• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you’re going to be asked to leave.


Ratings Systems Empower the Already Powerful

I disagree with Rebecca Schuman. There's a first for everything.

May 28, 2014

I am a fan of Rebecca Schuman’s education writing. Hers is a necessary voice, as she’s willing to challenge the status quo in unsparing terms, calling out the worst bad actors and empowering the disenfranchised to share their own stories.

I agree with her about 95% of the time, but when it comes to the Obama administration’s development of a college ratings system, I have to (temporarily, I’m certain) leave Team Schuman.

This is an especially odd feeling because her grievances against the system – adjunctification, tuition costs, student loan debt, unchecked athletics programs, administrative positions that proliferate like Tribbles  -- are my own.

While the specific parameters of the rating system have yet to be released, we do know from a White House Fact Sheet released last year that they're likely to focus on aspects of access, affordability, and outcome. Initially, the ratings will be designed to provide information to help students make more informed decisions. Ultimately, however, the goal is to tie at least some measure of federal funding to the ratings.

Writing in Slate, Schuman offers numerous suggestions to what seems to be on the table when the initial rating system is released, but in the end, believes they're worth pursuing. “Even if the ratings system were to be implemented today, in its flawed first draft, its results would likely be more positive than negative.”

I disagree for a number of reasons. One of them is philosophical, in that I don’t think any rating system, no matter how well-intentioned, is a step forward for college accountability. The distorting affects of a rating system will inevitably result in unintended (but foreseeable) consequences that will make the above-mentioned problems worse, rather than better.

I’m anti-rating because I’m a proponent of viewing postsecondary education through the lens of process rather than product, and anything that reinforces the student as consumer model of higher education is disempowering for both faculty and students, as it positions students as passive non-participants, rather than the reality which is that they are the product.

But mostly, I’m against the ratings because while Schuman thinks they will hold college presidents accountable, I think they will only increase presidential and administrative power.

All top-down measurements have this effect of putting power in the hands of the bosses. When the ratings are what matters, administrators will be empowered to enact policies that reflect positively in those ratings, regardless of the other effects. The core value driving the proposed ratings is efficiency, and so efficiency will be pursued at all costs.

And just imagine the additional layer of deanlets made necessary to track and manage the data demanded by the federal government. Imagine the intrusion on our privacy as schools endeavor to track student outcomes.

Early on, the ratings will likely endanger individual presidents whose schools are performing poorly on the important metrics, but they will simply be replaced by someone else with a different set of policy prescriptions to put into place. Schools will careen from one approach to another in search of good federal report card, and presidents will be looked to as saviors. All of the perversions wrought by schools chasing improved U.S. News & World Report rankings  will be dwarfed by measures taken in order to secure ongoing or additional federal funding.

Under this sort of system, presidents will become more like CEOs. Those that can point to good scorecards will be able to act with impunity, never mind the consequences to faculty or students. They’ll be empowered to slash majors and programs that can’t demonstrate sufficiently robust employment and salary figures. So long romance languages. Goodbye comparative literature. See ya, philosophy.

Given the low starting salaries of teachers, will we even have colleges of education any longer?

Forget tenure, job security of any kind will be a thing of the past as they embrace the tempting (and yet wholly discredited) Value Added Measurement of teaching, and our effectiveness will be judged according to the starting salaries of the students we’ve taught in a single class.

The thirst for data, once engaged, is unquenchable.[1] We are already wasting time on pointless assessment to feed the great administrative gods and their governmental overlords. The Obama rating system will make it a gazillion times worse.

The “successful” presidents will be able to command massive salaries in the manner of CEOs or football coaches, as they are lured with filthy lucre to import their system to different schools. Our higher education system's greatest strength, it's freedom and flexibility will be squandered in the great flattening of outcomes.

I recognize that there’s people to whom this vision of higher education sounds pretty good, but I don’t think Rebecca Schuman is among them. Her message has been to consistently champion the disempowered and these ratings, even in modified form, put the marginalized further under the thumb of the powerful.

Embracing these ratings – or any ratings – is a doubling down on the worst consumerist, corporate university practices that got us into this situation. We need change, but this is the wrong vehicle.

Revolutions happen from below, not from the top down.


I follow Rebecca Schuman on Twitter. You should too.


[1] I’m a broken record on this, but just look at what’s happening in primary and secondary education with the Common Core. The very purpose of the standards and testing is to make data.



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