Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A Great Report and Cause for Grave Concern

By Richard Vedder

After attending the Spellings speech/press conference on the 13th floor of the National Press Club yesterday, I wandered by a much smaller and neglected event down the hall, namely the unveiling of a report from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute entitled The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education's Failure to Teach America's History and Institutions.

The report says:

1. America's college students are woefully inadequate in their knowledge of American history, the operations of our political institutions and foreign relations, and economics.

2. The amount of learning about these core subjects occurring during the college years on average is appallingly little, approaching zero.

3. The "value added" (increase in learning) about these topics is typically much greater in the less well known, less expensive private institutions than in the elite yuppie universities like Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

Many will discredit the report by proclaiming that the Intercollegiate Studies Institute is a conservative organization. True, but that is irrelevant in this case. ISI hired the well-regarded polling group at the University of Connecticut to do the testing. A non-partisan, fact-based test of 60 multiple choice questions were designed to test knowledge of key events, persons, and ideas that relate to our civic institutions and our heritage. Several of the questions were taken directly from the highly regarded National Assessment of Economic Progress exams administered to 17 year old Americans. More than 14,000 students were surveyed on 50 campuses, roughly one-half of them freshman and the other half seniors (about 140 of each on average on each campus).

At 16 of the 50 schools, the senior scores averaged lower than the freshman ones, implying that little or no learning of these key topics was occurring at these schools. Some of those schools: Yale, Duke, Cornell, the University of Virginia, and the U. of California at Berkeley. The five schools showing the largest gains in knowledge were Rhodes College, Colorado State University, Calvin College, Grove City College, and the University of Colorado at Boulder --hardly viewed at top schools by the more popular magazine rankings.

The Spellings Commission and the Department of Education have been crying for measures of student performance, of the value added by attending colleges. ISI has actually done something to measure value added. Their findings are scary, exciting, and particularly humiliating for expensive elite private schools. Seniors at little known Grove City College did as good or better than students at more prestigious Williams College or Washington and Lee. George Mason students outperformed those at Michigan or Berkeley. This is the type of information parents and students need in evaluating schools, and this kind of test result is precisely why many schools, including the private elite ones, will likely fight this sort of testing tooth and nail.

Needed: Someone to give ISI (or CCAP) $1 or $2 million to replicate and expand this study -- perhaps to new subjects, to more universities, to bigger student samples. Let the light shine in.

To be sure, there are a couple of limitations of the approach. It is inherently difficult for elitist schools who take kids who already score relatively well on the ISI test in their freshman year and expect big gains from them. It is true that ISI was not testing the same students at different points in time, and that sampling errors might have some distortive effects on individual school results. Nonetheless, I think the methodology is on the whole very sound, the sample size impressive, and the results exceedingly depressing. Less than one-fourth of seniors correctly answered questions relating to the nature of society, the Monroe Doctrine, the traditional criteria for "just war," the concept of a public good, or the federal budget.

Finally, one justification for public support of universities is that they help create a common bond among the people, by developing a population with a solid core knowledge of our past, our political institutions, our economy. The ISI results once again confirm what other studies at CCAP suggest, namely that the colleges are not doing an awful lot for the money they receive, and that "education for citizenship" is a scandal in American universities.

1 comment:

Ken D. said...

The ISI is to be commended for calling attention to the need for greater civic literacy as an issue of critical national importance. However their otherwise valid argument is weakened by their contention that "negative learning" occurs when freshman outscore seniors on civic literacy tests. More likely, these differences in test scores, if statistically significant, represent actual differences between the two cohorts of students born approximately four years apart. Thus viewed, what the ISI calls "negative learning" would actually reflect progress over time since the younger cohort had been better educated. Conversely, what the ISI characterized as positive learning would actually bespeak a societal decline in civic knowledge over time. As Dr. Vedder suggested, longitudinal data would be needed to assess whether learning had occurred within a particular cohort of students. But these methodological quibbles aside, I completely concur with the overall conclusion of the ISI that the need for greater civic literacy is an issue of critical concern for our future as a society.