Spellings Commission Report

This summer I have been following the development of the Spellings Commission Report on the Future of Higher Education. You can find the Commission website here. The final report is due out later this month, but to give you a taste, here are some quotations from the last two drafts, dated June 22 and August 9, 2006. [These quotations focus on the instructional issues raised in the Report rather than the financial ones.]

American higher education is an enterprise that has yet to address the fundamental issues of how academic programs and institutions must be transformed to serve the changing educational needs of a knowledge economy. It has yet to successfully confront the impact of globalization, rapidly evolving technologies, an increasingly diverse and aging population, and an evolving marketplace characterized by new needs and new paradigms.

We fear that university standards have become diluted and teaching methods outdated.

Grade inflation continues to increase on college campuses with no apparent correlation to higher levels of student achievement.

Despite the rapid increase in higher-education costs, there is no evidence that learning outcomes have improved. To the contrary, some aggregate measures of student learning have actually declined.

[W]e see a lack of clarity and purpose about what faculty should teach and what students should learn to become informed, engaged and productive citizens capable of prospering in an interconnected global community. Simply put, many undergraduates are being shortchanged at a time when they should be developing essential writing, critical thinking and quantitative skills.

Students are often not required to take core subjects fundamental to a liberal education. A survey of 50 colleges and universities, including all of the Big Eight and Big Ten universities, the Ivy League, the Seven Sisters colleges, and an additional grouping of 13 colleges, found that not one of the surveyed colleges or universities required a general course in economics [emphasis added].

Okay, this point wasn’t critical to the argument, but I had to include it. 🙂

While higher education prizes transparency of information, precision of data, and rigorous analysis in its own scholarship, as an enterprise it has failed to apply the same standards to itself.

We recommend that America’s colleges and universities embrace a culture of continuous innovation and quality improvement by developing new pedagogies, curricula, and technologies to improve learning, particularly in the area of science and mathematical literacy.

Institutions should harness the power of information technology by sharing educational resources among institutions, and use distance learning to meet the educational needs of rural students and adult learners, and to enhance workforce development. We urge states and institutions to establish course redesign programs using technology-based, learner-centered principles drawing upon the innovative work already being done by organizations such as the National Center for Academic Transformation.

New initiatives such as OpenCourseWare, the Open Learning Initiative, the Sakai Project, and the Google Book project hold out the potential of providing universal access both to general knowledge and to higher education.

Many of these points echo issues I’ve blogged about in the past, such as Rebekah Nathan and Derek Boks’ books. Could we be approaching a tipping point? At this point, I’m not optimistic. Too many institutions and faculty are stuck in the old paradigm.

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3 Responses to Spellings Commission Report

  1. Laura says:

    I’m hoping to have time to read that report. Those are some interesting pull quotes. Institutions change so slowly, even when individuals within them are changing. I think one of our problems right now is that there’s no institutional support for the kind of change some faculty are pursuing.

  2. Angela says:

    Those institutions which are more successful at addressing (maybe not answering definitively, but at least addressing) the challenges of education in the 21st century seem to have initiatives coming from the upper levels of administration.

  3. Angela says:

    From Bennett, Douglas C., “Underinvesting in the Future” THE CHRONICLE REVIEW. Sep. 1, 2006. Section B. p. B7:

    “…the best recommendation in the dog’s breakfast of a report from the Spellings commission is a call for ‘a significant increase in need-based financial aid.’…The worse recommendation? The renewed call for a unit-record data system, one in which all college students would be forced to participate…That already has been rejected–rightly–by the Congress and the public as an inappropriate assault on privacy.”

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