How Raising Standards Can Lower Results

Who would argue against higher standards in education? Isn’t critiquing higher standards the same as arguing for watering down education? After all, we have plenty of research to support the idea that high standards are an important part of high performance. Set the bar low, and many may never reach their full potential. At least this is the dominant perspective in much of education. There is ample truth and wisdom to this line of thinking, but there is also a dark side to raising standards. In fact, raising standards can sometimes lower results. Here are six ways that can happen.

Decreasing the Pool of Credentials Earners

In the past couple of years, the standards for earning a GED were adjusted, aligning the test to the Common Core State Standards. They raised the bar on the test and the next year the number of people earning a GED plummeted. You can look at this as adding more academic rigor to the test, but what are the practical results in the lives of those who did or did not earn a GED as a result of these changes?

Yes, raising the bar on the GED test resulted in GED holders who have a higher level of knowledge and skill in some areas. I don’t challenge that. What concerns me is that it also restricted many from getting the credential needed to even apply for many jobs that require a “high school diploma or equivalent.”

My guess is that we probably have some very success leaders in businesses and organizations, maybe even some CEOs and presidents, who would not perform well on the new GED test. Yet, if they were at that age today, some of them would have been excluded from the professional pathway that led to where they are today.

In Wisconsin, our technical colleges have a better solution. There are different academic entry requirements for different majors. You might need a 10th grade reading level for one program and a 12th grade reading level for another. It is less about the credential and more about the clearly identified minimum requirements to be successful in a given pathway. Even better, these are based on assessments of what is actually required in the major and in the career paths that people usually pursue with that major.

Discouraging New Players and Competition

This is less about raising standards for learners and more about the standards applied to learning organizations. Outside regulatory and accrediting agencies often take pride in raising the standards expected of those who attain or maintain accreditation or approval to operate. These might be safety standards, standards for those who teach or work in the organizations, or even standards about how many books and subscriptions you have in your library. Regardless, the idea is that they are seeking to improve the performance of these organizations or make sure they meet a high standard of quality or excellence. At the same time, this increases the barrier or entry for new schools or learning organizations.

In the end, it keeps some of the lesser resourced organizations from being able to innovate and pursue new and less conventional opportunities. It gives an advantage to the largest and most resourced organizations, and it forces others to build strategies outside of the domain of these regulatory and accrediting agencies. Although, there is the possibility that this unintended consequence may well improve final results while disrupting some of the more established operations.

Standards are Not Tied to Solid Evidence

Sometimes raising standards is just about making something more difficult. It isn’t tied to solid or substantive research about what standards will ultimately improve performance in a given area. These are about “rigor” in the worst sense, making things more painful. That doesn’t improve real-world results. Consider a physical fitness example. If I raise the standards for a group of runners so that they all need to be able to run a 4-minute mile by the end of the year, that will force a massive increase in training, but it is not reasonably achievable by every runner. It is just as likely to push people to over-training and injury than to better results. The same can happen with raising other academic standards.

Increased Despair

We have ample literature to show us that raising the bar can be very good. Keep the expectations low and people may only perform enough to make it over that bar. Raise the bar too high and some will not even try. That is why much research about optimal performance is not focused on setting the highest possible standard. It is instead about making something the appropriate challenge for a person at a given stage. It should be a stretch for the person but not something that leads to despair, and this will vary from one person to another. Standards are, well…standard. They don’t care who you are, and that is quite appropriate for some learning contexts (like determining who will be allowed to conduct heart or brain surgery), but not as much for others (like determining lifelong career paths based on a 6th grade standards-based assessment). In fields or areas where only those meeting a very high standard should practice, it may be desirable to discourage people who are unwilling or unable to meet those standards. This isn’t equally true in all fields and at all levels of education, however. We want an education system that challenges every student to reach the highest levels and that calls for an education that nurtures hope and persistence.

Teaching to the Test

When we raise standards in an area and then build assessments to measure how people are performing on those standards, this can easily turn into a motivation to teach to the test or even find ways to get students to perform as high as possible on the test. Technically, this is more a critique of the measurement decision than the standards themselves. However, they often end of tied together. This can help students reach the high standards (as measured on the test), but much depends upon the quality of the test. Now I’ve turned science class into test preparation class instead of a place where curiosity and a love of learning about science is nurtured. Take your favorite topic, hobby, or area of interest and imagine what would happen if you could only explore that topic, hobby or interest in a context where I constantly drilled and prepared you for an examination of your performance in that area. Some of you might love that, but many others would find their previous affinity fade. In the long run, that is bad for widespread real world results.

Who Sets the Standards

There is sometimes very good reason to set universal standards for a given profession, like in many health care professions. However, is the same true when we look at standards for P-12 around the world? Are the same standards good or bad for children in Sudan, the Ukraine, Ghana, Canada, Austria, and Guatemala? One could argue that universal standards are good. They equip these children to “compete” on an international scale. At the same time, what are the skills that will most benefit people in a given community or part of the world? Are those always universal? If we believe that changing times calls for different standards and a different type of preparation, doesn’t it make equal sense that different standards and a different type of preparation might be helpful for living in distinct contexts around the world? Ignore this fact and we could set incredibly high standards that result in people ill-equipped to thrive in their immediate contexts.

I like standards. I like health standards for the food I purchase. I like standards for healthcare workers, military personnel, fire fighters, even people allowed to drive a car. Yet, this doesn’t mean that raising standards always increases results. Sometimes such well-meaning efforts makes things worse.

An Interview with David Blake, CEO of Degreed

In this informal interview with David Blake, CEO of Degreed, we discussed the mission and motivation behind, how people are using it, emerging uses within organizations, and a future where education is more broadly understood as the full spectrum of one’s learning across organizations and contexts.

As David explains in the interview, if you ask someone to tell you about their education, they are likely to tell you where they went to school and what they studied. What about a future where asking such a question results in a much broader scope of learning experiences ranging from conferences to courses, webinars to workshops, MOOCs to mentors, books to bootcamps, apprenticeships to traditional courses and degrees? Education is about so much more than degrees or formal schooling, and David Blake is an educational entrepreneur who is helping to create a future where that fact is an integrated part of work and life.

For more information, check out his original 2012 article, Jailbreaking the Degree.

Great Teachers are Not Rock Stars

Great teachers are not rock stars. Rock stars take the center stage. It is all about them. They garner and thrive on the praise of their fans. The focus is on the rock star’s performance. This is the exact opposite of what we need in education. Education is about student performance. Great teachers help the learners be their best on the stage of life. They shine the spotlight on the learners. The best teachers are far more interested in giving than getting praise, and they are not in it to get a following of student fans.

Teachers matter, but we are not the center…at least we should not be the center. Education is a service industry and whenever a service industry becomes more focused on protecting and preserving the preferences and traditions of the professionals than meeting the needs of those being served, there are serious problems on the horizon. Consider the following few scenarios.

A school is exploring the best class schedule to accommodate the diverse needs and life circumstances of a student population. A team conducts extensive research and determines that it is best to create more early morning and evening options. When presented to the teachers, they reject it because it disrupts their preferred schedule or how they have opted to organize their day.

A group of teachers are introduced to the best, most solid, most current research about how to improve student literacy, but two-thirds of them reject it, arguing that, “this is not how I like to do things in my classroom.”

A teacher’s union is negotiating wages and sets strict guidelines for teachers to avoid working “over-time”, making sure that they leave the building by 4:00 PM at the latest. Some teachers ignore that guidelines because many students had after school extracurricular but wanted/needed extra help. These teachers stuck around until 4:30 or 5:00 to work with those students for a half an hour. Fellow teachers and those holding leadership positions in the union confront these well-meaning teachers about this “unacceptable behavior.”

A group of faculty at a non-exclusive college laments the declining college readiness of students in their freshman classes. Without much more than anecdotal research, they move that admission standards be increased so that these professors don’t have to deal with such problems.

Someone writes an article in the local newspaper making a valid critique about the quality of teaching in a given circumstance. Without even assessing the validity of the argument, there is a mass backlash from teachers, labeling the author as anti-teacher and trying to destroy the teaching profession.

Go to an education conference (almost any one of them) and sit in countless sessions where you are reminded that, “the most important thing in a classroom is a quality and effective teacher.” Far less often do you hear anyone argue that the most important thing in a school is an engaged and growing learner. Maybe you will argue that having engaged and growing learners requires quality and effective teachers, and that is indeed the case in many approaches to education…but it isn’t as fundamental or foundational as an engaged and growing learner. Let’s put first things first. School is first about learning and learners, not teaching and teachers. The best teachers that I’ve seen know this. The joy in their work doesn’t come from declarations about the greatness of teachers as much as seeing learners get lost in their learning, deeply engaged and curious, pushing and stretching themselves beyond their comfort zones, achieving a leaning discovery after weeks or months of effort, or making great progress despite personal adversity.

Do you remember that song, We are the World, the one that pulled in a dozen or more well-known musicians to craft a single song of hope? As an educator for over twenty years, I sometimes feel like I’m in a profession that has re-written the song to say, “We are the world. We are the teachers. We are the one’s who make a brighter day so let’s start giving.” What still baffles me is that some will read this and think that word change might be a good idea.

I don’t look at it that way. I appreciate excellent teaching as much as anyone else. I commend taking the time to show gratitude for excellent teaching, lifting up specific examples as models. I understand that we need to lift up the nobility of the profession to recruit a next generation of the best and brightest teachers. I also get that we want to frame our own work as educators in a noble way, seeing how we are contributing to something good and important in the world. At the same time, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an amazing teacher who does it for the praise or accolades. Teaching is about learners and moving the spotlight from these learners to the teachers risks undermining the best in the teaching profession.

i heart learnersPeople selling educational products and services do not help matters. They persistently write and speak with clichés about the greatness and importance of teachers, even when or if they are selling a product that promotes independent learning outside of the classroom. I get that they have to do this to some extent because teacher adoption and endorsements helps their business cause, but I would rather these business leaders dig into the research and explore the many possibilities for high-impact student learning and engagement. Keep the focus on learning and learners, and really good teachers will be far more interested in your product than just buttering them up with a “We [heart] teachers bumper stickers.” I want to see some “We [heart] learners” bumper stickers.

I’ll admit it. I’ve used the term “rock star” once or twice in reference to an educator who is doing great work. However, when we really think about what it means to be a rock star and what it means to be among the best in the teaching profession, they are completely different. Education, at its best, is always focused on learners and learning. It is about putting the spotlight on the learners.


10 Steps to Disrupting a College Degree Monopoly

You find what looks like a dream job that perfectly aligns with your experience, and you are excited to apply. You know the field inside and out, so you are disappointed after three weeks when you don’t hear from the company. In itself, this is not that unusual. Maybe there was a strong internal candidate. Maybe they decided not to move forward with the position. Or, perhaps they just had an especially talented group of applicants. After a month, you receive a letter thanking you for applying, but explaining that you would not be considered for the job. You called the human resources office with the hope of learning from this experience. It turns out that your application was never passed on to the search team because you didn’t have the “minimum of a master’s degree” listed in the job posting.

This happens every day. People who are otherwise qualified get passed over because they lack a formal credential. Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way, which is why I (a strong advocate for the benefit of college degrees), also argue for the social good of disrupting the college degree monopoly, a sort of gatekeeping system that impacts access and opportunity to sometimes highly qualified job candidates.

While respecting the college degree route as one valid and socially trusted pathway, it is time to further disrupt the college degree monopoly. After reviewing the literature, experimenting with and studying various past and current models, I am convinced that it is quite possible to accomplish this. One of the more promising ways is to not to focus on the degree at large, but start with one specific degree in a given field. Here is one (of many) ten-step methods to doing that.

1. Identify the prime field for the first disruption, and start with something that is more easily disrupt-able.

This needs to be an area that has little to no regulation. It does not have outside bodies that carefully control employment through licensure, accreditation, or other gate-keeping strategies. That leaves out teacher training programs and many health care tracks. In time, these can be tackled as well, but they requires more policy work and negotiation with agencies largely interested in protecting traditional credentials and slower evolution of those credentials. IT positions are a logical starting point, but the disruption is already underway in the form of code academies and the like.

2. Design an online/blended, self-paced, competency-based learning experience that consistently produces completers who are more competent, confident and effective than graduates of a “comparable degree” from the top ten ranked degree programs in the nation. This program will not lead toward a formal degree. It will not have credits. It will not be part of a regionally accredited organization. Or, if it is, this is part of the continuing education unit, separate from the review most external oversight and ineligible for federal financial aid. Ensure that the competencies reached through this learning experience are persistently current, aligned with the best research in the field, and benchmarked with the skills of the highest performers in that field.

3. Build this experience around micro-credentials that each display different areas of competence. Even if you did not go through the entire experience, you would have “leveled up” in at least a few areas.

4. Abandon the instructor/class model of instruction in place of a self-paced, online (or blended), competency-based format. There will be no professors or course instructors. Instead, provide every learner with access to a live, online, personal coach / mentor / achievement reviewer from 6:00 AM to 11:59 PM in that person’s local time zone. Every coach / mentor / achievement reviewer must have completed a rigorous assessment to demonstrate high levels of expertise in the areas of coaching / mentoring / reviewing. In addition, each of these people will be trained and assessed on their excellence in mentoring, coaching, reviewing, providing excellent formative feedback, and unswervingly upholding the highest possible standards when reviewing evidence of competence submitted by learners.

5. Price this experience at a maximum of 1/10th the cost of tuition for the average of the ten most affordable “comparable degrees.”

6. People who complete the program will be issued an official title, something like [Name of Organization] + [Name of Field] + Fellow. A date is attached to this title and it expires after five years.

7. Design a subscription system for graduates / fellows to engage in ongoing professional development that verifies maintaining competence, staying current with emerging developments, etc. A full review of the fellow’s portfolio occurs every 3-5 years and the date of the title issued to the learner is updated. Charge for this should be less than one-third what they paid for the initial program.

8. Establish a bold (perhaps even a bit aggressive) marketing campaign that puts completers of this program alongside the top in the field, showing without question the incredible effectiveness of every graduate and the extensive impact they have in their domain (whether it be benefit to the employer, the community, or elsewhere).

9. Protect the brand and industry perception by upholding the highest possible standards for learners. No one will be able to legitimately critique this program for lacking rigor or producing sub-par graduates.

10. Establish a network of completers and organizations seeking or needing such people. If you start with a program that is entry level, employers seeking first access to most recent graduates pay a fee to participate in the network and gain first access to these carefully vetted and highly qualified people. If you start with a non-entry program (like an alternative to a professional graduate degree), companies can avoid the subscription fee by paying a percentage of the fees for the employees pursuing the training. These graduates and organizations also serve in an advisory capacity to continue to review, refine and uphold the highest standard for the program. This part, while listed as step 9, can and probably should be pursued throughout the process, starting right away at step 1.

11. Choose another field and repeat.

This doesn’t apply for every college degree, but it can (and will) work for some, especially those that are more applied and focused on professional studies. I’ve done the math a few times and if you pick the right fields, the financials work.  They don’t work as well in areas where there are already very inexpensive technical or community college options, although building the value and brand of the program still has potential to combat such a limitation.