…Same as the Old Boss

In a move that would make Dick Cheney proud, Education Secretary Arne “Aren’t I cool because I play basketball with the president” Duncan recently convened a secret meeting of higher education bosses to help him figure out how to do to higher ed what he has done to K-12.  According to a report in Inside Higher Ed, the meeting included top officials from prominent MOOCs, other players in online learning, veteran experts on course redesign, college administrators, people from powerful foundations, leaders of several of the major higher education associations, technology vendors, and for-profit college representatives.

“Few actual faculty members were invited to the meeting,” reported IHE. “And no high-profile faculty advocates attended.”  In the doth protest too much portion of the program, “education Department officials repeatedly said during the meeting that they recognize the leadership role faculty must take in any teaching and learning developments.”

Yeah, well if you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.

In related news here in Washington, Governor Gregoire has now made her appointments to the Student Achievement Council, a longtime state bureaucrat with zero education experience is now running our community college system, and Rob McKenna thinks college professors are blowhards who should be turned into temp workers. 

For those who haven’t been reading the fine print, the Student Achievement Council almost exactly fills the footprint left by the recently deposed Higher Education Coordinating Board.  Scott White is probably rolling over in his grave after the bill he introduced to scrap the bloated and ineffectual HEC Board has only produced a lot of wasted time and money to replicate the HEC with the SAC. 

The governor’s appointments to the SAC all seem like fine people, but while the names have changed, the lineup overall is distressingly familiar.  A bunch of lawyers and managers and a token student (who will, depending on her willingness to go along, either be co-opted or marginalized), none of whom bears much resemblance to an actual educator.  As with every other task force, board, council, and committee appointed to ride herd on public higher education, there is no faculty member, no one who does the work of education, no one who knows from daily classroom experience what student achievement might actually mean. 

For the past thirty years, U.S. public education has been going to way of U.S. health care.  Like health care, education is something that should be a right that has been inexorably turned into a commodity as a public good has been made more and more available for private profit.  The funding model has shifted from taxation to debt (much to the delight of the financial industry), eroding both the accessibility and quality of college.  Real educators generally object to this shift, which is why the new appointees to the SAC were chosen precisely because they are managers and not educators.  Kind of the same way that the people chosen to run health care are always managers and not doctors.

As public higher ed was eviscerated over the past four years, the HEC board stood by and didn’t raise a fuss, choosing instead to do endless tuition studies and produce lots of charts with pretty blue arrows.  It’s a pretty safe bet that the new SAC can be counted on to be just as acquiescent.

Meanwhile, just down the street at the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, Olympia perennial Marty Brown has been named Executive Director.  When last we saw Mr. Brown, he was throwing a fit to any reporter who would listen about the faculty contract at Western Washington University.  Despite the fact that Western professors’ salaries, adjusted for cost of living, ranked in the bottom fifteen percent in the country, Mr. Brown felt it was “a mistake” for the Western trustees to negotiate a contract with the faculty that included small raises.

This disdain for faculty, along with his complete lack of experience as an educator, should help Mr. Brown fit right in at the SBCTC, where hundreds of well-paid managerial employees with benefits oversee a system that is well on its way to becoming a sweatshop.  At some of Washington’s community colleges, up to 80% of the faculty are badly paid part-time itinerant workers with no benefits.  As SBCTC Director, Mr. Brown will have access to study after study that shows what a difference well-qualified permanent faculty can make.  He will also have the expertise of thousands of professors readily available.  The smart money is on his taking advantage of neither, instead continuing to rely on the squads of non-classroom consultants and “experts” who will continue to peddle the notion that doing more with less has no effect on a student’s education. 

Alas, these also seem to be Rob McKenna’s confidantes.  Mr. McKenna has made education the centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign and he certainly gets it right when he talks about how he wants to increase funding for higher education.  And he consistently recognizes the damage done by years of cuts to higher ed.  

But when he gets down to specifics, it becomes clear that the Attorney General has drunk the managerial Kool-Aid.  In a higher ed speech at WWU’s Munro Institute this summer, Mr. McKenna cogently made the case about higher ed funding, but then moved into the trickier areas of instruction and teaching.  After a few banal remarks about online learning and “blended courses,” he launched into this observation about the nature of teaching:

“We’ve got to move from a model where you always have a teacher or a professor who is, as someone put it, the ‘Sage on the Stage’ to where you’ve got a professor or a teacher who’s the ‘guide by your side.’  This is a phrase that I learned from Sam Smith at Western Governor’s University, I thought it was pretty striking.”

What seems novel and striking to Attorney General McKenna is actually pretty old and tired.  “Sage on the stage” and “guide by your side” have been around since at least the early 1990s and have been co-opted by the for-profit education movement as a way to demonize professors as pompous windbags and convince prospective student customers that a badly paid unqualified pal on the other end of a digital connection is better than a genuinely qualified instructor.  (The irony worth noting here is that almost every time some self-styled education expert trots out the sage-on-the-stage insult, he or she is usually speaking from a stage to a passive audience, just as Rob McKenna was at the Munro Institute.)  It’s no surprise that McKenna picked this up from Sam Smith, the lobbyist for WGU, where they have no faculty, just “course mentors.”

McKenna’s lack of connection to real educators becomes even clearer when we take a look at his higher education position paper.  Buried near the end is a proposal to eliminate tenure, a move that would guarantee Washington’s universities would never again be able to recruit high quality faculty. 

Chris Gregoire, Marty Brown, and Rob McKenna are doing nothing to improve the quality of higher education, but they can take solace in the fact that they are right in step with Arne Duncan.  Though they all come from different points on the ideological compass, they all firmly agree that major policy and funding decisions about higher education are best made without any actual educators in the room. 

When the Duncan cabal got down to their business of identifying the obstacles to their brave new world of McEd, the things they pointed to were financial aid rules, pesky accreditors demanding some sort of accountability, and the “faculty culture” created by those nasty professors who stayed in school into their thirties and took jobs paying much less than they could have made as business people or lawyers, just because they don’t really care about students.

Given their mania for efficiency, it’s probably a good thing that Arne’s army kept the professors out of the room.  They would have just muddled things with questions about massive disinvestment, the difference between real education for responsible citizens and job training for docile employees, and why everybody in the room was sending their kids to real colleges while claiming that the MOOCs were good enough for everyone not in their tax bracket.  

The NFL Referee lockout demonstrated once again that nobody protects quality, integrity, and safety like organized, professional practitioners and that bosses, no matter what manner of pious bullshit they may publicly spew, are mostly interested in squeezing workers as hard as they can.  The bosses who have now focused on higher education are determined to make sure that today’s children get tomorrow’s education equivalent of replacement refs.

Comments are closed.