Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why are there no reality shows about education?

It struck me part-way through watching my third consecutive episode of Swamp People that while there are reality shows about alligator hunters, junk buyers, truck drivers, coupon cutters, and pawn shop owners (actually two shows here) there are no reality shows about education.

If you are among the many that believe reality shows are a sign of the impending cultural apocalypse, or if you believe education is too serious of a topic to be serialized on the History Channel, then this news must cheer you.

 But if you are a fan of reality TV, or if you like the way reality shows take overlooked parts of society, show the nuttiness of the people who inhabit it, and then demonstrate how that nuttiness is in fact part of a lifestyle that has meaning and dignity, then the fact that you can't spend a season tracking the progress of Ms. Johnson's 8th grade  pre-algebra class, or sitting in on the weekly meeting of Dean's Council must make you wonder.

I don't have some Great Theory of Culture that explains this fact.  And there is a lot of media attention to education, both in a fictionalized (Glee, High School Musical) and documentary (Waiting for Superman) format, not to mention the endless discussions about fixing education that emerge any time a legislature sits or an executive stops trying to solve the worlds problems long enough to focus on our own.

But the absence of reality shows about something like education, where every day teachers face the equivalent of surprisingly dangerous alligators and discover a human analogue of the $10,000 guitar hidden behind a pile of junk, must have some explanation.  I would love to see yours.

Here is mine.  Both reality show producers and education leaders believe that education is too important to show on television.  For reality show producers the question goes like this: Why would we produce a show that might turn out to have an unhappy ending?  For education leaders it is the same question, asked a different way: Why would we trivialize something as serious as the crisis of education by putting it on TV?

Behind both of these questions is an assumption that education is broken, and only major, systemic overhauls can do something positive.  No one wants to relax to that on TV.

But we know that many parents are  satisfied about their kids' education, even when that kid is enrolled in a "failing" school  (it is the equivalent to the case that while most Americans distrust congress, most like their own representative).  And we know that educational success is tied to a bunch of context-specific things--home life, access to books, the enthusiasm of the teacher--that don't give themselves easily to system-wide fixes.

It is exactly those context-specific things that make reality shows interesting.  So if we see several education reality shows emerging on TV in the years to come, it will be a sign that education leaders and media producers have come to better understand education as something like hunting alligators--hard, interesting work done by people who aspire simply to decent lives and the chance to do what they love with people they like.  That would be a good sign.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Learning from; or starting a college and getting paid

Over the past couple of years I have blogged several times about what it would take to start a college or university today:

Here and here I posted about the notion of "Charter Universities"--where states would adopt the model used for charter schools to encourage innovators to provide higher education as well.

Here I mused about whether an "emergent" model of change could lead to the creation of a college.

This essay noted some of the "mysteries' in education--things we don't currently do well--and proposed ways to arrange a school that made money by responding to them.  And this one wondered how you could monetize learning as opposed to classes.  These posts have mused about ways to make use of open learning resources.  And this one suggested that private universities ought to start junior colleges.

Having said all this, there are essentially 3 big barriers to starting a college or university today.  The first is the cost associated with building a campus.  Even schools like the  University of Phoenix that rent their buildings have significant space costs.  And the cost of building a new campus, especially one that includes science, would be enormous.  The second is accreditation.  Without accreditation, students cannot get federal financial aid, and without accreditation, diplomas have almost no meaning.  But getting accredited means many years of work, years during which whatever students you can gather have to take it on trust that their expenditures will produce something that has meaning.

People who have responded to these two issues have often done it by focusing on supporting learning online.  The most famous example today is Khan Academy--a learning center than began on YouTube and now boasts thousands of videos on discrete topics in math, science, and other areas.  Khan Academy has hundreds of thousands of fans, and just got an infusion of money and support from Bill Gates.

But these free online learning models have not resolved the accreditation problem, and in fact aren't really interested in becoming colleges or universities.  And they often run on a non-profit model, where they rely for funding on donations.

All of which makes the recent re-launch of more interesting.  Learnable is the first site I've seen that allows producers of learning content to get paid by the users of that content.

 Looked at one way, Learnable is like, a site that allows craftspeople to sell their wares.  Looked at another way, though, it is a combination learning management system and back office for a college or university.  With Learnable, then, a group of people who want to start an actual college or university have access to the resources to run the school, manage the courses, and handle much of the financial end of the business.  I wouldn't be surprised to see new, small colleges and universities pop up on Learnable, either as a supplement to regular face-to-face courses, or as the platform for their entire institutions.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Do incentives for organizations work better than incentives for individuals?

In the past week the Department of Education has clamped down on one sort of incentive for enrolling students in college and increased support for another.  Taken together, the two moves make we wonder whether incentives are better at the individual or organizational level.

In this "Dear Colleague" letter, the Department of Ed ruled that it is improper for colleges and universities to provide financial incentives to employees for recruiting and enrolling students.  Among the activities that cannot be incentivized are:
Targeted information dissemination to individuals; Solicitations to individuals; Contacting potential enrollment applicants; aiding students in filling out enrollment application information (p.8)

These rules, and others related to financial aid in the same document are a response to a scandal that blew up a couple years ago in which ethical lapses in providing financial aid grew out of cozy relationships between financial aid officers and private lenders.

Four days after offering this guidance, Ed announced a competition for nearly 200 million dollars in grants to encourage colleges and universities to enroll, retain, and graduate more students from college.  The NYTimes article announcing the grant was called, "Incentives Offered to Raise College Graduation Rates."

In noting the almost-simultaneous banning and encouraging of incentives I am not trying to make a point about inconsistency in the Department of Education.  Instead I am wondering about the proper location of incentives.

Some recent work by Dan Pink and separately by Barry Schwartz argues that incentives are relatively ineffective at getting individuals to behave well over an extended period of time.  At the same time, donors are offering ever larger prizes to organizations that can solve problems, be it creating a privately funded space ship or raising high school graduation rates.

One wonders, then, about what incentives do for organizations that they do not do for individuals.  Are organizations more likely to behave ethically with incentive money than individuals?  Do incentives to organizations lead to sustainable changes in behavior when they do not for individuals?  (Here the evidence would seem to say no, at least as indicated by the number of good educational innovations that disappear as soon as outside funding disappears.)  Is the impact of incentive money weakened in organizations since it is distributed broadly, while it is focused in individuals?  And finally, can donors and funders expect that incentives will bring about the sort of changes they hope to see?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Can the curriculum lead to retention and graduation?

This article in Campus Technology highlights the efforts of California Lutheran University to retain more of its students.  The university is rightly proud of its efforts, which have increased retention five percent in the past five years.

Their approach should be familiar to anyone who has worked on retention in the past decade--a mix of one-on-one outreach to students, strong support in the co-curriculum, a focus on students at-risk, and a robust data effort to ensure that no one falls through the cracks and to verify assumptions about what works and what doesn't.  I expect that a similar mix, deployed with more or less effectiveness, exists on any campus that has worked to improve retention.  Where there is variation, it comes in implementation and student characteristics, not in approach.

I suspect that this approach, though, has just about reached the limits of its effectiveness.  Here are a few reasons:
1. The focus in higher ed is shifting from retention to graduation.  The Gates Foundation, the federal government, and the various states are now pushing an obvious point--that one major goal of education is to graduate from college.  Most retention efforts, on the other hand, focus on first-to-second year persistence.  And while there have been moves towards sophomore year experiences and other extensions of the retention model, most individual components of retention efforts can succeed without moving the overall graduation rate one bit.

2. Retention efforts fail to engage large portions of the campus community.  By this I mean two things: first, that most students are not the focus of retention .  Upper-division students don't usually get considered.  Nor do students in the broad middle--those who are doing well.  Second, retention work fails to engage most faculty.  Certainly those who teach freshman seminars or learning communities classes play a role.  And so do faculty leaders--deans, honors program directors, freshman advisors, etc.  But unless yours is an unusual campus, the number of faculty for whom retention is another nice program (or something to be offered up for budget cuts in difficult times) is large.

3. Retention efforts do not influence the curriculum as a whole.  Retention work has influenced key segments of the curriculum.  First-year seminars often exist to help retain students.  So do learning communities.  And at the outer edge, some campuses have redesigned their General Education programs to focus, in part, on retention.  But few majors have been redesigned to retain students.  And in fact, the trend towards requiring more hours in the major may work against retention.

So the question--what can be done in the curriculum to both retain more students and get more of them to graduation?

A few thoughts:

1. Hold departments responsible for retaining and graduating declared majors.  Again, if your campus is anything like the norm, department chairs and deans cannot tell you which majors retain declared students.  Nor is there any attention to the data showing what movement from one major to another looks like.

2. Make sure there are enough sections of upper-division classes so that retained students can move through expeditiously.

3. Enrich the portion of the curriculum that sits at the transition from GE to the major.  Too often the first class in the major is also a large service course for the institution.  Or students come to it willy-nilly, some in their first semester in the major, others after exploring upper-division courses

4. Ensure that there is a narrative to the curriculum--a reason that one course follows another, a story that all students and faculty can tell that describes why they are where they are in their course of study, and why the next step makes sense.

I am sure there are many more ways that the curriculum (here I am distinguishing from pedagogy) can lead to retention and graduation.  But whatever they are, certainly institutions must be moving in that direction.  Retention is no longer enough.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The difficult present and hopeful future for accreditors

Since attending the NWCCU annual meeting, I've been thinking about the future of accreditors and accreditation (a bit of that thinking is also available here).  Clearly, accreditors will be under pressure from federal and state governments anxious about accountability and hungry for greater influence over higher education.  They will also be under pressure from the market--from for-profit schools, alternative models of accreditation, and thinkers who argue that our system is broken in part because it cannot regulate itself.

Readers will note that these locations of pressure--government on one hand and the private sector on the other--locate accreditors as part of civil society, that third sector that stands between private interest and governmental interests.  Accreditors, though, have rarely taken this position, often preferring either a quasi-governmental role (creating and handing out regulations, ensuring compliance with the rules) or a consultative role (dispensing advice to individual campuses using a semi-proprietary process and working in an environment of confidentiality).

If accreditors were to embrace their position as part of civil society, they would continue what they currently do.   But they would also do more of the following, all of which, in my view, would strengthen accreditors and higher education while maintaining some measure of independence from capture by government or private interest.

1. Build and mobilize networks.  NWCCU has 162 member institutions from all institution types. There are obvious networks to be built here--among all campuses, among similar campuses, among campuses in the same region--and obvious issues to mobilize about (more on which below).  Accreditors haven't generally done this sort of work because of their tradition of working with individual schools.  There is space, though, for coalitions of schools to influence policy, coalitions which could be built relatively simply from within the ranks of regionally-accredited schools.

2. Support commonly desired outcomes. In the past 20 years accreditors have moved away from demanding that member schools embrace certain practices to demanding that schools define and achieve their own missions.  At the same time, the policy discussion has moved the opposite direction, with calls for nationally standardized tests, improved retention and graduation, greater affordability,clearer links with K-12, and better learning.  Accreditors could lead in these areas if they embraced a set of minimum standards.  If fewer than 50% of your students graduate in 6 years (say, for example), you immediately get first an infusion of training and support from your accreditor and, if that doesn't help, censure from that accreditor.  Such rules will, I expect, come from the federal government if they don't come from somewhere else.

3. Develop research and advocacy emphases.  Accreditors sit on huge data sets that, if analyzed well, could tell us a great deal about the practices that lead to success and failure on most of the issues facing higher education.  Part of living in civil society is to use these data to make public arguments--in the press, before congress, in public fora, at academic conferences--about what works.

4. Support experimentation with mission and institutional design. As I argued in my post about strategic planning, institutions of higher education are coalescing around a certain set of outcomes and certain approaches to them. (Why, for example, do most community colleges (or any other sector for that matter) provide similar offerings, on similar campuses, at a similar price?)  What experimentation there is with institutional design and mission comes either from individual campuses or from new entrants in the market.  Accreditors are uniquely positioned to identify gaps in the market and support responses.  They have both the data and the influence to encourage campuses to step into new niches in the market.  Or in an even more radical possibility, they have the membership and access to the wisdom of enough people that they, themselves, could incubate new institutions of higher education.  Schools in a region in general do a poor job of graduating first-generation hispanic students?  Why couldn't the accreditor, using its networks to catalyze the effort, design a new institution to do just that?

If accreditors took up any of these suggestions seriously, they would come to look quite different from their current guises.  But they would also be in a position to shape the discussion about higher ed and push relentlessly for improvement.  We certainly need more institutions in civil society to do just that.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

What does strategic planning do?

I have spent the past two days at the Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities annual meeting in Seattle.  NWCCU is Westminster's accrediting body.  It also accredits most of the community colleges, universities, art schools, seminaries, and other institutions of higher ed in a broad swath of the North and West of the United States.

The annual meeting gives a  good sense of the preoccupations of higher education, of which there seem to be four: student learning, staying accredited, responding to change, and strategic planning.

These last two are in particular tension.  At a breakout session yesterday, campus after campus reported that it had recently hired a new president who, in his/her first year, had embarked on creating a new strategic plan for the campus. Accreditors, including Northwest, essentially require strategic plans in order to stay accredited. (Northwest requires that all campuses have a mission, core themes, and core theme objectives which are then reported on as part of the accreditation process.)  In fact, the prevalence of strategic planning as the first step in a new presidency or a new accreditation cycle suggests that there is some sort of group-think at play, or that institutions are seeking safety in the form of a strategic plan.

I say this in part because when everyone is doing something, on principle, one ought to choose to do something else.  But i say it also because the other theme at the meeting was the rapidity of change facing higher ed.  State after state is slashing higher ed budgets, student demographics change rapidly, for-profit institutions are rapidly taking up market share, leadership turns over again and again.  These changes force campuses to refigure contracts, rework budgets, seek new markets, adjust capacity--in short, to make things up as they go along.

One wonders how much a strategic plan, which is at its heart an effort to predict a future and then assess an organization's ability to bring that future about, helps in responding to change.  At least some of the literature on strategic planning suggests that the answer is not much.  Strategic plans, in this line of critique, ultimately make institutions look largely the same (witness the convergence of learning goals around the same themes: critical thinking, respect for diversity, civic engagement, etc.).  And they do relatively little to improve the bottom line.

In fact, it may be the case that the most valuable aspect of creating a strategic plan is, well, creating the plan.  It is uncommon for institutions to take the time and convene stakeholders for a meaningful conversation about their passions, interests, worries, and goals.  Strategic planning does this in a way that can, if done well, win some common views about purpose and process.  It can, in other words, help build community.  But that community sometimes slips away once the plan is done, as people fall back into their routines, the institution works out its plan, and everyone hopes that rapid change doesn't upset things.

Erika Beck, the Provost of Nevada State College, made this point in her remarks at today's conference.  She noted that NSC was created in 2002, in the salad days of Nevada's economic boom.  The campus received a large plot of lands and took on an ambitious goal of becoming Nevada's mid-tier university.  Faculty built the place from the ground up.

And then the economy fell apart in Nevada, with state funding for higher ed falling 32% since 2008.  even while enrollments are up by 40%.  Beck noted that NSC had been able to adapt, but not because of its strategic plan.  Instead she pointed to the benefits of being a young, still relatively unformed campus (a 'start-up" she put it).  As a start-up the campus could still play with work roles, combining jobs that wouldn't otherwise go together.  Faculty and administrators worked together on responding to budget cuts because they had built the campus together and shared a sense of common purpose.  And faculty took the downturn as a chance to innovate, not retrench.

This of course does not mean that a strategic plan is useless.  But it does suggest that strategic plans can limit flexibility and take the place of the sort of relationships that allow communities to succeed in the face of crises.  or perhaps it is the other way around.  A strategic plan can be a way to build community.  But it can also be a substitute.  And if it is, then when change happens, the plan won't help.