Tuesday, December 20, 2011

now tell me again....who are the good guys?

There has been a lot of attention to for-profit colleges in the news of late, with a story-line that plays especially well with the generally left-leaning audience of educators. It goes something like this:

For-profit colleges exist for profit and -- just like in the general world of capitalism and the self-interested (aka selfish and greedy) competition of the marketplace -- the people who run them are willing to use some rather suspicious tactics when going for that profit. For example, for-profit colleges charge huge tuitions, and use blatantly false claims when assuring students that highly paid employment after graduation means tuition debt makes sense. They inflate the rate of completion and graduation of their students. And then they inflate the rate of graduates working in their field, along with the money they make in those jobs. They lie -- in order to make a profit. And then they are unconcerned about the wreck they make of the lives of the students whose money they so callously take...As long as they make money, that is all that matters.

I have heard this narrative from lots of places, and it made sense to me. The implicit contrast, of course, is with the noble people who work in the not-for-profit world of higher ed -- willingly forgoing the higher pay of the private sector in order to pursue the calling of seeking knowledge for its own sake, and passing it on to the eager young minds waiting to be shaped and guided....That would be me and my colleagues at PCC.

Alas, I had this little vision of the good guys and bad guys of higher ed shaken up last year at the American Association of Community Colleges, when I went to a session put on by Peter P. Smith. I went to hear him only because of his bio. He had served as the president of a community college in Vermont, and then as the founding president of the California State University at Monterey Bay. But then he left the noble not-for-profit world of higher ed to join Kaplan ( !) as a senior vice-president. (Kaplan is the largest provider of for-profit educational services in the world at the moment.) This, it seemed to me, was a MAJOR act of disloyalty and betrayal. How could anyone do that!?? How could he live with himself?!

I don't know exactly what I expected when I went to hear him.... but whatever it was, it wasn't what I got. First you need to know that a lot of marketing goes on at the AACC. There is an entire cavernous hall of vendors shilling expensive products, in row after row after row of booths. Lots of glossy pieces of paper get distributed. Logos are everywhere. Signs of the money to be made in higher ed are ubiquitous. The pure nobility of the pursuit of truth gets a bit lost in the hustle. In this context, it is easy to get a bit cynical. But 5 minutes into the presentation by this turncoat betrayer of the not-for-profit nobility of education and it was clear to me.... this guy is a serious idealist. It sounded to me like he believes more deeply in the intrinsic value of education than the most starry-eyed philosopher of education I ever met. I was flabbergasted! My conceptual categories were all confused! My sense of who is who was turned upside down. I felt that kind of vertigo that comes from having basic beliefs challenged.....

It has taken me a while to digest what I heard from him. He has a blog if you want to go and read his thinking: Peter P.Smith (He also has a book, but I haven't read it yet -- Harnessing America's Wasted Talent.) This all came back to me when I ran into a short article in Inside Higher Ed that quoted from him extensively. I am going to boil everything down, and no doubt oversimplify this. But here is the message I get from him, in a nutshell.

  • The world needs educated people now.
  • A lot.
  • The education techniques currently being used were good enough in previous eras (when we only needed an educated elite). They don't work now.
  • The accountability movement is all about bringing education into the information age, and finding ways to meet the new demands:
    • 100% of our citizens highly educated with skills in collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.
  • The biggest obstacle to developing new and effective education to meet the changed demands on higher ed are professional educators who resist change, and use their organizations to resist change effectively.
  • The for-profit education sector is the newest, and the forces resisting change are the least well organized there.
  • SO the for-profit education sector can and will lead higher ed into identifying and recognizing effective education techniques.
In this scenario, the people who are personally profiting in the non-profit education world -- the teachers and advisers and admins and APs like you and me -- are the major impediment to education that works.

Here at PCC, the Learning Assessment Council has adopted a strategy that goes against the smart and idealistic claims of Peter P. Smith. We think that faculty and CC staff can serve to drive a change to more effective education, not just stand in the way. We have charged YOU with crafting assessment strategies to see how you can meet student needs ever better. Still, I can see why Peter P. Smith has placed his bets against us. People who have benefited from the ways things have been done for a long time are quite often the most resistant to changing them. This phenomenon can be observed in industries and organizations across all sectors and around the world, as we have all scrambled to catch up with the changes we have witnessed the last two decades.

Life is changing in Higher Ed.... Help shape how PCC responds to the new demands. Get active in your SAC's program/discipline assessment project! Our students -- and the world that needs their skills -- will be the beneficiaries....

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Data IDs Best Practices

by Shirlee

Sometimes I try to describe the accountability movement in higher education in words that can fit into the proverbial nutshell. That's when I rely on an analogy with the medical profession. Here is how it goes:

  • The practice of medicine has traditionally been considered a profession where the practitioners (the doctors) are considered to be "experts" who we are all asked to trust.
  • As a result, there have been few ways for someone "shopping" for a doctor to meaningfully compare one M.D. with another.
  • Even so, it is known that some doctors do, in fact, get better results -- and often at lower costs -- than other doctors, treating the same conditions in similar patients.
  • The cost of medical care has skyrocketed of late, and the mechanism we have created for payment (work-based insurance) is leading to huge social disparities, with a clear consensus that something has to be done, even as there is no consensus over what that is.
  • Rumblings have been going on for a while now that one way to contain costs and increase access is to assess patient outcomes, in order to identify BEST PRACTICES and then make that information available to patients and taxpayers.

In the above story, we can change all mention of doctors to professors, and patients to students, and everything works the same....Really.

  • Teaching in a college or university has traditionally been considered a profession where the practitioners (the professors) are considered to be "experts" who outsiders have been asked to trust.
  • As a result, there have been few ways for someone "shopping" for a college or teacher to meaningfully compare one option with another.
  • Even so, it is known that some colleges and teachers do, in fact, get better results -- and often at lower costs -- than others, even when the student populations are very similar.
  • The cost of higher education has skyrocketed of late, and the mechanism we have created for paying (student debt) is leading to huge social disparities, with a clear consensus that something has to be done, even as there is no consensus over what that is.
  • Rumblings have been going on for a while now that one way to contain costs and increase access is to assess student outcomes, in order to identify BEST PRACTICES and then make that information available to students, their families, and taxpayers.
Just like practitioners in the medical field, those of us in Higher Ed are being asked to:
  • expand access to our services
  • get ever-better outcomes for those who enter our doors
  • and do this with less money per student.

There are, however, points of dis-analogy between the two fields.
  • There are usually fairly clear indicators of success or failure (like mortality rates)with medical procedures --but success is harder in Higher Ed. If someone takes some community college classes, doesn't get a degree, but does get a promotion at work, is that success? or is it failure?
  • In the medical field there are some service-payers that are so large, and who have been keeping records for so long, that there is LOTS of data to be mined. The biggest and best of these data piles comes from Medicare and Medicaid -- but for higher ed, there is no comparable keeper-of-records who could furnish us with data to study. Instead, we are in the early stages, via assessment of learning outcomes, of gathering that data.
Now I mention all this because I read today that the HUGE pile of data on patient outcomes is about to be released, in a format that will make it especially search able. Here is the link, plus a short excerpt:

"The government announced Monday that Medicare will finally allow its extensive claims database to be used by employers, insurance companies and consumer groups to produce report cards on local doctors — and improve current ratings of hospitals.

"By analyzing masses of billing records, experts can glean such critical information as how often a doctor has performed a particular procedure and get a general sense of problems such as preventable complications.

"Doctors will be individually identifiable through the Medicare files, but personal data on their patients will remain confidential. Compiled in an easily understood format and released to the public, medical report cards could become a powerful tool for promoting quality care.

"There is tremendous variation in how well doctors do, and most of us as patients don't know that. We make our choices blind," said David Lansky, president of the Pacific Business Group on Health. "This is the beginning of a process to give us the information to make informed decisions." His nonprofit represents 50 large employers that provide coverage for more than 3 million people."

Notice that the ratings are happening on two levels -- the hospitals (analogous to the colleges) and the doctors (analogous to the instructors.) Many colleges have already taken steps to help create a data set that can be used to compare one institution to another, by using one of the standardized tests (usually of critical thinking and communication) that have been created to allow just such comparisons. Instead of that route, we here at PCC have asked SACs to create or adopt assessment instruments that can deliver info they need to continually improve instruction. This gives us locally useful information, but no way to compare ourselves, as a college, to others. But so far, neither approach (standardized test, customized SAC assessment) will provide a way to meaningfully compare one instructor to another, the way the Medicare info will allow comparisons of one doctor to another.... Still, I say, any data that is aggregated can be disaggregated. And I think it is wise to attend to trends in the medical world, as hints of what will be coming our way.

Some of all of this makes me joyful. The faster we can figure out -- and share around -- what works, the more our students will learn. According to an article Linda Gerber sent my way, there is now more student debt than credit card debt in the US of A. This is a staggering realization. Go read this and weep: http://www.usatoday.com/money/perfi/college/2010-09-10-student-loan-debt_N.htm
But some of all of this makes me wonder how many of the traditional ways of higher ed will be changed beyond recognition in this process. ...

Evidence-based educational practices are a new trend, just like evidence-based medical practices. When my oncologist, 4 years back, laid before me the success rates of various treatment options for my kind of cancer, and helped me poke through the list to decide what to do, I was very grateful for this trend. (Since this pre-dates PCC's insurance for part-time faculty, my insurance wasn't that great -- since it was an individual policy, I didn't get the advantage of group rates -- and cost was one of the factors I considered.) Will the day come when there is an analogous approach to selecting college or college teachers? -- a high school college adviser lays out the same kind of data on rates of learning for college writing or critical thinking, and compares what is available to the student's aspirations and budget?

And should such a day come, how will PCC look as an educational choice?

These are among the interesting questions of our times....