Monday, November 18, 2013


Rigor, Control, and Self-Control

Which is more rigorous: a program with all required and prescribed classes, or a program with a host of electives?

The correct answer is that the question doesn’t make sense.  It’s like asking whether red cars are faster than blue cars.  Academic rigor and freedom of choice are unrelated.  One can choose very easy classes, very difficult classes, or a mix.  A program can require very easy classes, very hard classes, or a mix.  And that’s before getting into non-objective definitions of rigor.

That should be common sense.  But nearly every year I find myself arguing with people who believe that rigor is about control.  It’s frustrating, because the underlying assumptions -- and therefore definitions -- are different, so we wind up talking past each other.

Any teacher, manager, or parent knows the tension of watching someone in your charge drop the ball.  Do you intervene, or let them figure it out for themselves?  Do you build a world in which balls are undroppable, or do you build your charge’s non-dropping skills?  

Over time, you start to realize that much of the “rigor” has to fall on the teacher/manager/parent, in the form of self-control.  You have to be willing to hold back on your own frustrations, at least sometimes, and trust that the universe is smarter than you are.  You have to fight the easy temptation of control.

I was reminded of that in reading about the findings presented at the ASHE (Association for the Study of Higher Education) conference on states using performance funding for colleges.  Simply put, the folks who have researched the issue have found no evidence that performance funding actually improves performance.  The easy temptation of control -- through funding -- doesn’t achieve its stated objective.

I can envision several different responses.  In descending order of likelihood:

- Methodological/definitional quibbling.  What do we mean by “performance”?  What do we mean by “improves”?  What about this data, or that calculation, or…?  This move is pretty much a given in any area of social science that addresses anything controversial.

- Doubling down.  The problem isn’t that performance funding doesn’t work.  The problem is that it hasn’t been tried!  The right move, this position assumes, is to raise the stakes.  (The article refers to this as performance funding 2.0).  As long as the amounts of money involved are relatively small, the effects may be swamped by other things.  But if you raise the stakes, you’ll get what you want.  Of course, this same argument could be applied to nearly anything.  Base funding on any one measure -- be it starting salaries, enrollment numbers, or test scores -- and you’ll eventually see movement towards it.  As with any absolutism, the blind spots will become larger and more costly over time.

- Opportunistic redefinitions.  This is a variation on the job ad that mentions that the ideal candidate will be a left-handed Libra named Eric.  

- Actual rethinking.

Actual rethinking would involve entertaining the possibility that, say, imposing “performance funding” on institutions with high fixed costs isn’t likely to work as expected.  It might involve wondering whether pitting public colleges against each other for shares of a stagnant pool of funding is likelier to result in collaborations or one-upsmanship.  And it might recognize that the massive cost-shifting of the last several years -- in which students have become the majority funders of most community colleges through tuition, and the state a much smaller player -- amounts to a form of performance funding already.  If anything, in this setting, what’s needed from the state is predictable support to allow colleges to address those fixed costs while using the variable revenues of tuition to address variable costs.  

But I put that at the low end of the likelihood scale, because it would involve legislatures developing an appetite for self-control.  Pounding the table and yelling “performance!” sounds like rigor, and it feels good in the moment, but it doesn’t work.  Now we have the results to prove it.  

As long as the majority of revenue comes from tuition and fees, we already have de facto performance funding.  Basing the rest of the revenue on amplifying market trends will just buffet colleges all the more.  At this point, legislatures need to realize that the incentives are already there, and quite powerfully.  Instead, they need to trust that the universe is smarter than they are, and allow the folks on the ground the breathing room to actually perform.  

In principle, you are exactly right, rigor and choice do not need to be in tension.

In practice, some classes WILL be easier than others. Even I, a fairly grumpy traditionalist, am OK with that. I think some subjects naturally lend themselves to a....gentler experience, and that's OK. Moreover, some professors will be easier than others, and if students get discretion many (though not all) will take the easier professors. And some professors might decide to make their electives a bit easier than their core classes, either because they take the enlightened view that students need something a bit lighter to balance with the heavier stuff, or because they cynically respond to the incentive to build enrollment in a class that they want to teach.

As soon as you give people discretion, many of them WILL find easier paths. And that's OK, even in the opinion of this grumpy traditionalist. But let's not pretend that it isn't true.
I have an operational way to tell which program is more rigorous: The one with the smallest number of football players in it. More seriously, it ultimately depends on which has the easiest path to a degree. You can have a mandatory sequence of classes that are cake, or a program that consists entirely of a host of really nasty electives. In practice, the latter case is rare and programs that have a licensing barrier after the degree (engineering, accounting, nursing, medicine) usually have both few electives and few easy classes.

What you are identifying is a cargo cult approach. "Since rigorous programs have few options, the way to have rigor is to get rid of options." As you note, it doesn't work that way.

Is that why you conflated this question with the ASHE discussion? It seems like a different question to me unless you are suggesting that a decline in program completion might be explained by college administrators making things harder when trying to make them easier or simply urging K-12 style grade inflation.
Dude, red ones absolutely do go faster!
Also worth noting red colored sparring gear gets rated as scoring more kicks in Tae Kwon Do (by trained referees observing videos that were psudeo colored red/blue and then swapped i.e. its the appearance of red, not the type of person who chooses it).
In other words, the human mind is inherently bad at judging these things. Pretty sure it applies to rigor of courses and universities too.
While in some areas I would agree that there are always "cake" courses, it's also more the case that "cake" is in the mind of the beholder. I would find anything math or science related to be difficult while my engineer husband would find it easy. I would breeze through anything related to english/history/humanities and he would cringe.

I also know that I've had some profs that I thought were "easy" but in the same class others felt they were "difficult". Perception.
"Instead, they need to trust that the universe is smarter than they are, and allow the folks on the ground the breathing room to actually perform."

But to some this reads as "just give us more money and we'll do a good job managing it." I'm willing to believe that YOU would do a good responsible job with extra money (or just the same amount) but I'm not sure everyone is as responsible. Legislators will have a tough time saying to the voters, "just trust us - we know best - the college promises to do a good job."

In the medical world, this kind of funding scheme punishes those medical centers that make mistakes and also those that have high acuity / low resource patients. When Medicare decided not to pay for readmissions, the punished those hospitals that were booting patients too soon without proper support and also those that had agreed to care for people with very iffy health situations.

The difference between the two industries is that medicine is relying increasingly on government money to prop its self up. Colleges meanwhile are drifting in the opposite direction with those that move the fastest reaping the greatest monetary rewards. I’d say the best move at this point is to develop a more diversified portfolio of funding streams and to define your own success goals and then report on them each year. Don’t just float with the current – dip in an oar. If you have a measure that shows what your college can do, beat people over the head with it. This becomes fodder for grants and the solicitation of funds for scholarships and endowments which could help with the whole funding diversification thing.
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