Tag Archives: choice

The Perils of Student Choice

The release of SAT scores last week gives strong ammunition to proponents of a core curriculum. As reported in the Wall Street Journal , reading scores hit their lowest figure in four decades. Writing scores hit their lowest number since a writing component was added to the exam six years ago; in fact, writing scores have dropped every year except one, when they were flat.

The College Board, which administers the exam, attributes the decline to two factors. One, more second-language students are taking the exam; and two, not enough test-takers follow a core curriculum. James Montoya, vice president of College Board, is quoted to that effect in the story, and he states the case even more strongly in the College Board’s own report. In his opening remarks, Montoya asserts that “students who complete a rigorous core curriculum do better in high school; they do better on the SAT; and they are more prepared for college. This holds true across all socioeconomic and ethnic lines.”

What a contrast to the education establishment, which regards a core curriculum as narrow and authoritarian! Parents are inundated with this argument during campus tours, where backward-walking guides assure them that students have ample license in their coursework. The proliferation of choice complements trendy ideas of student empowerment and student-centered learning that caught on in the 1960s and drifted quickly up to higher education.

However, those who favor a core curriculum now have certified announcements by the College Board against a high-elective approach. They may also take heart from a survey released this week by American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Administered by Roper, the first question asked respondents if colleges and universities should force students to take classes in “core subjects” (writing, math, science, U.S. history, economics, foreign language). Fully 70 percent answered “Yes.” More than half (54 percent) of them agreed that they were “Very” or “Somewhat” surprised that many institutions do not have those requirements. Most respondents (57 percent) also said they believe schools do a “fair” or “poor” job preparing students for the job market, while 46 percent believed that institutions do not give student’s “their money’s worth.”

The combination of dissatisfaction with the overall product plus the endorsement of core curricula marks a timely opening for reformers.

Some Hope for Higher Ed Reform

The current conversation on higher ed reform coming is unusually platitudinous even for an election year. This was clearest earlier this year during the battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on the proposed federal student loan interest rate, a subject fairly inconsequential in larger problem of sky-high college costs. In his Democratic nomination acceptance speech, President Obama claimed he would work to “cut college tuition in half” in the next ten years. How he would do this, or if he truly grasped what he was saying, is anyone’s guess.

But Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) have shown a great deal of care in crafting the “Know Before You Go Act.” The bill, currently under consideration in the Senate, will “support statewide individual-level integrated postsecondary education data systems.” More specifically, under the proposed bill the federal government will help states coordinate student educational and postgraduate employment data. The bill’s aim is to help consumers make better choices about the products they are considering. Per a press release from Wyden’s office, the bill focuses on making the following metrics more accessible to consumers:

  1. Post-graduation average annual earning;
  2. Rates of remedial enrollment, credit accumulation, and graduation;
  3. Average cost (both before and after financial aid) of the program and average debt accumulated;
  4. The effects of remedial education and financial aid on credential attainment and a greater understanding of what student success can mean.

We should praise the Know Before You Go Act for several reasons. First, instead of trying to instituting IPAB style price-control to help reform educational choices and costs, it respects the consumer’s volition to make his or her own determinations as to what is best for their particular circumstance. As Rubio said, “We want people to know what the new jobs, skills, careers in the 21st century are. The reason you need to know what your professional prospects are is that you have to weigh that against how much you will borrow.” He continued, “I graduated with $125,000 in student loans. That’s nobody’s fault – it was an investment for me. We want kids to have access to information before they make this investment.”

Secondly, the bill does not create a new federal database to obtain data by tracking students. Instead, its coordinates already extant data gathering mechanisms in the states. In describing this aspect of the bill, Wyden sounded like a Republican. “The new database is state-based and individually considered. The states can do this on their own but there’s a problem. There’s no uniform standards. If there’s no standards…then the system is failing families.”

Lastly, of concern to many conservatives, Wyden emphasized that the bill would produce a glut of computer science or accounting majors, to the neglect of the liberal arts. “This legislation is about empowering students to make their own choices. Are we going to miss out on opportunities for rich liberal arts education? I reject the either/or choice. A lot of universities are starting to pick up on labor trends – after 9/11 and Arabic for instance. Is it liberal arts or an education for a high paying job? That’s a false choice.”

Granted, it still seems Congress is far from addressing the main driver of college cost inflation – federal subsidies in the form of loans for anyone who wants them. Said Wyden, “Federal education policy is at a fork in the road. Historically it is about access. I want to keep that focus – support Pell grants, Stafford Loans, and all of the assistance that ensures access.” Nonetheless, a respected Democratic policy thinker is supporting a bill that is conservative in its temperament. By supplying greater amounts of data to consumers, the Wyden-Rubio bill is the right move in reforming an industry badly in need of more transparency and accountability.

Competition and Choice Bring Reform, but There’s a Problem

In 1970, less than 10% of Finland’s students graduated from high school. Now most students do, and Finland is one of the highest-scoring countries on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests for l5-year-olds in mathematics, science and reading.

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