In 2017, the University of California at Berkeley put a substantial portion of its courses online for free in the form of video and audio lectures. Remember what happened next?
Many of the lectures were not closed-captioned, which prevented some people who were hearing-impaired from being able to listen to them. The U.S. Department of Justice forced the university to take all the material down, on the grounds that if someone, somewhere wouldn’t be able to benefit from it, then no one should be able to benefit from it.
I was reminded of this the other night while listening to a discussion of the Learn Everywhere program on NHPR. Why? Because the guest brought on to oppose the program (a former school superintendent) was making essentially the same argument: since there might be some student, somewhere, who wouldn’t be able to benefit from Learn Everywhere, no students anywhere should be able to benefit from it.
The guest went on to make both of the following arguments against Learn Everywhere (LE):
- LE opportunities will be so bad, the schools wouldn’t approve them.
- LE opportunities will be so good, only privileged students will have access to them.
In addition, many of his arguments required him to display a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the program. In particular, he kept acting as though schools would be sending students to LE opportunities, causing him to worry that the LE providers wouldn’t have the same ‘expertise’ in things like suicide prevention that teachers are required to have.
He didn’t seem to grasp that an LE opportunity is something the kid is doing anyway, on his own. It’s not school, or an extension of school. That’s the point!
But this is also the point: If a kid, on his own initiative, has had an out-of-school experience where he’s mastered an academic subject, how much sense does it make to say that he now has to sit through a semester, or a year, or multiple years of classes on that same subject?
You really have to ask yourself: What would you have to believe about the relationship between schools, and students, and education, in order to think that this would be a reasonable thing to mandate? It boggles the mind.
Fortunately, there is a better way to handle all of this, by directly addressing the issue that lies at the heart of the disagreements: trust.
That is, the program exists in the first place because the Department of Education doesn’t trust school districts to offer credit for the kinds of Extended Learning Opportunities (ELOs) already provided for in statutes and department rules.
And the school districts don’t trust the Department of Education to certify LE providers properly. (Which is kind of ironic, considering that the same Department of Education certifies the schools and the teachers in those districts!)
In particular, the districts seem to be afraid that a kid will be able to have some sub-standard LE experience, learning less than he would at a district school, but still forcing the district to give him credit. This, it is feared, will dilute the value of the diplomas granted by that district. (Which is understandable — if you’re graduating more than 90 percent of your students, and almost half of them are proficient in reading and math, you want to do whatever you can to protect the reputation you’ve worked so hard to build.)
But there’s a simple way to satisfy both the department and the districts: Require districts to let the LE students take exams to show that they’ve learned as much outside their school as they would have learned inside it. If they’re passing the same tests, there can’t be much question about whether they’ve learned the same material.
In essence, you don’t worry about certifying the providers. You certify the kids.
And they must be the same tests! Otherwise it would be easy for districts to game things in order to maintain the status quo (which appears to be their primary mission). They would just give much harder exams to LE students than to the students in their courses. But this possibility can be eliminated with two simple requirements:
- If a school offers credit for a course, it must provide a final exam for the course such that a passing score on the exam results in credit for the course.
- No student can get credit for the course without passing the exam.
The benefits of this approach are considerable.
First, it eliminates the problem of certification entirely. People who want to help kids learn in informal situations can do that, just as they do now. They don’t have to fill out extra paperwork, pay extra fees, or jump through any extra hoops. And the Department of Education is spared the impossible task of coming up with a certification process that will satisfy multiple groups with mutually exclusive goals.
Second, it moves away from the astrological model of education (i.e., where a school knows, based on a student’s date of birth, what that student should be learning on a particular day). In short, if you can pass the final Algebra 2 exam, does it matter whether you’re 8 years old, or 18? Does it matter whether you learned the material sitting in a classroom, or watching videos from The Teaching Company, or working through an online course from a university, or being taught by a relative, or just reading a textbook?
Third, it makes it harder for schools to let kids slide through courses — and ultimately, through graduation — by using things like attendance, homework, and extra credit assignments to replace mastery of the material.
To sum up: (1) The schools get to maintain their ‘high local standards’. (2) The students get to avail themselves of an even wider array of learning experiences than those contemplated by Learn Everywhere. (3) The Department of Education doesn’t have to create or operate a certification process that is guaranteed to be a hairball. (4) Taxpayers are spared the expense of warehousing kids who have to sit through explanations of material they already understand. (5) Schools are able to free up resources that are now wasted on kids who don’t need them, so they can be offered to kids who do. Absolutely everyone wins.
So, can this happen? Is it just too radical to be implemented? Well, note that Ed 306.27(d) already provides that
If a student demonstrates knowledge and skills on a placement pre-test developed by the local school district for a particular course, the student shall receive acknowledgement of achievement of the district competencies contained within the course and shall be allowed to take a more advanced level of the subject or an elective. [Italics mine.]
There are a couple of problems with this. First, it specifies a placement test. For example, if you can show that you can pass a pre-test in Algebra 1, you can go directly to Algebra 2. But you don’t pick up a math credit on the way. And that’s a problem, because it’s the credits, and not the knowledge, that kids need in order to graduate.
(The Commissioner of Education assures me that ‘acknowledgement of achievement’ and ‘credit’ mean the same thing. However, they are used in different ways throughout the Ed 300 rules. If they are synonyms, then the same term should be used everywhere to avoid ambiguity.)
Second, it leaves development of such a test to the discretion of the district. A district doesn’t have to develop any of these tests if it doesn’t want to — effectively killing any incentive for motivated students to try to learn independently, instead of waiting around for their teachers to read their textbooks to them.
But in any case, the idea that a student should be able to take an exam to demonstrate mastery obtained outside of a school environment is nothing new. It’s been around for a while now. We just haven’t been making proper use of it.
At this point, it’s time to reveal what CMU Professor Randy Pausch used to call a ‘head fake’. Note that once you require districts to offer these exams, you don’t really need the Department of Education to do anything about Learn Everywhere, or Extended Learning Opportunities. Kids can learn anywhere, anytime, anyhow, and schools can cleanly separate the function of teaching material from the function of verifying that material has been mastered.
And that’s something that needs to happen if our goal is to end up with students who regard learning all the time, wherever they happen to be, in whatever way works best for them, for the rest of their lives, as something normal and natural — instead of as something so unusual that it can’t happen without the creation of a bureaucratic framework.