WASHINGTON, D.C. – The push to rethink American higher education got a fresh airing Tuesday at a forum where speakers espoused new programs, policies and paradigms in an effort to defy the inertia of the status quo.
Ideas ranged from efforts to publicize more meaningful information about the total cost of college and job placement rates at particular institutions, to making teacher preparation programs more rigorous and compensating teachers in a manner more commensurate with elite professionals such as lawyers and doctors.
While much of the discussion at The Atlantic magazine’s forum titled “Jobs & Economy of the Future: Educating the Next Generation to Compete,” dealt with the need to reinvent colleges and universities, the conversation often focused on the need to change America’s education system at the K-12 level in order to get better results at the post-secondary level.
Perhaps one of the most scathing criticisms of the current state of public education finance came from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., former U.S. Education Secretary under George H. W. Bush, who said the nation would do better if it financed K-12 education the same way colleges and universities get funded.
In higher education, Alexander noted, the federal government gives grants to students and lets the students choose which college or university to attend with the public dollars.
However, in K-12, he said, government money is given directly to an institution irrespective of how good it is, and students are forced to attend those schools based on where they live.
“You can be assigned to a bad school in K-12,” Alexander told Judy Woodruff, senior correspondent and co-anchor at PBS NewsHour during the Headline Interview portion of the event. “And we shouldn’t permit that.”
In a separate interview with Woodruff, current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan criticized American education for moving “far too slow” when it comes to adapting to new modalities made possible by technology.
“We’ve spent billions of dollars each year on textbooks,” Duncan said. “I think we should be moving a lot less textbooks,” he said, and relying on digital textbooks instead.
Duncan defended the Obama administration’s support for charter schools and dismissed as off-based the notion that public money spent on charter schools was being done at the expense of money that could have been spent on improving regular public schools.
“We have to do both,” Duncan said, noting that $4 billion had been directed at helping the bottom 5 percent of America’s schools to turn around.
The overwhelming amount of resources “always go to public schools,” Duncan said.
But, he added, the nation also needs more great schools, whether public or charter, and government should create options for those who are underserved.
“It’s never either or,” Duncan said.
Duncan also said he supported paying teachers more in line with what higher paid professionals make.
“I think teachers are dramatically underpaid,” Duncan said. “No one goes into teaching to get rich, but you shouldn’t have to take a vow of poverty, either.”
Duncan said he was impressed with how higher-performing countries, such as Singapore and Finland, only allow the top 10 percent of teaching candidates to teach, and he said American should adopt much more rigorous training for its teachers and build better “career ladders” within the profession to keep good talent.
“We can get this done if we’re open to transformational change,” Duncan said.
Other speakers included Amy Rosen, president and CEO of Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, who called for public schools to do more to foster an entrepreneurial mindset among students.
“Why is it that we’re not talking to younger children about this entrepreneurial mindset?” Rosen said, arguing that the United States was “built on the backs of small business.”
Michael Greenstone, director of The Hamilton Project, said too many students are in the dark when it comes to how much college actually costs over four years and what a particular university’s track record is in terms of job placement rates for its graduates.
“Choosing college is the biggest investment people will make,” Greenstone said. “In general, people have no idea what the graduation rate is, what salaries (graduates) earn, loan and repayment rates. It’s incredible that we’re asking people to make these incredibly expensive choices, choosing in the darkness.”
Kaya Henderson, chancellor of D.C. public schools, said one of the biggest challenges in getting students prepared for college is changing the way schools teach the same way the banking industry has changed the way it does banking.
Though technology has evolved, she said, education hasn’t kept pace and “we still do schools the way we previously did schools,” in a way that’s “unaligned” with preparedness for college.
“Education has been done the same way for hundreds of years,” Henderson said. “It’s a cultural shift to say to educators: There’s no more drop kids off at the door when you’re 6, and we’ll send them out at 18 and have a good product.”
Mastery of subject is more important than how much seat time a student has in a particular class, Henderson said.
That’s the same philosophy that higher education should embrace, too, said Robert Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University, an online university where particular job-focused competencies are what lead to degrees, not credit hours.
“We know that students come to higher education knowing different things,” Mendenhall said. “Yet we have a higher education system that says everyone needs to take 120 credit hours.”