Should No Child Left Behind extend to universities?

Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

In a class as large in scope as the thirty unit HumBio Core, there is bound to be some concepts that students remember better than others. For me, some elements of proteins come back in a flash, while immunology seems to be a just a fleeting memory. Why the difference, and more importantly, is there a pattern in the material that students remember and the material that they do not?

This question is at the heart of a on-going area of controversy in higher education research. Student learning outcomes vary widely across classes and even universities, yet there are few accountability measures taken by schools to ensure that graduates are learning at the appropriate level. Even if such data is collected, it is rarely distributed, preventing comparative research between institutions that might lead to better education programs.

As colleges across the country face increased scrutiny in state budgets and in front of Congress, it is imperative that we carefully evaluate proposals designed to increase accountability of academia to ensure that they do not harm the strengths of our university system.

One of the last major reforms proposed came from Former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who proposed a new system of accreditation of higher education to address the student outcomes issue.

For those unfamiliar with higher education governance, accreditation is the primary means of regulating universities in the United States, and organizations like the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (Stanford’s accrediting association) perform reviews of campus academics to ensure that universities are meeting basic standards to offer degrees.

Unfortunately, accreditation often ignores student learning outcomes. In response, Spellings and her Commission on the Future of Higher Education wanted to replace this system with national, unified standards with a testing component similar to No Child Left Behind. Such a system would have provided comparative data from all accredited schools in the country, allowing easy comparison between peer programs.

The plan failed spectacularly, and the Obama Administration will almost certainly not revive this proposal. However, the debate remains: how much independence should universities receive in administering their educational programs?

Complicating this question is the recent increased scrutiny of for-profit colleges. In a Frontline documentary entitled “College, inc.” released last week, the reporter targets for-profit colleges for predatory admissions practices and for failing to provide adequate training to graduates. As noted on the program, the University of Phoenix - the largest for-profit college - receives more than 80% if its funding from the federal government in the form of loans and grants from the GI Bill. Many of these organizations are also accredited like traditional universities such as Stanford and the University of Michigan.

This heightened scrutiny leads back to the Bush-era proposal of nationwide testing, and there is presumably a strong argument to be made for it. But just as NCLB straightjacketed primary and secondary schools, a similar program for higher education would diminish innovation, lower standards due to the intense pressure to graduate students, and endanger the quality of undergraduate programs in America.

Higher education is the last place to create standardized curriculums and nationwide exit examinations. For example, a properly-designed science curriculum allows professors to bring new research into lecture without fear of under-preparing students for potential standardized tests. Further troubling would be the erosion of unique and compelling interdisciplinary programs like Stanford’s Human Biology and Symbolic Systems majors due to a focus on pure disciplines.

To be fair, learning outcomes tests would most likely focus on basic skills like reading and freshman composition. And I understand that not every university in America has the same standards as America’s top schools. If these are problems, I would direct attention to the primary and secondary schools as the location that needs assistance and not higher education.

Government obviously needs to end the predatory practices of some institutions highlighted in the Frontline documentary. But government also needs to stay away from implementing rules or laws that strangle American higher education under even more regulation. Universities remain one of the most innovative and dynamic of American enterprises, and it is the free market and competition of higher education that ensures that these schools continually strive for the best standards - not the lowest common denominator.

Schools must do their part though to prove to their students and to the taxpayers that fund them (either directly or through federal research grants) that they are providing the services they are claiming. More comparative student learning outcomes data is not controversial, and such data should be released as a commitment to accountability.

As higher education receives another round of scrutiny in the coming years, this country must resist attempts to damage a system that works at a fundamental level. Most schools get it - let’s not punish them with a one-size-fits-all policy aimed at solving variations in learning outcomes.