On the same day a few weeks ago, I happened to be looking at a Hofstra Alumni newsletter and an article that I had clipped from The New York Times. To digress for a moment, “clipped” is the right expression since I was reading the actual newspaper, not the online version. I only read the paper version on weekends. During the week, I read my paper online and am very efficient in reading only those articles that I identify as of great interest. On the weekends, and at a more leisurely pace, I look through the entire paper and just by skimming find additional interesting articles to read. There is clearly a role for both, though it will be interesting to see if the economics of printing a paper, in an online world, is viable.
In his alumni update, the Dean of our Honors College notes the criticism of higher education, most specifically the allegation in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, that some students in some colleges finish their education with minimal learning taking place. The Dean does this as a prelude to talking about how a liberal arts education supports “genuine learning,” because students spend “a significant amount of time studying exemplary works in literature, history, philosophy, religion, art, music, drama and the rest of the natural and social sciences, … [and thereby] come to see shadings and complexities in a world that previously seemed black and white.” I am in total agreement with this position and the concomitant position that writing across the college curriculum also enhances the learning that is taking place.
The New York Times article on “Trying to Find a Measure of How Well Colleges Do,” takes the question of learning or not learning and couples it with outcomes assessment measures of value added. More testing as the article notes already permeates k-12 education, and now “Pieces of such a system may be taking shape, however, with several kinds of national assessments—including, most controversially, standardized tests….” We should be able to demonstrate that learning is taking place and we should be able to document value added. But nevertheless there are serious concerns that must be taken into consideration.
On the k-12 level, the curriculum is becoming more standardized with the “Common Core,” which stresses revising existing educational norms by including for example, more nonfiction reading and more practical math. But is this really the only viable road to be followed to strengthen the k-12 educational experience? Enhanced student testing will then have to be in place to measure the value added. This testing will in turn impact the evaluation of many teachers. Schools in response, to ensure that their students test as well as possible (as early as third grade), may well shed some of the diversity and richness of the curriculum to stay focused on the test materials.
As higher education gathers evidence of student learning (which we are all more and more required to do) and strives to place that evidence in a context of other students in the same college and other students in colleges across the country, standardized test will provide a convenient yardstick for what we are trying to measure. I understand the value of a yardstick but I also recognize the tremendous expertise that faculty bring and have brought to the design and implementation of the curriculum. Rather than see us move to a Common Core college curriculum, we need to involve our faculty in the development of overall degree assessment instruments that effectively measure that learning/value added is taking place but preserve our right to design a curriculum that best serves the learning goals of our students.