Focus on Learning: What We Don’t Know

November 26, 2010

The American Prospect this week has a feature on “what we don’t know” in terms of public policy.  The series is called “What we don’t know can hurt us.” The focus is on what data is not available with regard to a number of public policy areas:  health, finance, economy, housing, campaign finance, etc.

Under education they feature two kinds of things we don’t know.  One is “Which early education programs work.”  That’s an important topic.  The other is “How much students learn in college,” a favorite topic of mine.  Here’s what author Sarah Babbage says about this:

“What we don’t know:
“How much students learn in college.”
“Colleges are routinely ranked based on input values like the average SAT score of the entering class, but there is no way to quantify their output — how much they teach students over the course of four years. Intellectual improvement is a subjective value and therefore difficult to quantify. It also varies widely by program. Some degrees may focus on communication skills, while others produce bigger gains in critical thinking. Without any measure of how much students improve, the marketplace for degrees skews away from teaching quality toward reputation. Students can graduate from renowned schools without the skills they need in the workforce, while quality low-profile schools go unrecognized. Tests like the Collegiate and Learning Assessment, which students take during their first year and again when they graduate, offer a potential solution but are unpopular with colleges wary of having weaknesses exposed.”

She means the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), but close enough.  We need more such assessments, and we need more colleges and universities to use them and to make their data publicly available.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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