A Response to the Final Report of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education

August, 2006
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This commentary by Carnegie President Lee S. Shulman was commissioned by The Chronicle of Higher Education as part of a series of responses by five higher education leaders to the final report of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. From the issue dated September 1, 2006.

"What we have before us are some breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems." With those words, John W. Gardner, fifth president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, began service as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1965. I, too, foresee exciting opportunities stimulated by the important, frequently inconsistent, seriously flawed, and ultimately significant report of the Spellings commission.

Urging colleges and universities to embrace a "culture of continuous innovation" through new pedagogies, curricula, and technologies to improve learning is one of the best recommendations in the report. The commission argues correctly that those efforts be animated by a culture of evidence and transparency. However, the commission is jarringly mute in failing to recognize that such efforts are best accomplished by sustaining internal systems of measurement and assessment that guide institutions toward accomplishing their distinctive visions of excellence.

The variety of American colleges and universities is our greatest and most remarkable accomplishment and must be nurtured. We remain competitive through a multiplicity of institutions that prepare today's students for success in tomorrow's economic marketplace by sustaining many different approaches to higher education and its evaluation — rather than by converging on the "one best system." The genius of American education lies in approaches to learning that encourage curiosity, discovery, intellectual risk taking, and the freedom to make mistakes in the search for new ideas and forms of expression. That's also the genius of our economy.

The report argues that we seek educational excellence to maintain economic competitiveness. However, higher education's goals transcend solely economic purposes. Of course we want students who live lives of economic productivity. But we also want to imbue students with a deep sense of engagement, commitment, and efficacy as citizens in a democracy. We want them to have a strong sense of social responsibility, personal meaning, and a continuing capacity for adaptation and new learning. That broader perspective of what it means to be an educated American has helped fuel our country's productivity and democratic political system.

Even if we can agree on that broader perspective, common educational goals like "critical thinking" or "preparing students to function as citizens in a democracy" are often invoked for quite different achievements. No single set of measures can do justice to all those variations. Even with apparently congruent missions, institutions must be free to select the modes of assessment that best fit their purposes and contexts, as long as they openly and honestly report and explain the results.

We also know that even the best assessments are corrupted when they are tied to outcomes that, if not met, result in punitive or negative consequences. One of the most frequent sources of corruption is the lowering of standards and expectations. The higher the stakes, the less willing we are to acknowledge unsatisfactory accomplishments and the need for change. Yet those who cannot admit their failings will never seek to raise their sights. If transparency alone were enough, our K-12 system would have long ago been the envy of the world.

The report fails to emphasize that the key to excellence is the improvement of teaching and learning through better preparation, reward, and support for college teachers as they create and study more innovative uses of technology, learning communities, undergraduate research and seminars, and, in particular, more careful assessment and monitoring of student progress. The most important uses of assessment are not external; they are internal measurements of how well students are doing and how much better they could be doing—thus employing assessment to guide instruction through experimentation and innovation.

Every higher-education institution must become a first-rate education laboratory. We cannot call our much-needed innovations "experiments" without generating carefully measured results that can be compared with our own starting points and with evidence from comparable institutions. Those results, too, must be evaluated, shared publicly, and expanded upon. Within higher education we have the expertise and the will to assess student learning responsibly and to learn from each other's efforts.

The commission report, warts and all, is a timely reminder of our breathtaking opportunities and profound responsibilities. I appeal to educators and administrators to transform their institutions into laboratories where assessment and action are closely connected. Transparency without innovative excellence is ultimately opaque. America will remain competitive by teaching our students that a meaningful life is about more than competing.