Okay so there wasn’t an actual cage match between Gary Rhoades (of the University of AZ) and Stanley Aronowitz (of CUNY) at the Defending Public Higher Ed Conference at the Graduate Center on October 7. But there were genuine disagreements and a rich debate among presenters and attendees about the best way to save public higher ed from disinvestment and privatization.
I’m going to be discussing this conference in the next couple of blog posts. I’m not writing this only for CUNY folks though. I believe these issues are broadly relevant to higher education.
The main speaker of the day was Gary Rhoades, co-author of Academic Capitalism and the New Economy. I liked his address a lot, even though I don’t think he is right about everything. His most important point was that progressive educators should provide a consistent counter discourse to the one beloved by the Gates, Walton and Lumina foundations. The plutocrat narrative, of course, blames teachers and their unions for the so-called failure of public ed and uses testing and other “accountability” regimes as the scientific justification for turning schools, including colleges and universities, over to CEOs.
Everyone pretty much agreed that challenging that narrative is a crucial strategy.
What Does a ‘Progressive Metric’ Look Like?
Rhoades argued that the ruling class is focused on quantitative measurements, which has led to requirements that educators gather data about learning outcomes. He said that progressives mustn’t cede this ground to the anti-public ed crowd. Instead, he urged educators to develop their own systems of evaluation. “We need to be playing the metrics game on some level,” he said. “We need to come up with our own measures based on progressive values.” Indeed, evaluations of education outcomes are probably here to stay whether we like it or not. According to Rhoades, we must get ahead of the trend rather than cry in protest when assessment schemes are inevitably imposed on us from non-educators and entrepreneurial technocrats.
It seems that some educators are born with metrics, some achieve metrics, and some have metrics thrust upon them. So take your pick.
This is where some people in the audience started mumbling in disapproval. (I think sometimes speakers come to New York from other places, like say Arizona, and they are not expecting the level of radicalism that they encounter from labor audiences here. I’m sure Rhoades’ point would have been accepted as entirely reasonable in other venues. Not so at the Graduate Center.)
Are Metrics a Bad Idea?
As I mentioned, some people in the conference audience were outspoken about their disdain for Rhoades’ suggestion that part of developing a counter discourse involves creating “progressive metrics.” Stanley Aronowitz, for example, thinks it’s a slippery slope. He urged strong resistance. “We must be intransigent,” he said.
Intransigence is easier to recommend than to put into practice. But Aronowitz echoes the concerns of educators in higher ed and in K-12 schools who fear (with justification) that assessment regimes do little more than allow policy makers to blame schools and educators for the ills of poverty, unemployment, and a lack of quality health care for all. As the saying goes, not everything that is valuable can be measured and not everything that can be measured is valuable.
My own problem with Rhoades argument is not with the idea of metrics in general. I think educators probably can come up with measurements that don’t totally capitulate to the privatization agenda. My concern is that some of Rhoades’ examples of “progressive metrics” seem based on faulty assumptions about the relationship between education and the economy.
Here’s what I mean:
Progressive Metric #1
Rhoades claimed that research shows that employers want broadly educated employees who can think and solve problems. This runs counter to the narrow focus on vocational education favored by elites who are pushing colleges to prepare students for specific occupations. Rhoades suggested that progressive educators develop metrics that evaluate how well institutions provide students with the kind of critical thinking skills employers actually want.
Why This Metric Makes People Nervous
Do employers really want critical thinkers as employees? Sure, maybe they say they want that. But do they? Many people in the audience at the conference didn’t think so. One person suggested that employers want a “compliant workforce,” not critical thinkers. This sounds about right. If it is not true that employers want critical thinkers and problem solvers, then what good would it do to create a metric showing that educators have taught students to be broadly educated critical thinkers?
In addition, I cringe at the suggestion that educators should be developing curricula, assessments, or anything else based on “what employers want.” It just seems dirty somehow. I know students need to find jobs, but it seems like we’re going too far if we put too much emphasis on how colleges and universities serve the employer class. What have they done for us lately?
Progressive Metric #2
Rhoades said that one of the main goals of higher education is to “move low-income students into middle-class income groups and lifestyles.” He cited CUNY as an example of a system that has provided this benefit to countless students. He argued that progressive educators could create metrics that evaluate whether colleges are achieving that goal.
This idea, however, earned Rhoades a few more grumbles from the audience. I was one of the people grumbling.
Why This Metric Makes People Nervous
One commenter strongly objected to such a metric by saying he was proud of his own working-class roots. He expressed wariness of educational goals that erase students’ identities. “Talking about ‘middle-class lifestyles’ sounds like a move toward a kind of consumer behavior as a goal of education,” he said. That’s a pretty compelling challenge to Rhoades’ argument, I’d say.
I have another concern.
Many students enroll in college to prepare to get good jobs and enjoy a higher standard of living than their parents. We can’t forget that. But my question is this: Can higher education provide upward mobility to students absent broad policies that create good jobs and a strong social safety net? Has education ever provided mass social mobility by itself?
On this blog, I have frequently discussed research that challenges the idea that schools can provide upward mobility by themselves. Schools are more likely to confirm inequality than ameliorate it. Yes, getting an education helps some move into higher tax brackets, but this is not a strategy that could be pursued successfully by everyone if there are not enough well-paying jobs to go around in the first place.
So what good would it do to develop a metric that measures how well colleges move students into the middle class if schools cannot move students, en masse, into the middle class? Wouldn’t creating such a metric further perpetuate the lie that schools are responsible for the economic conditions that shape students lives before and after college? After all, we know that unemployment affects educational outcomes, not the other way around.
I think this is a very rich debate, and I’d love to hear what others think. Is it possible to create “progressive metrics” for public ed that would keep the corporate privatizers at bay? What would those metrics look like? How can we develop them without ceding ideological ground to those who blame schools for high unemployment, low wages, and income inequality?