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Insights from Akron, Ohio – the Death of Undergraduate Education Part 1

Recently my Metiri partner, Cheryl, and I spent two days with a good client of ours, the Inventors Hall of Fame School, in Akron, Ohio. We have been working with this groundbreaking STEM school on authentic learning and 21st Century Skills since the year before they opened in 2009 and, not only have enjoyed the relationship, but have been amazed at all they have accomplished. In fact, as an aside, in a blog entry on EdWeek.com, Ashley Merryman, the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, speaks about creativity and problem solving being teachable and uses Inventors Hall of Fame as her example of best practice.

But that’s not what this entry is about. It’s about the impending death of undergraduate universities. It may take two blog entries to get there, though.

I had a conversation with several of the teachers at Inventors Hall of Fame about an article I wrote for Ed Leadership a couple of years ago. It is about the options for independent learning that are going to begin to tempt students away from high school. I focused on the true story of a student named “Kevin” who did the minimum in his high school classes, which he found to be boring and irrelevant. He focused instead on using the Internet and study guides to prepare for AP tests. In the end, he took only 3 AP classes in school, but took an additional 11 AP tests for which he had not taken the classes. He passed them all and, with the hours he earned and a couple of community college classes, bypassed the high school requirements for the University of California system and was accepted as a junior. Essentially, he made his high school irrelevant.

Several other trends are currently supporting the diminution of high schools as necessary for motivated students. In two of the states that we work with, programs are in place to allow students to take alternative, independent paths to high school completion.

In the first, Michigan has created a concept called the “seat time waiver.” This policy requires schools to create an alternative to traditional course taking, in which students can choose from a variety of programs, or prepare independently with no program at all, and be certified to have mastered course content through projects and assessments.

Also in Michigan, we are currently evaluating the Widening Advancements for Youth (WAY) program. This program completely restructures course credits around student interests. In the WAY program, at-risk or disaffected students working with teacher mentors create projects that are based on their own passions and interests. The mentors assist students in building content elements into these projects – writing, math, science concepts – which allow them to demonstrate the mastery of curriculum standards. WAY also provides independent learning resources to assist students in building the knowledge and skills necessary for successful completion of these projects. A sophisticated system of record keeping documents their progression through the curriculum, in a fashion that many educators would view as somewhat random. As they complete all requirements for a class, over the course of several projects, they receive credit for that course. Our early conversations with program teachers and leaders suggest that this program has drawn in many bright but disaffected students whose potential would surely have been otherwise wasted.

A similar program is in place in Ohio. Called the Ohio Credit Flexibility Plan, this program requires districts to devise a means for certifying course completion for students who have participated in alternative means of learning. The learning might be acquired through an alternative school, online courses, or, as in Kevin’s case, through independent effort.

Programs such as these are likely in place in other states, and if you know of any, I’d love to hear from you. Leave the info in the comments area below and others can see it as well. I’m out of room for this entry. We’ll continue in the next blog with the death of the American undergraduate university.

[Ed Coughlin, Senior VP]