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Reactions to the Presidents’ Alliance, Part 1

Ten days ago, we wrote about the Presidents’ Alliance for Excellence in Student Learning and Accountability, a new effort in which 71 college and university presidents have promised to take specific steps to improve teaching and learning on their campuses within two years.

We’ve invited several people to take a look at those 71 pledges and to share their thoughts, and we’ll present their comments this week. In this first round, we’ve got William Chace and Cliff Adelman.

William M. Chace, president emeritus of Emory University and author of 100 Semesters (Princeton University Press, 2006):

This effort, which in part is meant to “gather evidence about how well students in various programs are achieving learning goals across the curriculum,” is wholly commendable. It is also wholly belated in its appearance.

For decades, the woeful reluctance of America’s universities and colleges to assess outcomes, to make clear to both students and parents what their investment in education has yielded, and to publicize nationally those results, has been embarrassing and destructive to the reputation of those schools. Higher education in this country has become stunningly expensive, yet it is something for which a great deal has been paid with no concrete evidence of its worth. For too long, those who pay have been asked to “trust” while the schools have not been required to “verify.”

Time will tell if the solemn dedication of the 71 presidents will produce anything substantial. Most of the presidential signers lead private liberal-arts colleges; few public institutions are represented; no Ivy League school has signed up; the effort, to succeed, will need the leading heft and thrust of the most prestigious schools.

Moreover, all the signatories will need to do what they now abjure: to adopt a national scale and index of educational success. While it is understandable that “each college and university … should develop ambitious, specific, and clearly stated goals for student learning appropriate to its mission, resources, tradition, student body, and community setting,” clinging to such autonomy will allow every school to declare success on its own terms. The powerful truths of competition—yes, some schools do a better job than others—will reveal, for parents and students, where best to place their tuition money, and this will only serve to enhance teaching and learning at all the schools.

Clifford Adelman, senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy:

It’s all blah unless …

… the presidents—and their chief academic officers, deans, department chairs, faculty, and students—take something like the Degree Qualifications Profile to be released in draft form for a two-to-three-year national discussion by the Lumina Foundation in January, and (a) work through every proposed competence for associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees; (b) add or modify using the same genre of active verbs that mark what students qualifying for these degrees know and can do; and (c) provide samples of assessments used in their programs that validate and benchmark student competencies that flow from those active verbs.

If all we get are cliches and non-operational terms such as “critical thinking,” “problem solving,” “appreciation,” “awareness,” and “ability,” or if all we do is administer a test to a sample of paid volunteers, regress their scores on our beloved SAT, and produce effect size changes, we get nothing. We need the transformational approach to student learning outcomes that the Degree Qualifications Profile challenges us with, and both the curricular and delivery modifications that will inevitably result from rising to those challenges. If presidents and CAO’s don’t engage deeply with this proposition, we’ll be lost in a sea of blah.

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