Rebuilding the American Economy

Part 3: Focusing on success


Let me start by saying something that will probably infuriate many readers: All too often, we see evidence that our educational system still presents itself as an obstacle course that students must individually survive, rather than as a well-lit path with guides to assist along the way. Education in America seems to have been designed as a rite of passage, with success by no means assured. To the contrary, it serves to winnow and separate at every level, such that only the most talented and resolute may expect to succeed — and the higher the level of education that one seeks to attain, the more rigorous is the winnowing process. The extreme example is the Ph.D., a degree awarded last year to only about 50,000 people. This is the pinnacle of educational attainment, aspired to by only the finest minds — yet about half of those who begin doctoral programs fail to reach the summit.

(I am struck by language that seems more properly descriptive of an assault on Mount Everest by the world’s greatest mountaineers than it is of the American system of education, but perhaps that’s the point: Education is a series of increasingly higher hurdles, designed to weed out those deemed unworthy. It serves to exclude, not include.)

Before I reach the point where readers have smoke coming out of their ears, let me say that I readily acknowledge the millions of enormously dedicated and talented teachers and professors who devote their lives to the education of our young people. I do not intend to castigate the teaching profession. Rather, it is the system in which they work that is the problem (but it is also the case that not every teacher or professor deserves the accolades I just handed out).

Let’s think a bit more about how our educational system is structured.

First, at every level, it is staffed by people who were themselves successful in completing the obstacle course. The educational system worked for them. Why would they be motivated to change something in which they were successful?

Second, it is rigorously hierarchical, at least in K-12. Students begin kindergarten or first grade based on their age and birth date — the implication being that students of like age are at the same stage of intellectual and social development, although we know this not to be true. That said, it works well enough for most children, and, to date, there has been insufficient premium in increasing the number of children for whom it is reasonably successful to warrant changing anything.

Third, there is a constant battle in K-12 education about the decision whether or not to promote a student to the next grade, based on the contrary metrics of academic achievement versus age.  Holding a student back — failing them — imparts an enormous social stigma, and, apart from unwelcome battles with parents, the fact that being held back may cause a student to lose heart, and literally or figuratively to drop out, provides a rationale for a teacher to promote a student who hasn’t mastered grade-appropriate skills. The ultimate consequence of these “social promotions” is the paradox of a lofty graduation percentage coupled with a low level of ability by these graduates to do college-level work — which is why so many first-year college students are required to take remedial classes in English or mathematics before they can enroll for courses in these disciplines that grant college credit. (Moreover, students who must take remedial courses in college are at a much higher risk of never graduating than are students who are academically prepared to take college-level courses in their first semester of college.)

Fourth, although we now understand far more today about the variable ways (“multiple intelligences”) by which different individuals learn best than we did in the past, we continue to rely very heavily on aural learning, mostly because we always have (and, again, it worked for the teachers themselves when they were students, so why not stick with a proven thing?) This over-reliance on requiring students to be attentive and to learn by listening is starting to change, as teachers at every level experiment with group work and active learning, but these changes are occurring far too slowly, and are far too dependent on the willingness of the individual teacher to try new methodologies, rather than on a concerted and systemic effort to improve overall learning success.

Fifth, at the college level, two theories continue to do battle.  Some faculty see as their task as the separation of students into wheat and chaff. They are the guardians of the sacred sheepskin, an honor to be awarded only to the most able and hard-working of their students. Regardless of the overall talent level of their class, they assign grades on a curve, such that a predetermined percentage of students earn each of the five letter grades. (The slope of this curve varies from instructor to instructor, and even from class to class, since many instructors look for natural “break points” in the curve, clustering groups of students of various sizes within a particular letter grade category. But the fundamental principle is still to separate the more worthy from the less worthy, and both groups from the unworthy.)

Other faculty have a completely different philosophy.  These faculty focus on content mastery, and although they generally expect that not every student will attain an equal level of mastery, in principle they would be amenable to assigning an “A” to every student in the class — heresy to the faculty in the first group, who accuse those in the second group of “grade inflation,” a designation they equate with being assigned to Dante’s ninth circle of hell.

It remains one of life’s small mysteries that two such opposing views can exist on the same campus, yet it is far more common than one might imagine. Faculty in the first group tend to be in disciplines where learning can be easily measured quantitatively (mathematics, science, engineering) whereas faculty in the second group tend to be in disciplines that are focused on concepts and quality of explanation (the social sciences, humanities and education, for example). The differences between the two groups are most obviously seen in the cumulative grade point averages of the students in the various majors. The median GPA of students in the social sciences and education is almost always higher than in the sciences and engineering, and, as a consequence, a far higher percentage of those students graduate with honors than is true for students in the natural sciences and engineering, an outcome that results in no end of hard feelings and debate.

This dichotomy of expectations regarding the nature of student performance is mirrored by another debate that is getting more animated every year. Traditionally, academic credits are earned on the basis of “seat time” — how many hours did a student spend listening to the professor? There are generally about 15 weeks in a semester, and one credit is earned for every 15 hours of seat time.  Thus, a typical three-credit course that meets three times a week for an hour generates 45 hours of seat time in a semester, resulting in (45 ÷ 15 =) 3 academic credits. The student must still demonstrate an acceptable level of content mastery, typically through periodic tests and a final exam, but this model of earning credit is fundamentally based on an input: The presence of the student in class for 45 hours.

A quite different model of earning academic credit is the idea of achieving competency. Each academic course presumably has certain learning outcomes associated with it. A student taking an introductory science course, for example, would probably be expected to understand the scientific method and the design of an experiment, as outcomes of taking the course. But if a given student is already competent in the scientific method when she begins the course (because of outside reading she has already done or because she attended science camp while in high school), then why should she need to sit through lectures on a subject she has already mastered? Why can’t she demonstrate her mastery and move to the next section of the course? Moreover, if she can master the learning objectives of the course in, say, six weeks, why should she be forced to sit in class for 15 weeks?

The seat time model is based on the idea that all of a student’s learning comes from instruction by the professor. In our age of technology, this is an outmoded concept. The professor certainly plays a role in guiding or even providing knowledge acquisition. But her primary role today is to evaluate how much learning has occurred, as opposed to lecturing for 45 hours to a class of students of uneven levels of intellectual capacity, interest in the subject, and the amount of individual student learning that occurred prior to the beginning of the course.

The use of competency assessment (an outcome) rather than seat time (an input) is even more important for adult learners, with widely different experiences and for whom the ordeal of sitting through 45 hours of lecture, often regarding material with which they may be very familiar, is a huge obstacle in achieving their overall educational objective. Adult learners are not well served by our current model of higher education, which was designed to meet the needs of recent high school graduates and (at least as originally conceived) expects students to be full-time and in residence at the college.

To recap, an educational model that is designed to weed out, using instructional methods that work for most (but certainly not all) students and that relies on inputs, not outcomes, is inadequate to meet today’s societal needs. But before we consider how the system might be reformed, we should first determine the true purpose of a college education and how effectively that purpose is currently being met.

Those are issues we will address in Part 4: What Is the Purpose of College?