Thursday, October 05, 2006

Dazed and Confused

Some of thought that the creation of a federal department of education was a bad idea. Our current secretary of education keeps reinforcing that view. Secretary Spellings commented on a recent NPR Program that the search she did on higher education for her daughter was confusing. Boo hoo. The wealth of information about college choices is almost too much. Evocative of Barry Schwartz's idiotic book on the Paradox of Choice, the secretary of education seems to think that varieties of information is somehow troubling. Any family that wants a wealth of information about the range of choices that are available for a student - based on almost any variable - can find it on the net. Families can easily make the distinctions that they want to make and then search a full range of college opportunities.

Spellings makes the specious claim that the feds provide one third of the total support for higher education in the country. The only way one can get to that level is to assume that the total cash flow of all things that go from the federal government - including all of the research dollars and loan volumes - go to benefit higher education directly. To use the same logic, the price that the feds pay for every pencil would be included in the level of support for the pencil business. A truer number is considerably below the claim made by Spellings. If she can't get her data right, how should we assume that if the feds begin to collect tons of more information, that she will be able to use it intelligently?

The Secretary has the naive notion that all numbers will provide greater clarity. Thus, she would create an intrusive and expensive Student Unit Record Database (so called SURD, but we should actually add the AB - to explain how silly the idea is) for higher education. The federal government's record with maintaining confidentiality of records is poor at best. But at least she is consistent in her approach, increase federal intrusions and watch the long term decline of the system.

Spellings argues that the best way to increase understanding and performance in higher education is to apply the dubious standards of the federal No Child Left Behind act which has had the effect of homogenizing education to what is called the best system in the world (see the Economist Higher Education Survey last year). What most objective observers have seen from the implementation of NCLB is that the law has increasingly encouraged school systems to teach to the test. Performance indicators in K-12 are not where they should be - but skeptics suggest that NCLB has not improved the situation.

Spellings argues that all of education should have clearer information. And that is not a bad idea on its own. Higher education should be prompted to create some more standardized forms of disclosure especially on admissions and financial issues. But the radical increase in the requests for information from the feds is not the way to accomplish that. A couple of national organizations, including the Association of Land Grant Universities, has begun to explore ways to improve disclosures. The National Association of College and Business Officers did a great model to explain college costs, which colleges and universities should use as a model. But the idea that the federal department of education can actually be a force for positive change is absurd.

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