Tag Archives: Arne Duncan

Why Get-Tough Accreditors Make Classes More Fun and Less Demanding

America’s higher education system works like this. The government dangles lots of easy-to-get money for college in front of every high-school graduate, nearly all of whom have heard repeatedly that a college degree is essential for a decent life. Without “higher education,” their lives will be nothing but low-paid drudgery.

Salvation lies in enrolling in college, but unless the school is accredited, they won’t be to use any of that federal grant and loan money to pay for it. So great numbers of students get their Pell grants, federal loans, and then find a college that promises them a bright future.

Related: Accreditors—Hip-Deep in Politics  

The role the accreditors are supposed to play is to guarantee that colleges are educationally sound. Politicians don’t want federal money wasted on degree mills or other dubious schools. Accreditation was thought to be a good defense against that.

Back in the 1960s, when the Great Leap Forward into higher education began, the system seemed reasonable. Most of the students who went to college were pretty well prepared and the admission and academic standards at most schools were at least moderately demanding. Expanding “access” to higher education appeared to have only an upside.

The trouble is that Uncle Sam’s increasing “generosity” towards college proved to be very corrosive of those standards over time.

College administrators quickly developed a taste for the additional revenue they could obtain by enrolling more students. To do that, many lowered admission standards and the academic quality of the college-going population began to decline. (That decline was worsened by the fact that academic rigor at many of our high schools was simultaneously falling, as “progressive” educational theories spread.) But to keep the increasingly large number of weak and disengaged students they were luring into their schools happy, it was necessary to water down the curriculum and lower academic expectations.

After decades, those trends have led us to our present, dismal situation – many students who shouldn’t have entered college in the first place are racking up debts for college while learning little and often failing to graduate.

Related: Why Accreditation Is a Waste of Time

Instead of acknowledging that college subsidies have produced some bad consequences, President Obama and his (now departing) education secretary Arne Duncan are now pinning the blame on the accreditors for not solving the problems caused by easy money and low standards.

In a November 6, 2015 statement, Secretary Duncan said, “Accrediting organizations are watchdogs that don’t bite.” He announced that the department would request from Congress new power to set standards for the way accreditation agencies measure the schools they evaluate. The idea behind this is that if accreditors force their schools to improve on such metrics as graduation rates, they we will solve or at least ameliorate the problem of “failing schools.”

This is a classic example of rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic – a waste of effort that fails to address the underlying problem. That problem is simple: Colleges can’t educate students who really don’t have much ability or desire to learn.

There are many colleges, both for-profit and non-profit with very low graduation rates. Some are in single-digits. Many of the students who enroll find that college work, even with today’s prevailing low standards and watered down curriculum, just isn’t what they want or need and drop out. School administrators would like to have them remain enrolled and graduate, since that means both more money and a boost in the various ranking systems. They have “retention” programs, which are supposed to stop the dropout hemorrhaging, but despite all their efforts, reality asserts itself. Many students are “mismatched” at any college.

What will happen if the Department of Education could compel accreditation agencies to “get tough” with these “failing schools”?

We will see the kind of system gaming that we have seen in K-12 when schools get the diktat to improve or else. Colleges and the accreditors will fudge or cheat so they will look good enough under the metrics.

Related: What’s Wrong  with Accreditation—a Textbook Case

If you doubt that, consider how college professors do the same thing when they’re under pressure to “improve.” Since job retention often depends on meeting some benchmark on their student evaluations, they concentrate on that. A perfect illustration of that is found in Peter Sacks’ book Generation X Goes to College; to keep his job, he needed better evaluations and thus engaged in his “sandbox experiment,” of making his class more fun and less demanding. (It worked.)

Similarly, if an accreditor insists on better outcomes, the easiest way for a school to produce them is to further reduce its academic standards and do still more hand-holding so as to encourage students who’d otherwise have dropped out into remaining on campus. Even if the great majority of your students are pitiably weak, you can probably engineer a marginal increase in your graduation rate by a “sandbox experiment” at the whole institution.

To the educrats, any increase in graduation rates will look like progress because they are obsessed with our “educational attainment” level. But the sad truth is that America is already saturated with people with college credentials doing jobs that only call for high school skills or less. (For evidence on that, see this report by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.) More people will have spent time and money on college credits of scant intrinsic worth. That’s not progress.

Now, imagine that to save their own skins, accreditors marginally increase the number of schools they de-accredit, throwing to the wolves some of the schools that cater to the weakest students and have the most intractably low outcomes. Those institutions will close, causing the educrats to proclaim that they’re solving the problem. But the students who would have gone to them will just take their federal money to another marginal school, thereby making it harder for it to meet the accrediting standards. Nothing really changes.

Accreditation changes are the wrong medicine for what ails higher education in the U.S. We can only hope that Congress will ignore the Education Department’s plea for more power over the system. True, accreditation does a lousy job of ensuring academic quality, but low quality and poor outcomes are inevitable given Washington’s “college for all” penchant.

Gainful Employment: A Detriment to Competition

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Today the Obama Administration unveiled its long-anticipated and highly controversial final gainful employment (GE) regulation  that ties program eligibility for federal student aid to new metrics that are based on student loan repayment rates. Under the new GE rule, a vocational program can qualify as leading to gainful employment and remain eligible for federal aid if one of three metrics is met:

1.     At least 35% of former students are repaying their loans;

2.     The estimated annual loan payment of a typical graduate does not exceed 30% of discretionary income;

3.     The estimated annual loan payment of a typical graduate does not exceed 12% of total earnings.

The rule requires that a program fail to meet one of the three metric three times in a four year period before becoming ineligible for federal student aid, with 2015 being the first year that a program can lose eligibility. Education Secretary Arne Duncan defended the metrics as a “perfectly reasonable bar…that every for-profit program should be able to reach. We’re also giving poor performing for-profit programs every chance to improve. But if you get three strikes in four years, you’re out.”

Continue reading Gainful Employment: A Detriment to Competition

Arne Duncan Succumbs to March Madness

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The cosmology of ideas to fix America’s supposedly troubled higher education abound. Some resemble comets–small amounts of rock and frozen toxic gas that periodically appear, light up the sky and then vanish only to reappear decades later. Today’s comet-like elixir is directed at the NCAA’s Division I men’s basketball tournament (“March Madness”).

The facts are simple enough. First, basketball players are disproportionately African Americans (60%), especially among teams making it to the final four. Second, graduation rates of blacks are shockingly low, far below that of their white teammates. At Kansas State University, for example, all the white players are on the path to graduation compared to 14% of the black players. To be sure, a few teams (e.g., University of Illinois, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt) graduate all players and some graduate more blacks than whites (e.g., Boston University, Northern Colorado),  but the gap is generally large (91% vs. 59%) and is growing.

The typical inference is that universities are exploiting African Americans. Schools recruit these often underprivileged youngsters while the school profits handsomely from their contribution, their “workers” often leave school without a diploma. That a handful will have a brief professional career (and even then, rarely in the big bucks NBA) cannot justify the exploitation and, in a sense, the exaggerated lure of the NBA only adds to the dishonesty.

Continue reading Arne Duncan Succumbs to March Madness

Shaky New Standards for College Readiness

A mesmerizing phrase regularly rolls off the tongues of education experts these days. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used it in a recent speech to the National Conference of State Legislators, saying that Common Core’s new standards will try to make certain that high school graduates are truly “college- and career-ready.” Sounds impressive, but he never said what the phrase means.
Duncan’s silence on specifics is not surprising. In the final version of the standards released on June 2, Common Core itself (an initiative of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers) made no effort to explain what precisely college and career readiness mean in math or English language arts. Nor did it provide evidence to support the standards or to demonstrate that they were internationally benchmarked. It cagily noted that it “consulted,” was “informed by,” or made “careful use of” research studies, evidence, and international data. As the National Council of Teachers of English noted in a review of a July 2009 draft version of these CCRS, “the document presently contains a claim that these standards are evidence-based, but we note that none of the evidence has been drawn from peer-reviewed research journals or similar sources. Rather, the evidence offered at present consists of surveys conducted by the testing companies that stand most immediately to gain from the testing of these standards. This seems to represent a conflict of interest in the development of the standards.” Nevertheless, over 35 state boards of education–all presumably guardians of the public interest–have voted to adopt all its standards word for word, some before they ever saw the final version.
This is not the first time the public has been enticed into purchasing a pig in a poke (think School-to-Work or small high schools). And it won’t be the last; friends of “21st century skills” hawkers are now working full-speed to get them to the head of the line at the public trough. But given the staggering educational implications and costs of requiring all high schools to ensure that every student they graduate is college-ready (a U.S. Department of Education proposal for the next authorization of No Child Left Behind), one might have expected a few state board members to ask for answers about the nature of this pig. Few if any countries expect all 18-year-olds to meet the same set of academic standards–high or low–as if there were no differences in young adolescents’ interests, skills, and abilities or in the requirements of varied occupational training programs or types of post-secondary institutions.

Continue reading Shaky New Standards for College Readiness

The Short-Selling of For-Profit Education

The letter, dated June 17 and addressed to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, made serious allegations of wrongdoing in the already controversial for-profit education sector: that representatives of career colleges were trolling for students at homeless shelters, loading education debt onto a problem-beset population with poor prospects for academic success in order to funnel federal loan funds into for-profit coffers. Now it turns out that the letter was orchestrated by, and its very language prepared by a Dallas woman, Johnette McConnell Early, who was being paid to investigate for-profit colleges by an investment firm that might be hoping to turn its own profits by short-selling the colleges’ securities.
Signed by Neil J. Donovan, president of the National Coalition for the Homeless, and 19 administrators of homeless shelters across the country, many of them church-affiliated, the June 17 letter contained strong language essentially urging Duncan to tighten its regulation of the for-profit sector (the department has been considering severe restrictions on federal loans to career-college students that would peg total debt to the average entry-level earnings in the job for which the students are training). The wording of the letter was ominous: It described recruiting at shelters as “a growing problem.” It continued: “For-profit trade schools and career colleges are systematically preying on our clients,” the letter continued, accusing the schools of “predatory conduct” in enticing shelter residents to run up un-repayable debt that ruined their credit ratings, turned off potential employers, and rendered the defaulting debtors ineligible for further federal student aid. The 20 signers pledged their “unequivocal support” for heavier government regulation of career colleges. Exactly one week later, on June 24, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held the first of several planned hearings on the for-profit sector, which receives 23 percent of federal student loan funds although it enrolls only 10 percent of the nation’s college students, and has been marked by high levels of loan default and relatively low graduation rates.
The letter to Duncan from the shelter administrators, which circulated widely and was posted on the PBS show Frontline’s website, seemed yet more red meat for a Democratic Congress and presidential administration that already seems to regard with suspicion the idea of making a profit from higher education.

Continue reading The Short-Selling of For-Profit Education

Arne Duncan’s Balancing Act

Last year, I supported Barack Obama in part because of his seeming desire to move beyond the Mondale/Dukakis/Clinton era-identity politics—a philosophy that has had devastating effects on higher education. For those hoping that a President Obama would abandon the failed policies of the past, however, the administration’s early months offered little of the promise that Obama’s campaign had provided.
Particularly problematic, of course, was the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, who few (if any) prominent commentators deemed the most qualified candidate of the people on the shortlist for the nomination. Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” remark, which reflected the conventional wisdom in most ethnic studies departments or diversity compliance offices, suggested that—even without the New Haven case—her Supreme Court jurisprudence will be heavily tilted in favor of upholding racial preferences in education. That such a figure was the first Supreme Court nominee selected by Obama contradicted much of the rhetoric from his campaign.
This week’s Time seems to bring news that, on one front at least, the Obama administration will make a break from the failed policies of the past. Last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Columbia Teachers College—seemingly the only institution still utilizing the since-abandoned NCATE policy of assessing each prospective teacher’s disposition to promote social justice. Duncan was blunt: “By almost any standard, many if not most of the nation’s 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom.”
Duncan called for increased use of accountability, imitating a Louisiana model, according to Time, “in which student test scores in grades 4-9 are traced back to their teachers, who are in turn traced back to their place of training, whether it be an ed school or an alternative certification program like Teach for America.” (I strongly suspect that Teach for America would fare well in such a comparison.)
This all sounds like a good plan. But Duncan’s words are difficult to reconcile with his remarks about Teachers College itself, as reported by the Columbia Spectator. The Education Secretary opened with praise for TC, contending that his indictment of education schools as a whole didn’t apply to Columbia’s ideologically top-heavy program. And, he added later, TC had set an example through (according to the Spectator) “its focus on hands-on training and research.”
At the time of his selection, Duncan was widely viewed as a compromise choice for his position. The education establishment wanted Stanford Education professor Linda Darling-Hammond. Reformers pushed New York City Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. Duncan’s remarks at TC—calling for genuine reform while praising an institution whose policies constitute a chief obstacle to that reform—suggest that he’s still trying to perform a balancing act between advocates of change and defenders of the status quo.