Month: September 2014

Preparing for the ‘after’ life in higher ed

Arum RoksaWhen Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published Academically Adrift in 2011, it exposed the shortcomings of undergraduate learning.

In their new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, Arum, a sociology professor at NYU, and Roksa, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia,find many recent graduates are ill-prepared to land decent jobs and to assume civic and financial responsibility. Part of the reason, they say, is that the higher ed pendulum has swung too far toward consumerism and away from academics, leaving students with little direction.

In fact, Roksa says, too many students operate “on autopilot.” “They have no idea where they want to take their degree and what they want to do,” she says. “They are merely responding to what their parents and friends think they should be doing.”

One of the arguments in your book is that higher education has all but abandoned academic rigor to promote social engagement.

Arum: There is definitely a move in that direction, but it isn’t new. The historical antecedents to that go back to the 1920s, when higher education providers adopted a model that was developed in the army to focus on individuals’ well being and psychological adjustment. But it has only been in recent decades, after the student-rights revolution and the beginning of catering to students as consumers and clients, that we see the balance between academic and social aspects of college really tilting in a dramatic way.

You say this student service model continues to grow despite evidence that it doesn’t impact student outcomes. Why is that?

Arum: Higher education, just like any organization, has its own internal institutional and political dynamics. Unfortunately, the camp that is in ascendance in higher education right now is the one that caters to student social well-being and psychological adjustment. The ones that have been marginalized are the ones that focus on academics.

Roksa: Those notions of well-being and psychological adjustment have become coupled with the idea that students are consumers, so we end up with what we call “well-adjusted consumers.” The 18- or 19-year-olds who are looking at colleges are interested in the college experience.

That experience is largely about socializing—the clubs and activities, meeting people and doing things. Colleges can’t persuade 18-year-olds to enroll by talking about the hard classes they’ll have to take. Every school has English 101 and Biology 101—there’s no way to distinguish that from school to school—so instead they talk about the social side. It’s very difficult to break out of that cycle.

Arum: That is particularly true when the faculty—the people who should focus on academic quality and rigor—are often distracted by other professional interests. Institutions increasingly reward faculty who focus on research and scholarship rather than instructional practice, so there isn’t that counterweight needed to keep the system in balance and appropriately focused on academic quality and standards.

Roksa: These days, about half of faculty are not following a tenure track. They don’t have much say or influence at the institutional level, and they are heavily dependent on students for their jobs. So much of the professoriat is put in a position of catering to consumer demands that they don’t have the leverage to do much more than fill their classes if they want to keep their jobs.

You write that we are creating an oversupply of creative types at a time when there aren’t jobs available for them. Is that the college’s fault or is it a reflection of the consumerism you mentioned? Should students be directed to follow other paths?

Arum: Our point is that it’s fine for students to pursue whatever occupational interest they choose, but they are poorly served if that pursuit comes at the expense of general competencies in things like critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing. Those higher-order competencies are ultimately what is rewarded in the labor market, and they are also the ones that are essential for democratic citizenship.

It’s not appropriate to respond to the professed needs of 18-year-olds as consumers and clients by letting them simply follow whatever paths they choose without the guidance of us as educators. It is our responsibility to provide guidance and to develop a curricular program that provides students with the academic skills they need to be successful adults.

As I read about schools being reluctant to challenge the role of students as consumers, the phrase that ran through my mind was “the inmates running the asylum.”

Roksa: Yes, there is a certain amount of that in terms of students being the ones who set priorities, while faculty is focused on research and other things. In some ways, it certainly fits that analogy.

The Obama administration has called for more college graduates, but what good is that if we are graduating students who are, as you put it, adrift?

Arum: It is not enough to just graduate more individuals. We really need to do a better job of educating the ones who are already passing through our institutions, as well as the greater numbers we all aspire to reach in the future.

Pundits and the public are increasingly asking whether a college degree is worth it. What do you say to them?

Roksa: I think it is very clear that it is worth it in the sense of the economic return of a college degree relative to those who only finish high school. We try to make a different point—that what matters more is what you are getting for that degree, and whether schools are doing all they can to impart the skills, knowledge and tradition to prepare students for their life after graduation, both in the labor market and as participants in society. That’s where we believe colleges are falling short.

Higher education is a major investment for most people, and there is growing pressure to determine whether students are actually learning. You write, “Each institution and, more to the point, each program at each institution has been asked to develop its own way to measure learning outcomes.” How can we get an accurate picture when there are so many methods?

Roksa: Measuring learning outcomes is a fairly new endeavor for higher education, so it will take some time to develop these methods and test them to make sure they are valid and reliable.

Arum: But we do believe it is within reach. Many faculty are working to pay greater attention to this area, but they need greater institutional support to develop the tools that can measure student skills more broadly.

It is difficult but important work. In many of the disciplines, we see these “tuning” initiatives under way, where faculty are brought together to define and form consensus on what student learning outcomes should be in fields like history or biology or economics. Once they define these outcomes, they can better develop the assessment tools to measure success according to these fields.

The way you describe it, higher education seems like a ship that has been on the same course for many years now. How can it be turned around?

Roksa: It is not going to happen overnight. It has taken a long time to get here and it will take some time to turn around, but there is lots of external pressure to change.

The public is not very happy to be paying for an education system that is really quite expensive, particularly when compared to other countries. Should we keep sustaining this kind of system when much of what it does is provide students with entertainment and social amenities, without the academic rigor that should accompany that?

We think that just keeping consumers—the students—happy is not good enough. Just filling seats is partly a result of state policies that distribute funding based on enrollment and, in their defense, schools are doing what they need to do to secure that funding.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can change that and begin rewarding schools based on outcomes. There are a number of states that are starting to have that conversation, but I don’t think anybody has figured out yet how to do it particularly well.

Schools will have to move away from the blind consumer model to begin thinking carefully about what they are doing and why they are doing it. It’s not going to happen tomorrow and it’s not going to be easy, but we’ll have to change external environments as well as internal practices to make it a reality. We are encouraged to see signs of movement in that direction.


Unmet obligations, misplaced priorities in higher ed



A common notion of college is that it’s a great equalizer—anyone who works hard and applies themselves can achieve a better life.

But Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociologist from University of Michigan, and Laura Hamilton, a professor from University of California, Merced present a different reality in Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality (Harvard University Press, 2013). The authors say that, on today’s campuses, success depends as much on where you’re from and who you know as it does on academic ability.

Armstrong and Hamilton spent five years following a group of women as they navigated a social class system that benefits the affluent and disadvantages the majority. The authors claim this “party pathway” is facilitated by the administration, which, to some extent, has its hands tied when it comes to changing things.

You began researching student sexuality. When and why did the focus change?

Armstrong: Students were telling me things about hooking up and so on, so I was wondering what they were up to. We had focus group discussions, but they didn’t seem to get close enough to what the students were actually doing, which led to us actually moving into a residence hall. Once we got there, however, the class issues started jumping out at us. The experiences of the women, depending on where they came from, were so different.

Hamilton: We realized that our original interest was really connected to social class, too, and these social class processes were driving who was hooking up, who was having pleasurable experiences in the party scene, who was excluded, and who was vulnerable in that scene. We started to see the sex piece of it as just one part a bigger puzzle.

So you hadn’t identified the “party pathway” as part of the original goal?

Armstrong: No. We saw what these people were experiencing and then we tried to make sense of it. In doing so, we looked into how they were intersecting with the university as an organization and what the university was doing—or not doing—to help them realize their goals and ambitions. Then we realized that for some students, the university was systematically a more hospitable and more highly resourced place than it was for others.

Hamilton: Much of the research on higher education studies student experiences, but not the context in which students are having these experiences. We started to see that the university was a big piece of the story and that it made sense to understand student experiences as not just what they bring with them in terms of abilities or interests, but also how that intersects with the environment the university offers.

You wrote that the party pathway is an implicit agreement between the students and the university to demand little of each other. Have you had pushback on that observation?

Armstrong: Not really. Other researchers have noted this kind of disengagement contract between faculty and students. This is particularly true at big research universities, where faculty are under pressure to publish and do research to get tenure and prestige in their disciplines. They arrive at a kind of truce where students don’t ask for much and faculty don’t expect much.

I’d imagine a comment like that would cause families to question what they are spending their money on.

Hamilton: It really should. I’m writing a second book right now, based on the parents of the women in this book. One thing I’m seeing is that, unless they are very highly educated professionals, many parents don’t have a good understanding of how universities work and that most of the business is not actually in educating undergraduates.

Parents put a lot of faith in these schools, particularly in state flagship schools. For the parents of someone from a small working-class town who makes it to the state flagship, there is an assumption of excellence and quality in teaching. They want to believe their child is going to get a lot of attention, a lot of assistance, and the faculty is there for them. When that doesn’t happen they are upset and angry.

I’ve been sifting through my interviews and finding lots of bitterness, anger and frustration with the university. They feel they’ve been swindled and not given what they were told.

A lot of marketing seems to highlight the college experience over academics. Did you find that?

Armstrong: Yes. In some ways all four-year residential schools are about selling an experience, but schools vary in terms of what kind of experience they are selling.

In terms of the campus life experience they are pretty accurate. They say, “There are 27 fraternities on campus and we have the liveliest social events of the year.” That’s pretty on target.

What they don’t tell families is that not everyone is equally included in this social scene, or that if you really dive into this social scene, it could have consequences on how much you are learning and how this can translate in your career or life afterward.

Some of the response to the book, in comments and blogs, really has to do with individual responsibility and people making choices. They say college students are adults, and if they choose to get drunk all the time and not study, they should be free to make that choice.

Hamilton: Sometimes it’s problematic to assume that people make free individual choices, and that the environment has no influence on those choices. Universities shape what choices are easier to make and which are harder to make.

When they land on campus at a school like the one we studied, many students find everything is structured so that they end up at a party. If everyone around you is doing it, if the only way you can make contact and have friends is the party scene, it gets really hard not to participate even if that’s not what you set out to do.

No one wants to wind up alone on the floor eating cereal at midnight.

The book looks at women, who are the larger part of the student population on many campuses, yet they often take a subordinate role to men. The schools seem to be complicit in this.

Hamilton: You have to think about the financial situation that many schools are in right now. If you need students to show up at your door, and you can’t compete for academically talented students who are also really wealthy, you aim for a different constituency.

That constituency is going to have money but be more interested in partying. A lot of these men and women arrive on campus with particular interests that aren’t extremely rigorous or academic, so you have to offer the kinds of majors that they are going to find appealing, like merchandise buying or residential interior design.

One of the really popular majors is sports communication. We found many women who took it wanted to be the kind of pretty blonde, bubbly sportscaster who gets to be behind the scenes with the team. If you don’t have those kinds of majors—and you don’t have the party scene that those students enjoy—then you are not going to attract those students.

Many of the women we studied will eventually end up being wives, so they are going for what we call gender complementarity—I’m going to marry a breadwinner eventually, so I’m just going to be cute and pretty and any career is going to be focused on that, but eventually the man is going to make the money.

Universities may not be really interested in educating women like that, but it is part and parcel of staying afloat right now.

You suggest several ways that schools can dismantle the party pathway. Can you highlight a few?

Armstrong: We do suggest dismantling the Greek system at schools, but reviewers have noted it is unrealistic when sororities and fraternities are so deeply involved in the whole structure of the big universities, from providing housing to providing the social life, and even being part the student affairs structure.

But if schools can push back against the party pathway, things will be safer and more academic. Little things like having classes on Friday can make a difference.

It makes economic sense because the universities’ physical plants would be used more efficiently, and it means a huge cost savings to use classroom space more effectively. It also has a corollary of reducing emergency room visits from excessive partying.

Hamilton: Universities can also try to even out power on campus. The problem with the party pathway now is that it puts the power of the social world effectively in the hands of affluent white men. That causes problems for a lot of people.

If universities would put as much interest in the African-American, Latino, and multicultural fraternities and sororities as they do the white ones, that would help even things out. They need to figure out ways to make sure that all the different student groups on campus have more of an equal voice.

Old ‘whine’, new bottles

Dana Goldstein

If there’s one thing that can be said with certainty about the history of education in this country, it is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Teachers have been alternately seen as saviors of society and “bad guys” who do little more than drain precious tax resources while our children fall further behind their counterparts in other industrialized nations.

In The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession (Doubleday, 2014), journalist Dana Goldstein says many of the same battles teachers fight today have been fought again and again since the advent of public education in the early days of our nation.

Coming from a family of public school educators, Goldstein advocates for bottom-up reform. At the root of many problems in education is that teachers are burdened with shifting, unrealistic expectations passed down from the top.

“It’s not that superintendents and principals can’t figure out how to do it themselves, but that it’s often impossible to make changes with the current resources and the training that is available,” Goldstein says.

The Teacher Wars spans the history of education in this country. When did teachers become the bad guys?

There are two ways to answer that. The first would be to say that there have always been some teachers who have been thought of as bad guys. Back in the 19th century there was a campaign to paint men as the bad teachers and females as the good teachers. That was around 1830.

By 1900 there was complete turnaround and reformers became concerned that there were far too many females in the profession. They decided they needed to attract more men, so the attacks were then on women teachers, particularly the working-class, less educated females. Back then many teachers didn’t even have a high school degree, so they were under attack.

In the 60s and 70s there were many racially motivated attacks on teachers coming from all sides. We saw black teachers being fired after Brown vs. the Board of Education in the south. Tens of thousands of black teachers lost their jobs. In the north we saw other battles in which white teachers were the ones who were vilified.

When it comes to the battles we’re going through right now, many people would point to “A Nation At Risk.” That was the first shot, so to speak. Many of the people I interviewed for this book—veteran education policy folks—consider that as a turning point in their own careers.

I was surprised to see there was controversy over ratings as far back as 1919. You cited a New York Times article about principals opposed to teacher ratings.

Yes. The current push that we see in the Obama years to change the way teachers are evaluated—along with more vigorous evaluations of principals and school districts—has a parallel to the 1920s.

One thing that happens again and again throughout the history of education in America is that it’s administrators and principals who are saying that many reforms are not implementable. The reforms are not practical or pragmatic to work in many schools.

What surprised you the most during your research?

It was interesting to see that there was a movement in the 1920s among social scientists to evaluate teachers with something called the pupil change method. This was basically the same as what we know today as a value added measurement. The reason it surprised me was that the economists and other researchers who use value measurement today and have advocated for it so successfully at the policy level, really paint it as an extremely new idea.

So it was fascinating to see that there were researchers back in the 1920s similarly using student’s standardized test scores to judge teachers.

You also note that programs like Teacher Corps and Teach for America are not new ideas.

One thing we see coming up again and again in our education history is the idea of recruiting “the best and the brightest” to be teachers even if they aren’t willing to commit to the job long term. Catherine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sister, launched something like this in the 19th century, when she brought East coast girls out West to launch one-room school houses on the frontier.

The national Teacher Corps project of the 1970s was a lot like today’s Teach for America, except for one big difference: It had this feisty, “lefty” flavor to it, so it required the recruits to live inside the neighborhoods where they were working. It also asked them to take on a lot of volunteer work outside the school.

You’d see these Teacher Corps members doing tenement organizing on the weekends and so on. Of course that’s an impossible set of expectations for someone with an exhausting teaching schedule during the day to also be expected to fight poverty on nights and weekends.

Tell me about one of the teachers you profiled, Lenore Furman.

Her story is so poignant because here she was, part of a really successful reform focused on early childhood literacy in traditional public schools in Newark. It was getting great results. Then Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg came in with a $100 million donation to the Newark Public Schools—which was widely promoted on Oprah Winfrey’s show—and the story they told was about the across-the-board failure of the district.

As a result, the good work that was already happening on the ground through the efforts of Lenore Furman and others, was largely ignored. It never went to scale. We see this again and again—we are constantly trying to remake the wheel in education.

That’s why I end the book with an argument for bottom-up reform. Because when I’m in that classroom in Newark and I see how effective the childhood literacy initiative is, my question is why is this in only eight schools in the district? It should be in all of them. And the people who are working on that program say they can’t go to scale because they never get the resources to go to scale.

You raise the argument of giving better pay for teachers. Is that feasible in this rocky economy?

Teacher pay is one of the toughest things to change because of the politics involved. There’s no will to raise taxes to provide more funding, but I think there are ways to reorganize the funding that we already have in the system.

One thing I’d like to see is for teachers to have opportunities for raises and promotions earlier in their career. That way it’s something they can look forward to when they are in their 20s or 30s and faced with deciding whether to become a teacher or stay in the job.

In most white-collar professions you can get some pretty big salary jumps between the ages of 22 and 35, but teachers often have a very flat pay scale during that time. I do think that there are ways to do this politically now, but it requires educators coming to the table with policy makers and both sides being willing to make compromises to get it done.

You also have some criticisms about unions and how they operate.

Yes. Let me say first that throughout their history they are often unfairly vilified, but they are crucial partners for any reform effort. They shouldn’t be shoved out of the way, which happens often with all these anti-tenure suits that are going on now.

On the other hand, I don’t think the current union policy of LIFO—Last In, First Out—is one that makes sense. I’ve had some pushback on that point, but I reject the idea that you can’t tell the difference between a good and bad teacher in a fair manner.

One line of yours that stayed with me was, “Sometimes I worry that we are engaged in magical thinking about our education system.”

That goes back to something Arne Duncan said when I was interviewing him—it’s the idea that teachers are miracle workers and can walk on water. I think as long as we talk about education in that way, we aren’t going to bring change. Teachers, principals—all the people who work in the system—are ordinary human beings like the rest of us. If we want them to do a better job, we need to invest in teaching them how to do it.

One way to do that is to look at the teachers and principals who are already doing an excellent job and have them work as mentors for their colleagues. This is how every other profession shares expertise and builds knowledge.

I profiled a school in Memphis that organized itself around the idea of a teaching hospital. They have teachers coming in and learning from expert teachers, and there is almost a constant rotation, so the person who comes in as a trainee can one day become a mentor. This is the teacher residency model.

At the same time, I make the point that teaching is five times as big as the medical or legal professions in terms of the number people who do the job. To me that’s all the more reason to focus on helping them build their skills.

Jump-starting the liberal arts conversation

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Michael Roth

Read just about any editorial page these days and you’ll see a familiar refrain: “Is a college degree still worth it?” Wesleyan University (Conn.) President Michael Roth argues that not only is it worth it, but that it is more important than ever.

Higher education admittedly faces many challenges over cost and access. Online instruction, certificate courses and skills-based learning offer fixes, but Roth says there is much more to higher education than just getting a job.

In his new book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press 2014), Roth says a well-rounded education breeds the inquisitiveness, creativity and innovation that drive our economy.

“Liberal education matters far beyond the university because it increases our capacity to understand the world, contribute to it and reshape ourselves,” he says. “When it works, it never ends.”

I’m the product a liberal arts university. When did that become a bad thing?

There has always been a tension between the broad contextual education and those folks who want it to be more like training. I’m a historian, so I turned to the subject because I had asked myself that same question—is this a new thing?

I started looking at materials that go back to the very beginning of this country, and I realized that the things people complain about today are very similar to the things that were being discussed in the late 1700s and early 1800s. There has long been a healthy tension between the demand of practicality and the desire for what’s called lifelong learning in American history.

What is different today is that there are people who want to get rid of that tension entirely and say we should just train people in whatever menial task they have to do. Oddly, many people who are saying that are people who, like you and me, had a liberal education, but they don’t think everyone should have one in the future.

My view is that preserving this tension between the practical and the broad and contextual has served the U.S. very well for a long time and we would be foolhardy to throw that legacy away.

After the Civil War, the government saw the value of research institutions and began investing in them. That was 150 years ago, and research institutions and liberal education schools coexisted for much of that time. What changed?

Colleges and universities face a variety of pressures that result in the demand that they become one thing or another—purely research, purely teaching or purely training for the job market. These calls often come up at a time of economic anxiety.

It’s a fear that America is losing its advantage in the world economically and in the world of ideas. Some people retreat to what they think is the quickest solution rather than a long-term investment in a combination of research and teaching in an ecosystem.

You shouldn’t have to choose between these things. The beauty of American higher education for a long time is that we’ve had this commitment to broad contextual education while also having extraordinarily powerful specialists.

We don’t want to dismiss that legacy by just choosing one pole of the tension. I’m critical of the overspecialization of the academy because I think that tension can swing too far in one direction.

In your book, you reference Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, and his claim that most universities today don’t seem capable of articulating what students should learn.

Yes. It’s funny that when that book came out in 1987, I was a young professor and it made my blood boil. I was a man of the left and Bloom seemed to be a man of the right.

But I agree with him that colleges and universities seem to have lost sight of their mission and are incapable of talking about what students should learn. I didn’t want my book to be politically partisan, but to remind people that our investment in higher education should be an investment in giving our young people the capacity for lifelong learning.

I think that’s what Bloom wanted, too. He wanted lifelong learning to be not just about the first job after college but to equip people to think about questions that have been subjects for productive contemplation for centuries, whether they are biblical questions or philosophical questions. I agree with that.

These are the essential questions of life that smart people have pondered for a long time, and we ought to give our students the ability to think with those great thinkers because it will enrich their lives.

As you say, liberal education is not about studying things that have no immediate use, it’s about creating habits of action that grow out of the spirit of broad inquiry. I don’t think higher ed has done a very good job conveying that.

That’s one of the reasons I wrote this book. It’s not aimed at any one discipline, but more at the general reader.

I believe pragmatic liberal education is vitally important as part of our common culture. I don’t think we, as college presidents or faculty members, have been out there enough beating the drum to explain what it’s about.

Yes, we also have to be more creative about keeping the cost down. There are a lot of things we have to answer for in the higher education sector. But I want to articulate a position on lifelong learning and higher education that would be relevant to anyone thinking about college.

I’m trying to jump-start that conversation so we aren’t talking only about student loans or teaching people how to code, but about this intellectual inheritance we have and how to care for it.

You note that today’s critics aren’t concerned with true learning, but instead want an education that simply equips people to play an appropriate role in the economy. To me that sounds like giving up.

Yes, I think you’re right. Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University and a critic of higher education, asks why we should have bartenders with chemistry degrees—we’re too overeducated. I don’t think that’s the problem.

We don’t want to just train people for a slot in the economy. That’s anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian, and I think it will make us an economic and cultural backwater if we follow that path. It is giving up.

The ambition of our education system is that anybody can acquire a taste for advanced work in some field, whether it is entrepreneurship or chemistry or classics. You don’t want to slot people in right away—give them an opportunity to find their path to learning. Some people will have modest ambitions, and that’s fine too.

But we have a lot to do to get there. The K12 system doesn’t prepare many of our students to have the kind of college education I describe in the book. Giving students basic tools for literacy and numeracy and critical thinking and creative work—those are things that still have to happen in the K12 system, and a lot of people are asking how to make that system less dysfunctional.

You recently lectured in China, where they are eyeing our liberal education system as something they want to model. What are they looking for?

China, and to some extent Korea and India, has built an education system based very much on memorization and repetition of rule-based activities. But I met a couple of hundred people, young men and women, who were eager to talk about how to create an educational system where you are encouraged to think for yourself and that encourages autonomy and creativity.fac_Roth_2013-1203110658 %284%29 (2)

Even the Chinese government, which has restrictions on thinking for yourself, realizes that if they don’t do that they will have an economy that is stifled because they won’t have the creativity they need.

So, while some people in the U.S. say that in tough economic times we have to get down to business and focus on skills, in China, they’re saying, no, to have sustainable economic growth you need creativity and innovation. That doesn’t come from just following rules.

Many American businesses do know this, of course. One thing that is constant is change, and the people who can think on their feet and make adjustments creatively and continue to learn, will be the ones who really add value.

Liberal learning in America has always had that pragmatic component. It isn’t just about accumulating knowledge in your head. It’s about learning so you can contribute to the world around you and continue to learn from your interactions with others.

Victor Butterfield, one of my predecessors at Wesleyan, used to tell incoming freshmen, “After you graduate, if you say these were the best four years of your life, we have failed you.” I think that’s a very wise statement. College is not about giving you the best time you’ll ever have. It’s about equipping you to continue learning so that the best years are in front of you.

Breaking the mold: Toward a paradigm shift in education

composite_14077740538079When Charles Reigeluth and Jennifer Karnopp titled their book Reinventing Schools: It’s Time to Break the Mold (2013 Roman & Littlefield), they meant it. Reigeluth, an education researcher from Indiana University, and Karnopp, head of school at the Robert Frost Charter School in New Hampshire, propose radical changes in the way education meets the demands of today’s Information Age.
The model may seem unusual to some, even though it has improved student learning. But lasting success will depend on whole districts adopting this new paradigm. The authors provide a blueprint for change with the confidence that education will look much different in the future.
“We fully expect that existing school districts and state level systems are going to transform to this Information Age paradigm,” says Reigeluth, “just as the Agrarian Age system inevitably changed to the Industrial Age system.”

Your book goes much further than others on education reform. Where they discuss different teaching methods or leadership approaches, you advocate total systemic change.

Reigeluth: It comes down to societal changes. The one-room schoolhouse was the appropriate paradigm for the Agrarian Age, and the current factory model of schools was very appropriate for the Industrial Age. That was when manual labor was the most common form of labor and we didn’t need to educate very many people to higher levels.
But in the Information Age, we have knowledge work as the increasingly dominant form of work. We recognize that we must leave no child behind, yet our Industrial Age system is designed to leave a whole bunch of children behind for manual labor. The massive changes taking place in society are creating different educational needs that require a different educational system.

Has our technology-driven society changed faster than schools can keep up with it?
Reigeluth: It’s not so much the pace of change. I think the biggest crisis we have today is one of perception. People perceive that we can just tinker with the current system and it will magically work better to meet these new needs.
As much as we try to improve the current system, it isn’t going to be any better at meeting our current needs. The Industrial Age system has reached its upper limit, and vast expenditures of money to improve the current system are going to yield minimal results overall. We need to help people understand that piecemeal change is not going to improve learning outcomes. We must have paradigm change.

You envision schools that look familiar, but function differently from what we know today—no grade levels or class periods, no courses and no grades. How do you sell that concept to a society that grew up with those very things?

Karnopp: We have been doing that at the Robert Frost Charter School. We created a public charter that brings in the Montessori philosophy as well as project-based learning. While we still have to work within the constraints of the existing system—which can be a challenge—we have mixed-age classrooms where everyone is with the same teacher for three-year blocks.
We evaluate children as they achieve the Common Core standards. A first grader, for example, could easily be working on third- or fourth-grade standards in math, yet might still be working at first-grade standards in language areas. They meet with their peers and have group lessons, maybe four or five kids who are working on the same skills. They’ll be grouped together whether they are first graders or third graders. Then they move on for independent practice at their own pace. Some may move on faster than others.

How do you address parents who say, “That’s all well and good, but don’t experiment on my kid.”
Karnopp: We have had some challenges helping parents understand the system, but when they see their child’s engagement and excitement about school, the parents are sold on it. There is a fear of change for some, but once they see that the change works, they are on board.

As a public school we don’t turn down any child, regardless of their needs or abilities or income. We work with the entire range of the population at our school and have great successes with everyone.

Reigeluth: In fact, Jennifer’s school was started by parents. They were unhappy with the experience their children had in the public schools, and got together to create this public charter to do things differently. It can be a challenge for parents and others because it doesn’t fit their mental model of education.

In our book, we list over 140 schools we found that are working in this new paradigm. The vast majority are charter schools or private schools, because, unless the whole school district adopts this new approach, any school that does change will be incompatible with the rest of the district, and the district will work to change it back to what it was.
Years ago, during George H.W. Bush’s presidency, he visited a school called the Saturn School of Tomorrow in Minnesota. It was a fantastic school that fit this Information Age paradigm, but it has now reverted to a regular school because it became incompatible with the rest of the district.

In the past 40 years, we’ve seen some exciting model schools started within school districts that eventually died out or reverted back to the factory model for precisely the reason that they became incompatible with the school district.

You wrote, “As with the civil rights movement in the 60s, mindset change is crucial to changes in attitudes and behaviors, but such change cannot be mandated.” So how do we do this? Does it have to be organic?

Reigeluth: I think it does need to be organic. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that minds needed to be changed and that is very much what is involved here.
It can happen through many different paths. One way is for a district to engage its citizens in dialogue to discuss what they want the schools to accomplish. That was the process I facilitated in the Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township in Indiana for 12 years, working with them to help evolve the whole culture of the school system.
You can also have videos that showcase schools like Jennifer’s that are embarking on this kind of change and show the way it works and what it achieves. There are many different routes, but the most important outcome of a paradigm-change effort is to change the mindsets of the stakeholders.

Jennifer, have you experienced much resistance to what you are doing in New Hampshire?
Karnopp: In the beginning, there were definitely some concerns from the traditional public school about how this was going to impact them. But we are now starting our third year and they are starting to understand that we are part of the solution and that we are not trying to displace them. It has become more of a collaborative relationship.
We’ve had many visitors from public schools in New Hampshire and Vermont come see what we are doing and how we are doing it. We also open the schools to legislators so they can see what is going on. The feedback is overwhelmingly positive, but we also know that when it comes down to voting time in the House and Senate, the party lines rule.
Mindset change is a slow process. That’s why the more positive experiences that people can have that challenge their prior beliefs, the more likely we are going to build the momentum to keep the ball rolling.

In the book you discuss a “readiness factor” where administrators and teachers have to be ready for the paradigm change to occur. How do you prepare for that?

Reigeluth: What we focus on is the process itself. We don’t say, “Here are the changes that are going to be made, let’s all get on board.” Rather, we say, “Here is the process we want to go through to explore what kinds of changes are best for us.” It provides much more stakeholder ownership in the process than a top-down, mandated approach.

Karnopp: In our culture, there’s a notion that change that comes down from the top is not necessarily a good thing, and there is instant resistance.
But when the change can come from the bottom up, it can become a community dialogue and experience. A big part of that is recognizing the skills that students will need when they leave public school and go on to higher education or the workforce.
There is a growing recognition that our students are not arriving prepared for the workforce or college as it is today. When you look at the skills they need, it’s pretty clear that the current system isn’t meeting those needs and something has to happen.