Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what to teach next. Lesson planning is a constant internal monologue: What’s next? What’s important for my students now? Where do we go after that? In the early days of my career, I was obsessed with what I perceived my students were lacking. They couldn’t spell. They couldn’t punctuate. They can’t. They won’t. They don’t. As an educator, it is all too easy to fall into that trap.
When I was obsessed with what I perceived my students weren’t able to do, I was also making rash and frustrated decisions about what was most important to teach them next. But what is important to teach our students? The case can be made that all subject areas are important, but students often lack the educational opportunities to put their learning from these subject areas to work in the real world.
My students now take part in community research projects where I ask them to identify a problem or issue that they care about in our local community. Their topics have included the school dress code, teen drug use, bullying, rural road conditions, and suicide prevention. In this process, students undertake a variety of research efforts. They work with primary sources. They interview community members, fellow students, and school officials. They create online surveys, and they visit the library, the museum, and the courthouse. They seek out knowledge from experts (including other teachers) regarding statistics, technology, and hazardous chemical compounds. They even become experts on the ins and outs of state laws that are relevant to their causes. They learn to value evidence. Sometimes that causes students to change their minds too.
But just gathering the information isn’t enough. We have to do something with that information. We have to take action and argue for reasonable solutions to our community issues based on the best information available. The secret is harnessing the spirit each student holds for the issue they seek to solve and allowing that spirit to develop each student’s ability to reason. If I can accomplish that, I find that my students care enough about their writing to revise, edit, spell, and punctuate just fine. A recent study also confirmed that students’ mastery of conventions can improve as a byproduct of writing arguments on topics they care about. But, first I had to go bigger with my expectations and with the lessons I valued. I had to believe they could change the world around them if I gave them the opportunity.
Now, my students write letters to the editor of our local newspaper and to our school board using the information they’ve gathered with their research. They’ve even written letters to the next president. Sometimes their efforts cause other people to change their minds, too. My students’ published arguments are successfully informing our community on dozens of local issues. Their writing has positively transformed multiple school policies and practices. Positive, solution-oriented citizenship is the cornerstone of a well-rounded education. When given the opportunity, solution-oriented students can teach their teacher powerful lessons about what students can do with reasoning and spirit.
Casey Olsen is in his fourteenth year teaching high school English in rural Montana. He was a 2015 Montana Teacher of the Year finalist and serves on the College-Ready Writers Program leadership team for the National Writing Project. You can follow him on Twitter: @Mr_Olsen_Says
Earlier this year, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska called this election a “dumpster fire.” We were reminded of this insight by Terry Hartle (Senior Vice President, Division of Government and Public Affairs of the American Council on Education) at last week’s Presidents’ Forum.
Hoping to raise the level of dialogue beyond that surrounding a dumpster fire, this annual Forum (founded by Excelsior College and co-hosted by USDLA) brings higher education innovators together to discuss current issues. The Forum has a particular emphasis on federal and state policies.
Several sessions looked to the future and how higher education innovations might fare in a new administration. There was hope (but no certainty) that a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act might be on the horizon. Below are some highlights from these discussions:
What’s Happened Without Reauthorization?
- Without Reauthorization the Current Administration Has Been Busy. Greg Ferenbach, Special Counsel, Cooley LLP – There has been more focus on consumer protection at the expense of innovation. While there has been on Reauthorization Act, there have been 24 major rules packages issued by the Department of Education.
- Regulation Hurting Innovation. Vickie Shray Bridgepoint – The regulatory environment is having a chilling effect on innovation. Institutions are less willing to stick their neck out.
What Might Be in a New Reauthorization Bill?
- Reauthorization Should “Do No Harm.” Amy Jones, Director of Education and Human Services Policy, House Committee on Education and the Workforce – Said that there is the sense in Congress that Reauthorization should “do no harm.” Citing the antiquated distance education definition, she acknowledged the need for flexibility regarding innovations. New innovations will come in the future and we don’t want to limit them.
- Colleges Having “Skin in the Game” for Federal Student Loans. Chris Bustamante, President, Rio Salado College – In talking about his hopes for a Higher Education Reauthorization Act said that there is much interest in colleges having “skin in the game” with federal financial aid. AACC is against this proposal as community colleges are already operating on a slim margin. If colleges are to assume more responsibility, they also need the ability to limit the aid available.
- More Attention to Privacy Regulations. Greg Ferenbach – FERPA is older than the fax machine (for those of you too young to not know what a fax machine is). It’s amazing it still works at all. There have many bills in state legislatures and in Congress to try to update privacy laws to the digital age.
Should States Reinvest in Higher Education?
- Get States to Reinvest in Higher Education. Chris Bustamante is president of a college that was recently zero-funded by the state legislature. Is this the first of many? Can the new Higher Education Act encourage additional state investment?
- Should Public Institutions Be Declared to Be Private? David Bergeron XXX – Public institutions are being de-funding and do those institutions still enjoy the “full faith and credit” of their respective states? Is a there a level of state funding that should be considered a minimum threshold? Once an institution falls that threshold, is it now subject to the increase rigor required of private colleges?
- Can’t States and Federal Government Work Together? Larry Isaak, President, Midwestern Higher Education Compact – Is there a way that the federal government can work with states to come to a better understanding and agreement of their respective roles in higher education?
What Accountability Measures Will Be Used?
- Accountability Needs Improved IPEDS Measures. Roger Sublett, President, Union Institute and University – For accountability purposes, there need to be better measures. College Scorecard uses the IPEDS “Graduation Rate” and the regional accreditors recently announced they will conduct increased scrutiny on institutions with low percentages on this rate. Since the Graduation Rate uses cohorts including only “first-time, full-time” students, the results can be deceiving. Union recently had only seven of these students, while APUS had 36.
- Forget Student Learning Outcomes Statements, Better Student Outcomes Measures are Needed. Robert Shireman, Senior Fellow, The Century Foundation and Advisor to the Hillary Clinton Campaign – There is a long list of failed accountability measures in higher education: syllabus, grades, student satisfaction surveys, graduation rates, graduate earnings, and standardized test scores. Shireman’s pet peeve is “student learning outcomes” statements. Shireman said an alternative is using Evaluated Student Performances, which are graded reports, testes, discussions, presentations, and other performances that instructor judge. He suggested that external review of student learning be included.
- Accreditation Turned from Carrot to Stick. Brianna Bates, Assistant Director of Academic Program Review, New York University – I response to Shireman’s presentation, she said that accreditation used to be a carrot. Peer review was a way for institutions to learn from others to improve themselves. It has now been turned into a stick to assure that institutions follow regulations.
- New “Daily Education Index” is Coming. Carol D’Amico, Executive Vice President, National Engagement and Philanthropy, USA Funds – They felt that information was lacking on what the higher education student consumer wants and needs. USA Funds partnered with Gallup, which is interviewing 350 Americans (prospective students, current students, alumni, and those who never went to college) each day. That will be more than 127,000 interviews per year. Early in 2017 they will release the Daily Education Index. She did not elaborate on what form that will take, what data will be reported or how this could be “daily.”
What are the Political Implications?
Beyond the “dumpster fire” reference by ACE’s Terry Hartle, he provided us with insights on the political ramifications of the Obama years, the election, and beyond.
- The Obama years brought…
- There have been tremendous increases in funding for Pell grants, student loan programs, and veterans education benefits. The increases were primarily funded by the Department of Education assuming responsibility for running the student loan programs.
- Federalizing the student loan program went relatively smoothly. Many who opposed the federalization thought that it could not be transitioned so well.
- The federal goal for higher education in the U.S. was changed from access to completion.
- There were tremendous efforts to limit the actions of for-profits. Some of these actions have had an impact on other higher education sectors, as well.
- The administration “never met a regulatory package that it did not like.” With 24 major regulatory packages, a new one emerged at an average of one every four months.
- Candidate Trump’s plan…
- Student loan repayments will be contingent on income.
- Colleges possessing large endowments will be scrutinized.
- They will seek to curb excessive regulations and the number of college administrators.
- Candidate Clinton’s plan…
- Allow student refinancing of student loans.
- Provide grants to states to encourage them to offer “debt-free” or “tuition-free” public higher education. This will be expensive and controversial. Will states participate? At least 20 states did not participate in the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
- Provide grant programs for private colleges with high levels of Pell-eligible students.
- Observations for the future…
- For more on the two candidate’s positions, see NASFAA’s review of their higher education proposals.
- The anger and dissatisfaction from the left and the right will continue. It was nearly impossible to govern since 2009. It will be even harder to govern as compromise will be difficult. Candidate Trump is now calling his campaign a “movement” and may (if successful) continue to have influence after the election.
- The Republicans will try to re-organize. The composition of Senators up for re-election in 2018 favors the Republicans.
- According to Hartle, President Obama had only four pieces of major successful legislative efforts in eight years. It might be tougher for a Clinton presidency.
On those happy notes, enjoy the election! And put out those dumpster fires.
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies
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