Waiting for Standardization

February
2006
Greg Gilbert, Secretary

An interesting assemblage of characters inhabits our current accreditation drama, and the effect is not unlike the cheesiest of soap operas except that we are all actors upon this stage. Among our players is the tripartite of Wasc (Western association of schools and colleges), with its commissions for schools, two-year colleges, and senior colleges and universities (trademark phrase: "culture of evidence"). Other players include the bush administration with its recent movements toward standardized testing for all college and university students, leveraged by institutional eligibility for federal student aid (words of wisdom: "then you wake up at the high school level and find out that the illiteracy level of our children are [sic] appalling." -George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., Jan. 23, 2004). Next is the academic bill of Rights and its supporters who believe that standardization ensures fair and balanced course content (favorite phrase: "We will defend to the death your right to our opinion!"). Also, there is the council of Regional accrediting commissions (C-RAC), who met in denmark last september with the executive leadership of european quality assurance agencies representing Denmark, Spain, Ireland, England, France, Finland and the Netherlands to discuss a global higher education system (preferred pick-up line: "Resistance is futile!").

Other characters include the various segments within our system, the cIos, ceos, the league, local boards, all of whom are players with a vested interest in sustaining a system of education that is undeterred by reductive efforts toward standardization at the hands of powerful external forces (scripted as: "We are all in this thing together"). Also of importance are such intersegmental partners as the csu and uc systems (stage direction: enter with a resounding, "one for all and all for one.")

Our main character, the Academic Senate, struts and frets its hour upon the stage with a professorial stoop and a fist full of resolutions. Is our protagonist a sophoclean hero fated for tragedy or one destined to decode such newspeak riddles as "continuous Quality Improvement" and "corporate values"? (Mission excerpt: "The Academic Senate strengthens and supports the local senates of all California community colleges"). Finally, there is the chorus, 58,000 community college faculty in California whose voices are united in support of students and academic freedom. for a thorough reading of their favorite phrases, go to and click onto "Resolutions" and "Publications." Though shakespeare would have us believe that the "play's the thing," in this instance it really is the thing. When rightfully considered, we must strive to appreciate the scope of the challenges that are upon us. Real lives are in the balance.

To help us secure and sustain our rights, the academic senate, within its many roles, has donned its white hat, saddled up and heralded a warning throughout our system.

By our resolutions, papers and workshops, we have made it clear that while we support assessment, we oppose standards driven by market place ideologies. We oppose the appearance of a peer review autocracy and abhor any suggestion of standardization. As stated in an earlier Rostrum, we will continue to resist the edict that, "What cannot be measured cannot be assessed and what cannot be assessed cannot be controlled and what cannot be controlled cannot be permitted" (September 2004). Because powerbrokers are building their case for standardization within the halls of government and industry, it is essential that all of us within California's educational system prepare to play a vital role toward holding back this dark orwellian threat.

Once again the academic senate has stepped forward, this time by approving the formation of an accreditation ad hoc committee whose charge includes the gathering and distribution of best practices to the field "through breakouts, workshops, and papers." to that end a two-day senate institute will be formed that considers assessment and accreditation as related to academic and professional matters. to help develop this institute, a breakout will be conducted at the upcoming senate Plenary (April 27-April 29, 2006 in San Francisco), where committee members will work with attendees to help determine what the institute will look like.

There are other players too who should move from their spectator seats and mount the stage, for it will take a united front comprised of the community college league, cIos, ceos, local faculty leaders and students to halt the advancing threat of standardization. To that end, we must speak with our intersegmental partners around the state. It has been said that more than half of the college students in the united states are enrolled in california's system of higher education, the largest system of its kind in the world. If we in the golden state unite in defense of academic freedom, perhaps our efforts will inspire educators from other systems to stand with us. While standardization has established a role in various nations, I doubt that the majority of our teaching colleagues would willingly acquiesce to a Wto approach to education.

Then there is our relationship with the accrediting commission for community and Junior colleges (ACCJC). The ACCJC understands fully the nightmare that would result if peer review were replaced with standardization. As with No Child Left Behind, teaching would be scripted and textbook publication would be narrowed to the test. Consultants in pursuit of education dollars would be the only ones smiling as the curtain drops on academic freedom and meaningful governance.

Complicated though it may appear, I would like to see us write into our script a new alliance with the accrediting commission. though we have our differences, it may be time to actively address those differences and to build on our commonalities.

I believe those who sit at the Commission are attempting to negotiate a balancing act between a government bent on evidence and a faculty determined to preserve the vital dynamism of a free academic environment.

The Academic Senate and the ACCJC both proclaim a commitment to quality education and agree that standardization is anathema to that quality. We agree on the importance of critical thinking and know that standardization only yields standardized assessments. How then do we, as characters within this drama, begin to read from the same script?

First, we must agree to a two word solution: "improved communications." Years ago accreditation followed the philosophical tenets of the Porterfield statement, essentially, a non-ambiguous statement with regards to collegiality in the peer review process. Today, the ACCJC can take its cue from c-Rac, and become less collegial, or it can grasp the advantages of working cooperatively in a process that focuses more on our commonalities and thereby participate actively in resolving our differences.

First, we would suggest that the accJc establish a task force of practitioners in the planning of the new accreditation standards, teachers who have direct experience with instruction, measures and their potential benefit to students. In conjunction with that, because of california's unique structure of higher education governance, it would make sense for those practitioners from california to be appointed by the state academic senate. In respect for the accJc's need for independence in its decision making, we should stress that such discussions require nothing from the commission but communication. The ACCJC would remain the sole arbiter of what goes into the revised standards. had the accJc taken this tack in developing the present standards, perhaps we could have avoided certain landmines related to bargaining rights and other issues.

As the ACCJC undertakes its own review this year, I hope that it will agree on the need to foster improved communications in order to achieve an atmosphere of collegiality within its peer review process. The result would likely contribute to more active cooperation from the field and a rediscovery of the kind of shared effort in support of students that was once the hallmark of accreditation review in california. The irony is that if we cannot achieve a better working relationship, we may both have our tickets punched by standardization.

It may be some time before the lights dim and the curtain closes on this little melodrama about the future of education, but whatever the conclusion, real people will have to see it through, for this is a theater without exits. Our children, their children and generations to come may look back on this time and wonder how it was that tens of thousands of educated professionals allowed a handful of people in expensive suits to rob our system of its essential liberties. Or they may say that this was when california's educators stood united, worked with their professional organizations, lobbied legislators, cast their votes, and applied their talents, their educations, their critical thinking and communications skills to the preservation of that same liberty that has endured through generations of sacrifice and diligence. How this drama plays out depends on all us, together.

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