Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Spellings' Report and Beyond, VI

Duane Roen attended the Phoenix summit. As head of Humanities and Arts at Arizona State University, Duane brings the perspective not only of academic work, but also of how that work relates to our many publics. In his piece he reflects on the needs of higher education, whether there had been a Commission Report or not.

Speaker Six
Duane Roen
Arizona State University

The U.S. Department of Education held one of its regional summits in Tempe, Arizona, on June 12, 2007. Before I arrived at the summit, I was skeptical, concerned that the day would be spent listening to the Department of Education’s party line. However, the day proved to be a productive exchange of ideas among people who care about students. Summit participants included legislators, business and community leaders, and educators from Arizona, Nevada, Texas, California, Washington, and New Mexico. The schedule included some presentations by Department of Education staff, as well as conversations that engaged most, if not all, people in the room. The major topics, of course, were accessibility, affordability, and accountability.

It is important to note that Vicky Schray, Senior Advisor at the Department of Education, profusely complimented Paul Bodmer for his efforts to engage NCTE in the national conversations about “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education,” commonly known as The Spellings Report. Paul has obviously worked diligently to make certain that NCTE is at the table. We should be grateful for all his work. Paul’s work should serve as a model for how we can find ways to participate in national conversations about education.

Sara Martinez Tucker, Under Secretary of Education, opened the summit with some of the general concerns about accessibility, affordability, and accountability. For example, 46% of seventeen-year-olds do not have the math skills required for factory floor jobs; thirty-seven million American adults do not have access to higher education because of time, cost, or institutional inflexibility. Noting that it’s important to encourage local ownership for a national agenda, she commented on the need to align the K-12 curriculum with expectations from both higher education and employers. She also mentioned some existing and proposed initiatives for addressing issues such as greater financial aid for students.

Kristin Conklin, Senior Counselor at the Department of Education, led the discussion on accessibility. She provided sobering statistics about the number of Americans who don’t finish high school. She talked about the P-16 commissions in each state, which are chaired or co-chaired by the governor. She suggested—appropriately—that institutions of higher education need to consider the needs of adults who have work and family responsibilities, commitments that make it difficult to take on-campus classes at certain times of the day and week. She emphasized the need for the business community to provide financial and moral support, and to participate in discussions about learning outcomes. My own view is that discussions about learning outcomes should be as inclusive as possible, seeking input from groups such as faculty, administrators, students, alumni, employers, accrediting agencies, professional organizations, and the general public.

Robert Moran, Senior Advisor at the Department of Education, led the discussion on affordability. Although organizations such as NCTE may have less to contribute to the affordability conversation than to the conversations about access and accountability, we need to be aware of the financial needs of students. For example, faculty can be mindful of textbook costs, which are of concern to students, parents, governing boards, and legislators.

Lyle Hillyard, a state legislator from Logan, Utah, offered an elected official’s perspective on many of the topics that surfaced during the day, emphasizing that all stakeholders (students, legislators, universities, employers, the general public) need to take responsibility for enhancing access, affordability, and accountability.

Vicky Schray, Senior Advisor at the Department of Education, ended the day by leading a discussion on accountability, a topic of great interest to NCTE, CCCC, WPA, and many other professional organizations. She noted—appropriately—that policy makers, institutional leaders, and faculty need to work toward greater transparency in assessment. My own view is that we can enhance our credibility substantially if we share our program and institutional assessments widely with stakeholders. Assessment can serve us in many ways if we carefully design it to find out how well we are doing our work with students. Investing much time in teaching is important, but it is more important that we know how much learning results from that teaching.

Even if the Spellings’ Commission had never existed, there still would be great interest in access, accountability, and affordability. These concepts are familiar to anyone who has spent any time visiting Arizona State University, which is focusing much attention on “access,” “impact,” and “excellence.” When we demonstrate that we are concerned about students and their learning, we show our true colors, for our field is filled with teachers who are deeply committed to student success.

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