Friday, August 26, 2011

Perry's Higher Ed Reform Initiative Catches Progressive By Surprise

Sometimes a liberal publication will surprise a conservative. Sometimes a policy initiative put forward by a conservative political leader (with the help of a conservative leaning think tank) will be reviewed without an ideological lens and the result is a breath of fresh air. Lo and behold, The New Republic pulled off such a maneuver.

The New Republic discovered that Governor Rick Perry supports higher education reform that will lower the cost of a four year degree, increase availability to lower income and middle income students, increase accountability from professors, and incorporate online learning to traditional classroom instruction. Professors would be held to merit pay increases and a more balanced approach to research versus classroom teaching would be put in place.

Sounds great, right? Sure, if you are a parent of a college student (I am) and if you are a college student bored with mediocre professor assistants teaching classes stuffed with too many students and ho hum lectures.

In 2008, he urged university leaders to begin implementing “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” for reforming higher education that had been developed by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Taken together, the seven solutions are remarkably student-friendly. Four of them focus on improving the quality of university teaching by developing new methods of evaluating teaching performance, tying tenure to success in the classroom, separating the teaching and research functions within university budgets, and using teaching budgets to reward professors who excel at helping students learn. The fifth solution would give prospective students choosing colleges more information about things like class size, graduation rates, and earnings in the job market after graduation. The sixth would make state higher education subsidies more student-focused, and the seventh would shift university accreditation toward measures of academic outcomes.

Well, progressives in Texas squealed like shaved weasels. Think about it. Most universities are staffed with liberal leaning professors. Yes, even in Texas. Though as a rule the institution may be conservative by its very nature, the staffing is the important aspect for basic education goals. If a professor has a nice cushy research grant and a very comfortable salary as a tenured professor, why would he/she support change? Why would he/she support stronger scrutiny and critiques from the students?

The backlash against Perry’s agenda came quickly. A group of prominent A&M alumni wrote an open letter calling the reform efforts “damaging,” “self-serving,” and “naive.” More ominously, the president of the Association of American Universities, a cabal of elite research institutions, took the unusual step of sending A&M a public warning. With all the subtlety of a mob enforcer telling a shopkeeper that he’s a got a nice business here and wouldn’t it be a shame if anything happened to it, the AAU president informed the A&M chancellor that “Recent proposals that have been advanced by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and apparently supported by some regents and Governor Perry, appear to diverge” from the research mission that had won A&M admission to the prestigious AAU in 2001.

Somewhere along the line everyone forgot that the students are the customers and the institutions of learning are the service providers. And then, in 2011, Governor Perry presented his idea of a four year degree from a state university at a cost of $10,000 incorporating the use of technology - online learning. The critics wailed.

Progressives have invested great effort in improving K-12 schools on behalf of low-income and minority students. Yet they refuse to acknowledge that the very same students often go on to colleges and universities that are bad at teaching and increasingly overpriced. The left has bought into a false narrative holding that American colleges and universities need nothing more than increased funding and freedom from public scrutiny. That means that the only policymakers with the will to pursue authentic higher education reform are people like Rick Perry. That such an illiberal man is doing more to help college students than his Democratic peers should give pause to anyone with a genuine commitment to promoting progressive higher education.

I would argue that conservatives also have "invested great effort" in improving all educational levels for at risk students. An easy example is with the last two GOP First Ladies - Barbara Bush and Laura Bush - made family/adult literacy and reading programs and education reform a large part of their public service while in the White House. Does No Child Left Behind, for better or for worse, ring a bell? That certainly seems as important as, say, a vegetable garden tended to by the White House grounds keepers. And, of course there is the last dig at Perry - that he is "illiberal" which is meant to conjure up visions of those conservatives labeled as not smart. In the world of progressives (aka liberals), they are the smartest people in the room. Always. Plus, the only solution ever put forward by them is to throw more money at education without any reforms.

As the author points out, education should be a bi-partisan subject. Both parties are invested in the best possible outcome. Petty politics over the inconvenient truth that a group of conservatives can present a common sense approach to higher education reform - one that is student friendly and lots easier on the family budget.

Kudos to him for taking to task the progressives who turn out to be not so progressive after all.

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