My Reaction to Washington Governor Chris Gregoire’s Education Reform Proposal

My Reaction to Washington Governor Chris Gregoire’s Education Reform Proposal

Below are a series of responses to the 2011 policy brief from Washington Governor Chris Gregoire titled ACCELERATING THE LEARNING CURVE BY BUILDING A STUDENT-CENTERED EDUCATION SYSTEM. You can find the text of the brief here.

Let me start off with the positive comments.

First, I like the idea of consolidating the education system into a single organization. I find that the structure of education management within the State of Washington increases the friction toward progress and reinforces the silos that are early childhood learning, K-12, community colleges and other higher education institutions. What the recommendation doesn’t say about this is that we need to not only reform management, but that we need to reform the charter of the management organization.

I would suggest that in addition to the operational and functional roles, that the Governor also consider the inclusion of a life-long learning role, such as a Washington State Chief Learning Officer, charged with integrating learning across the functional silos, for students, for faculty and for administration and leaders.

I like the idea of earning college credit or starting apprenticeship programs in high school. Because a group of students was born in the same year does not mean that they are all ready for the same experiences. If some want to move beyond the constraints of high school, we should let them. We should also though, question the definition of high school if we are passing those students on to other institutions. Rather than thinking about this as an either/or, perhaps we need to consider moving more meaningful experiences onto high school campuses so that the social experience and support system can continue for the student. A particular academic choice does not imply a social choice. There is great value in the high school social experience that student miss when moved off-campus. For life-long learners, safe, supportive environments are as important as intellectual capacity—social intelligence is not always equal to academic achievement potential.

I like the Washington Pledge Scholarship Program in principal, but we should also be looking to re-inventing education so that the experience is generally less expensive. Public education has the ability to transform itself through practice, technology and a rethinking of space that would deliver knowledge transfer and knowledge navigation skills at a fraction of its current cost. Other innovative ideas, like very local campus outreach (think strip malls) could bring learning experiences closer to the service communities, both in terms of general access as well as for integration with K-12. Education remains too “place-centric” and not as “learning experience” focused. What we should do is bring learning experiences to lower income communities, not always lift their children out. Education in situ has a transformative effect well beyond the individual student, including opportunities for parental engagement, learning modeling and interaction, and recruiting with younger students—all of which can help transform the economic environment of the community over time.

Here are my observations and suggestions for the items that that require improvement in approach or concept:

Focus on students and student learning. This focus is narrow and reads like traditional knowledge transfer with an emphasis on memorization rather than engagement. It is not enough to say students without defining the constituency. In this time of rapid social and technological change, we need life-long learning to be part of the State’s vision (in other words, this statement needs to embrace educators and administrators, not just “students”). We need to move beyond the concept of gates, of which some higher education degree is the ultimate exit gate from the system. We need to focus on learning, adapting our competencies and developing emergent fields of knowledge. That is a much broader and more impactful focus than students and learning.

Promote coordinated, innovative, flexible student-center services. All good words, but if the assumptions of the framework, and the measures are wrong, the services that are promoted won’t meet the goals of the system or the learners. What is lacking in this proposal is an innovative framework for approaching learning in the State. There is language and approach, but most of it comes from industrial age thinking, not knowledge economy thinking, so I worry that the services will be things like helping students pass AP tests, not service that help them figure out how to integrate learning into their lives for life-long achievement.

Eliminate duplication and provide more efficient administration. Hard to argue with, even though it is clearly an industrial age goal. I would prefer that it read something like: create a lean, high performance administrative layer that protects educators and learner empowerment and innovation while encouraging local accountability. Let’s not just cut without saying what the goal is. Efficient needs a modifier. This alternative phrase suggests cost cutting by having the administration get out of the way of the learning process, and protect people who want to try new things and create new learning experiences. The original statement also suggests risk aversion, which in this age of change, we want to encourage so we learn from trying rather than dismissing on theory.

Provides clear lines of authority and responsibility to increase accountability. Is this a top-down pyramid or an inverse one? Are educators to be asked to hold administration accountable for being in their way and obstructing innovation and engagement, or are the educators to be monitored to adhere to out-dated, industrial age metrics.

Provide a “one-stop education shop” for the public. A cute little turn of phrase, but what I think we really need is an empowered structure that pushes authority to the local schools so that the local schools meet the needs of their local constituency, not some State or National idea of success. The local schools will certainly need to understand what is considered success, but they should also be active participates in defining success by feeding local needs up to State and National agencies. The local school is the face of education, not Olympia. We need to empower education, and if we are moving toward a world where educators are knowledge guides rather than knowledge transmitters, the structural side of management should reflect that model as well.

Other issues with the report.

No discussion of student engagement. Let’s look at the discussion of senior workload and post-secondary academic work. We want students prepared for their life journey, as the report states, and the US government keeps talking about “youth unemployment—what neither of these do is recognize that students may want to or need to work, and that the senior year in high school would increase in value if included academic credit for work readiness. We do not teach students in high school about the workplace. Career counselors are more about competencies and demonstrated interest alignment than preparation. We don’t talk about discrimination, workplace politics, negotiating skills, reading salary surveys, talking to a manager or any of those things. We should. Not only might we keep working students more engaged in other studies, we will help them be better prepared for their “life journey.” This is hinted at in the launch year goals for 12th grade, but I think the approach needs to be well designed prior to implementation, and proper metrics put in place to ensure a positive, sustainable outcome.

Targets for awarding more bachelor degrees. I am not convinced that degrees are the answer. We should be considering life-long engagement where the relationship with a learner is judged, not just their pass through a gate. Strong companies measure value based on life-long value of a customer. Education should consider this. Education is the only business with the explicit goal of discarding their customer once they have reached a goal (Foundations and alumni associations are an exception, but in academia there aren’t good models for ongoing engagement—unless you count academic protégés moving into higher level degrees for research or university teaching— and we don’t measure life-long learning relationships holistically across the system, or across a learner’s experience). So with this, the goal setting around baccalaureate completion is an industrial age response, not a knowledge economy one.

Require the universities to develop plans with their own innovative ideas to meet goals to education Washington’s students and reduce costs on campuses. Wow. Require, not empower? What about the costs being driven into institutions by the design, expectations and constraints of the system? Do the universities also get to suggest what the state should do to get out of their way?

All students will enter kindergarten prepared for success in school and life. Again, Wow. I hope this is a typo that really means, what Washington Learns Suggested, which was:

  • Ensure all children thrive early in life and are prepared to enter school.
  • Ensure all students master the skills they need to participate thoughtfully and productively in their work and their communities.

Nationally Competing in Mathematics and Science. Do we really want to force learners to study things that don’t interest them? Shouldn’t we be spending time making science and math relevant to learners so they see the value in high achievement? And if a student doesn’t like science or math, what do we do with them? Are they second class learners because they aren’t stepping up to what the STATE sees as a competitive goal for national continuity? Seems a bit totalitarian to me. I think students should be able to explore opportunities, and as happens in the free markets, those ideas should compete with each other. If science and math are losing the competition, let’s look at the reasons for that and repair the root causes with appropriate transformations, new economic models, etc. — not with mandates.

All students will achieve high academic standards. Let’s make sure we set these standards in ways that are meaningful to, and achievable by, the learning community. We need to move beyond the completion and achievement measures today and define what “high academic standards” are relevant to 21st Century learners, employers and nations.

All students will graduate able to succeed…Important to reiterate not just the high level areas of success in college, careers and bachelor’s degrees, but we need to define pathways to success and interim metrics that move beyond checklist through gates to a real understanding of what it means to achieve success.

I appreciate you getting all the way down here. Policy analysis can’t be done in a terse way, which is part of the issue with this document. I know there is more meat beneath this policy statement, but in summarizing, the writers reveal their real perspectives and intellectual biases, which is what I challenge above. I look forward to your feedback.

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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