Marco Castillo, City Tech
General Education and Public Policy Students
June 18, 2014 09:00 AM
By Marco Castillo
Each spring, the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management holds an annual conference. In contrast to the larger and more formal Fall Research Conference, the Spring Conference provides public policy researchers and practitioners with a smaller and more collegial forum for exchanging ideas regarding what today's public policy students need to learn. One of the important goals of this conference is to minimize the gap that sometimes develops between the theoretical realm of public policy research and the hands-on world of public policy practice.
The tension between theory and practice is nothing new for this applied field of study. Resolving the pull between theory and practice has been central in the development of the field of public policy and administration. As far back as the late 19th century, Woodrow Wilson, the “father” of American public administration, struggled with this tension as he wrestled with questions regarding how America would govern itself as it grew as a nation. He concluded that while the macro-level theoretical debates regarding the nature of democratic government were “by no means concluded,” they were less pressing than questions of practical policy and administration, leading to his famous assertion that “It is getting to be harder to run a constitution than to frame one.” This sentiment would serve as a marker illustrating a change in the academic study of government, signaling a shift toward a more applied focus. Throughout the 20th century, public policy and administration scholars struggled to develop the field in a way that would reveal profound theoretical insights into the art of governance while providing practical knowledge that would help public servants do their jobs more effectively.
From the practitioner-professor dialogue at this year’s APPAM Spring Conference, it seems that schools of public policy and administration have done a good job in training today's students in the evolving technical knowledge base of the field. Barbara Devaney, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Mathematica Policy Research (and current member of APPAM’s Policy Council), attested to this in her comments at the opening plenary session, noting that “[t]he public policy programs...have become incredibly strong programs. We just see that the quality of the job applicants over the last 10 or 15 years is just...really incredible. I think it's really important to acknowledge that...you guys are doing a great job. You're certainly meeting our needs.”
Yet one of the surprises from the conference was the extent to which the general skillsof critical thinking and clear written and spoken language were emphasized as essential for success in the modern public policy workplace. Indeed, this was a theme that ran throughout the day, both in the larger plenary sessions as well as the individual panel presentations. Paul Decker, President and Chief Executive Officer of Mathematica (and also APPAM’s Immediate Past President), expressed this sentiment well, noting that “[f]rom an employer's perspective... What we're looking for can be boiled down to a pretty simple story: It comes down to analytical capability and writing ability. Those are two things that really smooth somebody's transition into being an effective researcher in our market.”
This is an important finding, especially in light of current news regarding the teaching and development of general education skills at America's colleges and universities. There is growing evidence, particularly at the undergraduate level, of problems with how these skills are being developed in our undergraduate students. In their 2011 book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa wrote about a growing crisis in the teaching and development of general education skills at American colleges. The study found that an alarming number of students were simply not developing in their skills of critical thinking and writing throughout their college careers. They found that during their first two years of college, about half of students did not demonstrate any significant gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and other higher-level skills. After four years, about a third of students still did not demonstrate significant improvements in these areas. Various higher education policy advocacy organizations have recognized this problem and called for reforms and a renewed sense of focus on the general education mission of colleges. In 2011, the Lumina Foundation, a private foundation focused on increasing the number of Americans with high-quality college degrees, released its Degree Qualifications Profile, a suggested framework defining the knowledge and skills students should exhibit before graduating from college. The Association of American Colleges and Universities similarly sought to provide a framework for reform through its Essential Learning Outcomes, a proposal defining the essential knowledge, skills, and abilities today's college students need to develop, as part of its Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) initiative.
While the problem has multiple causes, we should recognize that there are steps we can immediately take to address the issue in our own classes and in our own colleges and universities. Certainly, as professors of public policy and administration, we must remember that there is always great power in taking individual-level action. As Michael Lipsky noted in his classic work Street Level Bureaucracy, workers operating on the front lines of organizations often have broad power to shape the goods and services that are ultimately delivered. In our case, as professors at higher education institutions, we have considerable latitude in how we teach our classes and what skills and competencies we emphasize as we deliver and assess student learning. Given the problems colleges and universities are experiencing in developing students' general education skills, we must remain vigilant in ensuring that our classes are rigorous with regards to the teaching of general education skills and competencies. We should strongly consider reviewing how we teach our courses in light of these reports and consider changes that would strengthen how we teach these important general education skills in our classes. And there need not be a tension between the teaching of course content and our development of students' general education skills; we can continue teaching cutting-edge theories and methods of policy analysis while emphasizing the importance of communicating findings to diverse audiences in clear and well-written language, a critical skill in the public policy workplace.
But we can go beyond this individual level action as we work to address this problem. There is also much broader organizational action that we can take to aid our educational institutions in developing and reforming how general education skills are taught at the college level. Higher education institutions across the country have been working in recent years to reform how general education is taught and how national frameworks for reform can be instituted at the local level. Many of these initiatives are in their infancy and need the effort, input, and collaboration of faculty members to succeed. As professors of public policy and administration, we have unique knowledge and insights that can help our institutions implement these policy reforms successfully. Through our service in programs and on relevant committees and through our input at forums for faculty participation, we can help ensure that our colleges and universities enact the policy reforms needed to address this issue and implement them in ways that are feasible for our unique institutional contexts.
Indeed, this is an important issue that is worthy of our attention. It was clear from the faculty–practitioner exchange at the APPAM conference that we are well on our way into the new age of technologically driven policy analysis, communication, and collaboration. Thus, technological savvy, familiarity with social media, and sophistication in the latest techniques of quantitative analysis will be critical for employment in the 21st century public policy workplace. But at the same time, the ability to utilize these modern tools will continue to rely on one's ability to think critically, write clearly, and communicate with diverse audiences. It is our task as public policy and administration educators to develop these skills within our students alongside the technical knowledge base of our field.
Marco Castillo is an Assistant Professor of Social Science at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY.
Opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Association.