The Spellings Commission and the Case for Professionalizing College Teaching

Article excerpt

If we ourselves reconstruct teaching as a profession, we'll head off those who advocate external control.

Today we face a challenge to the organization of higher education that, however it is resolved, will transform the enterprise. That challenge goes under the name "learning outcomes," or sometimes "accountability." It is a challenge brought largely by those outside higher education and is based on criticisms of the performance of college and university instructors in the face of heightened public expectations. One resolution to the challenge may be the adoption of standardized testing for learning outcomes; another may be the establishment of greater professionalism in college teaching.

Taking steps to professionalize college teaching can improve the quality of teaching while leaving intact three essential features of higher-level teaching and learning: (1) the centrality of discipline-based knowledge systems; (2) the plurality of approaches that contribute to the formation of well-educated adults; and (3) the transformative potential of the college teacher who joins reason to creative insight. If we take the initiative to enforce standards of professionalism, the faculty itself, rather than external regulators, will be in charge of accountability in higher education. It will not be easy to bring greater professionalism to college teaching, because graduate education has, understandably, focused on research rather than teaching. But the future of higher education may ride on our willingness to make the effort.

Calls for Accountability

In 2006, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings's Commission on the Future of Higher Education issued a report highly critical of the performance of America's colleges and universities. The report proposed incentives for the adoption of standardized testing to make higher education accountable to "consumers." Although the implicit model for the commission's recommendations, the No Child Left Behind Act, had by 2006 already failed to deliver on its promises for continuous growth in student language and math proficiency and had provoked a bitter, if largely unpublicized, backlash among classroom teachers, the Spellings Commission's report has not faded away. Learning outcomes are on the agenda of virtually every public educational system and nearly every institution of higher education in the country. Two of the leading higher education associations, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, have begun a voluntary system of accountability, which authorizes six competing test instruments as sources of information on learning outcomes.

A large part of the success of the Spellings Commission must be attributed to the growing opposition of much of the American public to continuing "business as usual" in higher education. Americans are very concerned about escalating tuition costs and want to be assured that they are spending their money on something of value. They like the idea of "accountability" and measured improvements in learning and are not confident that higher education will provide such accountability without outside pressure. In a 2002 survey commissioned by the Educational Testing Service, a near majority of Americans said they wanted "more accountability" for student learning in college. Slightly larger proportions of respondents said they considered "low standards" a "very serious" issue in higher education and wanted a role for government in ensuring "cost and quality." Accountability was on the higher education policy agenda of many states long before the Spellings Commission issued its report. The commission only pushed accountability closer to the top of that agenda and made it a national issue.

The CLA

Few anticipate a future for postsecondary accountability that looks like K-12 accountability. The most widely praised of the current learning outcomes instruments, the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), aims to assess capacities much higher on Bloom's taxonomy of cognitive skills than the state K-12 tests. …