President Obama offered up an ambitious plan to make the first two years of community college free of charge. It’s a highlight of his budget proposal and will be a tent-pole issue of the administration’s education policy for 2015. And it would expand access to more people across the country.
But students throughout the educational ladder, from pre-school to college, are falling further and further behind in basic skills. Mathematics and literacy top the list. The widening gap between expectation and reality threatens the value of college as fewer students are prepared to succeed in degree programs, such as those offered at community colleges, and thrive in the careers higher education makes possible. The costs of teaching twice – both financial and the overall strain on the system – is the largest undiscussed threat to our higher education system.
Let’s take a look at the landscape. Fifty percent of community college students and twenty percent of four-year students need to complete remedial core competencies before advancing to a degree program. The cost: $4 billion every year. This is an unsustainable system. The burden on state and federal education resources must be addressed before more students are sent to college unprepared.
From my perspective in a career working across the educational system, there are three core areas where modest improvements would lead to lower remediation costs and more students obtaining the skills they need.
Assess outcomes at every stage. For decades, educational investment policies have been driven by “old metrics” such as the quality of facilities and class size. These are important, but with the technologies and methods we have now, we can focus on the ability of a lesson plan to deliver results. These can be achieved in real time, without waiting for test results. High stakes tests have a role in education, but they are a lagging indicator and do not allow for immediate intervention if a student, or a class, is struggling.
Efficacy of products and services is a critical concept for the entire education industry. School districts, teachers and taxpayers alike all need to be able to see the utility of every tool that’s used and every dollar that’s spent.
Ed tech is a catalyst. Students today are digital natives and expect a seamless integration between technology and the classroom experience. The largest 1:1 digital learning initiative, in Huntsville, Alabama, is already paying off. The district saw reading scores improve by 18% and math scores improve by 27% in just two years from 2011 to 2013. The graduation rate improved 14% over the same period. Students’ digital habits are helping to raise standards, and we need to be prepared to meet their expectations with learning that’s available anytime, anywhere.
But it’s not the only answer. We know that pouring money into new devices doesn’t solve the educational puzzle. New tools are only effective when teachers are trained on how those tools can help them identify their students’ challenges, and help them overcome them. Better equipping our teachers to make a difference with good professional development is a smart investment.
As instruction methods evolve, so too should evaluation and accreditation. Competency-based learning means using mastery as the metric of student success instead of the amount of time spent in class. With more flexibility and focus on the student, remedial needs could be cut from whole semesters of coursework down to modules for the specific skills a student needs to progress.
Remediation is a huge impediment to students even finishing a degree, as the time and money required to master essential skills often put the dream out of reach. Enabling more students to go to college for little or no cost is the right thing to do, so we need to ensure that we’re preparing all our students for success in college and in the workplace that follows. The value of a college education is only as good as the ability to gain new skills, instead of relearning old ones.
Kilburn is president of Pearson North America.