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Academe’s Standards Diminished, E.D. Report Finds

By James Hertling — October 31, 1984 3 min read

Washington--Attempting to turn national attention to postsecondary schooling, a study group appointed by the Education Department has proposed broad curricular and institutional reforms to stem a perceived decline in the quality of higher education.

The panel’s 98-page report, released at a press conference here last week, makes 27 recommendations, among them that colleges and universities require a minimum two years of undergraduate instruction in the liberal arts for recipients of bachelors’ degrees; that colleges test to gauge “what [undergraduate] stu-dents actually learn"; and that they substantially raise faculty salaries.

Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell praised the panel’s work but said the federal government would not make substantial financial contributions toward implementing its recommendations.

“By responding promptly to these needs for reform in higher education,” Mr. Bell said, “we will avoid a major crisis that will erode public confidence and support.” That erosion, he added, has been one of the major problems afflicting elementary and secondary education.

The report, “Involvement in Learning: Realizing the Potential of American Higher Education,” is the work of seven scholars, who were charged with the task of analyzing higher education as rigorously as precollegiate education has been scrutinized since the April 1983 release of “A Nation at Risk,” the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

The Study Group on the Conditions of Excellence in American Higher Education, as the panel is called, was selected in September 1983 by Manuel J. Justiz, director of the National Institute of Education. Kenneth P. Mortimer, professor of higher education and public administration and executive assistant to the president at Pennsylvania State University, served as its chairman.

“The strains of rapid expansion, followed by recent years of constricting resources and leveling enrollments, have taken their toll,” the report states.

“The realities of student learning, curricular coherence, the quality of facilities, faculty morale, and academic standards no longer measure up to our expectations,” it argues. “The gaps between the ideal and the actual are serious warning signals.”

Measures of Excellence

The report also criticizes the tendency of colleges and universities to measure excellence in terms of “institutional resources,” such as curricular offerings, the “intellectual attainments of its faculty, the test scores of entering students and their selectivity in admissions.”

None of these measures “tells us anything about educational outcomes,” the report contends. “As a result, we have no way of knowing how academic institutions actually perform.”

The “critical conditions of excellence” in higher education, the report notes, are student involvement in the learning process, high expectations that are clearly articulated to students, and “regular and periodic assessment and feedback” of the performance of both the student and the academic institution.

The report criticizes the “excessively vocational ... orientation” of the college curriculum and calls for “at least two full years of liberal education” for all bachelor’s degree recipients, even if that means extending undergraduate programs in some professional fields to five years.

Liberal Curriculum Emphasized

In advocating a re-emphasis on a liberal curriculum in preprofessional programs, the panel offered “a special word ... about teacher-education programs, since it is through them that our colleges and universities exercise the most direct influence on the quality of schooling in the United States.”

“We recommend that colleges and universities treat admission to the undergraduate program in teacher education as they would an honors program; require a sustained, rigorously evaluated internship in a school at an early point in the college career of prospective teachers; recruit faculty from the disciplines to join in the instruction and supervision of future school teachers; and make greater use of the research on effective teaching and effective learning environments in the teacher-education curriculum,” the scholars write.

Mr. Bell said last week that he agreed with these steps “wholeheartedly.”

Panel’s Methods

The panel did not hold public hearings or solicit testimony but reviewed previously published work and testimony during seven meetings over the last year, according to documents that accompanied the report.

Copies of the report (Stock No.065-000-00213-2) are available for $4.50 each from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402.

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 1984 edition of Education Week as Academe’s Standards Diminished, E.D. Report Finds