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Expanding the college basics

Supporters say "learning compacts" will teach needed skills. Critics say they force colleges to spend money on remedial work.

Published November 9, 2004

[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
University of South Florida students listen as Priscilla Glanville facilitates discussion in a composition I class. From left, on the back row are Amina Griffith, 18; Mike Farrell, 18; and Celia Nash, 19.

Chris Patel admits it: Writing is not his strength. And he hates public speaking.

"I'm not good at it," the University of South Florida junior said recently, noting that English is his second language after Gujurati, an Indian tongue.

But Patel passed the required basic writing courses at USF and made oral presentations in other classes. For a degree in accounting, he figures, that's good enough.

Soon, it might not be.

The board that governs Florida's 11 public universities is pushing the schools to find ways to better teach communication and critical thinking skills - then certify that each student has mastered those skills before they graduate.

It's all part of a fuzzy but potentially far-reaching proposal called academic learning compacts.

The name is a snoozer, but the repercussions could be jolting.

Students who fail to master targeted skills might not graduate. And if too many fail, the state could cut a university's funding.

Supporters say academic learning compacts will put Florida in the forefront of the accountability movement in higher education and produce more well-rounded graduates. Far too many college students, they say, finish school without the basic skills they need to function in the workplace.

"I've got examples of good law students who can't write me a letter that's stylistically and grammatically correct," said state Board of Governors member Steve Uhlfelder, who has led the charge for compacts. "If you can't write or think critically, then what is the worth of your college degree?"

But critics say compacts are bureaucracy at its worst - a clumsy tool that would force universities to divert scarce resources to remedial education.

"What it's called is dumbing down," said Skip Pierce, chairman of USF's biology department.

* * *

The proposed compacts are still a work in progress, but one goal is clear: to tell students, before they begin course work in their major, what they are expected to learn and how progress will be measured.

The Board of Governors told schools they can shape the compacts how they want, as long as they address communication and critical thinking skills and core information for each major.

How they will do that isn't clear.

Compacts could mean more essay tests and term papers, or additional writing courses, or courses in communications and public speaking.

Schools could leave it up to professors to measure those skills for each student. Or they might have counselors review portfolios of research papers and essays before a student graduates.

Bottom line: There is no one way to do it. Compacts will differ school by school, major by major.

Some fear compacts could lead to standardized tests - something akin to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, in Florida's public schools. But Uhlfelder said he wants universities to steer away from formulaic, multiple-choice tests.

"That doesn't provide skills," he said.

How, then, to measure competence?

In some majors, a high enough score on the Graduate Record Exam or a national licensure test could suffice. In others, a satisfactory rating on a senior project might do, similar to the kind many business and engineering majors do to showcase accumulated skills.

"At the end of the day, (the universities) decide," Uhlfelder said. "If they say students can write effectively, and think effectively, I'm not going to second guess them."

Universities are not enthusiastic.

Compacts are one of many yardsticks by which the schools eventually will be measured to determine whether they should receive full funding from the state. But confusion about them abounds.

Last month, a group of university provosts asked the board to clarify key points regarding compacts. The big one: whether they should be a requirement for graduation.

Guidance is expected to come at this month's board meeting in Tallahassee.

University officials aren't the only people pushing back. Despite warm support when the Board of Governors endorsed compacts last spring, some board members have since tempered their enthusiasm.

"The devil's in the details," said member and bank president Gerri Moll, speaking at last month's board meeting. "We've created a situation where there could be more confusion among employers. ... I for one don't want to go there."

Board chairwoman Carolyn Roberts also raised concerns, particularly about the possibility of legal challenges if a student earns a degree, yet fails to complete a compact.

"The issue is certification," she said. "That's the hang-up."

* * *

In Priscilla Glanville's class at USF, writing isn't abstract.

Her students chat with sick patients at veterans hospitals, collect canned goods for hurricane victims and help disabled kids ride horses, among other volunteer efforts. Then they write about their experiences in online journals.

By combining writing with service learning, Glanville hopes to inspire students to write and keep writing.

"They're highly motivated," she said.

It shows in their work: One student wrote a piece from the perspective of a flashlight in a hurricane. Another took the view of a lost pet in an animal shelter.

Clearly, some students need more help writing than others, Glanville said. But giving those students more individualized attention early in their academic careers would be more productive than additional essay tests or reports later, she said.

Even critics of compacts agree that student writing and thinking skills need improvement.

In 2002, only 22 percent of high school seniors were proficient in writing, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress.

To address that deficiency, Florida requires its college students to pass the CLAST test, which measures basic math and writing skills. But most students are exempt from the CLAST because of other test scores or good grades.

Students also are required to take basic writing courses such as Glanville's, and other classes in which writing is a component.

Some wonder whether those requirements are enough.

A 2004 survey of some of the nation's largest corporations found widespread dissatisfaction with employee writing skills, so much so that more than 40 percent of companies said they needed to offer additional training. And concern about writing among graduate students is so deep that the GRE included an analytical writing section two years ago.

"Students are coming into the university without knowing what a noun or pronoun is," said Carl Borgia, the accounting school director at Florida Atlantic University.

Those skills should be instilled before students get to college or at least by the time they begin their majors, critics say. But if they aren't, should professors in upper-level courses be responsible for turning it around?

"We are experts in accounting," not writing, Borgia said.

Yet a committee in the FAU accounting school is studying how those skills can be shaped in core courses for accounting majors, including financial reporting and Tax I.

* * *

To become accredited, the joint engineering school at Florida State University and Florida A&M University must show a national board that it is teaching writing and communication skills, said Chiang Shih, who chairs the mechanical engineering department.

Among other requirements, engineering students must complete a project that includes writing a report, producing a Web page and making oral presentations before a panel of judges.

That was in place long before compacts bubbled up.

"When we sign the diploma, we say they've satisfied all the requirements," Shih says. "But (the Board of Governors) want us to provide another form that fits into their mold."

Some students question why compacts are needed.

"That's what you do in class, isn't it?" asked Patel, the USF accounting major.

Other students aren't necessarily opposed.

"You're in a lot of group projects and you find out real quick who can write," says USF junior Sabrina Padgett, a social work and women's studies major.

But Padgett wonders how much good compacts will do. By the time students hit their majors, extra requirements are "too late, too little," she says.

Uhlfelder, the board of governors member, says he is not optimistic compacts will be rolled out as he envisioned. But the issue of communication and critical thinking skills isn't going away.

"I've identified the problem," he says. "It's up to (the universities) to solve it."

- Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at or 727 893-8873.

[Last modified November 9, 2004, 00:26:24]

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