Friday, December 26, 2008

More Charter Universities

A friend and colleague of mine, Peter Ingle, posted the following comment on my previous post about charter universities:

Since k-12 is required and has a set curriculum, charters provide options. But in Higher education, the curriculum is not set and schools have to differentiate in order to attract students. Aren't there a number of institutions that offer much of what you suggest? I think so. The only real difference is the way that they are administered.

Peter is a former public school teacher, and his wife still teaches at an elementary school in Park City. He's also really smart about curriculum and American higher ed, so I trust his impulse here.

I still think charter universities might be a good idea, though. Here is why:

1. Administrative freedom is a big deal. It is true that most colleges and universities have some form of faculty governance and processes in place to bring about changes. But that said, they are slow moving beasts, in large part because they are so big. This is especially the case for state schools, which have an added layer of administration at the state system level.

2. Public higher education, at least in Utah, seems to be in a race to sameness. Schools seem to be competing to offer the same majors and set of services. Charter universities would be a way for state systems to innovate at relatively low cost, and offer meaningful options to students. Andbecause they are small and inexpensive they would be a way to open higher education to people where they live. If we want to build sustainable communities, having a small university in town dedicated to that community might be really valuable. As it is, rural and poor communities lose their youth in part because there is nowhere in town for them to attend college.

3. All higher ed, be it public or private, is missing some key opportunities. We all know that demographic changes and the economy mean that higher education needs to be less expensive and better suited to first-generation and low income students. We also know that there is a huge market out there for schools that serve these students well. But who is doing a thorough-going job of it? I don't mean offering a program here and there, but giving an institution wholly over to that mission.

4. Size matters. American higher ed is still fixated on bigness. This fixation dates to a time when every campus needed one of everything--a library, a gym, a cafeteria, etc. Today, I'm not sure that every campus needs that. (For example, lots of towns have their own theatres which could be shared with the theatre program at a charter university. Same with gyms and libraries. Not to mention the information available electronically.) I am sure, though, that every student needs a mentor, and that faculty need to collaborate, and we need to embrace pedagogies that really lead to active learning. Those things are possible in big institutions, but they are probable in very small ones, where everyone is committed to the same, clear end.

5. Entrepreneurial opportunities. Higher ed doesn't have much room for entrepreneurs. But across the world we see social entrepreneurs doing a lot of good in education. (Look for example, at the progress that small private K-12 schools are making in the very poorest sectors in the developing world.) A look at the most innovative institutions of higher ed in the US (Alverno College, Portland State, CSU-Monterey Bay, Evergreen State, College of the Atlantic, etc.) indicates that they got that way because they took advantage of crisis or new creation to form a powerful culture for learning.

None of this is to say that charter universities are a solution. In fact, new private institutions committed to the public and private purposes of education might do just as well. And as Peter points out, there are many small, innovative schools out there. But the vast majority of students in higher ed don't attend those schools, in part because of their high cost, in part because with very few exceptions they are clustered in the northeast and midwest, and in part because K-12 and higher ed in the US tend to point students to big schools.

At the very least, we ought to think about whether charters, a useful innovation in K-12, might serve a similar purpose in higher ed.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Charter Universities?

For the past several years I've had a foot in two different worlds--higher education reform and the effort to improve public schools. I've been surprised at how rarely those two reform efforts have intersected. Sometimes reformers in both camps adopt the same reform, but without talking to each other (service-learning is an excellent example). In others, reforms go one way in K-12 and another in higher education. So, for example, K-12 is adopting ever more standardized tests while higher education, with a few exceptions, flees them. Whatever the process, it is increasingly clear that high school and college are seriously divided--not just by the age of their students, but by curricula, organization, values, and goals.

Some of my involvement in K-12 reform has been as a board member of two charter schools. The longer I look at the challenges facing higher ed--access, cost, attention to the real needs of real students, diversity, and learning among them--the more I think that there is room for the charter school approach to be applied to higher education.

Charter schools got their start as a way for the parents and reformers to bring about change within the public school system. In a nutshell, charters have the same educational responsibilities as regular state schools, but the have more freedom to experiment with how to meet those responsibilities. Charters tend to be smaller than regular K-12 schools, their teachers do not always come through the education schools, and they often focus their curricula around particular themes.

Charters are not panaceas. But the charters that work best involve parents at a higher rate, attend more closely to the needs of their students, and provide innovative ways of learning. They also attract inspired teachers who like the freedom to get their students to the outcomes the system has created in creative ways. Finally, they have shaken up some school systems, either by attracting enough students (and the funding that accompanies them) to impact the system's revenue, or, more hopefully, by innovating in ways that are later adopted by the broader system.

So, why can't there be charter universities? Certainly some of the problems with mainstream higher ed--impersonal, passive classes, a lack of focus on learning, the absence of a diverse student body, creeping bureaucracy--could be remedied by the charter model.

Think of it this way. What if five faculty members with degrees across the disciplines created their own university? It would be small by necessity--perhaps 100-150 students, tops. The curriculum would be limited, but because the faculty all work together, meaningfully integrated as well. Decisions would have to be made democratically. And a lot of the apparatus that is taken as necessary in higher ed--athletics, technology in every classroom, etc. would be stripped away.

Of course a model like this would be hard to sustain. (This is the case with charter schools as well.) But it could be sustained, not through bureaucratic systems and huge funding streams from taxes and tuition, but through a core of passionate faculty and a relatively small number of engaged students.

It is worth some thought...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

What is Common, What is Custom?

My title at Westminster is Associate Provost for Integrative Learning. My job is to find ways to connect several educational initiatives (learning communities, civic engagement, environment, campus theme, faculty and staff development, the library, etc.) with each other, and with the academic programs of the College. In addition, my colleagues and I are finding ways to help students make sense out of the broad range of their educational experiences--in and out of the classroom.

This job has forced me to think about how to think about the educational enterprise whole. I see at least two conceptual trends in American higher education. The first is towards customized education. You see this trend in lots of places--in recruiting efforts which talk to students as if they are consumers; in online education which promises that students will learn when and where they want to; and in the programming of lots of colleges and universities, which offer ever more majors, minors, programs, and opportunities. There are many virtues to this approach, not the least of which is that they acknowledge that students, faculty, and stff have particular needs and interests.

The second is towards commonality in higher education. This, too, is everywhere. Many state systems are working to ensure that every student develops a common set of skills, or achieves a common set of goals, or takes a common curriculum. Private colleges and universities are moving this direction as well, trumpeting their missions, learning goals, core curriculum, etc. The common, too, is virtuous. At its most noble it is inspired by a democratic vision--that all students who enroll in higher education emerge with the skills necessary to work and participate in a democracy.

The problem with both of these trends, though, is that they can ignore what we know about learning. Customization forgets that learning is a social enterprise, one that happens best when learners interact regularly and understand the impact of their actions on other people. It also forgets that higher education has a civic role, one not filled by graduating hundreds of thousands of isolated learners. Commonality ignores the powerful role that self-efficacy plays in learning. As soon as students feel like their learning is out of their hands, they withdraw, become passive, and shunt responsibility for their learning (and upon graduation, their behavior) onto others.

So the conceptual question shouldn't be "The common or the custom?" Instead, we need to think and act in ways that the common leads to the custom, and the custom to the common. Here are a couple of practical ways to come at the challenge of integrating the common and the custom:
  1. Favor common experiences that lead to custom outcomes. Campuses should mandate that all students have certain experiences--study abroad, internships, leadership, service-learning--that give them a common language but radically personal outcomes. These personal outcomes then become a source of diverse ideas and experiences in the classroom, a place where they are sorely needed. Ask an individual student about her study abroad experience and you'll hear how it changed her. Ask a group of students about their study abroad experiences and you immediately get educational conversations that every faculty member would love to have in her classroom.
  2. Favor common practices that lead to custom relationships. Empirical research and personal reflections remind us that the relationships that develop during college are key to learning, well-being, and future success. Higher education should make sure that all students develop this sort of relationship. Doing so requires, at the least, a serious commitment to mentoring, so that every student is known by a full-time educator. Note that this isn't a call for small class sizes. In fact, colleges might be better off with larger classes if that means that someone is spending more time with individual students. Note also that building these relationships is particularly important for new students, the students who in the current system get the least meaningful, personal mentoring.
  3. Favor custom curricula that take on meaning through a common metaphor. A student's course of study is essentially a narrative. The ability to tell one's own story is a sign of personal well-being. But individual stories add up to something more powerful when they fit into the stories of others. So let students craft their own courses of study (which, if they have good mentors, will be wise courses of study as well.) But make sure that the institution as a whole has its own narrative that students' narratives fit into. Consider Naropa University, the Buddhist-inspired school in Boulder, CO. Not only do they have a clear focus--contemplative education--that infuses their classes, but they also have a metaphor--the breath--that gives meaning to the individual narratives of students. By building their curricula around the in-breath and out-breath, students develop a sense of common purpose even while they pursue quite different courses of study.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What Gladwell's Latest Suggests About Improving Teaching in Higher Education

I've been a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell since before The Tipping Point came out. Right now his new book, Outliers, is at the top of the bestseller lists. My wife got my copy before I had the chance to read it. So instead of going on about Outliers, I've been mulling over the implications of his latest New Yorker article, "Most Likely to Succeed: How Do We Hire When We Can't Tell Who's Right for the Job."

In "Most Likely" Gladwell wonders what it takes to hire good teachers. He notes that a poor teacher can retard the learning of his/her students by half a grade level every year. After a couple of years of poor teachers, a child might be so far behind that even very good teachers can't bring that child up to grade level.

Gladwell's argument is that the reason it is so hard to hire good teachers is that we don't know how to predict which teachers will be good. He notes that a degree in education is no guarantee that a student will become a good teacher. This isn't because college students who go into education are sub-standard (as some have argued). Instead, teaching is such a complicated task that the only way to do it well is to, well, do it well.

As in most of his work, he then proceeds to suggest how schools can hire better teachers by discussing cases from analogous fields. He notes that a highly successful college quarterback may or may not be a good professional QB, simply because the professional game is so much more difficult than the college game. In other words, college football is to pro football as a degree in education is to teaching.

Gladwell's preferred analogy for picking good teachers is the way that financial advising companies select new financial advisors. North Star Resource Group, the financial advisory company in this piece, interviewed 1000 people before selecting 49 for a four month "training camp" where they do the work of a financial advisor under the supervision and oversight of a professional. At the end of the four months, North Star selected 23 to hire full-time.

Gladwell argues that schools should follow North Star's practices, hiring new teachers with self-discipline and good people skills (but not necessarily an education degree), and then auditioning them for a time to see who flourishes in the classroom. (This is, by the way, roughly the way that Teach for America selects and trains its teachers, but counter to the practices and the laws governing the hiring of teachers for the public schools.)

Gladwell says nothing about higher education, but his argument has some interesting implications. Higher ed has long been a place where professors are hired for their expertise in a field, and not their teaching skills. Once they are hired, profs get relatively little oversight--they learn to teach alone. Professional development does take place, but usually in a manner disassociated from the day-to-day teaching work of the faculty.

No one would argue that American higher ed is being overwhelmed with excellent teachers, and at least some would argue that colleges and universities are imitating the declines that have afflicted K-12. If colleges and universities were to seek to create excellent teachers along the North Star/Gladwell model, here is what they would do:
  1. Decide in advance what sort of teaching they value, and to what end. (Right now even campuses highly esteemed for the quality of their teaching have no consistent pedagogy--faculty teach how they prefer).
  2. Train graduate students to teach in their preferred way and toward their selected ends, and then hire them to work at the school. (As it is today, no campus worth its name would hire its own graduate students to teach there. This is especially the case at smaller, less prestigious schools who try to hire graduates of the Ivies in order to raise the profile of their faculty.)
  3. If they don't have a PhD program, instead of using adjuncts simply to fill holes, colleges and universities should hire adjuncts with the idea in mind that they will eventually become full-time faculty. Being an adjunct would become the equivalent of being an apprentice, complete with close supervision, regular mentoring, and replacement if the adjunct doesn't meet the standard. (As it is adjuncts rarely get much guidance. Nor do they end up with full-time jobs where they adjunct. And the longer the period of adjunct work, the less likely that a person will be hired as a full-time faculty member.)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Teaching and Learning Books that Aren't About Teaching and Learning

By now there are dozens of books that tell educators how to ensure that their students learn, or that teach administrators how to create schools that support learning. Some of them are very good; I'd be a much better teacher and administrator if I had only Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do and John Tagg's The Learning Paradigm College on my shelf.

There are lots of books of equal value for teachers and administrators, though, that aren't explicitly about teaching and learning.

Here are two of my favorites: Bernie Glassman and Rick Fields' Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master's Lessons in Living a Life that Matters and Jane Jacobs' classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

The books couldn't be more different--one is brief, the other long; one is about Zen practice and the other about how healthy cities work. But at their core are a couple of principles that have a lot to say to teachers and administrators.

One. Close, repeated engagement with one thing is a sure path to learning. Glassman's book is at one level about how the ritual of cooking day after day for a community of people leads the cook to understand food, community, suffering, his transient nature, and the way to find one's way. Jacobs embodied the same sort of engagement, walking the streets of Greenwich Village day after day, noticing the relationships, structures, and habits of healthy communities. Only then did she embark on the research necessary to write a book that upended conventional city planning.

Two. Planning only gets an organizer (of a school, or a town, or a sangha, or any other community) so far. Beyond establishing and supporting the habits that are the basis of the community, community members have to discover how they work to learn and help others do the same. Glassman's book is full of the unpredictable, and of his unwillingness to predict how things would turn out. Jacobs book decries planning and zoing for their desire to stamp out the diversity of buildings, jobs, and people that allow real community to emerge.

So here is the challenge for teachers and administrators. How do you balance repetition and unpredictability? And how do you do it regularly, on a large scale, and for all sorts of people?

This is a vital challenge, if only because so much of our educational system does exactly the opposite. We prefer short-term (a couple of hours a week for a semester at most) engagement over repetition, but assume that short-term engagement can lead to some sort of predictable outcome. Why?