American Enterprise Institute Has a New Idea for Training: Have the USER Fund it With Government Loans

September 3, 2015 Leave a comment

Michael Horn and Andrew Kelly, a part of Clay Christensen’s Institute, propose a new way for individuals to get the job training they need: unbundling of post secondary education. What is unbundling and how does it work? Their introductory paragraph in the Executive Summary of a report they wrote for the American Enterprise Institute offers this overview:

In the face of increasing costs and lackluster outcomes, traditional higher education is under increasing pressure to prove its value proposition. Meanwhile, new providers have “unbundled” the components of a postsecondary degree or certificate by offering stand-alone courses or sequences of courses, targeted job training, and assessments and certifications, often at much lower cost than existing institutions. These models cannot deliver all of what a traditional college or university does, but they can provide affordable, flexible, and customizable opportunities to learn.

There is something appealing about providing prospective employees with the specific training they need to enter a particular job, but “unbundling” is a clear break from the traditional method that was used a generation ago and an implicit adoption of the notion that college should prepare one for entry into the workplace, a political idea that is a clear break from the traditional idea of what constitutes a meaningful college or university education.

A generation ago, when my father worked for DuPont, one of his assignments was sales and management training. He was responsible for teaching liberal arts majors and engineers the ins and outs of sales and for teaching aspiring managers the skills they would need to oversee employees. In the early 1980s (as I recall) that job disappeared and was replaced with contracted trainers who offered the programs formerly offered by staff members.

During my generation, another shift has taken place. Corporations who used to offer training in the products they sell and the methods they supported have decided to narrow their focus when they hire and if training is required they expect the employee to do that training on their time and, in some cases, on their dime. They no longer see value in offering training because the employee with exceptional skills is unlikely to remain with them and the one with adequate skills does not warrant the corporate investment.

Now it appears that corporations have decided it is no longer necessary to hire college graduates. Instead they can hire individuals on contingent contracts who take a series of unbundled courses that meet their needs at the time they are hired… and if those needs change, the employees can look elsewhere for work. Oh… and if the employees can’t afford to enroll in the unbundled courses, no problem! They can get a government loan to help them!

Horn and Kelly make the process described above sound different and much more appealing… but after all is said and done if the unbundling they envision is put in place the traditional liberal arts education will disappear except for the noblesse oblige and the worker bees will be in debt to either the government or investors for their entire lives.

The MOOCs Haven’t Materialized… Yet…

September 2, 2015 Leave a comment

Education technology writer Audrey Watters’s post “The MOOC Revolution that Wasn’t” in The Kernel” provides a comprehensive analysis of how Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, have not materialized and have, consequently, failed to deliver the promised inexpensive and equitable post-secondary education that led the NYTimes to declare 2012 “The Year of the MOOC”. While yesterday’s post links to an article by Julia Freedland that would beg to differ, and the nascent trend of unbundling higher education might make MOOCs as originally conceived immaterial, Watters examines the original promise of MOOCs versus the outcomes delivered and finds only disappointment. For example:

  • The pass rates are embarrassingly low. “…the average completion rate (for MOOCs) still hovers around 15 percent, a level that would be unacceptable for a traditional face-to-face college class.” 
  • The successful students were mostly college graduates. “…when the demographics of “successful” MOOC students were scrutinized in one University of Pennsylvania study, it was discovered that 80 percent already had college degrees. Rather than providing opportunities for the educational “have-nots,” MOOCs seem just as likely to further the opportunities of the educational “have-alreadys.” “
  • Start ups flopped. Highly touted Udacity’s program, a partnership with San Jose State University, which was “…hastily assembled” had an abysmal pass rate. “While the pass rate in a traditional, face-to-face SJSU class is 74 percent, “no more than 51 percent of Udacity students passed any of the three classes,” Inside Higher Ed reported. (Consequently) The partnership between SJSU and Udacity was scrapped.” 
  • The ultimate goal of MOOCs, it appears, was the creation of entry level jobs for computer science. Sebastian Thrun, one of the early champions of MOOCs, predicted that within 50 years they would eliminate all but ten colleges. Now? “The latest tagline used by Thrun to describe his company: “Uber for Education.” …and as Watters wryly notes, “…the analogy “Uber for Education” conjures… piecemeal work… it’s contingent and low-paid and unreliable work.” And Thrun’s new MOOC paradigm, according to Watters is based on this premise: Rather than education for all, MOOCs now merely promise education for employability. 

Could MOOCs ever realize the promise they showed three years ago? Not if we accept the world as it is now… the world Thrun and his tech billionaires see this way:

The San Jose State pilot offered the answer. “These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives,” he says. “It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.” 

So… rather than provide support to federal, state, and local governments who want to help students get access to computers and meet the challenges in their lives, Thrun and his ilk want to write them off to low wage jobs, consigning them forever to the lowest economic class.

My perspective: if we write off the possibility that MOOCs might provide many students with opportunities for high quality instruction we are writing off what could be a way to transform education. It would be a shame to abandon the potential of MOOCs because some tech billionaires see it as yet another means of reinforcing factory schooling and social Darwinism.

Personalization vs. Digitalization: A Useful Construct for Viewing “Disruption”

September 1, 2015 Leave a comment

It is unfortunate that the term “disruption” has been firmly linked with the for-profit education firms that have privatized public education, because Clay Christensen, who coined the term” did not see intend to link “disruption” with “profit” or “privatization”.

In Julia Freedland’s post, “Rethink Funding for Quality Learning“, which appeared in WISE Ed Review a few days ago, she contrasts “personalization” (another term expropriated by profiteers) and  “digitalization”. Personalization measures and targets students’ needs and strengths: it is a means of ensuring students attain mastery in skills they want and need to fulfill their unique individual goals. Digitization computerizes the existing factory model of education and uses traditional standardized tests to measure learning. As Freedland writes:

Some online tools may leverage technology to drive down the cost of delivering instruction by simply digitizing the traditional, factory-based model of education. For example, if traditional students merely watch recordings of lectures but are not assessed for understanding in a different manner, the traditional classroom—and its limited ability to support individual student’s needs—will remain intact.

Freedland is not averse to seeking private investments to leverage the transformative change Clay Christensen envisioned when he wrote Disrupting Education… but she IS concerned about those seeking quick returns on they investment:

…(W)e… need savvy investors—in the VC and philanthropic communities—to provide patient capital to support disruptive innovations in education. Disruptive innovations do not compete in the traditional market, but instead target pockets of nonconsumption and the low end of the market. By definition, these disruptive markets are small and harder to estimate at the outset. Firms pursuing a disruptive strategy may struggle to attract investors because as disruptors, they tend to get their starts in these smaller markets. However, disruptive innovations will be vital to moving toward a system that leverages technology to personalize—rather than merely digitize—education. Investors, therefore, should evaluate investments in disruptive innovations based on companies’ ability to make a profit in these distinct markets (i.e., to create a viable, cost-effective product within an albeit small market) rather than to grow quickly right off the bat. VC and philanthropic portfolios need not be dedicated entirely to disruptive innovations; however, investors should be aware of the possibility that they will need to use different metrics to assess sustaining versus disruptive opportunities in the EdTech space.

Freedland, unlike, say, Bill Gates, realizes that it will take time to introduce, field test, and fully implement the changes in instruction, measurement, and public support needed to transform public education.

How can these kids of changes be facilitated by public policy? Freedland suggests that state funding mechanisms may hold the key, and cites NH’s means of funding as the direction more states should head:

A better funding system would reward successfully driving individual student performance among both schools and EdTech providers. Take, for example, the manner in which the state of New Hampshire funds the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, a statewide source for online learning opportunities. Because New Hampshire is one of few states to have gone fully competency-based, VLACS’s instructional model and funding model are contingent on students advancing—and being funded—only upon demonstrating mastery.

Freedland provides a chart that illustrates how VLACS receives funding based on the extent to which each student achieves mastery the content. VLACS received 30% funding for a student who masters 30% of their objectives and 100% for a student who masters all the objectives. This mechanism shifts the funding incentives away from enrollment data and moves it toward mastery data: away from inputs that are easily measured but unimportant to learning outputs that are more difficult to measure but far more important. In examining the means of funding disruptive change, Freedland asserts that both the private and public sector need to change their thinking:

In short, to drive toward high-quality personalized learning, we need to rethink both private and public funding streams. This will require more patient capital, more hard-nosed accountability based on outcomes, and a commitment to creating an education system in which the expanding EdTech market will grow with student outcomes as a priority. 

And a by-product of this kind of funding will be the abandonment of the existing grade groupings based on age and the institution of a means of providing each and every student with the support of a caring adult who monitors their progress toward the attainment of a personalized learning plan they develop in coordination with their parents and school.

Rethinking Work…Especially Teaching

August 31, 2015 Leave a comment

In yesterday’s NYTimes Barry Schwartz article, “Rethinking Work”, described how Adam Smith’s assumptions about workers and the importance of efficiency serve as the basis for work as we know it over two centuries later. The article suggests the need for us to reconsider the way we define work in our culture and includes these paragraph:

The transformation I have in mind goes something like this: You enter an occupation with a variety of aspirations aside from receiving your pay. But then you discover that your work is structured so that most of those aspirations will be unmet. Maybe you’re a call center employee who wants to help customers solve their problems — but you find out that all that matters is how quickly you terminate each call. Or you’re a teacher who wants to educate kids — but you discover that only their test scores matter. Or you’re a corporate lawyer who wants to serve his client with care and professionalism — but you learn that racking up billable hours is all that really counts.

Pretty soon, you lose your lofty aspirations. And over time, later generations don’t even develop the lofty aspirations in the first place. Compensation becomes the measure of all that is possible from work. When employees negotiate, they negotiate for improved compensation, since nothing else is on the table. And when this goes on long enough, we become just the kind of creatures that Adam Smith thought we always were. (Even Smith, in one passage, seemed to acknowledge this possibility, noting that mindless, routinized work typically made people “stupid and ignorant.”)

…How can we do this? By giving employees more of a say in how they do their jobs. By making sure we offer them opportunities to learn and grow. And by encouraging them to suggest improvements to the work process and listening to what they say.

Needless to say this resonated with me as one who deplores the “reform” movement that reduces he measurement of teaching to a single test score measuring skills that measure student performance on material provided in “teacher proof” curriculum guides, skills that were imposed without the direct involvement of teachers and whose suggestions and ideas are dismissed as unimportant.

For those politicians and businessmen who value efficiency over humanity, their spreadsheet analyses over the observations in classrooms, their belief that money is the primary motivator for employees, and their desire for saving money over improving the lives of children and their employees, the aspirations of teachers are unimportant…. and the consequence is that the routinized work they are creating in the classrooms will not appeal to those with creativity and intelligence.

NEPC: A Balanced Review of NOLA Changes

August 30, 2015 Leave a comment


Diane Ravitch and the National Education Policy Center have offered a counterweight to the politicians and mainstream media who repeat the “feel good” story about how NOLA schools are evidence of the rebirth of the city. 50% unemployment and poverty rates are hardly evidence of a renaissance.

Originally posted on Diane Ravitch's blog:

All day long, I have posted about the free-market reform of the schools in New Orleans. I have done so because the mainstream media has been touting the success of privatization for almost ten years. States and districts have declared their intention to copy the New Orleans model, believing it was a great success. I just heard a CNN news report stating that the elimination of public schools was controversial, but test scores are up, and the city is investing in its children’s futures. The same report said that 50% of black men are unemployed and 50% of black children live in poverty.

As this report from the National Education Policy Center shows, the test score gains have disproportionately benefited the most advantaged students.

The rhetoric of corporate reform is always about “saving poor black kids.” In New Orleans, they have not yet been saved.

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Common Core Debate Should be a Sideshow and NOT the Main Attraction

August 29, 2015 Leave a comment

Natalie Wexler wrote an op-ed column in yesterday’s NYTimes advocating that teachers and schools focus on teaching E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge, which focusses on facts students should learn by a particular age instead of the bright new Common Core, which focusses more on skills students should learn by a particular age. As the title of this blog post indicates, this whole debate on WHAT we teach should be a sideshow!

Three years ago I wrote a post titled “Learning is Constant, Time is the Variable” that described the basis for advocating a complete change to the way schools are organized. Instead of batching children into age based on their age and holding schools accountable for when students master skills and gain knowledge, we should batch students by skills learned and knowledge acquired regardless of their age. This would have been a daunting (but not impossible) task three decades ago when Ron Edmunds suggested it, but with today’s technological advances it can and should be done.

One state, Vermont, is implementing a plan that might help break this mold. In December 2013 the State Board adopted a set of Education Quality Standards that includes one element that has the potential to break the mold of the factory school. Beginning this school year all seventh grade students need to develop a Personalized Learning Plan that defines “…the scope and rigor of academic and experiential opportunities necessary for the student to successfully complete secondary school and attain college and career readiness.” This will not be a one-size-fits-all plan that will be measured by standardized tests administered in grades 7, 8, and 11 but a plan that is uniquely tailored to each student. The plan is intended to be reviewed annually and ideally could drive the “curriculum” offered at the secondary level.

Students are not pieces of clay to be molded into pre-determined figurines defined by “standards”… and whether those standards are skill-based or knowledge based is beside the point. Students are unique individuals who have unique and varied talents and unique and varied aspirations. The faster we move away from standards and move toward Personalized Learning Plans the better off we will be… and the better off our children in schools will be.

Gene Glass, Explains His Decision to Stop Being a “Measurement Specialist”

August 28, 2015 Leave a comment

In his own blog post, that was picked up by Diane Ravtich and Naked Capitalism, Arizona State professor Gene V. Glass explains why he no longer wants to be referred to as a “measurement specialist”… an in doing so gives a history of education measurement over the past 50 years. The post  is full of revelations from a statistician who witnessed the corruption of testing. After getting his doctorate from University of Illinois, Glass worked for several years trying successfully to devise tests that would help teachers assess students based on the student’s learning style. This paragraph describes what happened next:

Around 1980, I served for a time on the committee that made most of the important decisions about the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The project was under increasing pressure to “grade” the NAEP results: Pass/Fail; A/B/C/D/F; Advanced/Proficient/Basic. Our committee held firm: such grading was purely arbitrary, and worse, would only be used politically.The contract was eventually taken from our organization and given to another that promised it could give the nation a grade, free of politics. It couldn’t.

It was around 1980 that politics and testing began to intertwine… and their relationship to the “decline” in American schools was clear to Glass:

The degrading of public education has involved impugning its effectiveness, cutting its budget, and busting its unions. Educational measurement has been the perfect tool for accomplishing all three: cheap and scientific looking.

International tests have purported to prove that America’s schools are inefficient or run by lazy incompetents. Paper-and-pencil tests seemingly show that kids in private schools – funded by parents – are smarter than kids in public schools. We’ll get to the top, so the story goes, if we test a teacher’s students in September and June and fire that teacher if the gains aren’t great enough.

Eventually, the “…cronyism between corporations and politicians” disgusted Glass so much he’s decided to change his teaching assignments:

When measurement became the instrument of accountability, testing companies prospered and schools suffered. I have watched this happen for several years now. I have slowly withdrawn my intellectual commitment to the field of measurement. Recently I asked my dean to switch my affiliation from the measurement program to the policy program. I am no longer comfortable being associated with the discipline of educational measurement.

Many veteran educators I know share Glass’ disdain for the direction schools have headed and feel that the mission of education has changed for the worse…. and in some cases they have not only withdrawn their intellectual commitment to public schools but also withdrawn their political commitment to their improvement. In the coming months those of us who believe education is the best means for eliminating the vicious cycle of poverty need to work to get officials who support the mission of public education elected to offices in all levels of the government.