Arne Duncan, Accreditation, and “Barking Watchdogs”

Yesterday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivered a “major” address on higher education.  As Inside Higher Ed’s account put it, his call for “a greater focus on student outcomes at colleges was an effort to pivot away from discussions that he said are focused too narrowly on the burden of student loan debt.”  Duncan argues: “Student debt is a burden for too many students, but most ultimately repay their loans, and for those who get their degree, college is an excellent investment. By some estimates, a bachelor’s degree increases lifetime earnings on average by about a million dollars.  The degree students truly can’t afford is the one they don’t complete, or that employers don’t value.”

In essence, Duncan’s remarks represent both a callous dismissal of the skyrocketing cost of higher education for students, especially minority and working class students, whose debt sometimes approaches a new kind of indentured servitude, as well as a distillation of the notorious “completion agenda” promoted by self-appointed educational “reformers” for years now.  His focus is less on supporting students than on getting them through what others have called “the education pipeline” (as if students were, well, petroleum). Of course, we all want to see our students graduate, but as numerous commentators have pointed out, if “completion” becomes the sole or even the main measure of success in education the consequences will be ominous.  Here is what one commenter on Inside Higher Ed wrote:

If the government starts “grading” universities on completion rates it will result in schools lowering standards. To ensure more students graduate, instructors will be pressured to pass low performing students; students who did not meet the minimum requirements of the course. I saw this while teaching at a for-profit college; students who failed meant a loss of their tuition, so instructors were pressured to ensure everyone passes. Couple the pressure to pass everyone with the current level of grade inflation and we’ll have a Lake Wobegon situation; everyone is above average.

Moreover, Duncan doesn’t even bother to consider the possibility that a significant factor in students’ failure to complete a degree might well be the very debt burden that he seeks to downplay.

Frankly, however, because so much of the speech is just a potpourri of “reformist” cliches, accompanied by some unsubstantiated boasting about minor administration initiatives, it hardly seems worth the space it would take up here to fully dissect its simplicities and distortions, especially given the likelihood that the Secretary’s latest proposals (which are pathetically vague, of course) will be as futile as his previous abortive effort to implement an absurd and dangerous federal college rating system.

But I do think it worthwhile to focus on one aspect of Duncan’s talk that has gained some attention: his seemingly bold critique of accrediting agencies.  In a widely quoted comment, Duncan declared: “For the most part, accreditation organizations are the watchdogs that don’t bark.”  He continued, “For many accreditors, student outcomes are way down the priority list. The current system of continuous improvement is in desperate need of it’s [sic] own improvement.”

“We need to build a system in which student learning, graduation and going on to get good jobs count most,” Duncan declared.  “That’s what it means to focus on outcomes.”

Those of us who have experienced accreditation visits over the past, say, ten years will certainly find it surprising to hear that accreditors “look at inputs” and not outcomes.  In my experience, the emphasis on supposed “outcomes” and, especially, “outcomes assessment” is so pervasive as to have overwhelmed legitimate concern about inputs.  Some accreditation agencies, for instance, would have us believe that it doesn’t matter how many books a college library has, only how much the library is patronized, even if that patronage is dominated by those who use the library computers to watch movies or correspond via social media or even those who merely patronize the library’s Starbucks outlet (as at my own university).

Perhaps Duncan and the accreditors might be well advised to consider whether graduation rates — or for that matter any other “measure of student success” — may in good measure depend on how much of the institution’s “inputs” are devoted to instruction?  As Howard Bunsis and Rudy Fichtenbaum have frequently asked, would it be so unreasonable to require that any accredited teaching institution devote at least half of its budget to instruction?  (The average now is well below that and dropping rapidly, at some teaching institutions as low as 30%.)  The bottom line in higher education, as elsewhere, is often that you get what you pay for.  To be sure, efficiency and effectiveness do not solely depend on money, but the fact is that by and large the most successful institutions are the ones with the greatest resources.  The notion that one can get a Mercedes for a Volkswagen price is just one of the false illusions promoted by Duncan’s “reformers.”   Hence, inputs really do matter.

What Duncan thinks are appropriate outcomes is perhaps unintentionally revealed by his fulsome praise of Louisiana State University President King Alexander.  According to Duncan, Alexander has said that “higher education needs real accountability, not less of it.”  Well, if that’s true such accountability might well begin with King Alexander himself, whose institution remains on the AAUP censure list because of his arrogant refusal to provide due process protections for full-time non-tenure-track faculty who are not reappointed.  And more recently it was Alexander who defied a faculty committee’s unanimous recommendation and terminated tenured faculty member Teresa Buchanan, essentially because she used the word “pussy” in class.

Actually, however, I agree with Duncan that accreditation agencies should be better “watchdogs.”  We disagree, however, at whom and what they should bark.  Duncan would have them snap at the letter carrier and the delivery person but wag their tails at the burglars.  For the real scandal in the accreditation arena is the failure of most accreditors to challenge harmful institutional priorities and practices that erode genuine educational quality.

What is the point of developing “learning outcomes,” when most of the faculty are hired on a part-time temporary basis and are not even informed of those expected “outcomes,” much less involved in developing them?  “Schools should be rewarded for doing the right thing – taking in students who are struggling and helping them succeed,” claims Duncan.  But how are we to expect this to happen when class sizes soar, fewer and fewer full-time faculty are available to provide meaningful advising, and resources are increasingly directed from instruction to rec centers, competitive athletics, and, especially, the ever metastasizing ranks of management personnel?  Mightn’t it be relevant to Duncan’s ostensible goals for accreditors to ask what all that accomplishes for students?  Might not the accreditors require institutions to justify employing more than, say, 20% of their faculty off the tenure track and part-time?  Might they not also ask why administrative salaries grow at two and three times the rate of growth in the instructional budget?  Alas, unless we the faculty push them to do so, they won’t ask such questions; certainly they won’t be urged to do so by Arne Duncan.

And why don’t accreditation agencies concern themselves more with academic freedom and shared governance?  The history of the last century demonstrates convincingly that these are essential components of successful institutions of higher education and also of student success.  Duncan, of course, makes no mention of this and, sadly, the accrediting agencies rarely do either.  In 2012, the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the AAUP released an advisory statement on Accreditation and Academic Freedom.  Arguing that “the consequences of the continuing struggle for institutional autonomy and faculty academic freedom bear directly on the quality of higher education,” that statement said:

The success of American higher education, including the high regard in which it is held worldwide, is explained in good measure by the observance of academic freedom. This freedom is manifested institutionally as colleges and universities seek to conduct their educational missions without inappropriate influence from external centers of power – public and private. It is manifested professionally as faculty seek to test and disseminate knowledge, to instill independence of mind and to engage in debate over institutional and public policies.

The statement continues:

Attention necessarily turns to accreditation, which plays a pivotal role in the public assurance of educational quality. To what extent are accrediting organizations alert to the importance of academic freedom? To what extent do their standards give adequate guidance on the subject and capture the significance of institutional decision making and the faculty’s role in that process? To what extent are these standards realized in application, by periodic inspection and, particularly, on occasions when major controversies erupt? Need more be done?

Responding to these questions CHEA and AAUP offered a list of suggestions to accrediting bodies about the role of accreditation with respect to academic freedom, including a “focus on challenges to academic freedom, with particular attention to the current climate and its effect on faculty, institutions and programs.”  Sadly, there is as yet scarce evidence that accreditors have responded to this call.

But it’s not just academic freedom.  Sadly lacking in Duncan’s talk is any reference at all to teachers or teaching!   Hardly a surprise, of course, since Duncan himself is little more than a life-long bureaucrat who has spent little or no time actually trying to help students (at any level) learn.  Neither Duncan nor those accreditors he disparages seem to recognize that, as the slogan says, “faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.”

Indeed, where accrediting bodies have actually taken more aggressive stances it has rarely been to ensure improved conditions for faculty or students.  The best example, of course, is the infamous Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) in California.  As I’ve repeatedly posted on this blog, ACCJC’s threat to revoke the accreditation of City College of San Francisco (CCSF) has been about anything but educational quality.  Indeed, the ACCJC acknowledged what is common knowledge both in San Francisco and among community college leaders nationwide: that CCSF has been one of the most successful two-year institutions in educating students for successful transfer to four-year programs, even while it has continued to offer a wide variety of community services (including vocational education and ESL classes for the city’s many recent immigrants) the success of which can’t be measured by graduation rates.  But that has hardly mattered to ACCJC, which seemed more concerned that, believe it or not, CCSF had “too few administrators” and too much shared governance!

But it’s not just CCSF.  According to one account,

From 2003 to 2008 the ACCJC issued 112 of the 126  sanctions (89%) nationwide. From June 2011 to June 2012 the ACCJC issued forty-eight of the seventy-five sanctions (64%) issued nationwide. The community colleges in California represent about 19% of the community colleges accredited nationally. In January 2013 the ACCJC continued its assault on California’s community colleges when it sanctioned 10 out of 23 (43.4%) colleges and in June of 2013 it sanctioned 10 out of 21 (47.6%) colleges that were up for accreditation. More than fifty percent of California’s community colleges have been sanctioned by the ACCJC since Barbara Beno became the Commission’s President.

Columnist Dan Walters wrote on February 16, 2014 that “For several years, those who run California’s 100-plus community colleges have complained that the commission that makes all-important accreditation evaluations has been excessively aggressive, even nit-picking. There have even been off-the-record complaints that evaluators for the [Commission] were settling personal scores from their own days as community college faculty and administrators. The complaints arose as the commission issued highly critical reports on district after district, and as local college officials, worried about the immense financial consequences of losing accreditation but also dealing with cutbacks in state support, scrambled to respond.”

All this, of course, in the name of “outcomes” and “completion.”  I hope readers will excuse me then if I worry that ACCJC might be just the kind of barking watchdog Arne Duncan would encourage.


6 thoughts on “Arne Duncan, Accreditation, and “Barking Watchdogs”

  1. An educational system focused on students “getting good jobs” will slowly, but inevitably, strangle true innovation.

    Excellent observations, Mr. Reichman.

  2. I think it is possible to think that SOME outcome assessments are the best indicators of student success (instead of inputs or process indicators), without being in favor of any and all focus on outputs. How many books there are in a library really doesn’t matter, if no one is checking them out. Of course, counting patronage without distinguishing between watching movies or checking FB and researching for term papers is also silly. I like the AFT slogan that we should “count what counts.” As a long term community college faculty member, I would dearly love to know which (if any!) of the ways I try to teach critical thinking habits and skills actually result in lives post-college in which those habits and skills are manifest.

    I am ready for people taking the hard conversation — not whether or not outcomes should be measured, but WHICH outcomes should be measured, and in which ways….

    • Excellent point; I agree.

      My concern is that the outcomes emphasized by Duncan and too many accrediting agencies are simplistic or even wrongheaded. For instance, comparing graduation rates is often pointless. Stanford will always trounce nearby San Jose State on that measure and it won’t mean a darn thing. And, of course, asking how much students are paid at subsequent jobs is not only meaningless, it misses the entire point of education. That said, I also think it’s impossible to separate outcomes from inputs. To be sure, there is no guarantee that an entirely tenured faculty will provide the best education, but it is certainly guaranteed that a faculty composed predominantly of part-time, underpaid adjuncts cannot, no matter how talented, qualified and hard-working those adjuncts may be. And, yes, it doesn’t matter how many books are in the library if no one reads them. However, it’s a certainty that no one will read them if they aren’t there. To imply, as I believe Duncan does, that the massive disinvestment in public higher education doesn’t matter as long as we can measure some ill-defined “outcomes” is simply the wrong way to proceed. You may not always get what you pay for, but if you don’t pay, you surely won’t get.

      Another point I didn’t make (but perhaps implied) is that it matters WHO determines the outcomes to be assessed. Most accrediting teams include few faculty members (this was a point made by the judge in the CCSF case) and when they do they are too often selected by administrators for their acquiescence to managerial values.

  3. Pingback: The Accreditation Wars: Where are the Faculty? | The Academe Blog

  4. Pingback: The Accreditation wars: Where are the faculty? - World leading higher education information and services

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