Monday, March 19, 2007

The dot-edu sector isn't yet connecting the dots

A consulting firm has just attempted to do to doctoral universities what US News and World Report famously does to American colleges: use various quantitative data to arrive at easily-understood rankings. Inside Higher Ed has a thorough writeup posted.

The consulting firm's chosen headline for their data (that public universities are falling behind private ones in their productivity of PhD-level research) seems highly debatable for a number of reasons covered in that article. Well down in there an administrator from Arizona State, after blurting the usual silly cliche about how "you can say anything with statistics", actually does a nice job detailing core flaws of the specific data being used here. The response from the consulting firm is quite unpersuasive.

For me though this small tempest fits into a broader storyline about this country's educational institutions and experts. Like charitable foundations, that sector still seems mostly to think that 21st-century America is still happy with its 20th-century social contract. There are lots of signs to the contrary, such as the growing public interest in some way to compare institutions' actual productivity other than just taking their word for it. The educational system's customers, which is everybody, are less and less willing to do that and the sector itself continues to fail to offer any other robust way to measure and compare its own output.

Hence we see the current standardized-testing mania that has infected our primary and secondary schools, which everyone agrees has tons of drawbacks -- but so long as educators offer no practicable alternatives that would measure educational results on a wide scale, the parents will keep voting for politicians who impose standardized testing. Looking at colleges and universities its clear that a similar dynamic is underway: the educators insist that their output cannot be measured objectively and respond to college and university rankings mainly by deploring the very idea.

That "trust us to know what's best for your children" attitude will not wash in today's world, and a good thing too. Moreover this society's expectations about transparency have moved way past what the .edu sector gets -- 15 years ago Congress had to pass a tough federal law just to get universities to admit how many young women were being date-raped on their campuses. If colleges and universities don't feel like getting serious about identifying measurable, transparent, regular ways to document and compare their output, it will be done for them. Slowly, erratically, clumsily and who knows how intelligently -- but it will.

1 comment:

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