Creating a nation of sheep
February 21, 2007
"Putting Higher Ed Out of Reach," a provocative article by Howard Karger about Margaret Spellings, President Bush's secretary of education, has appeared in the February 20th issue of Harper's Weekly. Karger, who is professor of social work at the University of Houston, also is the author of Shortchanged: Life and Debt in the Fringe Economy.

Karger's cynicism about our education leader surfaces immediately when he quotes the motto on her notepad, "Put on your big girl panties and deal with it!" and then cites as an example of her forcefulness her attack on Buster the animated bunny ("Postcards from Buster') when she asked PBS to cut its episode showing two lesbian couples.

"She also wanted PBS to refund the money spent on that filthy episode," Karger writes.

What Karger finds particularly distressing is Spellings' obviously Neocon concern over "protecting the tender minds of college students from liberal professors, especially those who are tenured with academic freedom." And how did Spellings, whom Karger reminds us never worked in a school system nor has formal training in education, go about achieving that? She created the Commission on the Future of Higher Education in 2005 that empanelled 19 members, including Jonathan Grayer, CEO of Kaplan, one of the world's largest educational corporations, a for-profit corporation like the Educational Testing Services that would stand to reap huge monetary gain from educational reform, especially involving standardized testing.

Karger does give Spellings credit for noting that "higher education is in a pickle." He says:

From 1995 to 2005, average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges rose 51 percent (tuition in private schools increased by 36 percent). Total U.S. per-student college expenditures were $22,000 in 2001, almost double other industrialized nations. The debt of graduates form four-year colleges rose to $15,500 for public schools and $19,400 for private ones. At the same time, state funding growth for higher education is the lowest in two decades. The U.S. college attainment rate is now 12th among major industrialized nations.

And what did Karger report was the commission's solution? Although they didn't recommend standardized testing per se, he said that clearly their concern over "performance, accountability and quality" suggested it. And he was concerned over the profound effect mandatory testing of college seniors would have on higher education and the methods by which it is funded.

And more funding is what colleges would need to pay for the added cost associated with testing reportedly now tagged in the millions. In addition, with money attached to test results, college administrators, Karger points out, will push for more basic courses geared to the test material.

"Say goodbye to diverse and interesting college courses," Karger says. "There's no room for nuance or variety in an outcome-driven learning model."

Say good-bye, also, he says, to college professors interested in teaching critical content who reject standardized testing. With cost-cutting the concern of the Spellings Commission teaching models like distance education and online courses will replace classroom settings, textbooks, like those in high school, will become standardized and used throughout public universities. And the only way to get a well rounded education will be for those who can afford the hefty price tag for tuition and board in a private institution.

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