Teachers unions aren’t to blame

Once hostile to teachers’ unions, Education Realist now thinks unions are blamed unfairly for many education problems. She starts with teachers’ cognitive ability.

. . .  high school teachers have always been pretty smart, and drawn from the top half of the college grad pool. . . .  testing and knowledge standards for elementary teachers was once low, is now much higher and more than reasonable since the states dramatically increased the credentialing test difficulty as part of their adherence to NCLB.

However, “this dramatic increase did not result in either improved outcomes or evidence that new teachers who qualified with tougher tests were superior to teachers who didn’t,” she writes. “The research at best shows that smarter teachers give a teeny tiny boost to outcomes.”

States — not unions — set knowledge requirements for teacher credentialing, she writes. They struggle with disparate impact. “Set credentialing standards high, and you lose your black and Hispanic teachers.”

Reformers “unions promote pay scales that give all teachers the same raise, regardless of quality” and oppose performance pay.

Okay. So the very notion of a union is antithetical to getting competitive, performance-driven people who want rewards for their hard work.

But “there’s no point to performance pay if the objectives are delusions, she argues. If competitive, high-performance people became teachers, they’d be unable to raise outcomes and they’d quit.

The “big Kahuna of teacher union beefs” is that it’s hard to fire bad teachers.

If government unions ceased to exist tomorrow, teachers would still have Loudermill, the relatively recent Supreme Court decision that says that employment is a property right, and states can’t deprive their employees of property rights without due process. And most states have tenure written into their laws, independent of union contracts. So the changes necessary to undo teacher rights are far more than just dumping unions.

Oregon dropped tenure in favor of renewable two-year teaching contracts, but nothing changed. Oregon is below average in teacher dismissal rates, reports the Center for American Progress. While some states without tenure laws have high dismissal rates (Alabama, Alaska), others have low ones (Mississippi, Texas). The “bulk of the apparently onerous dismissal laws are encoded in state law, not in union contracts.

Teacher unions to blame for big pensions and “a compensation structure that repels competitive, performance-driven workers,” Education Realist concedes. However, “many of the teacher protections and all of the standards lie at the state level, entirely out of the union’s purview.”

Of course, teachers’ unions have a great deal of influence on state law.

College for free in 10 years?

Will college be free in 10 years? Time looks at a future in which a four-year residential college is a luxury item for the few, while most learners pursue higher education online.

As learning goes online, most universities “will be in the accreditation business,” predicts author and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa.

(Universities) will monitor and sanction coursework; teachers will become mentors and guides, not deliver lectures and administer tests. This model has the potential to dramatically cut the cost of an education and virtually eliminate the need to borrow for one, he says.

Private companies are getting into skills assessment, writes Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed. “The big enchilada of potential disruptions to higher education is if employers go outside of the academy to size up job seekers.”

Smarterer, a Boston-based start-up “offers 800 free online tests for people to prove their chops in areas ranging from C++ programming to speaking English for business or understanding Gothic architecture.”

Jennifer Fremont-Smith, Smarterer’s CEO, describes the company as a “third-party, super powerful assessment and credentialing tool.” Its goal is not to replace the college degree, which Fremont-Smith acknowledges is currently the gold standard of credentials, but to give employers an additional way to sort through job applicants.

More than 400 employers have used the service to help evaluate job candidates’ skills, she says.

Rival companies like Skills.to and Degreed attempt to assess skills and learning. And the ACT’s National Career Readiness Certificate measures employability with tests on applied mathematics, locating information and reading for information. The certificate is geared for entry-level jobs, even for applicants who lack a college credential.

On the other side of the spectrum, Bloomberg in 2010 introduced an assessment aimed at students who want to bulk up their C.V.s to land jobs in finance. The test covers 11 fairly narrow categories, like investment banking and analyzing financial statements.

Mozilla’s Open Badges project lets people “issue, earn or display badges that display their earners’ skills or achievements,” writes Fain. But digital badges aren’t backed by independent testing, so they’re likely to lack credibility.

Udacious

Sebastian Thrun, who drew 160,000 students to his free, online artificial intelligence course, is quitting Stanford University to create a free online university called Udacity.

There were more students in his course from Lithuania alone than there are students at Stanford altogether, said Thrun in a talk at the DLD Conference in Munich, reports Felix Salmon of Reuters. Of 248 students who earned a perfect score, all were online students.

Thrun was eloquent on the subject of how he realized that he had been running “weeder” classes, designed to be tough and make students fail and make himself, the professor, look good. Going forwards, he said, he wanted to learn from Khan Academy and build courses designed to make as many students as possible succeed — by revisiting classes and tests as many times as necessary until they really master the material.

And I loved as well his story of the physical class at Stanford, which dwindled from 200 students to 30 students because the online course was more intimate and better at teaching than the real-world course on which it was based.

“I can’t teach at Stanford again,” Thrun said. He hopes to enroll 500,000 students for his first Udacity course on how to build a search engine.

It’s too bad Thrun has to leave Stanford to create Udacity, Salmon writes.

Stanford refused to issue a certificate to the 20,000 online students who finished Thrun’s course and a second open computer course, notes NPR. Instead, online students received a letter from the professor indicating their class rank.

“We are still having conversations about that,” says James Plummer, dean of Stanford’s School of Engineering. “I think it will actually be a long time — maybe never — when actual Stanford degrees would be given for fully online work by anyone who wishes to register for the courses.”

By contrast, MIT will offer a credential, for a small fee, to online students who succeed in courses offered by MITx.  “A world-famous university with an unimpeachable reputation” is putting “its brand and credibility behind open-education resources,” writes Kevin Carey.

It’s the great unbundling of the university, writes Alan Jacobs in The Atlantic. Universities used to offer a bundled package of knowledge and credentialing.

People attended university in order to learn stuff that they couldn’t learn elsewhere — because the experts weren’t elsewhere — and to be certified by those experts as having actually learned said stuff. The bundle has been a culturally powerful one.

But now: unbundling. Clearly, many universities have come, or are coming, to the conclusion that their primary product is the credentialing, and that they can give knowledge away either as a public service or as brand consolidation (choose your interpretation according to your level of cynicism).

Can universities continue to control credentialing?

I wrote about digital badges, an attempt to challenge universities’ credentialing monopoly, on the U.S. News site.

Ready to work? Prove it

Ready to work? Prove it. New and retrained workers need a way to prove their skills, argues ACT, which calls for building a national workforce skills credentialing system.  The U.S. has plenty of low-skilled workers and just enough college graduates to fill jobs requiring a four-year degree, concludes a new report. The challenge is to close the “middle-skills gap.”

Also on Community College Spotlight:  As part of President Obama’s Startup America initiative to boost new businesses, community colleges in 10 states are piloting the Virtual Incubation Network to provide online support to small business start-ups.