Magazine article Liberal Education

Accountability: From Weak Choices to Best Work

Magazine article Liberal Education

Accountability: From Weak Choices to Best Work

Article excerpt

Sometime soon, the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education will make its recommendations to the nation about ways to strengthen access, affordability, and accountability. AAC&U leaders are following the accountability debates with particular attention, because they dovetail with our own continuing focus on the aims and outcomes of a twenty-first-century liberal education.

In our view, intentionality and accountability are two sides of the same coin. In order to ensure the quality of students' actual learning, we-the academy in partnership with the community-must identify the learning outcomes all students need and make these outcomes a shared framework for both intentionality and accountability.

Through the Greater Expectations initiative, we have done just that. In dialogue with the academy, accreditors, and employers, AAC&U has identified a widely endorsed set of learning outcomes that mark the defining difference between readiness for success, on the one hand, and underachievement in college, on the other. As we wrote in a public letter to the Spellings Commission, these are the aims and outcomes for which we should hold ourselves accountable.

Through Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP), we now are working to both build public understanding of these essential outcomes and reinforce campus efforts to foster them across the curriculum.

For your convenience, we print a summary of the essential learning outcomes here (see sidebar). These broad purposes are a template, not a curriculum; they need to be translated within different institutional missions and the many different academic fields. Nonetheless, these outcomes are today's sine qua non. Students who do not acquire them will be underprepared for work, citizenship, and daily life.

Reading the tea leaves, we worry that, in response to the accountability issue, the Spellings Commission seems to be considering one or more weak choices. The first is to say little or nothing about the key aims and outcomes of a twenty-first-century education, while calling for campuses and states to experiment with tests in order to measure and compare student learning.

Self-evidently, every test is organized around key decisions about what students need to know and be able to do. To say nothing about purposes while embracing tests is to leave fundamental decisions about the important outcomes of a college education to the testing industry. The truth is that we've been experimenting with just this strategy in the schools for over half a century, first through the reign of the SAT and more recently through the myriad tests of high school learning that are now required in the states. To say the least, this has not been a formula for world-class accomplishment.

The second weak choice the commission seems to be considering is to fall back on that hardy perennial, general education. Commission Chair Charles Miller produced a paper in his own name that endorses standardized tests designed to assess general education outcomes. The problem with using these as the "accountability" measure is that they only address a fraction of the curriculum. Tests of general education were not designed to assess learning in the major, and findings from them can have no influence on the areas of work where both students and faculty are most invested.

AAC&U's work on learning outcomes and our proposed framework for accountability were addressed in commission hearings and in background papers. But the discussants seemed to think our recommendations apply to the general education curriculum alone, or, as Chair Miller described it, "the core learning and skills that anyone with a liberal arts degree should have. …

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