A little over a year ago, I left my post as vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education to become chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin-Extension, a job I was attracted to because of the strong access, attainment and innovation values that are at the core of these institutions.
For example, UW-Extension is the home to the UW Flexible Option Program, and the UW Colleges offer their entire two-year liberal arts transfer curriculum in a competency-based format.
Having spent the past year overseeing one of the first and most visible direct-assessment competency-based programs in the country -- and the only one within a major public university -- I’ve had a number of aha moments that could only come from hands-on involvement in the real day-to-day work that makes these programs an exciting new option for institutions and their students.
However, developing a competency-based program, especially of the direct-assessment variety (no classes, per se), is not easy. Everything is new: identifying and describing competencies; developing meaningful assessments; gaining accreditation and federal approval (which we did); recruiting faculty and staff to participate; developing workarounds to student information systems while we develop new ones to support these programs; and explaining the concept again and again to the public, business and government leaders, and prospective students. Add to that the complexity that partnerships bring since, in our case, our current programs are offered in collaboration with other University of Wisconsin institutions.
We relish our role as pioneers because we believe we can make a dent in the need for postsecondary attainment in our state -- and beyond. But to make competency-based programs work, you need to find your allies -- people who can tolerate ambiguity at times and many roadblocks along the way. You need to establish the means to reward them financially and in other ways, because forging new territory takes enormous time, energy and commitment.
Though we in higher education have been focused on student learning outcomes in broad terms for decades, faculty who developed our UW Flexible Option programs embraced the tasks of delineating competencies on a far more granular basis than they had done before. They also took on the enormous job of creating meaningful authentic assessments, not simply multiple-choice exams, and guiding our academic success coaches, who in turn guide our students.
Our first programs were in professionally oriented fields like health care and information technology that naturally lend themselves to a competency-based approach. I am particularly impressed with the faculty within the UW Colleges (the 13 high-access two-year transfer institutions that are the on-ramp to the UW System), who created a direct assessment version of the first two years of liberal arts general education, providing a strong rebuttal to those who say the liberal arts cannot be taught in a competency-based format.
I know that any time faculty take a close look at the curriculum, courses get better. I have heard from our faculty that they believe their involvement in designing UW Flexible Option programs improved their classroom teaching. Surfacing competencies and shifting to a mastery model, where one competency must be mastered at a particular level before moving on to the next, is finding its way to various degrees within our traditional programs.
A recent interview-based briefing by the Education Advisory Board highlighted the difficulty some students and employers have understanding the direct-assessment competency-based model. I agree with the EAB finding that emphasizing flexibility in student recruitment, rather than using the term “competency based,” is more effective.
I disagree with the EAB recommendation that the competency-based format is best suited to and should focus on short postgraduate degrees and programs. While it is true that the most experienced students will tend to adapt to the format more quickly and will persist to completion, it would be a shame if we did not deploy this effective and flexible teaching model to address the critical need for postsecondary attainment at the associate and bachelor's degree level. Our experience with UW Flexible Option gives us great optimism that competency-based education is here to stay and through this modality, we will make a difference.
The general media often describe competency-based education as a “shortcut” to a degree. For example, The Atlantic titled its September 2015 article about Western Governors University, “The Online College That Credits Life Experience.” A recent survey by Public Agenda indicated that nearly 600 colleges are creating competency-based credentials. I worry somewhat that all these new programs may try to take shortcuts in program design, will shortchange students and sully the reputation of CBE.
We have an advantage because regular UW faculty are directly involved in program design. Students earn a standard degree from a University of Wisconsin campus and understand these credentials have and are perceived as having great value.
The earliest graduates who took part in UW Flexible Option’s bachelor’s degree completion programs finished their degrees quickly, in less than two years. These nontraditional working students with some college experience but no degree were able to avoid one of the greatest barriers to degree completion in this student population -- obtaining academic credit for courses completed elsewhere. Other forms of credit for prior learning (transcripted credit and portfolios) have not been shown to break down barriers significantly for nontraditional students, the majority of whom will have attended three different institutions before finally earning a degree.
Direct assessment allows students to leapfrog the current credit transfer miasma by completing assessments designed by faculty, thus proving what they already know or can do. This is not “credit for life experience,” but recognition of university-level work that was accomplished elsewhere, whether in a formal class at another institution or in the workplace. It doesn’t matter where, when or how the learning took place. As long as the student can demonstrate it, he or she gets credit for it along the pathway to completing the program.
Another positive consequence of direct assessment program design is greater use of faculty-curated open educational resources that students can access as they learn new material and prepare for assessments. Faculty who design for us may have been exposed to the OER world for the first time, realizing the wealth of quality materials available for free and perhaps integrating more OER into classroom-based programs. Greater use of OER is especially important for institutions that have a high-access mission and a focus on affordability, such as ours.
Direct-assessment competency-based programs are not for everyone. A younger, first-time, first-generation student needs more face-to-face interaction and support. Students enrolled in competency-based programs should have a smooth pathway to transfer into a traditional online or classroom-based program if they find that the format is not the best choice for them.
Our need for greater postsecondary attainment -- and the highly diverse nature of students in the U.S. -- calls for multiple pathways to a degree, including flexible means for meeting the needs of older, experienced, working students and getting them to the finish line.
Cathy Sandeen is chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and the University of Wisconsin-Extension.
I’ve recently completed a stint on the English department hiring committee of my home institution, the U.S. Naval Academy. I’ve read hundreds of written applications for positions in our undergraduate institution, and over the 29 years I’ve taught there I’ve seen dozens of those invited to campus to present themselves and what they do.
What we do at Annapolis is a little different than at many undergraduate schools -- a combination of community college with more esoteric studies. We do offer an English major and honors major, but we still primarily exist to teach the required two-semester English writing-and-literature introduction to freshmen, who by and large are bad writers. (Our average verbal SAT scores, for those who still think in these terms, are about 630, with many in the 500s and even 400s.) What we do at that level is basic. Many freshmen (called “plebes” at Annapolis) assure me that “you can say anything you want about a poem” and have never heard of iambic pentameter. They write papers with no clear thesis and full of mistakes ranging from sentence fragments to utterly misused words to verbs that don’t agree with subjects and modifiers so misplaced the reader gets the opposite information of what was intended.
It sounds depressing, but welcome to reality. Still, we are hiring for tenure-track jobs, and all but a very few hires do subsequently get tenure. So our situation is attractive in today’s beyond-abysmal job market -- not to mention the fact that our campus is pretty and our students at least overtly respectful and snappily, if uniformly (get it? -- it’s military!), dressed.
All our candidates write letters and send CVs and writing samples, and a tiny fraction of these arrive to give us presentations that always highlight and explain their “research” in graduate school (or beyond for those out for a few years). This is almost always on the pattern of “Concept X borrowed from theory Y is applied to works A, B and C that have something in common: time, author, country/group of origin, leading to this result: Z.”
Some are more clever than others; the most aha-inducing of them pull an unexpected rabbit out of a hat. These works show that certain a widely held view is in fact untenable, with the clear subtext of: come to my class and read these works the way I teach them to be led inexorably to this conclusion, too. Well, I always think, that kind of limits the people who will see the world that way, doesn’t it?
These applications and presentations are the more predictable in that the concept X that is applied to A, B and C is chosen from the same short list of thinkers who have dominated English graduate programs for the last 70 years (in case you need to ask: anti-imperialistic, anti-realistic and anti-phallocratic). It’s astonishing to me that the thinkers who were riding high when I first entered this business in the ’70s still hold a death grip on young minds. In all that time, we haven’t gotten beyond the magical pairing of Derrida, who taught us that the world was really a written text taught in a classroom (no prize for saying why this is so attractive to literature professors) and Foucault, who gave marginalized groups a vocabulary for showing how texts had wrought their marginalization (and so how attacks on these texts could, apparently, reverse that situation). It’s all about texts. You are freed by my class: read my dissertation, hire me!
Perhaps it’s my Fulbright time at the Free University of what was then West Berlin that taught me to be suspicious -- from my journeys over the wall to East Berlin and by following its literary life -- of the necessity of giving a sheen of legitimation to everything by quoting from the short list of what the Party viewed as approved thinkers. There in East Germany, it was Marx, Engels and Lenin. Now it’s the cargo cult of Derrida and Foucault, the bringers of the gospel having long since departed.
The big question in hiring somebody right out of graduate school is thus always: Can this person come out of the graduate school bubble enough to deal with teenagers who have never read serious literature and don’t particularly want to? Can she deal with the fact that nobody she’s talking to (except the three people who come to listen to her paper at the Modern Language Association conference) has ever even heard of the people who seemed so important to her for so long?
Some Ph.D.s can, some can’t. Since, to balance the books, research universities rely on graduate assistants teaching undergraduates (as well as on the gypsy scholars post-Ph.D. that most of these graduate students will become), many are, in fact, aware that there is a world of the uninitiated out there and they have to be able to talk to them, too. But to a person, they let loose in their letters and presentations for jobs, talking -- they seem to believe -- to the one set of people who will understand the importance of their “research.” Advice from the MLA often suggests they should, after all.
The word is borrowed from science, as indeed is the pretense of adding to a store of knowledge; this is the basis of their conviction that we should hire someone who has wandered in realms of gold. Their dissertation wasn’t just an intellectual exercise to see if they could stand the slog, it was research adding to knowledge. Of course this is nonsense. What we do in literature graduate programs isn’t research and the result isn’t knowledge.
The nature of real (scientific) research is that it’s reproducible. Other people can run the same combinations and get the same results. And the idea of research assumes that they would want to, because doing so answers a generally shared question. What we’ve found is a fact about the objective world that all are, or should be, interested in.
The point of writing a literature Ph.D. dissertation, however, is to combine idea with example so as to reach a conclusion nobody has ever gotten before and that nobody will ever get again. That’s because followers’ “research” will be on new examples or with other ideas chosen from the short list of party-approved thinkers. (And when they’re out of favor, they’re out! Remember William Empson? The craze for Wallace Stevens?) Nobody tries to apply the same thinkers to the same texts to see if we get the same results. That’s because you showed your originality by achieving surprising results. Now it’s the turn of the new gal to show her originality. Fireworks: one after the other. Pretty, sure.
The notion of research in literary studies is an untenable combination of faith in Romantic genius with a scientific vocabulary. Besides, one of the clever tenets of the party line in almost all English graduate schools is that there is in fact no such thing as objectivity. Nietzsche and then Derrida are supposed to have slain that dragon for all time, and Foucault is held to have shown that facts are a whip the dominant power uses to keep the marginalized in their place. So how is what English Ph.D. students do anything other than simply keeping themselves amused and their universities in low-cost undergraduate teachers?
It’s no wonder then that English graduate programs, lacking any other basis, hold their own meta paraphernalia to be the basis of objectivity. If you write an article that appears in the MLA listings, you are real and have added to the store of knowledge. The paradigm of the humanities is the ultimate imperialism. Esse est percipi (by us), as Bishop Berkeley would have said.We think of ourselves as creators: we have caused things to exist by writing about them for a journal that is indexed. What if nobody reads it? Students are going to work for McKinsey and so by definition don’t care? We rarely ask this question. If those who do merely pat us on the back for our “brilliant insight” or “trenchant analysis”? What is this but a thumbs-up like on Facebook?
Showing what happens when I alone apply arbitrarily chosen X to arbitrarily chosen A, B and C is not research. I grant it’s facts, as a journal of my moods would be facts. But who cares? It doesn’t prove anything. My lawn has many blades of grass; I have only the most cursory knowledge of it. I could study it all; I could devote a lifetime to it. Why not? Just don’t ask others to care.
Let’s say that one day your Ph.D. adviser makes the revolting discovery that poetry in Borneo before 1850 is an “undertheorized” neglected field. Go for it, she says to the hungry graduate student. To me the lawn looks like a lawn, spotty here, lush there. I have no knowledge of which blades go in what direction, if there are patterns, if square inch 22B differs from 22A, or anything. My ignorance, indeed our ignorance, of the specifics of my lawn is abysmal. This is clearly begging for research. And poetry in Borneo before 1850 is also the subject of a dissertation. But only from a specific theoretical viewpoint! Which the candidate then presents to us in Annapolis.
Nobody will ever reproduce this: first, they don’t care about my lawn, and the point of focusing on poetry in Borneo in 1850 from this one point of view was that others weren’t doing so. Second, the larger issue applicable to others isn’t clear, and third, because the lawn changes and the viewer is a particular one, the research can’t be reproduced. Nobody will ever check the results of either my studies on my lawn or Bornean poetry because they were my personal views of a manifold that nobody else cares about -- one with no connection to the world except the fact that this grass too exists, or that we can place Borneo on an objective time/space grid.
We in the humanities have an erroneous view of science if we believe that what we do is scientific. Most fundamentally of all, nobody cares. Not true in science. Science may be objective, but it too has the subjective basis that others have to care. Certain projects get funded for specific reasons because they seem useful, now or later. There is just too much knowledge in the world to go after it all.
There has to be a reason for scientific investigation -- and for research in the humanities too. It’s high time we started looking for the reasons. And they have to go beyond getting us a Ph.D., a job or tenure. Nobody but us cares about that, just as nobody but me cares about my lawn or what I say about the blades of grass that constitute it.
Remember that when you apply for a job: nobody but you (OK, never say nobody) cares about your research. The question is, can you deal with sleepy students? Do you know what the point is of dragging them through Shakespeare or Toni Morrison? The skill set required for enlivening a classroom is something else entirely. You have to know why you bother. And they don’t teach that in graduate schools.
Bruce Fleming has taught English at the U.S. Naval Academy since 1987. His numerous books and shorter pieces are listed at www.brucefleming.net.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal on Tuesday vetoed a bill that would have legalized firearms at all public colleges and universities in the state, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. “If the intent of [the bill] is to increase safety of students on college campuses, it is highly questionable that such would be the result,” Deal said in a veto notice published along with an executive order asking the state higher education system to submit a report on campus security measures by the end of the summer.
The vetoed campus-carry bill would have prohibited guns in dormitories, athletic events and fraternity and sorority houses but allowed them everywhere else, including classrooms. The National Rifle Association immediately said it disagreed with the governor’s decision, according to the Journal-Constitution.
Inside Higher Ed is pleased to release today “Innovation in Teaching,” our latest print-on-demand compilation of articles. This compilation is free, and you may download a copy here. And you may sign up here for a free webinar on Tuesday, May 24, at 2 p.m. Eastern about the themes of the booklet.
Andrew Hacker’s The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions simply continues to promote the misguided path he got on several years ago, and it’s difficult to see how it could lead us anywhere productive. Hacker started the business of attacking school mathematics in a New York Times op-ed where he argued, in sync with gimmicky T-shirts claiming the same, that algebra was unnecessary, or perhaps even detrimental to our future. In a national scene where mathphobia is rampant and most people’s memories of school mathematics remain unpleasant at best, he struck a chord. Then, of course, come book contracts and even more adulation.
Thoughtful people have already responded authoritatively to the various errors in Hacker’s argument -- see here for another scathing review. A short and quick reply is here. For this audience of college and university educators, some of whom might be tempted by Hacker’s bravado and wonder about implications for higher education, I’d like to also point out that Hacker seems to forget why we educate our young. Even if as students years ago we may have had difficulty in certain subjects, as parents we want to ensure that our children go beyond what we ourselves have achieved. We expect that what they learn will be beneficial to their growth and future opportunities. We also hope that they will gain certain personal characteristics that, together with their knowledge and skills, will help them build a better future for our society and the world.
The Western tradition starts this conversation in ancient Greece with Socrates arguing that virtue is central to the education of the young. Aristotle teaches us that the ultimate goal of education should be happiness -- the durable contentment of a creative and intellectual life. St. Augustine shows us that we should not depend on teachers to teach us everything, that there is much to be learned from the internal wisdom of the heart, which itself is cultivated by our moral compass. Rousseau argues that children need to be exposed to the world as they grow to learn to live within the society to which they belong. Locke and Mill teach us that education should be well-rounded, cultivating an intellectually capable mind aware of the complexities of the world.
Mathematics educators agree. We know that in mathematics, as in any other knowledge system that builds on itself, the procedures that work so well are only part of the package. That in the center is the student, but always situated in the midst of a society that is constantly evolving. That students learn best when encouraged and supported by knowledgeable teachers who help them explore and understand underlying concepts. That intellectual stimulation and growth are possible and enjoyable for all children. That in our classrooms, we can help students sharpen their ability to persist in the face of apparent failure. That today’s students need to learn to tackle complex and ill-defined problems requiring both individual and collaborative effort.
And to these ends, we have been working to improve what we do. Mathematics teachers, mathematics education researchers and mathematicians are working together in classrooms, in math circles, in conferences and workshops, in curricular reform efforts and in policy discussions. We are working to create meaningful mathematical experiences for students to encourage critical thinking, foster creative reasoning and enhance problem-solving abilities. (See here and here for two collections of mathematics lesson plans and modules that were developed by or in collaboration with researchers. See here for a college-level initiative for revamping the mathematics curriculum.)
We are working to engender the sense of wonder and accomplishment that mathematics -- when done right -- naturally inspires. We are working to develop and support a coherent set of curricular standards that will help tomorrow’s adults live up to the expectations of this nation from its children. We are working to discover and share with parents, teachers and educators what works well in the classroom even if it is not typical, and what doesn’t work even if it “just makes sense” and “it’s the way I learned things.” (How many people believe that the point of multiplication tables is to torture students till they can recite them at the speed of light? Linda Gojak, past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, is one among many educators speaking out about fluency in mathematics and how it is no longer acceptable to equate it with “fast and accurate.”)
Admittedly, we mathematics instructors don’t always help our own cause. People remember how their middle school math teacher made them feel, and I don’t need to tell you that it’s generally not a good memory. (I was lucky -- mine made me feel like there wasn’t a problem I couldn’t solve if I put in the time and effort.) But dropping mathematics from the required K-12 curriculum would be a perfect example of the cliché of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. (While I myself have argued elsewhere that we might just do that, my tongue was decidedly set in my cheek, and my concern was the essence of what is lost in most mainstream experiences of school mathematics. Now, can I get a book contract, too?)
The current state of mathematics education in the United States is certainly not ideal. Yet the fact is that teachers, parents, mathematicians, mathematics education researchers and policy makers are working on it. Furthermore, this is definitely a problem worth working on. It is tough, it is messy and there are many nuances to the issue and many implications to any avenue of resolution.
Hacker writes of high school graduates unable to perform simple numeracy tasks. I’d venture to guess that more than a handful of high school grads are also incapable of understanding IRS publications, may occasionally be unable to interpret correctly the user manuals of their DVD players and can’t foresee all repercussions of a ballot measure they are willing to vote for or against. But we do not blame all of these insufficiencies on K-12 English teachers. Nor do we suggest replacing English courses with courses on reading ballot measures or user manuals. What do we do? We demand that English Language Arts curricula be developed that are more sensitive to the range of literacy demands of our daily lives.
Hacker gets it right at least in one instance; quantitative literacy is crucial in today’s society. And it should be one of the essential outcomes we expect from our education system, as I argueelsewhere. However, the role of mathematics in our education system goes beyond quantitative literacy. (And conversely, quantitative literacy as a goal itself should not be limited to the mathematics classroom. Most science and social studies classrooms offer excellent contexts for quantitative literacy.)
During this election year, I offer you another analogy. Today there are many, including some reading this, who worry that the American democratic machine is not producing the results they would like. So shall we give up on democracy? I’d like to believe that the overwhelming majority would agree with me when I say no. Instead, we continue working to improve our system; we continue to fight for broader access; we continue to work to further political and social justice.
Mathematics education is perhaps not on the same level of importance and urgency, but the solutions are the same. We must work to improve the system. We must fight for broader access. And we must work to further political and social justice.
Today mathematics acts as a gateway (or a gatekeeper, depending on your perspective) in terms of who has access to the lucrative STEM jobs that many aspire to. Students who learn mathematics as far as their school contexts allow have many more opportunities open to them when they graduate from high school. Knowing the fundamental building blocks of mathematics today leads well-prepared high school graduates to a range of rigorous paths of college-level study in many disciplines. And those are also the students who will become the adults who will create the new mathematical, statistical and computational tools we will need in the future.
What would happen if we dropped mathematics? Which schools and school districts would not be offering those “now optional” advanced mathematics courses? Which students would be deprived of the opportunity to learn, and, can I suggest, find meaning, confidence and opportunity through advanced mathematics? And which students would be able to move forward with those STEM careers that many parents dream of?
People can succeed without mathematics in their lives. You can also choose to never try sushi, to vacation only within the continental United States despite being able to afford international travel, to never wear flip-flops or learn to ride a bike, and still lead a happy and productive life. But nobody’s job prospects are affected by their decision to avoid sushi (unless you want to be a sushi chef, which would be odd if you didn’t like sushi to start with). And having the choice to decline comes out of privilege. Can this nation afford to make such a decision for all its children? When people choose to drop mathematics later in their academic paths, we can say they made a decision knowing their options and the opportunities they are letting go. But do we want to make these decisions ahead of time for all students?
The American education system differs from many of the nations that are touted as high performers. In most of those countries, students are channeled into various tracks early on. This nation does not regiment its schoolchildren, because we believe that all children have potential and that they can make choices once they are old enough to know what is out there.
And the American education system is still one of the best in the world. I know the international test scores and rankings, but I also know to read the fine print. Therein you learn that once you restrict to schools where less than 50 percent of the class is in the free lunch program, the performance of students is in par with those high-performing nations. The schools that are “failing” are the ones that have 75 percent or more of their students in free lunch programs. So our schools are not failing our students; it is our society that is failing them. As most education researchers (and teachers in classrooms across the nation) will agree, the problem of public education in the United States is one of poverty. And that problem is not going to get solved by dropping the mathematics requirement in the K-12 curriculum.
In fact mathematics can help. Here is where Plato’s virtue and St. Augustine’s moral compass come back into school mathematics. Brazilian mathematician Ubiratan D’Ambrosio has been telling us for years that it is mathematics that will help our children solve the varied problems of today and tomorrow -- if we can teach them to see the inherent mathematics involved. Mathematics, historian Judith Grabiner points out, has evolved precisely to describe social, environmental and political, as well as industrial and scientific, problems that a society happens to confront. And it remains, to this day, our most successful method to seek out creative and productive solutions for them. (Readers perplexed by my inclusion of social, environmental and political problems above might like to google “mathematics for social justice” or “mathematics of sustainability.”)
I write this with the hope that some good may come out of Hacker’s simplistic recommendations. Students reciting their multiplication tables as fast as a bullet train are not the desired outcome of mathematics education. We want students to understand the power and limitations of the mathematics they are learning. We want students to move flexibly from one specific model of a situation to another. We want students to be able to find unexpected and novel solutions to problems that are ever-growing in their complexity.
Mathematics is where we can train young minds to do all these things. Mathematics is where we can teach that critical ability to reason analytically. Mathematics is also where we can encourage creative exploration of the multitude of options a problem solver invariably has. As college and university educators, these are points we must not forget when the next cycle of general education debates begins to shake things up on our campuses.
Gizem Karaali is an associate professor of mathematics at Pomona College, editor of the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, associate editor of Mathematical Intelligencer and associate editor of Numeracy. Follow her on Twitter @GizemKaraali_.
Online master's program in computer science -- a much-watched attempt to apply the MOOC model to for-credit programs -- may not be the big revenue generator the institute projected it would be, but administrators deem it a success and plan to expand it.