Questioning the "Tuning" project

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The Connecticut Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (CCCPH) has followed the AHA’s announcement of the “Tuning” project to establish core competencies in history with great interest.  We believe this project will provide faculty with the time and resources to reflect on the essential skills of history and applaud the AHA’s attention to education.

However, as hopeful as we are about the project’s benefits, we also recognize that global capitalism and the current recession are restructuring higher education, especially in public institutions which face increased government scrutiny at the same moment that public funding is declining.  Given this volatile context, it is important to look beyond the immediate pedagogical goals and raise questions about possible consequences of the Tuning project, be they intentional or not.  In that spirit, we pose the following questions:

1)  What do we know about the Tuning project’s sponsor the Lumina Foundation for Education and its goals for higher education?  Tuning is not an AHA initiated program, but is instead an established process directed by the Lumina Foundation, an important player in the education field which spends tens of millions of dollars a year to influence higher education policy.  In the July 10, 2010 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Kelderman reports that Lumina works with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization dedicated to limited government, free markets, and federalism. Historians might know ALEC best from William Cronon’s blog post last year linking ALEC to legislation ending collective bargaining rights for public employees—this was the blog post that led to the Wisconsin State Republican Party’s request for Cronon’s e-mail under the open records law.  (Cronon’s “Study Guide” in that post remains a useful place to learn more about ALEC.)

We raise this connection between Lumina and ALEC not to discredit the Tuning process  out of hand, but to recognize that pedagogical initiatives like Tuning are not politically neutral and do not take place outside a political context.  The Lumina report Four Steps to Finishing First in Higher Education (PDF) is important for understanding the foundation’s larger goals.  This report outlines a policy agenda that includes tying state funding to degree completion rates, increasing the “efficiency” of education by employing new academic delivery models such as large online classes, and using tuition and financial aid incentives to discourage experimentation and limit student enrollment to classes necessary for graduation.

2)  What effect will Tuning have on educational equity and class disparities?  Lumina’s goal is to make the United States more competitive in the global capitalist market by increasing the number of Americans with degrees.  We understand that to do this they are focusing on the population that has started a degree, but has not finished.  Tuning’s role in this process is to determine core competencies which will, at least to some extent, standardize programs and make it easier for students to transfer between schools or to restart at a new school if they drop out.

The ethic here centers on degree production and sees education as an assortment of classes, undermining the idea of the traditional college experience with its extended relationships between professors and students, as well as its enriching campus life. Lumina’s work in degree attainment will likely focus on institutions with low six-year graduation rates, largely community colleges and second-tier state schools.  While Lumina’s policy changes would create a very different kind of college experience for students in those systems, traditional degrees will most certainly remain for those who can afford private schools. In that sense, Lumina’s proposal will only further entrench social disparities. (A parallel can be drawn to K-12 education where public schools have embraced the educational reforms of high-stakes test taking, while private independent schools show little interest in adopting common standards or test-based accountability). While Lumina argues that increasing the number of Americans with degrees will elevate incomes and strengthen the middle class, focusing on education attainment as a method of addressing social problems is troubling in itself – namely in the way that it places an undue responsibility on education to solve social problems and dangerously ignores the role of economic systems and power relations in producing class disparities.

3)  What effect will Tuning and Lumina’s education policies have on working conditions for historians in the academy?  A key idea behind the Tuning project is that core competencies must be measureable and assessable. Secondary education teachers have found state standards to be helpful pedagogical tools, but are now faced with student test scores being used to undermine tenure, discredit teacher unions, and terminate individual instructors. It is impossible to predict how the outcomes of Tuning will be used, but the possibility of university faculty facing similar pressures should be a concern.  Lumina’s larger commitment to increasing productivity while reducing costs suggests a kind of academic Taylorism.  Reductions in full-time, tenure track positions, expanded use of adjunct and contingent faculty, shrinking support for research, and increases in faculty-student ratios all seem likely components of Lumina reforms.

The changes that are coming in higher education will not affect all schools equally.  Student and faculty in public schools, particularly those in community colleges and second tier universities will feel the effects of education reforms most profoundly.  But as the professional organization to all historians working in the academy, the AHA has a responsibly to  explore fully the potential consequences of the Tuning project and its funder’s policy agenda.  We ask that AHA examine the larger policy and labor implications of the Tuning project and explain how it will empower faculty and students.

~ Briann Greenfield,  [email protected]
Associate Professor, History Department, Central CT State University
For the Connecticut Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History

  1. Keith Erekson says:

    There is also an international context that should be noted. See

    1. Kathy Hermes says:

      There is an interesting post on Tuning and the Lumina Foundation here as well:

      “Tuning is a methodology developed in Europe to convene experts in a discipline to spell out the distinctive skills, methods, and substantive range of that field. Participants then work to harmonize or ‘tune’ the core goals of their discipline and the curricula that support those goals on each participating campus.”

      The rebel in me in recoils at this description. Harmonize and tune make me think of much more nefarious things than those words suggest in their lilting, musical come-on. Must we all think alike? This is only a project aimed at certain schools, and not the ones at the top. I guess if you are racing to the top but not at the top, different rules apply. Of course, if you “tune,” you won’t really get to the top either. You will be with everybody else. Exactly with everybody else.

  2. Briann Greenfield says:

    I’m posting this comment below at the request of Chris Doyle, director of global studies at Watkinson School in Hartford, Conn. ([email protected]) — Briann

    I’d like to add a parallel criticism of “core competencies.” My experiences teaching history on the secondary level, working with scores of high school teachers as an instructor on Teaching American History grants, and writing about history education have led me to be highly suspicious of lists of disciplinary standards. If the primary and secondary models have any predictive value, than whatever standards get articulated by the AHA will become the basis for evaluating professors, the standardization of exams, greater uniformity in college-level textbooks, and more constrictive thinking about what constitutes good history.

    If this sounds farfetched, than I should add that it sounded equally implausible to secondary educators 15 years ago. As the Governor of Connecticut is currently implementing a plan to make tenure for secondary educators contingent on standardized test results, and all but four states have embraced national “core standards” as the basis for teaching and learning, than it seems quite logical that higher education is the next arena for similar “reforms” to work themselves out.

    Yet the problem with “core competencies” goes beyond evaluation and tenure. Our education culture has lost the distinction between standards and standardization. On the secondary level, the trend is to make teaching and learning so uniform that a disturbing sameness sets in. Diversity of thought, creative teaching, and the idiosyncratic lesson built around a special interest or the day’s news headline all get shut out by teaching to the standards and the tests that go with them.

    I have written about this issue repeatedly, although from several different points of departure. I recently won an award for teaching about September 11th in my “War on Terrorism” class here at Watkinson School. In an essay for The American Educator, I discuss how difficult it was to fit the recent past into my AP U.S. History classes. The recent past isn’t on the AP exam, so teaching it was seen by students and administrators as a distraction. My essay is on-line at: Over the last three years, I’ve also had three commentary pieces in Education Week tackling the subject. For example see: “Let’s Stop Forecasting 21st Century Skills”

  3. I’m so glad that Briann and Chris have raised here a number of crucial issues regarding the Tuning project. I’d also like to tie the conversation opening up here to some comments that I wrote about Tuning from a different public history perspective a couple of weeks ago when I first saw the AHA’s announcement seeing “faculty participants” for the project.

    From the standpoint of a public historian who works in a professional staff (not faculty) position in the academy and practices public history kind of “on the side,” I saw the Tuning project’s apparently modest plans for incorporating the voices of practicing public historians as a design that would likely limit its ability really to reshape undergraduate curricula in ways meaningful to most arenas of public history practice.

    Those who would like to engage that set of concerns may view my original post over here: I am really pleased to see us analyzing this project from so many points of view!

  4. I thought this initiative sounded fishy. Thanks for writing this.

  5. Briann Greenfield says:

    A thoughtful piece from Stanley Katz about the role of foundations like Lumina driving education policy.

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