[EAS] Declining by Degrees

Peter J. Kindlmann pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Tue Aug 30 15:17:25 EDT 2005

Dear Colleagues -

I was on a trip in late June 2005 when the "Declining by Degrees" 
program aired on PBS. DVD and book are available from PBS.org and are 
worth your consideration. The drift toward the "consumer" mode of 
education consumption can result not just from intellectual laziness, 
but also from the time pressures of ever more compelling 
non-classroom activities.


>Date: Mon, 29 Aug 2005 09:41:16 -0700
>To: tomorrows-professor at lists.Stanford.EDU
>From: Rick Reis <reis at stanford.edu>
>Sender: owner-tomorrows-professor at lists.Stanford.EDU
>"Nate had succeeded in high school by figuring out what was going to 
>be on his tests and doing as little as possible. And since that 
>approach also got him into college and was now earning him a solid B 
>average, he saw no reason to change. Ask Nate the purpose of 
>college, and he would probably say something about "getting a good 
>job." The learning part wasn't necessarily what he was paying good 
>money for."
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>The posting below, by John Merrow, president of Learning Matters 
>Inc. and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Foundation looks at the 
>current state of higher education in the United States. It is #17 in 
>the monthly series called Carnegie Foundation Perspectives. These 
>short commentaries exploring various educational issues are produced 
>by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching 
><http://www.carnegiefoundation.org>.  The Foundation invites your 
>response at: CarnegiePresident at carnegiefoundation.org. Reprinted 
>with permission
>Rick Reis
>reis at stanford.edu
>UP NEXT: Methods of Conflict Resolution in an Academic Environment
>			    Tomorrow's Academia
>          ----------------------------------- 1.106 words 
>May, 2005
>When award-winning journalist John Merrow started work  on his PBS 
>documentary about the state of American higher  education, 
>"Declining by Degrees," he met with noted educators, policy makers, 
>and researchers before  he shot the first minute of video. Many of 
>us here at Carnegie spoke with him at that time. Yet, even with this 
>degree of preparation, John admits that he wasn't ready  for what he 
>found once he began to visit campuses and started talking to faculty 
>and students.
>In this month's Carnegie Perspective, John takes on one of the 
>primary issues raised in the documentary, the decline in the quality 
>of education experienced by many of America's college students. For 
>anyone who cares about the state of the academy, it's  a tough piece 
>to read, just as his documentary may be uncomfortable for many to 
>watch. Rest assured that during his frequent  periods of residence 
>as a visiting scholar at the Carnegie  Foundation, John's role is 
>often that of challenging all  of us with equally uncomfortable 
>By John Merrow
>Of all the students I met during nearly two years of working on our 
>PBS documentary about higher education, I continue to be intrigued 
>by a sophomore named Nate. After proudly proclaiming that he was 
>maintaining a 3.4 GPA despite studying less than an hour a night, he 
>wondered aloud, "It's not supposed to be this easy, is it? Shouldn't 
>college be challenging?" Nate was one of the more enlightened 
>students that we interviewed.
>He talked about his "boring" classes, including an English class he 
>described as "a brain dump." We sat in on that class. The teacher 
>had assigned students to write parodies of The Road Not Taken, 
>knowing that to do the assignment well, they would have to read and 
>understand Frost's poem. She was meeting students at their level ... 
>and trying to push them to go beyond it, attempting to move them out 
>of their "intellectual comfort zone" and lead them in new 
>directions. Tough job, because Nate and undoubtedly most of his 
>classmates-had obviously NOT read the assignment. Nate had succeeded 
>in high school by figuring out what was going to be on his tests and 
>doing as little as possible. And since that approach also got him 
>into college and was now earning him a solid B average, he saw no 
>reason to change. Ask Nate the purpose of college, and he would 
>probably say something about "getting a good job." The learning part 
>wasn't necessarily what he was paying good money for.
>Although we found this English class stimulating, we could see how 
>frustrating it became for the teacher because of the lack of 
>student-directed engagement and motivation. In this case, the 
>students' expectations didn't match the professor's. Teaching 
>becomes a difficult transaction when students expect to get the 
>diploma that they pay for without caring whether they learn anything 
>in the process. The situation is made more difficult because 
>professors begin classroom teaching at a disadvantage. Few have any 
>training in how to teach. We were very impressed by Tom Fleming, a 
>senior lecturer at the University of Arizona, who took advantage of 
>a faculty development course offered by his institution on teaching 
>theory and effective practices. Using technology in a huge lecture 
>hall, he deftly engaged students, allowing very few to merely get by.
>College used to be a "sink or swim" environment, but today, either 
>colleges are giving much-needed "swimming lessons"-investing in 
>student success-or they're allowing students to "tread water"- 
>giving decent grades for very little work. In the first case, 
>students actually receive an education; in the second, they merely 
>get a degree. It's all too easy for some students and faculty 
>members to settle into a pattern of behavior that looks like an 
>unspoken "non-aggression treaty," in which professors don't ask much 
>of students and the students don't expect much from their professors 
>(as long as they get A's and B's).
>The good news is that many faculty members-those giving swimming 
>lessons-work with energy and imagination to move their students 
>beyond that simplistic "diploma=$$" formula. The relationship 
>between Tom Fleming and his students falls into this category. Even 
>more heartening is the fact that many students intuitively know that 
>they're being denied an education and seek out campus experiences 
>that give them what they need. But that 20 or so percent out there 
>treading water are shortchanging themselves and future employers who 
>think that a college degree indicates achievement as well as 
>persistence. And those professors who find it more comfortable to 
>demand little of their students are denied the satisfaction that 
>good teaching affords.
>The shift in the expectations of students and faculty members began 
>around the time that America learned that college graduates made 
>more money than high school graduates-as much as a million dollars 
>more over their working lives. The mantra became, "If you want an 
>education, then you pay for it." The old social contract-the idea 
>that education of individuals is a public good and therefore should 
>in part be publicly financed-is on life support and barely 
>breathing. Instead, "Education Pays" is proclaimed on billboards 
>around Kentucky, encouraging kids to go to college just to nail down 
>that good job.
>Kids arrive on campus determined to major in "business" and often 
>remain impervious to the efforts of their professors to expose them 
>to new ideas and new information. Our student financial aid system 
>supports the "investment in me" approach by making less money 
>available in the form of grants to needy students, and more in the 
>form of loans to be paid back as a return on the individual's 
>investment in themselves. The message our kids get is that they're 
>not students; they're consumers. And if they're willing to settle 
>for "purchasing" a degree that means nothing in terms of educational 
>achievement, it's their right. It's their investment. In this 
>environment, professors, colleges, and universities are forced into 
>giving the customers what they want, not necessarily what they 
>should want.
>I admire students who squeeze as much as they can from the college 
>experience, and I salute the teachers who dedicate their energies to 
>seeing students succeed. Too much is left to chance, however, and 
>too many lives are blighted by our national indifference to what is 
>actually happening on our campuses during the years between 
>admission and graduation. What we found is not the equivalent of a 
>few potholes on an otherwise passable highway. Serious attention 
>must be paid at a national level. Other countries are not standing 
>still. Those that have not surpassed us already in educational 
>attainment levels are clearly visible in the rear-view mirror.
>John Merrow, president of Learning Matters Inc. and a visiting 
>scholar at the Carnegie Foundation, produced the documentary 
>"Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk," which will air on 
>PBS stations Thursday, June 23. Check your local listings for exact 
>times. To learn more, go to http://www.decliningbydegrees.org/.
>Carnegie Perspectives is a series  of commentaries that explore 
>different ways to think  about educational issues. These pieces are 
>presented  with the hope that they contribute to the conversation. 
>You can respond directly to the author at 
>CarnegiePresident at carnegiefoundation.org or you can join a public 
>discussion at Carnegie Conversations.
>Join the Carnegie Perspectives email list by sending  an email to 
>CarnegiePresident at carnegiefoundation.org with "Subscribe" as  the 
>subject line.
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