19 August 2008

Best Evidence

Charles Murray thinks that For Most People, College is a Waste of Time. The op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal suggests that a bachelor's degree has an "inflated status" and advocates for some sort of system of certifications instead.

The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree.

The model is the CPA exam that qualifies certified public accountants. The same test is used nationwide. It is thorough -- four sections, timed, totaling 14 hours. A passing score indicates authentic competence (the pass rate is below 50%). Actual scores are reported in addition to pass/fail, so that employers can assess where the applicant falls in the distribution of accounting competence. You may have learned accounting at an anonymous online university, but your CPA score gives you a way to show employers you're a stronger applicant than someone from an Ivy League school.

The merits of a CPA-like certification exam apply to any college major for which the BA is now used as a job qualification. To name just some of them: criminal justice, social work, public administration and the many separate majors under the headings of business, computer science and education. Such majors accounted for almost two-thirds of the bachelor's degrees conferred in 2005. For that matter, certification tests can be used for purely academic disciplines. Why not present graduate schools with certifications in microbiology or economics -- and who cares if the applicants passed the exam after studying in the local public library?

An interesting proposal, no?

I find my thinking to be somewhere between. While I agree that a BA does not necessarily communicate a certain skill level as it applies to a profession, neither does a certification test. I am certainly living proof of that. If we think only about education for a moment, would there be any test which would be able to measure one's facility in the classroom? What is the best evidence of the ability to teach?

At the end of the WSJ article, Murray writes
Here's the reality: Everyone in every occupation starts as an apprentice. Those who are good enough become journeymen. The best become master craftsmen. This is as true of business executives and history professors as of chefs and welders. Getting rid of the BA and replacing it with evidence of competence -- treating post-secondary education as apprenticeships for everyone -- is one way to help us to recognize that common bond.
Is the answer for teachers something different? Perhaps a graduated license, as many states do with driving? Some kind of permit to start, with a teacher receiving intensive mentoring for one or two years...at the end of which would be a recommendation for a provisional license for a few years...and finally something more permanent five years into a career? (By the way, I think administrator certs should follow the same path.) Many teachers are gone by year five, but would this also help move low-skilled teachers and administrators out of the path of students more easily?

I agree with Murray that there are some antiquated aspects of our higher education system. However, it's not going to go away and is going to be incredibly resistant to reform. If any change is going to be made, it's going to have to come from employers. When evidence other than college degrees is required to get a job, the Ivory Tower might start to pay attention.


Hugh O'Donnell said...

I get a kick out of the requirements many employers have...B.S. in BS? Like, what? Anything? the sheepskin is meaningless without proof of competence in the employer's field.

I like the idea of a certification test.

I find that higher ed is most often behind the curve in what we K-12 folks refer to as "best practices."

And, while I'm ragging on higher ed, I also find that "profs" are the least receptive to good classroom assessment ideas and sound grading practices!

How do you spell "arrogance"?

The Science Goddess said...

I think we can rag all we want to, but higher ed isn't going to change anymore in the next 100 years than it has in the last. Sigh.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

I wonder when Higher Ed will wake up to the fact that lots of young people are no longer going to the party -- they're getting with their own programs earlier and earlier. and doing very well, thank you. ;)

Here's Father Guido Sarducci's (Saturday Night Live) take on a bachelor's degree...