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.