Saturday, January 22, 2011

Still abuzz over Academically Adrift

The conversation surrounding Academically Adrift continues. Chris has got folks talking over at A Ku Indeed, for one.

Kevin Carey's commentary in the Chronicle pulls no punches:

"Trust us."
That's the only answer colleges ever provide when asked how much their students learn.
Sure, they acknowledge, it's hard for students to find out what material individual courses will cover. So most students choose their courses based on a paragraph in the catalog and whatever secondhand information they can gather.
No, there's isn't an independent evaluation process. No standardized tests, no external audits, no publicly available learning evidence of any kind.
Yes, there's been grade inflation. A-minus is the new C. Granted, faculty have every incentive to neglect their teaching duties while chasing tenure—if they're lucky enough to be in the chase at all. Meanwhile the steady adjunctification of the professoriate proceeds.
Still, "trust us," they say: Everyone who walks across our graduation stage has completed a rigorous course of study. We don't need to systematically evaluate student learning. Indeed, that would violate the academic freedom of our highly trained faculty, each of whom embodies the proud scholarly traditions of this venerable institution.
Now we know that those are lies.
The CHE also has a brief excerpt from the book, starting with this striking analogy:
"With regard to the quality of research, we tend to evaluate faculty the way the Michelin guide evaluates restaurants," Lee Shulman, former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, recently noted. "We ask, 'How high is the quality of this cuisine relative to the genre of food? How excellent is it?' With regard to teaching, the evaluation is done more in the style of the Board of Health. The question is, 'Is it safe to eat here?'"

I have to say that whatever the responses to this book, the conversation it has sparked is long overdue.


  1. I love the food analogy. Priceless, and spot on.

  2. My dean lent me the book. I've read the first chapter, good, but depressing. If and when I read the rest I'll report back.

  3. NYT has taken up Academically Adrift in its 'Room for Debate' series, asking several experts to respond to this question: "Students make little progress in intellectual growth in the first two years of college. Why is that?"

    One theme in several of the discussions is how poorly high school students are prepared for the college learning environment:

    Bard president Leon Botstein:
    "Why is anyone surprised to find that standards and expectations in our colleges are too low? High school graduates — a rapidly dwindling elite — come to college entirely unaccustomed to close reading, habits of disciplined analysis, skills in writing reasoned arguments and a basic grasp of the conduct, methods and purposes of science.

    All many of them know is rote learning, and fear of mediocre standardized tests and grades. No vital connection between learning and life has been forged in our schools, much less any affection for voluntarily using one’s mind in the rigorous, sustained and frequently counterintuitive way that leads to innovation and the advancement of knowledge."

    George Leef, from the Pope Center for Higher Ed Policy:
    "Owing to the generally weak state of K-12 schooling, most high school graduates are not accustomed to serious academic work. They enroll in college with the expectation that it will be a continuation of K-12, that is, undemanding. "

    The discussants don't let higher ed off the hook, but the criticism of K-12 is unsparing. Is it fair?


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