Behind the Target: Understanding 60 Percent

Audio interview is with Dewayne Matthews, Lumina’s vice-president for policy and strategy on the 60% attainment rate goal for America.

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Attainment and Skills – New Evidence from OECD

Today, OECD released their Survey of Adult Skills (also called PIACC or Pisa for adults). There is a lot of data – 466 pages worth – but I’ve already come across some interesting and relevant findings. For example, you may recall that in the US, attainment rates for young adults (25-34) are only a little higher than for older adults (55-64), while in Korea attainment has increased dramatically. This study shows young Koreans have the second highest literacy and numeracy levels in the world, while their older adults are the third worst. In other words, increased attainment reflects a real improvement in skills. But we have a big problem. As the report puts it, “American 55-65 year-olds perform around the average, but young Americans rank the lowest among their peers in the 24 countries surveyed.” This proves that as the US falls behind in attainment, we are also falling behind in learning and skills.
Blog | Getting to sixty

The Side Show at UVa

I must admit I’ve considered the events at UVa to be a side show—one of those fascinating, high-profile diversions that come along in higher education from time to time. As one who accepts the growing irrelevance of the Research I universities to the key issues facing the nation (now THAT would be a good topic for a future blog post), I am alternately amused and irritated by the undue attention that the periodic soap operas of presidential firings attracts.

From what I’ve seen over the years, the best job in higher education is “fired Research 1 university president.” Since many presidents negotiate tenured faculty positions as part of their compensation package, the job security is great, plus the pay is pretty sweet too.

But I digress. The real reason I try not to take these things seriously is that it is impossible to know what is really going on. The reasons for Sullivan’s dismissal are known only to the direct participants—and even they may not know exactly what is going on. It’s fun to speculate, but generalizing from these incidents is dangerous.

Then I read Kevin Kiley’s piece in today’s Inside Higher Education, and I think he nailed on the head why this situation may be a bit different. Here’s what he said:

“In some sense, the board’s vote on Tuesday will be a referendum on the speed of the changes the university will undergo over the next few years. That decision, given U.Va.’s prominence among research universities, particularly public flagships, could reverberate through the sector.

In her statement Thursday, and in previous statements about Sullivan’s resignation, Dragas took issue with how the president approached change at the university, saying U.Va. needed “bold and proactive leadership.” “The bottom line is the days of incremental decision-making in higher education are over, or should be,” she said in her statement Thursday. That statement contrasts sharply with one Sullivan made to the board Monday, at the meeting in which the board considered the appointment of the interim president.

At that time, Sullivan accepted the mantle of “incrementalist,” saying that slow change with campus buy-in is “the best, most constructive, most long lasting and beneficial way to change a university.”… Most in higher education, particularly faculty members, would agree with Sullivan about the pacing of change. But an increasing number of boards and outside parties, as well as some members of the academy, say that universities should be acting more quickly to address the changes they see on the horizon.”

Kiley has neatly summarized two opposing views of the best way to approach change in higher education, and I see these two approaches reflected in how people work for constructive change in the sector. In some ways, Lumina is trying to steer a middle course—moving to develop and expand new models of higher education delivery and credentials, for example, while engaging faculty and others in the academy in efforts to improve instruction and student supports.

We will continue that approach, but events at UVa show that the pace of change is accelerating and even venerable institutions like the University of Virginia are feeling the pressure. At some point, incremental approaches will not get us where we need to go. Many in the academy do not accept the need for change. That, too, will need to change.

The Use of Goals to Focus Action: Lessons from the UN

The blog of the World Economic Forum has a fascinating post by John McArthur about the use of goals to drive global efforts to reduce extreme poverty. The UN set Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 to focus global anti-poverty efforts, and they are now working on a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to build on their success. And by all accounts the goals HAVE been successful—rates of extreme poverty (income of less than $1.25 per day) have fallen across the globe since 2005 and there is genuine optimism they could fall to zero by 2030.

Of course, we have used a goal for higher education attainment to focus our work at Lumina, and we believe it has helped focus the national discussion as well. The lessons learned from the UN’s use of goals are very similar to ours — for example, they cite the need for goals “to be established in absolute rather than proportionate terms.” That has been our experience as well—a goal of 60% attainment is more powerful than one to “double the numbers,” although both are better than no goal at all.

According to McArthur’s analysis, the UN development goals have been effective in large part because they are ambitious, simple, long term, and quantifiable. However, one big challenge for strengthening them in the next round is addressing the “messiness” of data and indicators. We can certainly relate to that problem!

We have not come across very many examples of the use of goals as a way to focus efforts across a wide range of actors, including policymakers. Considering the wide range of stakeholders in higher education, and the highly decentralized design of the U.S. higher education system, traditional top-down approaches don’t work. But the same is even truer when you consider driving action to reduce poverty across the globe—the range of stakeholders and conflicting agendas is immense. That goal setting has proven itself to be an effective approach in this context is very revealing.

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Chamber hosts State of Education, pushes for increased education funding

The Tulsa Metro Chamber wants higher attainment rates for Oklahoma to become a key strategy in weathering future economic storms. Lumina’s Dewayne Matthews delivered the keynote address at the chamber’s State of Education luncheon presenting research on the growing demand for skilled workers with high-quality degrees and credentials. More »

Is Reputation the Only Way to Assure Quality?

Udacity is the new startup co-founded by Sebastian Thrun, who taught the famous free Stanford course on artificial intelligence that enrolled 160,000 students, and David Stavens. Udacity plans to develop and offer free on-line courses, and has launched with $5 million in venture capital. How do you make money giving something away? Apparently they don’t know and at this point aren’t really concerned. If they can enroll several hundred thousand students – something that really can’t be ruled out given their track record and resources – there are lots of ways to make money, including by matching employers to successful completers of their courses.

But I hear you asking: “Thrun’s first class – the one that got all the publicity – was equivalent to a Stanford course, and at that time he was a tenured full professor. Why would anyone sign up for a course from a new startup with a funny name, and why would employers believe the course was of high quality?”

Staven’s answer is in this statement: “At top universities, the rigor of the classes is guaranteed almost entirely by the faculty teaching them. Since Udacity has distinguished faculty who also teach at top universities or have impressive records in industry, we feel the classes are comparable. The rigor of classes at most universities is guaranteed by the faculty, not by some process within the university. As long as Udacity continues to attract outstanding teachers, we can be comparable to great universities.”

This is a stunning statement. Do we really know so little about what quality education is and how to recognize it in students? I suspect most people would find Staven’s statement logical and even obvious, but I find its implications disturbing. To offer high quality educational opportunities to all who need them, there must be a better way to assure the quality of learning.

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