Phi Beta Cons

Spellings Test

Peter Wood’s piece on Secretary Spellings and her quest to reform American higher ed through the Department of Education’s leverage on accreditation is right on target.
An important question is why Spellings thinks it so crucial to DO SOMETHING. Elected politicians almost always have the urge to legislate on anything that will garner them some favorable publicity for their concern, compassion, etc. Margaret Spellings is not elected and doesn’t appear to harbor political ambitions after the end of her tenure as Secretary of Education. So why is she so adamant upon forcing American colleges and universities to deliver more education to their students?
It’s quite clear that these days a college education costs and great deal of money and often entails precious little learning. Spellings assumes that this is a great problem and that the way to change things is not to lower the cost but to increase the benefit. She believes, in other words, that Americans need a lot more formal education.
I suspect that some of those education leaders who are always telling us that we will face some economic crisis in the future unless we put more kids through college have to try to stifle their smirks. They realize that all that’s really at stake is the continued growth of their institutions. Sadly, Secretary Spellings seems to be a true believer. I quote from the lead article in the March 30 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, “From the start of the summit, the department tried to create a sense of urgency among participants, warning of impending disaster if graduation rates did not improve.”
I’m afraid that she has swallowed hook, line, and sinker the education establishment’s pitch that we’re “underinvesting” in education and that the country will suffer greatly as a result. That’s why Spellings is not willing to tolerate the status quo with large numbers of people graduating from college with little more than a mediocre high school education.
She is assuming, in short, that the market is wrong; that huge numbers of people are making a mistake in contenting themselves with college educations that don’t even leave them with good reading and writing skills. That is the central planning mindset: Individuals just aren’t doing the right things, so the government must step in to set matters right.
This is not to say that the generally prevailing low academic standards are good. It is only a recognition of the fact that many Americans are willing to spend 16 years in school to learn what used to take around 10. Trying to battle the market’s educational preferences with federal dictates is, I think, going to do just as much good as, say, trying to fight poverty by imposing a high minimum wage.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.