Beware, Be Wary

In great part, the history of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) reflects the efforts of people both inside and outside schools to reform them. Stoking these efforts is a fear that educators either cannot or will not do it themselves. Since CCSS is here, one of the challenges now for higher education is how we will teach students who have come through CCSS with its own statewide diversities. What expectations will students have of higher education? What competencies will they bring? What love of learning?

My comments here concern yet another attempt to reform education, again driven by a fear that educators cannot or will not do it themselves. The target of CCSS is primary and secondary education. The target of this new attempt is higher education. A primary instrument of reform is the federal government, specifically the White House and the Department of Education. The MLA last year took serious notice of CCSS. I hope now to persuade us to take serious notice of these current government activities.

Such actions reflect, I believe, deep and swiftly running currents in education—both nationally and globally. Because they are well known, I oversimplify them below:

  • A shift of concern from access to accountability and affordability. To be sure, access still matters to us all. Obviously, access is related to affordability. You can receive a letter of admission to college, but it is a dead letter if you cannot afford to go. However, the stress falls on accountability. The cry and choral refrain is “more bang for the buck.” Higher education is seen as being feckless about costs.
  • A pronounced shift from the language of educational values, including those of humanistic learning, to the language of productivity, efficiency, and national competitiveness in the global marketplace. Productivity, efficiency, and national competitiveness can be measured. Metrics and audits guard and patrol educators.
  • A shift from a trust in local knowledge, infusing and being infused by regional and national knowledge, to a belief in national expertise—embodied in federal policy makers or foundation officers and staff.

Each of these currents is on display in a primary document released by the Obama administration, dated 24 January 2012 (Education Blueprint), the first section of which is titled “Educating Our Way to an Economy Built to Last.” Gerald Graff has pointed out to me the ambiguity of the pronoun “our”: does it refer to the federal policy makers or to all of us, we citizens? The first sentence of the document is, “In his State of the Union Address, President Obama laid out a blueprint for an economy that’s built to last—an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values. The President has taken bold action to get the economy growing again.”

Obviously, every one of us wants the economy to grow and people to have good jobs. The question is the meaning of education, the role of schools and schooling, and the responsibilities of the federal government. In the documents I have seen, the federal government sets policy, in consultation with business and other “stakeholders” or, more chummily, “partners” and then uses federal programs and money to enforce compliance with policy. The documents I have seen note the importance of the community colleges and set a goal of having five million more graduates by 2020. I have enormous respect for community colleges, which educate over forty percent of undergraduate students in United States higher education (“Table 226”), but here they seem primarily turned into job-training sites—as if they did not teach history or literature or languages or prepare students to transfer to four-year institutions. One document states, “Working in partnership with states and communities, community colleges are well suited to promote the dual goal of academic and on-the-job preparedness for the next generation of American workers.” High-growth and in-demand areas include “health care, logistics, transportation, and advanced manufacturing” (Education Blueprint).

The documents say little about research or comprehensive universities but focus on four-year institutions or the undergraduate colleges within universities. As for these institutions, the government is prepared to help them through increased Pell Grants and through campus-based financial aid reform. However, only certain institutions will get help, specifically those that “keep net tuition down [and] do their fair share to keep tuition affordable, provide good value, and serve needy students well.” Such service must result in higher completion rates (“Fact Sheet”). A crucial question is the period of years a student will be given to get a baccalaureate degree: Six? Eight? Ten? For completion rates must take into account the diversity of student experiences, finances, and life circumstances. Moreover, completion rates vary according to an institution’s curriculum, teaching faculty, facilities, support services, and leadership.

Starting in 2013, the federal government released the first version of its “college scorecard” to help students choose the school that is best for them. The scorecard is offered as a benign gift to students and their families as they make decisions about higher education. So far, the scorecard lists what it typically costs to attend a particular college, what percentage of students graduate, whether students are able to repay their loans after they graduate, and the typical amount borrowed for a student’s undergraduate study. By 2015, the scorecard is to show the kinds of jobs students have when they graduate and the average earnings of students who have borrowed federal student loans.

Arguably, the information about costs is useful, but the average earnings can be misleading. Will colleges that educate students who take comparatively low-paying jobs—for example, as teachers or preachers or staffers in public-service organizations—make their alma maters look like slackers in the local and global economy? After 2015, the Department of Education promises to begin to use a new ratings system based on the types of measures recorded by the scorecard, to be tested and made final in 2018. Of course, who might be in charge of the federal government in 2018, after a 2016 presidential election, is an open question. In my home town, New York, restaurants get grades for cleanliness—a bold A, B, or C—which they must post on their front windows. The same drive for clear grades is surely animating the Department of Education’s ratings system. I can discern no way of rating what a student might actually learn or carry in his or her mind or soul throughout life. Moreover, in another act of pressure for compliance, the federal government will push the states to fund their public colleges on the basis of measurable criteria of “performance.”

Just as CCSS is academic in nature, so are some of the “innovations” that the federal government is encouraging. They include three-year college degrees, which have their value; the practice of basing academic credits on proof of mastery or competence rather than credit hours spent in a class, colloquially known as “seat time”; the related practice of giving credit for past experiences, which is hardly novel; and a heavy reliance on technology. Technology is the key to the kingdom of cost reduction. The government praises flipped or hybrid classrooms and, of course, MOOCs (massive open online courses). Ironically, recent studies show that the completion rate for MOOCs is very low, which would, of course, look awful on a MOOC-based scorecard. The White House is also recommending that accrediting agencies take the amount of online learning into account when they decide whether to accredit institutions or renew their credentials.

New materials from the Obama administration may reinforce or ameliorate my concerns. I hope they will do the latter; I fear and predict they will do the former.

Works Cited

Education Blueprint: An Economy Built to Last. The White House., 24 Jan. 2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2014. <>.

“Fact Sheet: President Obama’s Blueprint for Keeping College Affordable and within Reach for All Americans.” The White House., 27 Jan. 2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2014. <>.

“Table 226. Total Fall Enrollment in Degree-Granting Institutions, by Level of Enrollment, Control and Level of Institution, Attendance Status, and Age of Student: 2011.” Digest of Education Statistics, 2012National Center for Education Statistics. Natl. Center for Educ. Statistics, 2013. Web. 21 Jan. 2014.<>.

Catharine R. Stimpson is University Professor and professor of English at New York University. A version of this paper was presented at the 2014 MLA convention.

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