Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Should States “Pay It Forward” for Higher Education?

New models of funding higher education are currently being considered in debates throughout America. One recent debate concerns funding through “Pay It Forward” (PIF) programs. Since 2013, at least 24 states have considered legislation on PIF models of higher education finance. While details differ, the rapid proliferation of PIF program proposals shows a willingness to move from the current system of upfront payment to an income-based system of payment after leaving college.

What are “Pay It Forward” programs?
The National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) has put together a map of states in which PIF legislation has been introduced or passed. According to NACAC, 22 states have considered PIF legislation, while a more recent report by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission notes that at least 24 states have considered such proposals. Some states (like Ohio) define PIF as a deferred tuition plan, in which students would pay for college upon departure (not entry) from an institution. Other states (like Florida) defined PIF as an income share agreement, in which students would pay a portion of their income upon separation from a higher education institution.

What is deferred tuition?
Deferred tuition systems are higher education finance systems in which students do not pay for their higher education at the time of enrollment (upfront), but rather pay on the back end once they leave college. These systems delay higher education payments until the time that students enter the workforce and eliminate upfront tuition payments. By allowing students to delay payments, there is a change in the expectation of which generation pays for college. Under an upfront tuition system, it is assumed that parental resources would be used to pay for college. However, under a PIF plan the expectation is that students would pay for college themselves. Students are best able to do this once they enter the workforce following their post-secondary education. As such, payments are due, not at the time of matriculation, but at a time when students have earnings.
Deferred tuition programs have been used with in the past in the US. For instance, Yale University conducted an experiment in the 1970s and students at the University of California at Riverside proposed a similar model in 2012. Globally a number of nations use a higher education financing system in which payments for the price of education are deferred until after a student leaves college. D. Bruce Johnstone and Pamela N. Marcucci in their 2010 book categorize Australia, England, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Namibia, New Zealand, Rwanda, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Wales as nations that use deferred tuition systems.

What are income-share agreements?
The deferred tuition approach characterized in the discussion above requires each student to pay the full cost of her education (adjusted for any upfront subsidy or student aid). In contrast, an “income share” approach to higher education finance dispenses (at least in part) with the notion of a student-specific tuition amount. Instead, a special tax – sometimes referred to as a “graduate tax” – is imposed on students after they leave college. This tax is used to finance the cost of education received. However, there is no specific link between the cost of a particular student’s education and the amount paid under this tax. Instead, the tax depends on income following college, such that students would be required to pay some percentage of their income (say 3%) for a set amount of time following graduation (say 25 years). Under this scheme it is possible that high-earners could pay more than the total cost of their education and low-earners would pay less than the total cost of their education.
A number of companies have developed private income share agreements. Some provide broad income share investments that can be tied to higher education such as Upstart, Pave, and Cumulus Funding. Others, like the companies Lumni and 13th Avenue, provide funding only for students to attend higher education.

Where could someone find out more about “Pay It Forward” models?

I currently have a working paper on PIF programs with Dhammika Dharmapala from the University of Chicago. The paper develops a theoretical model of PIF programs. The results show that college access is enhanced by PIF policies. The equilibrium level of subsidies for higher education depends crucially on the pattern of income distribution and the extent to which higher education either increases or decreases income stratification (the difference between mean and median income). We show that the equilibrium level of subsidies to higher education will not necessarily decline under PIF, and may increase in some equilibria due to changes in college access for low income groups. Our work highlights important increases in college access that can be achieved with deferred tuition systems. We are considerably more wary of income share programs that are not as clearly beneficial to college access, and raise moral and ethical concerns.

by Jennifer Delaney

Jennifer A. Delaney, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She specializes in higher education finance and policy; particularly state funding of higher education.

The Forum on the Future of Public Education strives to bring the best empirical evidence to policymakers and the public. The Forum draws on a network of premier scholars to create, interpret, and disseminate credible information on key questions facing P-20 education

Friday, April 10, 2015

Charter Schools, Politics, and Democracy

Cross-post by Larry Cuban

As public charter schools have grown across the country since the early 1990s to more than 6,400 still largely located in big cities (there are 100,000 regular schools) , the debate over their existence, quality, and direction has continued unabated. Charters, enrolling over 2.5 million students (over 50 million attend U.S. public schools) continue to expand mostly in urban districts. Most charters are non-union, a few have joined teacher unions.
As public schools receiving funds from a district’s budget, charters span the universe of schooling. From for-profit cyber charters to company-managed chains of non-profit charters to ones established and operated by teachers, these schools have given low-income and minority parents choices they have not had when the only school available was the neighborhood one.
In the U.S., charter schools vary considerably in test scores. Some studies of charters claim that children do better in these schools.     Other studies reject those claims and point out that students in public schools outscore those in charters. Headlines such as “Charter Schools: Two Studies, Two Conclusions”—offering contradictory outcomes—give little confidence to those interested in whether these schools help, harm, or don’t make a difference in student achievement. For the immediate future, even with the most recent CREDO study (2015), no clear answer to the question of whether charter schools are better–that is, score higher on standardized tests than traditional public schools–  can be found in research.
Some have gone bankrupt academically and fiscally. About 15 percent of all charters that opened since 1992 have closed for financial, academic, and other reasons (2011).
Then there is the question of whether districts that established charter schools responded to the resulting competition by reducing the number of low-performing schools and increasing the high-performing ones? Here again, the evidence is mixed. Some researchers claim that district officials, fearing the loss of state funds, have introduced novel programs to stem the flow of students to newly chartered ones. Other researchers have found little evidence of districts with many charter schools and Educational Management Organizations (e.g., Aspire, Green Dot) launching initiatives to retain students in existing schools.
Over the past two decades, I have supported charter schools because as someone who has spent a quarter-century working in urban schools as a teacher and administrator and another quarter-century researching urban schools, I want low-income parents and students living in urban districts to have choices among schools that parents with more resources already have. I have visited many charter schools over the years to see how they are run and how teachers teach in them. To learn more about charters, I served for three years on the Board of Trustees of a Northern California organization called Leadership for Public Schools that operates four charter high schools. I was most impressed with my colleagues on the Board and CEO Louise Waters. I also know some the glaring shortcomings of charters across the county–Joe Nathan’s recent post in Education Week crisply lists them.
So I do have a sense of what the major questions about charter schools are, the contested answers to those questions, and the simple fact that charter schools are a political invention. And that is the point of this post.
Public schools from their very origin two centuries are (and have been) political institutions. Primary purposes for tax-supported public schools have been shaping citizens, preparation for jobs, improving society and the well-being of students in school. Political support for one or the other of these multiple (and conflicting) purposes have shifted over time. For the past thirty years, the over-riding goal for public schools has been better preparing the nation’s youth for the labor market and to strengthen the economy. This to-do item has been on every U.S. President’s agenda beginning with Ronald Reagan and continuing through Barack Obama. So charter schools are political innovations.
Yet, and this is a big “yet,” public schools in a democracy, juggling these multiple purposes, are expected (and have been for two centuries) to also conserve national and local traditions, beliefs, and values and, at the same time, help students to grow and change those very traditions to improve the community and nation. To conserve and change at the same time ain’t easy to do in a democracy. Nor is it for charter public schools. The political character of schooling becomes clearer when advocates for one or the other purposes of schools  overlook the complex tasks facing all public schools in a democracy.
In an exchange of recent posts and emails, I have read what both champions and opponents of charter schools have written. I want to quote from one of these exchanges between Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan and other strong supporters of charters. I received permission from Deborah to quote what she wrote recently to nearly two dozen of her friends, some of whom support and some of whom oppose charters.
If charters were only what [charter advocates] have had in mind what a wonderful world we’d be in!  But they are not that–or just that.  They are ALSO something quite different which is neither innovative nor democratic nor compatible with the idea of a public and democratic educational system–and that is happening in many countries (western democracies).   
 Maybe half the US charters–which is a major accomplishment–are what you both hoped for.  But half (and I believe the half who are in the driver’s seat since they have the money, influence and power to represent charterdom)  have other motives and beliefs, including eventually replacing public education with a completely “free” market of private institution, ideally for profit, aided by public funds.   They believe in this not merely out of greed but out of conviction that the market place is at the heart of democracy, it’s essential core.  And that, in the long run, it’s best for everyone.  They probably wouldn’t argue that it leads to equality, or anything like it, but that’s an honest disagreement since they do believe that it will overtime lift all boats.
 I wish wish wish that those like you, and so many others would find a way to separate yourselves from “the charter movement” which speaks loudly “on your behalf” and is funded largely by ALEC-style groups and individuals, plus well-meaning liberal foundations.  You might even get funds from some of the latter as a token contribution toward another view of charters.
Or, at the least, I wish you’d issue a statement at some time, with as many charter names as you could, stating an alternate view–one that excludes vouchers and profiteering and selectivity and privatism.  And, in fact, that represents part of its task to make all public education less selective, less tracked, and more consciously democratic.  That  together you represent an interest in demonstrating the many successful ways (plus some lessons from failures)  in which schooling can represent a form of democratic governance serving democratic purposes including the preparation of the young for active engagement in the politics of their worlds.  
A divided house…and all that–hardly helps our shared vision.    And we are often brutally divided now, denouncing each other, looking for gotchas.  That’s a prescription for our mutual failure.
Forgive me for preaching.   I am probably over-emoting–at least in part because god-knows how much longer I will be able to emote!!!!  I wish you guys could put together a gathering of maybe a few dozen charters to discuss these kinds of ideas–and invite me.  Parker–Ted Sizer’s baby–is one.  I’m on the board of a charter in NYC started by Todd Sutler that I love.  My ally and Mission Hill co-founder Heidi Lyne is a principal of a fine charter in Boston.  Paula Evans, and now former CPE graduate Caleb Hurst run one in Cambridge, and on and on.   
A number of Coalition [of Essential Schools] are charters.  As are many of the MET and Expeditionary Learning network schools.   Many urban districts are not open to what we did within the system in Boston or East Harlem, etc. because  many are “in bed” with the spread of charters, including some of the most offending ones.  [Governor Andrew] Cuomo (NY), [Mayor of Chicago ]Rahm Emanuel, [former Mayor of New York City Michael] Bloomberg, [former Chancellor of New York City schools Joel] Klein, et al. hardly share our vision of MORE democracy.
Let’s start a broader discussion about how we might lower the temperature of warfare between “our” side and up the temperature effectively against real enemies.  
In part 2 of this post, I offer some responses to Deborah’s points and my own reflections on charter schools.
By Larry Cuban
View his blog here.
The Forum on the Future of Public Education strives to bring the best empirical evidence to policymakers and the public. The Forum draws on a network of premier scholars to create, interpret, and disseminate credible information on key questions facing P-20 education

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Upcoming Webinar: Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance

Webinar/Seminar: Dr. Kristen Buras – Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance (Tue, April 7th, 1pm (PDT)/3pm (CDT))

Dear colleagues and friends,

You are cordially invited to join the upcoming webinar/seminar on the Marketization and Privatization in Education seminar series. The next session, with Dr. Kristen Buras (bio below), is on Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance (abstract below).

This seminar will take place at 1pm (PDT)/ 3pm (CDT) on April 7th (Tue), 2015. There are three possible methods of joining the seminar.

(1) If you would like to attend in person in Vancouver, please come to Scarfe 308A, UBC (Vancouver campus). Map at:,n,n,n,n,y&bldg2Search=n&locat1=240-1

(2) If you are attending in person in Urbana-Champaign, please come to #22 in College of Education, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

(3) If you are joining the webinar, please go to and click “Join meeting” as a participant and enter Meeting ID: 305154344 Please join us 10 minutes prior to the meeting time so that we can ensure everyone’s audio and video work properly.

For webinar participants, please (1) mute your microphone, (2) turn off your video feed, and (3) do not share screen. If you would like to ask questions or need technical assistance, please use the 'CHAT' typing function.

**To give us a better idea of how many attendees/participants we may have, please RSVP by filling out the form:

For questions or other assistance, please send a message to Ee-Seul Yoon ( or Dwayne Cover (

Hope you can join us.


Ee-Seul Yoon and Christopher Lubienski​ at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Dwayne Cover at the University of British Columbia


Charter schools have been promoted as an equitable and innovative solution to the problems plaguing urban schools. Advocates claim that charter schools benefit working-class students of color by offering them access to a “portfolio” of school choices. In Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space, Kristen Buras presents a very different account. Her case study of New Orleans—where veteran teachers were fired en masse and the nation’s first all-charter school district was developed—shows that such reform is less about the needs of racially oppressed communities and more about the production of an urban space economy in which white entrepreneurs capitalize on black children and neighborhoods. In this revealing book, Buras draws on critical theories of race, political economy, and space, as well as a decade of research on the ground to expose the criminal dispossession of black teachers and students who have contributed to New Orleans’ culture and history. Mapping federal, state, and local policy networks, she shows the city’s landscape has been reshaped by a strategic venture to privatize public education. She likewise chronicles grassroots efforts to defend historic schools and neighborhoods against this assault, revealing a commitment to equity and place and articulating a vision of change that is sure to inspire heated debate among communities nationwide.

* If you are interested in buying her book, please see the attached discount book flier.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Expertise, Advocacy, and Media Influence: Lessons in the Aftermath of an Academic Study’s Publication

Recently, Dr. Christopher Lubienski and I were pleased to have our research, regarding media influence in education, published in the journal Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPAA). Better yet, and with irony in light of study topic and findings,[1]our work generated some media influence of its own. Organizations such as Media Matters and the Australian (see here and here) covered the article, as did education writers like Alexander Russo (see here). We even learned (via a Tweet, of course) that Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, referenced our work at an event. Because one of the discussion points of the paper was that scholars should strive to share their findings and knowledge in new and social media,[2] I’ve decided to use this blog post to share a few reflections.[3] Specifically, I consider why this study might have received some attention, focusing mostly upon actionable explanations.

First, let’s get the possibly self-serving why-did-this-study-generate-media-attention? explanations out of the way, shall we? Perhaps the study was simply so elegant, awe-inspiring, etc., that it could not be denied air time! Although I did think it was a fine study, thank you very much, in the end this explanation has limited utility. A closely related possibility, that one of the authors (Dr. Lubienski, of course) is of such professional stature that his authorship alone commands a bump in notice, likely offers some additional insight. Finally, the topic of study might itself have resonated; perhaps the study fits within the interests of a critical mass of colleagues and citizens. The possibilities of media bias, or of undue media influence, after all, certainly generate ongoing attention and concern. So, in these ways we have probably partially explained the interest that the article generated.

But, surely there must be more to the story? There is. Below, I offer what I believe to be the strongest reasons why the article generated new and traditional media attention:

1. Most likely first and foremost, the University of Illinois’ News Bureau took the initiative to professionally describe our work. Not only did they summarize the essence of the study, but they included a flattering photograph and subsequently executed their news release processes. It was only following their coverage that I witnessed a significant bump in interest in the research.

2. Also of major importance, the article was published in a high quality, open-access journal. Contrast this, for instance, with publishing in a restricted-access journal that is accessible to few individuals. EPAA “provides immediate open access to its content on the principle that making research freely available to the public supports a greater global exchange of knowledge.” This journal has a considerable social media presence as well, actively seeking to maximize readership of its published work. Their efforts no doubt assisted in getting the word out, so to speak, and I believe their mission is noble.

3. Related, Dr. Lubienski in particular (and I tried…) welcomed the interest that emerged and even helped to amplify it. For instance, Dr. Lubienski (who as of the writing of the article had 2,103 Twitter followers to my mere 65), tweeted the following, and it was re-tweeted 20 times. While this may not constitute “break the internet” popularity, neither is it trifling:

With this in mind, here are a few takeaways. First, I’ll stand behind one of our closing arguments: “…academic researchers who wish to see that their scholarly work has impact beyond their academic audience may want to devote a greater share of their attention to the art of communication via traditional and new media.” While I have no more than a childlike grasp of this art as yet, at least I now comprehend that there is one, and it can be learned. For those who, like me, are a bit squeamish about anything that resembles tooting one’s own horn, I believe this is a feeling that needs to be overcome if one wishes to make a policy influence these days. I also suggest that higher education institutions or other organizations invest (or continue to invest) in strategic communication efforts so as to increase the consumption of research that is being produced, and scholars may consider leveraging these groups by encouraging them to cover their work. The University of Illinois’ News Bureau offered a terrific blueprint, and the results demonstrate that their efforts were worthwhile. Lastly, individuals should consider the implications of pursuing publication in open, versus restricted, access outlets. As we had stated in closing our article, “In the absence of these and other steps, policy changes in the realm of education will too often continue to be guided more so by ideology and agendas than by research.”

by Joe Malin

Joel R. Malin is a Doctor of Philosophy student in the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership and Curriculum Specialist at the Pathways Resource Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also a fellow with the Forum on the Future of Public Education, and serves as a research and data analysis consultant for Lake Forest School District 67 (Illinois). His research interests include the underpinnings and practical implications of educational policies, and mentorship and leadership capacity development.

The Forum on the Future of Public Education strives to bring the best empirical evidence to policymakers and the public. The Forum draws on a network of premier scholars to create, interpret, and disseminate credible information on key questions facing P-20 education.


[1] Long story short, we found that (a) the relationship between expertise and media influence appears to be weak; and (b) some educational advocacy organizations are effectively entering the media stream by way of individuals they back as topical experts.

[2] Else their voice will more likely be absent or underrepresented in public discourse, policy decision making, etc.

[3] I wrote these reflections without conferring with Dr. Lubienski, so the views expressed may not capture his.

E-Advocacy and E-vidence: How do Bloggers Participate in Education Reform?

Networks of intermediary organizations (IONs) are penetrating the education policy space with a range of ideas and “evidence,” brokering knowledge to policy actors and the public at large. Increasingly, we are observing IOs gaining traction as key players in advocacy and policymaking in the U.S. public education sector around tenuous reforms such as charter schools, merit pay, vouchers, and Parent Trigger. Operating in a myriad of forms, IONs often include a mix of the “big three” foundations (i.e. Gates, Walton, Broad), advocacy groups, think tanks, academic research networks, policy groups, and journalists. Several articles from our research study on evidence use among IOs and policymakers give empirical accounts of this phenomenon at the national and local levels in Denver, New York City, and New Orleans (see Further Reading).
The blogosphere is one avenue through which individual IOs and IONs broker knowledge around the abovementioned reforms. Advocacy groups such as Parent Revolution, higher profile outfits such as EdWeek, and individuals with branded blogs such as Jason France’s Crazy Crawfish are engaging almost entirely in “E-Advocacy,” promoting and disseminating evidence via their blogs. Although bloggers continue to create and fill the ever-evolving marketplace of ideas with commentary on hotly contested education reforms, we have little understanding of the character of advocacy in the blogosphere. More specifically, we know little about who is blogging and bloggers’ affiliations, purposes, and target audiences. Additionally, more nuanced questions regarding bloggers’ perceptions of the role of evidence in policymaking and how bloggers treat or use evidence are also not well understood. To explore these questions, we talked with 14 bloggers and tracked 741 blog posts from 37 blogs between 2011 and 2015. In this pilot analysis of our interview data and blog posts from 2014, we observed several noteworthy trends that shed light on the role of the blogosphere in the supply and demand of evidence in the IO sector and in education policymaking.

1) Who’s Who: Three main groups of education policy bloggers are educators, university researchers, and intermediary organizations. Typically, educators and university researchers blog independently, while multiple authors publish blogs for intermediary organizations. Active university researcher bloggers include Diane Ravitch, Sara Goldrick-Rab, Bruce Baker, and Rick Hess, and educators who blog include Anthony Cody, Carol Burris, and Mark Weber. Multiple-authored intermediary organization blogs include those of National Education Policy Center, EdWeek, Flypaper, and Chalkbeat. In the past year, bloggers have started to coalesce around positionality on reforms. In particular, we find that bloggers who oppose corporate education reform are organizing with one another, and Diane Ravitch is integral to these networks.

2) Aims: While bloggers’ target audiences appear to be their own affiliates (e.g. educators write for educators), university researchers and bloggers from advocacy organizations expressed a specific interest in targeting policymakers, also. We found that bloggers publish in order to advocate for and against; provide journalistic accounts of policy, politics, and movements of; and correct misunderstood or misused evidence around the abovementioned reforms. In terms of issue-specific aims, data suggest that the issue of charter schools consumed the blogosphere in 2014. In the 398 blogs posts we tracked from 17 different education policy blogs in 2014, the issues examined were as follows: 73% charters, 23% vouchers, 4% Parent Trigger, and less than 1% merit pay. We suspect that the tremendous amount of dialogue on charter schools in the blogosphere was a response to the series of CREDO reports released in 2013. Also, bloggers and representatives of intermediary organizations reported that they felt merit pay was a “settled” issue and lacked viability, despite that the $45 million Gates Foundation funded Measures of Effective Teaching project released several reports of findings from 2011 to 2014.

3) Beliefs About Evidence: Reflecting upon the role of evidence in education policymaking generally and in the blogosphere specifically, bloggers reported that evidence garners credibility both for reform itself and for the individual(s) blogging about said reform. Bloggers perceived that evidence is drawn upon, and at times “manipulated,” to justify positions and decisions about education reforms. Furthermore, individuals draw upon evidence to “have numbers in their pocket” as well as gain influence upon and actively participate in decision-making on reform. In reporting these beliefs, many bloggers expressed that the “trustworthiness” and “validity” of evidence is complicated by increasing pressure to publish blogs in “real time” and poor access to raw data and empirical research.

4) Using Evidence (see Table 1): In the 398 blog posts from 17 different education policy blogs in 2014, we observed that bloggers used 26 different types of evidence. Overall, bloggers took five approaches to evidence use, and sometimes they drew upon more than one approach in their posts. Most often bloggers used Web-based and multimedia sources of evidence such as the author’s previous blog posts, posts from other blogs, Tweets, websites, videos, photographs, and podcasts. Second most often bloggers drew upon news (e.g. newspaper articles, magazines, press releases) or research from intermediary organization-authored reports, academic journal articles, visual representations of quantitative data, and books. In some instances, bloggers referenced documents including policy briefs, legislation, tax returns, PowerPoint presentations, and official school documents. Finally, in a few cases, bloggers did not cite evidence at all. The most blog activity in our 2014 sample was in the five separate EdWeek (reported in sum), Jay P. Greene, and Jersey Jazzman blogs. We found that Jersey Jazzman referred to forms of research more often than any other blog, while EdWeek bloggers relied heavily upon Web-based evidence, specifically their own blog posts.

These trends provide an initial understanding of evidence use and advocacy in the blogosphere. By characterizing those involved in E-advocacy and bloggers’ aims, perceptions of evidence, and the types of evidence that bloggers draw upon, we have established a baseline account of how evidence features in E-advocacy IO networks in U.S. educational policymaking.

Priya Goel is a joint Ph.D.-MBA student. Her Ph.D. focus is in education administration; and her MBA foci are entrepreneurship and general management. Priya's research interests include identity in P-12 leadership, globalization and curriculum, and parent engagement in school policy.

The Forum on the Future of Public Education strives to bring the best empirical evidence to policymakers and the public. The Forum draws on a network of premier scholars to create, interpret, and disseminate credible information on key questions facing P-20 education

Further Reading

DeBray, E., Scott, J., Lubienski, C., & Jabbar, H. (2014). Intermediary organizations in charter school policy coalitions: Evidence from New Orleans. Educational Policy 28(2), 175-206. doi: 10.1177/0895904813514132

Goldie, D., Linic, M., Jabbar, H., Lubienski, C. (2014). Using bibliometric and social media analyses to explore the “echo chamber” hypothesis. Educational Policy 28(2), 281-305. doi: 10.1177/0895904813515330

Jabbar, H., La Londe, P. G., DeBray, E. H., Scott, J. T., & Lubienski, C. A. (2014). How policymakers define “evidence”: The politics of research use in New Orleans. Policy Futures in Education, 12(8), 1013-1027. doi: 10.2304/pfie.2014.12.8.1013

Lubienski, C., Scott, J., & DeBray, E. (2014). The politics of research production, promotion, and utilization in educational policy. Educational Policy 28(2), 1-14. doi: 10.1177/0895904813515329 

Lubienski, C., Scott, J., & DeBray, E. (2011). The rise of intermediary organizations in knowledge production, advocacy, and educational policy (ID No. 16487). Teachers College Record. Available from

Scott, J., & Jabbar, H. (2013). Money and measures: Foundations as knowledge brokers. In D. Anagnostopoulos, S. Rutledge & R. Jacobsen (Eds.), The infrastructure of accountability: Mapping data use and its consequences across the American education system (pp. 75-92). Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Scott, J., & Jabbar, H. (2014). The Hub and the Spokes: Foundations, Intermediary Organizations, Incentivist Reforms, and the Politics of Research Evidence. Educational Policy, 28(3), pp. 233-257. doi:10.1177/0895904813515327

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

“One Format to Rule Them All,” Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the MOOC

Among the myriad battles that comprise the existential wars over the fate of higher education in the 21st century, the controversy over Massive Open Online Courses—or MOOCs—seems to have all the elements of a Tolkienesque epic. Like the protagonists ensconced in the mighty fortress of Helm’s Deep, many traditional universities view their educational way of life under assault from massive hordes of the untraditional, unadmitted, undegreed, and un-sold on the trappings of higher education as it has previously existed. Instead, these “students” opt in and out of vast online courses designed by professors and other specialists, but piloted by armies of teaching assistants and adjuncts. They engage in the learning process until they acquire the competencies they need, freed from Byzantine admissions processes, majors of dubious value, years’ worth of tuitions, and the seemingly unending parade of fees that often finance services that these students neither want nor need. Indeed, advocates of MOOCs may very well argue that their approach is truly “one format to rule them all.”

But, bad Lord of the Rings parallels aside, the arguments against MOOCs are numerous and well-publicized. As Justin Pope noted in The MIT Technology Review, efforts to establish and sustain MOOCs have encountered faculty resistance, suffered from low completion rates, high dropout rates, and the general inability to make MOOCs a financially viable concept. Equally problematic, studies have indicated that males, younger students, students of color, and students with lower grade point averages were particularly at-risk of failure in MOOC environments.  No wonder, then, that many in higher education began to consider MOOCs to be an idea whose guaranteed demise had yet to come, relegating the idea to the proverbial dust-heap of failed educational concepts.

Perhaps, however, critics may have been too hasty in heralding the MOOC’s demise. While there are arguably issues with which MOOC designers and students must contend, MOOCs have great potential in terms of the capacity of such courses to individualize learning to meet the particular needs of the students enrolled, their competency-based orientation, their scalability, and their potential for cost effectiveness. Ironically, one need only look at educator preparation and educator professional development as an example of what the future may hold for MOOCs. The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University has engaged in initiatives with university faculty, as well as local and state educational authorities, to create “MOOC-Eds” that are designed to enable P-12 teachers to obtain the professional development needed to master the curricular, pedagogical, and technological skills required for effective teaching and learning. Far from the “mega-course” environment where students work in isolation from the faculty who designed the courses, the MOOC-Eds are much smaller, “niche MOOCS,” designed to meet the needs of a particular audience of students. Such is the value of these more personalized MOOCs that the Friday Institute has received interest and support from organizations as diverse as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Harvard. In addition to the immediate benefits for the educators engaged in MOOC-Eds, the courses also demonstrate how MOOCs can enable education preparation programs to meet the technology standards embedded in the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation and other accreditation and regulatory bodies. Thus, the concept of flexibility and nimbleness may be added to the potential benefits of MOOC education.

Finally, through partnerships such as the one between MIT and Harvard, MOOCs are entering into the K-12 environment. Under this joint program, high school students who are preparing for Advance Placement exams will have access to 26 MOOC courses offered by 14 institutions of higher learning, including MIT, Rice, and the University of California, Berkeley.  As is the case in higher education, K-12 education finds particular potential in MOOCS that engage in competency-based learning which embed interactive experiences for students that they may not otherwise have in traditional classroom settings. Although the spread of K-12 MOOCs has been slow, the course offerings are expanding, and organizations such as edX appear to be committed to facilitating the growth of MOOCs into the primary and secondary educational environments.

It would be naïve to argue that MOOCs will spell the end of the university as we know it. Helm’s Deep will not fall. It would be equally naïve, however, to dismiss the potential that MOOCs have to make education broader, deeper, more democratic, and more accessible-all the while providing students a more personalized, optimized, and intimate learning experience. Over time and with continued dedication to improving how MOOCs are developed and delivered, these courses can provide an innovative way to ensure that higher education and the institutions that provide it stay relevant for the near and distant future.

Scott T. Grubbs is the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (C.A.E.P.) Coordinator for the James and Dorothy Dewar College of Education and Human Services at Valdosta State University. Scott is a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Policy and Evaluation at the Florida State University and is a 2013 David L. Clarke National Graduate Student Research Seminar participant. His research interests include educational politics, educational program evaluation and accreditation, and applied professional ethics.

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