Audit Calls on WGU to Return $713 Million to the DOE & The Policy Innovation Opportunity this Creates

The Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General audit report of Western Governor’s University is, mostly likely unintentionally, an attack on higher education access and opportunity, but we can turn this into something good. According to sources describing the audit, WGU should pay back 700 million to the government and not be allowed to participate in the federal financial aid program. Regardless of whether this will happen, we are wise to use this to recognize an important problem and fix it. This is a multi-year audio sparked by narrow and outdated language in federal policy that leaves limited room for innovation, experimentation, or diversity of models and frameworks in teaching in learning.

If you look back at the article that I wrote on February of 2017 about what I would do if I were the next US Secretary of Education, you will see that “systematically review existing policies” was near the top of my list. I wrote that statement with these very issues in mind. There is narrow language in federal policies impacting education that do not take into account the diverse set of education practices that existed when many of the policies were first written, let alone today. As such, this is not just a matter of failing to keep up with the research and practice of our day. Many policies have long been barriers to promising practices, alternative methods (that are really not that alternative), and educational innovations that promise increased access, opportunity, reduced cost, improved retention and graduation rates, and any number of positive outcomes.

In one way, it is hard to blame those involved with this audit, because they are simply evaluating WGU on the basis of the existing policies, and a reasonable person can interpret them in a way that excludes a model like what we see at WGU and what we see on the micro level of élite and a myriad of other Universities around the country. For example, consider an élite University that creates a means by which bright students can propose a syllabus for a course and teach it. This happens as several highly ranked schools. The course needs a faculty adviser, but the student is really the teacher of record, lacking the academic qualifications typically required. Or what about the countless independent study courses used in almost every University in the United States? These are accepted practices in the field of education and produce equal or sometimes better results than the narrow frameworks assumed by federal polices associated with financial aid eligibility.

As such, this recent news is a perfect call to action for us to systematically review the existing policies, and prevent this sort of unhelpful audit from happening in the future. We can do better than this. I would love to see Secretary Devos form a truly diverse task force of DOE representatives, researchers, higher education representatives from across the country, as well as some students to help guide this review, making recommendations for quick and substantive changes. We can create policies that protect from fraud and offer reasonable protection of the government’s financial investments while also embracing and amplifying carefully considered education innovation and experimentation. I’d even be happy to help. Let’s create something good out of this unfortunate audit by doing this important policy revision work. As I wrote and say often, policies are muzzles and megaphones, and it is time for us to more carefully analyze what we are muzzling and amplifying.

Does The College That You Attend Signify Your Excellence as a Learner?

“I go to Harvard University, so it is fair to say that I am one of the best learners in this country.” I don’t watch much television, but feeling a bit under the weather and not having the mental focus to work on much, I experienced a first, watching an old episode of MasterChef. Being the first episode, contestants were competing against one another for a spot on the show. In the segment that I watched, there were four people competing against one another. When one of the judges asked the first contestant if he had what it took to be a MasterChef, the young man replied with first sentence in this article. He argued that, because he is a student at Harvard University, it is logical to conclude that he is on of the best learners in the country.

One of the best learners in the country? Is that actually what Harvard students believe, that getting into and being successful at Harvard college signifies that you are at the top of the list when it comes to being a learner? He is one of the most privileged learners in the country. He is studying at one of most financially resourced institutions in the country. He is likely stilled at jumping through academic hoops. He likely scores well on traditional academic assessments. He clearly has confidence in his abilities, which is a key factor in learner agency and success. I could agree with any of these statements. However, suggesting that being a student at Harvard signifies being one of the best learners in this country is, to me, unfounded.

I’ve met too many unschooled people who are world-class learners to believe what he said. Plenty of employers have discovered that there are equally or more capable learners / employers from non-elite and largely unknown higher education institutions. In addition, being skilled at meeting high standards in a formal academic institution does not directly correlate to being a world-class learner when it comes to being a chef, parent, athlete, author, musician, or a thousand other roles or skills.

I’m sure that it was a harmless statement to most people who this young man-made this claim. It might even be true that most people agreed with him. Harvard is a great college and their acceptance rate clearly limits the pool of candidates who get a chance to study there. Yet, that is something qualitatively different from claiming that attending this school puts you in the category of élite learner (in the broader sense).

Being a world-class learner is something far more open and democratized. It is something that many admission offices do not miss. Close 40,000 high school students applied to Harvard in 2017, most of whom where denied admission. Yet, this source suggests that there are 20 million that were expected to attend college in 2017, the vast majority of whom did not even apply to Harvard. Maybe this young man is among the best learners in this nation, but if he is, that is not proven because he attended Harvard.

It is fine to celebrate the excellence of top academic institutions and to recognition the accomplishments of its students, but this conflation of élite college attendance and being among the best learners is not helpful in promoting access and opportunity, or in accurately representing the nature of being an “élite” learner.

Here Is What I Said When Someone Asked Me What I Think About the US School System

What do I think about the US Education System? I could answer this in so many ways, but here is the one that comes to mind first.

The US School System is actually an education ecosystem, a marketplace of traditional community-based public schools, charter schools, independent schools, as well as independent parochial or faith-based schools. Regulations and expectations vary from one state to another, but you will find a greater variety of school practices, models, approaches, and philosophies within the US School System than in any other school system in the world. In some major cities in the United States, it is sometimes possible to find a Muslim school, Jewish School, Catholic School, Lutheran school, Baptist school, community public school, Montessori school, Waldorf school, democratic school, STEM academy, English-German bilingual school, Spanish-English Bilingual School, classical school, project-based learning school, art immersion school, and a home school co-op. We can include hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of other such approaches and philosophies in the US School System.

This diversity of approaches brings about both benefits and limitations, but it reflects what I contend is a strength of the system. When we step back and look at the system as a whole, we can find many problems (some serious) along some incredibly inspiring and impactful schools, but we also see a system that reflects the diversity that many consider one of our strengths as a nation.

With that said, there is not currently equity with regard to this marketplace of options, and there is a power struggle cloaked as a philosophical difference that persists about the US Education System. Some are against public charter schools or independent schools that get tax dollars through school choice programs for example. They argue that this siphons money from the traditional community-based public schools. Others argue that we are wise to promote access to a greater variety of quality schooling options for all students. Some communities in the US do this more than others. Some use the metaphor of the “grand experiment” to the United States in general, a place where people explore and experiment with ways to do things differently. The education system is a prime example of this American spirit at work.

Students are Not Products. Or Are They?

What type of student should schools produce today? That was the question that I read in an article today. At first, I read it and translated it to mean what we typically think when we hear such a question. Namely, it is about what students should know and be able to do upon graduation. In fact, when we talk about the “big picture” of education today, this ends up becoming the focus of the conversation. This time, however, instead of jumping to thoughts about outcomes, I paused to consider the language choice in that question.

This question draws upon a production metaphor. If we are asking about what kind of student we want to produce, then that assumes that students are products. Browse your favorite online dictionary quickly to see what comes up when you look for the definition of “products.” You will find a variety. My “go to” source is the Online Oxford English Dictionary, which provided me a few insights.

The first definition is, “An article or substance that is manufactured or refined for sale.” The second is, “A thing or person that is the result of an action or process.” So, the first definition points us to that factory concept that many critique in education, but the second did not. It suggested a definition of product that applies to people influenced by an action or process. We can find many ancient metaphors for human learning that relate to this second definition. People are clay that is molded. People are art that is created. People are plants that are grown.

So, I turned to the etymology of the word next. Starting with “product”, I kept being sent to the verb, “produce.” For that, we can find the Latin origin of the word.

producere “lead or bring forth, draw out,” figuratively “to promote, empower; stretch out, extend,” from pro “before, forth”

Given that I often explore the etymology of words used in modern education, this meaning struck me as rather close to yet another common word today that has a Latin origin. I’m referring to the word “education.”

mid-15c., “bring up (children), to train,” from Latin educatus, past participle of educare “bring up, rear, educate” (source also of Italian educare, Spanish educar, French éduquer), which is a frequentative of or otherwise related to educere “bring out, lead forth,”

Do you notice anything?

So, are students products? Is it good, wise, or valuable to refer to students and education today using the product term or dominant metaphors associated with that term? I’ll leave that up you to.

However, the Latin seems to draw us to another valuable way of thinking about education. We can think of it as a bringing out and a leading forth. Maybe that points us to another set of questions to consider. How can schools bring out the best in students? How can schools lead students forth, embracing the challenges and opportunities of life and learning in this contemporary age? How can we bring out the gifts, talents, and abilities in young people in ways that help them flourish and be a blessing to those around them?

To me, these are far more inspiring questions can asking about what students we should produce.