In Defense of More “Extreme” Higher Education Policy Changes from the US Department of Education

In a March 30, 2018 article written by Jared Cameron Bass, Amy Laitinen, and Clare McCann; they offer a critique of what they clearly see as unnecessary and extreme moves toward deregulation from the current US Department of Education administration. In particular, they focus upon four policy areas of import for higher education: state authorization, the credit hour, accreditation, and the current definition of “regular and substantive interaction” in distance education programs. In each case, the authors point out their concerns about the direction that the US Department of Education is going, calling for a less extreme tweak or refinement of current policy instead of completely removing a policy and/or starting from scratch.

I encourage you to read this initial article for yourself, as the following remarks are, at least in part, an alternative view on key themes from that article. As I read it, I found myself trying to document what seemed to be the stated or underlying assumptions in the article. While I welcome clarification or correction, here are nine themes that seemed to emerge from my reading.

  1. Too extreme of policy changes can open the door for abuses and fraud that none of us want. In fact, this quickly turns into an access and equity issue.
  2. If institutions are finding a way to comply or survive with a current policy in one of these three areas, then the policy can’t be too bad. As such, minor revisions are better than starting from scratch. We should respect the work of those who’ve been addressing issues over the last decade.
  3. The amount of time and money devoted by higher education institutions is not a significant concern.
  4. We should base our policies upon the feedback of the current higher education “winners”, namely those with the resources or privilege to have more of a voice at the table in shaping current policy and practice.
  5. We want to push beyond the status quo, but not in a way that might risk major disruptions, changes, or innovations that challenge our preconceived beliefs about what higher education should or should not be.
  6. IHEs are managing to comply with current state authorization policies and they are protecting against some abuses, so why get rid of it?
  7. The current definition of the credit hour has worked for many CBE programs, so it can’t be too bad.
  8. Accreditors need to be tougher on higher education institutions, and the DOE leverage on accreditation agencies should encourage that.
  9. There is important history to the current “regular and substantive interaction” requirement for distance education, and that should be taken into consideration before completely removing the requirement or starting from scratch.

This is one person’s framing and understanding of the positions in the article, but regardless, I use these nine statements as a launchpad for my reflection on the the need for more significant, even extreme, policy changes.

1. Too extreme of policy changes can open the door for abuses and fraud that none of us want. In fact, this quickly turns into an access and equity issue.

This is always a good and important caution when it comes to policy reform. As I often write, there are always affordances and limitations to policies. With each policy there are winners and losers. It just seems like the authors of the article are representing a view that the current policies do not have serious enough limitations or they are not flawed enough to warrant more extreme interventions. If we were talking about a home remodel, they seem to be arguing for painting the walls and rearranging the furniture a bit, but not going to the extreme of taking out walls, addressing structural issues, adding new flooring, and getting brand new furniture. Only some of us have been living in that house and we know that there is a termite infestation, the furniture is filthy, there are concerns about how long the roof will last, and it is preventing us from the quality of life that we seek. As such, there is a genuine difference of opinion about the status of the current policies. I am well aware of abuses that the credit hour policy prevents, as well as the “regular and substantive interaction” stipulation for distance education programs. They are protecting against abuse, but at the same time, they are holding us back from countless promising practices and innovations. They are also putting higher education institutions at a disadvantage against those non-regulated providers of emerging education.

2. If institutions are finding a way to comply or survive with a current policy in one of these three areas, then the policy can’t be too bad. As such, minor revisions are better than starting from scratch. We should respect the work of those who’ve been addressing issues over the last decade.

Again, it is good to caution us about mindless changes or not considering the background and context. However, that does not mean that we should disregard the potential benefit of starting from scratch. The history also reveals a great deal of baggage and people harmed by current policies. Even more, there is an opportunity loss that has come from the extreme and narrow parameters of countless currrent policies.

3. The amount of time and money devoted by higher education institutions is not a significant concern.

To be fair, the authors did not explicitly state this. They just didn’t recognize it as a factor either. When you are a smaller higher education institution, it is no small factor when you find yourself having to devote multiple FTEs year round or during certain times of the year just to comply with the countless policies. That takes money away from other more immediate needs. In fact, the current policy landscape has been a boon for companies and consultants who are using the complexities to essentially scare institutions into paying for their help and participation. More accurately, these companies don’t do the scaring. They just offer to help protect people from the fears and threats associated with what some external entity might define as a regulatory infraction.

4. We should base our policies upon the feedback of the current higher education “winners”, namely those with the resources or privilege to have more of a voice at the table in shaping current policy and practice.

I can’t imagine that the authors would agree with this as stated, but I worry that this sentiment is present in their proposed approach.

At one point, the article references a letter that allegedly represented the collective voice and viewpoint of “the distance education community.” I’ve been involved with distance education for well over a decade, and that letter does not represent me. This is a growing frustration for me, in fact. The current “winners” are the ones who get consulted the most and those who have secured the public voice and place of influence. Then they invite a few others that the winners deem worthy of including, or they do so to argue that they are being more inclusive. This is coming from a person who has indeed been privileged to work and interact with thought leaders and leading organizations throughout the United States and the world, and yet I consistently find that my input and that of institutions like the one that I serve have not been a welcome part of past policy decisions. Over the past decade, at least from my vantage point, they have a handful of their favorite thinkers and voices, and they certainly did not represent the larger higher education ecosystem or the breadth of philosophies and ideals represented in that ecosystem.

5. We want to push beyond the status quo, but not in a way that might risk major disruptions, changes, or innovations that challenge our preconceived beliefs about what higher education should or should not be.

Here is my greatest concern with the proposal that we be content simply tweaking the current system. Just spend one day researching the breadth of educational innovations today. Then consider how many potentially beneficial efforts are inhibited by the current policies. Apart from some of the largely narrow innovative practices in CBE, much of distance education has been stagnant for almost 25 years. That is policy induced stagnation. Those in distance education are persistently forced into a narrow set of practices that comply with the given policies, thus abandoning or never fully pursuing practices that have promise. The policies have become dictators of “best practice” that don’t even allow for efforts that might reveal new promising practices. Even worse, the policies are created to prevent certain abuses without adequate or even reasonable consideration for the realities and opportunities of 21st century learning…or 17th-20th century learning for that matter.

6. IHEs are managing to comply with current state authorization policies and they are protecting against some abuses, so why get rid of it?

Yes, we are managing to comply, but it has taken a ton of money and human resources from institutions that are working hard to keep costs down for students while providing a great learning experience. In addition, it took a massive and expensive national consortium effort to help mitigate the incredibly problematic regulations from state to state. When it takes that large of an effort to just figure out a way that institutions can “manage to comply”, that is a sign of poorly defined policy. As it stands, there is a membership fee to be pat of the National Council for State Authorization and Reciprocity Agreements, and then, individual states can charge extra as well. This might seem like small money to massive institutions, but there are plenty of IHEs that are only talking about serving a few (yes, literally 2 or 3) students in a given state. Yet, that state might charge the institution as much as $5000 or $10,000 to do so. My point is simply that institutions are managing, but it is not without opportunity, time, and money lost.

7. The current definition of the credit hour has worked for many CBE programs, so it can’t be too bad.

I happen to serve at an institution that was one of the first 20 welcomed into the Competency-based Education Network. I quickly discovered that an immense amount of the effort was focused upon how to structure things so that we could be in compliance. That is a horrible way to produce the best results, at least when the policy is so mis-informed in the first place. So yes, the CBE programs that have a voice at the table are finding ways to work within the current policies. That is just because all the other voices are not at the table, they have been silenced or ignored (even if at the table), or they represent promising approaches to CBE that never launched because of regulatory challenges. I do not write on behalf of my institution, but I can say that I am keenly aware of institutions that went through two or more years of confused external regulatory exchanges, only to end the conversations with a decision to back off on even trying, or a lack of clarity about what was even expected or required from external agencies. This is fertile soil for mediocrity and a lack of innovation.

8. Accreditors need to be tougher on higher education institutions, and the DOE leverage on accreditation agencies should encourage that.

Turning accreditors into police will only create more winners and losers in the higher education space. There is already mass inequity. I’ve spoken to people at elite institutions where some faculty do not even create syllabi with learning objectives for their courses, and they go through accreditation with flying colors. These are sometimes the very institutions from which influencers on education policies graduate or teach/research. Some of the leading voices in education policy, higher education scholars, are the first to demand almost complete autonomy in how and what they teach, and yet they publish about the need to be tougher on those “other” institutions. It is a deeply flawed system.

One colleague explained it this way. At some Universities, we put on ties and suits for accreditors. In other institutions, the accreditors put on suits and ties to visit (yes, a bit of a male-centric way of describing it, but you get the idea). Regional accreditation is a peer review process that, at its best, provides a venue for higher education institutions to give useful insights and feedback on how to grow and improve. Only it can quickly turn into a policing toward the status quo and the dominant or preferred practices of the day. There are better ways to do this that allow more leeway for true innovation (even of the disruptive sort) while also keeping egregious abuses in check. Only we are wise to consider that an “abuse” to one person could be an incredible innovation to another. The current standards used to offer feedback by various regional accreditors are often too narrow, honoring a rather narrow set of beliefs and philosophies of education. Yet, only certain institutions feel especially bound by these agencies.

Yet, the greater problem is that the DOE justification for getting involved with regional accreditors is because they need to protect their financial investments. It has everything to do with money and very little to do with the best interest of the students. It has led to a spiraling debate and drive toward increasingly narrow definitions of what is defined as a good higher education experience. This entire relationship between the DOE and accreditors (and accreditors to individual IHEs) could benefit from a complete overhaul.

9. There is important history to the current “regular and substantive interaction” requirement for distance education, and that should be taken into consideration before completely removing the requirement or starting from scratch.

Yes, there is an important history, and that history is part of what calls us to consider completely new policies. The current wording doesn’t even reflect the reality of many face-to-face programs today. Consider a PhD student doing largely independent research for years, maybe only meeting with her advisor for 15-20 minutes a week. That is outside the philosophical boundaries of the current policy. The UK doctorate or degree by research is excluded in the US on the basis of this current policy. Student internships could be arguably outside of this policy. There are countless other teaching and learning approaches that we would have to stretch to fit into the expectations of this and other policies. I contend that this justifies a more fundamental rewriting of policy, not just a tweak to the current system.

As a reminder, this is largely a response and reflection to the New America article called The Department of Deregulation. As much as I critique it here, I am grateful that it was written and published. There are important cautions about considering affordances and limitations, looking at history and context, and not being too quick to start deregulating. These are all good and important points. We must move with wisdom and careful consideration, but we must move, and that is my argument. I am not satisfied with the “just paint the walls a new color” approach to higher education policy remodels. The problems of current policies are too significant for that.

You Matter: A Community Garden Vision of Education

You matter. You matter in education. Notice that I did not state that teachers matter, students matter, parents matter, school leaders matter, or policymakers matter. I stated that you matter, regardless of your role. Only, it is imperative that all of us recognize the important fact that each person has a role in education. As with government and healthcare, education is too important to be left to a select group of people who make all the decisions. This is not some neutral endeavor. As I’ve written many times before, education is deeply values-laden; it transmits, muzzles, and amplifies core beliefs and values. As such, if you think that your beliefs and values are important, then your voice matters in education. If you choose not to speak, then that is a decision to let the beliefs and values of others dominate your education, the education of your family members, and the education of others in your community and beyond.

We are nearing an important crossroads in education. There is the persistent battle of ideas between whether education is primarily and art or a science. The advocates of making it exclusively or primarily a science are, whether they realize it or not, advocating for us to place education decisions into the hands of a new, scientific priesthood. To question these priests is to question science, and that is not to be tolerated. On the other hand, to give into the advocates who would make it entirely or primarily an art, may unknowingly be driving us away from incredibly powerful educational breakthroughs that can produce incredible results.

Education is neither art nor science. It is a field that encompasses both, not to mention ideas and practices that do not necessarily fit neatly into the category of art or science. The word “field” might be a useful metaphor. We talk about fields of study. What do we mean by this? The word “field” derives from the Old English “feld”, or cultivated land (in contrast to woodlands). There is a thoughtful, even systematic cultivation of select crops in a field, compared to the randomness of the woodlands. What you plant, how you grow it, and how you cultivate it depends upon the context. There are affordances and limitations to those decisions, informed by sometimes competing and conflicting values. This is why I’ve long argued for the value of a diverse education ecosystem. Or, if it helps, picture a massive community-based garden, with different people and individuals planting and cultivating alongside one another. Some opt for a beautiful selection of flowers. Others go for a wide array of vegetables. Some choose raised beds while others stick with old-school rows. There will we some shared rules for those who play and plant in this field, but there is room for variety.

I love driving by these community-based gardens, seeing the creativity and values of different groups expressed in what they grow. People help one another. Others stay pretty much to themselves. Individually, they have their chance at growing something meaningful to them. Collectively, they are contributing to a wonderfully diverse ecosystem.

That is my dream for modern education, and this vision benefits from each person, you included, seeing your role in one or more of those gardens.

Some will argue that it is more efficient to plow over these diverse gardens. For the sake of efficiency, let a centralized and authorized group of farmers (government, corporate, etc.) take over the entire field, replacing these distinct plots with a single plan for everyone. Others argue for ignoring any need for the managers of each plot to play within any shared set of rules. Both extremes steal something from what is truly special about a community garden. Yet, for this vision and value in education, it depends upon you being a champion for it, resisting the voice of the extremes, and recognizing the importance that you and everyone else can bring to it.

Can We Use the Case of Public Parks to Critique the Logic of School Choice?

Can we use the case of public parks to critique the logic behind school choice? Some think so. Voltaire is quoted as saying, “A witty saying proves nothing.” That is the quote that came to mind when I saw someone post the following on Twitter recently:

What do you think? Some might read it and join in a resounding cheer for this witty statement about some people’s belief that school choice is “ridiculous” on the same grounds as the fictional public park statement. The problem is that this is not really an argument against school choice. When we use such comparisons, they can be clever and stick with people, but we must also ask whether they are inviting us into a candid and substantive consideration of the true affordances and limitations of school choice, and there are indeed both.

Yes, the example with the parks does sound a bit ridiculous, but it only takes a few moments of listing the similarities and differences between public parks and public schools to recognize that this comparison comes rather close to what some might call ridiculous.

If we are going to work with the park comparison, allow me to offer a few thoughts.

  1. It is mandatory for people of a certain age to attend school, but not so with parks.
  2. When a park is unsafe, you don’t have to go to it. When you are in a community with an unsafe school and it is your only option, you are still required by law to attend (unless of course you are wealthy enough for the private school or can afford to have a parent stay home to homeschool).
  3. What would you say to a person who is told that it is un-Amercian to not send their kid to an unsafe park every day, arguing that you should send your kid to that park while fighting to make it safer? If your child is harmed during that time, we can chalk that up your American duty. Yet, those with the money and time to travel further for a safe park are insulated from this same “American duty.”
  4. My point is that we don’t force people to go to parks and then improve them. We improve parks and then people start going to them.
  5. When a park is poor in quality, people vote by not going to it. If there are better options, they take advantage of those choices. My family does that all the time. We used to go a little further to the park with the best playground, the bets hiking, or whatever else aligned with our goals. Note that quality also wasn’t a simple measure on some standardized test of park quality either. We made a choice based upon our goals and values and what the park could offer.
  6. Your kid loves skateboarding and the closest park doesn’t allow or have room for skateboard. Yet, there is a great skateboard park about a mile away so you opt to help your kid go there instead.
  7. Now imagine a local park where the officials decided that it was a public health essential that parks include “how to” posters related to the park official’s viewpoint on certain political and hot social issues, and much more. Maybe you agree with those positions and maybe you do not, but you don’t have to go to that park. Mandatory daily attendance at the park does not exist, so you can opt to play or walk somewhere else if somewhere else is available. If not, you can fight to change that park, but if those in charge reject your complaint, that is it. Not only that but imagine the park officials ridiculing your complaint as being too liberal, too conservative, closed-minded, backward, socialist or something else. There is limited actual openness to a substantive debate about what goes into the park.
  8. If there are park officials on duty who are not the type of role model that you want for your children, you express concern, and your concerns are disregarded, what next? Those park officials might rank about the importance of legalizing marijuana, locking our borders to illegal immigrants, making oil illegal, or some other position. That is not their primary job as park officials but their ideas quite often come out in subtle and direct ways. Again you express concern but the park board and park administration supports the park official.

I’m not saying that these are always issues for people, but the simple public park to public school comparison make in the above poster does not help to surface such important candid discussion. Or, since I’m writing this as a response, maybe it does.

What Type of a Person Do We Nurture with Standardized Tests & Quantifying Students?

I’m not a fan of the heavy emphasis upon standardized tests and I’m increasingly skeptical about our rapid move toward the quantification of learners, but I am almost certainly on the losing side of that debate. Learning analytics will be ubiquitous in schools of the future. Big data will transform how many think about education. It will bring about affordances, but it will also bring about plenty of limitations. Even though big data is the future, I’m not going silent on this issue, because there is too much at stake…even the minds of a generation. I’ve written about this a in different ways over the past few years, but I’m compelled to add one more article to the conversation.

I was reminded of this when reading Noam Chomsky’s article about the dangers of standardized testing. While I don’t always agree with Chomsky’s interpretations and evaluations, I appreciate that he gets the issue with standardized tests. It isn’t just about what is on the tests, it is about the whole idea of making school centered upon measuring and quantifying students. It is that these tests and measurements start to take over our thinking, and they begin to take over the mindset and focus of the person being tested and evaluated. It drives us into a mindset of quantification. We value that which is easier to measure and begin to dismiss that which is not.

Candidly, I’ve experienced this countless times in K-12 and higher education contexts. When schools started to make the move toward becoming more data-driven, I urged them to start by clarifying their core goals, beliefs, and values; and to hold on to those even when they struggle to find easy and accessible ways to measure how they are they are doing with regard to those goals, beliefs, and values. If they give in, even if just for the short-term, this the data with take over. It becomes a data-driven and not a mission-driven organization, even though well-meaning leaders will insist that this is not the case. Hard to measure and less concrete goals get set aside and other goals get put in place that are more easily quantifiable or that align with the data that is readily available. Before long, our focus is on how to raise the numbers of whatever measure. Those rich conversations about beliefs and values fade away as relics of the past. Those who speak up about the change are labeled as Luddites, anti-progress, or unrealistic romantics. Even more common, they are just ignored as the data-ocracy bulldozers its way through the organization, bypassing existing governance and organizational structures, even demanding submission from the the leaders of the organization over time. They even do it under the guise of mission.

From the sound of that last paragraph, you might think that I am not a supporter of standardized tests, big data, or learning analytics; but you would be wrong. I see promise and value. I also see caution. I believe in mission-driven organizations that are informed by data that best supports the mission, vision, values, and goals; and that is not what I was referring to in the last paragraph. Data in the form of standardized tests can be useful and offer valuable insights, but my concern in when we let these data points take over, and they do it quite often.

In higher education, consider how narrow our policy conversations become when we try to reduce the mission, vision, values, and goals of higher education institutions to graduation rate, retention rate, post-graduation employment rate, and loan default rates. These are valuable data points, but if they are the top priorities in higher education, then we are better off shutting down all Universities. That is not worth the time, energy, and investment (of many and lives).

What is education really about? I sure haven’t devoted my adult life to supporting an education ecosystem that is about achieving increasingly higher test scores in math, science, or language arts. My daily thoughts are not consumed with musings about education because I want to get high graduation rates for as many students as possible. Not that this is unimportant, but there are grander goals related to access, opportunity, learning, and equipping people for rich, full, meaningful, and impactful lives.

We must not let standardized tests drive the design of our learning organizations. Data must not dethrone mission, vision, values, and the goals informed by those three. When we discuss and debate the efficacy of various policies and practices, we must resist reverting to comparisons of the options on the basis of numeric scores on tests only, or other easily understandable data points. We are far better off taking the time to collectively decide upon a larger and broader set of data points, quantitative and qualitative. The statisticians and often the policymakers will want to drive us to that which is more systemically quantified and validated, and we must push back. Life and learning is about more than numbers and setting up the most valid and reliable measures and experiments.

As Chomsky notes, what is at risk is the mind of a generation. Our worship of numbers, quantification, and standardization produces a certain type of person, and I choose that word “produce” intentionally. There is a better way. There are, in fact, many better ways. I vote for one of them.

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What Would You Prioritize If You Were the Next US Secretary of Education?

It is decided. On the late morning / early afternoon of February 7, 2017, the Vice President broke a 50/50 tie to confirm Betsy Devos as the next US Secretary of Education. Now what?

I followed the nomination, hearing, vetting, debates, and lobbying closely in this process. Given the nature of my work, this particular position is one of personal interest. I’ve been candid about my past criticisms of the US Department of Education regarding certain policies and practices that are restricting promising innovations and reforms in education. I’ve also spoken up in support of other efforts, especially the desire to create ways to increase access and opportunity to quality education (even if I might have differences on the “how” in the past).

I didn’t speak out in support of Devos, nor did oppose her. If you read my work often enough, you already know where I have some shared ideas with Devos and where I might deviate from her stance in other areas. I am and will continue to be a person who speaks out about affordances, limitations, and promising possibilities in education, and all three are always present.

Now Betsy Devos is the US Secretary of Education and I will work alongside her in the effort to create and refine the educational ecosystem in the United States. For any of us who are engaged in the good and important work of education, I consider that a minimum responsibility. We are charged to speak out when we disagree, but in productive and civil ways. We are also called to work together on areas where we can agree, setting our personal agendas aside and striving to help create the best possible education ecosystem in the United States. Even more important, we are called to live out our educational callings in our distinct contexts.

Yet, I also want to use this as an opportunity to muse about this role. What if the Senate just confirmed you as the next US Secretary of Education? What would be your priorities? How would you spend your first ninety days? Here is what I would do.

Build a world class team.

This is not a lone ranger endeavor. You need to build a great team. These are people who understand the issues, strive to explore the breadth of possibilities, can engage in systems thinking, are committed to collaboration and coalition building, have bigger ears than they do a mouth, put students and families first, refuse to politicize education, they are deeply curious, they have a love of learning, they think deeply, and they are going to get things done. Some diverse viewpoints and experiences will only make this richer and more impactful.

Revisit the Mission Statement.

This is not a quick and easy task, but the US Department of Education mission statement is outdated. Missions matter, especially if there is leadership committed to focusing upon the core mission and sifting everything (and I mean everything) through that mission statement. Yet, if you read it carefully, I think that you will probably agree that it feels like a relic from the days of the Cold War and the industrial revolution, and it needs revision. Work with the necessary stakeholders to rewrite it and establish a clear set of core values to inform what will shape our work. Then we can build the rest around this mission and values. I know that a US Secretary of Education can just change such things on a whim, but I think this is worth the time and effort to push for change.

Systematically Review Existing Policies.

The current state of federal policies regarding education are often confusing, sometimes conflicting, and often so tied to past or current education practices that they unintentionally inhibit innovation and emerging practices. They are too often established without careful enough attention to unexpected consequences. It is hurting quality and progress. As such, I would engage policymakers, education administrators, teachers, students, parents, and other stakeholders in a robust analysis of the affordances and limitations of existing policies, seeking to surface the problems with certain policies and ways to resolve these policies without also creating loopholes that allow for abuses and a complete lack of accountability. The financial aid program would be an early priority for me.

Clarify Local, State, and Federal Roles.

People talk about protecting all students through federal mandates. Others talk about pushing as many decisions to the state and local level. We need to get everything on the table and assess what belongs where. We will likely discover that there are a small but important number of policies that belong at the federal level, while others are better suited for the state or local level.

Support, Celebrate, Disseminate Educational Innovation and Preparation for Vastly Different Futures in Education.

We need a boost of future-readiness. Whether people think most of the innovation should happen on the hyper-local level, the state, the federal level, in private enterprise, or a mix of them; I see the US Department of Education as well-positioned to be a supporter and champion for educational innovation that empowers all individuals, equipping them to thrive as humans and citizens in a connected age. I would maybe even consider establishing, if possible, a Moonshot Task Force to aid in this effort. We can’t stay tied to existing models and constructs for education too much longer. It is holding us back from creating a better education ecosystem that truly equips people for life and learning in a connected world. Personally, I would love to make the future of credentials and reputation systems a priority and key part of this effort. It is time to move from a faster horse mindset to creating the educational equivalent of the automobile.

Create Conversations About What Really Matters and What Really Works.

We can benefit from having have national, state, and local conversations about what really matters; and this has to get beyond soundbites and political positioning. Our students deserve this, and our definition of “student” needs to broaden extensively. We have existing efforts around this, but I believe that we can be better about how we approach it. We need deep and substantive conversations. Our public knowledge and conversations (even within plenty of schools) are still too often uninformed about important foundational matters and emerging research.

We need to tell better stories and tell them more broadly. We can find powerful ways to tell stories, inspire people to action, deepen our collective knowledge about education, and facilitate the dissemination of quality resources. I’m not talking about a large, bureaucratic federal effort. I’m just talking about using this office to facilitate and amplify all the great work that is already out there.

I know. I’m not the next US Secretary of Education. Yet, these are still the types of priorities that I will push for as I am able. Devos is in and (regardless of a person’s stance before her confirmation) it is now time to get to work.

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The One-Question Proficiency Exam & Proficiency Versus Growth

In the 2017 committee hearing for Betsy Devos as a candidate for the next Secretary of Education, Senator Al Franken of Minnesota asked Devos about her position on proficiency versus growth in education. Regardless of your views on Devos or Franken, this was one of the more interesting questions at the hearing, even if it was not a great forum to deeply explore such a question. I realize that such hearings are not simply part of a vetting process. Committee members are also using it as platform. Yet, putting that aside for a moment, I’d like to focus on Franken’s question.

I contend that it is a good and interesting question to start a discussion. At the same time, it can also be used to create a dangerous and overly simplistic dichotomy. This cannot and should not (I don’t use that “should” word too often in my writing) be an either/or debate. The answer is yes to both. Proficiency measures are useful in education in some contexts and for some purposes. Measures of individual and group growth are also useful.

In fact, Franken’s one-question proficiency exam for Devos is a good illustration of one limitation of the proficiency approach in education. Our assessment questions are too often lacking context. We set a standard and proceed to evaluate people on the basis of that standard. At times we look for yes or no, black or white and while that is sometimes present, it often does not tell the entire story. We risk tricking ourselves into thinking that a person’s answer to a small number of questions, questions that can indeed be better understood and answered with more context, should be the main basis upon which we judge and evaluate people in school and elsewhere. You answer the questions according to my standard, in my format, and with my timing, or you don’t make the cut.  You lose points for asking questions or seeking clarification. I’m talking about what too often happens in our schools, not necessarily what happened in the hearing.

How would you answer the question? Do you have leanings toward one side or the other? Or, do you find yourself somewhere in the middle?

Just in case you are not aware of this education discourse, allow me to briefly explain. Imagine that you are learning to ride a bicycle and I have the task of documenting what you learn. I can create a list of standards for riding a bicycle and then I can evaluate your performance according to that standards. As such I rate you on some sort of proficiency scale. It might be broken down into a list of standards so that I can give an even more granular assessment of your proficiency according to those standards. Or, I can measure you on the basis of progress. One person might have prior experience on a bike while another may have never seen the bike before. It isn’t just about whether you can ride a bike yet. It is also about how much you’ve learned and grown since you started. Are you making progress or are you stuck? The growth approach is less focused on meeting this universal set of standards. It is more interested in individual progress along the way.

When looking at schools, we can have a set standard for proficiency in subjects like math and reading, and we can lament the fact that 70% of the students in a school are not proficient as determined by some objective assessment.  Yet, what if 100% of the students in that school started at 0% proficiency and progressed from there to nearly proficient? That looks like a failure on the proficiency scale, but it looks much more positive if we can see how much they had grown from the beginning of the year. Do we want them to be highly proficient in reading? Yes, we do, but we are wise to recognize that they did indeed make important progress in their learning and, given adequate time and support, may far exceed some external measure of proficiency (even if the standard are not explicitly used or stated in the school).

Of course, both proficiency and growth measures have their place in education. There are times when we want to know who can ride a bike and who can’t. We also want to know how people are growing and developing along the way. I want my doctor to have passed a rigorous set of proficiency exams before doing surgery on me. At the same time, we know that many doctors, after getting out of medical school, don’t necessarily grow from there. After a decade or two, some plateau or even decline in their knowledge and skill. We want them to grow, not just according to some set standard. We want them getting better every year that they practice medicine.

Oftentimes we establish narrow measures of proficiency for students. We not only set standards that students are supposed to meet, but we determine the age or grade at which they should meet them (Devos mentioned this in her response to Franken). Yet, that can sometimes be a deterrent to student growth and development. Students don’t learn at the same level. Some students might hit the standard and then check out, thinking the task is complete instead of striving to learn something new or best themselves on the next learning challenge. Still other students struggle to hit the standard and are focused almost exclusively on the idea that they failed or missed the mark. This can be deflating and de-motivating for some who see the standard as so far out of reach that it isn’t worth the effort. This might prevent some from recognizing that they are growing and making important progress. With time and effort they can far exceed any standard.

There are times when it is best to remove the standards and simply challenge people to become increasingly better, to solve a problem, face a challenge, immerse themselves in a task or project, play, experiment, or explore. Even without carefully defined standards and measures according to those standards, many people learn to read and speak, a couple of rather important life skills.

Yet, feedback is a powerful and useful too for learning whether we are in a learning context that is standards-based, personal growth and progress oriented, or a blend of the two. In fact, if I had to answer Franken’s question for a hearing, that is probably how I’d approach it. I’ve seen learning contexts that focus upon standards that serve students well. I’ve seen learning contexts that focus upon student growth and serve students well. I’ve seen others that seek a blend and balance of the two that do well by the students. Yet, in each of these contexts contexts they have a shared commitment to some form of valuable feedback.

When it comes to education policy on a state or national level, should the focus be upon measuring each student’s growth and progress over time, or should it be focused upon students meeting explicit and stated standards for proficiency? That may have been where Franken was going with his question. After all, we know that education policy can drive schools to focus on one or the other depending upon what the policy expects a school to measure and the “motivators” attached to those measures. We also know that the emphasis has significant implications for the school culture, the student experience, and the mindset that develops in many students and teachers. I understand why some are drawn to clear-cut standards and measures of proficiency based upon those standards and there is a time for that, but most of us also know that a rich and transformational education is more than being labeled proficient.

A hearing for Secretary of Education is not an optimal context for a rich and robust exchange on such a topic. Given the time to tease out important nuances to that type of question, I suspect that many of us would find ourselves appreciating Franken’s perspective as well as that of Devos. These are not easy issues, especially when a small change in policy can create a seismic shift in school focus.

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A World-Class Driver in a Yugo Will Not Win The Indy 500

There is plenty of research to support the value of great teachers. Skilled and committed educators often make a difference for individual students as well as entire classes. There is little to no debate about this fact. Yet, that doesn’t mean that the skill of the teacher is the only factor. In fact, you can have an amazing teacher who, given the right conditions, can experience less than impressive results with a group of students.

Or, as I state in the title of this article, a world-class driver in a Yugo will not win the Indy 500. It doesn’t matter how well the driver handles the curves. That driver’s car lacks the horsepower to compete. The driver can be passionate, committed, and the most skilled driver in the world; but still find himself/herself in last place.

To what extent does this same concept apply to teachers in many schools? What are the key resources necessary for great teachers to produce great results? Some argue that great teachers are just great teachers. Put them in a room with students and they will make magic happen. This is a wonderfully inspiring and romantic view of the teaching profession, and I don’t deny the fact that great teachers are more likely to help create a rich learning environment than those who lack skill in or commitment to the task. Yet, there is a limit to this vision and I’ve witnessed it in school systems.

Policies are not neutral. By their very nature, policies create opportunities and limit others. Policymakers quite often create them to address specific problems or amplify certain values and convictions over others. In doing so, they will muzzle other values and convictions, while also limiting certain practices. This includes unknowingly limiting the convictions and practices of great teachers.

This happens all the time. We set policies about testing requirements, unknowingly transforming how people spend time in school and class. We set policies about attendance, what constitutes attendance, and what constitutes truancy. We come up with measures like seat time that are well-meaning but again unknowingly limit creative approaches to teaching and learning. We create educational bureaucracies where the policies and practices are increasingly decided and distanced from teachers, students, and parents. We do it “for their own good”, often inspired by some sort of moral or pragmatic imperative. Then we find ourselves surprised when there is limited ownership by teachers, students, and/or parents. We put them in a Yugo of our own creation and then complain when they don’t place in or win the Indy 500.

Charter schools were created on the K-12 level to become incubators of learning protected from such a world. Yet, this has become the primary attack of charter schools by many, that they lack oversight and accountability. By freeing them from some of these policies we removed certain policies that protected against abuses. Unfortunately, these critiques are sometimes warranted as some have taken advantage of this freedom or failed to accept the high responsibility that comes with it. I’ve far from given up on the charter model however, as I see the alternative as even more dangerous.

I’ve met plenty of wonderful, quirky, interesting, committed, and skilled teachers who found charters to be havens from the bureaucracies that nearly drove them away from their callings. It is sad to see the passion extinguished from the eyes of teachers, and more importantly, students. The charter approach may not be the best solution, but I’ve seen enough cases of charters creating space for that passion to return that I couldn’t possibly argue for shutting them down. Until we have something better and scalable, I will be an advocate, albeit one who also calls for non-stifling but stringent accountability.

Yet, I don’t intend to make this article about the good and ills of charter schools. This is about setting people up for success. A good school leader must ask a couple of important questions. What are the conditions under which teachers perform at their best? What resources do I need to provide for that to happen? How can I get these in place? The same questions can and should be asked about students. What are the conditions under which students perform at their best, are engaged, developing a love of learning, and nurturing a senses of calling, purpose, and agency? How do we get both teachers and students out of our institutional Yugo and into something that sets them up for the best possible performance in the race of life and learning?

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Hypernormalization, Awakenings, and the Modern Education System

In Living in an Unreal World, a documentary released on the BBC in October of 2016, Adam Curtis describes modern western society as having concerning parallels with the past Soviet Union. He describes hypernormalization. We find ourselves living in a system that we know is unreal, but we don’t know any better. So, we just keep playing our part in that system despite its lack of true meaning and its growing distance from that which is truly real. We find ourselves disappointed and disenfranchised but can’t see beyond what currently exists. So, we immerse ourselves in it even further. While I’m sure that it was far from his intention in the documentary, I couldn’t help but think about how this describes much of our modern education system.

The documentary doesn’t take us into an exploration of what can and does help people break through the mind-numbing and increasingly unreal world in which they live. As I often write, a first step in change is getting informed about the possibilities. Many people in education, for example, might crave something different than the current system but they are not sure what that could be. They convince themselves that anything other than the current system is mere imagination, untethered to any reasonable future reality.

Yet, I’ve enjoyed seeing people move from that viewpoint to one inspired by and hopeful for a new and compelling vision. Quite often, that comes from concrete experiences. They visit an incredible learning community. They see and hear things that they previously thought impossible. They often begin with skepticism, finding ways to dismiss what they are experiencing as a rare exception only made possible by a highly unlikely set of serendipitous circumstances. This prevents them from experiencing the pain of setting their hope on something that fails to happen. The fear of that disappointment is just to great for some to face.

If they persist, however, perhaps visiting more communities, speaking directly to others, reading widely, and truly getting informed, inspired and equipped by specific examples of what is possible; these people can and do become visionary leaders for alternative futures. They become more than passive conformists. They start to shape and form the future of education.

This is an important understanding in contemporary education reform. We can’t just ignore challenges to our visions and the realities of the current circumstances. We are also unwise to give up and content ourselves with tweaks to the systems that we know to be ultimately unfulfilling, uninspiring, and increasingly artificial.

Education, at its best, is a series of awakenings. I contend that this is best facilitated by an education system that celebrates awakening, that models awakening by its very culture and structure, and that is led by people who seek and experience awakenings themselves. This comes from a willingness to explore untraveled paths. It comes from asking deep and persistent questions, and also having the courage and character to pursue answers to those questions. It comes from challenging the status quo in an ongoing way, not to be antagonistic, but because current educational practices and policies are rarely ideal for all times, all people, and all places. It happens when we create learning spaces that are built upon a pursuit and exploration, a fervent commitment to to seeking that which is real.

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We Policy the Heck Out of Education Problems and That is a Problem

How do we approach education problems? In the November 2016 issue of Wired, President Barack Obama wrote an article entitled, “Now is the Greatest Time to Be Alive.” In the opening paragraph he wrote,

“…It’s why my favorite movie last year was The Martian. Of course, I’m predisposed to love any movie where Americans defy the odds and inspire the world. But what really grabbed me about the film is that it shows how humans- through our ingenuity, our commitment to fact and reason, and ultimately our faith in each other- can science the heck out of just about any problem.”

The article continues with an exploration of his hope that humanity will think big, tackle and solve longstanding problems, and create new and promising possibilities. Over the years, I’ve sometimes written ideas that align with Obama’s. Other times, I’ve challenged his ideas and course of action when it comes to education. Yet, in the opening lines of the article, I could certainly relate. I am also inspired by stories like The Martian, where a seemingly doomed botanist on an uninhabited planet finds a way to survive. He doesn’t curl up in a corner and die. He looks at the situation and approaches it with the sort of mindset that saves lives (his own in this case), enhances families and communities, and sometimes even changes the world. He has no certainty about the outcome of his efforts, but he works from the simple but critical assumption that he has a far better chance of success if he thinks and acts. He has agency and that makes all the difference.

Now let’s put a twist on this, thinking about what sort of education ecosystem we need to fuel such a mindset and the hope of a better future. Further in the article, Obama shares his hope for that future WhiteHouse Science fair where a student grows an artificial pancreas “right in front of the president”, a girl “discover[s] a new fuel based only on sunlight, water and carbon dioxide”, and other such amazing accomplishments. I’m with him on this too, but if this is really what we want to do, and we don’t just want those students to be the rarest of exceptions, then we need to look ahead and look back. We look back and recognize that there is a strain of thought and a spirit to this that goes back to the earliest days in American life. The American dream and the drive for innovation and exploration all resonate with the historic spirit and sentiment of this nation. We look ahead with an openness to go boldly where no or few educators, educational leaders, and education policymakers have ever gone.

Yet, I am not convinced that our education system as a whole is adequate to keep such spirit and sentiment alive. Quoting from the movie, Obama says we should “science the heck out of this” but when it comes to education we have instead opted for other directions.

  • We policy the heck out of it.
  •  We test the heck out of it.
  • We over-structure the heck out of it.
  • We over-standardize the heck out of it.
  • We over-control the heck out of the students.
  • We enable the heck out of students and families.
  • We control the heck out of students.
  • Sometimes we even fund the heck out of it, assuming that is the key to success.

Then we wonder why so many students are falling asleep, dropping out, not engaged, and not benefiting as much as we hoped. We assure ourselves of our competence by pointing out how students have changed, that they are just not good students like those of the past. We dwell on the countless restraints and problems (as real as they are), but then we are afraid of trying something new or making changes that might impact our secure positions in the system. We make self-preservation a higher priority than creating an education system that nurtures agency, self-direction and self-education.

Self-education and self-directed learning are not just education methods or trends. They represent what helped the character survive in the film and they do the same thing for countless people in the real world too. They are core traits that animate the American dream and longstanding values in this nation that extend across race, ethnicity, gender, and more. Yet, we do not have an education system that leans upon these ideas. They are not central and formative in our schools or among our policymakers.

If we truly want to multiply the positive signs that were described in his article, then self-education and self-directed learning need to be near the center of the conversation. We must be about empowering individuals, equipping them to equip themselves, nurturing agency, and helping people who take deep pride in helping themselves. Policies, tests, control, and standards just will not cut it. There are better ways. It is just, when it comes to education, we need a system that empowers students students who can self-direct the heck out of it.

Tests & Standards Can’t inspire a Compelling Vision for Education But This Can

We need a compelling vision to drive education reform and it will not come from debates about tests and standards. I had the privilege of working with a group of people recently who are exploring the possibly for a new and different type of school. Having the chance to facilitate such conversations and be welcomed into these coalitions of the willing continues to be a humbling and incredibly rewarding experience for me, whether I’m helping a group think through the possibilities for a new school, a new startup, a new educational product, or perhaps to reimagine what an organization is already doing.

As such, I always find it helpful to begin by getting to know the people individually as well as the community or communities that they represent. So, I started by sharing an authentic and vulnerable story from my own life, something that tied to what they were considering. Then, others went around the room, responding to a simple question. “What do you bring to this meeting?” What sort of beliefs and values did they bring to the meeting? What goals and desires did they bring? What fears, uncertainties and questions?

I can usually tell how a session like this is going to go by how people respond. If it is a trusting and open community, it is not uncommon for people to start to open up with powerful, sometimes even emotional stories. This is only natural because we are gathered to explore something that is important to people, something that relates to their core beliefs and what they value in life. After all, we all have personal experiences with school or education in some form. Some of those are pleasant and others are quite unpleasant, even traumatic. We have experiences of our children in school, and our joys and fears associated with that. For the teachers and school leaders, we have experiences of what worked, what didn’t, our dreams and passions for education, and the sort of core motivations and reasons that often led people into the profession in the first place.

So, when people started to share about their personal and unpleasant experiences with schools, their joys and moving experiences with schools, their dreams for reaching new populations of students, I knew that we were going to have a great day. Yet, even as I am writing this and reflecting on the experience, there was one short story shared by a person in his introduction that continues to move me. It illustrates the types of narratives and metaphors that can fuel our innovations and reforms in education. Grounding our efforts in something raw, real, and meaningful is far more important than many imagine.

It was an assistant principal who recalled a recent eighth-grade graduation speech. In the speech, the young man told of his experience coming to their existing elementary school. “When I came to this school, I was a broken window,” this young man explained. I don’t know what that meant for him personally, whether it was pain and loss in his life or something else. Yet, it was clearly this young man’s way of describing some sort of brokenness in his life. But then, the young man went on. He explained that he came a broken window, but through the nurturing and experiences in that school, the broken glass in his life had been turned into a stained glass window. His brokenness was turned into something whole and beautiful.

Now that is a compelling narrative upon which to describe the power of possibility of education in the contemporary world. As I write in What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, our modern conversation is too bogged down in debates about careful alignment of standards and standardized tests as the most valuable measures.

I don’t deny the role of these things, but they lack a compelling why for school leaders, parents, teachers, and students. They lack a broken window to stained glass window way of thinking about what we do and why we do it in schools. As such, if we are not careful, we risk creating learning communities with a meaning and purpose deficiency. Yet, we know that meaning and purpose are critical for student motivation and engagement. They are critical for persistence. Why try if it doesn’t matter? Why persist through struggle and difficulty? Why do more than just go through the motions? Education is and must remain, at its essence, about meaning and purpose, and about the transformation that happens with learners and teachers alike when they swim in these meaning and purpose-rich learning communities.

If you agree with me, I invite you to join me in deepening our public conversation about education and education reform. Join me in refusing to let that critical dialogue be dominated by outspoken voices that unintentionally seek to promote efforts and set agendas that dominate the conversation with lifeless policies and provisions. Join me in championing a conversation about what really matters in education.

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