Congress/legislation

A professor's invitation: Senator, please come visit my classroom (essay)

Dear Senator,

I’ll try to make you feel comfortable, if not totally inconspicuous. I assume of course there wouldn’t be a coterie of administrators anxious to produce a dog-and-pony show. And no cameras. Just a visit to an unvarnished college physics class, warts and all.

You’ll want to see for yourself students who come totally unprepared for class, and the strategies and energy I (and by extension, my colleagues) use to pull them out of their IT-induced stupor and begin to focus on the chalkboard. You’ll also realize the unmatched effectiveness of an active classroom led by a concerned human being. You’ll understand why technology-based learning never captured the 20 million or so ordinary students who continue to fill our classrooms.

At class's end, you’ll watch as students come by to get a point cleared up -- or just exchange a few encouraging words. Then you’ll begin to see why students taught by adjuncts anxious to leave for their next assignment are being shortchanged.

Afterward, we might spend some time in my office, where I’ll let you leaf through a range of textbooks to see for yourself the dumbing down of college-level material, one outcome of the “increase the graduation rate at all costs” movement. You’ll hear my comment that colleges and universities aren’t vocational schools, and that the faculty -- the people legislators never get to see -- are interested in learning, not loan repayment or career success, as college outcomes.

Not that I blame anyone. You and your staff are inundated by calls to "improve" or change accreditation by having accreditors take quantitative student outcomes into account. You probably don’t know that even though we’ve been hearing the "outcome" story for over 30 years, there has yet to be found a quantitative outcome that is reliable and valid.

If you have time, I would explain to you how the emphasis on numerical outcomes led directly to the Corinthian Colleges disaster, and I would also explain why the direct, hands-on peer review of traditional accreditation is unsurpassed at evaluating a school.

By the way, you’re listed as a supporter of legislation calling for innovative approaches to accreditation. Have you walked through how they would work? I have, and I’ll be happy to explain to your staff why these approaches would generate future Corinthians.

I would also lend a word of caution: students are not widgets. They are human beings who can suffer harm. If they are asked to participate in an innovative (there’s that word again!) approach to learning, shouldn’t they be warned that they might acquire less content, fewer skills, delayed intellectual growth in this new untested scheme? Here’s an idea for legislation: Why not require informed consent from students who are about to enroll in an experimental, pilot or untested program?

I digress. While in my office, I’ll show you some graded exams and my grade book -- names covered, of course. You’ll be relieved to know that nobody earns college credit for "seat time." Splinters are all one gets from simply sitting in a classroom.

And a point of pride: you’ll look at the range of grades and you won’t be able to correlate race, sex or ethnicity with the A’s and the F’s. Everybody works for good grades. Or not.

We’ll get a chance to talk to students -- randomly selected -- in the hall, or downstairs in the lobby. You might want to ask them about the College Scorecard, and the basis on which they made their choice of colleges. I hope your new insight won’t cause you to want to cut funding for the Department of Education’s statistics efforts. They do marvelous work -- even though few people seem to care.

And as the pièce de résistance, you’ll meet other faculty members. Just don’t mention the effort to increase data collection now being proposed. Can I tell you how one person I know would react?

He would theatrically slap his forehead and probably say, “Of course! How stupid of me! More data is just what we need to solve the problems of higher education! We’ll successfully address the racial gap, the rising costs, the disengaged students and students who are hungry. Before we go off on another harebrained scheme, why not test any new hypothesis against the longitudinal data we own in virtually every state? Nothing ever came of 30 years of gathering data, and another dose will add nothing more than expense and headaches.”

I’m sure you’ll forgive him, because in your career you’ve met other exceedingly bright people who are no respecters of personages. But I hope you’ll listen to his words.

Your day will be full -- but at the end you will be able to address higher education from a position of direct knowledge, rather than from experts. You might want to tell these experts that they, too, would benefit immensely from a day or two in a college classroom, or on an accreditation visit.

You, your colleagues and your staff are always welcome to come by -- unannounced -- to visit, and to experience a reality so important to our nation.

Bernard Fryshman is a professor of physics at New York Institute of Technology.

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