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Toward a Reinforcing System of Quality Assurance

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Toward a Reinforcing System of Quality Assurance
I believe we should conclude from this tour that neither the marketplace, the role of state and federal government in higher education, nor the mechanisms of self-regulation create a consistent set of pressures for quality improvement. But each arena does offer opportunities for constructive interventions. The ranking systems used by the national media can be improved. States can base performance-funding policies on better and more thoughtfully conceived indicators. Accrediting agencies can clarify their purposes and design methods of quality assurance more suitable for each of the tasks they undertake. Professional societies can treat teaching as a scholarly activity that deserves to be peer reviewed.

Another observation emerges from our panoramic overview. None of the various constituencies we visited--neither students, parents, college raters, government officials, accreditors or professional societies--see themselves as part of an overall system of quality assurance. If they did, and if the actors focused on the things they do best, and if they were informed by an understanding of what really counts in determining the quality of undergraduate education, they could reinforce each other's efforts.

Let me end with an example that illustrates this point. Suppose educators could agree on a few simple features that define a meaningful undergraduate education: for example, that students receiving a bachelor's degree should be required to write a great deal in the course of their studies. (Note that I'm not even saying they should write well, simply that they should have lots of practice.) Now suppose that all of the various external constituencies that influence colleges and universities—students, parents, college raters, governments, accrediting agencies and professional societies—asked the same question, "How much writing goes on during the course of the typical undergraduate experience?" If this happened, very soon, I suspect, undergraduates would be doing a lot of writing. At the moment, however, the signals coming in from outside constituencies regarding quality improvement are confusing and conflicting.

Chapter VI—The Challenge of Connection

Finally, we come to the lost connection between higher education and the problems that concern America. In the l960s, American society and higher education were joined in the pursuit of two great tasks—expanding opportunity and winning the cold war. Today, both educators and leaders outside the academy seem less certain about what it is that colleges and universities can do for the nation.

Part of what is at stake in the loss of connection between the missions of colleges and universities and America's vital needs is the political standing of higher education, especially with state-level political and business leaders. If colleges and universities sit on the sidelines of the struggles to address the great issues confronting America, they will have a harder time claiming political support for any of the functions they choose to perform.

Even more important, however, is whether colleges and universities have a larger contribution to make to America's renewal beyond simply responding to the demands of the marketplace. Many colleges and universities can get along fine admitting talented students and helping them along the route to a comfortable life. Universities can get along fine fostering research, without worrying about its importance to the society at large. But most of us, I suspect, think we should expect more from our institutions of higher education.

I am not talking here about the "service" universities perform in the familiar rendition of a university's three-part mission of teaching, research and service. In practice, under this formulation, service has become a residual, catch-all category. It has become a way to acknowledge the contributions faculty make beyond teaching and research: as citizenship within the university, external service to the community and profession-based service rendered at large. Thus defined, service has been trivialized and rewarded as an "extra," somewhat like getting points in the Civil Service for being a veteran.

Rather, I am referring to a conception of the university's social mission in which "serving" America is the wellspring of all the fundamental activities of the institution—the inspiration for decisions about which students shall be admitted, what educational purposes the teaching is aiming to achieve, and what kinds of research and outreach takes place. In a university motivated by a strong sense of social mission, decisions about who should be educated and toward what ends would be made with reference to America's vital needs. And faculty would ask each other hard questions about the social value of proposed research projects.

This is not an argument for shaping the affairs of higher education with reference to a particular political philosophy, liberal or conservative. Rather, it is a point of view that is rooted in the notion that colleges and universities are uniquely suited to serve a counterweight function in American society. If society is caught in tradition, colleges and universities can point to the future. If society is racing to the future, colleges and universities can remind it of its past. If the nation is coming unglued, as ours seems to be today under the onslaught of the mass media and commercialism, colleges and universities can—and should—lean hard into the wind and become a force for social renewal.

But how do we translate these lofty aims into concrete activities? I see two possibilities. First, we can encourage educators and political leaders to take higher education's social responsibilities into account when they formulate institutional missions and public policies. Second, we can help colleges and universities become more engaged in the arena of social renewal over which they have most influence: the nation's schools and the quality of the education they provide.

College/University Missions and America's Needs
The first and perhaps most important way that colleges and universities enact a larger social mission is by reaching out to and admitting students whose education is vital to our future. With respect to higher education's continuing role as an instrument of inclusion, there are two enormous challenges before the country.

Economic and social inequality is increasing in America, and this is undermining the role that colleges and universities can play in equalizing opportunity. As the Washington Post put it recently, powerful economic forces are dividing America into two different economies: one inhabited by prosperous, optimistic "winners" and the other by struggling, increasingly embittered "losers." In the l960s, the postwar boom lifted all boats. Today, our economy showers its favors disproportionately on those who are already advantaged, especially the educated.

When we consider this trend in light of the specific trends noted in Chapter II—stagnating family incomes for the middle class, declining public resources available for higher education and rising educational costs--the picture that emerges is a distressing one. A recent study for the Educational Testing Service took into account all of the factors adverse to equality in the receipt of postsecondary education degrees, including higher costs, declining student aid and higher dropout rates. The researchers came to the following depressing conclusion: "In l979, a student from the top income quartile was four times more likely to obtain a four-year college degree by age 24 than a student from the bottom quartile; by 1994, he or she was 10 times more likely to get a degree." Our national commitment to equalize opportunity through higher education is eroding.

The second challenge relates to the national effort begun in the early l960s to use education as a means of bringing minorities into full participation in American life. I hardly need say that the stakes here for America are very high, because continuing to make progress on this agenda is key not only to our continued productivity but also to the health of our democracy. Racial and ethnic differences have been among the most enduring sources of human conflict throughout history. Polls show that Americans typically underestimate the seriousness of racial and ethnic conflict as a world problem.

It is all too easy to forget how severe the disparities in educational attainment were in the early 1960s. In l964—the year of landmark civil rights legislation—less than half of blacks aged 25 to 29 had even completed high school. Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans were virtually absent from prestigious universities such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Even Berkeley, a public institution with a long tradition of inclusiveness, was overwhelmingly white. Judged from the starting point of this low base, the years since then have been years of remarkable progress. But large gaps still remain.

By l989, the proportion of blacks ages 25 to 29 who had completed high school was almost the same as whites: 82 to 86 percent. In this sense, the attainment gap between blacks and whites is now centered in higher education. Also in 1989, the proportions of 25 to 29 year olds who have completed two or more years of college stood at 38 percent for whites and 27 percent for blacks. The proportions completing four or more years of college stood at 24 percent for whites and 12 percent for blacks.

Hispanics experience an attainment gap that is still severer. By 1989, only 61 percent of Hispanics ages 25 to 29 had completed high school. Only 21 percent had completed two or more years of college. And only 10 percent had completed four or more years of college. The attainment gaps are also severe with Native Americans.

It is also critical to understand that simple participation rates gloss over other disparities that are even more striking. For example, when we look more closely at grades, test scores and achievement within particular fields of endeavor, the disparities increase. Black and Hispanic students, for example, are very poorly represented in the highest achievement categories of tests like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). This is why the prospect of a rollback in affirmative action could be so devastating, especially to enrollments at elite institutions. For example, in 1992 to 1993, only 63 black students nationwide—0.7 percent of all black test takers--scored above 165 (on a scale of 120 to 180) on the Law School Aptitude Test. Based on this performance, Theodore Cross, editor of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, has estimated that a color-blind policy would reduce the number of blacks admitted to the nation's 20 most prestigious law schools by 80 percent.

The second major way that colleges and universities enact their social mission is to educate in a way that motivates and prepares students to use their talents for the good of the larger society. This question has been "on the screen" of college and university leaders since the early l980s. At that time, Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States, and three university presidents (Donald Kennedy at Stanford, Timothy Healy at Georgetown and Howard Swearer at Brown) founded an organization called Campus Compact, expressly dedicated to mobilizing presidential leadership for student volunteerism, civic engagement, and a more expansive vision of the college and university mission. Campus Compact has grown to include more than 500 college and university campuses and a number of state affiliates, pointing to significant enthusiasm for the idea that colleges and universities can do more to educate students for civic leadership.

A third major way that colleges and universities enact their social mission is to engage in the kind of research and professional outreach that connects with America's most urgent problems. As the nation's attention has shifted from the cold war to other problems, universities have been struggling to adapt—with only partial success. Throughout much of the l980s, the nation was preoccupied with strengthening its ability to compete in the new global economy. Influential university leaders argued that increased basic research was critical to America's competitiveness, but this argument never really caught on. And as Derek Bok finally pointed out to his colleagues, the argument was always overblown. Basic research is just one of a long list of factors that contributes to competitiveness. If universities really wanted to contribute to making America competitive, Bok argued, they would focus on applied fields such as teacher preparation, nursing and social work that are key to improving the quality of the American work-force. Yet these are precisely the fields that university leaders typically neglect, and, as a result, continually struggle for status and resources within the modern university.

The fundamental and underlying tensions between basic and applied work, and between disciplinary and problem-oriented modes of organizing research, are familiar to everyone in higher education. Academicians place the highest value on research that contributes to theory building, not the kind of applied research that contributes to solving practical problems. Academic departments are organized around disciplines, not social problems. Thus, faculty who do engage in research and outreach that is focused on addressing immediate and practical problems do so at a price: the loss of prestige.

Nonetheless, efforts are under way at many levels of academic life to strengthen connections with the community at large. Universities that are not in the top tier of basic research institutions, especially those in urban areas, are forging new identities around ideas of serving their metropolitan area. Universities are rapidly proliferating new centers, institutes and other internal organizations that organize faculty across disciplinary lines. And within almost every discipline and professional field, scholars are beginning to debate issues concerning the value to be attached to various forms of scholarly work.

The San Diego Dialogue (Dialogue), sponsored by the University of California's La Jolla campus, offers an example of a university that is now providing policy leadership for its surrounding region. What promoted the Dialogue was a growing despair over the fragmented character and uncivil tone of efforts at regional economic and civic development. Community leaders decided that what was lacking was a forum or body capable of transcending parochial interests. Drawing on the prestige of a former chancellor and the entrepreneurial skills of an energetic director of university extension, the university set itself up as a neutral convener of the region's key leaders. One thing led to another and soon university faculty members from a variety of departments were undertaking research that transformed the perceptions of what the cross-border region of San Diego and Tijuana needed and where its future might be. Today, the San Diego Dialogue is a positive force for collaboration and policy development.

The K-12 Connection
Of all the arenas in which colleges and universities might contribute to the rebuilding of American society, none is more important than working with schools. The quality issues in the schools cry out for attention. Colleges and universities have more influence over schools than any other sector in American life. Politically, higher education could generate enormous good will from its work with schools. Especially for institutions such as regional state colleges and universities that cannot connect to the public through high-profile athletic teams or facilities such as medical schools, reaching out to the schools is one of the best avenues available for engaging the larger community.

There is no doubt about where higher education's most important political constituency stands on this matter. In a l995 state survey commissioned by the National Education Association, 58 house and senate education chairs in 49 states were asked to identify their highest priorities for higher education. Teacher preparation was first (88 percent), improving undergraduate instruction and advising followed (86 percent), and improving the critical connections between higher education and the schools was third (82 percent). Research directed at solving social problems came in much lower (44 percent), and basic research came in last (30 percent). The political message is clear. It is also clear that state political leaders are gradually coming to view elementary, secondary and higher education as "all one system."

Partly as a result of these growing pressures, the "K-12 connection" has been picking up momentum as a topic of conversation and action within higher education for nearly a decade. Discussion and action has focused around three specific connections: admissions; teacher preparation; and "service," meaning outreach efforts aimed at K-12 services, teachers and administrators.

Admissions policy making is a textbook-perfect case of power and responsibility. The act of setting standards for college admissions gives colleges and universities enormous power over the academic work that goes on in K-12. To exercise this power responsibly, colleges and universities must take the needs and interests of the K-12 system into account in the setting of these standards. I will have more to say in the next chapter about what this might mean.

Teacher education reform has now been on the national agenda for about a decade. From the l960s to the mid-l980s, colleges and universities looked on their schools and departments of education as undesirable but rich relatives, tolerating education as a field of study only because of the revenues the schools brought in. But in the last decade, administrators and faculty alike have begun treating education more respectfully, and education schools themselves have raised their standards, improved their curriculum and started to work with the K-12 sector in ways that close the gap between academic theory and professional practice. Although teacher education remains a troubled academic field, it is also the case that the last six or eight years of effort have brought real improvement. I also return to this subject in the following chapter.

As to the service arena, school/college partnerships have proliferated, expanding into many academic departments and programs across the entire university, and reaching into earlier and earlier grades in the schools. A typical university now sponsors partnerships aimed at providing special services to students (for example, bringing eighth-graders to campus for summer enrichment programs in mathematics), partnerships aimed at curricular improvement (such as summer institutes for science teachers), and partnerships to advance the ongoing professional development of teachers and administrators (professional development schools sponsored by schools of education). And in recent years, consortia of colleges and universities and various community organizations have developed comprehensive, multipurpose compacts such as the Trusts-supported Community Compacts for Student Success, which embrace several of these aims at once.

With all of this activity one might expect colleges and universities to be enjoying applause from politicians, business leaders and school leaders deeply engaged in school reform. Instead, policy makers tend to be critical, even angry, about the role they perceive colleges and universities to be playing in school reform. Many either say that colleges and universities are not "players" in K-12 reform, or worse still, that they are obstacles to the reform movement.

How can this be? How can colleges and universities be so involved and yet be perceived as either uninvolved or a source of impediments? I believe there are three explanations.

The first is that the many and varied grassroots engagements that connect colleges and universities to schools have not been part of a visible, public leadership strategy on the part of higher education. The contrast with the role of business in school reform is striking. Years ago, when the leadership of the business community decided to make school reform a leading issue, mass circulation magazines like Business Week and Fortune were filled with calls to arms from chief executive officers such as David Kearns at Xerox. Business leaders also institutionalized their interest through organizations like the Business Roundtable and the Committee for Economic Development. Despite the public visibility, however, there remains a great slippage between the business community's public leadership on the one hand and on-the-ground involvement, corporation by corporation, on the other. The business community has set an agenda but has yet to deliver fully on it. In contrast, colleges and universities are engaged in myriad ways, but higher education's leaders have yet to set forth a visible agenda.

A second explanation lies in the mismatch of scale. There are approximately 3,600 accredited colleges and universities in America, some 16,000 school districts and about 110,000 schools. Every college and university in the country could have a major project underway in three neighboring schools, and there would still be 100,000 schools left untouched. The scale of the need in the K-12 sector is simply enormous.

There is still a third explanation for the little credit colleges and universities are receiving for their work with schools, one that is especially relevant to what the Trusts might do in the future. Colleges and universities are no longer providing help that is completely in tune with the strategies that school reformers are now pursuing.

Since the publication of A Nation at Risk nearly 15 years ago, school reformers have traveled a remarkable journey. Reformers initially thought that such changes as longer school days and more discipline would solve the problem, whereas today's reform leaders agree that far deeper and more fundamental changes in the basic structure and culture of schools are necessary. Yet the reform community is divided on the best routes to get from here to there. One school of thought, which the Trusts have strongly supported, champions systemic reforms organized around new standards of what students should know and be able to do. Another branch of the reform effort, illustrated by the Coalition of Essential Schools, founded by Theodore Sizer, favors local community efforts to implement new design concepts. A third branch favors market-driven approaches such as vouchers and charter schools. What all of these schools of thought have in common is their belief that the traditional "factory model" of schooling, in which teachers labor like blue-collar workers, following rules tightly prescribed by others, has got to go.

These new visions of the fundamental reforms that schools must undertake are now sources of new tensions with colleges and universities. In many cases, the contributions that universities are making to school improvement no longer reflect the leading edge of thinking among school reformers. For example:

  • University-based "early intervention" programs are wonderful for the students who are lucky enough to be touched by these supplementary enrichment efforts. But the add-on services that universities provide do not do much to change the regular classrooms where the children still spend most of their time.

  • Summer institutes and other one-time outreach programs for teachers are helpful, but even more than these one-shot programs, teachers need professional development opportunities that are closely connected to the ongoing daily work they do in schools.

  • Efforts to upgrade the status and quality of schools of education are commendable. But students preparing to become teachers acquire their ideas about how to teach, not only from professors in schools of education, but from the professors of history, chemistry, mathematics and all the other academic subjects they study in college. Thus, the preparation of effective teachers requires more than "teacher education." It requires the "education of teachers" by the entire university.

For colleges and universities, working in the K-12 sector is unlike working in any other larger social arena. When colleges and universities engage the health care sector, the criminal justice system or the environmental arena, their influence is exercised through the quality of the people they train for these sectors, the quality of the research they do and the quality of other services they provide to these sectors. But in the case of the K-12 system, colleges and universities also model what education is all about. Everyone who is involved in Little League baseball, from the kids to the coaches to the parents, absorbs ideas about how the game should be played from the way it is played in the big leagues. Similarly, everyone engaged in elementary and secondary education—students, parents, teachers and everyone else—gets their ideas about what education should be from the way colleges and universities "play" higher education.

Being a resource to the schools is, therefore, only a part of how colleges and universities can help with the task of school reform. The work also involves something more fundamental: making decisions about matters "internal" to colleges and universities with an eye toward their external effects on the schools. I will return to this theme when I discuss the role I think the Trusts can play in helping colleges and universities work with schools to achieve high standards.

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