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6 Ways Neoliberal Education Reform May Be Destroying a College Near You

Higher ed is on the verge of falling victim to the same neoliberal ideology as K-12.

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In his book Why Public Higher Education Should be Free, Bob Samuels identifies several culprits. State spending on education has contracted by an average 28% in the last five years. Federal tuition-based tax credits increasingly benefit the upper-middle-class. And at a fundamental level, tuition simply follows the currents of the market, with rates based on “what people are willing to pay and what similar schools are charging, rather than on their real costs.” This is what Cornell professor Ronald Ehrenberg calls a “winner-take-all” higher-ed ecosystem: “an arms race of spending” to build gleaming new facilities staffed with star professors, driving costs up everywhere.

Laying out his proposal, the President implied that state cuts in higher-ed funding and too few colleges “working to figure out how do we control costs” have driven tuition up. These are hardly the only factors.

Just as in Race to the Top, the administration has taken a delicate, multivariate problem rooted in larger class structures and sheared it of any nuance. They rely instead on a business-inspired approach that seeks to replace what’s human in institutions with data systems and pecuniary incentives. We’re left with a few pat solutions best delivered in Obama’s chuckling-huckster persona: “What we want to do is rate them on who's offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck.”

2) Pushing accountability through perks and penalties.

In 2005, a pair of MIT professors and their colleagues designed some experiments to determine how monetary incentives influence decision-making. They had participants play cognitively demanding games with rewards for top performers. In the US experiments, undergraduate guinea pigs could win a weekend’s drinking allowance, about $50.

In India, the highest prize was “approximately equal to half of the mean yearly consumer expenditure in the village,” about $50. The researchers found that in most tasks, “higher incentives led to worse performance.” When tasks required “even rudimentary cognitive skill,” larger rewards “led to poorer performance.” In his book Drive Daniel Pink surmises, “Carrots and sticks can achieve precisely the opposite of their intended aims.”

RTTT and its higher-ed counterpart both rely in the main on blunt perks and punishments to address the knottiest socio-cultural issues in our society. Designing safe, enriching schools with a dearth of resources, graduating millions of young people straddled with debt: these are hellishly complex endeavors.

RTTT awarded points to states that created data systems to compensate “effective” faculty, and remove “ineffective” teachers and principals, based largely on standardized testing. Schools that test poorly become candidates for “ turnaround,” a euphemism for liquidating staff, and in most cases, roping in a charter operator.

Test-based teacher-evaluation has so far eluded any empirical justification. Researchers with the Educational Policy Institute conclude, “There is broad agreement among statisticians, psychometricians, and economists that student test scores alone are not sufficiently reliable and valid indicators of teacher effectiveness.” Multiple studies found that New York’s evaluation pilot program showed “little impact on student proficiency or school environment.”

Obama’s college ratings initiative doesn’t have standardized tests to lean on, so the president offered other guideposts: graduation rates, tuition costs, post-college earnings, number of Pell grant recipients enrolled. According to these measures, “students attending high-performing colleges could receive larger Pell Grants and more affordable student loans.”

This kind of performance funding has been tried before. Tennessee has been allocating funding based on graduation rates since 1979, as the White House fact sheet noted. But while the newest iteration of Tennessee’s initiative was lauded as a “game-changer,” a 2011 study from Columbia’s Teachers College found “the research literature does not provide firm evidence that performance funding significantly increases rates of remedial completion, retention or graduation.”