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No College Student Left Behind?

The New York Times recently reported (in an article that is now only available to TimesSelect[tm] members) that education secretary Margaret Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education has until August to deliver recommendations covering accountability and quality of teaching. Educators nationwide received this news with a collective shudder: what's next, No Child Left Behind, College Edition?

Indeed, there is great potential for this initiative to approach serious government interference. While the chair, Charles Miller, claims that he is interested in pursuing the viability of nationwide college-level standardized testing for informational purposes only, anyone with a view of history knows that pretexts change, and a testing regime ostensibly intended merely as public knowledge will someday morph into mandatory goals and funding tied to arbitrary requirements.

The American system of higher education is the best in the world for the very reason that it is divorced from the government. Yes, the government provides a great deal of funding to academia -- partially the reason for this new testing movement -- but it basically has no control over it. Contrast Europe, including Britain, and its potentially and once-great universities awash in public funding but mired in bureaucracy. Any move by the U.S. government to step into the arena of higher-ed policy is dangerous and should be approached only with the utmost caution.

One example of this, of course, is the Solomon Amendment, which places stipulations on federal funding. Theoretically, these stipulations could simply expand until an entire system of mandatory evaluations and goal-setting is effectively required. Given the Supreme Court's recent decision, the door seems wide open to such a move. But in the end, I don't think it would be in the government's or students' best interests.

At the same time, I see the benefits of requiring mandatory testing of college students. I mean, what exactly did we learn in the past four years? Does the current system work? Do schools deserve their reputations, or are they merely black holes whose inner classroom workings remain a mystery to those who fund them: parents and the government?

Yes, I'd be very curious -- even somewhat open to the idea -- of a standardized evaluation of universities and colleges around the nation. But only if there was a hands-off guarantee. Anyone who followed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting controversy last summer knows that even such a church-state mandate can come under fire in the annals of politics, so I remain hesitant. Moreover, the great diversity of higher-ed institutions in this country -- big state schools, small liberal arts colleges, elite universities, religious institutions, colleges with specific political outlooks, specialized schools, colleges geared toward home-schooled students, Cornell -- makes it nearly impossible to come up with a unified standard.

Then again, look at some preliminary findings. The National Survey of Student Engagement shows some often-depressing facts about the real student life of the mind. Maybe, just maybe, there is one set of skills and core knowledge that every American student should graduate comfortable with. But I doubt that I, or Charles Miller, or George Bush, could dictate what that is.

Andy Guess | Posted on March 06, 2006 (#)


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