Sunday, April 26, 2015

Higher Education Reform in Limbo


This post on US higher education was written months ago, anticipating a series on possible college/university futures and possible change scenarios.  It was put on hold for multiple reasons:  One the discovery of much critique since 2000, not previously seen or reviewed; and two, realization of just how complex and diverse even 5,300 higher education entities can be.  Compounding that awareness, seeing an exploding embryonic series of alternatives to traditional ivy-covered campus renditions of postsecondary work.

The result was resolve to "eat the elephant" by slicing issues into manageable bites.  The following deferred post asks more questions than offering proposed answers, which is perhaps how this series should launch.

Higher Education's Limbo

There is angst in advocating reform of our colleges and universities while public K-12 is in throes of either intellectual devolution, or soaring to new levels of rote achievement, depending on perspective and ideology.  But, one, there is an intimate connection between K-12 change and higher education’s future; and two, our post-secondary institutions are tracking vectors leading to a cliff.

'Tis the Season

The love-hate relationship with our colleges and universities by its students, parents and critics waxes and wanes with the seasons.  When graduation looms optimism and favorable attitudes blossom, buoyed by parental pride and the eloquent but generally meaningless rhetoric of ceremonial speakers; and perhaps the hope that the end of large cash outflows is imminent (discounting subsequent decades of loan repayment). Shift to the glories of autumn, where college application, matriculation and funding challenges give way to the football season. American competitiveness and escapism again elicit good feelings for our institutions, followed by March Madness. Behind that facade of twisted appreciation of the US academy, the real higher education beat goes on.  Is optimism justified, or is virtually every version of cognitive distortion acting to postpone or divert the need for core change in collegiate direction?

Comparing and contrasting reform of public K-12 versus post-secondary, major differences are immediately evident.  With the exception of the bursts of publications excoriating the teachers’ unions, and defending (or damning) test-based alleged reform, there is little material addressing the long standing issues with the public K-12 bureaucracy that produced the present reform movement.  In contrast, there has been an outpouring of critique of our collegiate institutions, reaching as far back as the first Presidential Commission (Mr. Truman’s), and now ubiquitous in both higher education journals and seemingly endless blogs.  The difference, the latter critique has deflected few of the alleged excesses overtaking US higher education.

Change Needed?

Current critique of the academy increasingly prompts headlines such as “radical reform of higher education is inevitable,” or “higher education is in crisis;” the latter spirit reflected even in survey of higher education administrators, with high percents of agreement.  Nevertheless, our collegiate presidents are going where few academic leaders have previously ventured.  That is:  The aggressive pursuit of not just dollars, but of major campus diversification veering away from the classroom; decision styles that conflate academic with corporate management; more bricks and mortar; higher administrator salaries; slack learning accountability; expansion of non-teaching human resources; and insensitivity to the calls for major tuition reduction, faculty productivity analyses and improvement, even deflection of the question whether four years of college are producing minimal learning as inferred from research by Arum and Roksa.

A recent ACT study demonstrated a major disconnect between K-12 educator, versus collegiate educator assessments of student readiness for college:  Of K-12 resources, 89 percent asserted their students were “well prepared” or “very well prepared” for college level work; for those responding in our colleges, the number was 26 percent. One implication is that higher education has failed to perceive the K-12 linkage that impacts their own success, another that our public K-12 systems are wading in cognitive bias.

The question also bores down on not just the academic culture, but into its major disciplines.  Are our collegiate schools of education responsible and accountable for the shrinkage of public K-12 learning performance that precipitated present reform?  Are our B-schools responsible and accountable for the values and ethics that marinate our corporate behaviors, and for the behaviors of our financial institutions?  Have the liberal arts simply dug a hole and crawled in to avoid critique and deny change?  Has a more than century-old organizational model of our academic disciplines ceased to deal with advocacy and assessment of actual learning, and impeded or blocked adoption of technologies that integrated into classroom models can improve that performance?

Have collegiate classrooms become “endowed,” coupled to reduction of accountability of faculty via traditional tenure?  Has the traditional depiction of collegiate learning driven by lecture and sometimes professor-student interaction become so entrenched that productivity change is frozen?  An organizational issue, has a faculty as a source of veto power on administrative change simply hardened into the inevitable roadblock?

Recent developments in online learning suggest change may be forced onto the academy by learning methods bypassing traditional channels and orthodoxy – MOOC, decline in dependence of job sourcing of graduates based on traditional credentials, and continued evolution of private and community post-secondary programs. The generally conservative leaderships of our collegiate enterprises, even while adopting some of the growth strategies of the private sector, did not typically get to those positions via managerial apprenticeship and success; they frequently fail in strategic positioning and leadership.

Are any of the present trends on traditional campuses sustainable?  Can a trillion dollars of collegiate student debt just be written off?  Has Federal funding of higher education without controls actually precipitated the academy’s ills by enabling tuition inflation?  Will token tuition decreases stop critique?  Will collegiate leaderships emulate the doctrine of “too big to fail,” or perhaps, “too smart to fail,” or experience some of the other perceptual failures that lead managements to defer needed change until capacity to intercept markets is too little too late?

A trenchant, albeit futuristic scenario is depicted in EPIC 2020 from a TED presentation titled “2012 The Tipping Point.”  Our colleges and universities may be impotent to intercept change that is emerging entrepreneurially from outside the academy, excepting only the handful of “A+” institutions that can likely survive any generalized post-secondary denouement.  Deniers may write it off as fantasy:  Reality is that Taleb’s “Black Swans” happen; US financial giants can collapse; GM did declare bankruptcy; Khan Academy endures; Coursera, Udacity, and edX have launched; and public K-12 education allegedly had such a secure monopoly that privatization couldn’t happen?  There seem some pretty robust arguments that US higher education must adapt.

The Shape of Reform?

The elements of reform are not a surprise.  The National Association of Scholars in a post offering “One Hundred Great Ideas for Higher Education” conveniently addressed them.  They run the gamut:
  • Comprehensively privatize non-teaching functions.
  • Creatively invest in productivity change.
  • Scale missions back to education and essential research.
  • Change the criteria for promotion and tenure from low value research and publication to classroom performance.
  • Make faculty and classrooms accountable.
  • Reform tenure.
  • De-emphasize the most corrupted collegiate sports.
  • Focus on learning instead of buildings.
  • Recruit and hire more effective senior management.
  • Reduce or eliminate non-instructional headcounts.
  • Set higher standards for grading; reward rigor.
  • Teach graduate students teaching how to teach.
  • Teach faculty how to teach.
  • Adopt value-based budgeting, versus responsibility center management that retains the status quo and invites organizational gaming.
  • Move more quickly to research, qualify and implement digital technologies that can augment the classroom.
  • Update curricula where many (especially professional) schools’ concepts of relevant knowledge are still rooted in the last century.
  • A veritable explosion of tactical changes related to how teaching is planned, executed and assessed.
  • Find a model of communication, involvement and compatible values to bridge the chasm between K-12 and the pedagogy of higher education.

They also challenge accomplishment because of the reluctance of higher education leaderships to acknowledge the need for change, or failure to see change in realistic terms.  An example was the assessment of a well-known educator, Chester Finn, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  Dr. Finn’s prescription:  “Less booze.  Less sex.  More Studying.  Problem eased if not solved.”  With respect, demonstrating the distinction between normative and pragmatic solutions, the probability of that solution set getting traction is roughly equivalent to Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner exchanging valentines, embracing each other, and linking arms to anchor the politically-centric dream team.

The Process of Reform

The reality of US higher education reform may mirror in jeopardy and sweep the Voyage of Ulysses.  Higher education’s institutions, though fractionally less than five percent of public K-12’s, are a level of magnitude more diverse and complex. Those public have evolved in order to survive drastic reductions in state funding, but that autonomy begets hubris.  Additionally, growth linked to external and sports funding may now seem irreversible.  Accountability is even more of a challenge because oversight is frequently with politically-sourced trustees, and because their chancy tenure drives more tactical than strategic problem solving.  Methods of faculty creation, career evolution and performance assessment may be too entrenched, and research and publication too linked to external organizations to be easily transformed.

There are also contradictory effects and land mines in any reform agenda.  What-if, some of the same forces and motivations that have produced test-based public K-12 reform take root?  For example, a frequently cited element of reform, elimination of tenure, may be counterproductive, because tenure may be the last line of defense against the imposition of test-based attempted reform of collegiate classrooms.  Another, the speculation that the reform mode in public K-12, with its rote indulgence, will when it expresses in future college readiness, vastly increase the chasm between secondary education and collegiate learning values. 

The above just skim the challenge of higher education change.  It is a no-brainer to articulate the non-prioritized “should be” that link to and could modify higher education, but charting the critical paths that reform must take to either achieve anything, or avoid tipping a still working system into turmoil is clearly “not for dummies.”  The irony of this reform venue is that it will take layers of creativity, wisdom, servant leadership and some extraordinary courage to either change the existing infrastructure, or fashion some non-destructive institutional bypass solutions for needed post-secondary change.

Lastly, all of US education is standing on pillar of questionable thinking, and false dichotomy.  K-12 education and higher education are two tectonic plates, sliding past each other with neither recognizing the interdependence.  Equally debilitating, even our core concepts of education look like Swiss cheese.  Reflecting the item that usually heads the list of cognitive distortions, “all-or-nothing-thinking,” where is it written that one can’t be an educated welder or plumber or technician or service worker?  Does the name Eric Hoffer (longshoreman/philosopher) ring a bell?  American educational leadership at every level needs to rethink the assertion that the ultimate goal is (present) college for all, versus training qua education that supports sustainable careers and civic intelligence.  On the table as well, what an “education” really means, and whether our present stratified systems need to be subjected to hard analysis, and creatively repurposed for a future all of those strata seem to have myopically ignored.

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