Arne Duncan misses the point of student protests.

12 03 2010

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s higher education editorial at the Huffington Post starts well:

The passionate campus protests in California and elsewhere last week were a reminder for all of us who work in education that schools — the people who work in them and the students who learn in them — are a treasured investment. Decrying college fee increases and widespread budget cuts, the demonstrators especially highlighted the hardships that many families face in affording college, especially in this still-recovering economy.

Last week’s demonstrations were also a reminder of why it is essential that Congress pass the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), a landmark piece of legislation that addresses college affordability concerns through direct financial aid that cuts out middlemen bankers. Awaiting action by the Senate, SAFRA would expand aid for America’s college-going students by billions of dollars, and would restructure our student aid programs to make them simpler, more efficient, and more reliable. The plan pays for these improvements by ending taxpayer subsidies to banks and moving our money to students. We cannot let this opportunity slip away.

Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. I was particularly concerned by this part where he seems to be channeling Frederick Taylor:

States should not balance their budgets on the backs of students. Instead, colleges should scrutinize their spending for ways they can trim costs. For example, this year the University of North Carolina hired a management consulting team that identified $150 million in annual savings. Every school should be looking for ways to save.

University presidents and governing boards must pay more attention to efficiency, productivity, and accountability as reform tools. With productivity improvements and enhanced accountability, many post-secondary institutions can boost quality and access – all while containing costs.

Do we really want to trust management consultants to tell us how best to teach students? Unfortunately, creating a good environment for learning is often extremely inefficient.

For example, the Huffington Post College page links to a good column at the Daily Pennsylvanian (Go Quakers!) on class size:

No offense to the professors, but there’s only so much you can actually process when you’re sitting in a room with about 150 other students.

Seminars, on the other hand, provide the opposite experience. Because the topic is much more focused, you can tell the professors actually care about what they’re teaching. This translates into an intellectually stimulating academic environment. The limited number of students fosters a more discussion-based learning experience.

When I was at Penn I never had a class with less than 30 people in it (except for French, and I was so bad at that it didn’t really matter). While I did OK in that sink or swim environment, I have no doubt that I would have done even better with even just a little more individual attention. But small class sizes are not efficient. Duke, it seems, is actually cutting its small classes first. [How bad off could their endowment be anyway?]

While I admit that I’ve become increasingly cynical about this generation of students in recent years, I still don’t think thousands of them took to the streets last month in order to give high-paid management consultants the power to make their large lecture classes even bigger.


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