Monthly Archives: August 2011

We rarely have time to stop and think seriously about some new fashionable sentences, words, acronyms (a terrible fashion) and ideas. A good example is the lame discussion around the “higher education bubble”. It is lame because it speaks only about money when the real challenge is more complex and the impact is relevant for a long-term perspective. The plot of this story is very simple: Peter Thiel – the co-founder of PayPal company and an early investor in Facebook – created the Thiel Foundation to fund 20 people under the age of 20 with a fellowship of $100,000 to drop out of school and become successful entrepreneurs and world-changing visionaries. Since this challenge was thrown in the arena, media and respected scholars followed the argument of a rich man with some ideas and reduced the entire discussion to the financial aspects (you can listen NPR’s “Is A College Education Worth The Debt?”). A new fashion was created and hundreds of applicants joined the cue to leave school for a future with even more money than promised by universities; just imagine a “X-country Got Talent” cue and it may not be very far from reality.

The most recent study on this topic – added to the Library section where prestigious institutions vastly document with clear statistics why education is a good investment – was released by Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (The College Payoff. Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings). As Thiel was speaking about education in United States, this comprehensive study is even more relevant as it covers the situation for this country. The other advantage of this study is that is presenting findings in “dollar totals over a career, which is defined as being a full-time, full-year worker from 25 to 64 years old”. In other words: investing in your education will bring you more money? The first conclusion is:

“Over a lifetime, individuals with a Bachelor’s degree make 84% more than those with only a high school diploma.”

The study not only confirms that the value of college degrees is increasing, but reveals that more education will give you more money:

Even within the same occupation, more education gets workers more money. Truck drivers with less than high school make $1.3 million over a lifetime, compared to $1.5 million for truck drivers with a high school diploma. Elementary and middle school teachers with a Bachelor’s degree make $1.8 million over a lifetime, compared with $2.2 million for those with a Master’s degree.”

These findings are great, but not news. OECD publishes almost every year collection of statistical data and analysis that proves why education is a very good investment for a person and for societies. In “Understanding the Social Outcomes of Learning” published by OECD in 2008 you read about money and chapters on other benefits, such as “Health Outcomes of Learning”. The value of education is now so obvious and so well documented that the simple question seems to deserve very little attention and can be solved with a simple invitation to read numerous national and international studies based on strong data and facts. This did not happend in this case.

The natural question is why questioning the value of education gained so much traction in academia and mass media? Why respected academics spent so much effort and time to justify something so easy to defend and so visible? The seduction of anti-intellectualism and hostility towards educated people is a simplistic answer that does not cover the interest of academia to take one of the polarized sides. It may be the fact that the entire discussion was around money and the source of the debate is a rich man. The rationale is based on the logic that Thiel has a special talent for making money and he knows well what is a good investment. Therefore, here is an important source of knowledge: the person with money speaks about investing in education – we better listen and align to give good answers.

This is the first real source of a possible bubble in education: the values once at the core of our civilization are now overwhelmed by the noise of money. The mogul replaced the erudite not only on the public arena, but also in campus and in thinking. The entrepreneur is taking the place of the social philosopher, the expert and the scholar in a scene where Academia is now a replica of business centers. Mr. Thiel now takes the place once occupied by Plato and he cannot be blamed. He is free to take whatever decision he wants as any of us, but it is an interesting sign to see respected scholars giving him so much credit for a “revolutionary idea” and placing the ‘expert in investments” in this surprising role. In the reality of this context paideia, arete or kalokagathia may be pillars of the Western civilization (and education), but stay now only as ridiculous spaces to waste time and not make money.

This situation is also speaking about a time when anyone is an expert in education and no basic knowledge about history of education, psychology, educational policies, or teaching and learning is required to have definitive opinions and even take decisions with great impact. As long as you went through school it is natural to claim that you know what a teacher should do, how a school should be organized and what students need. There is rarely any other area of our lives now with so many experts. In this reality if a rich man knows what is required to have visionary people of the future than we have to pay attention: the expert in making money just spoke and his bank account is the ultimate argument of relevance. This is a real threat for education.

MIT President Susan Hockfield recently said that higher education is now at crossroads:

“[It is] a very complicated time – one that tests the limits of human ingenuity and understanding. A time when the world has never depended more on science and technology that we study and invent at MIT, but seems, on the whole, dangerously unable to understand that science and technology. Yet, ironically, a time when many question the value of higher education and the utility of government-sponsored research”.

We can easily translate this as the time when the world is dangerously unable to understand the value of education. Just forget for a moment about the politicians’ rhetoric and wolves in sheep’s clothing talking about the “importance of education” and see how the aims of education today speak about our current values or how teachers are usually represented and respected in most Western countries. MIT President also noted in April 2011:

What is missing in United States is a deficit of ambition […] I think, as a nation, we hardly celebrate the achievements that one can attain if one has a college education. We are a nation that happily celebrates athletes and entertainers – and I think that’s great… But we do not have heroes that come out from a different kind of life.

The truth is that the profound distrust in intellect and education, the public ridicule of cultivated and profound thinking (nerds have that) as opposed to positive attributes associated for public sympathy with various kinds of entertainers is maybe the most influential export United States had for decades; this changed the world and the university as well. To think that Mrs. Susan Hockfield pinpoints a reality valid only  for United States is just a sweet delusional dream – the Americanization of education is in this sense almost complete for the world.

The real bubble in education is not about money and investments, but close to challenges such as “what students learn?”, “how grades reflect what students learn?”, “what is happening with studying in universities?” and “how lifelong learning is lived by new graduates?”.

These topics related to the real “bubble” in education require a separate blog entry (or a chapter in a book)…


Note: Thanks to all who spend time to read this personal space of thinking about what is my source of hope and passion: education. I am truly grateful for your comments and I kindly ask you to post them here – this place is open for comments and no registration is required (I hope I got this right is settings). Of course, if you want to send your comments as before please do not hesitate – but some are so much better than the original material that it will be great to post them at the source.


To say that reforming higher education is not about being left or right, public or private, “publish or perish” is generally accepted in many academic contexts and sometimes understood as a genuine call for a more robust analysis of possible models for the future. However, this direction is obscured by the loud chorus of those seduced by the obvious and simple, by the possibility of immediate gratification offered by quantifiable data that speaks objectively about all we think we cover in education: students’ performance, their knowledge, “skills” and competencies. This dream is so consistent that any fact and any disaster is incapable to affect the general enthusiasm for a model promising an immediate future where you can see in a pie chart how students perform, think, work and align to desired workplace needs. The model is called “standards-based education” and is based on a very political and simple principle: education is based on standards; students take tests that measure their academic performance against these standards. The results have direct consequences for students and schools: rewards for good performers, and sanctions for results poorly aligned with standards.


There are too many problems with this model to operate a comprehensive analysis of all aspects involved by its implementation in practice, to have a serious look at implications in education of the sloppy use of terms as “skills” and “performance” and the disturbing and destructive application of simplistic political and administrative models as replacements of the aims of education. However, we need to stop over some crucial aspects affecting now education that seem to be consistently sold as ultimate truths and see how this positivists’ utopia is changing our schools at all levels.

The most important fallacy starts from the promise that standards-based education gives a clear picture of reality.

In this paradigm, assessments are used at the end of a certain segment of schooling to gain evidence that standards are being met and this evidence is crucial for the students’ future. The confusing (and philosophically confused) rhetoric around an imagined substantial difference between standardized and standards-based education is marked by the problem that two words do not change the world and reality of this model. Standards determine assessments and educational practice and the reality is that this model states that the only relevant result is one aligned to a specific standard. Learning, teaching and thinking is standardized to meet immediate behavioral demands of various tests applied to verify alignment to the common standard – what cannot be objectified does not matter in this context.

The seductive part of this solution is the assurance that students have a clear set of skills, knowledge and abilities at a certain level, in general relevant for an employer. The source of this illusion comes from a very superficial understanding of education in general – relating education with “observable skills” in a simplistic behaviorist paradigm – and a surprising lack of vision. The evolution of standard-based education reveals that the natural consequence of imposing this model is to force students to learn for the test and to make educators interested in arbitrary standards than the reality of their students, classrooms and substance of education. The impact of this is devastating for schools and the serious problems affecting students’ learning in universities (see previous posted data on functional illiteracy rates in some OECD countries). Tremendous public scandals such as the embarrassing “Texas miracle” reveal a disturbing reality where schools cheat, lie and have to stand against students from unprivileged areas just to be ‘on standards”. The role of a standard is to certify – and schools with students from different cultures or from areas affected by poverty have to find a way to be “certified”; this way involved administrators asking “poor” students to stay at home and other forms of false reporting. The focus shifted from providing meaningful learning experiences to immediate observable outcomes and desperate solutions to report good data.

The source of the current use of this model is United States. Just being a bit more honest about their own disasters, Americans reflected in detail on the tremendous problems associated with standards-based education in their schools. Just in the last years media uncovered how hundreds of schools lied about results to increase students’ scores and achieve the imposed standards. Teachers found themselves under pressure to cheat and change tests and the numbers of erasures on standardized tests raised legitimate questions (USA Today). Media discovered that cheating is widespread and New York Times brings to light some realities in articles such as “Systematic Cheating Is Found in Atlanta’s School System”. The Washington Post presents now how “teachers and administrators cheated to inflate standardized test scores”.

A simple and clear explanation for this embarrassing situation was offered by Bob Schaeffer (from FairTest) on NBC:

“Of course, it was the teachers who made the ultimate decision to cheat, which is immoral and unethical. But it was the laws and tests that pressured them to make those unethical and immoral decisions.”

The “clear picture” offered by elaborated standards as a “foundation” for educational practice is shattered to pieces by any honest incursion into reality. This promise is ubiquitously contradicted by facts from various countries naive enhough to believe the formula presented by “international experts”. What turns to be for education just structurally irrelevant standards have at this moment the real power to mask reality with unreliable data.

The ethical aspect of common standards for educational practice should be another serious reason for reluctance in adopting this model. However, it seems that public disasters in different parts of the world, ethical reasons and internal contradictions have no impact on the fervor to adopt at all levels a dodgy model. The dream to have assessments and to measure results of educational services – in a relatively inexpensive, fast, simple to understand and design, able to provide clear and visible results – is not only irresistible, but it turned into the only possible solution for education in the mind of most politicians and policy-makers. The “collateral damages” and the obvious contradictions between the (too well) publicized educational aims of nowadays societies to nurture innovation, flexible thinking and adaptability and realities of a politically marketable model with disastrous effects for education are not yet a reason to think of possible alternatives.

It is important to remember that this was from the very beginning a political idea: in United States, The National Governors Association, led by Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, introduced the concept of performance-based education in the mid 1980s. At that time it was called the “horse trade” and in 1994 turned into a clear requirement for states to create “performance-based accountability systems for schools”. New amendments required states to develop academic standards, assessments based on the standards, and progress goals for schools and school districts. Standards-based model was marked since then by a succession of dramatic failures, but internationally was a strong desire to implement the “accountability model” of education. In the midst of the current financial crisis, teachers marched in Washington DC to protest standardized testing – during “Save Our Schools March”, teachers condemned “a horrible decade for teachers”. One of the invited speakers, Hollywood actor Matt Damon, offered his perspective as a former student looking back to what he regards as a meaningful and important education:

“I was raised by a teacher. My mother is a professor of early childhood education. And from the time I went to kindergarten through my senior year in high school, I went to public schools. I wouldn’t trade that education and experience for anything.

I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself — my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity — all come from how I was parented and taught.

And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned — none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success — none of these qualities that make me who I am … can be tested.

I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep — this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.

Standards-based accountability fails to address most important challenges for education: fails in nurturing creativity and imagination, neglects the broader scope of education by forcing teachers to teach to the test/standard; de-emphasises the importance of untested topics, ideas or disciplines; is unethical and constantly fails to address educational need of students from low-income families and different cultures; and consistently leads to production of results able only to mask the reality. These pitfalls are far from being news for educational research, but the seductive power of a simplistic model serving political interests is irresistible and now we see various enthusiasts presenting this model as the magic bullet for education – from early childhood to tertiary education. Universities are now urged in different countries by politicians to adopt new… “teaching and learning standards”.

Tertiary education system is looking now in Australia at the very same promise: “national standards in teaching and learning, which all higher education institutions must meet” to achieve “quality improvement”. The hope is that other voces will be heard to raise doubts about a failed model and false promises.

Spinoza once said that in life “all things excellent are difficult…” and my perspective is that simplistic, fast and quantifiable solutions are too dangerous for a complex and excellent thing as meaningful learning. Especially when we talk about lifelong learning and the need of innovation and creativity for our future. I have no doubt that some new experts with proud mediocrity and enough power will find some well designed boxes to fit lifelong learning into standards able to give clear, observable and quantifiable data. The only problem is that for individuals and systems aggresive denial and masking reality with elaborate lies never works – it is one moment when it is impossible to avoid the truth and reality. Just ask now Greece…