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Larry Cuban, 88 years old, is the dean of historians of American education and a professor emeritus at Stanford. Over the course of his career, he served as a high school social studies teacher for 14 years, a district superintendent for seven years and a university professor for 20 years.

By my count he has 15 books currently in print, including such classics as:

  • Oversold and Underused, a cautionary tale about the naïve, overblown faith in computer technology as a panacea for public schools’ ills.
  • Tinkering Toward Utopia (with David Tyack), a history of a century of public school reform, which underscores reformers’ tendency to overstate public education’s defects and understate the difficulty of reinventing schooling.
  • As Good As It Gets, a study of school reform in Austin, Tex., which showed that while well-funded, widely supported school reform resulted in better test scores, more high school graduates and better-qualified teachers, the improvements were unevenly distributed, with the least improvement where it was needed most: in the predominantly poor, Black and Latino high schools.

You can read Cuban’s scholarship in contrasting ways, as:

  • An admonition against top-down reform imposed by decree.
  • An object lesson about the difficulties of overcoming educational disparities ultimately rooted in class structures, residential patterns and differences in access to economic opportunity. 
  • A series of history lessons that should serve as a warning to educational policy makers: 
    • about the dangers of overpromising improvements in outcomes. 
    • about the tenacity of schooling’s grammar—the assumptions, conventions, structures, policies and practices that parents and politicians associate with a quality education.
    • about the need to recognize that lasting educational reforms take place gradually and incrementally as the result of teacher-adopted innovations within individual classrooms.
  • A plea—voiced in his very first book, To Make a Difference: Teaching in the Inner City (1970)—for schools to forge tighter connections with local communities and parents they serve; to devise curricula that speak to the everyday lives, experiences and concerns of their students; and, insofar as possible, to individualize and personalize instruction.

Those of us who want to improve the quality of higher education need to take Cuban’s scholarship to heart and recognize that there are no educational quick fixes, that sweeping transformations are exceptionally hard to implement and extremely difficult to sustain, and that what ultimately matters takes place within individual classrooms and the personal relationship between teachers and students.

Above all, we need to recommit ourselves to an idea that animates all of Cuban’s writings: that our goal as educators should be to realize American education’s democratic promise—to ensure, to the best of our ability, that all our students receive an education that will help them realize their God-given potential.

That will require our campuses and their accreditors to do something that they have long resisted: to rigorously and systematically assess institutional and instructional quality. Currently, we assess quality in one of two ways:

  • By inputs: Admissions standards, student-faculty ratios, average class size, library resources, financial aid spending and similar variables.
  • By outputs: Like graduation rates, time to degree and postgraduate employment and earnings.

Each measure of institutional quality has its strengths and weaknesses. Inputs tell us little about outputs, and outputs, such as postgraduation outcomes and rates of upward mobility, vary widely by admissions selectivity, major and local or regional labor markets.

But there are other ways to measure quality that we need to embrace. One way is through careful comparisons with peer institutions with similar student profiles. It’s embarrassing when an institution like Princeton claims to have no peers. To refuse to acknowledge a comparison group and institute systematic comparisons is to engage in the worst form of insularity and blinkeredness.

Another way to assess quality is to focus on the student experience, student satisfaction, demonstrated student learning or upward mobility. Shouldn’t every institution hold focus groups with current students and conduct exit interviews and surveys with students who transfer, drop out or graduate?

Another especially important measure of quality involves campus climate and culture: the atmosphere and set of expectations that have a powerful influence not only on student engagement, persistence and learning, but on faculty attitudes and behavior.

I understand that campus climate and culture are extraordinarily difficult to assess and are heavily influenced by peer effects. Still, such an assessment isn’t beyond our ability. Here are some obvious measures.

  1. The share of the student body that participates in:
  • A learning or research cohort or honors program.
  • Utilizing a learning support center.
  • Project-based learning, an experiential learning opportunity, such as an internship, mentored research, study abroad or service learning.
  • Extracurricular activities and attends on campus events, lectures and workshops.
  1. The share of faculty who:
  • Receive professional development training in teaching.
  • Obtain institutionally provided assistance in course design, the use of instructional technology and assessment development.
  • Collaborate with faculty outside their department, discipline or field, whether in teaching or research.
  • Feel comfortable with the level of institutional support that they receive in terms of academic freedom.

I, perhaps like you, have taken the COACHE survey, which purports to assess faculty job satisfaction. The survey focuses on a range of issues, including compensation, diversity and inclusion, the tenure and promotion process, career and leadership development, shared governance, and faculty recognition and appreciation and helps identify important issues that require an institutional response, like barriers to career success based on gender, race and ethnicity.

But other important issues are missing, involving the institution’s intellectual climate, collegiality, interdisciplinarity and academic freedom. I, for one, found it very difficult to enter responses that reflect my actual opinion.

In any survey, the questions asked define and dictate the issues that an institution is prepared to address, and the COACHE survey is no exception. The problems that I perceive at my campus—the declining commitment to the humanities, the outsourcing of gen ed courses, the heavy reliance on large lecture classes without breakout sections—aren’t adequately covered in the survey.

In a provocative recent blog posting, the economist Noah Smith examines the sharp drop in Americans’ confidence in higher education, which is among this country’s most internationally respected institutions. As he notes, while the decline is most pronounced among Republicans, it is present across all demographic groups—and is greater among those most likely to enjoy a college education’s benefits—the young, women and those with postgraduate degrees—than among the middle-aged, men or those without a master’s, a Ph.D. or a professional degree.

So, why, Smith asks, are the young growing less positive about college?

  • Because they don’t think the economic payoff is worth the cost.
  • Because the expected job opportunities and wage premium aren’t materializing.
  • Because a college degree is becoming a less valuable investment.
  • Because of an increasing realization that college doesn’t always transform people into healthy, well-rounded individuals; instead, “rates of depression and other mental illnesses among college students have roughly doubled since 2013 and a full 44% of students report depressive symptoms,” a rate “much higher than the rate among the general population.”
  • Because of populist anger over elite colleges that “give extreme admissions preference to rich kids, whom they select using things like legacy admissions and athletic preferences for sports that only rich kids tend to play.”

Smith’s principal conclusion is not unlike Cuban’s: that Americans have come to expect too much from college. It’s certainly the case that higher education as it currently exists is not doing an especially effective job of narrowing class differences, moderating ideological and partisan polarization, promoting economic mobility, or even producing mentally healthy graduates.

In Smith’s words:

“A lot of people expected to be able to study subjects they loved and use their degree to get a great job afterwards. When it turned out to be a choice between one or the other, many regretted their decision and wished they had prioritized the economic benefits over the self-actualization.”

I wholeheartedly endorse one of Smith’s recommendations—that we need to focus “resources [and prestige] on the lower-ranked public schools that provide a leg up for the children of the working class—the Cal State and SUNY and CUNY schools, etc.”

But I disagree with another argument that Smith makes. I don’t think we should diminish our expectations about what college can provide. We should instead raise our expectations and redesign our institutions accordingly.

  • If we want to promote students’ mental well-being, then we should do more to promote a sense of belonging and connection; integrate physical education and wellness into the curriculum; incorporate courses into the lower-division experience that address mental health and happiness; and introduce students to the arts, which can increase mindfulness, reduce stress, induce a state of flow and help them put emotions into words.
  • If we are genuinely concerned about students’ postgraduation employment prospects, then we should weave career development across the college years; expand opportunities for internships, mentored research and project-based learning; and offer more skills workshops in areas with big payoff, like project management, technical writing and fluency with job-related software.
  • If we’re seriously worried about political and ideological polarization, then we should introduce more classes that approach current controversies through a multidisciplinary lens with a goal of exposing students to conflicting perspectives, carefully evaluating empirical evidence and exploring the ethical and social implications of various proposed policy solutions.
  • If we’re truly committed to educational quality, then let’s pressure our administrators and our legislators to create the conditions where quality is possible—by reducing the number of large lecture and online classes without regular and substantive interaction with faculty, put much more emphasis on skills building, whether these involve reading, writing, numerical analysis and critical and higher-order thinking and place undergraduate teaching front and center.

The historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch subtitled his 1991 bestseller, The Culture of Narcissism, “American Life in the Age of Diminished Expectations.” The economist Paul Krugman gave his 1994 book on economic policy (now in its third edition) a similar title. Both authors argued that the public and policy makers were defining expectations down, with the result that American society was willing to accept torpor and mediocrity and what Jason Epstein described in 1977: “the constantly rising cost of an extravagant standard of living whose average quality was steadily declining—a decline that could be seen in the collapse of neighborhoods, the wreckage of the natural environment and the compulsive production of generally useless and increasingly expensive goods while real needs went unmet.”

I fear that in the three decades since those books were published, our expectations have diminished further. As Derek Bok observed six years ago, our best measures suggest that students are spending much less time on course work; that over all, their skills in writing, problem solving and critical thinking are deficient; and that grade inflation is masking our failure to uphold our academic standards.

So, please, do the following. Raise your expectations about:

  • The amount of studying students should do outside of class.
  • The quantity and quality of writing you ask of your students.
  • The feedback that students receive to help them meet your standards.
  • The kinds of courses you teach and the pedagogy you use, by addressing more sweeping topics with an interdisciplinary, experiential, interactive and problem-based approach.

I recognize that you are teaching under conditions that make higher standards impossible to achieve. I hear you: your students, many of whom were inadequately prepared for college in high school, are already juggling too many demands on their time. I know: It’s silly to assume that any one faculty member can make a meaningful difference on her or his own.

So, let’s raise our collective voice, “beat on, boats against the current” and do our darnedest to demand that our institutions take steps that will make it possible to raise the quality of an undergraduate education.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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