US: Professionalise or perish

Universities must radically improve the quality of their teaching, otherwise academia will be increasingly controlled by bureaucrats, warns a leading Californian professor. In a paper, No college student left behind? prepared for the Center for Studies in Higher Education, Steven Brint, professor of sociology at the University of California Riverside, argues that institutions are being challenged by the "accountability movement" which grew out of the 2006 Spellings Commission. US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings' report on the future of higher education was highly critical of the performance of America's colleges and universities.

"The report used dispiriting results from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy to support its calls for greater accountability in the form of standardised assessments of learning outcomes," says Brint. The implicit model was President Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation.

Brint notes the Spellings report pushed the accountability movement to the top of an agenda that had grown over the previous years as Americans became increasingly concerned about tuition costs and getting value for money.

"It is important to recognise the idealism behind the learning-outcomes movement," he writes. "Accountability is not only a critique of college teaching as it currently exists, it is also motivated by a conviction that higher education should be judged by its own expressed aspirations to produce well-educated adults. Accountability's measure of professionalism is demonstrated results. This is not a measure that many would dismiss as inappropriate."

Current systems of judging learning outcomes such as the widely praised Collegiate Learning Assessment have their weaknesses, says Brint.

"The CLA is less a problem, however, than what is likely to come after it. The K-12 (school tests) experience with accountability suggests that Gresham's Law applies to schooling - bad tests tend to drive out good... Rather than leaving no child behind, the state K-12 tests have left many non-tested subjects behind and hastened the transformation of many classroom teachers into test-prep technicians."

Brint says if the CLA or a similar instrument takes hold, college teachers will face pressures to help their institutions raise student test scores. This will reduce the freedom of great teachers to teach as they see fit. "Indeed, as currently constituted, the learning outcomes movement shows a more or less complete disinterest [sic] in the transforming power of the gifted teacher."

Preserving this freedom for the great teacher, however, "may require broader diffusion of methods to elevate the performance of those instructors who compromise the educational quality of the college classroom".

Most instructors are unceremoniously dropped in front of classrooms once they have been qualified as researchers by virtue of their scholarship, he says. "For most, college teaching is, in short, an amateur activity... If we do not hold ourselves to professional standards in college teaching, we will be playing into the hands of the advocates of external control of teaching through standardised testing."

Brint says a comprehensive programme to professionalise college teaching is not yet on the horizon but some good first steps are possible now, including introducing teaching demonstrations and peer evaluations and reviews.

"College teaching in too many places remains the special province of amateurs trained for the related, but different job of scholarly research. For the next generation of college teachers, the price could be steep if the current generation stares resolutely into the sand while the accountability movement gains force." diane.spencer@uw-news.com
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