Future of Learning Top Reads for week of May 27 2019

“Jefferson, Adams, and the SAT’s New Adversity Factor,” by Nicholas Lemann, in the New Yorker

“Most discussions of admissions to élite colleges are built around the never-quite-directly-expressed idea that, somewhere around the next bend and soon to make itself apparent, is the right way to do it—one that can be straightforwardly applied and that will be universally recognized as fair. Dream on! It’s relatively easy to say (but hard for private universities to put into effect, because they are so dependent on gifts) that athletes and children of donors and alumni shouldn’t get a preference. But what about race? People definitely don’t agree about whether that should factor into admissions. And what about economic disadvantage—should it be only somewhat important, or important enough reliably to trump pure academic measures? What if affluent parents, and their well-paid enablers, find ways to game the Environmental Context Dashboard, as they did long ago with the SAT itself? (Imagine small, island-like affluent schools and neighborhoods that can hide inside larger and less fortunate places that generate high adversity scores.) Élite admissions is a zero-sum game. Many more people aspire to places in a small handful of colleges than can go to them. Every time a new kind of applicant wins, another kind of applicant loses. It’s impossible to achieve a clean, widely agreed-upon separation between teen-aged natural and artificial aristocrats.”

Why does this matter to the future of learning?

H/T John Gulla for sharing this article on Twitter.

As we noted last week, the College Board’s creation of an “Adversity Index” reflects very little about making the college admissions process more equitable. This New Yorker essay explores the conflict between the notion of “natural aristocracy” (what we might today call “meritocracy”) and the tendency for people to find ever-inventive ways to exclude others.

For a longer read on the fundamental inequity in the “design” of college admissions, check out chapter 7 of Dark Horse by Todd Rose & Ogi Ogas, in which the authors argue that what we call a “meritocracy” is actually a “quotacracy” (i.e., fixed numbers of seats in elite colleges irrespective of how much demonstrated talent might apply for them).


“What IS the difference between competencies and standards?” by Sydney Schaef, on the reDesign blog

“In standards-based systems, standards set a consistent target for teaching but in practice, there is no specific commitment that all students achieve the target. Students may be promoted to higher levels whether demonstrably proficient or not, and traditional grades serve as the marker of student performance relative to the standards. In other words, the system remains unchanged, although the quality of instruction may be enhanced.”

Why does this matter to the future of learning?

As initiatives like the Mastery Transcript Consortium gain traction, it is increasingly important to distinguish competency approaches from standards-based approaches:

“In competency-based models, the entire system must change. Students advance upon mastery when they are ready, not when an arbitrary academic calendar suggests that they should be. Most importantly, students receive the timely, differentiated supports they need in order to experience success and advance to the next level. Optimally, competencies are broad enough that student pathways and demonstrations of proficiency can be vastly different, organized to encourage and nurture student passions and questions. Failure is no longer an acceptable label for children or feature of the system: if a student isn’t proficient at a particular moment, then more learning and practice opportunities will be encouraged and facilitated. When proficiency is reached, the student will move on. The school bends to the child’s learning needs, not the other way around. […]

“In a true competency-based system, students can’t fail. Instead, students receive concrete and specific feedback on their work, and are provided with opportunities for additional practice and support in order to develop and demonstrate growth in their competencies. Mastery-based grading and promotion policies are radically different in competency-based systems because promotion is based on mastery of specific skills, not on completion of courses made up of arbitrary and highly varied bundles of content, skills, and concepts.

In the future, schools will need to commit to one system or the other: uniform standards for everyone, irrespective of their performance, or competencies that can be demonstrated in myriad ways, honoring the myriad strengths of learners. That choice will shape a school’s entire system.


“Report: College enrollment down nationwide; Pa. decline larger than the average,” by Susan Snyder, in the Philadelphia Inquirer

“Pennsylvania’s enrollment declined 2.6 percent, or more than 16,800 students, to 628,279, according to a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. […]

“Nationally, enrollment fell 1.7 percent, the report said. […]

“‘Colleges and universities in many regions continue to struggle from the combined effects of a strong job market and smaller numbers of high school graduates,’ Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center, said in a statement. ‘Growth in the numbers of graduate and professional students has not been large enough to make up for the declines in undergraduates in recent years.’”

Why does this matter to the future of learning?

Demography is destiny. Under the current paradigm, colleges are likely to continue to see continued decreases in enrollment, which will place increased pressure on tuition revenue, which is already challenged because of 50%+ discount rates all over the country. At some point, something has to give…


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Christian Talbot