A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 22, 2013
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Academic institutions are expected to undergo rigorous assessment as part of their accreditation process. Roughly put, this process is supposed to show that the institution is doing what an academic institution is supposed to do. Having served on numerous committees relating to SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools), I can attest that the process is rather extensive and generates massive amounts of paper.  However, there have been proposals to change this process.

Here in Florida,  the Florida Accredited Courses and Tests Initiative, was proposed. If it, or something like it, were to become a reality, the accreditation process would radically change.  One main change would be that rather than having accreditation at the institutional level, individual courses would be accredited. Within this broad change is also a more specific change: “any individual, institution, entity or organization” could create an accredited class. Thus, I could create my own course (and so could you) and get it accredited. Companies looking to make money could also do the same thing.

One reasonable argument for this initiative is based on the claim that the existing institutional model looks at the institution as a whole rather than examining every single course. Because of this, a properly accredited university could have some classes that are lacking in rigor and quality.

While this argument has appeal (and everyone in academics knows about crappy classes at accredited schools), one obvious reply is that institutions are required to engage in assessment at all levels. As the facilitator for Philosophy & Religion at FAMU, I have to complete a detailed assessment of the program and  courses each academic year. Every 7 years the unit goes through a complete year long review, featuring an outside consultant who is an expert in philosophy and/or religion. I also serve on committees that are focused on insuring quality and rigor in individual classes. This is all required. Thus, the idea that individual classes are free from supervision is in error.

It could be countered that there should still be review of  each class individually to ensure that there is rigor and quality. On the one hand, I do agree with this. After all, I do exactly that every year. On the other hand, there is the practical concern with  having every single class subject to individual review in terms of the costs in resources and time. The obvious question is whether such resources needed to do this  properly would be better used in another capacity and whether or not such micro-managing would have positive results that could not be provided by the current system. This, of course, lays aside the concern about academic freedom: impositions of “rigor” and “quality” might be used to suppress certain ideas.

Interestingly, the plan that has been proposed does not seem to involve the rigorous examination of individual classes for rigor and quality. As it stands, the proposal is that the head of Florida’s public school system and the chancellor of the state university system would handle the certification process.

One obvious concern, which echoes one talking point against Obamacare, is that it would really remove the decision making regarding college curriculum from faculty and schools and place it in the hands of two political appointees. That is, a bureaucrat would come between students and their education.

From the standpoint of well-connected vendors, this would be an ideal situation. Rather that having their “educational products” subject to evaluation by educational professional and subject to a rigorous accreditation environment, they would simply need to lobby these two appointees to certify their courses.

On the one hand, this could be a gold mine for me. I am comfortable with technology, have crafted online classes and I have that PhD  that companies probably want to stick on their education product. Although I lack political connections, I could conceivable create MikeED and make far better money selling online classes than I do actually teaching classes for real.

On the other hand, there is the serious concern that such academic products would be lacking in quality and that students would be overcharged and exploited. After all, with all their defects public schools are dedicated to education rather than profit. While the profit motivation can lead to good results, there is the concern that those who are motivated by profit will be more concerned about profit to the detriment of education. After all, the for-profit schools have shown a dismal record in terms of cost, quality and job-placement.

The second major aspect to the proposal is to create statewide tests for K-12 and college undergraduates. These tests, which would be run by contractors rather than institutions, would allow students to get college credit by taking a test rather than a course.

The idea of students getting credit from taking a test is not new: Advanced Placement, ​International Baccalaureate and College Level Examination Program, and CLEP all provide students with this option. However, under the current system it is up to the schools to decide whether they accept the credit or not. Under the proposed system, public schools in Florida would have to accept the credits. These tests would, presumably, be online.

On the one hand, this does have some appeal. In the ideal, well-prepared or talented students could save time and money by taking a test rather than a class.  After all, if a student has already mastered the skills of English 101, it would certainly be  a waster of her time to be forced to take the class just because it is required. Because of this, I do favor the idea of well-designed tests that would allow students to do just this sort of thing.

On the other hand, there are the obvious worries. One is the likelihood of corruption in such a system. A second is that students will be able to pass such tests without actually learning the skills and knowledge that such courses are supposed to provide. That is, a student could just prep to pass the specific test rather than any learning the subject.  To be fair, a student could do the same sort of thing in a traditional class and pass without learning. However, the course setting would seem far more likely to impart skills and knowledge.

I do expect and even hope that technology will change and improve education. I also favor education reform: college is too expensive and there are numerous defects in the existing system. However, this proposal seems to be obviously focused on allowing certain folks to turn the public education system into a source of profits. My own worry echoes that of a Republican law maker: this proposal would seem to ring the dinner bell for scam artists.

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One Response

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on May 22, 2013 at 9:29 am

    As Yogi Berra might say, “If Socrates were alive today, he would be spinning in his grave.”

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