A Post-Hoc Analysis of the 2006 Spellings Commission Report on Higher Education

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

This morning, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on The Spellings Commission of five years ago, noting, in former North Carolina Governor James Hunt’s words: “One of the most important reports in the educational and economic history of our country-if we act on it.”

Five years later, little has been done to acted on the Commission’s recommendations, mostly because the suggestions from the Commission generally cost money and Congress and states have been too busy cutting, rather than adding, money from budgets. That makes it pretty hard to act on a Commission Report with two counter-active realities.

The second reason the recommendations have not been acted upon is that there is zero political will to do so. Higher education is simply not that important an issue in the face of the global economic collapse. Education is seen as one of the most important issues of society-until something else is. During election campaigns, education is always floated about as an important issue. However, “it’s the economy, stupid” reigns supreme in the electorate. Voters think of their pocketbooks first, their health and welfare second, and then comes the other things, like education, wars, and so on.

Over the next few weeks, I will present each of the Commission’s three areas of focus: access, affordability, and accountability, and discuss the challenges and solutions to improvement in these areas. The Commission offered five recommendations for each area.

This Week: ACCESS

Access has been the one key constant in federal policy for the past 150 years, starting with the Morrill Act of 1962, to and through the GI Bill, and the Pell Grant and other Title IV legislation. The challenge in access is that most of access policy is acting upon at the state and local levels. Many of the recommendations of the Commission are targeted with the design that they can be achieved. In theory, they can. But we need to also ask why or why not? Let’s look at the five recommendations under Access.

Align graduation standards for public schools with college and employer expectations.

This is one of the few recommendations that have actually made progress since 2006. The Common Core of Learning is the first true attempt to build a national curriculum, even though most in the loop would prefer not to call it that. But it does subscribe to what ought to be taught in the core subject areas, through to high school graduation and including “college readiness.” This has been long coming and much warranted. Still, the standards have a long way to go. Even well-intentioned standards to not ensure, nor assume, that learning will progress. We have standards in many subjects for years and seen SAT scores decline. The trick is to enforce standards with high-level teacher education, induction programs, and professional development. Add top-shelf infrastructure and community involvement and we might get somewhere. But it’s a start.

Perform early assessments to gauge students’ readiness for college.

I’m not sure what this means, because I don’t really know what “ready” for college means. Think about it, if high school graduation does not mean “college ready,” what does it mean? High school completion SHOULD mean college ready. Period. And the fact that we are dissecting these things is insane. Perhaps we need to go back and track students to “college ready” and those who are “not-college ready.” In Virginia, you can get the Standard Diploma or the Advanced Diploma. The latter is “four-year college ready.” Is that the way to go? The reality is that in many other industrial nations, students who are vocational in theory are more college ready than our students. They have a better foundation of learning. Even the slackers. We need to have a basic foundation of high-level learning for all students, even as much as we can for students with disabilities. Obviously, people learn differently (see Gardner’s multiple intelligences) and have different preferences, but our system needs to subscribe to this thought.

But how many assessments do we need? And what will the “college ready” assessment look like compared to current end-of-course assessments or college admissions tests? And someone please tell me what “college” looks like? It seems very different among our 2,000+ four-year institutions.

Expand early-college or dual-enrollment programs, as well as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

This discussion isn’t that different from the previous point. I want to know what “high school” is and what “college” is. If we can do so much college during high school, what does that make or say about high school? Conversely, what does it say about college? Either high school is a waste or college is too easy. By pushing a majority of people through dual enrollment, AP and IB (IB is a very different program….not course specific, but high school specific), it certainly waters down our essence of what high school “is.” Perhaps the push towards college-level courses is a push towards eliminating high school as we know it. I’ve argued many times that grade levels are arbitrary and outmoded. However, this would also push us toward early tracking. So pick your poison.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with AP or the other programs mentioned. The challenge is what the rest of high school looks like for non-university students. And do we need AP or similar courses, or do we just need a seamless set of courses for students from middle school on up to and through college? There’s a thought……

To improve access and reduce time-to-completion, revise standards for transfer of credit among higher-education institutions.

Credit transfer and associated articulation agreements is a major culprit of time-to-completion statistics, to be sure. More students are switching majors and leaving credits on the floor, typically because of a lack of articulation agreement that makes any sense. This is completely senseless and is not that difficult to improve. But it comes back to the issue of common standards in education, and not just for grade school, but for college, too. Especially for undergraduate school; especially for the first two years—there is no reason why a simple system of credit transfer is not allowable and available. Why not have systems of course accreditation so when College X initiates a new course it submits it to a national body for review and accreditation. At this stage it would be given certain status and alignment with other courses around the nation. This can be done.

Redesign the 12th-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress to measure a student’s readiness for college and the work force, and provide state by state reports.

This wasClinton’s idea back in the late 1990s. He wanted to use the NAEP as an exit exam much akin to what President George W. Bush did with mandatory voluntary tests (yes, you read that correctly). But this only works if NAEP is also restructured to mesh with the Common Core Standards. And if that happens, then it is likely that the NAEP will not provide trend data because the trend variables will be bucked. So, perhaps this would work, but I’m not sure how it does without being in synchronicity with the Core Standards.

Next Time: AFFORDABILITY. 

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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