U.S. Education and National Competitiveness

Monday, November 9, 2015
Noah Berger/Reuters
Jamie P. Merisotis

President and Chief Executive Officer, Lumina Foundation for Education; Author, America Needs Talent 

Stefanie Sanford

Chief of Global Policy and Advocacy, The College Board

James H. Shelton

Chief Impact Officer, 2U; Former Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of Education

Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive officer of the Lumina Foundation for Education, Stefanie Sanford, chief of global policy and advocacy at the College Board, and James H. Shelton, chief impact officer at 2U and former deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, join Adam Frankel, chief marketing officer at Andela, to discuss the future of the U.S. education system. The panel considers a range of topics, including Common Core standards, educational assessment, the perception of teaching as a profession, and higher education reform.

The Renewing America series examines how policies at home directly influence the economic and military strength of the United States and its ability to act in the world.

MR. FRANKEL: All right. Welcome, everybody, to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting. The subject of today’s meeting is the U.S. education system. This is part of the Renewing America series. The focus of the series is how policies here at home directly influence the economic and military strength of the United States and its ability to act in the world.

And so we’re going to have a great conversation. The folks we’re going to have that conversation with today are Jamie Merisotis, the president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation; Stephanie Sanford, chief of Global Policy and Advocacy at the College Board; and Jim Shelton, chief impact officer at 2U and former deputy secretary at the Department of Education.

So I just want to do a little table-setting at the top. You know, education reform has obviously been a hot topic and much has happened over the past decade, and there is some good news. There is some progress that has been made. The high school graduation rate is on a rise, the highest it’s been in some time; the highest college enrollment rate in some time. And that is driven in large part by African-American and Hispanic growth in those areas. So there is some good news.

There are, of course, also very real challenges. And, you know, one of the ways of thinking about that is that 76 percent of CEOs in the Inc. 5000 have said they have had a tough time finding quality talent. And this is, as we know, not just a U.S. problem. It’s actually a global problem. The ManpowerGroup does a survey every year of some of the challenges in this regard in the skills gap, and what they have found is that—in their last survey in 2015—that roughly 40 percent of all employers globally have a challenge in filling jobs. And the top three skills—or I should say three of the top 10 skills that are the hardest to fill involve some technical ability.

So we have a whole number of challenges here in the U.S. This is, as I say, also a global problem and one that I think the folks here today may have some offers of how we can help solve this problem. So I’ll start with Jamie.

You know, people talk about education as a national security issue—


MR. FRANKEL: —but you’ve spoken about learning, actually, as a national security issue. Can you say a little bit about what you mean by that?

MERISOTIS: You know, I think—let me say first my career has been in education, so I’m pro-education. I want to make that very clear that that’s—(laughter)—education is something I believe very strongly in.

The issue with education is that I think the way the dialogue plays out is it plays out largely as a conversation about the process instead of the outcomes. And this is understandable. There are big, complicated issues that we’ve got to address in education and we—both in K-12 and higher education, and we’ve had a tough time tackling some of them. We’ve made progress on some, et cetera. But really what we should be talking about is the outcome. And the outcome is the learning or particularly the learning outcomes themselves of the education process.

And I say that in part because education is one way that you get learning outcomes but there’s lots of other ways in which you get learning outcomes too. You get them through your job. You get them through your life experience. You get them in a lot of different ways. And learning is actually what we need in this country. You know, the nature of work, as you point out, is changing. The demands of employers are growing very rapidly.

And this is—our national security issue is that we don’t have enough of the learning outcomes—the knowledge, skills, and abilities, the talent—that the country is going to need to be prosperous in the 21st century, the talent meaning, you know, how you actually take the knowledge, skills, and abilities, hone them through education and experience in ways that not just impact the individual but affect all of us as a society.

And, you know, the learning has both content-specific elements, right? So you’ve got to know something about history or graphic design or chemistry but you also have to be—have the ability to be a critical thinker and a problem solver and a communicator. We unfortunately call those soft skills, which really irritates me because they’re really the things that employers—the employers that you were talking about say they really need. And our inability to actually produce that kind of talent is coming increasingly at our peril in terms of national security.

Think about the fact that we now have a dozen countries around the world where their young adult population is exceeding our young adult population in terms of the level of talent that they have, measured by post-secondary learning and other outcomes. Think about the fact that so much of what we need to be doing as a country in terms of our education system is what Richard Haass has talked about very eloquently in terms of global literacy and the fact that, as Americans, we both have to know something about the world and the world that we live in, but we also have to apply that in terms of our context, in terms of what we’re doing in this country.

So learning really is the national security issue. Education is an important process in developing the kind of learning outcomes that we need. But learning, I think, is what’s going to drive our talent development, drive our country towards the kind of success that it needs in the 21st century, the kind of prosperity that we were able to use our ingenuity and grit and innate abilities in the 20th century, combined with pretty good immigration policies. And in the 21st century we’ve actually got to produce that talent. We’ve actually got to attract it, educate, and deploy that talent to make us successful. That’s what’s going to make us prosperous in the 21st century, and I think that’s why this is such an important national security issue.

SHELTON: Can I put an exclamation point on that learning point that Jamie just made, which is the reality is that the half-life of specific knowledge and skills is getting shorter and shorter over time. Industries’ life cycles are getting shorter and shorter over time. And so it’s not just that we have to be able to produce better learning outcomes; we have to produce people who can learn consistently over the course of their lifetime because what they need to know today is not what they’re going to need to know even a half-decade from now, let alone a decade or two from now.

That is just a completely different expectation of what we need to be preparing Americans to do, frankly what everyone in the world needs to be able to do. And it means that the way that we define success in terms of what we’re trying to produce through our education system has changed dramatically.


MR. FRANKEL: And, Stephanie, how do we assess how well people are learning? And the College Board is rolling out new assessments. Maybe you could just share a little bit—a summary of what’s being rolled out and just sort of how you think about how we measure what’s actually being learned.

SANFORD: No, I think that’s a great question because so much—we are in the middle of a pretty heated debate about testing. But if you think about it, it sort of—they fall into the sort of binary traps of our current politics—testing, yes or no; testing, too much, too little; testing, biased or not—instead of this question of assessment and the sort of—the more important, about opportunity, about national security, about what it means to be—what it takes to be an educated and a successful person.

And so at the College Board we’re really thinking hard about that. Our president put it in a pretty bracing way at a talk in New York last month. He said we don’t need more tests; we need more opportunities. Perhaps more provocatively: Assessment without opportunity is dead.

And so that may sound funny coming from an assessment outfit. I mean, you may—you may think of us as, you know, we’re like a hammer looking for a nail. You have a problem? We have a test. (Laughter.) But actually we’ve been thinking quite deeply about that. Assessment alone doesn’t solve problems. So let me give you three examples of the kind of problems we’re talking about.

So, one is finding diamonds in the rough. One of the big articulations—justifications for the SAT was that you would find a diamond in the rough. Well, we actually, in our sort of new administration here at the College Board, we took a look at that data. And what we found out is that these high-performing low-income kids, bottom quartile of income, top 10 percent of SAT performance, half of them didn’t apply to a single selective college, so we didn’t find them all that well.

So AP computer science participation, right, as sort of a proxy for STEM—best jobs—you know, best jobs in America, in the world now, highest demand, 20 percent of those—of exam takers were girls; 4 percent were African-American; 6 percent were Latino. These are the gateways into STEM careers. Patterns like this build a wall of inequality into the next century.

And then the big one: test prep. Originally, you know, we thought—and the SAT was created to actually level the playing field, and what we found is that a test prep industry has grown up and has created real and certainly perceived inequalities around testing. And so for all of these sort of reasons, and a whole bunch more, assessment alone without opportunity is dead.

And the College Board has really decided—I mean, we could easily sit back and say: That’s not our fault. We created a great test. We create these great courses. But we don’t say that. We actually believe, while it’s not our fault, it is our problem. And so the way that we’re thinking about these new assessments—it’s very much, you know, a treat to sit with both of these great leaders here because I think there’s a lot of synergy in the way we’re thinking about this. So there are sort of four principles of assessments that would foster opportunity.

So, one, assess only what students are learning in the classroom and only those things that they will need to use over and over again to be successful, the stuff that helps you learn the new stuff. Second, assessments must earn students and their families something worthwhile. If you look at the testing backlash, the Council of Great City Schools came out and said there were 112 tests that young people take between K-12 and they’re redundant and they’re not aligned. And that’s at the essence of the testing backlash. It’s, so what? Three, ensure that all students claim the opportunities that they’ve earned. And, four, the things that change performance are productive practice and great courses.

So I’ll dive into each one. Let me give you just a couple of examples to put a little meat on that and then more than happy to answer more questions about that.

So, one, assess only what students are already learning in the classroom and only those things they use over and over again. So what does that mean? Focus in the new exams on the few things that evidence show matter most in college and career. There should be no difference in preparing for the SAT than there is in preparing for college.

Transparency. There was a test prep—articulates is, this is a tricky and unfair test. We’ve published four forums. We’ve got a bunch of practice. There is no trait—really transparent. There is an ease that comes in transparency and not—to try to do away with this sort of unproductive anxiety.

Probably the most famous: the SAT words. You know the definition of an SAT word. It’s a word you’ve never heard before and a word you should never use again. (Laughter.) And the only reason you study it is on a flashcard or now on an app. And so now we say actually that SAT words are those words that you need to know and have command of, like “synthesis” or “analysis,” things that mean different things in different disciplines. Again, those are the things that make you better at being intellectually agile.

So assessments must earn—and I’m happy to go more into sort of design parts of the test. Assessments must earn students and their families something worthwhile. I mean, I suspect many of you took AP. Why did you take it? Because you work really hard and you get college credit. That is assessment—we were talking in the green room. It’s an assessment that no one questions the value of.

We’ve attached scholarships to the PSAT. We’ve had a longtime partnership with the National Merit Scholarship. We’ve now developed—we’ve put together 180 million more with scholarship partnerships. So you take a PSAT, you do really well. Jack Kent Cooke, the United Negro College Fund, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund use now the PSAT scores to be able to identify young people for scholarships.

Now, third, so you’ve taken—we’ve got a—you’ve got the exam and you’re now—it gives you something of value. Now you have to ensure that all students claim that, claim what they’ve earned. So the college application fee waivers, you used to have to go through this elaborate process. A lot of reasons that those high-performing, low-income kids don’t apply—because they can't afford the application fee. So now what the College Board has done is that for every qualified high-performing, low-income kid, they get four fee waivers straight into their inbox to be able to apply to college.

And then this notion of AP potential. Remember the data from computer science? We found that limited participation among African-Americans, Latinos, and girls, but we have some good news. We can see, based on their PSAT scores, that only 2.5 percent of the women—of the girls that actually have potential actually take the class; 4.7 (percent) of African-American and Latino students.

So we have the ability—we started the All In—the All In program that says, we will identify those young people, work with their counselors and direct them so that they will actually go and take those courses. And what do we know? For a young person that takes a STEM—takes a STEM AP course and gets a 3, they’re three-to-six times more likely to major in STEM.

And then finally, the only things that change performance are productive practice and great courses. And I’m very interested to talk with my fellow panelists about that because the idea—you know, and the testing backlash—too much, too little—what often gets lost is the work that students and teachers actually do. And the essence of Jim’s comment is that you’re going to have to keep learning your whole life. You’ve not going to be able to go and get your degree and be done. And so how is it that we can animate—use assessment to animate the sort of habits of practice?

And we’ve got—one is that when you get your test back you get a score report. And I’ve actually got some examples if you would all like to see that. It gives you real information on what you know, what you’re good at, and how you need to practice.

Second, we’ve got a custom—we have a—we have a partnership with the Khan Academy. You can get your score online. You can create an account. You send your score sheet to Khan. You hit “enter,” and six seconds later you will have a customized practice that is based on how you did on that assessment. And you can practice over and over again until you get better at those things that you’re not so good at.

And finally, because we know from Rob Putnam’s book and others that just—that the very kids that we’re trying most to help are those that have the least social support. So we’re working on partnerships with the Boys and Girls Clubs and other social institutions to be able to actually put—to help focus those caring adults on the meaningful and productive practice to actually move achievement.

So that’s the—that’s the overall tour, but fundamentally we believe that it’s time for a new bargain in assessment. Education has never been more important to national security, and to opportunity and mobility, and that we believe that the ability to measure that learning is absolutely critical and that it has to be, you know, a bargain that articulates its value and credibility.

MR. FRANKEL: Jim, maybe you can just sort of help us understand some of the administration’s recent comments, walking back the drive for testing, saying that maybe we went a little bit too far on some of this stuff. If you could just put that in a little bit of context, and maybe also speak to what you were talking about earlier and the need for lifelong learning and the way higher ed is evolving, the way the education system is sort of evolving to meet these kinds of new needs.

SHELTON: Yeah. Let me start with the second one because I think it bridges well from the principles that Stephanie laid out, in particular about the assessments being meaningful.

So the reality is, if you think about the world in which we’re evolving, where people have to figure out very quickly—where people, regardless of what credentials they have in the world that we think about it today, whether they can actually do the work that you need them to do when you hire them, it means they need some mechanism for validating their competence. Like, that’s what an assessment ought to be. It is a validation that you have a competence—some knowledge, skill, behavior, whatever it is—that you ought to have based on the training that you said you got, or education, or whatever the case might be.

Well, employers now recognize they need this in a much different way, and you’re starting to see it play out in sectors like technology where, frankly, if you can code in a certain kind of way they don’t care where you went to school anymore. They don’t care whether you went to school anymore. They will hire you if you can demonstrate that you can code. And you can demonstrate that you can code in any number of manner of ways, and yet—now this is still true that the people who can code from Stanford still get the jobs at Google but everybody else is hungry.

So what you’re going to start to see is this cascading effect of people trying to come up with different ways to validate competence, to validate skills and knowledge, and that is going to transform not only how we think about what assessment is but what the assessment sector actually looks like. And that also will have an impact on—even in the K-12 space—what assessment looks like.

If you look at the original RFP for the assessment consortia that was put out by the department, it was way out there, right? It asked for—basically for assessments that could assess throughout the entire year, that didn’t require this big summit thing at the end of the year. It was, like, all kinds of really great, visionary stuff that basically would take away all the things that we hate most about the way assessments work today.

Testing works today, and the reality is the industry had no idea how to respond—no idea how to respond to that, had no capability to do that kind of assessment across the year, no idea how you calibrate that kind of assessment when it’s delivered that way, no idea how to overcome the technology and infrastructure issues of capturing that kind of information over time.

That’s where it just—where we happen to be happens to be a circumstance of our limitations both in understanding and infrastructure. That’s going to change. So these principles are going to marry up with a really nice intersection of what the real world can provide in terms of technology access and infrastructure, how we understand how to do assessment, what employers are going to demand, and that’s going to shift everything.

Now, let me get into the policy conversation, though, because the reality is we still need, in this country, a mechanism for systems and schools to demonstrate they are delivering the outcomes for young people that they said that they are going to. Now, why do I say that? Because the reality is that when we didn’t have that, the first thing we discovered when we added it was incredible inequity.

But no one disagrees that what No Child Left Behind ushered in with—via testing was a level of transparency on the amount of inequity we tolerate in this country that was completely invisible before that now is in front of everyone’s face. And I don’t know why we would think that if we get rid of testing in a way that doesn’t allow you to still see that, that all of a sudden that inequity is going to disappear.

SANFORD: It would just become invisible.

SHELTON: It would just become invisible, yeah.

So at the macro level, at the biggest sense of the policy, at the biggest sense of what the federal government’s role in education is around equity and in particular around the highest-needs students, there is that role.

The second thing is that, if you take away the evaluative component, who as a professional does not want feedback about what they do well and what they don’t do well? How many people, when you get the chance to take something that will give you a score, say that I’ll do it but I don’t want to see my score—(laughter)—especially when nobody else can look, right? Like you get that stuff on Facebook and then you decide, well, is it going to post? (Laughter.) If it’s not going to post, I’ll fill it out.

So we have never had the opportunity for that kind of feedback for the professionals in the education system about, as a teacher, what is happening with my students? Which ones am I doing a great job with? Which ones am I not doing a great job with? Now, I can see how an individual student is doing but all of my students missed this. That’s probably not about what they did; that’s probably about something maybe I did. What professional doesn’t want to know that kind of information, and how are you going to know that if you can’t assess?

So the question is not of whether assessment is a stupid question. The question is, how and what kinds of assessments should we have? How should they be used? And how do you make sure that they are used as productively as possible, especially to create incentives for the right behaviors? And here’s what I mean by that, and then I’ll stop talking for a second.

I will grant this administration and prior administrations the opportunity to take the blame for driving an over-focus on assessment, but the reality is that the end-of-year assessments did not necessarily have to result in people believing that the best way to do well on the end-of-year assessments was to do a bunch of interim assessments and practice tests for days and days and days to prepare for them. In fact, there are many schools that out-perform by doing exactly the opposite, by making school much more interesting, much more focused on project-based learning, much more focused on integrated learning, much more focused on the things that get kids to show up at school, to be excited about the size of their academic work.

That focus on how you provide the other social supports and emotional supports, physical supports that kids need to be ready to learn, that’s another hypothesis for how you get to great assessments at the end of the year. We just didn’t do a good job of giving people enough good hypotheses about how you get there, and so people reverted to the lowest possible common denominator: If I keep doing the same thing over and over and over again, these kids will really learn how to fill out those bubbles.

So, yes, was there too much emphasis placed on the assessments? Maybe. Was there too much emphasis placed on the evaluative component? For sure. Was there the opportunity for a very different response, and do we have an opportunity to rethink it this time? We definitely should take it because assessments are a necessity. They are a necessity.

MERISOTIS: So, you know, I just want to add to this point here because Jim—I think Jim’s point is very powerful. And I think the issue here is how we got to this point. This is the slowest-moving train wreck we could have possibly seen coming, right? (Laughter.) We should have seen this happening starting with A Nation at Risk in 1983.

We should have seen what the response would be, which was—and I may be the only person left in America who still thinks No Child Left Behind was good in intent but bad in execution. It was good in intent. The problem was in the execution. It was the classic ready, fire, aim problem. They spent so much time on the assessments they didn’t spend enough time thinking about what really—what the outcomes were that we wanted, those competencies, and how you validate those competencies in ways that reflect the richness of the learning experience and the richness of the outcomes that we want from that learning experience.

And so then we come along with, you know, what’s happening now, and—I mean, I remember having this conversation—it may have even been with Stephanie because we’ve had lots of these kind of conversations—saying the problem with the Common Core is not going to be the standards; it’s going to be the assessments after we develop the standards. And sure enough, everybody was hunky-dory with Common Core until we decided we actually had to assess what the standards represented. Then all of a sudden the wheels started to come off.

So the question really is, what’s the form and the substance of the assessments? That’s the part that I think that we haven’t done a very good job of. And the easy path has been the one that we’ve taken so far, which is a simplified, test-driven model assessment instead of the richer models that I think that are present.

And what’s interesting about the so-called competency-based learning movement that you’ve seen in K-12 and now very rapidly, I have to say, in higher education, very quickly from—I was talking to Louis Caldera before that. You know, for about a decade the only competency-based learning example we could point to besides maybe Alverno College, which was doing it with, like, 2,000 people, was Western Governors University.

And all of a sudden you have 25, 30 institutions that are doing it in a very rich way and you’re seeing a lot of change, and they’re not doing it the same way. This is what’s the most interesting thing about the competency-based learning movement is that it is not being executed all in the same way. So I think we are sort of evolving to this higher form, and that’s a very different point than where we started from.

The last point I just want to make about this in the context of how do we think about this in terms of our interest in terms of the global scale, this is a very different conversation than is played out in most of the rest of the world. In most of the rest of the world they’re actually quite fine with the tests. They’re quite comfortable. And in my work before Lumina Foundation, I spent a lot of time as an adviser to foreign governments, in the former Soviet Union, in Southern Africa and other places, and we have a different cultural phenomenon in the United States, and we have to acknowledge that. We have to recognize that we are not these other countries.

I have to say that I’m amused by the comments that I hear from people over and over again: If we could just do what the Germans do. We’re not Germany. There’s a reason why we don’t have that deeply embedded, apprentice-driven, test-focused model where people get highly tracked at a very early point. We don’t believe that that’s part of the American experience. So we need a different model that reflects a different approach where competency is what we’re aiming for but we have a very rich way of actually understanding what that competency is and how we measure it.

MR. FRANKEL: And picking up, actually, on that point, and something Jim was talking about, how we validate this learning, this has been an ongoing conversation as well for some time around badges and other sort of forms of validation of new skills. You’ve talked about how higher ed doesn’t have a monopoly—


MR. FRANKEL: —as it used to. Can you say what you mean by that and sort of how that landscape is shifting a little bit?

MERISOTIS: Yeah. You know, I think that for a long time—you know, the three of us, by the way, share one thing very important in common, which is that we’ve all worked in public policy, we’ve all worked in education, we’ve all worked in philanthropy, so we’ve all tread some of the same ground here in terms of our experiences. And I would say, from the education side, particularly the higher education side, that higher education really did have this monopoly on post-secondary learning, right, that if you wanted to get to the middle class, if you wanted to be part of the elite in America, you went to college. That was the pathway to getting to that point.

Well, that was in a world where maybe about a third of the jobs—when I went to college, about a third of the jobs required post-secondary education. Today two-thirds of the jobs require post-secondary education. And this system, A, doesn’t have the capacity to meet that demand. It literally doesn’t have the ability to meet the demand. But the second is the market responded in ways that we didn’t fully anticipate.

So now all of a sudden the monopoly of post-secondary learning has been replaced by this democratization of post-secondary learning and you’re seeing very good, very high-quality learning taking place in the context of workplaces, in the context of—

SANFORD: Accelerated training.

MERISOTIS: —of accelerated models, in the context of self-paced learning, in the context of—you know, we’re starting to see—my book I mentioned museums, libraries, all kinds of cultural institutions recognizing that they’re not just repositories; they’re learning institutions.

And so I think this idea that the monopoly is over is good for higher education. I really do. I believe that higher education is going to continue to be a driver of economic and social progress in this country for many decades to come, but it is not going to be able to claim that monopoly on it, and I think that’s good for the system. I think it’s unaffordable. I think it doesn’t serve enough people, doesn’t have the capacity that we need it to deliver on.

And the uncomfortable part that we’ve got to grapple with, which gets back to this conversation about validating the competencies, is we don’t actually know what we produce in higher education in a rich, meaningful way. We know that, at the end of the day, you get 120 credit hours for a bachelor’s degree and 60 credit hours for an associate degree, which is a time-based unit.

In the model—lots of people in the competency-based learning world use this phrase now where they say in the current model time is a constant and learning is a variable—(laughter)—and in the competency-based model learning should be the constant and time should be the variable. If you demonstrate the competency you should be able to keep moving forward in a way that gets you through faster, that will address those issues of capacity and affordability.

So I think the end of the monopoly is a good thing for the country because, you know, back to the first point, it’s not education ultimately that’s the most important thing that this country needs. It’s the learning. And what we get out of the education system and all of these other things where you can learn, that’s what matters to the country. That’s what produces the talent. That’s what makes our country more economically viable, our society more diverse and rich. Those are the things that ultimately matter.

SANFORD: I’d like to build on that. And this idea of learning and how do you know—how do you demonstrate what you know and how do you know if someone has learned something, and we’re wrestling with that like crazy, so—I mean, from an assessment point of view.

But part of this partnership that we have with the Khan Academy, one, it’s to make assessments more useful. You take an assessment and you find out what you know and what you don’t know. And then you have a vehicle by which you can actually practice and get better at that which you don’t know. And you also then have data about that that then could theoretically—well, actually then validate whether you know something, and then you assessment again.

So part of it is, you know, the idea of individual agency and practice. I mean, for young people it’s practice, but the very way that Jim sort of kicked off his remarks is that in this economy now you’re never done learning. I mean, and so the question is, one, do you know how to learn and know how to practice, know how to identify those things you’re not so good at or that you want to be better at and that you can practice? How do you prove to—you know, to employers or others that you actually know? And then how do you have the sort of skill and propensity to do that over time?

And we don’t have—and maybe it isn’t—the idea of having a system that does that, it may be so varied and organic and more individual, the thinking of it—I’d be interested in what you think, Jim—as a system may be the wrong model to think that, because that may be too fixed, that the very thing that’s interesting now about the declining monopoly power of higher ed is this sort of dynamism and variation that’s happening now in these more competency-based situations.


MR. FRANKEL: I’d like to take my presider’s prerogative here to open up the—this is the time in the conversation where I want to open it up to the broader audience. Maybe we can take some of this up in the Q&A.


MR. FRANKEL: So just following our guidelines here, please wait for the microphone. Speak directly into it. And stand and state your name and affiliation at the time.

Yes, right here.

Q: This is a great event. Thank you. I’m Mitzi Wertheim with the Naval Postgraduate School. I have a bias, which was John Dewey was my godfather. (Laughter.) But I have some points I want to make.

First of all, I think the language is wrong. I think they should not be called students but learners. And I created a program 30 years at MIT, and I watch all these Ph.D.s who think they have a body of knowledge and a pitcher, and if they just pour it over your head you’ll put your tongue and out absorb some of it. I think they should be called either coaches or tutors. I mean, I think this concept of “I know it all and you don’t” is not very helpful.

I have a granddaughter in Berkeley, and I went to her humanities class last June. It was an hour-and-a-half. The first half—oh, he stood at the door and shook the hand of every child coming in. This was sixth grade. The first quarter—or the first third was on Mid-East geography. The second third was—he’d been reading them “The Iliad,” and so he asked them what kind of a leader he thought Ulysses was. And they had about 20 suggestions and then voted.

And the third quarter he said, we have a really important game in San Francisco this evening, a basketball game. And he said, who should make the—it’s two minutes before the end of the game. It’s tied. Who should make the call? So he listed the coach and five players and the kids had to vote. And I thought that was this wonderful transition into leadership and democracy.

I went and talked to him afterwards.

MR. FRANKEL: Do you have a question?

Q: Well, no, no, I want to ask how we get to this. I asked him about his background. It turns out he had a Ph.D. and a law degree, was an African-American, and said, I love teaching. It has no respect.

So my question is, how do you get respect into the jobs of teachers, or coaches or trainers or whatever? And I actually also feel the most important jobs in learning is from birth through 12th grade, and they get paid so little. And people who just sit on their butt and take tests when they’re older get paid lots of money. And I think there’s inequity of pay. So my question for you is how do we fix a system that is so out of whack?


SANFORD: Jim, do you want to take that one?

SHELTON: Yeah, I got it. No problem.

SANFORD: You’re our systems guy. (Laughter.)

SHELTON: So I think it’s going to take a long time. And I’m going to tie it back to the question we were just talking about, whether you can even talk about it as a system. I think that definitely as we talk about people at the end of the spectrum on post-secondary—I know where your interest is—that it is not a system and is now a market. And we’ve talked about it as a monopoly and all that good stuff, but the reality is that, for better or for worse, people have options about where to go to get their education, training, et cetera, mostly for the better.

The problem is that to date there was no transparency about whether you were getting what you were paying for. None. And so what wound up happening—and this is what the latest college report card put out by the Department of Education showed. When you look at that data—actually I don’t know if this is in the data; I happen to know what’s in the data—fully half of the vocational and higher post-secondary schools in the country, students would have been better off not going when you factor in debt. The students would have been better off not going when you factor in debt into our changing economy.

SANFORD: Even those that finish?

SHELTON: Even those that finish.


SHELTON: Fully half. Think about that.

Now, before, we couldn’t have told you that. We couldn’t have told you what they made. We couldn’t tell you through these assessments that we’ve been talking about what they learned. They wouldn’t have been able to demonstrate it in a way that really meant anything to us except in the places where it’s really clear, with a licensure exam or things of that nature. That transparency is about to come and no one can stop it. No one can stop it. So the ability for people to either flourish or fail based on what they produce for the students in their care, learners, that marketplace is about to become very, very vibrant.

Now, the question is going to be how does that market stratify? And this is where my life experience kicks in, because I’ve always been a choice supporter, always been very pro, but I know from growing up in southeast D.C. that the choices we get suck. They suck: grocery store, drug store. The market does not work when it gets to that end of the market. It doesn’t.

And so the reality is, then, how are we going to ensure that this new dynamic marketplace works for those who need it to work for them the most? How do you ensure that they have access to the kinds of educational experiences—because we’ve been talking about the vocational component of work. What about the other things that you send your kids to college for?

What about the building of social capital? What about them figuring out who the heck they are, how they connect to something bigger than themselves? What about those aspects of the higher education experience that we all think is actually so important we spend tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to send our kids for it? How are the other folks supposed to get that? And where are even the best what I’ll call vocational programs in this new definition of vocational addressing that need? And if they don’t, what is the implication of that?

So that part is a market. Right now K-12 is not a market. It is a system. And the system is also horribly broken because—

Q: That’s the one I want you to fix.

SHELTON: Sure. I spent a long time, about six years, in the federal government just now trying to fix it, and a bunch of years before that. And I will tell you, I feel like a miserable failure. But here’s what I will say: It’s getting better. But the reality is that we do need to unlock the system in order for value to flow to those who do a great job.

Forget about private school choice. If every district in America just had close public school choice so parents could freely move from one school to the other based on whether or not it was providing good school opportunities for their children—take the whole privatization conversation off the table—the dynamic would change. Educators who could produce those growth outcomes for children, how they got treated, how they got attracted, how they got retained—hopefully shortly after—how they got paid—all that other stuff is going to change before how they get paid, but after that, how they get paid.

The reality is that we have enough money floating around in the system to make many of these adjustments right now. We still have not felt the need to do so. And that is just about us. It is nothing else. It is just about us having the will to do it.

MR. FRANKEL: In the back.

Q: Hi. Thank you. I’m James Turner for the Daniel Alexander Payne Community Development Corporation. And my bias, quite frankly, is STEM learning.

And, you know, some of the data is already in. I mean, the NAEP says that only one-third of our eighth graders can read at a proficient level. And even though, yes, the high school graduation rate is going up, who knows what they’re doing there because more colleges need more and more remedial programs for more and more students. Employers are finding the people coming to them aren’t ready to work.

And so I was wondering, what do you think about, you know, adding some things such as out-of-school time activities, field trips, after school programs and things like that, as well as getting, you know, many parents more involved, for those who aren’t, in the education of their child?

SHELTON: You take that one.

SANFORD: I’ll take that one. (Laughter.)

No, I think you’re absolutely right. I think your concern about the graduation rate going up—we know that college readiness rates, as measured by SAT and ACT or others, have been flat for—you know, depending on the scale, from five to four years.

So I think—I think the things that you describe, whether that’s engagement with employers, with internships, after school, some things that get to the relevance of the curriculum is absolutely on point. I think it goes back to where we started from, at least how we think about it from the notion of the interplay between assessment, coursework, and practice is a real focus.

There is a lack of coherence in most high schools—going back to the old GATEs days—and that is that kids, a lot of times, just sort of wander along. You know, they know they’re supposed to graduate but they don’t know what a right course of study is. And again, as we think about this interplay between assessment, coursework, and practice, the idea is that you can take an assessment as a bridge from eighth to ninth grade, and there can be an assessment right there about, you know, what are you good at or what are you not so good at? That allows you then to much more intentionally select courses.

In the case of STEM, you know, we actually have good sort of predictions from the PSAT to be able to identify those students. And there are literally, you know, hundreds of thousands of students who show aptitude in STEM and who never take a class because of, you know, in some cases, biases: girls don’t do math or some kinds of kids are for AP—and then, how it is that within those assessments you actually then have a customized real practice.

I have not heard, in the education debates, the idea of what’s the work that students do and how do you know if they’re getting better? It’s a test how you do the test scores. Well, actually, I think some of this testing backlash now that you’re hearing from parents is there’s a sort of arbitrariness to that. I mean, test scores going up is better than test scores not going up, but the idea of are students working on things that are actually preparing them for what comes next, whether that’s, you know, a career in STEM or their next biology class or—you know, or higher ed?

So part of that is—I think the way we’re getting at that is a great deal more concreteness about the work that students actually do. I mean, we call it practice. “Test prep” implies that you’re learning all the tricks and you’re just preparing for that one thing. Test prep prepares you for one thing: that test. Practice, whether you’re learning to be a great basketball player or you’re learning to do, you know, quadratic equations, the only way that you ever get better at anything in any pursuit is to practice it, and we’re trying to get much more concrete about that in the ways that we engage with students and parents—teachers too.

MR. FRANKEL: Yes, ma’am?

Q: Thank you for a really wonderful presentation by all of you all. It’s a real philosophy course here. My name is Paula Stern. And since its inception in ’04, I’ve been working with the National Center for Women in Information Technology.

So my question is rather narrow compared to Mitzi’s, and it relates to this issue about coding and the Khan Academy, et cetera, versus computer science and computing, and the fact that the AP tests, as you reported, have been taken by so few females as well as under-represented minorities. And I understand the AP test has been changed. In fact, NCWIT was involved, I believe, and our founder, working with the kinds of teaching that is more inclusive and more open and more relevant.

But I’d like to hear you talk about this—the distinction between the learning capacity in, for example, computing, to fill that huge gap that we talked about, versus coding, which is a kind of a language, if you will, and a capability which is more narrow, if you will. And you can actually kind of certify whether you can code, but can you do computing science and really get into the development of technologies and the creation of technologies, which is so critical to our national security and to our future?

So I’d like to just hear what your thinking is on that in this broader context of the monopolies being broken up and how we go about it, because I think there’s a confusion between coding and the capabilities to create new technologies. And if anyone wants to talk about the federal and the state/local level versus the fed in everything we’ve been talking about, I’d be interested in hearing how you crack that code, as it were. (Laughter.)

SHELTON: Yeah, yeah, big time.

SANFORD: Do you want to start or you want to—

MERISOTIS: Go ahead.


SHELTON: So what I would say is that I think we’re just beginning to really understand that. I’m going to try and tell a story in 90 seconds—(laughter)—which will be the fastest I’ve ever told it.

Q: Faster than my question.

SHELTON: So the Navy had a problem basically finding and keeping people to maintain their IT networks. And the reality is they have this complex—on their ships—IT systems as anyone that just happen to be out in the middle of the water. And so when they go down, if you don’t have the person there who can fix it, you are literally flying in people at the cost of—literally costing us billions.

They went to DARPA and said, we need computer systems that won’t break. Then DARPA said, no, what you need is people on your ships who can fix them. (Laughter.) And the Navy said, that would be great if we didn’t lose all of our best people at five years because they can make three times as much in the private market.

Q: Yeah.

SHELTON: And DARPA then went back and said, yes, you need to be able to train your new recruits to be as good as the people are at five-to-seven years. They then proceeded to do it, OK? And they did it, and they did it in a way that they not only outperformed them on knowledge tests—so taking an assessment—

Q: Yes.

SHELTON: —they did real performance tasks, so they actually solved real problems—

Q: Yes.

SHELTON: —problems as much as designing new systems from scratch to outfit new locations in ships. The population they took to do this were those who could actually just qualify for any kind of technical work in the Navy, which basically means the first class looked like this: 12 high school completers—

Q: Yes.

SHELTON: —eight GEDs, two with any college credit, three English language learners, and they all outperformed, at the end, a comparison group of five-to-seven-year professionals who were considered the best in the Navy.

OK, now think about that. What that means is that in an accelerated timeframe they were able to take people who people would have said—who basically had, almost to a person, negative educational experiences, prepare them at the highest levels for a profession that is highly competitive and easily measured. And when those people went into the actual workplace on those ships, the commanders were using their authority to put them in charge of teams. So when they got on the job they could actually perform at extremely high levels.

When you talk to them—the most important thing I want you to take away from this is that one of the most moving experiences one of the instructors said they had was going to one of the recruits in the middle of a session where she was doing her lab work, and she was crying. And he said, we try and push them hard but not so hard that they break.

Q: Yes.

SHELTON: And he asked, why are you crying? And she said, well, I just finished this in about 30 minutes. And he said, that’s pretty good. And she says, yeah, I was just looking at these tickets, though. It took them three months to figure this out. (Laughter.) I never knew I was smart. I never knew I was smart.

Q: Yeah.

SHELTON: So not only can you change people’s ability to attack different kinds of work, we can actually change people’s belief systems, which will completely change the way they attack different kinds of work. We have no idea what human potential looks like.

Q: Exactly.

SHELTON: We have no idea what it looks like. And if you take nothing away from this conversation, take that.

Q: Is that the Atticus (sp) system that came out of DARPA?


SANFORD: More later. Yes, Acuitus.

MR. FRANKEL: Yes, over there.

Q: Acuitus, OK.

Q: Thank you. Mohammed Khaishgi from the Resource Group.

My question related mainly to K-to-12 education and primarily around these comparisons that have been made globally. We’re all aware of them, you know, comparing high school students in the U.S. to places like Singapore, Finland, Germany, et cetera. My question was twofold.

First of all, does the panel—and I’d be particularly interested in hearing Jamie’s opinion since he talked about Germany a short while back—whether those are, in fact, even relevant or just alarmist.

And the second part of the question was, if they’re relevant, and inasmuch as they cover the perceived sort of underachievement of the—of U.S. high school graduates compared to others, then what it is in the learning—in the teaching rather than in the actual assessment—in the teaching that needs to change for the gap to be closed? Thank you.

MERISOTIS: You know, let me start with your first question, which is are they—are they relevant? I think they are relevant. And the reason why I say they are relevant is that we do have different systems. There’s no doubt about it, and so there are limits, as I said earlier, to the points of comparison, one of the biggest being that the U.S. has far more of a diversified economy, far more cultural diversity than you experience in most of these other countries that we try to compare ourselves to. So there are lots of ways in which the comparisons don’t necessarily work.

On the other hand, these countries, individually and collectively, are eating our lunch, and we should probably be paying attention to that, that in fact they are out-competing us in a lot of ways in terms of the production of talent and the deployment of that talent, which starts in the schooling level, however you define—you know, the OECD data are very confusing because the points of comparison and what do the different levels mean, et cetera, it’s very complex. That being said, I think that the comparisons are relevant.

So I think—on the other hand, I don’t think that whether or not we’ve moved from 11th to seventh is really the point. The point is, is the U.S. doing better compared to its own baseline than it did historically, and how does that compare over time with how these other countries are doing compared to their own baseline? And there I’m pretty worried about the United States, because while we’ve seen some modest improvement, thanks to some of the efforts that these folks here have been engaged in, the fact is some of these other countries have gone faster and deeper than we have, and we should be paying attention to that.

The question about teaching, I think—and I think both Stephanie and Jim should comment on this one—really comes back to that point that Mitzi was making, which is—you know, I think that this question of the teacher and the student is going to really begin to break down here.

Technology and its ability to democratize learning at all levels I think is really changing the nature of learning. And I think that this person, or these people who are facilitating the learning, are increasingly going to become a more diverse set of actors applied towards the outcomes of that individual learner. Some of it is going to be people, some of it is not going to be people, but I’m not sure that we’re going to be talking about teaching in the way that we’ve talked about it in prior decades the way we will in the coming decades, because I think it’s going to be a very, very different process.

I can see this in my—I have school-age children. I’m an old guy to have school-age children—(laughter)—but I have school-age children. And I can tell you, I’ve learned a lot from their experiences about how radically different their learning—their approach to learning is than mine. And I didn’t fully appreciate that until—you know, I have a 7-year-old, and my 7-year-old has a dramatically different view of the world and how she can learn than the way I have.

And the teacher is sort of an interesting point in the continuum of her learning, but it is not—that teacher is not the focal point. The way it was for mine, the teacher was the god in my world. That person was imparting knowledge to me. That is not the way it works for young people today. It is a very different world that they live in. And that nature of teaching I think is going to have to change to respond to the world that they live in.

SANFORD: So I would agree—I agree with what Jamie said. The other thing that the international comparisons show us is that we are—you know, we are in the middle of the pack, if not lower, except for on one thing, and that’s spending. (Laughter.) And so, you know, Jim—I’ll turn it to Jim in a second, but that sense of—you know, of whether that’s teacher respect or how you get results or ROI, we are spending more than just about any other nation in the world and we are getting much worse results. And I think that that’s a vivid question because we have—and certainly insofar that the argument for why we don’t—achievement isn’t going up is because we’re not spending enough.

And I think that what Jamie and Jim are both talking about is that, you know, breaking down these rigidities in these systems will enable us to be able to spend the money on things that are, frankly, more effective, more demonstrably effective in increasing student learning.

SHELTON: Just to piggyback straight onto Stephanie’s point, a couple of things to walk away with: If we had the same teacher—not adult-to-student; teacher-to-student ratio that we had in the ’70s, I believe the average salary—I haven’t recalculated this in a while but it’s over $100,000. Think about that. What we’ve done is we’ve actually added many, many adults, including teachers, to the system at the expense of actually keeping wages high. We’ve done that because we’ve not figured out how to add productivity to the system.


SHELTON: And what it means is that we are not hyper-professionalizing a profession that needs to be professionalized. In fact, we’re going in the opposite direction. And so what—I think that, in fact, especially in the P-through-12 space, teaching and teachers are going to be—continue to be really important, if we’re smart.

It ought to be a field of deep expertise. It ought to be something that you have to know a lot about in order to do well, because it is. And we ought to be providing them with the best tools and resources in the world to do it, which we don’t. They get colored markers and white boards and a room about this big to say: Know what everybody knows, know what they don’t know, what they’re interested in, and come up with something that gets to all of them. That’s not logical for the outcomes we say we want, and that’s the disconnect between what we spend and what we get.

Now, as far as the broader question in the end of our place in the world, I heard a sound bite from Secretary Clinton the other day where she pointed out—kind of wonky point to point out—that we are a 70 percent consumption economy. What that means is that people have to buy stuff. People have to buy stuff. Your middle class has to grow. Your people who are poor have to be not poor in order for your economy to thrive. It’s just that simple, especially our economy.

So this is not just a can we get our best technical goods to be as good as the world’s best technical goods so that we can sell more of them on the outside? It also means can we move enough people into the thinning categories where they can buy stuff to power our economy? Like, enlightened self-interest says, I need these people to get well-educated so they can pay for everything that we want in terms of the quality of our lives. And it’s a good thing to do, too. You know, I’m good with that. (Laughter.) But the survival—like, with no hyperbole—of our country as we know it actually depends on this, actually. If that doesn’t motivate us, I just really am at a loss.

MR. FRANKEL: All right, I see a lot of hands. Unfortunately we only have time for one more question, so keep them up if you’ve got them. Yes, right there.

Q: Hi, I’m Kristen Engebretsen. I work at Americans for the Arts.

We use creativity as a strategy to help achieve some of what you’re talking about. And when folks call me really frustrated about why things like arts programs are cut, I try and explain a lot of maybe the factors that you were just describing, why we’re not Germany or Finland. We have this very large, diverse country where education is a state right but mostly decided at a local, even, like, classroom level who gets what.

So usually that presents itself as a policy problem. How can we have equity when we’re so individualistic? So I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on using those as strengths to drive innovation and get the results that we want in this very diverse ecosystem that doesn’t have, in Finland, kind of a national approach.

MERISOTIS: Thank God you’re here, Kristen—(laughter)—because I really think that this is one of the biggest challenges that we’re going to have as we get from here to there is to help people understand how important all those things that you just articulated are to that higher level of talent that we need, that the country needs. And I think that—you know, one of the things I try to do in my book is to try to sort of demythologize this idea that talent is something that you are—oh, thank you, my marketing agent. (Laughter.)

SHELTON: I was, like, impressed. This is the first time you mentioned it the whole time. (Laughter.) That’s good.

MERISOTIS: You know, this idea—you know, we use the word “talent” in the United States to mean, you know, like somebody who—you know, “America’s Got Talent,” which, by the way, my book is called “America Needs Talent.” I didn’t think of the TV show until after I started writing the book. (Laughter.) It’s a true story. And so I had to address it in the book by the time I finished it.

But, you know, we tend to think of it as these really unique, specialized skills, and that leads you very quickly down this highly cognitive path where that’s really what you need in order to be successful in work and in life. But it’s all the non-cognitive things too, about the values and the personality traits and all the other things that matter that you get—so to your point—that you get from all of these things that are not this sort of linear, cognitive path type of learning that we tend to associate with the talent that we need in whatever the field might be.

So, you know, I think this is a really important set of issues that we’ve got to confront here. I find myself, in the last several months, particularly since the book has come out, having to explain to people that I actually think the liberal arts are going to become more important, not less important, over time, because I actually think that the liberal arts today are doing a comparatively better job at giving people that combination of cognitive and non-cognitive abilities, that ability to do the kinds of things that Jim was talking about earlier, the critical thinking and the problem-solving and the communication.

And a lot of that is outside of the STEM disciplines. It’s outside of even, you know, social sciences, what have you, in a lot of different fields. And I think that I’m worried in particular what we saw in the recession in the K-12 level, which was it was the first thing that cut. It was so easy: Let’s just cut all that stuff. That doesn’t matter. That’s not important. That is very dangerous for our democracy, in my opinion, because that’s a big part of what the talent ultimately is going to be that we need to make us the kind of pluralistic democracy that we should be as a country.

MR. FRANKEL: That’s a great note to end it on.

This is just a reminder this has been on the record. Thank you, everybody, for coming.

SANFORD: Thank you. (Applause.)

SHELTON: What? (Laughter.)


This is an uncorrected transcript.

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