What David Brooks Doesn’t Get

In his New York Times op-ed “Testing the Teachers” (April 19), David Brooks warns that “an atmosphere of grand fragility” hangs over America’s colleges. The grandeur, he says, comes from the colleges’ increased application rates, new facilities, and international reputation; the fragility, from increased tuition combined with uncertain results. What must we do? Hold colleges accountable for results—through value-added testing. That’ll show who’s teaching and who isn’t!

Brooks is wrong. Accountability systems would drag down our colleges. The best would be made mediocre, and the worst would rise to mediocrity at most.

Having put forth the idea, Brooks waxes dreamy about it. “There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don’t,” he muses. “There has to be a better way to get data so schools themselves can figure out how they’re doing in comparison with their peers.”

What Brooks doesn’t understand is the difference between accountability and responsibility. It is the latter, not the former, that will help and sustain colleges.

Responsibility is an internal sense of duty; accountability, an external show. The professor who who puts full thought into lesson preparation, corrects student work, holds office hours, challenges students in class, and takes them, day by day, into the subject—this professor has a deep sense of responsibility but may or may not “produce” test score gains. A professor who focuses on showing results to outsiders (an accountable professor) may be less immersed in the subject, less concerned about navigating tricky points—but may raise test scores. If schools must foster the latter sort of teaching, they will glide into a monotone.

But why should accountability and responsibility be at odds? They are not always opposed, but there’s ongoing friction between them. To honor one’s best thinking and conscience is not the same as to do what others want and recognize. The best instruction does not absolutely and consistently produce test score results.

For one thing, course content may not match the content of standardized tests (and it would be dreary if it did). Second, if students take especially difficult courses, they may go an entire semester without showing visible progress. A grade of “C” may be honorable in such cases. Third, each subject has its language, structure, and logic; these are not always easy to convey to those outside the field. In their presentation “Assessment on Our Own Terms,” delivered at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music, Mark Wait and Samuel Hope draw attention to the difficulty of translating “musical logic” into “speech logic.”  Fourth, the higher the level of study, the more complex the assessment becomes. (That’s not to say that assessing kindergarteners is a straightforward matter.)

This leads to another flaw in Brooks’s suggestion. He assumes that it is the colleges’ duty to “produce” visible signs of learning. But even today, with the tuition hikes, many students go to college to be challenged, to explore many subjects, to dedicate themselves to a major, and to work on something of beauty. Getting top grades isn’t necessarily their first priority. Some would rather take more courses, or more difficult courses, at the risk of lower grades than take easy courses and get all A’s. Some find themselves immersed in a particular course or subject and let the other ones slide a bit. Some follow an idea or a project only to discover that they are on the wrong track. This is their prerogative, and they must take the consequences.

True, not all students are so serious–many  skip class repeatedly, go to party after party, and fret over relationships. If they slip too far, a good hard “F” can shake them up. Deans and advisors should watch for students in danger of failing, but students must learn to make choices and take responsibility for them. It does not help students—especially college and graduate students—to make someone else responsible for their performance.

Now, of course I am assuming a liberal arts college or school of art (or music or drama), and a high-level one at that. I am not referring here to colleges where most of the students need remedial courses. Nor am I talking about vocational and technical schools, whose mission is to prepare students for a concrete profession or trade. These are colleges with specific, standardized goals—and they should make good on their promises, provided the students do their part.

But it is not nostalgic, romantic, or naive to insist that college also be about something else: about pursuing interests, enjoying a life of the mind, making and learning from mistakes, being around intensely knowledgeable and interesting people, studying a subject at a high level, and yes, allowing for imbalances between receiving and giving. Education is a gift in a troubling sense, a sense that recalls Robert Frost’s lines about a star, “It asks a little of us here. / It asks of us a certain height.” This is no trivial demand. Students, receiving a fine education, do not immediately show the height required. Sometimes this takes years, even decades. Sometimes we think back on something learned long ago and see how it honed our thinking and our lives. That’s a result worth defending to the end. We must not treat such learning as a lie.

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