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The Quiet Crisis

Author Peter Smith claims higher education is failing America.
University Business, Sep 2006

In The Quiet Crisis, Peter Smith claims America's "success data" in higher education belies a failure to do more to close racial and economic divides. The problem, he says, is not that millions of lower-income and minority students lack the capacity to learn, but that colleges and universities lack the capacity to educate.

He argues that our schools are organized for failure and that our historic "industrial model" won't survive the 21st century without radical changes.

Smith is assistant director-general for education of United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He is founder and former president of California State University, Monterey Bay, and the Community College of Vermont as well as a former U.S. congressman and lieutenant governor for the state of Vermont.

The Quiet Crisis is about how higher education is failing America. It's been about a three-year project, although it does not involve a lot of research--in the sense of original research with subjects. It does involve an enormous amount of reading, writing, compiling, and assembling a lot of information.

We are missing the mark first of all because we don't tell the truth to ourselves about how badly we're doing. There was a recent national study that followed the educational paths of 100 ninth-graders. After 10 years, 32 of them had not graduated from high school. Of the 68 that did graduate from high school only 18 had earned either an associate's or bachelor's degree.

We have to investigate seriously what we know about how people learn. Then we have to create a simple, cheap and universal diagnostic--as early as the third grade, but certainly in higher education as well--that allows us to know as teachers and parents where the child's strengths and weaknesses are so that we can teach to their strength and strengthen the areas they are weak in. I'm not talking about remediation, I'm talking about creating a deeper capacity for people to learn. I'm talking about organizing schools the same way we are continuing to organize health systems, so that the pedagogy responds to and is built on the way that individuals experience information and experience the world through their intelligence.

We have a one-size-fits-all model. In the book, I use an emergency room example of somebody coming in with whiplash, but the emergency room fits him with an ankle cast because all they do is fix ankles. It's preposterous to think that way, yet that is from a systemic prespective the way our schools still think and the way many of our colleges still think. We have one model, we use it and variations of it, but I'm not sure that is a friendly model to a lot of people.

There are two things going on right in front of us. One is that colleges are being given less money and students are paying more and are going into debt to get a higher education. Simultaneously we are confronted with new kinds of institutions, many of them proprietary, that are committed to quality and learning outcomes. They are meeting students' needs where they are or where they live or where they work and sometimes it's at more money and sometimes it's less, but allowing people to continue really to lead full economic and social lives while going to school.

I think we are going to have a crisis in 25 years. I think we are going to see a whole new brand of institutions that don't look like a traditional college or university, but more like an educational cooperative that can validate learning and organize learning experiences or a common market where students can actually attend a variety of schools at the same time.

Or a school that will use the workplace as a learning place where it is appropriate, where the work you do becomes laboratory material for the learning you want to do.

Higher education, as currently structured, is expensive in both time and cost. That is why we are losing market share to all sorts of other opportunities for learning. Higher education has to stop thinking that it's the only game in town. Some data suggests that more than half of all people going to school now aren't going to higher education in traditional mode, postsecondary. I don't know if we have actually reached that point or not, but we simply have to wake up and understand that in this media-rich world, students can, will, and are shopping in different places for programs that they believe will meet their needs.

It begins wherever you, the individual, sits. Of course K-12 needs change, and higher education needs change, but for one to say it can't change because the other hasn't made changes is just ridiculous. Whatever position you play in the education game, you can start right there. What we need is leadership at all levels. I think change starts wherever you are because with the rising tide of information, technology and accessibility all around us, it is transforming our institutions whether we like it or not. It is not a change that we control; this is a dynamic beyond the control of government or institutions including colleges and universities. It is changing the way people learn, it's changing the way they think about information, it's changing the way they think about their own power. So we're either going to get on it or it is going to pass us by. My point is we don't control that anymore. Traditional higher education does not control the offering of degrees anymore, it doesn't control where teaching can happen, who can do teaching--that iron triangle of control that was really firm 50 years ago has been absolutely decimated by these new universities and assessment projects. If you think of reform as our response to the changing world, you need to start wherever you are and play forward.

I think 'you are what you eat,' and you teach the way you were taught. It's a difficult issue: Until you actually change incrementally how people teach and how students are asked to learn, then changing downstream teaching and learning behaviors will continue to be a marginal activity. I think what's interesting about this is that in every college in America today, the freshmen know more about technology than the seniors and all of them know more than most of the faculty. So simply by staying alive for the next 20 years we will have a group of faculty who know much more about how to use the time, space, and responsibility that they have as teachers to help people learn things. They know how to use it much more creatively and flexibly to educate more people much better, simply because they will have experienced a different world growing up. People have to begin to think about how they teach in relationship to how people learn. Then you'll begin to see pedagogy as the adaptation of teaching to the learning characteristics of a child as opposed to the one-size-fits-all category. Medicine with great difficulty does this and higher education robustly ignores it, as does K-12, and I think that's got to change.

It is absolutely inevitable that people will learn differently and learn different things, because of technology. To what extent they do that learning in places that we call schools structured the way current schools are structured is an open question.

We need to increase the standard and quality of learning that people are doing. I think the only way that will happen will be in new kinds of settings, new partnerships, educational coops, common markets, assessment centers, and all sorts of new services that will surround and augment and supplement and compliment the existing educational institutions that we have. What those institutions do about technology will have more to do with how effective they are in teaching and learning. There will be change there, but what they choose to do--or not do--is only slightly relevant to the larger implication of where higher learning will go because of technology in the larger global and national society. The two are not connected or at best are very loosely connected. Again, my point in the book is that for the first time we don't control our future. Changes are going to proceed around us and new ways of learning and ways of assessing and validating are going to be emerging. They will all be driven by technology.

Online instruction is going to be no better or no worse--with the appropriate support and done well--than face-to-face instruction. We know that people do better if they have some personal support, there need to be chat rooms, there need to be opportunities for drop-ins and so on. I think of IT in general as transforming our ability to think about our use of time, our use of space, our allocation of responsibility, and how we make education happen. When you think about it, that's what students pay for. They pay for time, they pay for space. I think IT turns all those things on their head. In the future, content for curriculum is going to be a very easily attainable commodity and updateable and changeable. I think that one of the things that we're all going to be confronted with is who validates learning and how do you validate a quality of learning.

I really think that there is an enormous role for technology. The No. 1 problem facing the president and everybody else at existing institutions is how to get their success rates up to 80 and 85 percent without lowering standards. I think technology will allow that to change the way they administer, the way they move information around--including educational information--and clear up more resources so they can be more successful with more students to high levels of quality. I think outcome-based education done right is an enormous advantage to students and it leads to better learning. Without technology you really can't do outcome-based education because it's simply too work-intensive.

The fact is higher education doesn't have a set of standards that we can talk about, and I think we need to talk about that, I think there's a really good new value-added work being done by the Rand Corporation and others that will begin to show the difference that a particular institution makes in the students' ability to do higher order intellectual work. I think we've got to get serious about those things and talking about those things between, within and among higher education institutions. But the truth of the matter is the fundamental standards of higher education are based on the quality of students coming from high school. The higher the students' ACT scores or the better their standings in high school, the better you impute the institution in which they want to be. There is a huge confusion of prestige and status on the one end and quality on the other. To put it bluntly, if I were a university that takes students who all are scoring above 1400 on The College Board, what I know is that before we start, the vast majority are going to be successful in my institution, because they have already done a successful job and demonstrated their ability to do the work. I don't know that that makes me a better educational institution, it usually means I'm starting with students who are already demonstrated learners and I'm working with them and they are going to do well in school. To me a good educational institution is one that takes people wherever they are and moves them significantly towards demonstrated higher learning outcomes. I think that kind of quality is something that we aren't prepared to discuss because we really don't know yet how to talk about it.

When you look at where we're successful, with whom we're successful and you cut that by race and income, you find that people with less money--predominantly people of color--simply are not at the table of opportunity. In numbers, they don't come anywhere close to approximating where they are in this society and where they are going in sectors of the population. We simply have to develop a national strategy for how it is that we're going to respond to those people to bring them into the mainstream of society, or there is no way we will have a middle class characterized or described by educational attainment, which is what we have agreed that we want in the next 15 to 20 years.

This is the century of knowledge. We need to have a middle class not described as being able to turn a wrench at the Ford factory in Detroit but a middle class described by intellectual capacity as being able to think, learn, relearn, etc. We won't get there if we don't fundamentally re-conceptualize how we think about education.

The next project--if I can find the money and the time--is research that would try to identify the consequences of learning style and what I call Intelligence Profile, which is 'how you're smart,' as opposed to 'when you're smart,' using multiple intelligence theory. And look at some of the structure of intellect research and try to find the relationship between particular types of intelligence and success on standardized testing and success in school, which would involve getting subjects in high schools and looking at people who are leaving high school without graduating and looking at people who are graduating and going on to higher ed and getting three or four populations. And seeing how they're doing on tests and all the rest of it and then seeing if there's any relationship between that and their intelligence. The way the intelligence works--the hypothesis that I have--is that schools are organized to reward certain kinds of intelligence at the expense of the majority of intelligence. I want to see whether or not that's true.

Well, to a certain extent that's true, but there's also some real interesting work being done by a group called Bridge of Learning, in Annapolis, Maryland, in which they are relating literally neural bundling to higher order thinking, to the development of your audio and visual systems relating the connections to the audiovisual systems development to being able to do better higher order thinking across 29 fields. So the first thing I have to do is figure out how that material relates to Gardner's intelligence. What I'm trying to find right now is who, if anybody, is looking at taking Gardner's stuff or anybody else's, if there is a relationship between how you are intelligent and how well you are doing in school that is related to the way we do schooling. So it's taking it another step. It's all in that domain.

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