Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The First Joke of Accreditation...Core Requirements

The First Joke of Accreditation…Core Requirements



     There’s much talk of useless degrees, and deeply indebted students, but I’ve seen little discussion of accreditation’s role in all this. It’s key, since federal loan money can only go to accredited schools…the federal loan scam, and the annihilation of standards so that institutions can suck up all that money, would not happen if there were no accredited schools. There’s a widespread belief that an accredited school is a legitimate school, a school that offers a legitimate education. It’s time to shatter that false belief.

     Accreditation has very little to do with education. For years, I thought my institutions were defrauding accrediting bodies with all the antics they do, but there is no fraud in an accredited school offering utterly bogus courses and degrees, none whatsoever, at least as far as the accrediting body is concerned.

     The reason for this involves the history of accreditation, which I’ll summarize: During the 19th century, bright, educated people opened up institutions of higher learning, the better to preserve, build, and spread knowledge. These were people that knew physics, mathematics, chemistry, literature, and history…but knew nothing of how to run an institution, and they wanted to be sure that they were both doing it right, and doing it in a way other institutions would accept. So, the educators running the institutions in various regions got together and picked each others’ brains on how best to run and organize an institution of higher learning. These regional gatherings formed the basis of accrediting bodies today.

     Back then, being regional made sense—you couldn’t just fly to California for a week, or exchange e-mails in a few seconds—but accrediting bodies are still regional today. An antiquated regional system of accreditation is just a consequence of how it started…but there are other, far more sinister consequences from the origins of accreditation.

     “…report this week by the Philadelphia Inquirer raised questions about the pedigree of Doug Lynch, vice dean of the graduate school of education, who claimed to have received a master's degree and a doctorate from Columbia University in 2005 and 2007, respectively.

Neither of those claims is true, according to Columbia officials.

But UPenn, having found out about the bogus claims earlier this year, decided to keep Lynch in a leadership role….”

  ---A faculty member with a bogus degree is summarily removed, always. An administrator with a bogus degree? Not a problem. The double standard between faculty and administration comes from accreditation.


     Accreditation documents give rules for faculty, but have only the barest mention of administrators. Again, for the 19th century and much of the 20th, most every full time employee at an institution of higher learning WAS an educator…it’s only in the last 30 years that educators became a minority (sometimes a tiny minority, and today overall less than half of college courses are taught by full time faculty). Such administrators as existed back then were really just faculty members taking over the duties for a time. For example, the Dean was a history professor taking a year off to cover the bureaucratic functions, which he’d pass off to another faculty member after the year. This is rather important: because accreditation doesn’t address administrators specifically (beyond the president),  administrators today can literally sodomize children on campus and it’s not a problem, as far as accreditation is concerned…accreditation gives rules of behavior for faculty, because they were written in a time where it was understood if you worked at an institution, you were faculty. It never occurred to the people setting up accreditation rules that one day, mercenary administrators with no appreciation or concern for education would be running the show.

     Accreditation was set up by educators with a legitimate interest in doing a good job of educating. This was understood by accrediting bodies. This led to much of the work of accrediting being done on a self-analysis level. The institution looks at the accrediting rules, then decides for itself if it is following them…if the accrediting body disagrees, the institution is given time to investigate itself some more.  Back when institutions were run by educators interested in honorable work, this system was effective—if the library was too small or student support too minimal, the educators would work to improve it, for example. Now, of course, administrators run the show, and naturally when they investigate themselves, they generally clear themselves of wrongdoing and say they’re doing a good job regardless…this should hardly be news to anyone with sufficient imagination to guess what happens when a fox guards a henhouse, but so far the federal government hasn’t quite figured this out. Accrediting bodies never do much checking for themselves; again, they were never intended for this purpose, and they couldn’t even if they wanted to. Accrediting bodies might indirectly oversee millions of students, but generally only have staff of a few dozen. This staff, incidentally, is composed of people with administrative degrees and experience administrating colleges, with little interest in putting restrictions upon themselves…there’s no hope of any improvement in the regulation.


“[That professor’s] courses were a waste of time, every one of them. No reading, no writing, we passed out candy for credit, and talk about racial shit in class when she didn’t cancel class, which was at least once a week. I took five of her classes, they were great for my GPA.”

– a good student, speaking of a very favored professor at an accredited institution.


     Because accreditation was created by educators, there’s little about education in accrediting regulations—the educators already knew that part of higher learning, they were interested in the bureaucracy needed. Today, of course, education is run by administration, and so, with no rules such as “a college course should have a student read at least one sentence a week” or anything of the like, an accredited institution is completely capable of offering bogus coursework without penalty.

     I’m not joking about there being practically nothing on education, and you can see it for yourself. Accrediting bodies today put their regulations online for all to see. They’re big, boring, documents that mention nothing about academic rigor or anything of the sort. You can type in “Principles of Accreditation” for SACS, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, in Google, and see with your own eyes (I’ll be putting a line-by-line analysis of this particular document on my blog)…there’s nothing there on education, and similar documents for other accrediting bodies likewise lack. Again, accreditation was never about education, it was about bureaucracy and running an institution, so it’s no fault of the accrediting bodies that people have this false belief.

     That said, allow me to address the one of the few parts of accreditation that sort of has to do with education: core requirements:


“I really wish we could get rid of the math requirement. It would help our passing rates so much.”


--administrator bemoaning one of the few checks on administrative avarice, in an address to students.

     Core requirements are what force students to take a few hours of math, a few hours of English, and so on. This is what caused the Dean at a university to publicly criticize the math department for being such an “impediment to graduation.” At some point, educated people got together and agreed that there was a body of knowledge that all educated people shared. This body of knowledge can shift over time—Latin was important to the educated of a century ago, while today knowledge of statistics or even how to type on a keyboard might be argued as more necessary knowledge to an educated person in the modern world. Much of the esteem of having a college degree, of being educated, is having fulfilled these requirements.

     This gives me and my colleagues so much job security, but I have a handy rationalization: I went to college much like my students, and I had to take many courses in fields I cared little about.

     Like all other students, I was forced to take a year of another language. Even though I took two years of Spanish in high school, my alma mater had me take a year of French. I’ve never actually used French, but it did help me to gain a better understanding of English and European languages—knowledge of two European languages gives me a shot at translating the gist of passages in Italian or even Latin. When I try to convince my students that math is just another language, that when the student sits down and learns how to read and write in the mathematical language, he needs to use the same skills he uses when learning a new language, I get blank looks. Foreign languages have been removed from core requirements (my English faculty colleagues assure me that English isn’t really required, either), replaced by an "introductory computers" type course, where students learn how to put a CD in the drive. I wish I were kidding.

     I was forced to take a political science course, despite my caring very little for politics at that age. All I remember is the very first day, when the professor announced “Nixon is the most brilliant president this country has ever had.” Still, I did learn that even the most reviled person can have admirers. Writing a paper on a subject I cared little about and memorizing a timeline of important events at least showed me I could do such things, even if I don’t consciously remember the political paper or events. The knowledge that I can be competent even far out of my experience and interest may even have helped me in graduate level Education and Administration courses, which I took as part of my research into the disaster of higher education today. Now students take racial diversity courses instead.

      Despite my miserable handwriting (a problem before computers and printers were everywhere), I was forced to take English courses. Failing to convince an English professor that “facet” can apply to various sides of an argument, and doesn’t strictly refer to gemstones, is partly how I ended up majoring in mathematics, and if I learned little English, I did at least learn to be more careful dealing with people that may not be reasonable. English is still part of the core, but students get to use spellcheckers, even plagiarism-checkers (shouldn't the student know if he's cheating?) to assure some level of writing skill, at least by the spellchecker.

     I also took a year of Physics, although I’ve no skill or patience for science. I did appreciate seeing a proof of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the E = MC2 part of it. Today, freshmen and sophomores are exposed to fractions as college material, but a generation ago they were shown the most important concepts of the modern world. Of course they were, that’s what education used to mean. Now it's "physical sciences", a much watered down course far inferior to the physics course I took in high school.


“…in the upscale neighborhood was an ice cream store. One of the confections on sale was ice cream in the shape of a very large female breast, covered in a chocolate coating.


This shows how wealthy white people, even in the 20th century, still long for their huge black mammies of the slave-owning days.”


--paraphrased excerpt from a textbook used in another course on my campus. I feel the need to point out: this passage was not in the book as an example of ridiculous thinking for educated people to point at and laugh.

     Because there is nothing on education past a wispy “core requirements” guideline, there are many, many, ridiculous courses on campus, and even the “serious” courses are mostly filled with crud.


“It’s just common sense stuff.”


--Faculty member, describing her course material. I thought it an odd thing to say at the time.


     Accrediting bodies only look at what the college course catalogue and syllabi say about the course to see if it meets the standards of a legitimate college course, and they don’t go in the classroom. Even if the course looks like it might be legitimate by reading the course catalogue, this means nothing.  There are topics in the course catalogue for, say, “College Algebra” that I’ve never covered, and administration doesn’t care, instead I receive pressure to cover even less material than what we self-report we cover.

     Even the course syllabus passed out by the instructor means nothing. At my school a professor only made it to Chapter 2 for the whole semester, not even coming close to what the catalogue or his own syllabus says the course is. He gets special consideration from admin (and that’s money) indirectly because he passes so many students, and from personal knowledge I know he isn’t the only math instructor who has done the like.




“It’s all common sense.”


--Different faculty member, describing material in his course on a different subject. I don’t even consider my basic remedial courses  mere common sense, instead being knowledge that humanity worked to understand, a long time ago.


     Back to the point, accreditation does force colleges to inflict a wide range of subject matter, at least in theory, on their students. Are there students actually learning the material, or faculty actually teaching it, leading to an education?  No, that question isn’t addressed by accreditation, so accreditation has nothing to do with that at all. Administration rather discourages such activity, instead self-reporting that institutions are doing their job.


“Everyday knowledge, most things anyone could guess at. Look ‘em in the eye when you talk, stuff like that.”


--Another faculty member, describing material in his course, unrelated to the previous two courses.


     If accreditation were serious, why not just enroll some people in a decent sampling of the courses offered, and see with their own eyes that the coursework and grading is valid? There’s no excuse for not doing so at an open admissions institution, particularly with so many courses offered online. Thousands of hours of form-filling out by administrators and faculty for accreditation, but no effort at all to just look and see.

     The general education requirement gets trimmed every few years. Recently in my state, there is discussion to take math requirement to 3 hours, just “College Algebra”. Twenty years ago, this level of algebra was typical for a high school graduate (or at least a 10th grader). Now this ability to think abstractly is going to be the theoretical maximum of what can be expected from a college graduate. As I struggle to address concepts in calculus and statistics with students that cannot add fractions, I imagine  fractions will be reserved for people with graduate degrees in another decade or two.


     The reason for the scaling back is straightforward: doing so will increase passing rates. Administrators control the general education requirements, after all. Accreditation’s “Core Requirements” are a joke, since the requirements can be lowered, and aren’t being checked in any event.



“They don’t need this.”


--typical administrator complaint, justifying the removal of another chapter, or a whole course.



     Algebra isn’t necessary for leading a successful life. Neither is being able to speak a foreign language, nor understanding the basics of modern science, nor is being able to write a coherent essay, nor is being able to read and comprehend a work of literature. No one thing is critical to being educated…but should education be “nothing at all”?

     As we cut back the general education core requirement further and further, it becomes that much easier to find college graduates who have no, or minimal, skills in reading, writing, mathematics, or any other measurable knowledge (much as the book Academically Adrift shows).  Conferral of a degree is an assertion that a person has an education, knows the things “all educated people know”, with perhaps some concentration in some area. “All educated people know” may well be a matter of opinion, but “nothing,” the educational goal of many institutions, seems to be an awfully small amount considering the kind of money being spent on education. As long as accreditation is primarily via self-reporting, accreditation is meaningless, nothing more than a joke.

     A student can only get loan money for an education by going to an accredited institution, but accreditation has no relationship to education. Should the seal of legitimacy, accreditation, relate to what it’s calling legitimate? Should it actually check to see if there is any legitimacy?

Think about it.




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