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Universities must show they are accountable

Posted: Tuesday, January 02, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

Leaders in Washington, including President-elect George W. Bush and lawmakers vying to head the House Education Committee, say that federal aid to colleges and universities will increasingly be determined by how well they impart specific skills to students.

The systems now being proposed to document that success are not traditional measures like how much "seat time" students put in or how well entering freshmen did on the SAT, but rather more refined assessments of whether students are being prepared to succeed. Higher education experts say that degrees are already beginning to fade in importance in favor of transcripts that document each student's competence, including the specific knowledge and skills the student has mastered.

Some college presidents recoil at the notion that students, not institutions, would set the educational agenda. They have at least one legitimate concern: that colleges might become glorified trade schools, abandoning core liberal arts knowledge. ...

Such generalist courses are not just idealistic remnants of the 1960s. After all, the global economy shifts too rapidly to make any one skill essential over a long term, while the skills that general education imparts, like the ability to read, write and analyze, will never become obsolete.

Not all objections to new accountability measures are so high-minded. Many professors fear that their own status could be threatened as the focus shifts from their abilities, as measured by tenure committees, to students' performance on subject exams and in the workplace. Arthur E. Levine, the president of the teachers college at Columbia University, expressed these concerns last year in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education. He asked, "If degrees become less important, how will we continue to attract students in a world offering limitless educational choices? Why would a student stay at the same college for periods of up to five years if degrees give way to specific competencies?"

It is beneficial to compel colleges and universities to ask those questions more regularly.

In 1998, Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, successfully championed legislation requiring all colleges wishing to receive federal funds for training teachers to submit their federally mandated report cards, documenting their graduates' performance on state licensing and certification exams. The first set of report cards is due in April, and other accountability measures are under development.

Higher education leaders should be championing and perfecting such measures. If they don't, politicians may invite themselves to craft their own cruder tests of accountability.



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