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 This is a multi-year audio sparked by narrow and outdated language in federal policy that leaves limited room for innovation, experimentation, or diversity of models and frameworks in teaching in learning.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.

Can We Use the Case of Public Parks to Critique the Logic of School Choice?

Can we use the case of public parks to critique the logic behind school choice? Some think so. Voltaire is quoted as saying, “A witty saying proves nothing.” That is the quote that came to mind when I saw someone post the following on Twitter recently:

What do you think? Some might read it and join in a resounding cheer for this witty statement about some people’s belief that school choice is “ridiculous” on the same grounds as the fictional public park statement. The problem is that this is not really an argument against school choice. When we use such comparisons, they can be clever and stick with people, but we must also ask whether they are inviting us into a candid and substantive consideration of the true affordances and limitations of school choice, and there are indeed both.

Yes, the example with the parks does sound a bit ridiculous, but it only takes a few moments of listing the similarities and differences between public parks and public schools to recognize that this comparison comes rather close to what some might call ridiculous.

If we are going to work with the park comparison, allow me to offer a few thoughts.

  1. It is mandatory for people of a certain age to attend school, but not so with parks.
  2. When a park is unsafe, you don’t have to go to it. When you are in a community with an unsafe school and it is your only option, you are still required by law to attend (unless of course you are wealthy enough for the private school or can afford to have a parent stay home to homeschool).
  3. What would you say to a person who is told that it is un-Amercian to not send their kid to an unsafe park every day, arguing that you should send your kid to that park while fighting to make it safer? If your child is harmed during that time, we can chalk that up your American duty. Yet, those with the money and time to travel further for a safe park are insulated from this same “American duty.”
  4. My point is that we don’t force people to go to parks and then improve them. We improve parks and then people start going to them.
  5. When a park is poor in quality, people vote by not going to it. If there are better options, they take advantage of those choices. My family does that all the time. We used to go a little further to the park with the best playground, the bets hiking, or whatever else aligned with our goals. Note that quality also wasn’t a simple measure on some standardized test of park quality either. We made a choice based upon our goals and values and what the park could offer.
  6. Your kid loves skateboarding and the closest park doesn’t allow or have room for skateboard. Yet, there is a great skateboard park about a mile away so you opt to help your kid go there instead.
  7. Now imagine a local park where the officials decided that it was a public health essential that parks include “how to” posters related to the park official’s viewpoint on certain political and hot social issues, and much more. Maybe you agree with those positions and maybe you do not, but you don’t have to go to that park. Mandatory daily attendance at the park does not exist, so you can opt to play or walk somewhere else if somewhere else is available. If not, you can fight to change that park, but if those in charge reject your complaint, that is it. Not only that but imagine the park officials ridiculing your complaint as being too liberal, too conservative, closed-minded, backward, socialist or something else. There is limited actual openness to a substantive debate about what goes into the park.
  8. If there are park officials on duty who are not the type of role model that you want for your children, you express concern, and your concerns are disregarded, what next? Those park officials might rank about the importance of legalizing marijuana, locking our borders to illegal immigrants, making oil illegal, or some other position. That is not their primary job as park officials but their ideas quite often come out in subtle and direct ways. Again you express concern but the park board and park administration supports the park official.

I’m not saying that these are always issues for people, but the simple public park to public school comparison make in the above poster does not help to surface such important candid discussion. Or, since I’m writing this as a response, maybe it does.

What Type of a Person Do We Nurture with Standardized Tests & Quantifying Students?

I’m not a fan of the heavy emphasis upon standardized tests and I’m increasingly skeptical about our rapid move toward the quantification of learners, but I am almost certainly on the losing side of that debate. Learning analytics will be ubiquitous in schools of the future. Big data will transform how many think about education. It will bring about affordances, but it will also bring about plenty of limitations. Even though big data is the future, I’m not going silent on this issue, because there is too much at stake…even the minds of a generation. I’ve written about this a in different ways over the past few years, but I’m compelled to add one more article to the conversation.

I was reminded of this when reading Noam Chomsky’s article about the dangers of standardized testing. While I don’t always agree with Chomsky’s interpretations and evaluations, I appreciate that he gets the issue with standardized tests. It isn’t just about what is on the tests, it is about the whole idea of making school centered upon measuring and quantifying students. It is that these tests and measurements start to take over our thinking, and they begin to take over the mindset and focus of the person being tested and evaluated. It drives us into a mindset of quantification. We value that which is easier to measure and begin to dismiss that which is not.

Candidly, I’ve experienced this countless times in K-12 and higher education contexts. When schools started to make the move toward becoming more data-driven, I urged them to start by clarifying their core goals, beliefs, and values; and to hold on to those even when they struggle to find easy and accessible ways to measure how they are they are doing with regard to those goals, beliefs, and values. If they give in, even if just for the short-term, this the data with take over. It becomes a data-driven and not a mission-driven organization, even though well-meaning leaders will insist that this is not the case. Hard to measure and less concrete goals get set aside and other goals get put in place that are more easily quantifiable or that align with the data that is readily available. Before long, our focus is on how to raise the numbers of whatever measure. Those rich conversations about beliefs and values fade away as relics of the past. Those who speak up about the change are labeled as Luddites, anti-progress, or unrealistic romantics. Even more common, they are just ignored as the data-ocracy bulldozers its way through the organization, bypassing existing governance and organizational structures, even demanding submission from the the leaders of the organization over time. They even do it under the guise of mission.

From the sound of that last paragraph, you might think that I am not a supporter of standardized tests, big data, or learning analytics; but you would be wrong. I see promise and value. I also see caution. I believe in mission-driven organizations that are informed by data that best supports the mission, vision, values, and goals; and that is not what I was referring to in the last paragraph. Data in the form of standardized tests can be useful and offer valuable insights, but my concern in when we let these data points take over, and they do it quite often.

In higher education, consider how narrow our policy conversations become when we try to reduce the mission, vision, values, and goals of higher education institutions to graduation rate, retention rate, post-graduation employment rate, and loan default rates. These are valuable data points, but if they are the top priorities in higher education, then we are better off shutting down all Universities. That is not worth the time, energy, and investment (of many and lives).

What is education really about? I sure haven’t devoted my adult life to supporting an education ecosystem that is about achieving increasingly higher test scores in math, science, or language arts. My daily thoughts are not consumed with musings about education because I want to get high graduation rates for as many students as possible. Not that this is unimportant, but there are grander goals related to access, opportunity, learning, and equipping people for rich, full, meaningful, and impactful lives.

We must not let standardized tests drive the design of our learning organizations. Data must not dethrone mission, vision, values, and the goals informed by those three. When we discuss and debate the efficacy of various policies and practices, we must resist reverting to comparisons of the options on the basis of numeric scores on tests only, or other easily understandable data points. We are far better off taking the time to collectively decide upon a larger and broader set of data points, quantitative and qualitative. The statisticians and often the policymakers will want to drive us to that which is more systemically quantified and validated, and we must push back. Life and learning is about more than numbers and setting up the most valid and reliable measures and experiments.

As Chomsky notes, what is at risk is the mind of a generation. Our worship of numbers, quantification, and standardization produces a certain type of person, and I choose that word “produce” intentionally. There is a better way. There are, in fact, many better ways. I vote for one of them.

What Would You Prioritize If You Were the Next US Secretary of Education?

It is decided. On the late morning / early afternoon of February 7, 2017, the Vice President broke a 50/50 tie to confirm Betsy Devos as the next US Secretary of Education. Now what?

I followed the nomination, hearing, vetting, debates, and lobbying closely in this process. Given the nature of my work, this particular position is one of personal interest. I’ve been candid about my past criticisms of the US Department of Education regarding certain policies and practices that are restricting promising innovations and reforms in education. I’ve also spoken up in support of other efforts, especially the desire to create ways to increase access and opportunity to quality education (even if I might have differences on the “how” in the past).

I didn’t speak out in support of Devos, nor did oppose her. If you read my work often enough, you already know where I have some shared ideas with Devos and where I might deviate from her stance in other areas. I am and will continue to be a person who speaks out about affordances, limitations, and promising possibilities in education, and all three are always present.

Now Betsy Devos is the US Secretary of Education and I will work alongside her in the effort to create and refine the educational ecosystem in the United States. For any of us who are engaged in the good and important work of education, I consider that a minimum responsibility. We are charged to speak out when we disagree, but in productive and civil ways. We are also called to work together on areas where we can agree, setting our personal agendas aside and striving to help create the best possible education ecosystem in the United States. Even more important, we are called to live out our educational callings in our distinct contexts.

Yet, I also want to use this as an opportunity to muse about this role. What if the Senate just confirmed you as the next US Secretary of Education? What would be your priorities? How would you spend your first ninety days? Here is what I would do.

Build a world class team.

This is not a lone ranger endeavor. You need to build a great team. These are people who understand the issues, strive to explore the breadth of possibilities, can engage in systems thinking, are committed to collaboration and coalition building, have bigger ears than they do a mouth, put students and families first, refuse to politicize education, they are deeply curious, they have a love of learning, they think deeply, and they are going to get things done. Some diverse viewpoints and experiences will only make this richer and more impactful.

Revisit the Mission Statement.

This is not a quick and easy task, but the US Department of Education mission statement is outdated. Missions matter, especially if there is leadership committed to focusing upon the core mission and sifting everything (and I mean everything) through that mission statement. Yet, if you read it carefully, I think that you will probably agree that it feels like a relic from the days of the Cold War and the industrial revolution, and it needs revision. Work with the necessary stakeholders to rewrite it and establish a clear set of core values to inform what will shape our work. Then we can build the rest around this mission and values. I know that a US Secretary of Education can just change such things on a whim, but I think this is worth the time and effort to push for change.

Systematically Review Existing Policies.

The current state of federal policies regarding education are often confusing, sometimes conflicting, and often so tied to past or current education practices that they unintentionally inhibit innovation and emerging practices. They are too often established without careful enough attention to unexpected consequences. It is hurting quality and progress. As such, I would engage policymakers, education administrators, teachers, students, parents, and other stakeholders in a robust analysis of the affordances and limitations of existing policies, seeking to surface the problems with certain policies and ways to resolve these policies without also creating loopholes that allow for abuses and a complete lack of accountability. The financial aid program would be an early priority for me.

Clarify Local, State, and Federal Roles.

People talk about protecting all students through federal mandates. Others talk about pushing as many decisions to the state and local level. We need to get everything on the table and assess what belongs where. We will likely discover that there are a small but important number of policies that belong at the federal level, while others are better suited for the state or local level.

Support, Celebrate, Disseminate Educational Innovation and Preparation for Vastly Different Futures in Education.

We need a boost of future-readiness. Whether people think most of the innovation should happen on the hyper-local level, the state, the federal level, in private enterprise, or a mix of them; I see the US Department of Education as well-positioned to be a supporter and champion for educational innovation that empowers all individuals, equipping them to thrive as humans and citizens in a connected age. I would maybe even consider establishing, if possible, a Moonshot Task Force to aid in this effort. We can’t stay tied to existing models and constructs for education too much longer. It is holding us back from creating a better education ecosystem that truly equips people for life and learning in a connected world. Personally, I would love to make the future of credentials and reputation systems a priority and key part of this effort. It is time to move from a faster horse mindset to creating the educational equivalent of the automobile.

Create Conversations About What Really Matters and What Really Works.

We can benefit from having have national, state, and local conversations about what really matters; and this has to get beyond soundbites and political positioning. Our students deserve this, and our definition of “student” needs to broaden extensively. We have existing efforts around this, but I believe that we can be better about how we approach it. We need deep and substantive conversations. Our public knowledge and conversations (even within plenty of schools) are still too often uninformed about important foundational matters and emerging research.

We need to tell better stories and tell them more broadly. We can find powerful ways to tell stories, inspire people to action, deepen our collective knowledge about education, and facilitate the dissemination of quality resources. I’m not talking about a large, bureaucratic federal effort. I’m just talking about using this office to facilitate and amplify all the great work that is already out there.

I know. I’m not the next US Secretary of Education. Yet, these are still the types of priorities that I will push for as I am able. Devos is in and (regardless of a person’s stance before her confirmation) it is now time to get to work.