What should be on the new administration’s “to-do list” under the heading of education? That was the question posed to a panel of education experts Education Sector brought together this week at the event “Should There Be an Undersecretary of MOOCs? A Waiver Watchdog? And Other Questions for the Next Four Years.” The experts, all members of Education Sector’s K20 Task Force, took on the whole continuum of American education, discussing ways the federal government could encourage reforms in everything from teacher quality to new models for college instruction.
The panelists were Peter W. Cookson Jr., a teacher at Columbia University’s Teachers College and the president of Ideas Without Borders; Tom Dawson, executive director of product management for Laureate Education; Joni Finney, director of the Institute for Research in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education; Jeff Selingo, editor-at-large of the Chronicle of Higher Education; Ben Wildavsky, a senior scholar with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation; and John Chubb, Education Sector’s interim CEO. The panel was moderated by Education Sector’s Susan Headden.
Although education is largely a local matter on the K-12 side and an institutional one on the postsecondary end, the panel offered many ways the federal government could use its influence in the service of student success – from providing funds and incentives, to seizing the bully pulpit, to simply getting out of the way.
Common Core/NCLB. Panelists called for strong leadership around the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and successful implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Chubb, while applauding the rigorous new standards, questioned the states’ ability to carry them out. “It would be great if the states could be counted on to experiment and innovate and drive everybody forward, but we forget that 12 years ago when ESEA [No Child Left Behind] was being adopted, the federal government didn’t trust the states to do the right thing,” he said. “The states have had a very uneven track record of making progress with their own standards. I think that is likely to continue with the Common Core.” Chubb urged the administration to work to authorize the ESEA in a way that is consistent with the Common Core. “The administration has the right to say that getting [ESEA and the Higher Education Act] reauthorized is a top priority, and this administration doesn’t want to leave here in four years with both of those acts still sitting out there unresolved,” Chubb said. “That’s not a legacy, that’s a mess.”
Cookson urged the administration to adopt a political and communications strategy aimed at fending off any impressions that the Common Core is some sort of national curriculum. “People want to control their schools,” Cookson said. “They don’t understand all the nuances of policy formation in Washington, D.C. And there is a potential well of resentment against this. And if that should actually come to a head… it could undermine the standards movement and it could undermine the Common Core.”
Teacher quality: “Teachers are everything. If you don’t get the teachers right, the rest is very secondary.” The statement from Chubb brought a number of comments about the potential federal role in boosting teacher quality. Although the federal government can’t do anything about working conditions or compensation for teachers, it can play a role in how those teachers are prepared. Specifically, Chubb said, it can help lend some transparency to the performance of schools of education, many of which are producing graduates ill-equipped for the classroom. Chubb supported systems under which states can map the success of those schools based on the future classroom evaluation scores of their graduates. “If you have transparency into the performances of colleges’ schools of education,” Chubb said, “then prospective teachers can make better choices about where they want to go, and employers can make better choices about from where they are hiring.” He noted that the U.S. Department of Education is considering new regulations that would push states to evaluate schools of education in this way.
Dawson called upon the administration to use its bully pulpit to encourage the nation’s best and brightest students to pursue teaching as a career. “They could get more out of talking about it more,” he said. Noting the success the administration has had in reaching out to young people, he said it could use some of the capital it has built up in a sustained teacher recruitment campaign. Then, he said, the caliber of those in programs like Teach For America would be no longer be the exception, but the rule.
School leadership academies: The administration has also signaled an interest in improving the quality of school principals, a topic that prompted ideas from Cookson. “If you look at research on effective schools that have been around since the 1970s and you had to pick one variable that would really make a difference over time,” Cookson said, “It’s the quality of the principal.” To boost quality, Cookson suggested using Title II funding to conduct research on principal effectiveness and to raise the profile of the issue. He also called for the creation of a national leadership academy, along the lines of the U.S. service academies. “That would create a cadre of school leaders that had a national vision and intentional training,” he said, “and I think that would really raise the level of school leadership around the country.”
College attainment: Urging President Obama to forge ahead on his college graduation agenda, Wildavsky nevertheless urged Obama to reframe the challenge he laid out in 2009. Specifically, he would like him to step back from his casting of college attainment as a Sputnik Moment. “It sort of suggests that we are under some kind of threat from the rising educational progress of other countries,” Wildavsky said. “But… it’s good for the U.S. when other countries around the world improve their educational attainment.” It’s not a matter of “pecking order,” Wildavsky said, but one of “participating in opportunities to reach our potential as a nation.” Finney called on Obama to reiterate the goals he put forth in 2009 – America having the world’s highest percentage of degree-certificate holders by 2020 – but to better communicate why the those goals are important. “We are now seeing a real backlash, people saying, ‘Why do this? Is it worth it?’ ” she said. “And I don’t think the president has explained this well.”
State-federal partnerships: Finney called for more policy muscle behind the PR promises of governors who have signed on to the college completion agenda. And she urged the Obama administration to lend the states direction and financial support. The federal government, she said, should create powerful incentives for states to create policies that will lead to more postsecondary degrees. “There is no clear agenda on the federal level, and unless the president puts forth that agenda and creates some very powerful incentives for states to come on board, I don’t think we can get it done.”
Alternative pathways to postsecondary education: The panelists called for a rethinking of traditional notions of college and federal encouragement of new routes to postsecondary success. They agreed that post-high school, American students need more structured opportunities aside from college. “Many [students] are drifting, and some end up at college because they have nowhere else to go,” said Selingo. “We have the military and work, but work might be working at Walmart or as a waiter or waitress. If you had a semester year or gap year with an apprenticeship, learning hard skills, students would start college much more focused and much more knowing why they are there.” Even if institutions of higher education resist such ideas in the interest of open pipelines, Selingo said, the federal government could fund programs or (taking note of the Clinton-era battles over Americorps) at least encourage them. Wildavsky agreed on the need for multiple postsecondary options: “It’s not either-or,” he said. “It’s both-and.” He also urged the president to reject the “trendy notion” that more 19-year-olds should opt out of college to pursue entrepreneurial careers. “I’d like him to say that this is a terrible, irresponsible line of reasoning,” Wildavsky said. “Sure it’s fine for some super smart 18-year-old who is good at coding. But that is not what the nation needs. The nation badly needs more highly trained human capital.”
College outcomes: There was wide agreement among the panelists on the need for meaningful data on college outcomes, and various thoughts about what the federal government might do to make sure it is collected – and made easily available. Finney said that the federal government could dangle money for states to provide indicators on how well institutions within their borders are serving their students. Chubb cited the efforts by a few states to track job outcomes and salaries for recent graduates by college, by program, and by academic major. Selingo called for a federal student record database, an idea that had been advanced years ago by the Spellings Commission on higher education that didn’t take hold. Finney said incentives, not requirements, were the way to go. “You put money on the table, and you say, ‘whoever wants to play.’ ”
Financial aid: The federal government has leverage over college accountability with one big stick – student financial aid. Given rising costs and uncertain outcomes, Dawson cited a dramatic need to “experiment, to try something new” with aid. But he cautioned that when the government has tried to tighten restrictions or redirect resources in the past, it has found itself traveling a dangerous path. “People who take that path get called nasty things,” he said. “And that has to stop. Because we know that the current way is not working.” Finney called on President Obama to push for further changes in financial aid. “The president has to be the commander in chief of education,” she said. “The president knows that every time [the federal government] increases the Pell Grant, tuition goes up,” Finney said. “He gets that.” Again, she suggested federal incentives: a new system under which students would be eligible for a Pell Grant only if their states link tuition to growth in family income. Then, Finney said, “you would have some sort of realistic revenue cap.”
MOOCs and other new delivery systems: Panelists said the federal government should support competency-based learning and alternatives to the traditional delivery of postsecondary content, including Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. “The only way to gain efficiency and to reduce costs is through course redesign,” Selingo said, suggesting federal research in this area as well as the creation of a federal Innovation Fund. He said the government should support initiatives like Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative and research into the benefits of hybrid learning. Finney called for the establishment of a National Credit Bank, which would allow students to earn credits and degrees based on the demonstration of competencies. Wildavsky, however, offered that the most appropriate federal response to innovation might be “Don’t just do something; stand there.” The government “should maybe just applaud this whole new universe of alternatives to time and place as a measure of what’s successful and look at the outcomes, and whoever can get there, by whatever means, gets applauded.”