It's Time For Customer-Centered Reform of Higher Education: Part 2

08/15/2012 01:24 pm ET | Updated Oct 15, 2012

In our earlier post, we analyzed four critical areas that impact the value equation for higher education customers/student: college costs; graduation and placement, return on investment; and career education and skill development. In this post, we examine three additional areas to determine their impact.

Teacher Preparation: A Crisis in Competence. The quality of teacher preparation and certification has been a concern in educational circles for some time. Arne Duncan brought the issue front and center early in his tenure as Education Secretary in a speech that he gave at Columbia University in October of 2009. In her October 22 New York Times article titled "Teacher Training Termed Mediocre," Jennifer Medina reported that Secretary Duncan called for a "revolutionary change" in teacher training. Duncan related that based upon his conversations with hundreds of teachers while serving as Chicago's school chief he universally heard two complaints: (1) they did not get the practical training they needed to manage their classroom; and (2) they weren't taught how to use data to improve student learning. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is also shining a bright light on "Effective Teaching" as noted on the Foundation's website by, "investing in bold research and reform efforts to better understand what makes a teacher effective and to rethink the way we recruit, retain and evaluate teachers in our schools in order to improve student outcomes."

This intensive focus from a variety of sources appears to be producing changes and new approaches. Al Baker reports in a July 29 New York Times article that "New York and as many as 25 other states are moving toward changing the way they grant licenses to teachers." Based upon a Teacher Performance Assessment process designed by Stanford University, this new model moves away from tests and written exams and requires teachers "to prove themselves through lessons plans, homework assignments and videotaped instruction sessions." In spite of the number of states moving toward the new standards, there is still criticism and resistance by some educators about changing the teacher training, evaluation and certification process.

Technology and Education: Broad Band. Narrow Width. Over the past decade, and most especially since the great recession, online education has exploded. According to the Federal Student Aid Strategic Plan, "During 2006-2007 there were more than 11,200 college-level programs designed to be completed exclusively online... More recent data shows that in 2009, nearly 30 percent of students took at least one online course, nearly three times the percent in 2002." In addition, educational access to educational technology and tools of all types has been increased substantially. There has been a phenomenal change in the manner in which education is being delivered. The more important question is whether the access to and utilization of technology is accelerating or enhancing learning both for adults and students at the primary and secondary levels.

The Department of Education, in a September 2010 Meta-Analysis paper, concludes, "Students in online conditions performed moderately better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction." In contrast, in a September 1, 2011 article, Education Week observes, "While there is much ongoing research on new technologies and their impact on teaching and learning, there is little rigorous, large-scale data that makes for solid research, education experts say." That same article reports, "...organizations such as the consortium of School Networking, the State Educational Technology Director's Association, and the International Society for Technology in education, united on several occasions to voice their stance that investment in access and infrastructure was wasted without support for programs like EEET (Enhancing Education through Technology), which was designed to direct up to 40 percent of its funds to professional development needs."

Secretary Arne Duncan appears to agree with this perspective. In an article written for the June/July 2011 issue of Learning & Leading with Technology, the magazine of the International Society for Technology in Education, he states "But using technology is not an end in itself. The ultimate goal is to vastly improve the opportunity to learn, accelerate achievement and prepare students for success in the 21st century workforce." Evidence suggests that in spite of some progress we are still quite bit away from realizing that ultimate goal of using desk top, lap top to achieve the full potential of the shoulder top.

Primary and Secondary Education: Lessons from the Battlefield. The two major educational initiatives and of the past decade were undoubtedly No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) educational programs. Now, we are reconsidering them both. In the one case, it's a full-fledged retreat. In the other, it's a serious re-examination of scope and purpose. The "No Child" Act established strong federal requirements for states and schools placing a strong focus on annual testing directed at promoting academic progress and included penalties if performance was not satisfactory. The intent was to improve education especially for the disadvantaged. That hasn't happened. As Education Week reported on September 19, 2011, "By 2010, 38 percent of schools were failing to make adequate yearly progress." And, in 2011, "several states did see failure rates over 50 percent."

When it was signed into law in 2002, the Act had strong bi-partisan support. Today it has few supporters. In a press release on February 29, 2011, the Department of Education announced that a total of 37 seven states and the District of Columbia had requesting waivers from key provisions of No Child Left Behind in exchange for "locally designed plans to spur educational reform."

STEM is still popular. Some have begun to question its universal necessity, however. Andrew Hacker makes the case against advanced mathematics forcefully and articulately in his July 29 New York Times article, "Is Algebra Necessary," in which he comments, "Of course, people should learn basic numerical skills decimals, ratios and estimating, sharpened by a good grounding in arithmetic. But a definitive analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that in the decade ahead a mere 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above."

Taken together all of these factors attest that our educational problem is multi-faceted and the need for improvement is substantial. The bad news is that the journey to creating a customer-centered higher educational system will be a long and difficult one. The good news is that leaders within the higher education community have begun taking steps on that journey in all of the areas outlined in this blog.

We will describe some of the more positive steps in our last blog in this series. They will demonstrate that while higher education reform is not here yet it is underway and the time for customer-centered reform has come.