Putting Education Reform To The Test

Is Florida Ready To Consider Texas Higher Ed Reforms?

Joe Raedle / Getty News Images

Gov. Rick Scott listens at a Miami business roundtable meeting in August. Scott has been circulating a Texas plan designed to quantify college and faculty performance.

Is it possible to evaluate a college professor the same way NFL scouts measure the speed, strength and quickness of college athletes?

Florida Gov. Rick Scott wants to have that debate. He’s looking to a controversial Texas proposal as a guide.

The Texas model has sparked a Lone Star backlash from schools concerned the plan forces them to adopt a one-size-fits-all template, undermines research and damages the value of a degree. An organization of the nation’s top research universities has warned members about adopting the Texas reforms.

Supporters say the plan was meant to start a conversation. They believe they achieved that goal.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s Republican presidential candidacy has focused more attention on the ideas.

Last month University of Texas Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa outlined a nine-point plan to more efficiently educate students. Florida State University President Eric Barron Thursday unveiled a 23-page proposal for Florida schools, the first step in initiating Florida’s debate.

“Let’s look at the breadth of factors and let’s prove to ourselves we’re talking about how effective someone is,” Barron said.

The State University System of Florida Board of Governors will meet this week to discuss reform experiments in other states, board spokesman Kelly Layman said.

The Plan

Texas Public Policy Foundation

Texas “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” were authored by the free market-based Texas Public Policy Foundation with the goal of quantifying school performance. The plan would rate professors based on number of students taught, grades awarded and student reviews.

The report also calls for schools to break out their academic and research budgets and establish alternatives to national accreditation.

The long-term goal is to ensure more students graduate from college and to slow the growth of college tuition. Advocate hope the reforms could mean a $10,000 degree.

Scott has been sharing copies of the report with candidates for higher education boards, but has yet to endorse any specifics Layman said.

The college proposals echo K-12 reforms Scott signed into law earlier this year. That law mandates teacher evaluations and merit pay for those who rate highest. The law also strips newly-hired teachers of long-term contract protections.

“We hope what we’ve been through is able to provide and make fruitful the higher education debate,” said Joshua Trevino, spokesman for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “Inasmuch as this discussion has spurred and people must participate in it whether they like or not, that’s all for the good.”

The proposals met resistance after Texas A & M University attempted to gauge the value of their faculty by calculating revenue a professor generated from teaching and then subtracting their salary and benefits. The resulting spreadsheet was dubbed the “red and black report” to designate between professors who profited the university and those who did not.

Texas A&M also instituted bonuses for highly-rated professors.

“We Don’t Produce Widgets”

Critics have said the evaluation is too simplistic and does not accurately account for research.

“It was very much widgetry,” said Melinda Hill Perrin, a leader in the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education which opposed the changes, “and we don’t produce widgets here, we produce student leaders.”

“Those concerns were real then. They would be real now. We are paying attention.”

-Association of American Universities spokesman Barry Toiv

The 61-member Association of American Universities agreed. The group is a coalition of the nation’s top research universities.

The University of Florida is the state’s only member, but joining the group is such a high priority for the University of South Florida that the school includes it in their new employee orientation.

University of South Florida administrators declined to comment on this story.

Last fall the group’s then-president Robert Berdahl wrote a letter to Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin that, according to the Texas Tribune, questioned whether A&M’s academic values aligned with the Association for American Universities.

The reform proposal “demonstrates little or no understanding of the nature of graduate education,” Berdahl wrote.

AAU spokesman Barry Toiv said the group has not changed its opinion of Texas-style reform. High-quality universities should not treat research as a separate function from academics, he said.

“Those concerns were real then,” Toiv said. “They would be real now. We are paying attention.”

Perrin argued that research was vital to maintaining a university’s standards. Not every avenue of research can or should pay off, she said, and those decisions should not be based on profit potential.

“We wanted to make sure that the degree we were presenting our students was of the highest quality,” Perrin said. “We did not want for the efficiency and productivity debate to dumb down our university and devalue our degree.”

An Affordable Degree

Florida does meet one goal of the Texas reforms: College affordability.

Seven Florida schools ranked in the top 100 of Forbes’ values rankings.  Top universities such as the University of Florida cost about $18,000 in tuition and fees for a four-year degree, despite lawmakers lifting tuition caps in recent years.

Florida has 11 schools where it is possible to earn a four-year degree for around $10,000, according to U.S. Department of Education data. Those schools include Palm Beach State College, Broward College, Northwest State College and Miami-Dade College.

But those tuitions could rise with the loss of more than $125 million in federal stimulus money from college budgets.

Layman, the University System Board of Governor’s spokeswoman, said the board will meet this week and plans to discuss ideas from Texas, Ohio and other states.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich has proposed universities develop three-year degree programs – an idea the University of South Florida is trying.  Kasich’s proposals would also attempt to reduce the need for remedial classes for students entering college.

Trevino with the Texas Public Policy Foundation said the best plan would be a local plan with guidance from other states.

“It’s really Floridians that have to come up with Florida’s solutions,” he said. “We hope what we’ve been through is able to expedite and make fruitful the higher education debate.”


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