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 This is a multi-year audio sparked by narrow and outdated language in federal policy that leaves limited room for innovation, experimentation, or diversity of models and frameworks in teaching in learning.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

If You Could Rewrite the US Department of Education Mission Statement

If you could rewrite the US Department of Education mission statement, what would it say? Prior to 1980, the United States had K-12 schools and Universities around the country. Some were doing better than others, but they were running, meeting needs, adjusting, and much more. We did all of this without a US Department of Education. There were federal offices focused on various education issues, but not a centralized, unified US Department of Education. Some argue that we would be better off without such a centralized office. Others defend the idea, point out its important roles in promoting and protecting access and opportunity, in establishing policies and regulations, and to fill in where state or local entities might not be able or might fall short. I’ll leave that debate for others. I would, however, like to challenge us to consider the mission statement of the current US Department of Education.

From the DOE website:

ED’s mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.


If we are going to have a central office in the United States that attends to matters in K-12 and higher education, what do you think about this statement as the focus and guide for that organization? Notice that the mission statement sets up a primary aim. It is to, “promote student achievement and preparation for global achievement.” Did you notice that? The reason for the DOE is to promote an approach to education that makes sure that we remain competitive on a global level. It frames our education system around the idea that people go to school so that we win or perform well in some sort of international race or competition with other nations. At least, that is how I read the statement.

I don’t want to completely disregard the idea that being globally competitive is a valuable thing, but I do challenge the idea that a federal office focused upon K-12 and higher education should make that the top priority. Is that really the true essence of the American education system? At its most fundamental level, do we all go to school so that we can beat China, Cuba, or Russia? Again, I realize that there are important global and international considerations for our nation, but do we truly want this to be what drives the agenda and work of a federal office of education?

Logical Conclusions

If we follow this idea to its logical conclusion, consider the implications. If we need more engineers to be globally competitive, then we need to convince more people to become engineers. We need to create programs that better equip people to become engineers, that identify promising talent in that area, that fund engineering-related activities, and that challenges people to more seriously consider such a career. Most would see nothing that is nothing explicitly wrong about this.

Or, perhaps another will argue that we need a completely different academic focus to be globally competitive. They find data to support it and then allocate resources to this new area of study. We then change our recruiting strategies to convince people of this new career path instead.

An Alternative

Might there be a better way to frame the essence of education? Is it possible to create a mission that starts with learners, families, communities and the nation itself, perhaps? Instead, we have what can be read as a “keep up with the Jonses” mission. I contend that education systems will be better off if they start with a mission about growth and development for the purpose of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That would seem to derive far more closely from our formative documents.

Your Chance

What do you think? If you had a chance to rewrite the US Department of Education mission statement (or the government education mission statement of the country in which you reside), what would that statement say?

Mom & Dad Can’t Agree & It is Hurting the Kids (a not so subtle commentary on the DOE & accreditors)

In case you missed the title, yes, this is a commentary on the modern landscape of learning organizations, the United Staes Department of Education, and regional accreditors.

I have this friend named Cole Age who wrote me recently in search of some help. I asked permission to share his struggle with you. Perhaps you have some advice for him.

Cole feels like his is stuck between two competing forces. When he first spoke with me, he was nearing despair. He tries to respect and please one person only to find the other pulling his attention in another direction. Both his mom and dad say that they want him to be good, happy, healthy, and successful; but the two of them can’t seem to agree on what that means or looks like.

It doesn’t help that they can’t even seem to agree on the same standards or vocabulary. Even when both of them use the exact same word, Cole often finds that they have different meanings. Or, just as he thinks that he has it figured out, one of them creates a new list of rules or adjusts the definitions on the existing rules. “Well, your dad means this by that term, but here is is what I mean…” Really? This is no way to run a family. Can you imagine the state of our government or schools if they did the same thing?

Sometimes Cole’s dad calls the shots and mom seems to just go along with it, but it is pretty clear that she doesn’t fully agree. Cole’s mom seems frustrated with his dad, and his dad seems to be on some sort of power trip, claiming that it is for the  good of the family and necessary to protect the financial well-being of the household. Yet, from Cole’s perspective (and that of many of his siblings), there are plenty of ways to protect the family finances without creating this massive set of confusing and deflating rules and family regulations.

Then his mom turns around and sets up a new set of rules, and he can’t even tell if her rules align with the ones that dad set up. Cole explains that it would be so much easier if the two of them would sit down together, clarify their priorities and speak in unison. Better yet, he would love some family meetings where they could work through this together. As it stands, his mom and dad do meet, and they even consult the favored siblings on occasion (leaving Cole and many other siblings out), but then they end up creating a new set of “rules” that hurt or hinder the rest of the family (and Cole has a huge family). According to Cole (and me), there has to be a better way.

Some of his other friends have experienced this same thing, and they have reacted in a number of ways.

  • Some have pretty much checked out. They don’t try to do anything creative because they know that will just trigger a litany of checks and critiques from mom, dad, or both. So, they just play it safe, even though they are growing more bitter each day and failing to maximize their potential.
  • Others have become masters of manipulation. They know how to work the mom/dad system with perfection, and they can get away with almost anything that they want.
  • Then there are others who baffle me. They seem to call the shots instead of their mom and dad. It is as if the parents submit to these special kids while demanding submission from the others. I’m sure there is more nuance to the dynamic, but that is what it looks like from Cole’s viewpoint.
  • Then there is this other group that intrigues me. They just moved out of the house and are living on their own. They don’t have to bother with mom and dad’s seemingly conflicting and confusing rules anymore. They have set up their own families and communities and, compared to others, this group seems to be doing some of the most incredible things in their lives.

Cole doesn’t get it. When he talks to his mom or dad (or usually they just write letters to him and the other siblings), they insist that they want him and the other sibling to be healthy, happy, and successful. They’ve also recently put a large emphasis upon Cole and the siblings embracing an innovative and creative approach to their lives, one that benefits society as a whole. They encourage him to live a creative and courageous life. Then, when he and other siblings take that advice, the parents start shifting rules, definitions, expectations and processes on them. How does that promote creativity?

It isn’t like Cole is trying be some sort of renegade. He has read and re-read his mom and dad’s expectations, doing his absolute best to respect their standards…often far more than other siblings. He has important and substantial subtleties in what he does to embrace creativity while honoring their rules, but that doesn’t seem to matter. To Cole, it feels like the parents have not even taken the time to really understand what is distinct, even world-class, about what he doing. They use these narrow definitions that often don’t even apply to the real world situations for Cole.

Cole is the first to admit that he doesn’t agree with several of his parent’s rules. As much as his mom and dad say that they are pro-creativity, from his vantage point, it seems like they are only pro-creativity for the select and favored siblings. As far as he is concerned, they would be delighted if the rest of the siblings just faded away over the upcoming decades. They listen to the wants and ideas of some while seeming to disregard that of others. In fact, even when some of his ideas are widely explored, celebrated and discussed outside of the family; his mom and dad seem to pretend like his work and  perspective doesn’t exist. Yet, he remains diligent in striving to follow the letter and spirit of their rules while also embracing their challenge to live a creative and courageous life. After talking to Cole, I am just not sure how much longer he can do it. The limitations and uncertainties are, at times, just too stifling. I can see it eating away at his passion, energy and sense of calling.

I can say with confidence that Cole truly does respect his parents and he likes being part of the family. Yet, in the end, he has to be true to his calling and what he believes that he called to do with my life. It seems like moving out is one of his few remaining options, but he is still open to our advice. Is there another way? What do you say readers? How can we help Cole Age figure this out?