Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Texas A&M and the Texas Public Policy Foundation's "Breakthrough" Solutions, Part III

This is the third part of my commentary on the Texas Public Policy Foundation's "Breakthrough Solutions" and their application to Texas A&M. (The first two parts are here and here.) This post deals with Solution 5, which deals with "learning contracts" among students, faculty, and universities.

[I had hoped to include a discussion of Solution 3 in this post, also, but I haven't had the time. I'll cover it next time.]

The "goal" of Solution 5 is:
Research has shown that students are excellent judges of the learning that takes place in a classroom. This is particularly true if the deliverables for a course are clearly stated. This reform would require colleges and universities to develop contracts between deans, department heads, and teachers so that the promises of each degree program are clearly stated to each and every student.

A secondary benefit of this reform is that it provides an effective, institution-based accountability tool rather than a top-down, one-size-fits-all test or other system imposed by federal or state governments.
This would be implemented by:
Signed contracts will be established between the university, dean, department head, teachers and each student.
1. Universities will provide each applicant with a “learning contract” that discloses, at a minimum:
a. the graduation rate, placement rate and average starting salaries for a student with the equivalent entering admissions test scores (SAT) and major
b. the average class size
c. teaching evaluations for the faculty who will be teaching their classes
d. grade distributions
e. the skills, tools and lessons that the curriculum is designed to transmit
f. how educational value added will be measured.
All enrolling students will need to sign and return the learning contract to the school before admittance.
2. Teachers will provide for each student enrolling in a course a classroom learning contract that discloses, at a minimum:
a. the skills, tools and lessons that the course is designed to transmit
b. the grading policy for the course
c. the method that students will use to evaluate the course and teacher on whether the learning promise was met.
To remain enrolled in a course, students must sign a copy of the contract and then have it returned to them signed by their teacher.
This is really two "reforms," though. The first is a requirement that universities provide prospective students about institutional performance and requirements at the start of a degree program. The second is a requirement that individual instructors provide information to students about learning objectives, evaluations of students by the instructor, and evaluations of the instructor by the students for each course.

As "breakthrough" solutions go, this is pretty mild stuff.

At the institutional level, most of the information that universities will be required to disclose is already readily available for Texas A&M, though not in a convenient one-stop-shopping document. Graduation rates are public. Average reported starting salaries by major are available from the university career center (though I doubt information is tabulated by SAT scores). Grade distributions for all courses are available from the registrar and are aggregated by instructor by several private organizations, including There university's core curriculum is described on its website and in its printed catalogs. And, I am pretty sure that course evaluations are standardized at the department level, so anyone who wanted to know how a particular class's instructor would be evaluated by students should be able to find out.

There is no harm in aggregating this information into a single resource and providing it to students. There is also no harm in requiring students to acknowledge their receipt of that information as a requirement for enrollment.

At the instructor level, items (a.) and (b.) are already required elements of every syllabus at the university. The syllabus is supposed to state the course's learning objectives and explain how course grades will be assigned. Adding a description of the methods that will be used to evaluate an instructor's performance is easy and, once again, harmless.

My reservations about the reforms are about as mild as these reforms themselves.

I have some mild administrative questions about the reform---We have roughly 50,000 students at Texas A&M taking roughly 4-5 classes a semester. What happens to the quarter of a million "learning contracts" generated every semester? Where are they stored? how are they audited?---but my primary concern here is aesthetic. The description of the reform implies that information about graduation rates, careers, and courses are not available. Yet, there are huge amounts of information about the university and its curriculum, faculty, courses, requirements, students, former students, etc. available for the asking (or web searching). Putting some important pieces of information together into more accessible packages may be worthwhile, but its hardly a game changer.

Putting these aside, though, I think there may be some "ceremonial" value to student learning contracts. Oddly, even though students (and their families) pay to attend classes, many students do not take their classes very seriously. Starting each semester by making a contract between each student and the instructor certainly provides an opportunity to institutionalize the dissemination of information from the faculty to the students, but it also provides an opportunity for a student to make a specific commitment to each course and to avow an understanding of what that course will require. If the metaphor of the contract is taken seriously, it will bind both parties, the teacher and the student, perhaps providing some extra social or personal incentive to the student to take the course seriously and to get the most out of it. (It worked for Mr. Miyagi---right around the 1:00 mark.)

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