How Do We Assure Quality?

National achievement exams for basic education are quite common in countries that desire to assess the quality of learning in primary and secondary schools. The top country in education, Finland, however, does not subscribe to testings, school rankings, and inspections. This actually makes sense since if these exams reveal inadequacies, it is too late in the process. Quality in Finland's education system comes from the starting point of basic education: Teachers. The requirements to become a teacher in Finland are very stringent, accepting only the cream of the crop. Quality assurance in basic education is best achieved by keeping an eye on higher education. Future teachers come from institutions of higher learning, the colleges and universities. Heads of schools do their postgraduate work in these institutions as well. An ailing basic education is a symptom of problems in higher education.

The Philippines is one country that that has the following specific statement in its constitution, "Academic Freedom shall be enjoyed in all institutions of higher learning." Of course, this statement is not really self-explanatory. The provision does not define what "Academic Freedom" really means. Encyclopedia Brittanica defines "Academic Freedom" in the following manner:
academic freedom, the freedom of teachers and students to teach, study, and pursue knowledge and research without unreasonable interference or restriction from law, institutional regulations, or public pressure. Its basic elements include the freedom of teachers to inquire into any subject that evokes their intellectual concern; to present their findings to their students, colleagues, and others; to publish their data and conclusions without control or censorship; and to teach in the manner they consider professionally appropriate. For students, the basic elements include the freedom to study subjects that concern them and to form conclusions for themselves and express their opinions. 
According to its proponents, the justification for academic freedom thus defined lies not in the comfort or convenience of teachers and students but in the benefits to society; i.e., the long-term interests of a society are best served when the educational process leads to the advancement of knowledge, and knowledge is best advanced when inquiry is free from restraints by the state, by the church or other institutions, or by special-interest groups. 
The foundation for academic freedom was laid by the medieval European universities, even though their faculties met periodically to condemn on religious grounds colleagues’ writings. Protected by papal bulls and royal charters, the universities became legally self-governing corporations with the freedom to organize their own faculties, control admissions, and establish standards for graduation.
Freedom, as always, comes with responsibility. It should be clear that this freedom enables educators in institutions of higher learning to better serve their students and society. This freedom is enabling, it does not mean simply "being free". Self-governance does not mean anarchy. It assumes ownership and self-discipline. Institutions of higher learning still need to answer to society. Institutions of higher learning establish their standards. Standards are necessary so that those who participate in these institutions know exactly what they are getting themselves into. Those who enter these institutions also need to know what they expect to attain through higher education. Standards are likewise not made in a vacuum. Universities are indeed free to draw their own goals, but these goals are still measured in terms of benefits to society. A college of engineering cannot draw a curriculum from scratch that does not meet what a society expects from an engineer.

When I was in graduate school at Illinois, I pursued a topic of my own choosing. That was freedom. However, it was also upon making that choice that the "free stuff" ended. There were standards. To receive a doctorate degree of philosophy in chemistry, I must make an original contribution that advances the field. Who was deciding if I actually did that? It was not me. Yes, when doing the experiments and analysis, I could tell that I was learning something new, but that judgment of mine was not sufficient. Research must be submitted to peer review. I did present my work at conferences. In fact, I remember one presentation I made in Ontario. The morning after my presentation I overhead an esteemed German scientist in the field of my work scolding another renowned scientist from Berkeley for failing to attend the talk I gave. That favorable impression was likewise not enough for me to think that I now deserve the doctorate degree. Chapters of my dissertation were submitted as separate papers to peer-reviewed journals. The papers are reviewed anonymously by experts in the area of my research. In some of the papers, I received a favorable response of "published as is", but in the others, I received substantial comments and criticisms which required me to revise the papers and resubmit for a second review. These were experts and it was likely that some were not even from the United States. After being able to publish my research, I then proceeded to defend my dissertation. In Illinois, the graduate school required one external member in the examination committee. Thus, for my defense, I invited a professor from Madison, Wisconsin to be part of the "grilling" team. Grilled for hours, I survived and received my PhD.

Currently, I am on the other side of the fence. As a professor in a university, I am finally granted "Academic Freedom". And it is responsibility. As a member of a department, we do design our own curriculum, but the design is not without standards. The two majors our department currently offers match the current standards set by the American Chemical Society (ACS). The two majors we offer are accredited by the association of chemists in the United States. Being accredited means the program we offer comply with the course requirements, both in number and depth. Accreditation policies can be quite specific. These not only describe courses students must take but also the faculty in the department. For example, there is a required minimum number of PhDs in the faculty for a BS Chemistry program to be accredited by the ACS. These, however, are actually much smaller than the goals and standards the department sets for itself. Regularly, the department goes through a self-study. In fact, we had one a year ago. This self-study occurs for months in which the department reviews its current goals and examines what it has accomplished for the past years since the last self-study. Our department measures its output in terms of publications in peer-reviewed journals and their citations, number of doctorate degrees granted, number of bachelor degrees given, external funding, placement of alumni, and quality of entering students. Self-study is really self-examination but at the end, the department selects and invites several experts in chemistry - these are renowned professors of chemistry from other universities, to review the department. The department receives a frank evaluation from these external reviewers. We are then informed where we currently stand and what we must do to improve. Serving students who aspire to go to medical school likewise imposes restraints on our undergraduate curriculum. Our department does pay attention to what medical schools expect from their students and the curriculum must align with these expectations. The graduate program is no different from what I experienced in Illinois. Our research must continuously be subjected to peer evaluation. Indeed, both undergraduate and graduate programs are subjected to standards, both internal and external. This is how quality assurance works. Academic freedom simply means that it is our responsibility that our program is of quality.

Standards or accreditation can be imposed by agencies external to the university. The fact that the government is the employer of public school teachers means that it is only expected that the government plays a significant role in defining teacher education programs especially when no independent agency is stepping up to the plate. Without such standards, without self-studies, without peer review, there is simply no quality assurance. When education programs are not subjected to standards, quality in basic education is an impossibility.

To address the problems basic education in the United States faces, new standards for teacher education have been recently drafted by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP):
The commissioners who drafted the standards are professors of education, deans, school board members, state education officers, leaders of teachers' associations, and university administrators. The draft is now open for public comments until March 29. The standards are divided into five parts:

  1. Content and Pedagogical Knowledge : Within this standard, both training in the subject matter as well as in teaching strategies are important. Paying attention to equity is also emphasized. A specific example for evidence for meeting the "content" part of this standard is "There should be a recommended specific and common cut-score across states, and a pass-rate of 80% within two administrations.
  2. Clinical Practice and Partnerhip : The educator school must provide "real life" experiences to future teachers. In simple terms, the educator school must partner with the schools and communities in which these future teachers will serve.
  3. Candidate Quality, Recruitment and Selectivity : The draft is suggesting to raise the bar by requiring entering teaching students to have had more rigorous high school courses in advanced math and languages.
  4. Program Impact : The outcome of basic education is applied as a measure for the accreditation of a teaching school. The teaching school therefore takes ownership and responsibility of what happens in primary and secondary schools. 
  5. Provider Quality, Continuous Improvement, and Capacity : This standard boils down to requiring a teaching school to do regular self-studies and assessment. 
Once these standards have been accepted, teaching schools can now be graded in the following manner:

The Commission proposes four levels of accreditation decisions: 
denial of accreditation—for providers that fall below threshold in two or more standards 
probationary accreditation—awarded to providers that meet or surpass the threshold in four standards, but fall below in one of the standards 
full accreditation—awarded to providers that meet all five standards at the CAEP-established thresholds 
exemplary or “gold” accreditation—awarded to a small number of providers that meet the threshold level set for all five standards and surpass the threshold in a combination of standards
The accreditation carries weight since both prospective students and employers take this seriously. This is how standards can be imposed on institutions of higher learning. These are necessary especially for colleges and universities that produce the public school teachers of tomorrow. Not doing so simply pushes the problems downstream where it becomes much more intractable.