All around the country, from sea to shining sea, public schools are ablaze with reform.
More states are experimenting with charter schools and state-led turnaround districts than ever before. Longer school years and alternative scheduling schemes continue to make inroads into district calendars. Curricula are changing, too: earlier this summer, San Francisco Unified board members voted to implement a mandatory computer science curriculum from preschool through 12th grade. And in Tennessee, where I worked, revised content standards in every career and technical education course have incorporated the state’s reading and writing standards for their respective grade bands, in a bid to infuse more literacy skills throughout the so-called “vocational” courses.
Whether these reforms result in a durable impact on student achievement remains to be seen. But one thing seems certain: in the K-12 sector, there is widespread recognition that the current under-education of American schoolchildren is unacceptable. Thus we have a K-12 environment in 2015 where schools across the country are experimenting like little co-ops of mad but very deliberate scientists, their classrooms serving as their laboratories for imagining new ways of preparing students for life beyond their doors.
Why hasn’t the same thing happened in higher ed?
Institutions reform themselves for a number of reasons, but in the case of education, historically it has taken major intervention from external forces (namely, the government) in order to spark systemic change. The Brown v. Board decision is an illustrative example — though schools throughout the South went kicking and screaming to the equality train. Today, segregated schools remain a fixture of the K-12 landscape in practice, but the prohibition of de jure segregation has forced states and districts to address the issue head-on ever since, or risk getting sued. Landmark federal programs, as well, can similarly function like a swift kick to the rear for institutions that are otherwise stuck in their ways. A recent report in Education Next, for example, points to evidence that the Race to the Top agenda of the Obama years has had a significant incentivizing effect on state policy adoption around the specific K-12 priorities privileged by that program. The federal government, it turns out, can rather easily rally states to the cause if it chooses to do so.
In higher education, however, it’s difficult to find a comparable moment of zen — that jarring clash of status quo and self-reflective intervention. To be fair, colleges and universities have been scrambling spectacularly for years now in the name of “innovation,” which is usually code for recording a couple video lectures and calling them a MOOC, without actually having to address important questions about student success. But long before colleges started feeling the pinch of the recession and the clamor to cut operating costs, the government ceded its interest in higher education as an arena where strong policies should be deployed to stimulate social change, effectively washing its hands of what happened to students after high school.
In the absence of intervention, the status quo has reigned — to disastrous effect for our nation’s poor and disadvantaged students. In illustration, one need only look at the declining share of institutional expenditures devoted to instruction, which is most pronounced at the public and private two-year institutions where these students disproportionately enroll. The takeaway is clear: for all its regulatory meddling in the world of K-12, the government’s unwillingness to treat higher education as a public good has allowed colleges to get away with the kind of rent-seeking behavior that ultimately transfers more costs to the student. Without an effective accountability or incentive structure in place, higher ed has become something of a wild west where anything goes, even if that thing scarcely resembles teaching and learning.
That’s because, for so long, colleges and universities were judged not on their outputs (i.e., how well they educated the crop of students they received), but rather on their perceived level of selectivity. Uphold the countenance of prestige, it was thought, and remain as attractive as possible from the outside looking in. Once students got in the door, whether they thrived or they failed was really up to them; it wasn’t incumbent upon the institution to ensure the success of the student.
What is most striking about this logic is how it shifts the responsibility of educating away from the very entity that is getting paid to do it, implying that the college should not be at fault if the student fails. There are many historical antecedents at play here, not least the broader deprioritization of teaching at universities that would rather be engaged in the procurement of patents and TV contracts for their sports teams. There’s also a bit of the romanticized ethos of the college experience going on here too, wherein students at the cusp of adulthood were meant to “find themselves” — which has always implied a degree of independence defined in opposition to the strictures of K-12, where learning is so highly regimented, classroom environments so regulated, and students’ every behaviors monitored. Colleges probably relished their hands-off reputation, because it meant less responsibility over the classroom: if students fail, then it’s their fault, not a reflection of a deficiency in the institution. After all, college students are adults. They should be responsible for their own learning.
It’s hard to overstate just how dramatic a contrast this viewpoint represents to the accountability logic of the K-12 sector. In that sector, teachers, in particular, must frequently shoulder the brunt of expectations when top-down policies attempt to move the needle on student achievement. We want teachers to be everything in this country: role models, subject-matter experts, disciplinarians, guidance counselors, and stand-in parents, on top of their duties as pure educators. The most fluorescent example of America’s obsession with dumping the larger concerns of society on teachers occurred in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting of 2012, when suddenly politicians and advocacy groups alike were calling for a nationwide arming of teachers. Once again, teachers were expected to not just educate, but to play the role of country sheriff and neighborhood vigilante as well.
Despite the absurd demands often placed on teachers, we’ll stop at nothing to dissect their every shortcoming, to devise new ways of quantifying their effectiveness while their higher ed counterparts are judged against publication credits and end-of-course evaluations. We’re so quick to decry the inadequacies of our K-12 system: to lay blame at the feet of teachers and coerce them into complying with policy after student-centered policy. But where is the collective outrage over our failure to serve students at the postsecondary level? It’s ironic, isn’t it, how K-12 gets bullied every three years when the PISA results come out, as charges of inadequacy are lobbed its way with predictable vitriol, while higher ed — to the extent it was ever great to begin with — has been allowed to erode under our own government’s negligent eye, under policies that haven’t kept up with the demands of the economy and the ever-evolving demographics of the college-going population.
The stubborn siloing of K-12 and higher ed in this country, though born of historical circumstances, has resulted in a wildly lopsided policy environment, with teachers and schools at the K-12 level subject to greater and greater scrutiny over their performance, while colleges are perversely incentivized to pursue prestige-seeking activities like the construction of elaborate student commons and super-sized football stadiums. Lost in the shuffle are the students themselves, who have been pressured to mortgage their futures in exchange for the promise of a degree.
Fortunately, the barrage of reportage and scholarship regarding the issue of college quality seems to have snagged the interest of more and more politicians: presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has released her “New College Compact”, while President Obama, taking a cue from Tennessee, has pushed for free community college as one part of the policy puzzle aimed at helping more Americans graduate with a postsecondary credential. And the Obama administration’s signature higher education program, the First in the World competition, is finally getting its legs after years of foot-dragging in the bowels of Washington.
Just as with the issue of segregation, it would be easy to blame the schools for not holding themselves accountable to ensure all students receive a quality education. But we should also hold our government accountable for pushing through real policies that promote student retention and graduation at every one of the 7,234 postsecondary institutions in this country. By disproportionately focusing on the K-12 sector, Washington has left a host of higher ed policies to disintegrate, unwatched and unmanaged, while students fall through the cracks without a degree to their names.
There’s no reason we can’t hold colleges and universities to the same scrutiny we hold the millions of teachers in our nation’s elementary and secondary schools. Talk of “innovation” in higher ed these days may be all the rage, but market forces alone cannot compel institutions to do what’s in the best interest of students; it needs a helping (and sometimes forceful) hand from the true policy engine that hums somewhere inside that infamous beltway off the Potomac.
Thomas Gibney is a former program manager at the Tennessee Department of Education. He is now based in San Francisco.