Month: December 2014

Breaking away from higher ed’s herd mentality

William Deresiewicz

William Deresiewicz

In 2008, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz wrote a scathing essay titled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” It quickly went viral, gaining more than 100,000 views in a matter of weeks (and many times that since).

“The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven,” he noted, “but also anxious, timid and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose, … great at what they‘re doing but with no idea why they are doing it.”

His book Excellent Sheep: Thinking for Yourself, Inventing Your Life, and Other Things the Ivy League Won’t Teach You (Simon & Schuster, 2014), continues that theme. The “excellent sheep” are the students who spend much of their young lives, often at the prodding of overbearing parents, polishing academic and extracurricular achievements—checking off every box on the form, he says—at the expense of individualism and independent thinking.

Excellent Sheep doesn’t pull punches. What has been the reaction?

It’s been mixed. There’s certainly been a lot of pushback, a lot of negative coverage. But I’ve also been hearing from people who are very happy about the book.

I recently did a tour of five of the eight Ivy League campuses. The rooms were always packed, especially with students. Sometimes there was an initial wariness, but they figured out pretty quickly that what I’m saying is not only valuable to them, but is expressing a lot of the concerns that they have.

The book gives voice to what many people have long suspected, yet schools won’t acknowledge.

Let’s underscore that last point. I was recently talking on the air with a public radio host in Baltimore. He said, “Off the record, a lot of professors have said many of the same things.” And I said, “Yes, off the record.” People sometimes are just afraid to speak up.

You argue that higher education often does a disservice to students because companies want so-called soft skills over hard skills.

I’m not pointing a finger at colleges and universities, although I certainly think they could do a better job communicating. I’m really talking about the choices that students make and that families help them make or force them to make. And, quite frankly, the kind of propaganda that you hear in public.

There’s a lot of talk in public about higher-ed, and most of it comes from people who don’t really know what they’re talking about. It’s journalists with their preconceptions, and their cliches about English majors, or politicians like Barack Obama talking about how you shouldn’t be an art history major.

That’s not what employers say when you ask them what they are looking for. They don’t say “art history majors,” of course, but they also don’t say “economics majors.” Instead they say, “We’re looking for certain skills and we’re not necessarily getting them.”

I saw a poll recently that noted 97 percent of academic administrators think students are being prepared adequately for the job market. But among employers the number is closer to 30 percent. That’s a huge discrepancy. In that sense, the universities are culpable.

Surely the schools must know this.

I’m not sure they do know it. I think there is a huge disconnect. Obviously each school is going to be different, but it seems to me that you’ve got students and families at one end, employers at the other end, and universities in the middle. And there doesn’t seem to be a lot of communication going on in any of those junctures.

Everyone just assumes if you want to be well employed you need to take certain kinds of courses. Or universities might say, “We give our students a good education and they’ll do fine on the job market.”

And employers are troubled too, because some of them hire on the degree or the name of the institution. Sometimes it’s just safer to hire from more prestigious institutions because you can’t be blamed if the person fails.

Historically, getting into elite schools had to do with legacy, and then along came the admissions office.

The admissions office was actually created to enforce the old aristocracy. Admission had been based on exams that covered subjects like Greek and Latin—not generally available in public schools, so the majority of high school grads were automatically excluded.

When the Jewish kids from the New York City high schools started doing well on those tests, that’s when they created the admissions office, along with criteria such as interviews, photographs, character and extracurriculars. It was designed to screen out the Jews and to keep the prep school boys in.

But you are right. Historically, we went through a change like this before. We changed from the aristocracy from the prep school feeder-school system to meritocracy.

The big change came in the criteria they applied. We went to scores and grades. It was supposed to be about sifting pure academic talent, but it never was pure. The legacy system persisted, because the elite schools wanted to keep the old customers happy.

The problem is that now even that meritocratic system has become something that affluent families can really tilt in their favor.

How can we change the admissions process to not favor one group over another?

One way would be to drop this “fetish” for extracurriculars along with these notions of “service” and “leadership” that have become a big part of the process. It has all become a set of rituals—sports, music, and foreign travels—and they cost a lot of money.

I do have a few policy prescriptions—all of which are stolen from other people. We should be looking for things like intellectual curiosity, willingness to take risks, resilience, independence of spirit, willingness to fail—instead of what we’re getting, which are these beautiful, affluent conformists.

Yeah, they are very good at what they are doing, but why do we value what they are doing? It just lets them check off every box on the form. Sure, they are very energetic and ambitious, but in an unfocused way. They are very competitive, sleep-deprived, anxiety-ridden, and sometimes-robotic high achievers. That’s what we’re getting.

What about rising tuition costs? That isn’t the so-called customers’ fault.

We stopped paying taxes. It’s really simple. The taxpayer’s share of public universities is half of what it once was. It’s half of a state’s spending per dollar of income.

So, the share borne by families and students is double. Tuitions, at the very least, should be half of what they are. A huge amount of the trillion-plus dollar student debt load is from money that should never have had to been borrowed in the first place.

The truth is, schools are partly responsible for the huge increase in costs because they’ve been spending on the wrong things, like fancy dorms, sports stadiums and athletic facilities—everything except teaching. The one spending category that’s grown the least in recent years is instructional spending.

But a big part of the reason they’ve had to do that is precisely because of the withdrawal of public funding. So, they’re competing for the students. They are treating students as customers, and competing for their tuition dollars instead of getting state support.

Is there a way to turn it around?

What I see is individuals, whether they are students or parents, making different choices. They choose to opt out of this crazy, insane admissions arms race-system. A lot of people are really fed up with the system, even within the colleges.

Will things change? Perhaps, if pressure is applied. But the elite universities are sitting pretty right now. Their balance sheets look good. The people who work there make a lot of money and have very comfortable lives. The schools are becoming global brands. All around the world, people want to send their kids to them.

So if universities are going to change, leverage needs to be applied nationally by students and families—the customers.

Like the “occupy” movement that has emerged in the last few years?

Exactly. If we want to talk about funding public higher education, it will require large political movements of the kind we’re seeing now with minimum wage and unionization in low-wage industries like food service.

I’d like to see free public higher ed be put on the agenda along with raising minimum wage and resurrecting unionism in the service sector.

Political change can happen quickly and can come from nowhere when pressures build up in an unseen way and then suddenly find a form of expression.

We saw that with the Arab Spring. In some ways we saw it with the Tea Party. These things can come out of nowhere. So we’ll see.

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Schools must compete in a knowledge economy

Scott McLeod

Scott McLeod

A photo on Scott McLeod’s popular “Dangerously Irrelevant” blog carries the caption, “We’re so busy doing 20th century teaching, we don’t have time to initiate 21st century learning.”

That, in a nutshell, is McLeod’s driving concern about K12 education. A country that doesn’t embrace technology and innovation in its education system cannot hope to compete in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

“Job growth in America, in terms of numbers, is around non-routine cognitive work—the stuff that requires sophisticated mental thinking, creative work, problem-solving, collaboration—and we aren’t doing a good job preparing students for that,” he says.

McLeod is the founding director of the University Council for Education Administration’s Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE), “the nation’s only academic center dedicated to the technology needs of school administrators.”

You’ve written that administrative restraints have rendered much of school technology useless.

Yes, that’s based on something writer Tim Cushing said. Everyone is trying to get more technology into their schools for kids to use, but then we add so many restrictions, barriers, blocks and filters. It’s like we’re trying hard to get the tech in there but also trying as hard as we can to keep kids from using it. It’s great that we have these devices, but we’ve got to embed them within environments of empowerment, not restriction.

Keith Krueger from CoSN noted that the problem is leading with technology rather than pedagogy. Would you agree?

Yes, absolutely. Most of the time the focus is on getting the tools and the infrastructure and not on what kind of learning experiences we are trying to enable. So we see a lot of replicative technology use where we are doing the same things we did before.

Still lots of note-taking. Still lots of low-level PowerPoint presentations. They look up stuff on the web. And that’s pretty much all they’ve got in a lot of these districts. They are proud because they are 1-to-1, but they are not really using it to best effect.

Is it that teachers are unfamiliar with the technology?

The problem lies in the predominant views around learning and teaching that are still recall and regurgitation. Until we’re ready to rethink learning and teaching, how we use these devices isn’t going to change.

If you are vetted in a regurgitative model of schooling, then this idea of student empowerment, and project-based learning, and inquiry, doesn’t fit into that model very well. So you are going to use devices in low-level ways because that’s what your model of teaching and learning looks like.

Schools are primarily about repetitive, low-level routine cognitive work. That’s exactly the wrong emphasis in our society today, from an economic standpoint.

The factory model of schooling isn’t compatible with a knowledge economy?

Right. The factory model prepares compliant workers to do repetitive, routine work. We have a convergence of globalization fostered by rapid growth and technology in the internet, and this has moved all that work elsewhere.

Our schools haven’t yet adapted to the new economic realities of a technology-suffused knowledge economy.

You speak to educators all the time. They must see the problem too, right?

A lot of it has to do with time. It’s not that these awesome teachers are unwilling. It’s that they recognize that they don’t have the skills or knowledge and they don’t have the time or the leadership supports or system supports to make it happen. They often feel like they are left adrift on their own to figure it out. That can be very overwhelming.

And that can lead to stifling the tools that should be helping students learn?

Right. That’s more of a leadership thing. How do we think about devices? Do we think about them as essential to the core learning process or do we think of them as just nice to have? Do we think of them as behavioral control devices?

We would never say to a kid, “You’ve acted up in class. We’re going to take away your textbook.” But for some reason we have no problem saying, “We’re going to take away your laptop,” even though the laptop is a much more powerful learning mechanism for the students.

I think this just has to do with fear and a lack of knowledge and perhaps some odd administrative thinking about these tools. They are not seen as essential yet.

We used to hear about the so-called “Nintendo generation,” raised on technology. They would grow up to become tech-savvy teachers. It’s pretty clear that hasn’t happened. Why?

What we’re often seeing with our younger teachers is that they may be very fluent with, say, social technology—Facebook, texting, Twitter, and so on. But they may not be fluent at using technology for academic or job-productive work because they’ve never been given the experiences to actually do that. They may not be the digital natives that we think.

The other challenge with our younger folks is that even if they are comfortable with technology or might be willing to give it a go, they are embedded within systems that aren’t supportive. The work of W. Edwards Deming has told us for decades that if you take a good person and you embed them within a bad system, the bad system will win every time.

So the real key is getting the leadership support and community support.

Exactly. If we want systemic change to happen as opposed to pockets of isolated excellence, then we have to hit the people who are in charge of the systems.

That’s principals and superintendents. That’s school boards. That’s state and federal policy makers—the people who actually have control over things like time and money and resource allocation, professional learning, vision setting, and all those things.

You can be a wonderful classroom teacher. You can maybe even make an impact at the classroom level, but you are not going to impact the entire system. The people who are in charge of the system have to get on board, too.

You are a critic of standardized testing, noting a lack of evidence to support using student test scores to rank teachers. Why do we still do it?

The challenge with standardized testing to me is that those assessments are primarily focused on the lower end of Bloom’s taxonomy. It’s that easy, factual recall and procedural regurgitation stuff—the kind of thing you can look up on Google in a few seconds.

We have lots of evidence that around 80 to 85 percent of kids’ day-to-day work is that kind of learning. Our standardized testing scheme at the state and federal levels is really pushing even harder on those kinds of assessments. But they are at great odds with the needs of our economy right now—which is that we need graduates who can live up at the upper end of Bloom’s taxonomy, not the lower end.

If we really want critical thinkers and problem-solvers, people who can collaborate and create value in the world, you don’t capture any of that with a heavy emphasis on low-level bubble tests. Yet that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

What could drive that to change?

I think we’re already seeing pushback, particularly as high-achieving, affluent suburban communities are hearing that their schools are labeled as failing. They look around and say, “Well that doesn’t make any sense.” So we’re starting to see some pushback at that level.

But it is going to be hard, because the kind of tests that we have now are absolutely the cheap ones. They are relatively easy to administer. They are relatively inexpensive. But a true performance assessment, judged by rubric or a panel of experts, is quite costly in terms of personnel and time.

There’s a quote at the top of your Twitter page—“If the leaders don’t get it, it’s not going to happen.”

That goes back to my emphasis on the leadership and systems change—that we’ve got to have the leaders onboard. When I originally started saying that, I was focused mostly on principals and superintendents. I would now broaden that to include board members and policymakers.

It’s worth noting that a lot of educators are trying really hard to move in these directions. But they encounter significant obstacles—from policy and legislation to the mindset of their communities.

What mindset is that?

The biggest barrier to making the shifts we need to make in schools is our mindset of what schools should look like. Everyone went to school. We each have our mental model of what school is and how it operates, based on experience.

But we’re talking about a really different approach here. It makes many people uncomfortable or fearful. That’s why it has been so difficult to get all this going.