Where is Education Improvement Headed? It’s Academic

Education Reform Now is the nonprofit arm of Democrats for Education Reform:

We are progressives leading a non-partisan non-profit organization that cultivates and supports leaders who champion America’s public schoolchildren….

Mission Americans of all ages – from cradle to grave – deserve full and fair access to quality education opportunities. 

The education innovation and reform movement has reached an inflection point. There are high-flying charter schools and management organizations, but their impact on public education overall is limited. Because of hard-edged accountability policies, low-income and minority students saw significant achievement gains in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But academic gains have slowed. Those who continue to the postsecondary level complete at appallingly low rates and with questionable knowledge and skill levels. And yet, the education policy discussion has devolved into a near exclusive debate about common core standards, testing, and access to higher education when so much more needs to be considered.

ERN, thank you for this nearly dead-on problem statement. But achievement and accessibility to higher education are not the real issues. Current state:

  • School guidance counselors and parents obsess over prepping students for college-or-bust.
  • Too many high school graduates aren’t ready for college or are unable to attend. College is not appropriate for some and simply out of reach for many, financially or academically.
  • The relevance of higher education is under fire, the workplace market value of over-priced degrees is being challenged.
  • Degree or not, employers are consistently getting unprepared workers. The talent pool is incredibly shallow and murky.
  • The skills gap is partially self-inflicted by employers who unnecessarily inflate academic requirements for positions.

Some positions do not require a four-year degree as much as they do specific job skills training. Yet, college students chase after “just-in-case” degrees then look for a job they might be qualified for, artificially increasing college debt. Education still mass-produces graduates, and grads still assume half a lifetime of debt only to get a job they may be miserable with…if they find one. And employers still get unprepared candidates. Economy suffers, people suffer.

The Education Reform Now blog ran a piece this summer, Not Ready For College by Michael Dannenberg. Bolded excerpts follow (with Craig’s notes)

To the extent issues actually are debated this election year, we can expect the candidates to spend time on college affordability.  It polls as a top-tier, middle class issue. Democrats, led by Hillary Clinton, will call for massive increases in student financial aid (but pouring more funding into an ineffective system without addressing the real issues).  We can expect Republicans led by Donald Trump to call for an expanded number of higher education providers to increase supply and drive down price (education is not a good candidate for mass-production. Diminishing returns, aka overkill. How would providers be regulated? And…how the heck do you start up all these additional institutions? We’ll be overrun with Diplomas ‘r’ Us academic factories issuing plenty of sheepskins, but what value will they hold? ) Both are needed, but going forward what the candidates should pay special attention to is high school academic preparation because it’s inextricably linked to college affordability. (true, but this just drives inefficiencies deeper into the system. The wrong product is being produced and provided because we’re focused on the wrong expectations and requirements)

Today, the typical bachelor’s degree graduate takes more than five years to complete a degree instead of four. One in four rising college freshmen, including a high percentage from middle class families, need to take and pay for remedial courses that regularly don’t apply toward a college degree. Worst of all, nearly one in two postsecondary students overall will drop out.  They’ll be left with debt and no degree. (an unacceptable level of academic attrition, even more damaging to young people and to the economy than it is to productivity and profit margins of companies that suffer from high attrition)

Imagine how much cheaper and better an investment college could be if students were prepared for college-level coursework on Day 1 and graduated in four years instead of five. It can happen on a widespread basis, but it requires commitment and improvement in both high schools and institutions of higher education. (ability to do the work is one thing, but what if it’s the wrong kind of work? Of what real value is a degree?  The real measure of value: does it increase graduates’ ability to be successful and happy in their working career, and in their lives?)

Some Solutions Proposed by Dannenberg (with Craig’s notes):  

High schools need to be more academically rigorous and colleges need to change the way they teach students who come in behind. And both need to be held accountable for results (need root cause analysis: WHY do students come in behind if high schools increase academic rigor, and if colleges tighten up on their entry requirements?)

Almost all high school students should get a rigorous course of study – whether based on Common Core standards or not – aligned with requirements to enroll in credit-bearing, entry level college classes. (“almost all high school students” implies that college prep and going to college may not be appropriate for all students. Truth! College may not even be necessary in some cases for a successful working careers and fulfilling life. As tough as it may be, we need to abandon the mindset that college for all is right. And still, the major concern: what if the right stuff isn’t being offered?)


Dannenberg paints a grim picture of the magnitude and impact of poor college preparedness. High schools aren’t ensuring that graduates have the necessary academic chops to handle a college-level curriculum. Colleges accept too many under-prepared students. The need for remedial classes is too frequent, they are costly and ineffective in helping strugglers graduate. Students take five not four years to graduate, and the college dropout rate is unacceptably high.

It’s crazy to point at education’s “failure” alone. The private sector has a big hand: employers’ expectation that graduates should hit the workplace ready to excel in any organizational environment, mastering any organization’s specific stuff regardless of position and tasks is just not possible. We need realistic and clear skills requirements and behavioral expectations defined. WHAT do employers NEED in new hires, so they are ready and able for an employer to take over and do their job—providing skills training and on-the-job experience?

Fundamental Change?

Proposed: the real purpose of education should be to prepare learners for life after their academic career, not just to prepare them to meet their next academic challenge. Colleges, therefore the K-12 pipeline, should be driven by real-world not just academic requirements and expectations. “Real world” includes the work world, society and community. And don’t ignore the most critical job for each of us…plotting and navigating the course toward a successful and satisfying life where we feel we’re making a meaningful difference. Only when we know where we want to go should we fret about how we’re going to get there.

What determines a successful life is driven by each person’s definition of “success” which is a function of their personal values / belief system. A successful, fulfilling career is essential to a successful life, so private sector expectations and civic and social expectations also are a factor. What kind of academic topics currently prepare learners to meet these broad expectations…their own, their future employers, their community, society?

Preparation is way more than academic. The Arts and College Preparatory Academy (ACPA), a public charter school in Columbus, Ohio is just one shining example. (Between Dallas and Orlando, Schools Can Play a Crucial Role in Improving Tolerance and Respect. By Marianne Lombardo July 14th, 2016)

What makes ACPA work? Maximum inclusion, focus on human values and social development. The whole academic community is totally engaged in and committed to the success and ideals behind ACPA. Remember the “e” word for a moment, please…..

“The stakes are clear. And these stakes are high: At the end of the day, what kind of society do we want to have? What kind of country do we want to be? It’s not enough to celebrate the ideals that we’re built on — liberty for all, and justice for all and equality for all. Those can’t just be words on paper. The work of every generation is to make those ideals mean something concrete in the lives of our children — all of our children.”

President Barack Obama.

Not to mess with the words of one of our greatest orators ever, but it’s more than ‘the lives of our children’. We need those ideals to be meaningful in the lives of all Americans.

Current State of Education Improvement: no common goals, shared focus or synergy. Fragmented efforts, inconsistent results. States, communities, districts, buildings set different goals, grasp at different straws. A conference may share great best practices, but participants slice and dice to make it “our own”. This is not the right time for cowboy culture individualism.

ONE COMPELLING MODEL. If someone builds it, will they come? A successful model must be balanced between ready-for-implementation with support, and ease of adaptation to unique situations. A high priority action is to design awareness sessions tailored to each stakeholder group’s WIIFM. Transform interest into commitment when buy-in is sufficient. Basic coalition-building is tricky as stakeholders may have differences in needs and goals: must have a strong narrative.

Chicken or egg? To ensure buy-in and ownership, potential coalition members must provide input up-front to the narrative: what do we want to accomplish? How far will we go?

(SIDE NOTE: Complexity Guaranteed. I set out ten years ago exploring a truly systemic model and how to develop the coalition necessary to drive it. What seems like a book and a half later into the most current version, it’s still mutating and definitely still growing. Terminal scope creep)

Go Large on “Engagement”. Before it was cool I got deeply involved in employee engagement when my employer dove into Gallup Management’s Q-12 process in the mid-90’s. I served as master implementation facilitator. Q-12 became the backbone of the engagement industry’s early efforts. Gallup branched out into studying the impacts of student engagement, partnering with America’s Promise. That triggered my interest in education. Along the way I got to swap ideas with the UK’s government-sanctioned Engage for Success movement in the early days. Kind of an interesting mix of engagement engagements.

It’s not a silver bullet and there’s too much to dive into here, so see the engagement link at the end. This much we know: a handful of attributes encourage people to more fully engage. When they do, performance level increases dramatically: satisfying basic human needs and values significantly impact employees’ productivity, students’ academics. I’m a believer and you will be too.

Against All Odds

This is scary….I’ve chosen to go up against a formidable coalition of adversaries:

  1. The Gates Foundation plans on back-pedaling on their education improvement efforts, but still focused on mechanics and methods. There is so much more to do (see Philanthropists—Butt Out).
  2. Education Reform Now is a PAC with a Purpose, a non-partisan think tank, although the policy recommendations may be shaded toward the blue side. ERN’s stated scope: new methods of content delivery and tools of influence on teaching and learning. The goals have an exclusively academic focus, and to me the GF and ERN are both missing the mark.
  3. Both major parties and their respective candidates have platforms for improving higher ed accessibility and achievement levels. Missing the mark.
  4. The well-entrenched, highly protective…and overwhelmed…education establishment is buried in STEM curriculum, common core, standard test performance…things, things, things, missing the mark (see Re-thinking Purpose and Roles in Education).

Now here I come in all my blazing nobodyness. These players are way out of my ballpark. But they are essential, and potential champions. But who will recruit them? Who will be the catalyst for the coalition that’s necessary? So far with the minor leaguers I’ve pitched, it’s been a lot like rainfall. They all agree we need it badly, but no one wants to get wet…I don’t stand a chance.

Systemic change starts with well-crafted policy and a strong narrative that stakeholders readily buy into. Policy won’t make it off the paper on its own, regardless of how compelling the narrative may be. Aligned implementation is a real trick without a central direction that has teeth. And there’s a powerful camp of proponents in favor of decentralized education policy. If anyone out there has the Silver Bullet, I’d love to hear about it!





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s