The Higher Education Commission Report: Should History Departments Be Concerned?
Arnita A. Jones, October 2006
Over the past year both higher education publications and the mainstream press have focused substantial attention on the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Appointed last fall by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, this 19-member group of college and university administrators, researchers, and representatives of business, nonprofit and trade organizations completed its fourth and final draft report in August (The text of the draft report is available at http://www.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/hiedfuture/reports/0809-draft.pdf; see box on page 6 for a list of the members of the commission). A source of concern and controversy since its inception, the commission was asked to consider how our system of higher education—which it concedes is one of the nation's greatest successes—is suited to adapt to the changing needs of a increasingly globalized and highly competitive knowledge economy. Several of its recommendations focus on accessibility and affordability of higher education, while others are concerned with the ability of colleges and universities to compete in a future global marketplace. Central to the report's recommendations, however, is also a call for implementation of accountability measures needed to diagnose and reverse what commission members see as a declining quality of student learning. While faculty are rarely mentioned in the report, it is here, in the report's call for postsecondary education institutions to measure and report meaningful student learning outcomes that academic departments, especially those such as history that form the core of liberal arts education, are particularly affected.
Not surprisingly, the response to the report has been mixed. The conservative American Council of Trustees and Alumni expressed satisfaction that its call for academic accountability has been heard, while Charles Miller, a businessman and former chair of the University of Texas Board of Regents who chaired the commission, lamented that representatives of the status quo had succeeded in softening the report's language in several successive drafts, dropping language about requiring public institutions to measure student learning with standardized tests. David Ward, historian and president of the American Council of Education, was the only member of the commission who refused to sign the final draft, noting that "The recommendations as a whole also fail to recognize the diversity of missions within higher education and the need to be cautious about policies and standards based on a one-size-fits-all approach." Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities (also a historian), echoed Ward's comments, noting that the report should have had "a more nuanced understanding of the educational engagement and how it is undertaken." But Constantine Curris, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities embraced the report, particularly its call for greater accountability in higher education. So did Peter McPherson of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, though he noted that a great deal of change along these lines was already happening in higher education. Most outspoken, though, was the statement of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, long a proponent of liberal education, in describing the Commission's concern form quality education as "hollow" and charging that its report "effectively delegates all details about the level and quality of college learning outcomes to testing agencies."
It is tempting to speculate that the Spellings Report may be placed on the shelf and left to gather dust or that it will be marginalized by the electoral process which could stymie legislation implementing it. That would be a mistake. History faculty and departments would do well to recognize that virtually all of the organizations mentioned above are keenly interested in the idea of improving undergraduate education through better assessment tools and techniques, and some, such as the NASULGC cited above, have already established initiatives that will address what are described as the "accountability challenges" of higher education. The regional accrediting associations adopted a formula several years ago for measuring educational achievement based on outcomes rather than resources such as faculty or library quality. It comes as no surprise that the Educational Testing Service has recently completed a report on postsecondary assessment and learning outcomes (Carol A. Dwyer, Catherine M. Millett, and David G. Payne, A Culture of Evidence: Postsecondary Assessment and Learning Outcomes, available online at www.ets.org/cultureofevidence.html) that proposes a comprehensive national system for determining the nature and extent of college learning that would include, among other dimensions, "domain-specific knowledge and skills." A similar system is already under development in Europe for assessing the academic knowledge and skills that can then be used to compare educational systems among European Union member nations. The AAC&U, headed by historian Carole Schneider, has had a special focus on assessment of liberal arts education in recent years, most recently partnering with the Teagle Foundation in an effort to engage liberal arts faculty in measuring student outcomes.
"Accountability" has momentum. It has become a rallying cry for policymakers, legislators, regulators, accrediting associations, higher education administrators and increasingly outspoken members of the public. Here, at the American Historical Association, we hear regularly from history departments seeking advice about assessment of student outcomes as a part of their institution's accrediting process and our listserve for department chairs has devoted considerable time to discussion of assessment issues in recent years. What are the goals of lower-division history courses that are intended to fulfill general education requirements, and how are these courses to be assessed? What do we expect of a history major in terms of core knowledge or as preparation for work or graduate/professional education? How can we devise instruments that measure the kind of learning and thinking that historians hope their students gain from their courses? For the past several years there has been some excellent research on student learning, largely at the K–12 level, but arguably relevant to undergraduate education as well. (See Keith C. Barton 's October 2004 Perspectives article on the subject).* The AHA's Teaching Division is currently completing a revision of its 1990 booklet on Liberal Learning and the History Major and has in production a new pamphlet on history assessment by Emily Tai. We hope these resources will help historians address a critical contemporary issue and look forward to hearing from our members about other ways the Association may be of assistance.
—Arnita A. Jones is executive director of the AHA.