Higher education: Five steps to the future

  • Article by: ROBERT J. WEDL
  • Updated: March 26, 2013 - 7:53 PM

Rather than simply bemoaning costs and cuts, we should focus on redesign.

Counterpoint

Eva Lockhart’s inspiring commentary (“Achievement gap? More like a reward gap,” March 23) should be an eye-opener for policymakers and educational leaders alike.

A recent Minnesota study predicts that 75 percent of the jobs will require a postsecondary education by 2018. Yet in the past decade, postsecondary education has become more expensive.

Pell grants are being reduced because they are considered part of out-of-control federal spending, and tuition increases are a key method for college budget-balancing. The obvious question is: “If the future of our nation depends on a highly educated workforce, why are we making it so difficult to save ourselves, and what might we do to reduce these costs to students and families?”

Policymakers usually look only at two options to address education issues: raise revenue (taxes) or reduce spending (cut programs). But there is a third option: redesign the education models. The world is being redesigned … education must be, too.

Focusing just on the equivalent of grades nine through 14, I suggest five changes:

1. Abandon the 20th-century goal that high school graduates must be ready for postsecondary. The 21st-century goal must be that students will be well on their way to what they intend to do next with their lives when they exit high school. A redesigned system will have many students already completing a year of postsecondary learning or even an associate degree. Others will have completed their one-year career certifications. Some will have completed a work experience program. In other words, they will not be “ready” for postsecondary, they will be well on the road to completing it.

2. Stop the expensive replication found in grades 11-14. Advanced classes in high school should be “college in the schools.” Advanced Placement classes, which schools add to compete with colleges, should be used sparingly. AP was started when only the most precocious students were admitted to colleges. Minnesota’s Post-Secondary Enrollment Options law changed that for the nation. Yet we keep these dual systems like AP in place that are more costly than just awarding college credit and are not even accepted by all colleges.

3.  Individualize the learning models for students as well as the graduation requirements and measurement systems. All students should have rigorous standards in order to graduate … but these rigorous standards need not be the same for everyone. We are stuck on this notion that everyone must learn the same things at the same time. The Legislature is again debating whether all students must successfully complete advanced algebra as a minimum standard in order to receive a high school diploma. Why? If a student is aspiring to be an engineer or scientist, that standard is far too low. If the student is aspiring to careers in other areas, that standard is likely too high. This math standard doesn’t really fit anyone. Superintendents are saying that 25 percent of students will not meet that standard without repeating classes, added tutoring, etc. — which just takes time and resources away from students’ needs and aspirations.

4. Expand new models of schooling to match the aspirations and learning styles of students. The chartered schools are leading the way with excellent schools that are project-based, that have blended online learning that makes learning available anytime from anywhere, and where high schools and colleges are really combining grades nine through 14.

5.Use the school that doesn’t cost anything. The outstanding learning options on the Web today are amazing and many do not cost anything. Many seventh- and certainly eighth-graders could learn algebra online at their own pace and at no cost. If students are having difficulty, they can go to Khan Academy, also online and at no cost, and get immediate help. When the student completed the course, teachers would validate the learning and award credit. Outstanding lectures from Harvard and MIT are available on the Web at no cost. These lectures can be coupled with other learning to meet standards individualized to the needs and aspirations of our students. By doing so, we free up time and revenue for students to access postsecondary learning at no cost to them.

• • •

The nation indeed does need to equip our students with a postsecondary education, and this will cost money. But large-scale redesign of the system is the crucial missing link.

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Robert J. Wedl was Minnesota’s education commissioner from 1996 to 1999 in the administration of Gov. Arne Carlson. He currently leads Innovative Quality Schools, an authorizer of charter schools.

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