Overgeneralize much

In general, I’ve got better things to do than pick bones with horribly written articles by people you nor I have ever heard of, but sometimes I just have to.  Especially if it appears on a site I generally respect, like TPM.  In this case, a Political Science professor has taken all the reporting of political correctness amok, and conservative state legislatures amok, to argue that all of a sudden, colleges are repeating the worst mistakes of K-12 education.  It’s thin gruel:

They destroyed American public schools with generally untested and unproven ideas. They did little to improve scores, address the racial achievement gap, or improve college readiness. Now something similar is happening to higher education, led by three different groups. [emphasis mine]

First comes conservatives seeking a corporate transformation or restructuring of higher education. One option comes through the rise of for-profit private colleges, offering a game plan of expensive tuition and pricey administrators, delivered mostly with low cost adjunct professors in often cookie-cutter, interchangeable curriculum delivered online.

This is Fordism coming to higher education, especially with efforts to monetize MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses). The other option is traditional schools adopting this model; employing business leaders to run schools and developing cost containment policies aimed mostly at standardizing curriculum. It is top-down decision-making premised upon treating faculty no differently than an assembly line worker. If all of the curriculum is the same then it is possible to substitute one content instructor for another. The result: a market-driven product devoid of innovation, creativity, and intellectual challenge.

Hey, I’m no fan of conservatives who clearly lack proper respect for what we do in higher education, but get real.  At the moment, MOOC’s are little more than a fad with no widespread impact.  And this standardizing curiculum?  What is he talking about?  For profit colleges are horrible.  But fortunately, they are a small part of the ecoystem and the Obama administration is wisely trying to crack down on their excesses.

Okay, onto the liberals:

Liberals come second, often joined by religious conservatives, bent on enforcing political correctness on campus and in producing a curriculum that offends no one. Captured in the Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” there is a push to insulate students from ideas and words that they do not like. Across the country schools are adopting policies demanding trigger warnings or alerting faculty to forms of microaggression that students find objectionable. The result is not only an erosion of academic freedom but a curriculum that is uninteresting and devoid of learning.

Oh, come on!  I loved that Haidt article (and been meaning to do a post about it).  They identify real problems.  But from my perspective, they are still very much limited.  I certainly have not heard of “widespread” adoption of policies demanding trigger warnings.  And, again, this stuff is a real problem, but safe to say we are a long, loooong way from, “a curriculum that is uninteresting and devoid of learning.”

Okay, and I’ll pick on his third leg as well, as I’ve been involved in assessment at NCSU and I think a huge amount of it is a waste of time, but as for:

Finally comes the accrediting agencies who have taken the assessment lessons from K-12 and are imposing them on higher education. They demand schools measure and test students and curriculum by developing a complex process of goals, objectives, rubrics. The idea, while well meaning, is to make it possible to evaluate student learning by essentially standardizing each course, such as an introductory politics class, regardless of who teaches it. Colleges and universities are devoting countless hours adding verbiage to syllabi and setting up assessment processes and committees to comply. The assessment movement adds an air of legitimacy to both the conservative corporate restructuring and liberal homogenization of classes by declaring such approaches do or will improve educational quality. But as Erik Gilbert’s recent article “Does Assessment of Colleges Make Them Better?” in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, the evidence for this assessment is largely lacking. The result then is a push for untested and unproven standardization of college education in a one-size-fits-all curriculum that offers little proof that it will improve student or institutional learning.

I’m pretty sure I linked Gilbert’s piece with favorable words the other day, but again, a far cry from “a push for untested and unproven standardization of college education in a one-size-fits-all curriculum that offers little proof that it will improve student or institutional learning.”

There’s plenty wrong in higher education.  And the author has raised some broad points that are certainly worthy of concern and keeping an eye on, but it is totally unfair to higher education as it currently exists to paint it as the dire dystopia it seems if you read this article.

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Too much health care

I have no idea how in the world I missed this terrific Atul Gawande New Yorker piece back when it came out in May, but at least I read it now.  And it’s going into my Public Policy syllabus on health care.  Basic premise, we waste so much medical care on overtreatment.  (A subject long near and dear to my heart).  There’s so much good here (and it’s a typical lengthy New Yorker article, so there’s only so much I can excerpt), but this conceptualization of disease, I really, really liked:

H. Gilbert Welch, a Dartmouth Medical School professor, is an expert on overdiagnosis, and in his excellent new book, “Less Medicine, More Health,” he explains the phenomenon this way: we’ve assumed, he says, that cancers are all like rabbits that you want to catch before they escape the barnyard pen. But some are more like birds—the most aggressive cancers have already taken flight before you can discover them, which is why some people still die from cancer, despite early detection. And lots are more like turtles. They aren’t going anywhere. Removing them won’t make any difference.
We’ve learned these lessons the hard way. Over the past two decades, we’ve tripled the number of thyroid cancers we detect and remove in the United States, but we haven’t reduced the death rate at all. In South Korea, widespread ultrasound screening has led to a fifteen-fold increase in detection of small thyroid cancers. Thyroid cancer is now the No. 1 cancer diagnosed and treated in that country. But, as Welch points out, the death rate hasn’t dropped one iota there, either. (Meanwhile, the number of people with permanent complications from thyroid surgery has skyrocketed.) It’s all over-diagnosis. We’re just catching turtles.

Every cancer has a different ratio of rabbits, turtles, and birds, which makes the story enormously complicated. A recent review concludes that, depending on the organ involved, anywhere from fifteen to seventy-five per cent of cancers found are indolent tumors—turtles—that have stopped growing or are growing too slowly to be life-threatening. Cervical and colon cancers are rarely indolent; screening and early treatment have been associated with a notable reduction in deaths from those cancers. Prostate and breast cancers are more like thyroid cancers. Imaging tends to uncover a substantial reservoir of indolent disease and relatively few rabbit-like cancers that are life-threatening but treatable.

We now have a vast and costly health-care industry devoted to finding and responding to turtles. Our ever more sensitive technologies turn up more and more abnormalities—cancers, clogged arteries, damaged-looking knees and backs—that aren’t actually causing problems and never will. And then we doctors try to fix them, even though the result is often more harm than good. [emphasis mine]

For whatever reason, the piece is currently not behind the New Yorker paywall.  Do yourself a favor and read it.

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