This year, a Legislative Workgroup for Higher Education was formed to look at several proposals coming forth to reorganize the Oregon University System (OUS). The Workgroup requested two major consultancy groups, the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, to assist with a proposal to restructure the higher education system in Oregon. That proposal has been set forth in Legislative Concept 2861, which will likely be drafted into a bill this next session. The legislature is also going to see a proposal for a restructure of OUS from the State Board of Higher Education, as well as a proposal for the University of Oregon to become more independent from the state system. All of these proposals go further than just reorganizing the governance boards that run the institutions of higher education in our state. They also seek to connect funding for education to new metrics for accountability and performance.
Currently, state funding is disbursed to each community college and university using formulas that are based largely on enrollment totals. Enrollment numbers can offer an indication of the accessibility of public education, but they don’t encapsulate other goals of higher education. The federal government, the state governor and legislature, numerous think tanks and foundations are all pressuring higher education institutions to use new metrics in determining how we are meeting our goals. (The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities desire that PCC demonstrate learning outcomes for students is just one example of this). Oregon already has a policy that, by 2025, 20% of the population will have at least a high school education, 40% will have at least some college (e.g., an associate degree or a certificate), and 40% will have at least a bachelor degree. 40/40/20 serves fine as an aspirational goal, but many educators, particularly at community colleges, would find it worrisome if colleges were to receive funding only according to how many degrees they awarded. Of course, these kinds of numbers-driven measures often have more in common with industry than education.
Even though the written reports of the consultants and the Chancellor of the OUS mention the need to utilize a variety of metrics in assessing higher education programs and institutions, a lot of the testimony and discussion at the legislative level has revolved around statistics that are easy to collect, like how many degrees an institution or program awards, or how many traditional, full-time, first year students enroll for a second year. Taking into account the number of degrees granted and the successful completion of programs of study is important. Most educators want to see as many students as possible complete their degrees—it is a measure of success and a measure of attaining goals. A case can be made that completing the classes required for a degree can contribute toward a being a more educated and civically-minded community member. But let’s not confuse metrics based on diplomas and degrees as the main measure of student success.
That brings up another point about the whole debate about accountability and performance. Largely absent from the discussion surrounding these accountability metrics, and some of the business terminology like “performance” and “productivity,” is the purpose of higher education. Higher education develops the capacity for abstract thought and critical reasoning. If we are going to assess what leads to quality education, we’re going to have to look at what’s involved in developing critical reasoning skills and abstract thinking.
Assessing such skills cannot be done through any easy, one-size-fits-all model, applicable to every institution and program of study in the state. The American Federation of Teachers website “What Should Count, http://www.whatshouldcount.org/, presents the some of the latest in ideas for assessing student success and institutional accountability. One example of assessments that look at what a higher education should offer would be the Essential Learning Outcomes (ELO’s) from the American Association of Colleges and Universities (http://www.aacu.org/leap/students/elo.cfm). These are broad learning outcomes that promote the kind of educational experience all students should have in some form. Here are the four main areas these outcomes cover:
- Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world;
- Intellectual and practical skills, including inquiry and analysis, critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, quantitative literacy, information literacy and teamwork and problem solving
- Integrative learning, including synthesis and advanced accomplishment across general and specialized studies.
- An understanding of key issues concerning personal and social responsibility, including civic knowledge and engagement, intercultural knowledge and competence and ethical reasoning.
Although these standards are relatively straightforward, it is not a simple matter to implement them. They have to be instituted into a program’s curricula. Teaching and assessment practices need to be designed to achieve results for the institution. This means a cooperative and coordinated effort among administrators, faculty and staff, both at the disciplinary level and the cross-disciplinary level. The American Federation of Teachers-Oregon wants to ensure that any statewide measures are aimed at truly assessing student success and that they involve faculty and staff in the process. At PCC, the involvement of faculty and staff in creating a set of tools to assess our learning outcomes at the program level is an example of what every college and university will have to do to if we educational professionals want to set the standards and not allow them to be dictated to us by outside groups. By defining the standards of quality education ourselves, we will also be able to look into how we can improve it in meaningful ways.
David Rives is the President of the American Federation of Teachers-Oregon