Educational Excellence…and Measuring It

One of the problems with excellence is something that I’ve seldom seen acknowledged, especially by those charged with determining and “measuring” it.

Simply said, excellence is individual, limited, and determined by specific accomplishments or “products.” Mozart and Beethoven wrote specific exceptional musical works. That defined their excellence, and that excellence was independent of their personal behavior, which was, to be charitable, far less than excellent. Einstein’s excellence manifested itself primarily in his theories of general and special relativity and the photoelectric effect.

These days, colleges and universities have essentially tied the idea of excellence in education to bureaucratic systems and accountability to rigid standards that miss the mark. Buzzwords like “essential learning outcomes” and “experiential learning” and “detailed rubrics” and “enhanced student retention” all abound. Syllabi have become detailed tomes that need to be written with near-legal precision. All of this and more is presented as both a means to excellence in education and as a way of measuring what constitutes such “excellence.”

And… of course, whether anyone will admit it, such methods and systems are failing. They’re failing because no one wants to look at what actually measures excellence in education. Excellence is not measured by how many students stay in school and graduate, nor is it measured by inflated grade-point averages, or university student evaluations, or by the immediate post-graduate earnings of such students. Diplomas, in all too many cases, have become almost meaningless paper credentials. First jobs and accomplishments pale, and touting the earnings of former students shows more about their interest in money than their accomplishments or their interest in actual accomplishment.

In the end, what represents a college’s excellence is the accomplishments in life of its students, especially in later years. The problem with this measure of excellence is that it’s long-term, and the educrats need immediate and flashy bookmarks to placate and motive legislators, donors, alumni, and parents and students paying ever-higher tuition and fees.

All too many universities recognize and honor primarily alumni or alumnae who have either attained celebrity status or donated substantial sums of money. Universities who recognize concrete and significant accomplishments of alumni with as much ballyhoo as those who donate enormous sums of money are rare. Student athletes who become successful professional athletes are touted over former students who become successful professionals in other fields.

The same is also true in terms of faculty recognition. Solid, career-long accomplishments of faculty seldom are lauded. Popular awards, awards that can be used for PR purposes, or accomplishments that gain press or increase enrollment, are all too often the faculty “accomplishments” that are touted by universities… and seldom do they represent excellence. Nor, apparently, do most people, even university alumni, even care.

They’re more interested in whether the football team has a winning record.

3 thoughts on “Educational Excellence…and Measuring It”

  1. Tom says:

    One aspect related to this post is that even long term evidence of excellence measured academically say with Nobel Laureates, Emmy, Pulitzer or other prizes, may result from cronyism. So then, which or what are the solid accomplishments that an observer can rely upon to assess excellence of schooling or education; both for assessment of past students and present faculty?

  2. John Prigent says:

    Educational excellence means teaching them to THINK. Unfortunately it’s assessed by the effectiveness of teaching them to pass tests.

  3. Kevin says:

    With all the emphasis and resources applied to Educational Excellence, are we are seeing the results? It seems to me that an excellently educated population would result in a better societal decision making process. I don’t have any empirical data, but anecdotally there seems to be less evidence based decision making in society today, rather than more. Facts aren’t always commonly agreed to or weighted the same, but shouldn’t an individuals decisions be based on some form of objective assessment of the facts in an educated society?

    CNN may be ideologically center-left, but their ad about an apple being an apple, whether viewed from the right or left really resonates.

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