The establishment pushes back against the education revolution

There is a revolution going on in education. Many writers are talking about the education bubble at the primary, secondary, and collegiate level.  My preferred metaphor is an open frontier.  You can see my posts here.

An article in Chronicle of Higher Education, The Gates Effect, gives good background on the role of the Gates Foundation in advocating education reform.

The long article attacks the Gates Foundation strongly and repeatedly.  It is the latest is a series of critical articles.  Seems to me most of the current article is focused on giving voice to those pushing back against the changes taking place in the education world.

What I hear as the primary theme of the above article is that only those inside the education establishment should speak to reform.

As to the substance of the criticism, that is the topic for widespread discussion for several years.

Gates Foundation is one of the movers behind the education revolution

The article says

Since 2006, Gates has spent $472-million to remake U.S. higher education, according to a Chronicle analysis—$343-million of that since January 2008

The foundation was a major player in moving forward a huge amount of activity that resulted in the Department of Education approving financial aid for a competency based college program at Southern New Hampshire University. I was not aware the foundation played any role, let alone was the biggest driver.

From the article – the foundation’s

… largess and sway helped get Southern New Hampshire’s program off the ground, supported a key think-tank report that advocated moving beyond the credit hour, and helped persuade a risk-averse Education Department to open federal coffers to competency-based education.

Kudos to the Gates Foundation.

I guess only the experts can speak to this issue

Most of the article is criticizing the foundation, their approach, their influence, and their lack of following the accepted wisdom on how higher education should be done.

The central point I draw from the foundation’s critics is that the only people who should speak on education reform are people with an earned terminal doctorate in education who currently work for either a university, education trade association, or education lobbying group. Everyone else, including the Gates Foundation, should back off and let the learned professors deal with higher education.

I will quote a number of comments from the article to show the flavor of the critiques. Not sure you would believe me if I paraphrased the comments and put them all in one place.

Academic researchers who have spent years studying higher education see their expertise bypassed as Gates moves aggressively to develop strategies for reform.

“There is too much emphasis [i.e. in the proposals from Gates Foundation and others] on getting people through the system, processing them,” he says. “That needs to be seen in relation to what students are in fact learning.

Umm… Sir, one of the major criticisms of higher education today is that it measures seat time and not learning. Can we conclude you agree with the Gates Foundation and the competency-based education approach?

These efforts have been criticized for bypassing colleges and imposing top-down solutions.

Translation:  the experts are losing control. Others are gaining a voice.

But as Gates’s higher-education activism grows, so does anxiety over the consequences.

Presumably it is those experts feeling the anxiety.

If philanthropic efforts like Gates’s create public colleges that are just teaching to the job interview, the result could be “a better on-ramp for jobs but a worse one for real social mobility.”

“Teaching to the job interview.”  Oooookay.  Here I thought getting a job out of college was the goal in order to avoid going back to serving coffee for the rest of your life.  That comment is unattributed.  I won’t go find lots of articles showing the low percentages of grads with 4 year degrees working in their field and the low percentages of law school grads working in positions that actually require a law degree (only 55% nine months after graduation in this story).

“They start with the assumption that something is broken,” …

Where could there possibly be a problem?  Perhaps a hundred grand or more for a degree? Maybe loan payments so high that buying a new car or a house is off the table for a decade or two? Possibly a success metric based on how many students get a 4 year degree in 6 years? (which is only 58% according to this article in the Chronicle)

Outside the academy, there’s a consensus something is broken. That comment implying everything is fine comes from the president of a college.

I just about fell out of my chair when I read another quote later in the article from this person.  Had to check and double-check that it was the same person and inside quotation marks. Yes, it is specifically attributed and yes, it is inside quotation marks.

The problem is, they live in a bubble.

You see, it’s those foundation people, especially Gates Foundation staff, who are living an insulated life.

Does the good professor (yes, the one who labels as untrue the assumption that anything is broken) know where the phrase “ivory tower” is usually applied?

Are you seeing a trend in the critiques?

Skeptics say such confidence is dangerous when dealing with complex social phenomena like education.

The crystal clear message is that only people with a Ph.D. in Education are capable of understanding such astoundingly complex phenomena.  Well, maybe a terminal degree in Sociology or Political Science would be okay.  I only have an earned masters degree in business administration, so I guess that means I’m not allowed to speak.


Check out these four sentences for a good panoramic view of the pushback from some members of the education guild:

Still, his comments [a lobbyist for an educational organization] reflect the deep suspicion that traditional college lobbyists hold toward megafoundations like Gates. …

One lobbyist [a different one from the preceding paragraph], a member of the “Big Six” college associations that education reformers dismiss as “the blob,” says Gates and other foundations have created a “new blob.”

“I call it the ‘impenetrable cluster,'” says the lobbyist. “They’ve locked out practitioners in favor of those with no hands-on experience or responsibility to students.”

Gates defenders counter that the college lobby is more interested in preserving the status quo than pursuing meaningful change.

Those are quotes from the article. I don’t have the creativity to make it up.

The future is bright. Get your sunglasses.

The article does get back to two of many options that point to a bright future: massive open online courses and measuring specific learning:

MOOCs have hogged much of the public conversation about remaking college. But the competency-based model of College for America may represent a more radical reform. It is education rethought from the ground up, designed to control costs by using computers where possible and humans where necessary.

Maybe those options will lower costs, increase enrollment, increase completion rates, transfer more knowledge, build wisdom, improve career prospects, and increase social mobility. Maybe they won’t. If not, then we can look to the other emerging reforms that are on hand.

Like I’ve said before, the future is so bright we need sunglasses.

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