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Ask the Wrong Questions, Get the Wrong Answers

Ask the Wrong Questions, Get the Wrong Answers
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’
accountability plan is a step in the wrong direction.

You don’t need a Ph.D. to recognize that colleges and universities are facing serious issues in the coming decades. Just ask the nation’s Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings — whose B.A. credentials have in no way kept her from pounding her bully pulpit and preaching for the fundamental reshaping of higher education in the United States.

Spellings has been traveling around the country since late September, clutching the final report from her 19-member Commission on the Future of Higher Education in her hot little hand.

Her talking points are the three A’s: accessibility, affordability and accountability. But it’s her views on accountability that are generating the most controversy.

That’s partly because of the language she’s using.

“We spend $80 billion in financial aid out of this department, and we just sort of hope for the best,” was what Spellings told Diverse in October.

“We have accountability in this government for Head Start children, welfare mothers and elementary school children,” she went on to say, “but we ask no questions about what’s going on in higher education.”

Those kinds of sound bites are guaranteed to get on the evening news,
but will they endear an education leader to the community she hopes to influence? Mmmm, not so much.

“We’re perplexed,” David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, told the Wall Street Journal, after hearing the secretary argue that there wasn’t “enough information” available to decision makers and parents.

Now that I’ve studied Spellings’s plans to move the nation towards unitary standards — a national tracking system for students and a national standard for accountability — I’m thinking the nation needs to
borrow a line from another sweeping Republican initiative and “Just Say No.”

What, after all, is the point of a national tracking system for students? The problem is not that colleges and universities don’t know what their persistence and retention rates are — they track that information religiously. The problem is that colleges and universities need innovative strategies for improving those rates, something better tracking can’t help them with.

Ironically, if Spellings gets her way and manages to force the nation to accept a uniform national accountability standard, it could actually stifle innovation for colleges and universities.

Let’s consider the case of Johnson C. Smith University. The North Carolina historically Black institution is definitely on the small side — it has around 1,500 students.  But its president, Dr. Dorothy Cowser Yancey, approaches innovation as if JCSU were a selective flagship school like the University of North Carolina.

JCSU officials have been worried about retention, especially among freshmen, for years. The average freshman retention rate was 65.8 percent from 1995-2005 — this is alarming when you consider that each student who doesn’t return represents roughly a $15,000 annual loss and a $60,000 four-year loss for the institution. More ominously, the trends were getting worse: the 2000-2005 figure was 63.7 percent.

But Yancey and her team didn’t panic, and they didn’t sit around hoping things would turn around. They rolled up their sleeves and innovated.

“We determined that, with this new generation, it was active and collaborative learning experiences that they responded to,” Yancey says. “They’re team-oriented, technology-oriented, and those were things that we could try to build on.”

The result was a “learning community” experience called the Freshman Academy, which was implemented in Fall 2005. The learning communities consisted of small cohorts of freshmen — 30 students in each group — all taking the same clusters of classes in the same schedule. Each cohort had three to five assigned faculty, plus a case manager, an orientation leader and peer mentors. The idea was to create a community environment while ensuring that students were taking all their required classes.

The first-year results aren’t just promising; they’re eye-popping.

Retention crept back up in 2005-2006, to 64.9 percent. Even more importantly, the numbers of freshmen on probation dropped 45.6 percent, while the numbers on the Dean’s List (a B+ average) rose 220 percent and those on the President’s List
(a straight-A average) rose 342 percent.

But what if JCSU were straining to meet some national accountability standard that barely acknowledged its history, traditions and enrollment population? Could they have turned that into a springboard to the kind of innovation the institution is engaged in right now? Or would a
national accountability mandate have been a stranglehold?

More importantly, is Margaret Spellings even asking herself these kinds
of questions?

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