THE BLOG

What's Out, What's In: 2014 Education Edition

12/29/2013 09:31 pm ET | Updated Feb 28, 2014

Since "Out" and "In" lists are in favor as the calendar flips, here are my nominees for what should be "Out" and "In" in education for 2014:

OUT: School Reform
IN: Transformed Teaching and Learning

"School Reform" as a phrase has all the charm of Nurse Ratched entering the room with a giant hypodermic needle. The assumption is that all the patients are equally sick, and rather than healing them with effective treatments designed for their specific illnesses, the medicine is total punishment applied in equal doses across-the-boards.

Changing the rhetoric, tone and style of the school reform debate might actually lead to progress in the genuine transformation of teaching and learning. Yes, change is needed, but not the same change in every school, and never a kind of change that punishes the teaching staff for the inability of students to perform according to someone else's idea of learning on standardized tests.

A focus on transforming teaching and learning to improve student achievement would start with a serious assessment of what causes learning breakdowns in specific schools, neighborhoods and systems. Sure, some teachers should find other occupations, but the wholesale assault on teachers over the last decade has completely ignored the profoundly serious, deeply entrenched problems of poverty, broken families, parental illiteracy, and, in some cases, actual hostility to educational achievement in some corners of society.

The first step in changing the rhetoric should be a long silence on the part of all the people who are telling educators what to do so that the people who are actually engaged with teaching and learning can be heard about what works and why even some of the best efforts fail.

OUT: Poverty is "An Excuse"
IN: Addressing Poverty's Effects on Student Learning

One of the worst characteristics of some leaders in the school reform movement is their tendency to trash any other point of view. Reformers from Arne Duncan to Michelle Rhee and others have dismissively claimed that poverty is "an excuse" for educational failure. They're just plain wrong. Poverty is not an excuse but an absolute condition of life that, left unaddressed or diminished as a problem, debilitates the student's ability to learn.

No effort to improve educational results in the poorest neighborhoods in our cities will ever be complete without a comprehensive program to address the specific effects of poverty on student learning abilities -- the conditions of hunger, violence, neglect, parental illiteracy, homelessness, chronic illness and constant fear that students carry with them to school each day.

School reformers would certainly get a lot more traction if they acknowledged the problem of poverty in education and used some of their considerable clout to put poverty higher on the political agenda. Bill and Melinda Gates are doing heroic work fighting malaria in Africa, but in America, their resources are mostly going to school reform efforts that wind up firing teachers. Just sayin'!

OUT: Common Core
IN: Common Sense

Transforming teaching and learning should certainly occur according to commonly accepted standards for what students need to know and be able to do. As a general concept, the Common Core standards are a well-intentioned effort to establish precisely those kinds of societal norms for learning that will ensure that every diploma signifies some basic level of academic achievement.

Unfortunately, the politicization of curriculum through imposition of the Common Core standards with little or no local input, and tied to standardized testing, has undermined the worthy goals of the effort.

In place of the politicized Common Core, may I be so bold as to urge some common sense in the educational content discussion. As a college president, I could write a treatise on all the things that I wish my students actually knew when they arrived on campus. But realizing that attention spans are short at this time of year, here are my top three:

• Every student should arrive in college able to read an entire book and to discuss the book coherently both orally and in writing.

• Every first year college student should be able to write a multi-page paper expressing ideas on a given topic organized and synthesized from classroom instruction and outside readings, with accurate grammar and punctuation, and no plagiarism.

• Every college freshman should be able to perform basic arithmetic functions and prepared to learn the higher level mathematics required of most majors for quantitative analysis and research.

Ok, I'm sure the faculty have many, many more, but wouldn't it be great that instead of the cacophony of controversy over the Common Core we could simply have some common sense about what students need to know.

OUT: Disruption
IN: Stability

I'm not sure who came up with the idea that "disruption" is the most cherished educational value. Actually, I have a clue: people with a vested economic outcome in disruption promote the concept heavily. It's no surprise that Silicon Valley titans are among the most vocal advocates of disruption in higher education, with their new companies like edX and Coursera and Udacity ready to sweep in to help the blind-sided universities.

Certainly, change and growth is important, and adaptation to new technologies and new populations of students is essential. But "disruption" implies a complete paradigm shift, a break with the fundamental elements of effective education as we have known it, e.g., classroom-based learning, the primacy of the teacher, the critical importance of student identification with a place (a school, a campus, a set of traditions) as a motivator for learning and lifelong intellectual satisfaction.

In place of long-term intellectual development, the "disruption" movement substitutes instant acquisition of utilitarian knowledge, a disposable commodity that is almost immediately obsolete. "Disruption" for its own sake is plain old anarchy, with no durable value other than to be able to say that we were present at the Disruption.

OUT: MOOCs
IN: Student Engagement with Learning

The "disruption" crowd has hailed MOOCs -- massive open online courses -- as the cure for everything in higher education from the tuition to remediation to tenure. But MOOCs devalue one of the most important dimensions of effective college teaching and learning -- the active engagement of the student with the instructor over a sustained period of time.

Putting several hundred thousand students in front of computer screens for classes taught by professors they will never meet seems like an odd way to promote improvement in higher education at a time when we're also told to accept more and more under-prepared students who need even more "facetime" to become engaged with learning.

OUT: Federal Ratings of Universities
IN: More Useful Higher Education Assessment

The proposed new regulatory scheme to rate colleges and universities according to some massive number-crunching exercise is unlikely to achieve any effective results. While generating considerable opposition and comparisons to the healthcare boondoggle, we have little reason to hope that Secretary Duncan will actually listen to the critics (whom he has deemed "silly") and amend his proposal. But like so many other regulatory impositions by the U.S. Department of Education, this one will most likely be implemented and then stand by as another example of costly-but-misguided federal rules for colleges (Net Price Calculators, anyone?)

Many colleges and universities are already providing considerably more data and information than ever before to prospective students and families, and most institutions are more than eager to share information that makes sense. We remain challenged to find ways to make more granular assessment data publicly available; accreditation reports have an overwhelming amount of data that most people would find too dense to absorb. Finding a way to communicate results even more effectively, but without federal intervention, must be a high priority for higher education in 2014.

OUT: Monologues About Educational Failure
IN: Dialogues About Effective Innovation

2014 must be the year for changing the conversation about education -- higher ed, K-12, pre-K, online, on the ground, wherever students and teachers gather to engage the oldest of humanity's intellectual conversations. Too much of the educational rhetoric in 2013 consisted of politicians, philanthropists, pundits and other self-appointed "reformers" denouncing the life's work of other people as a wholesale failure rather than engaging in a reasonably learned debate about innovation and transformation where change is actually necessary.

The rush to pass judgment before anyone even knows what problem we're trying to solve is one of the most grievous mistakes of the populist drive to "reform" education across-the-boards with no sensitivity to differential institutional missions, different socio-economic conditions of students, resources available to help teachers succeed, proof that proposed changes actually can work, and the engagement of students, parents and families in a broad-based discussion of their roles and responsibilities in educational success.

Let's make 2014 the year when we shift the public rhetoric from the incessant monologues about educational failure to more constructive dialogues about educational innovation, and yes, even the many success stories. America's vast educational landscape is actually plentiful with examples of success and great innovation -- reform will come more quickly if we lift up what works rather than continuing to beat up on what's broken.