United Public Workers for Action (www.upwa.info) March, 2013
George Wright: UPWA Editorial Board
The specter of accreditation of Skyline Community College next year by the Accrediting Commission for Community Colleges and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) has opened up a window for understanding the future of community colleges in California. The accreditation process, which is mandated to occur every six years, requires that Skyline College follow a set of “standards.” If the college does not meet the ACCJC standards there is a threat of sanctions. There are three increasingly serious stages of sanctions: warning; probation, and show cause. If a college does not adhere to the recommendations of the Commission the college’s accreditation could be “terminated.” That decision would prevent the college from receiving federal and state funds for programs and students loans, transferring credits to a four-year campus, or issuing acceptable certificates for employment purposes. In the worse case scenario the college could be closed.
The concern over accreditation at Skyline College is heightened because in June 2012 neighboring San Francisco City College (SFCC) was sanctioned at the penultimate step prior to termination (“show cause”) by the ACCJC. That determination created the ominous prospect of SFCC being forced to close this summer if it does not meet the Commission’s requirements. Moreover, to put Skyline’s situation into context, the ACCJC has sanctioned over 37 per cent of California’s 112 community colleges during the past decade. Currently, 25 percent of the community colleges in California are under sanction.
Skyline College and SLO’s
The Skyline College administration required that the faculty carry out some of the ACCJC standards. Perhaps the most revealing requirement is Student Learning Outcomes (SLO’s). SLO’s are statements, which specify what knowledge and skills a student should possess (and demonstrate) at the end of a course, program, and/or degree. The faculty members were told that SLO’s will be used to provide data collection to measure student academic success. Implementing SLO’s requires that each department or program establish standardized SLO’s for each class that is taught under its purview. Once the SLO’s are formulated, instructors who teach each respective class are supposed to write up a test which serves as both a “pre-test” and “post-test.” Tests are then administered in each class at the beginning and end of the semester to assess whether students have learned the specific outcomes during the semester.
Despite the claim that SLO’s are about data collection, the danger with SLO’s is that their implementation can lead to a standardized curriculum. The implication of a standardized curriculum is that it undermines the instructor’s ability to evaluate the best way for students to learn in his or her classes. In fact, this evaluation process is part of the “art” of teaching; and what makes interaction with students important and special. Further- more, it orients the learning process to “teaching to the test,” thus undermining critical thinking, creativity, spontaneity and improvisation, academic freedom, and the instructor’s particular academic expertise or perspective. This problem is identical to how K-12 teachers throughout the country have had to deal with George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top.”
SLO’s are a corporate model of assessment based on “outcomes” or “results,” which is antithetical to what classroom learning should be about. This approach completely ignores the complexity of the student learning process, while orienting the teaching process away from traditional pedagogy. For example, students learn at different rates and in different ways. They bring different skills and knowledge levels to the classroom. The latter is owing to the fact that students have a varied range of socio-economic, cultural experiences and personal situations. This is particularly the case at the community college level. Furthermore, there is a move to incorporate SLO’s into the instructor hiring, tenure, and promotion evaluation processes. This would imitate what “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” requires, where teachers have been (and are being) fired if their test scores do not show improvement.
The ACCJC and Accreditation
The ACCJC is a one of six regional commissions in the United States that accredits community and junior colleges. This body is a sub-division of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), which oversees university, community colleges, and K-12 accrediting commissions. The traditional function of an accrediting commission is to evaluate if: “the education earned at the institution is of value to the student who earned it; and employers, trade or professional related licensors, and other college and universities can accept a students credentials as legitimate.”
Historically, the relationship between accrediting bodies and college has generally been professional and collegial. The ACCJC is mandated to follow standards promoted by the United States Department of Education. The ACCJC is also under the authority of California Community College Board of Governors and California law (California Code Regulations 51016). Further, the ACCJC is a private body, which receives funding from affiliated (public) colleges. Moreover, it deliberates without public oversight or accountability. Therefore, according to UPWA activist Steve Zeltzer, the ACCJC “wields enormous governmental-type power to close or fundamentally re-shape public institutions.” Since Barbara Beno’s tenure as President of the ACCJC began in 2001, that commission has been extremely punitive in carrying out its mandate.
For example, between 2003 and 2008, the five other regional accrediting commissions evaluated 756 colleges, while sanctioning only 14, or at a rate of .0185185 percent. Meanwhile, the ACCJC evaluated 174 colleges and sanctioned 112 schools in California and Hawaii, or at a rate of 64 percent. This means that the ACCJC issued 89 percent of the nation-wide sanctions on community and junior colleges. Moreover, between June, 2011 and June, 2012 the ACCJC issued 64 percent of the 75 nation-wide sanctions. (See: Marty Hittelman, ACCJC Gone Wild, January 21, 2013. Internet Source.) Marty Hittelman, who is the former President of the California Federation of Teachers, elaborates, “The actual sanctions have had little to do with the quality of instruction received by students who attend. Instead of concentrating on the value of the college to students and the value of the credits earned, the ACCJC has taken a path that requires college to expend an incredible quantity of time and resources to satisfy the ACCJC that they are performing the excessive documenting, planning, and reviews of policy required by the Commission.” (See: Hittelman. Internet Source.)
Background to the ACCJC’s Behavior
The actions of the ACCJC over the past decade have not occurred in a political vacuum. The thrust of the ACCJC’s actions are integral to the 35 year consensus bi-partisan- corporate driven project to privatize and corporatize public education. There is a difference between privatization and corporatization. Privatization means making the institution and/or services operate for a profit. Corporatization means that privatization can (and generally does) take place, but it is about restructuring an the institution based on a corporate management model.
For expediency, this paper will use the term privatization for both meanings. Privatization is backed by corporations, Wall Street, venture capitalists, foundations, policy-planning organizations, think-tanks, so-called “education reform” organizations and businesses, and the Democratic and Republican Parties. Major players in privatization of education are the Gates, Broad, and Lumina foundations. (For example, among many sources on Student Learning Outcomes see: Lumina Foundation, “The Degree Qualification Profile: Executive Summary.” Internet Source.)
Until recently, the main focus of privatization has been K-12 schools, manifested by school vouchers, charter schools, standardized testing, “accountability,” and outcomes. However, the actions by the ACCJC indicate that community colleges are now on the “chopping block.” This is also indicated by initiatives made in 2012 by the Obama administration. For example, Obama proposed an $8 billion initiative to provide grants for community colleges working in partnership with business to train two-million students for so-called “middle skill” jobs (lab technicians, data management, medical equipment manufacturing, etc.). The grants will be linked to the rigorous collection of student learning outcome data.
Moreover, the overall assault on public education, as well as the public sector as a whole, has accelerated in the past five years. This is owing to the “political opening” that the 2008 financial-economic crisis created. That opening has provided a space to intensify the 40-year Neo-Liberal offensive aimed to privatize and deregulate the political economy in order to transfer wealth to the top income bracket. The effectiveness of that
offensive is partly owing to constraints that states and local governments face due to serious budget deficits. The targeted attacks on the public sector has also occurred because the working classes, organized and unorganized, have been fragmented, largely disoriented, and mostly complicit with the Democratic Party, the same party, in concert with the Republican Party, that is carrying out the assault on the public sector. Specifically, the accelerated privatization of public education is also due to dominant economic interests’ recognition of the tremendous profits that can be made by privatizing public education.
The central body in shaping the current stage of privatization of public higher education is the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education. (See: The Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Internet Source.) The Spellings Commission was formed by George Bush’s Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings in 2005 after Congress was unable to pass the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 2003. The Spellings Commission incorporated the standards established by the 2002 Elementary and Secondary Education Act which introduced No Child Left Behind. Privatized standards adopted from the 2002 Education Act include: accountability, outcomes, and assessments.
In 2007 and 2008, Spellings initiated a series of national and regional summits to discuss the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations. At that time, various accrediting commissions were forced to adopt those recommendations. Judith Eaton, who is the President of the Committee for Higher Education Accreditation, explains, “Accrediting bodies were subjected to severe criticism, with claims that their process lacked rigor, failed to address student achievement adequately, and did not encourage information about academic quality, failing to give students and the public the basis to compare institutions.” (See: Judith Eaton, “Accreditation and the Future of Higher Education,” September-October, 2010. Internet Source.)
In 2007, the ACCJC was re-recognized by the Department of Education’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Reform. Further, in 2008, the Higher Education Act, incorporating the Spellings Commission recommendations, was reauthorized. The Department of Education assumed accountability for the implementation of those recommendations.
The composition of the Spellings Commission demonstrates the actors involved in the privatization of public higher education. The Commission included individuals from corporations, foundations, think-tanks, for–profit educational firms, and higher education. Members associated with foundations and for-profit educational firms were: Kati Haycock, Director of The Education Trust; James B. Hunt, Jr., Chairman of the Hunt Institute for Educational Policy and Leadership; Catherine B. Reynolds, Chairman and CEO of Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation and EduCap, Inc.; Arthur J. Rothkopf, Senior Vice-President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Richard Vadder, Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; Robert M. Zesty, Chair and Professor at The Learning Alliance for Higher Education; and Sara Martinez Tucker, President and CEO Hispanic Scholarship Fund. Louis Sullivan, who was Secretary of Education under George H. W. Bush, was also on the Commission. There were also five individuals on the Commission who were associated with universities, only one of which was a classroom teacher.
The stated objective of the Spellings Commission was “to develop a comprehensive national strategy for post-secondary education that will meet the needs of America’s diverse population and also address the economic and workforce needs of the country’s future.” Eaton poses that the Commission’s intent was, in fact, to use accreditation as a lever to further the interests of private industry. Therefore, the actual objectives were to: 1) privatize public education through corporate management models, eliminating shared governance, curriculum standardization, on-line teaching, distance-learning, and computer-based tutorials; 2) eliminate traditional pedagogic teaching (and where possible tenured teachers); 3) channel students into majors or programs that lead to non-union- low-wage (“middle-skilled”) positions in the United States’ 21st century job market; and, 4) circumvent, and possibly, destroy public teacher unions. Moreover, this also meant that the Federal Government was intervening into such areas as institutional autonomy, academic freedom, and peer and professional review, that had previously been off-limits to the Government. Eaton adds, “In order words, the Government has started to replace both institutional and faculty judgment in academic matters.” (See: Eaton. Internet Source.)
Why the ACCJC Acts with Impunity
The ACCJC has obviously had a very contentious relationship with colleges in its jurisdiction over accreditation under its current President, Barbara Beno. Beno’s response to the deepening acrimony throughout the community colleges was made at a forum at San Francisco City College in 2012. She stated, “I know. I know: the standards keep going up, but the resources keep going down. It isn’t me, it’s Washington, D.C.” The Department of Education has been firm in demanding a rigorous enforcement of its standards. However, how does that explain why the ACCJC has operated with such vengeance in contrast to the other five regional accreditation commissions? Despite whatever Beno’s believes, the ACCJC is operating as a “hit squad.” The intent is to make the California community colleges an example for community and junior colleges throughout the nation.
The California system is the largest and historically the most successful community college system in the country; and it has been integral to the California Master Plan for Higher Education since its inception in 1960. That system was dedicated to open access and free education for all Californians. If that system could be made to yield, then other districts around the country might capitulate without much resistance. That is a reason why San Francisco City College has been singled out for attack: it is a model urban-based community college with a history of strong collegial shared governance. If SFCC is forced to comply to the demands of the ACCJC, or is forced to shut-down, that would be an example to other campuses in the state and throughout the nation. The conundrum the administration at Skyline College face over ACCJC accrediting is profound: complying with the ACCJC requirements might prevent the college from being sanctioned, but compliance will facilitate another step in the ongoing dismantling of public education as we knew it.
What Must Be Done?
The above case study describes what the late-Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci called a “passive revolution.” This development occurs when the ruling class (dominant economic interests) promote an ideological-political-economic restructuring from above.
The underlying intent is to shift the political-economy to a new model of profit (capital) accumulation. Central to a “passive revolution” is fostering a hegemonic (dominant) ideological consensus among competing and conflicting classes, social groups, and interests in society. Simply examining the diverse range of support for privatization of education in society today affirms Gramsci’s notion of “passive revolution.” This reality is further reinforced by the fact that the leadership of the nation’s teacher unions have not only bought into the privatization of public education, they have also actively under- mined any discussion among its rank-and-file union members about the roots and implications of privatization.
Nevertheless, this same rank-and-file union membership should be in the forefront of organizing to stop privatization of public education. This action is imperative because the state of public education is in a NATIONAL EMERGENCY; and a political response is past due. Without a massive intervention by teachers, staff, school custodians and bus drivers, students, and parents on a national level, it may be too late to alter the trajectory of events. The United Public Workers for Action proposes the following agenda to organize around:
• Establish a political education campaign to inform the union rank-and-file, affiliated school employees, and concerned citizens about the roots and implications of the privatization of public education;
• Develop an agenda for the support of public education as a counter to privatization;
• Demand that public education be re-funded, teachers, staff, and affiliated school employees get re-hired, and resources get expanded;
• Mobilize a nation-wide strike of educational workers and students demanding the complete roll-back of privatization;
• Organize to demand that Congress re-affirm public education by purging all standards of privatization while deliberating and passing the re-authorization of the Public Education Act of 2013;
• Demand accreditation be used to maintain institutional autonomy, peer and professional review, and academic freedom and not to destabilize and privatize education;
• Sue the State of California and Governor Jerry Brown for violating the State Constitution which prohibits public money for charter schools and the privatization of public education;
• Call for an investigation and prosecution for criminal financial conflicts of interests all privatizers, educational agencies, school board members, school district officials, and elected officials who have voted on private contracts that they have benefited from.