Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Education "Reform" in Texas

Via Stanley Fish, the disconcerting tale of higher education reform in Texas. The leaders of this reform push are the regents of Texas A&M University, a bunch of wealthy Republicans who want universities to be run more like car dealerships. In quest of "customer satisfaction," they have set up a voluntary program that rewards the professors whose students give them the best scores on course evaluations with bonuses of up to $10,000. They seem particularly outraged that professors publish in obscure journals hardly anyone reads.

My friends all know that I have my own doubts about higher education in America, and I sympathize with the notion that university professors often have their own interests much more in mind than those of their students or the taxpayers of their states. But you have to wonder about the agenda of this particular group of reformers. One wrote:
It's time for the Texas Legislature to stop writing 'blank checks' to our state colleges and universities for tenured professors to spend as they please. Instead, all state higher education funding should be directed to scholarships, so universities once again will have to answer to the people who pay the bills. That's the only way students, parents, and taxpayers will ever regain control of our universities.
First, switching university funding to a voucher system would not do much to change higher education. I went to school on scholarships, and I spent the money at a school where the professors do a lot of publishing in obscure journals. The value of a college degree depends a great deal on the reputation of the school that issues it, and those reputations change only very slowly.

And what is the deal with course evaluations? If you ask me, the notion that students know more than professors about what they should be learning is a strange one to hear from a bunch of self-proclaimed conservatives. What happened to tradition and discipline? Stanley Fish, who hates course evaluations, thinks people will not know until years or decades later which courses really benefited them, and there may be something to what he says.

The real questions is, what is the purpose of state universities? There are, I submit, several: to help the state's economy by preparing its citizens for lucrative careers; to help the state's economy by serving as engines of technological and business development; to educate the state's future leaders; to foster state and local pride; and to help the state's young citizens become the people they want to be. Which of these goals is being hurt by obscure faculty publications? And which will be furthered by handing out bonuses based on course evaluations? I don't sense much clear thinking behind this reform agenda, though, just a lot of anger at the thought of left-wing obscurantists wasting the people's money.

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