Saturday, June 26, 2010

Dollars for scholars

Race to the bottom with SB 1143

My college is a public school. The taxpayers and their elected representatives control us. Most of the time, they exercise a fairly light touch, although they understandably want some assurances whenever we ask the voters to pass a bond issue. Sometimes they agree with our plans, and sometimes they don't.

Usually, however, voters and legislators don't try to micromanage the school. The California community college system may be the largest public system of higher education in the entire world, but we're broken up into dozens of districts and over a hundred individual colleges, each of which has its own locally elected board of trustees and campus president. Sacramento sets broad general education policy and appropriates our aggregate budget (unfortunately stingy in this era of the Great Recession), but details are left to the various boards and presidents. Most of the time, anyway.

Now, however, the bright lights in the state capital are thinking about reaching into the classroom level and creating incentives to improve course completion rates among our students. “Improve,” of course, means only one thing: increase the number of students who earn passing grades.

The legislators might be surprised to learn (and they appear to need some teaching on this subject) that student success rates are an abiding concern among faculty members and teachers never stop trying to raise student performance. They apparently intend to encourage us, but I fear that more often their mercurial policies interfere with the teaching process. At least at the college level, we public school teachers have so far been spared the stream of K-12 mandates coming out of Sacramento, decisions that move the academic goalposts and tweak the high-stakes testing program every couple of years (often confusing “activity” with “progress”).

State senator Carol Liu is the author of SB 1143, a measure which would somehow incorporate course completion rates in the formula for computing state funding for community colleges. Think about that for a moment. (Try giving it more thought than our legislators do.) Colleges that pass more students through their curriculum will get more funding. Colleges that pass fewer will get less. At first blush, that might seem reasonable.

Liu forgot, however, to include any quality standards in her bill. Schools that are willing to become diploma mills will prosper under her dollars for scholars program. The pressure to lower standards will be intense.

Sure, upright defenders of truth and justice and beauty like yours truly will adamantly refuse to prostitute ourselves to state demands. We will bravely uphold standards of excellence and continue to flunk those students who do not measure up to them. Yes, I could bravely (oh, so bravely!) hide behind my seniority and job security and remain magisterially unaffected by the petty carping of the state capitol crowd. I, after all, would not be paying the price of budgets compressed by the maintenance of meaningful standards. It would be my junior colleagues who would get laid off during the financial contractions. They could end up going out the door right after the last of the part-timers were let go. I would not be entirely happy about surviving under such circumstances (and my college's administration wouldn't be too happy either).

Practically speaking, I don't expect it to come to anything that draconian, but I have to wonder why Senator Liu thinks she can mandate student success from outside, urging teachers to do something they're always trying to do anyway. Even if she amends her bill to impose a uniform statewide testing program (to hell with local control) in order to gauge the maintenance (or deterioration) of academic standards—good trick, that—Liu would be adding all kinds of complications to college funding.

It's not a good idea. SB 1143 appeals to those who view education through business-model eyes: students are the input and degrees or certificates are the output. But some things don't fit a business model. The nation's recent MBA president proved that beyond all reasonable doubt.


Sili said...

Welcome to Denmark.

Miki Z. said...

Have you seen this study?

"Does Professor Quality Matter? Evidence from Random Assignment of Students to Professors"

It doesn't do any favors to students to pass them in a course that they intellectually failed. If we can just get them to quit trying to legislate outcomes.

Zeno said...

Sili: I must pass along your Denmark remark to our lobbyist in the state capitol. Can you suggest any useful references?

Miki: Thanks for bringing that study to my attention. I'm not entirely surprised by it. One of my most popular colleagues has incredibly high completion rates, but the "successful" students quickly fall apart in subsequent courses. Not good.

The Ridger, FCD said...

It only works if you don't care about the quality of the students, or the degree.

One might argue that it's precisely this sort of "results"-based lower school education is precisely why the passing rates in colleges are as low as they are.

AnyEdge said...

Exactly, Miki. We must stop trying to legislate outcomes. In education, in economy, in wealth, in health, and in housing.

Some people will always fail. And that's ok.

Ed Darrell said...

We've got similar troubles in Texas. The Dallas County Community College System is the second largest system in the state, after the University of Texas in its various tentacles, and larger than A&M.

But the Republicans want to screw with it. Oh, and they're screwing with public schools, too. Pass the little bounders whether or not they do the work.

Texas Democrats have different ideas -- would you mind taking a look and telling me where the Dems go awry, if they do?

Miki Z. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Miki Z. said...

I'm not at all a fan of "some people will always fail". I spend a lot of my time helping people who have fallen through the cracks learn math. But saying "You now know algebra" does not make it so, and this type of legislation encourages that lie. No Child Left Behind skews teaching priorities and doesn't seem to work well, but I understand the intention and it is a noble one -- make sure the kids are learning. This bill doesn't even bother with that; there is no requirement that learning happen, only "completion".

Perhaps I have not been teaching long enough to encounter the student who just can't ever understand or perhaps it is because I don't employ high-stakes testing, but every failing grade has been directly attributable to either a lack of attendance or a lack of homework completion.

Legislating outcomes has a specific meaning, and saying we should not do it isn't saying "tough luck, losers".

(I realized on re-reading that perhaps AnyEdge was not being ironic. I forget that some people not only hold the view that losers in life are inevitable but will publicly espouse that view.)