Wait, does anyone else smell irony in the air?

A noticed a link on FaceBook the other day, purportedly about the failure of the American education system. I followed it to an Op-Ed piece in the Boston Globe that assploded my unintentional comedy meter.

It starts off looking like the piece is going to be a discussion of the new book "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses’’, by two sociologists, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The Op-Ed piece cites it as claiming "that 45 percent of the 2,300 students they analyzed showed no improvement in a range of vital skills, from critical thinking to writing, over the first two years of college" Without having read the book, I won't comment on whether what they tested was valid or not, but that hardly matters for discussing this article, because that is where references to anything other than random opinion stop.

After managing to read the jacket cover of the book, the author decides to investigate this important nugget by informally survey three friends who are grad students, because, "After all, they weren’t in college that long ago themselves, and are often on the front lines of lecturing and grading younger collegians." Clearly this, and the fact that the authors claims his friends are at good schools, is credential enough to render judgment on the US education system as a whole.

Without providing any details about the field these friends are in, the level of students they are talking about, how long his friends have been graduate students or the sample size of students they have interacted with, the author goes on to quote his friends on how horribly unprepared college students are there days. Though mentioning in passing that his friends' random opinions are "anecdotal" (no shit?), they do serve as the sole source for his wannabe-expose of college students and the horrible teaching they receive.

"Grading easily is “definitely the custom,’’ wrote Kelly.... Mike pointed to a skewed incentive system... Jill pointed a finger at the lack of supervision of inexperienced adjunct professors" So, we've got easy grading, incentive to make students happy instead of rigor and those damn adjunct profs who just don't care. Oh, and plagiarism, but that comes at the end of the article.

I won't argue that these types of problems crop up in our educational system and that are issues. I have talked very recently about trying to balance what I think the students should learn versus how they expect to be taught, and it is a struggle to find the right balance.

But, when you include text like "Their students had trouble with the bare basics of making or analyzing an argument. Jill said that her students’ papers 'are replete with sweeping generalizations and overly simplistic and overly confident perspectives on complex issues.'’’ might not you want to avoid using sweeping generalizations and overly simplistic and overly confident perspectives on complex issues? Would it be a good idea to make or analyze an actual argument? Or perhaps this was actually a report produced by one of Jill's students, because the author falls into the exact traps that he bemoans. I realize that as an Op-Ed piece it is welcome to be the most basic piece of tripe it wants to be, but it is clear there was no class on irony in Mr. Singal's educational background.

I'm pretty sure that not a day goes by without someone claiming that the system done been broke and how students waste their money and most shouldn't be in college, etc., etc., puke. Education certainly needs to be more of a focus in the US. I don't know about you, but whenever there are state or town budget cuts where I live, it seems like the schools are the first to take it in the teeth. K-12 education needs improvement and support, just as the university system does, but IME, 95% of the stories we hear are about 5% of the students. This is especially true when one contacts three friends and says "Hey, I'm writing an opinion piece about how bad education is in the US, give me some fodder!"

Chicken Littles have never solved anything and bad writing is bad writing, whether in a news paper or in a college book report.

5 responses so far

  • Dr Becca says:

    Or perhaps this was actually a report produced by one of Jill’s students, because the author falls into the exact traps that he bemoans.

    That would be impressively meta for the Boston Globe.

  • becca says:

    It is interesting to me how many people have commented on undergraduate learning (the original nugget of news that has spawned this discussion)... without ever remotely looking into what the study outlined in the book entails. In that, I'm including both you and Mr. Singal (also various bloggers, The Chronicle of Higher Ed, The NYT...)

    As I see it, the study's chief strength is that it offers an unusually thorough approach in terms of having a large study sample (albeit one that only includes 4 year colleges- an important caveat) and follows them over a longer period of time. It's obviously a more intensive (expensive) study than many others. It's also the antithesis of what Singal did.

    However, any conclusions about whether critical thinking is improving can only be as good as measurements of critical thinking. The study employs the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which has sample questions and scoring criteria online... it's not very impressive to me. Any method is going to be somewhat flawed, we simply can't vulcan mind meld and KNOW how someone's thinking process is going... but I think any standardized test is going to tend toward easily recognizable "right" answers... which often don't coincide very well with what I consider to be the most rigorous critical thinking.
    I'm not saying the study is worthless because it can't measure what they say they are measuring. I'm saying the study is about as good as it gets in a field that is measuring something extraordinarily difficult to measure.

  • gerty-z says:

    hahaha! i wonder if anyone actually has pointed out the irony to this op-ed author? the thing that really gets me about this is that the same people that complain about how bad our education system is are the same folks that vote to cut funding for schools. WTF?

  • TheGrinch says:

    I certainly agree with your point that using anecdotal evidence in supporting the claim they made is utterly ridiculous. But nevertheless, at least I am pretty convinced that over a last couple of decades, the university education is more and more being seen as a business by administrators and students alike. So for the admin, the degrees are merely the products that you sell to your student customers, while at the same time flogging your revenue generators—adjuncts and those who bring in extramural money—in order to make them work harder and harder. In such atmosphere, some students are smart enough to realize that they can still get the product they paid for while putting in much less effort.

    I can only support this by offering my personal experience. I went to grad school at a university with prestigious undergrad programs (read very expensive), and was involved in some undergraduate teaching. The quality of the programs was truly outstanding, but even the established professors dithered and avoided failing the non-performing undergrad student. I have seen many who got away with that—not because they were not smart, but because they did not put efforts, or in some cases just because they could.

    Again, this certainly is not true across the board, the good ones will always come out top no matter what, but the overall drift is very clear to see.

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