No Child Left Behind Goes to College

The impact of public school "reform" on colleges and universities.
By Steven C. Ward

One of the least discussed legacies of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on American education has been its spillover effect in higher education. Students educated under NCLB become the walking zombies of intensified testing and continuous assessment in their high schools, where most of the joys of inquiry and learning have been eliminated from the curriculum. As they have graduated and moved on to college, they have become the targets of similar strategies to remake public universities. Over the past decade, the educational and political logic contained in NCLB and its successors, Race to the Top and the Common Core, have begun to alter the once-liberal approach to learning found in public universities, threatening to turn them into large high schools.

The high-schoolization of the university can be observed in the increased reliance on standardized curricula and syllabi; in standardized modes of “content delivery” and testing sold by textbook companies or provided by various online providers; in the never-ending assessments of courses, professors, and programs; and in the growing use of “student data analytic programs” like MapWorks and Signals to monitor the activities of students and professors. These developments parallel the growing reliance of universities on contingent faculty, who are often too busy commuting between universities to have time to design their classes, much less do research or student advising. The new metrics-driven “managerial university” is increasingly composed of many “knowledge managers” (formerly known as university administrators) and many disempowered part-time faculty forced to scurry from place to place to make ends meet.

The high-schoolization of the university can also be observed in the growing fascination with student learning outcomes (SLOs) and competency-based education—ideas both drawn from largely discredited primary, secondary, and vocational school reform efforts of the past. Like advocates of high-stakes testing and value-added measures in public schools, proponents of these ideas contend that if only we can precisely define what students need to know, it will then be possible to measure their learning through standardized assessment. Such assessment would allow universities to be more tightly managed and education to be “self-paced” as students check off various knowledge areas and skills and receive corresponding credentials or badges. Students could be educated without or with few professors or books, as is currently done at Western Governors University, at Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, in Kaplan’s Open College, and in Capella’s FlexPath program. In this new system, the remaining professors become “product managers” or “course mentors” (in WGU’s warm and fuzzy framing) who develop standards for the competencies.

While, in isolation, each of the above changes appears merely to be a pragmatic response to the complex individual problems confronting universities today, such as accreditation demands or the need to increase retention and graduation rates or to close the largely mythical “skills gap,” these various reforms taken together signal something much more systematic, widespread, and sinister: the deliberate dismantling of the liberal university with its traditions of relatively autonomous institutions, professional and independent faculty, and self-directed students.

The Impact Of Neoliberal Reforms

The attack on the liberal university and public education in general can be traced to the variety of neoliberal reforms of higher education that have been promoted globally since the 1980s by think tanks in the United States and the United Kingdom and groups such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Bank. In essence, these reforms sought to bring a “bottom-line” economic logic to public institutions through the generation of market-like systems of efficiency and competition. This was accomplished through direct privatization and by increasing competition between units and institutions, putting in place consumer choice mechanisms, attacking collective bargaining, limiting the power and autonomy of public employees, switching from state aid to student loan schemes, and introducing public management strategies to weed out inefficiencies. Accompanying these new tactics has been a growing emphasis on the accountability of public institutions in order to monitor and limit public expenditures so that they do not become a burden on profits in the private sector.

Historically, the social liberal welfare state, in the United States and elsewhere, relied on a relatively loose arrangement in which the state granted universities charters that allowed them to operate relatively autonomously with only indirect oversight by the state. The neoliberal state, however, has taken on a much more directive and heavy-handed role in monitoring public education at all levels in the name of oversight and increasing efficiency. In order to accomplish its goals, the neoliberal state has borrowed from various management philosophies, such as “reengineering the corporation,” “total quality management,” and “disruptive innovation.” Under neoliberalism, the state didn’t recede; rather, it became increasingly active in enabling markets and promoting market-like and entrepreneurial behavior. In order to be a better auditor, the neoliberal state needs the big data generated by the continuous monitoring that assessment provides, even if the data are limiting, self-serving, self-perpetuating, and of suspect quality.

In the United States, the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 helped to kick off the neoliberal reforms of the university by magnifying the profit motive in university research. This early reform largely left the internal operations and curricula of universities alone, however; it wasn’t until the Spellings Commission made its influential recommendations in 2006 that the high-schoolization process got fully under way. Most members of the Spellings Commission were neoliberal reformers who had already indicated that they wanted higher education to become more responsive to economic imperatives and to control quality and enable consumer choice through data gathering. This is often how realpolitik works; the findings of what appears to be a careful, unbiased study were in actuality preordained.

Commissions and their reports are, however, only the tip of the iceberg of an elaborate global policymaking network. In this sense, it has not mattered much whether reforms were put forward by conservative or liberal groups. Indeed, when it comes to education policy in the United States, it is often difficult to tell the difference between the policy objectives and statements of the conservative Heritage Foundation and those of the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Both champion the use of “disruptive innovation,” both advocate for student learning outcomes, and both promote a competency-based curriculum. The only difference appears to be the degree to which they want to use markets to produce social goods, but even there the difference is marginal.

While the recommendations of the Spellings Commission were echoed in President Barack Obama’s call in 2014 for linking federal student aid with university performance measures and are a presence in this year’s reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, most of the significant action since the commission’s report has occurred at the state level through model legislation crafted by the American Legislative Exchange Councilor through the Center for Best Practices at the National Governors Association. At both the state and institutional levels, these reforms have also been promoted by neoliberal think tanks on the right and the left, such as the Heritage Foundation, the Institute for Higher Education Policy, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and the Center for American Progress, which have produced white papers advocating for marketbased reforms and the expansion of auditing practices.

Such policies have also been put forward by activist philanthropists and “edu-preneurs” seeking either to promote their particular policy agendas or sell their knowledge wares to universities. These philanthropic groups, such as the Lumina and Gates foundations, are no longer content simply to give public organizations money to support their activities; they have essentially become political action committees that seek to transform those organizations to fit their own interests. These organizations know, as Max Weber argued a century ago, that in modern democratic societies ideas have power only if they have access to formal legal mechanisms to institutionalize them. You may win hearts and minds through propaganda or charismatic authority or “advocacy research,” but you will never impose your will without access to and control of the instruments of legal authority.

As this network of think tanks, commissions, and philanthropists has solidified over the last decade or so, it has incorporated university administrators and boards into its nexus of influence. University administrators have been exposed to neoliberal ideas and new higher education products at various annual conventions of higher education associations, at events such as the Education Innovation Summit, and in expensive briefings by consulting firms like McKinsey and Company, Boston Consulting, and Campus Strategies, LLC. Universities have adopted strategies promoted at these events, usually haphazardly and without much consideration of their origins or possible outcomes, in order to “be at the forefront of disruptive innovation,” often at the behest of boards that are increasingly composed of business-minded neoliberals who lack direct knowledge of the system they are overseeing.

High Stakes

If the assault on public higher education is successful, our students will have a radically different experience from previous generations. Although elite institutions will probably be relatively unchanged, elsewhere students will attend professor-less (or nearly professorless) institutions with course materials designed by “edu-metricians” and provided online; their work will be assessed by “education specialists” using standardized rubrics and “competency mapping.” These cut-rate education retailers will serve mostly middle- and lower-income students at community colleges or at mid-level state universities like my own. Students at these institutions will be expected to become rational consumers who are responsible in the choice of university, debt load, and major; at the same time, they will be monitored to make sure they spend their time and money prudently as they go about checking off their SLOs. University budgets will increasingly rely on patents or, when funding is provided by the state or through federal student aid, will be determined by how well institutions show “value added” through the performance measures provided by competency-based education. And an increasing number of administrators will spend most of their day in the classic “data death spiral,” gazing at spreadsheets and managing and mining the “big data” of assessment matrixes.

In the end, neoliberal policies undoubtedly will produce the stated goal of market variation, but they will do so with increased stratification, surveillance, and auditing—killing, ironically, the very liberalism that gave birth to both neoliberalism and the modern university.

Steven C. Ward is professor of sociology at Western Connecticut State University. His most recent book is Neoliberalism and the Global Restructuring of Knowledge and Education. His work has appeared in academic journals as well as in publications such as the Conversation, Newsweek, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Times Higher Education. His e-mail address is wards@wcsu.edu.

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