federal government should finance access to higher education by providing assistance to students or directly to institutions. In choosing to assist students, the federal government strengthened the power of the marketplace.
Various federal agencies offer incentive-grant programs for undergraduate academic improvement, some of which have been important stimuli for quality improvement. And as concern about undergraduate education (especially in math and science) has grown, federal officials have started groping for other means—both sticks and carrots—of weighing in on the side of quality improvement.
I believe it is fair to say, however, that the federal government has yet to find any major new handles that are making campuses sit up and pay attention. Initially, the Clinton administration's proposed tax credit was to be made available only to families of students who earned a B average during their first year in college. But the specter of putting the Internal Revenue Service in the business of reviewing students' grades generated such opposition that this feature of the proposal was dropped.
State governments, of course, have more direct "ownership" responsibilities regarding public institutions and are much more involved in shaping the affairs of the institutions under their control. But the first point to be made is that the dominant thrust of state policies and practices are still rooted in the great expansionist era of the l960s, when the states saw their primary task as one of building capacity. At the time, most states financed public institutions through formulas based on the number of student credit-hours. The state did not ask if students were graduating. In theory, the very same students could mill around in an institution for years, never making any academic progress, and the institution would receive the same amount of funds it would have received if those students had graduated and incoming freshmen had taken their places. Funding formulas based on student enrollment contain no particular incentives for institutions to be concerned with student achievement.
In the mid-l980s, however, things began to change. State officials began thinking about their financial role as an investment that should bring returns, and they began looking into policy levers that would direct their investments toward the states' educational priorities. In all of the familiar categories of state policy making--resource allocation and fiscal policy, the review and approval of individual academic programs, regulation and accountability reporting, and state-wide master planning—states began to experiment with new strategies, a number of which were intended to strengthen incentives for quality improvement.
As a gross generalization, I would say that the first round of efforts during the l980s did not have much positive effect. Many states, for example, required all public institutions to assess student learning and report the results. Campuses reluctantly complied, but they shipped reports back to their state capitals that could not be compared across institutions and were never used by states as a basis for any further decisions. Accountability assessment was a train on its own track, leading nowhere in particular.
In the second round of efforts that began in the early 1990s, things have become a good deal more interesting. States discovered "performance funding," for example. A 1995 survey of state higher education officers found that nine states had adopted policies linking some portion of state funds to the achievement of goals the state cared about. According to a Trusts-supported study of the indicators states are using, more than half of the states have picked out indicators that relate to quality improvement of undergraduate education, for example, retention and graduation rates, faculty teaching loads, test scores of students entering the professions, transfers from two- to four-year institutions, and uses of technology for distance learning.
Self-regulation through Accreditation: Confusion over Purposes
Yet a third potential source of incentives for quality improvement lies with the system of quality assurance we call accreditation. There are six regional accrediting associations, which accredit entire colleges and universities, and some 70 recognized specialized accrediting agencies (such as the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business and the American Bar Association), which accredit particular programs in particular fields. Because this part of the tour gets into somewhat arcane territory, I will simply make a few major observations as we pass quickly by.
The six regional agencies that accredit entire institutions could be a powerful force for quality improvement. At present they are not, and the central reason is that they are trying to serve too many purposes at once. Regional accreditation began at the turn of the century as a vehicle to bring order and uniformity to the process of college admissions. Rather than send teams of their own faculty to inspect the quality of high schools that students were applying from, college and university presidents established a regional agency—the North Central Association—to do this task. In time, the process of having college faculty accredit high schools was extended to include the accreditation of colleges and universities as well. The purpose was to certify that institutions met minimum standards.
In the l930s, accreditation took on a second purpose. The North Central Association pioneered the idea that an institution applying for accreditation should be judged in the light of its own stated mission. This mission-centered approach, in turn, gave rise to the notion that the process of accreditation should entail three stages: an institutional self-study, a visit by external examiners and a report by the examiners to the accreditation agency. Other regional agencies were established, financed by institutional dues, and accreditation evolved into a collegial process aimed not only at certifying minimum standards but at improving quality.
In 1952, with the enactment of the Korean War GI Bill, accreditation took on still a third accountability task—that of certifying to the federal government that institutions were "worthy" of receiving federal funds. Concerned that the Korean War GIs would use government funds to enroll in fly-by-night institutions, the legislation stipulated that the federal government would publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies that, in turn, would certify institutions eligible to receive funds under the Korean War GI Bill. Soon accrediting agencies were in the business of assuring both state and federal governments about the quality of the institutions in which they were investing.
Certifying minimum standards, improving quality and assuring governments that their money is well spent are all laudable purposes. But they do not necessarily fit well together, nor are they best performed through a single, one-size-fits-all process of self-study, visitation and report writing. Not surprisingly, none of the constituencies that accreditation is supposed to serve is terribly pleased with the process. Smaller and more vulnerable institutions that have taken the process seriously have benefited greatly from the self-study and peer review. But many larger and well-established institutions that have no use for the quality improvement task treat regional accreditation like an annoying fly buzzing about them. Meanwhile, accreditation's governmental constituencies are becoming increasingly restive about the failure of accrediting agencies to assure governments about a growing host of issues that governments care about, such as efficiency in the use of resources, financial integrity in using funds and default rates on student loans.
The big picture here is that regional accreditation does, to some degree, nudge institutions to think about the quality of undergraduate education. Academic leaders who themselves care about quality improvement often use the occasion of accreditation to focus the attention of their institutions on educational improvement agendas. Yet accreditation could be a much more powerful force if the regional accreditors would clarify their purposes and develop methods of institutional review that are specifically related to each of the three distinctive tasks of accreditation.
The specialized agencies that accredit specific programs present another set of issues and opportunities. Unlike the thinly staffed regional agencies, many specialized agencies are well-financed, well-staffed organizations that exert powerful pressure on the programs they accredit. The bad news is that this pressure largely boosts the resource/reputational views of quality instead of focusing attention on student learning. A few specialized agencies, such as the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business, have made serious efforts to insist that the schools they accredit present evidence of their contributions to student learning. Most specialized accrediting agencies, however, are thinly disguised lobbying organizations for the view that colleges and universities should be putting more resources into the particular fields the agencies represent.
Professional Accountability: The Separation of Teaching from Scholarship
Finally, we come to the academic profession itself. "Professional" work, by definition, is expert work that requires assessment by other members of the profession. Arguably, the most relevant and the most helpful source of pressure for continuous quality improvement would be pressure from colleagues in a faculty member's own scholarly field.
Yet here we come up against one of the great ironies of the academic profession. With respect to the work of research, faculty members belong to a genuine community, a community of scholars. The earning of a Ph.D. is, in effect, the rite of passage into a community of ongoing discourse about the advancement of knowledge in one's field. Every scholarly field develops journals, annual meetings and dozens of other ways to facilitate discussion about the findings and breakthroughs in the field. To be a scholar is to assume an obligation to share one's work with one's peers. Published work is subject to elaborate arrangements of peer review. As a result, young scholars entering the field, as the saying goes, can "stand on the shoulders of giants," the great scholars who went before them.
But with respect to the work of teaching, no such community exists. Teaching is a largely private act, something that takes place behind the closed doors of the classroom. Faculty talk to each other about their teaching in the elevators and gripe about their students over lunch. But they do not really engage each other in reflecting on their teaching practice, the way doctors reflect on their medical practice, for example. So knowledge of good teaching practice rarely gets shared. Most of the various disciplines sponsor some sort of journal about teaching in their field, but few of these have much status or readership. Although research is subject to elaborate systems of peer review, teaching is evaluated principally through student ratings, with faculty playing secondary roles. When it comes to teaching, new faculty do not stand on the shoulders of giants; they start over from scratch.
Treating teaching as though it were primarily "private property" sends a powerful message. It says that teaching is not really considered scholarly work that requires scholarly judgment to help determine whether it is being done well. It says that teaching is easy work that students are qualified to judge, whereas real scholars are engaged in more difficult and important things.
Until teaching is considered community property, worthy of professional peer discourse and peer review, teaching will never have much status in academic life. And faculty will never get better and better at it. So the problem is serious, and it is worth taking another moment to ask why this is so. Why has the academic profession never come to view teaching as an intellectually interesting field, worthy of time and sustained inquiry?
The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that as academic specialities developed in the modern university, a perspective was lost. Disciplines such as biology, mathematics, and English grew up in one part of the university. Over in another corner, departments of education and psychology grew up and organized themselves around the study of teaching and learning in general. Teaching came to be associated with technique—how to present a good lecture or lead a good class discussion—regardless of the subject that was being taught. This is like assuming that someone who is a good basketball coach can be a good football coach—as long as he knows about "coaching" in general. The lost perspective is that teaching is also a matter of translating the knowledge of a particular field into terms students can understand. Knowing how to teach is one thing; knowing how to teach Newton's second law of motion to an introductory physics class is another. All faculty who are excellent teachers know this. But by failing to talk about teaching in discipline-specific terms, the academy at large has not honored teaching as a rich, complex activity worthy of scholarly attention.