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Department of Education Running Amok?

Our Department of Education seens to be in the process of suspending and perhaps ending the capability of the American Academy of Liberal Education to serve as an alternative way for colleges with more traditional or authentically liberal approaches to education to gain accreditation. The point of the AALE is to challenge the political correctness and break the monopoly of the regional accrediting agencies. But now our Department of Education is increasingly insistent that all accreditation be based on jargon laden, one-dimensional, and usually easily quantifiable "learning outcomes." The AALE, to its credit, can’t figure out how to employ that approach and still do its job. All the professors out there know how hostile the whole regimen of learning outcomes is to real higher education. And all conservatives and Republicans ought to be raising hell about the petty tyranny of officials appointed by our president and working in a Department that many rightly believe should be abolished. It’s genuinely alarming that they’re working to make our accrediting associations even more intrusive and more mindless.

Discussions - 26 Comments

Very dismaying news. Very.

It is bad news, but honestly, what a relief to me. I thought it was my inexperience that left me baffled as to how follow the directives from on high. I get hit with learning outcomes directives every couple of months that leave me baffled. The latest one apparently supersedes the last, but except for the wording, I do not see any real difference between them. "Students will recognize and correct grammatical, mechanical, and usage errors in their own writing." Well, don’t I just wish it were so!

"Students will be able to summarize written material... and be able to frame an effective critical and analytical response to it." I can lead someone to an idea, but I cannot make him think. Don’t we all try? Reading this I wonder how such things apply to history, philosophy, political science and other disciplines, compared to which, applying my desirable directives might seem simple.

Well, give a bureaucrat a job, and he’ll have to figure out how to keep it. Once you have established how many drinking fountains per student is a good a positive thing, you must move on to something else. The Department of Education has to keep coming up with justifications for its continued existence, and if it ruins the world’s best colleges with systematization, too bad for the world.

The drift and "new tone" nonsense has seeped throughout the entire Executive branch. Hardly a week goes by anymore without some depressing story of GW’s inept stewardship of our nation’s affairs.

It’s like he’s not the same man he was 4 years ago. It’s like he’s suffered some sort of nervous breakdown. In Washington, personnel IS policy. Take a look at the people he’s appointed. He’s put together the worst of the worst. Just take a glance at all the political savvy and talent that GW never availed himself of. And the only reason he hired Tony Snow is that the selection was forced upon him, much like the selection of Alito.

The whole Bush clan is a fricken enigma. This guy is blowing up the party of victories that Ronald Reagan created. It’s almost as if he’s trying to complete the ruination of the GOP. It’s as amazing as it is inexplicable.

My impression is that in higher education, the DoE has essentially handed the reins to those members of the education establishment who are willing to do the bidding of corporate types, who are the ones enamored of measurable "outcomes." They’ve seized this opportunity to make life difficult, if not impossible, for the one genuinely "countercultural" accrediting agency.

To repeat: if accountability is the watchword in all levels of education--a development necessitated by a variety of circumstances (e.g., unionism in public education and out-of-control costs, if nothing else, in higher ed)--then the narrow-minded bean counters are going to be in the driver’s seat.

Ronald Reagan handed Education to Bill Bennett. George Walker Bush handed it over to the establishment. And therein lies a tale. And now, GW is about to deliver over our foreign policy entirely to the establishment. Good chunks of it they were already delivered earlier in the Bush tenure, but now, it looks like they’ve taken custody of all of it.

I would like to know, simply as a matter of personal curiosity, if there was a single Conservative Republican who ever privately got in the face of this President and told him what he thought of his job performance.

When Jimmy Carter was floundering, prominent Democrats got in his face. Then Governor Bill Clinton did so as well. Steve Hayward recounts as much in his epic work THE AGE OF REAGAN.

The Democrats found the nerve to confront Carter. Have Republicans and Conservatives ever found the nerve to say the things they’re thinking and feeling TO GW’s FACE, mano a mano, looking him directly in the eye, and telling him how he’s screwing up royally. Have any Republicans DEMANDED that he govern consistent with the GOP platform? Has anybody said anything to him directly?

For anybody committed to an genuinely liberal undergraduate education, this news is deplorable, alarming, and absurd.

Looking at the AALE’s current website, I cannot find a list of currently accredited programs. Does anyone have one?

What’s next? Raising a stink might succeed by uniting at least some otherwise strange bedfellows.

Regarding the "learning outcomes" nonsense to which Peter refers: making up syllabi that include them is, for me, a stupifying exercise to be completed with cynicism. But when they are taken seriously by deans and deanlings they do real harm.

In my view, this problem is the result of combination of at least a few errors: (1) the encroachment of the corporate model into academia. This problem stems from the increased need on college and universtiy boards for corporate heavyweights with money (and with friends with money) who unfortunately understand the business world better than they understand the academic world. CEO’s cannot believe that the tenure system works and has worked for a long time. They cannot understand that students are not consumers, and that teachers are not suppliers of products. (2) George Bush, who behaves EXACTLY as he promised to behave when he first ran for office. I will never forget hearing him, during a debate, suggesting that teaching to a test was good education, as long as the test covered the right material. (3) The influence of know-nothing legislators pandering for votes by scapegoating teachers, poor schools, and minorities under the "accountability" umbrella.

What we are witnessing is what happens when voters believe people like Bush (and Reagan) when they promise a simple, business-model solution to a very complex set of problems in a system that really cannot be mapped onto the corporate model. Competition and "market decisions" may be fine for restaurants and small businesses, but they are not good for neghborhood schools that depend on parent loyalty, teacher consistency, and community-building.

I hate wasting my time devising today’s version of "The student will be able to...." I hate wasting my time convincing my overworked peers from other institutions that my program delivers what it professes to deliver.

I hate it when my son’s school cares more about state-level, standardized tests more than they care about assessing my son for his own sake. And I blame this state of affairs on a population that blindly accepts that management-by-objective is a cure-all for lazy teachers and neglectful parents.

Others will know better, but I have the impression that in addition to the incursion of the corporate model of accountability, we also have education-speak to blame. What we are now seeing in higher education is well-entrenched down below. Those of us who spent some time teaching in primary or secondary education know all about "lesson plans" and "assessments."

While it is only indirectly relevant to this discussion, Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man will nurture a healthy frame of mind. He survived New York City public school teaching, resisted the establishments (both the Board of Education and the union), and in his own way did the Lord’s work for liberal education.

Do you know what I hear? I hear a bunch of professors mad that the real world (and not the fairy tale land that so many of you live in) seems to be making demands on universities.

Colleges are failing to produce "learning outcomes". Liberal arts schools are failing to produce enough well-rounded individuals to stop a cultural decline.

I’ll support any attempt to make colleges accountable. Maybe a little bit of the corporate model of accountability will cause some professors to be more successful at their jobs.


If the DoE were asking us to produce cultured individuals, or rather to cultivate individuals, I don’t think anyone would be complaining. Instead, the educrats associated with DoE are conniving in the higher ed establishment’s war on AALE, the only accrediting agency that has as its mission the encouragement of liberal learning.

Cry Me a River - No one will deny that many professors get away with murder, so to speak. "Accountability" is one thing, but these ways of measuring and encouraging it are worse than the disease. They are entirely abstract and formalistic, and draw attention away from the sources of moral confusion and intellectual decay.

I think we ought to recognize that there is a fundamental difference between primary education, which emphasizes (or at least ought to emphasize) basic reading and math skills, and higher education. Standardized tests and measurable "learning objectives," it seems to me, are perfectly legitimate at the primary level, but the goals of higher education defy any similar method of quantification.

Another example of the legacy of Antonio Gramsci at work. I can draw no other conclusion. In no sane world would DoE try (with success) to dictate the terms of collegiate liberal arts education. Think of this as a way station on the ride to Sharia.

Yeah, I figured that the Arabs had to be behind it somehow.

6: Dan, mega-dittoes. A real Republican would, at this point, go mano a mano with Bush and tell him he’s failed as a conservative leader.
It should have been done long ago. My bet is that it will not happen at this late date, and that if it it did, it would not change Bush at all. But still, it’s a righteous act and, in some way, would not be wasted. If nothing else, it could make conservatives feel more confident and motivated. However, it needs to be done well and by the right person. Otherwise, it would backfire, since Bush isn’t one of us.

In terms of domestic policy, we need Bush for two things: 1) The next SCOTUS appointment. If there is a retirement, it will probably be Scalia, who would not want a Democratic president to name his replacement. Even replacing Scalia, however, Bush cannot be trusted. We can hope that Fielding will get him to appoint a conservative, but who knows.
2) Bush needs to veto the crap he’ll get from the Democratic Congress. Again, he can’t be trusted -- not because he’s dishonorable, but because he’s neither conservative nor smart nor tough.


I reject the notion that colleges are failing as such, or that the phrase "professors are getting away with murder" holds any weight at all.

How many CEO’s, senators, community leaders, come from backwater colleges, or from no college background at all? If the college system were failing, then we would see that HS graduates would have no disadvantage over those with advanced degrees. As well, Ivy League graduates would have no advantage in the "real world" over state college graduates. But that is not the case. The system works, and has been working for a lot longer than most millionaires and has-beens have been around to tell the rest of us about the "real world."

Second, I am unaware that professors as a group get away with any more mischief than any other group. Among other things, the tenure system acts as (roughly) seven years of strict oversight, and the promotion systm extends that period well beyond 15 years. An awful lot of white collar crime can occur in that period!

In the real world, employees that do not meet certain expectations are fired, no matter how long they’ve been with the company.

In the collegiate world, incompetents are protected by a little thing called "tenure". And please, I’d rather not hear the tired "but,it protects academic freedom" garbage.

Let’s not forget higher education’s incurable addiction to federal loot in form of student loans and grants. Biting the hand that feeds and all that. If it weren’t for federal subsidies many small liberal arts colleges could tell the Ed. Dept. to go pound sand.

Have we strayed off Peter Lawler’s main point?

. . .an alternative way for colleges with more traditional or authentically liberal approaches to education to gain accreditation. The point of the AALE is to challenge the political correctness and break the monopoly of the regional accrediting agencies.

20: If we had some ham, we could make a ham sandwich, if we had some bread.

Cry, You are ignoring seven years of serving at the pleasure of administrators, departments, and rank and tenure committees.

Steve, you are right, this is off track. Sorry. I just get angry when people who don’t know what they are talking about perpetuate these stupid, anti-academic stereotypes, and I feel they need to be challenged.


Concerning your comment in #17. I think you have to admit that some advantage ivy league people get is not dependent upon the quality (or lack thereof) of their education. It is the opportunity to build a social network. Don’t you think the person who had the chance to be in a class, and be friends with, Bush II’s daughter probably have a leg up on someone who went to college with just average middle class folk?

Say what you will about the abuses of academia (and they are legion), but U.S. universities are still regarded as the best in the world. Moreover, there is a market of sorts at work. If Mr. (or perhaps Ms.) Me-A-River doesn’t want to send his/her kids to Harvard, that’s his prerogative. Let him/her send them to an institution without tenure.

It is, rather, the system of primary and secondary public education that is in dire need of reform. Simple cost-benefit analysis shows them to be some of the worst in the industrialized world, with no market incentives for them to improve. Standards are a step in the right direction, but under the current arrangement it is all too easy for administrators and teachers to evade them. Unless some sort of meaningful school choice is implemented we can expect no real improvement.

Steve S. - I would agree that one of the advantages of an ivy league experience is the social networking, and I would also agree that too many students are admitted as legacies, rather than upon their merits alone. Still, there is a reason that some of us are not teaching at Harvard and Princeton, and much of that has to do with the quality of our work, and the depth of our talent. And, for a committed, talented student, I would never trade an Ivy League opportunity for a State College opportunity, or for one at my very good college.

John, I agree that there are substantive and qualitative differences between the problems in higher ed, as opposed to those in public education. But, while standard are important, I think we have lost an opportunity to examine just how important. Before the NCLB standards blitz, there were states that had imposed state standards for years, while others had not. Then, the standards themselves differed among states: Texas, for instance, recently required a sophomore to perform at the 7th grade level in order to advance, which strikes me as a pretty low bar.

So, there was some opportunity to engage in some research to investigate the effects of (a) standards vs no standards, and (b) higher vs lower standards. Now, we have sunk so much money into generating, administering, monitoring, redesigning, attacking and defending questionnable standardized tests, that I see very little way to gauge their effectiveness.

At the same time, public schools have had to respond to a combined onslaught from (a) dwindling resources due to charter schools, (b) dwindling resources due to stae and federal budget deficits, (c) dwindling support due to justified and unjustified suspicion of teachers and school districts in general, (d) increasing poverty and drug use among students and parents, (e) suburban creep and concomittant urban decay, and on and on.

The more centralized and monolithic the federal response, then I fear the more ineffective will be the result.

The more centralized and monolithic the federal response, then I fear the more ineffective will be the result.

Careful, Fung, you’re starting to sound like a conservative! I’m all for decentralization, and for letting the proverbial thousand flowers bloom. In fact, I would prefer that the federal government get out of the education business completely. The problem is that now huge amounts of federal funds are going to schools, and the demand for accountability is the inevitable--and perfectly appropriate--result of this. Federal standards are a poor substitute for school choice, which would make schools accountable to the ones who matter most--the parents.

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