Plutarch and The Future of College – The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be lit.

Dear Commons Community,

My colleague, Frank McCluskey, had a posting on his blog a little while ago raising questions about the purpose of a university. He asked: If a university does not support faculty research and publication can we still call it a university?  He argued “No” and that a fundamental mission of a university is to seek knowledge. The discussion moved to the future of higher education in the age of online learning, MOOCs, and venture capital endeavors such as Coursera and Minerva. An article in The Atlantic on “The Future of College”, published in August, was referenced that speculated on the influence of online technology on higher education. There was the usual give and take about whether certain types of online institutions would replace traditional colleges and universities, much of which has been well-reviewed over the past half dozen years. However, the quote that I liked most in The Atlantic article was from the Greek author, Petrarch, who said: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be lit.”  There is great wisdom in these words and they are as important in the 21st century as they were in the 1st century AD. A critical question is whether online learning is simply a vessel-filling modality or can it inspire students to learn and to want to learn on their own. I would say yes it can but it will take well-trained faculty to do so who can create highly-interactive learning environments in which students can in fact feel inspiration from a teacher and/or fellow students.  Many of the canned, mass-produced courses lack this close human to human interactivity and that may be their Achilles heel.  In my opinion, many of these courses are well-done, multimedia-infused content delivery that will best be utilized in blended learning environments where faculty will select some of the content but will reserve for the traditional classroom the interaction needed to inspire students.  Yes many students will enroll in these courses and programs especially those who live in parts of the world where higher education opportunity is severely lacking.  In the United States, as long as the elite institutions continue to offer and promote small-class size,  interactive face-to-face instruction, it will be difficult for fully online colleges to become the norm.


Texas: Another Battle Brewing over Textbooks!

Texas Textbooks

Dear Commons Community,

It is that time of the season when the Texas State Board of Education will deliberate and vote to adopt new textbooks for its K-12 schools. As in the past, controversy dominates the process mainly because a number of educators contend that the books contain material that represent conservative Christian values.  The Huffington Post reports on several of this year’s points of contention:

“New social studies books, on which the Texas State Board of Education is set to vote in November, promote pro-Christian religious and conservative political biases, according to a report released Wednesday from the nonprofit Texas Freedom Network Education Fund. History scholars argue in the report that a number of the books under consideration contain misleading information on topics like America’s founding and world religions.

The textbooks on American government, U.S. and world history, and religion in world history and geography were submitted by publishers including Pearson Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill Education. They were designed to fit Texas’ curriculum standards for history, which some critics have charged contain their own conservative biases.

Ten scholars, including professors from Southern Methodist University and doctoral students from the University of Texas at Austin, were contracted by the Texas Freedom Network to review the textbooks. While the experts praised some of the books for navigating the state standards in a fair way, they criticized others for capitulating to political concerns and disregarding evidence.

“In all fairness, it’s clear that the publishers struggled with these flawed standards and still managed to do a good job in some areas,” said Kathy Miller, president of the TFN Education Fund, in a statement. “On the other hand, a number of textbook passages essentially reflect the ideological beliefs of politicians on the state board rather than sound scholarship and factual history.”

Emile Lester, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, took issue with much of the content he saw in the U.S. government textbooks. “The [State Board of Education] and these textbooks have collaborated to make students’ knowledge of American history a casualty of the culture wars,” he wrote in the report.

Lester specifically criticized a proposed Pearson textbook for “a treatment of affirmative action [that] verges on the offensive.” He mentioned two cartoons (see below) in which space aliens discuss affirmative action. In a call with reporters on Wednesday, he said those cartoons “imply that recipients of affirmative action … are un-American.”

This is another fine example of politicians undermining public education in this country?



Fourteen College Presidents – White Paper on Key Shifts in Higher Education!

Dear Commons Community,

eCampus News has a summary of a white paper prepared by a panel of fourteen  college executives assembled by the American Council on Education (ACE). According to the paper, the  panel identified several key shifts occurring in higher-education today, thanks to evolving technologies; and it’s these key shifts that will shape the future of institutions.

The rise of the content commons: This refers to open resources and its products, such as MOOCs, video modules, open courses, and on-demand online assistance and expertise. Mobile devices play into this shift, as well as new work and social space designs. Ultimately, this trend “will encourage deeper changes in existing pedagogy, not just the transfer of existing practices to new modalities,” says the paper.

Actionable data streams: Thanks to the prevalence of big data and advanced analytics, student learning can now be highly customized and personalized. Institutions can also use these technologies to identify potential drop-outs and reduce retention, as well as use technologies like eye-tracking software to make instant adjustments to materials that students may find boring.

‘Socialstructed’ work and new work skills: As more companies and jobs look for skills rather than degrees, work is becoming de-institutionalized and a new generation of digital platforms is allowing student skills [badges and ePortfolios] to be showcased. ‘Socialstructing’ is a form of value creation that involves aggregating micro-contributions from large networks of people using social tools and technologies, and many innovative jobs are becoming more ‘socialstructured.’ “Within this model, people, not just institutions, more directly participate in the value they create,” explains Sandeen. “Assuming this ‘socialstructuring’ model continues to evolve, more traditional colleges and universities may find themselves rethinking the kind of skills and knowledge they need to provide their students—both individually and collaboratively—in order to thrive in such as world.”

Alternative assessment and credentialing: Concepts like seat time, credit hours, and a unified institutional degree program are being questioned, says the report, as demonstrated skills through badges and other digital credentials begin to take precedence with companies such as Google. “As credentialing is a core function of colleges and universities, the emerging alternative credential trend will be important to track,” says Sandeen.

Based on these key shifts, as well as keeping in mind the concepts of affordability and student centricity, the college and university presidents discussed what may be the future of institutions in four distinct models:

1. The historic liberal arts college

Though the paper says that many institutions will not be able to make the transition to the new higher-ed ecosystem, those that do will enhance what they offer through evaluated and customized use of technology—though it will not be scalable and will instead thrive on its idiosyncratic nature. The model will attract students who value the liberal arts, as well as a certain prestige. The model will also limit its offering to undergraduate degrees, while offering advanced learning tools and new spaces, and will require financial support through endowments.

2. The greater community college

This model will serve an even greater segment of the community and will focus on improved access, smaller modules and “boot camps to build student portfolios and achievements that meet the personal learning goals determined by each individual student,” notes the report. Competency-based education, as well as multiple pathways fueled by analytics, diagnostics and goal advisors will be stressed, and the model will also build a “volunteer pipeline from within the larger geographical community, connecting retired workers from the large baby boomer cohort with students to serve as tutors and mentors.”

3. The entrepreneur’s institution

A new model for higher-ed, this will attract aspiring entrepreneurs by doing away with traditional tuition in favor of the institution taking an equity stake in new ventures launched by students and provide a screening process to evaluate business plans. “Venture capital firms will invest in the university in exchange for early access to its students and their discoveries,” describes the report. “The physical campus in this model would offer high-immersion live/work spaces, ample networking events, mentorship, and spontaneous group meetings.” Instead of traditional degrees, credential portfolios would support student career paths “throughout their lives.”

4. The corporate and global learner’s institution

Like Netflix for higher-ed, this for-profit model will charge a monthly subscription fee by offering the equivalent of “frequent-learner point and rewards,” says the report. Using an online platform with skills-gap training for globally-recognized credentials, the online experience will be supplemented with interactive gaming for team-building as an alternative to traditional athletics at brick-and-mortar institutions. “The institution will partner with corporations, state governments, and foundations to identify skills needed in the workforce and to match individual students with job opportunities that align with their competencies and interests.”

This is interesting reading and provides a glimpse at new models but it will take a while for these models to evolve. They will also likely exist with other “traditional” higher education institutions for many years to come.


We Remember – September 11, 2001

World Trade Center 2014

OECD Report: U.S. Teachers Spend More Hours Teaching Per Year than Counterparts in Other Countries!

OECD IFigure I


Figure II

Dear Commons Community,

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD),an international economic organisation of 34 countries founded in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade, issued its Education at a Glance Report for 2014. The voluminous 566-page report contains a host of tables and figures comparing countries around the world on a number education indicators. The Huffington Post has an article highlighting the report specifically focusing on the number of hours teachers work per year and overall lifetime compensation. The United States is the third highest country in the number of hours teachers teach (see Figure I above) and the sixth lowest paid when compared to other college-educated professions (see Figure II above ).

It would be beneficial if the education reformers in the U.S. Department of Education and the state education departments would examine these numbers and present a plan for improvement.



David Brooks on William Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep…”!

Dear Commons Community,

David Brooks comments today on an essay by William Deresiewicz, published in The New Republic and based on his book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.” The main focus of the essay is that American higher education especially elite institutions have given up trying to provide meaningful life experiences and discoveries in favor of career preparation. Here is an excerpt from Brooks’ column:

“Deresiewicz offers a vision of what it takes to move from adolescence to adulthood. Everyone is born with a mind, he writes, but it is only through introspection, observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose that you build a unique individual self.

This process, he argues, often begins in college, the interval of freedom when a person is away from both family and career. During that interval, the young person can throw himself with reckless abandon at other people and learn from them.

Some of these people are authors who have written great books. Some are professors who can teach intellectual rigor. Some are students who can share work that is intrinsically rewarding.

Through this process, a student is able, in the words of Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia, to discover “just what it is that’s worth wanting.”

Deresiewicz argues that most students do not get to experience this in elite colleges today. Universities, he says, have been absorbed into the commercial ethos. Instead of being intervals of freedom, they are breeding grounds for advancement. Students are too busy jumping through the next hurdle in the résumé race to figure out what they really want. They are too frantic tasting everything on the smorgasbord to have life-altering encounters. They have a terror of closing off options. They have been inculcated with a lust for prestige and a fear of doing things that may put their status at risk.

The system pressures them to be excellent, but excellent sheep.”

Derieszwicz’s article and book provide important insights into how elite American colleges and universities have given into the commodification of higher education. Competition, education policy makers, and society in general have pushed them in this direction. And like sheep, higher education has given in.



Diane Ravitch Exposes Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy!

Dear Commons Community,

Responding to a mostly complimentary New York Times Magazine article on Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academy Charter Schools, Diane Ravitch skewered the author, Daniel Bergner, and his fact checking. Here is an excerpt from her blog posting:

“I spent a lot of time on the phone with the author, Daniel Bergner. When he asked why I was critical of Moskowitz, I said that what she does to get high test scores is not a model for public education or even for other charters. The high scores of her students is due to intensive test prep and attrition. She gets her initial group of students by holding a lottery, which in itself is a selection process because the least functional families don’t apply. She enrolls small proportions of students with disabilities and English language learners as compared to the neighborhood public school. And as time goes by, many students leave.

The only Success Academy school that has fully grown to grades 3-8 tested 116 third graders but only 32 eighth graders. Three other Success Academy schools have grown to sixth grade. One tested 121 third graders but only 55 sixth graders; another 106 third graders but only 68 six graders; and the last 83 third graders but only 54 sixth graders. Why the shrinking student body? When students left the school, they were not replaced by other incoming students. When the eighth grade students who scored well on the state test took the admissions test for the specialized high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, not one of them passed the test.

I also told Bergner that Success Academy charters have among the highest rates of teacher turnover every year, which would not happen if teachers enjoyed the work. Helen Zelon wrote in City Limits:

In Harlem Success Academies 1-4, the only schools for which the state posted turnover data, more than half of all teachers left the schools ahead of the 2013-14 school year. In one school, three out of four teachers departed.

I also told Bergner about a website called Glass Door, where many former teachers at SA charters expressed their candid views about an “oppressive” work climate at the school. As more of these negative reviews were posted, a new crop of favorable reviews were added, echoing the chain’s happy talk but not shedding light on why teachers don’t last long there.

Bergner argued every issue with me. He reiterated Success Academy’s talking points. He said that public schools lose as many students every year as SA charters; I replied that public schools don’t close their enrollment to new students. Again, defending SA, he said that closing new enrollments made sense because Moskowitz was “trying to build a culture,” and the culture would be disrupted by accepting new students after a certain grade. I responded that public schools might want to “build a culture” too, but they are not allowed to refuse new students who want to enroll in fourth grade or fifth grade or sixth grade, or even in the middle of the year.

He did not think it mattered that none of her successful eighth grade students was able to pass the test for the specialized high schools, and he didn’t mention it in the article. Nor was he interested in teacher turnover or anything else that might reflect negatively on SA charters.”

Ravitch’s entire blog posting is well-worth the read as a counter to Bergner’s article.




Harvard to Receive $350 Million Gift – Largest in its History!

Dear Commons Community,

Harvard University is announcing the largest gift in its history, $350 million to the School of Public Health, from a group controlled by a wealthy Hong Kong family, one member of which earned graduate degrees at the university.

Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s president, said the gift by the Morningside Foundation, directed to a relatively small part of the university, would have a profound effect on the School of Public Health in Boston, giving it a stable financial base and the ability to give students more financial aid while expanding programs in several fields.

“It’s always been, as the whole field always is, under-resourced,” Dr. Faust said. “It’s overwhelmingly dependent on money from federal grants that are under threat.”

The foundation is led by two brothers, Ronnie and Gerald Chan, whose businesses include the Hang Lung Group, a major developer of real estate in Hong Kong and elsewhere in China, and the Morningside Group, a private equity and venture capital firm. The School of Public Health will be renamed for their father, T. H. Chan, who founded Hang Lung.


Voter ID Law on Trial in Texas OR Gun-Owners Yes and Students No!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times editorial today comments on the absurdity of Texas’ strict voter-ID law, passed in 2011 by the Republican-dominated Legislature, that accepts as proof of identity a concealed-weapon permit but not a student ID card. Below is the full text of the editorial.

“In April, a federal judge in Wisconsin invalidated that state’s voter-identification law, finding that it would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of eligible voters in a phony attempt to prevent a problem — in-person voter fraud — that does not exist.

Last week, the spotlight turned to the federal court in Corpus Christi, where the Justice Department and several advocacy groups are fighting Texas’ absurdly strict voter-ID law. Passed in 2011 by the Republican-dominated Legislature, the law accepts as proof of identity a concealed-weapon permit but not a student ID card.

Laws like these used to be blocked by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required that the federal government preapprove any voting rules enacted by states and localities with a history of discriminatory voting practices. But in a destructive ruling last year, the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 as unconstitutional.

Only hours after that ruling, Texas resurrected its voter-ID law, which had been stopped by Section 5.

Defenders of voting rights are now using a different part of the Voting Rights Act to challenge such laws, but it is a time-consuming and costly process.

In the Texas suit, testimony has shown that about 1.2 million eligible voters — including disproportionate numbers of lower-income, black and Latino voters, who tend to vote Democratic — lack a photo ID that would allow them to cast a ballot. Some never had the necessary underlying documents, such as a birth certificate; others cannot afford the time or money it takes to track them down.

The lawmakers who insist that this law is needed never bothered to come up with evidence of any voter fraud. One former election official testified that in-person fraud is “almost impossible to do.”

The first time women were allowed to vote in Texas, if my aunt was not mistaken, was in 1920.My grandmother worried that the men in her…

Vote suppression is a rear guard action by the GOP minority who knows they will be swamped eventually by changing demographics. It is at…

It’s outrageous to allow a weapon permit as ID but not a student ID card. Anyone who thinks that is logical has a serious mental problem……

Texas says it has made it easier to get a photo ID by providing for a free “Election Identification Certificate.” Apparently, Texans haven’t gotten the memo: as of Friday, fewer than 300 people statewide had managed to obtain a certificate.

Of course, voter-ID laws have never been about making voting easier. They are virtually always Republican-led efforts to keep groups of eligible voters who are more likely to vote Democratic from the polls.

The laws’ backers rely on a 2008 Supreme Court ruling upholding an Indiana voter-ID law, but at least two of the judges in that case have since admitted they were wrong. Richard Posner, a federal appeals court judge who approved the law, said last fall that voter-ID laws were “now widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than of fraud prevention.” And former Justice John Paul Stevens, who voted with the majority, said that in retrospect the dissent was “dead right.”

Rather than find a way to appeal to a wider swath of voters, Republican lawmakers rig the game with pointless obstacles to voting. The courts are finally catching on, but in the meantime, many of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens are shut out of the democratic process.”

Some legislatures have absolutely no shame in the way they go about denying people especially minorities the most fundamental right of a democracy – the right to vote.


Bill Gates, Big History, and Polarization!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has a featured article on the Big History Project funded by the Gates Foundation. Big History is a college course taught by David Christian, a professor from Australia. It does not confine itself to any particular topic, or even to a single academic discipline. Instead, it puts forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields, which Christian wove together into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth. Christian says he was influenced by the Annales School, a group of early-20th-century French historians who insisted that history be explored on multiple scales of time and space. Christian had subsequently divided the history of the world into eight separate “thresholds,” beginning with the Big Bang, 13 billion years ago (Threshold 1), moving through to the origin of Homo sapiens (Threshold 6), the appearance of agriculture (Threshold 7) and, finally, the forces that gave birth to our modern world (Threshold 8).

The real meat of the article, however, is that in promoting Big History, Bill Gates cannot understand why he is encountering so much resistance from the education community.

“Perhaps the largest challenge facing the Big History Project, however, is Gates himself, or at least the specter of him. To his bafflement and frustration, he has become a remarkably polarizing figure in the education world….

In March, the American Federation of Teachers announced that it would no longer accept grants from the Gates Foundation for its innovation fund, which had already received more than $5 million from the organization. As Randi Weingarten, the A.F.T. president, told Politico, “I got convinced by the level of distrust I was seeing — not simply on Twitter, but in listening to members and local leaders — that it was important to find a way to replace Gates’s funding.” When I spoke with Weingarten last month, she elaborated on her union members’ problem with Gates. “Instead of actually working with teachers and listening to what teachers needed to make public education better,” she said, Gates’s team “would work around teachers, and that created tremendous distrust.”

Weingarten used as an example the roll-out of the Common Core Curriculum.

“While Weingarten said that she tried to work with Gates to “pierce” the animosity, she ultimately chose to part ways because “our members perceived that we were doing things in our support of Common Core because of the Gates Foundation, as opposed to because it was the right thing to do.” It was a difficult decision, Weingarten said. “Bill Gates has more money than God. People just don’t do what we did.”

The article goes on to discuss the changing style of American corporate philanthropy in the 21st centrury.

“Beginning with the Carnegies and the Rockefellers, billionaires have long seen the nation’s education as a willing cause for their philanthropy — and, with it, their own ideas about how students should learn. The latest crop of billionaires, however, has tended to take the line that fixing our broken educational system is the key to unlocking our stagnant economy. Whether it’s hedge-fund managers like Paul Tudor Jones (who has given tens of millions to support charter schools) or industrialists like Eli Broad (who has backed “blended learning” programs that feature enhanced technology), these philanthropists have generally espoused the idea that education should operate more like a business. (The Walton Foundation, backed by the family that founded Walmart, has taken this idea to new heights: It has spent more than $1 billion supporting various charter schools and voucher programs that seek to establish alternatives to the current public-school system.) Often these patrons want to restructure the system to make it more efficient, utilizing the latest technology and management philosophies to turn out a new generation of employable students.

For many teachers, Weingarten explained, this outside influence has become off-putting, if not downright scary. “We have a really polarized environment in terms of education, which we didn’t have 10 years ago,” she said. “Public education was a bipartisan or multipartisan enterprise — it didn’t matter if you were a Republican or Democrat or elite or not elite. People viewed public education as an anchor of democracy and a propeller of the economy in the country.” Now, she said, “there are people that have been far away from classrooms who have an outsize influence on what happens inside classrooms. Beforehand, the philanthropies were viewed as one of many voices in education. Now they are viewed — and the market reformers and the tech folks — as the dominant forces, and as dissonant to those who work in schools every day. She took a deep breath and softened her tone: “In some ways, I give Bill Gates huge credit. Bill Gates took a risk to get engaged. The fact that he was willing to step up and say, ‘Public education is important,’ is very different than foundations like the Walton Foundation, who basically try to undermine public education at every opportunity.”

The article includes laughable quotes defending Bill Gates from Joel Klein who as chancellor was the biggest polarizer that the New York City public school system has ever seen.

The lesson is that Gates and other corporate philanthropies have indeed created a polarized, “us versus them” environment that uses their funding to undermine public education policy structures.  Gates is a monopolist who sought and continues to seek control of the education playing field in order to mold it to his own image.