That’s how Jamienne Studley, Deputy Under Secretary at the Education Department, regards the Obama administration’s proposed system of ranking colleges. “This is not so hard to get your mind around.”
Actually, it is.
All blenders have a single purpose. They take certain types of organic material and combine them into products of chosen consistency. They can be judged on these products, on durability, on noise, and on a few other factors. But that’s about it.
But colleges? Or any schools, for that matter. The criteria are not quite so simple, no matter how enamored with numbers and assessment one has become. Graduates are not products and are not meant to be consistent–not even within disciplines. Though they are expected to have certain skills, not even those are easily quantifiable. What does “having learned to learn” mean? How can you enumerate it? Yet that is probably the greatest skill one gains from any schooling.
There’s an arrogance to creating a ranking system of any sort. It implies that you know best. When working with something like a blender, where easily identifiable and agreeable standards can be created, that’s not so much a problem. When working with people, when trying to “create” citizens, it actually defeats the purpose of the exercise. If there’s an elite who can tell us what’s good for us, the very idea of Jeffersonian democracy is defeated.
In the past, we trusted educators to recognize the limits of what they should be doing with their students. They weren’t supposed to be replicating certain “model” graduates but supporting students in learning. Most teachers still do this, but they have lost public trust. Politicians and business “leaders” have stepped into the void, trying to replace trust with accountability (and, for business, with profit). The problem is that accountability in education is quite a bit different than accountability in manufacturing.
There are at least three major problems with any ranking system for education from the federal government. First, it will not be created by experts in education but by political appointees and bureaucrats. Their own accountability isn’t to education but to other constituencies. Second, unless it can also manage to rank incoming students effectively and accurately (something we’ve never managed to do), any rating based on graduates is going to be skewed toward those institutions able to attract the better-prepared students. Relative improvement, not measurable, is going to be deemed irrelevant. Third, ranking will further move education to an industrial model, the assumptions of people like Studley coming to the fore and the ideals of Dewey dying.