Re: A Sad Defeat

by Carol Iannone

Regarding the American Academy for Liberal Education’s problems with the DOE, there are some interesting remarks in my Academic Questions interview with Diane Auer Jones, who served as assistant secretary of postsecondary education under Margaret Spellings. It is worth reading the whole exchange, in that Jones gives a reasonable defense of some of Spellings’s initiatives, and also a brief explanation of what happened to the AALE at that time. From what we are hearing now, the corrections she indicates at the end of her remarks that needed to be made in the accreditation regulations have not been made:

Iannone: What did you think of some of Margaret Spellings’s initiatives as Secretary of Education? She ran something called the “Academic Competitiveness Council.” She gave the American Academy of Liberal Education (AALE), which of course had its genesis in the National Association of Scholars, rather a hard time of it. And she promoted something that Peter Wood protested as highly inappropriate for higher education — outcomes assessment for college graduation.

Jones: I was heavily involved in the work of the American Competitiveness Council and feel that it was an excellent and necessary effort to show just how much the U.S. is spending to improve math and science education, and how little systemic success we have had in making progress. We learned that a great many federal agencies spend a great deal of money, and that every grantee claims to have had wild success, but few results met a rigorous standard of evidence, were reproduced by others, or were tested at full-scale. The study illustrated the need to move away from a funding model in education that favors constant change and innovation instead of the more traditional scientific research approach in which one investigator reproduces the results of another, and then builds upon that result, adding incrementally to the body of knowledge in a linear way.

I admire and support the work Secretary Spellings was doing to help parents and students understand that current college rankings are not based on empirical data or anything that qualifies as evidence, but instead on the opinions of others in the field, which is tied largely to an institution’s reputation and marketing efforts, as well as its skill in fundraising and expanding the admissions pool. All of this was intended to help students and families make informed decisions about the investment of their hard-earned tuition dollars. Unfortunately, some who were advising her on how to provide alternatives to the current rankings had a far too simplistic view of higher education — and perhaps a disdain for the institution — and were looking for nonexistent quick and easy answers.

With regard to AALE, I do not believe that Secretary Spellings is against liberal arts education, especially since she spends a considerable amount of her own money to send her daughter to a fine liberal arts institution. The regulations regarding accreditation disallowed me from discussing AALE or any other accreditor directly with Secretary Spellings, and quite frankly, gave others in the DOE too much power to manipulate the documents and recommendations that Secretary Spellings would ultimately review when making her decisions. I found substantial evidence that AALE had been held, by individuals far below the Secretary’s level, to a separate, unpublished, and unauthorized set of standards and I worked to correct that. In the end, AALE developed what I believe to be the most thoughtful, rigorous, and effective institutional evaluation plan of any accreditor, but the process revealed significant weaknesses in the accreditation regulations, which I hope will be remedied in the future.