The Top 25

One of the major features of education lately is the evaluation data. How do we know schools and colleges are performing effectively? What are their measurable outcomes? How can colleges show success or, lacking that, improvement? While Americans still have no idea how much students in individual schools actually learn, colleges now trip all over themselves to demonstrate that they’re doing something, anything, to measure “progress.”

There’s something a little odd about this, writes Gaye Tuchman (a sociologist at the University of Connecticut) in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

I had a premonition of a metric future the other day as I listened to [one professor]… give an account of why she deserved tenure. Over the years, I’ve listened to innumerable assistant professors assess their chances of getting tenure. Usually they have worried, Did I publish enough in the right places?

[The professor] didn’t tell me about the topics of her research; instead she listed the number of articles she had written, where they had been submitted and accepted, the reputation of the journals, the data sets she was constructing, and how many articles she could milk from each data set.

The problem with this sort of thing is that, while it is measurable, it’s not really that important.

Tuchman, the author of Wannabe U, has written extensively about the way that American universities increasingly resemble corporations, to the detriment of both student learning and the actual scholarship that occurs at these schools.

The trouble is that while it’s possible to measure the outcomes that really matter (actual student learning and professors’ real contributions to the knowledge base of their fields), it’s also very difficult. And so universities measure other things, easily quantifiable things.

Besotted with rituals that are characteristic of the corporate world, higher education has inaugurated an accountability regime—a politics of surveillance, control, and market management that disguises itself as value-neutral and scientific administration. In this emerging academic world, audits have consequences (for an individual, if you don’t pass the tenure audit, you lose your job), honor resides in being No. 1—or, for an institution, at the very least in the top 25 of whatever group has been identified as yours.

As Albert Einstein said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

These measurements aren’t ridiculous. They keep donors giving, they keep students applying, and they keep the school in the news. The triumph of these sorts of metrics also makes the university more expensive and makes it very, very hard to institute real reform.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer