New York City officials on Wednesday issued a report card evaluating the effectiveness of teacher education programs that educate the teachers in the city's public schools. The New York Times reported that some of the results were not favorable to the most prestigious programs. For instance, one in five graduates of Columbia University and New York University received low grades for improving student test scores. But the figure was 1 in 10 for City College of the City University of New York. Evaluating teachers (or their alma maters) in this way is controversial, but city officials said it was important to share the data and raise questions about results.
Submitted by Paul Fain on August 13, 2013 - 3:00am
Capella University announced that the U.S. Department of Education has granted approval to two new, competency-based degree programs. The university's "FlexPath" online bachelor's of science in business and master of business administration degrees are so-called "direct assessment" tracks, which are not based on the credit hour standard. Students in the two programs can now access federal financial aid thanks to the department's green light. Southern New Hampshire's College for America is the only other institution to receive such approval, but Northern Arizona University is also seeking it. Regional accreditors have signed off on the direct assessment degrees at all three institutions.
As the scholarly society dedicated to serving the nation’s communication scholars, teachers, and practitioners, the National Communication Association (NCA) took a special interest in Ernest Wilson's essay, "Communication Scholars Need to Communicate," as well as the comments elicited by Wilson’s piece. Wilson’s lament has sparked interesting debate and discussion not only among those in our discipline, but also among administrators, faculty, and students throughout higher education. Wilson’s central claims, while provocative, are decidedly at odds with what we know to be the nature, relevance and rigor of the wide range of communication scholarship. A corrective vision of the discipline is, therefore, necessary.
The Coherent Core of Communication
What Wilson believes about the discipline’s core is, quite frankly, unclear from his piece. On several occasions in the early part of his commentary, he issues a call for a carefully defined distinctive disciplinary core, only to later enumerate what he says is indeed a core of the discipline. In any case, it seems a cogent summary may be useful.
Rooted firmly in the classical imperative of understanding the power of speech to sway public audiences, and in the contemporary imperative of understanding the power of mediated messages to move millions, communication scholars are engaged in rigorous, sustained research that appreciates the role and influence of communication across all aspects of public and private life. Free of a stultifying adherence to methodological or theoretical orthodoxies, communication scholars and teachers embrace the ubiquity of communication and work to explain, understand, and analyze it.
Communication scholars are also mindful of the pedagogical core of the discipline — the inherent civic value of speech to meaningful citizenship — which emerged from the democratic impulse embodied in 19th- and 20th-century progressivism. As we pursue our research and teaching, we remember the words of the ancient Athenian orator and rhetorician, Isocrates: "Because there has been implanted in us the power to persuade each other and to make clear to each other whatever we desire, not only have we escaped the life of wild beasts, but we have come together and founded cities and made laws and invented arts."
Publicly Engaged Communication Scholars
Beyond the confines of the academy, and contrary to Wilson’s assertions about the lack of relevance of much research, communication scholars bring their discipline to life with communities of practice across the nation and around the world. These interactions span a multitude of contexts, from the corporate realm to public policy-making to movements for social justice. Such engagement is not confined, as Wilson suggests, to only the scholars at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School. While Wilson’s colleagues are indeed doing good, engaged work, they are not alone. In the next few paragraphs, just a few of the countless, diverse, and illustrative examples of rigorous, engaged communication scholarship are articulated. Communication is ubiquitous, so our communities of practice are far more varied than those of professional schools (law, medicine), and our colleagues around the country actively embrace this breadth of opportunity.
Professor Rebecca Townsend of Manchester Community College was named a 2012 "White House Champion of Change" for her work on transportation planning. With funding from the Federal Transit Administration, Townsend developed an initiative that brings community members from typically underrepresented groups into culturally sensitive, deliberative discussions about transportation needs in the interest of ensuring that planners hear more from transit-dependent residents. Townsend has been asked to discuss this work with many parties involved in transportation policy including the Transportation Research Board, the National Science Foundation, the Open Government Partnership, and legislators at the federal and state levels. Her strategies are being adopted across the country.
Professor Stephen John Hartnett, chair of the department of communication at the University of Colorado at Denver, has a commitment to community-based civic engagement that is reflected in the Prison Justice Project. Through this initiative, students bring communication skills to people in prisons and jails to improve their likelihood of succeeding in both public and private life upon release. Among the activities in this program is a prison workshop focusing on presentational speaking and the publication of Captured Words/Free Thoughts, a magazine of writings and images created by inmates. Several people who have participated in this program have productively engaged in post-release activities that incorporate communication skills.
Patrice M. Buzzanell, professor at the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University and a past president of the International Communication Association, has for many years taught and conducted research in her university’s Engineering Projects in Community Service program. She has led or co-led four service-learning design teams focused on several goals, including encouraging girls’ voices in engineering design and consideration of the field as a career possibility; engaging middle-school students in nanotechnology; promoting community environmental education and sustainability; and creating and maintaining global partnerships for water-energy-education systems in rural Ghana.
A past president of our association, H. Dan O’Hair, who is the interim senior vice provost and dean of the College of Communication and Information at the University of Kentucky, leads a large team of engaged scholars by example. His National Science Foundation-supported work focuses on hurricane warnings and involves close partnerships with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Hurricane Center, local emergency managers, and broadcasters in Miami and Houston. O’Hair has been asked to present his findings to members of Congress and key staffers from most of the government agencies involved in risk management, and his work has been influential in policy decisions.
Applied research of this kind is not new to the discipline. Nearly 30 years ago, University of Kentucky Professor Lewis Donohew pioneered the field of health communication by applying behavioral science research and technology to the development of drug prevention messages that targeted thrill-seekers.
Relevance and Rigor
Wilson argues that much communication scholarship is not sufficiently relevant to society, coherent or rigorous. We contend, based on the examples above and many others, that there is, in fact, a large body of existing communication scholarship that refutes this claim. Research that lacks rigor or relevance is simply not supported by major funders like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and NSF, nor is it engaged by policy makers in Congress and beyond. All of the examples cited above are meaningful instances of communication scholars and teachers pursuing relevant, effective, coherent programs for the betterment of their students, their communities, and society at large.
Another unsubstantiated assertion in Wilson's piece is that there is a failure of communication as a discipline to communicate well with other disciplines, and that this leads to a lack of interdisciplinary recognition. Communication scholarship is indeed widely recognized by interdisciplinary academic organizations as a crucial component of their scholarly efforts. The American Academy of Arts & Sciences, for example, recently released its congressionally commissioned report, "The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation," which prominently recognizes the value and relevance of communication skills as both central to a liberal education and desirable for employers and employees in the expanding global marketplace. The commission also "calls for a national commitment to building critical intercultural skills at every stage of the education system," skills that undeniably are rooted in an enhanced appreciation of intercultural communication.
The National Academies of Science recently announced its second Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium on "The Science of Science Communication," which will feature several communication scholars, including Dietram Scheufele (University of Wisconsin) and Edward Maibach (George Mason University). And the American Council of Learned Societies has announced that among the recipients of its highly competitive Public Fellows Program is Margaret H. Kunde, a newly minted Ph.D. in communication studies from the University of Minnesota.
Sadly, Wilson was not more rigorous in developing his commentary on the state of the communication discipline. He states that he has tried to be a good student of communication, but he clearly still has more to learn. While we appreciate the fine work at USC that Wilson touts, we encourage him to expand his focus beyond the walls of his own institution.
Can our discipline do even better? Of course we can — for thousands of years, scholars of communication have evolved and adapted in response to changing social and technological needs. Despite Wilson’s dismal prognostication about the discipline, communication scholars frequently work with communities of practice across an array of the human experience, boldly bringing with them insights, knowledge, and rigorous engagement that are at the center of modern intellectual life and purposeful action.
Nancy Kidd is executive director of the National Communication Association, where Trevor Parry-Giles is associate director for academic and professional affairs.
When concerns about the quality of education swept the nation in the 1990s, test results were said to promise a reliable measure of instructional effectiveness. They offered a way to make comparisons across teachers, schools and students, all while assuring good value for Americans’ tax or tuition dollars. Faith in data, long built into U.S. educational practices, now came to support the ideal of schooling as a fair, honest, and well-managed service. The costs to Americans of public or private education would now need to be justified by those doing the educating.
Unfortunately, that justification, like any economic calculation, started from presumptions about what is worth paying for, and increased public spending on poorer communities was not on the table. The weaker performances of under-resourced urban or rural schools called forth not more public funding but less under No Child Left Behind. However precise its format and consistent its application, measurement in this instance served entirely subjective ideas about public good, and old race, class and geographic differentials were reproduced.
That standards-based heart of No Child Left Behind beats on in current advocacy for outcomes as the main drivers of educational design and evaluation. New metrics such as President Obama’s “College Scorecard” have helped make the idea of a measurable educational “return on investment” meaningful to schools and to students and their families. And this strong emphasis on the free market as a means of quality assurance in teaching and learning continues to spread.
For example, in “competency-based learning,” the organization of higher education shifts from the familiar credit hour system to one based on assessments of student mastery of skills and content. This means that familiar units such as courses, or classroom and contact hours, may disappear altogether in some programs. It also means that students pay for credentials not on the basis of certain numbers or types of instructional activities undertaken in a degree program, but on the basis of their own educational achievements.
A kind of industrial model of efficiency and market competition emerges in competency-based education. Advocates for this shift point to lowered tuition costs as classroom time, faculty wages and other institutional expenditures are reduced (the same savings often used to justify the use of MOOCs). And Lumina Foundation’s Jamie Merisotis predicts gains in quality control because colleges and students will undertake measurement of “what is learned” rather than “what is taught.” Federal officials also firmly endorsed competency-based college programs earlier this year by declaring them eligible for Title IV financial aid.
But learning is poorly served by such supposed efficiencies. There is a fundamental inequity in the character of competency-based education as a kind of scrimping: The “saving” of money supposedly in the interest of affordability and inclusion that in actuality achieves only social demarcation. Those students with the least money to spend on college will not be walking away with the same product as their more affluent fellow enrollees, uplifting rhetoric notwithstanding. Budget versions of education, like surgery or car repairs, are no bargain. In such outcomes-focused college curriculums, stripped of “unnecessary” instruction, open-ended, liberal learning easily is deemed wasteful. And so much for the profoundly energizing (and developmentally crucial) experience of encountering messy, uncertain arguments -- of experiencing cognition without identifiable outcomes. The distance will grow between the student who can afford traditional university instruction and the one who needs to save money.
We should be careful not to presume that those who teach in competency-based programs are necessarily weaker or less committed instructors. Yet, if a pre-set body of skills, identifiable upon graduation, is what demarcates one program from another in this kind of higher education, bringing revenue and market share to a school, in whose interest is an inventive classroom experience, or one that leads to diverse intellectual experiences for different students? What faculty member will take pedagogical risks or welcome the challenging student?
There’s an important echo here, I think, with recently renewed interest in K-12 classroom tracking. New proponents of that practice recently interviewed by The New York Times point out how such tracking matches the level, speed and style of teaching more closely to divergent student needs than can any single, unified classroom. It sounds like an inclusive reform. But both trends threaten a kind of separate but equal educational system, reasserting group identities even as they claim to customize education. They do so through projections of how best to distribute resources in our society, and also through more subtle projections of student abilities and the assertion that such abilities may be predicted.
Both propose tiered education on the presumption that underachievement and differentials in life opportunities are not something we can try to prevent. Tracking and competency-based education both assert that solutions to missing or poorly executed education involve reshaping student experiences, not expanding resources. That’s a very different ideology than the one that fueled compensatory programs of the 1970s. Those initiatives managed to accommodate diverse learning styles and paces while also bolstering educational provisions for disadvantaged communities.
Competency-based education, for its part, engages in some extraordinarily selective definitions of efficiency and inclusion. The results-based model of higher education supposedly weds quality control to flexibility; some competency-based programs give equal credit for students’ classroom, online, life-experience and video-, book- or game-based learning. Those students who are shown through assessment to have pertinent skills are credentialed, however those skills were obtained; they need not pay for “unneeded credits.” For federal supporters of this scheme and approving think-tank voices, standards in each subject will reliably determine what is worth knowing and what learning counts. They also assure that the “consumer” will be well-served throughout.
Let’s think about this. A conflict of interest certainly resides in a system whereby educational providers measure learning outcomes in their own institutions. But to be fair, that conflict can afflict any instructional effort, whether good performance promises a school more revenue, more public funding or simply greater prestige. Competency-based education, however, seems systematically to deny criticality about its own operations. It uses only its own terms to judge its success. That’s troubling. If educational standards are conflated with the instruments of industry, we should not be surprised to encounter the self-serving methods of industrial quality control. Here, as in a profitable factory, the system claims a basis in economies and managerial oversight, the supposedly no-lose technics of mass-production. But industry standards invariably best serve their creators.
The multi-tiered and modular have certainly long been the American educational way. The new instructional models simply extend older beliefs in natural distributions of talent and diligence, in inborn differentials of cognition and character. Calling such schooling “diverse,” “flexible,” or “customer focused” will not make it democratic.
In outcomes-focused education, I see strong support for the idea that each individual who enters the classroom, aged 5, 15 or 25, is one with predetermined potential, with an identifiable niche on the ladder of aptitude that will match with a certain amount and kind of instruction. High or low, that ascription of talent is more than merely a subjective judgment, it is an iniquitous one: The customized learning experiences currently being praised proceed from the idea that an individual can be known by such categories and then placed in an appropriate position in a classroom or curriculum. Ultimately, that will also continue with the employment ladder. These so-called innovations don’t promise enriched learning and expanded opportunity, but outward rippling discrimination.
Amy Slaton is a professor of history in the department of history and politics at Drexel University.