AFT - American Federation of Teachers

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Accountability and Student Success

The last half century has seen an incredible rise in the number of public colleges and universities, a surge in student enrollment, and a multibillion-dollar federal commitment to student financial assistance. The importance of postsecondary education to workforce success has grown substantially. Higher education is now universally recognized as critical to the individual aspirations of millions of Americans and to national growth in the economy, science and technology, and the arts.

Along with the growing investment in higher education, not surprisingly, has come growing interest on the part of government agencies in holding institutions accountable for how they manage public monies. Since the late 1960s, the federal government has taken increasingly strong steps to hold higher education accountable for sound fiscal management, placing more responsibility directly on the institutions receiving public funds. At the same time, both the federal government and the states have relied primarily on private accreditation agencies to certify that institutions meet collegiate standards of educational quality.

In recent years, we’ve witnessed a marked decline in the proportion of state funding for public colleges and universities, while students and their families have been required to pay higher and higher tuition, often financed by substantial loans. In this atmosphere, public interest in higher education accountability has risen and government agencies have begun looking much more closely at educational quality issues. The public debate has shifted from concerns about accountability for institutional inputs (such as the number of library holdings, faculty qualifications, etc.) to an examination of “outputs,” specifically evidence of student performance. New questions have emerged: Are institutions graduating students in large enough numbers and in an expeditious amount of time? What have students learned when they graduate college, and how can that be assessed? How do we measure that learning? Are measures of accountability easily compared from one institution to another, and do they provide a basis for augmenting or diminishing funding for an institution? Government regulators have asked accrediting agencies to become more active in measuring student outputs, while institutions and faculty members are under increasing pressure to adopt narrow numerical assessment formulas that may obscure more than they reveal about student attainment.

These issues are critically important to AFT Higher Education members. Our members are confronting a barrage of new ideas for oversight and regulation of educational affairs at the state, federal and accrediting-agency levels. The AFT believes strongly in institutional accountability, but we also believe that by-the-numbers accountability requirements can turn into a counterproductive “gotcha” game for students and faculty members alike. No set of uniform outputs can encapsulate the ambitions, expectations and achievements of students in postsecondary education. In order to learn and succeed, students need rich curricula, excellent facilities, talented—and well-supported—faculty, and robust academic standards that are devised and improved by the people who deliver them.

Because government and accrediting accountability measures are so important to our members, the AFT is taking three steps. First, we are creating a national Web site called “What Should Count?” to offer information and advice about regulations and ideas that have entered the public debate about accountability. The Web site will offer news and information about accountability initiatives, with an eye toward national, state, local and international initiatives. It also will offer information about navigating the accreditation process. Second, we will provide information to AFT affiliates about ways to use the collective bargaining process to advance the AFT’s vision of accountability and protect members from unwarranted intrusion into the academic process. Finally, we are working to articulate our own message about the kind of accountability we believe will foster student success—a message we will share with affiliates and pursue with policymakers at all levels.