BOSTON — At the state and university level, leaders are continuing to enlist technology to move learning forward.
Policymakers across the country have been sounding the alarm that colleges need to train more workers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields as employers call for more skilled workers to fill job openings. This training often means buying expensive equipment so that students become comfortable with the tools they'll use on the job.
Meanwhile, colleges have seen an uptick in students who are going back to school for skills training in a new career while juggling family responsibilities and jobs. As such, they need the anytime, anywhere access that online learning components offer.
At the same time, states increasingly ask their schools to show how effective they are at helping individual students learn throughout their time in K-12 education. They have the longitudinal data and online assessments to do that, but questions also exist about how to make the best use of those resources.
In light of these circumstances, a number of state and federal leaders shared their perspectives at the Education Writers Association National Seminar May 1-3 on what needs to happen in these three key areas.
1. Investing in a technically skilled workforce
Like many states, Massachusetts employers need more young adults who graduate from career and technical schools with skills including advanced manufacturing, electrical, plumbing, HVAC and health information technology, Gov. Charlie Baker said at the seminar. Without these career and technical skills, states will have a hard time growing economically. In fact, a group of governors that Baker collaborated with cited a lack of skill building as the No. 1 impediment to economic growth.
"The best and most important way we can assure that the next generation of kids and young adults don’t lose out to the technology revolution we are part of," he said, "is to ensure that they have skills that are marketable and in demand."
To help students gain these skills, Baker proposed $83.5 million in fiscal year 2017 budget dollars and new capital grant funding that will support career and technical education. These funds include $75 million over five years for equipment grants, $7.5 million for work-based learning grants and $1 million in Career Technical Partnership Grants.
2. Redesigning higher education
Along with skill building at the college level, it's time to redesign higher education for the new normal student: the 24-year-old veteran, the 36-year-old single mom and the 50-year old displaced worker, said Ted Mitchell, the U.S. under secretary of education. This redesign should start with where students are, where they need to be and the competencies that will help them get there. Then colleges can integrate a variety of pieces to achieve that.
"University leaders need to think of their institution as really the home base or home page for an education rather than the producer of all of it,” Mitchell said.
Technology has a role to play in immersing students deeply into learning experiences through simulations and helping students fit education into their lives with online course components, Mitchell said. Even though massively open online courses (MOOCs) haven't lived up to their hype, it's important to continue experimenting with different ways to reach students with the help of technology — as long as colleges continue to evaluate and learn from their efforts.
Some successful efforts to serve the new traditional students include observing students' academic patterns through data and measuring student learning differently with competencies and micro-credentials, Mitchell said.
Southern New Hampshire University has been leading the online, competency-based education model in the United States. And Baker noted that it's now time for states to enable more learning based on competencies — what students should be able to know and do.
“If we could figure out what competency-based certificates look like," Baker said, "then more people would do it."
3. Measuring student growth accurately
On the K-12 side of the equation, the measure of student learning is getting a makeover. Because of No Child Left Behind's annual testing requirements, many states developed stronger longitudinal data systems, said Mitchell D. Chester, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. These data systems allow educators and policymakers to see how well students learned from year to year and how their schools taught them.
Before, they just saw a snapshot in time of students' learning at the end of the year. Now the Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to report growth data, which is an important measure of learning.
"That provides you with a much more nuanced picture of how things are going academically in a school," Chester said.
Once state longitudinal data systems receive assessment data, it's important to ask some key data questions to get the most value, said George Miller, former U.S. representative from California:
What data do education leaders need to pull out of their data systems? What are they trying to determine about the district or state system based on the data? How can anyone tell whether someone made their benchmarks and why they haven't made them? Is the motivation for making data publicly available to make the issue more difficult to understand or to educate the public about how well schools are educating students from different backgrounds? "You can put in so much data that the constituency never really gets to take a look at it," Miller said.
The data points that come from student assessments increasingly take a digital form as more states add online tests. But it's critical that states support local schools in this transition. Glitches will happen with these tests, as Tennessee experienced this year after vendor Measurement Inc.'s testing platform proved unreliable. The state terminated its contract and suspended the second part of testing for third- through eighth-grade students.
Education leaders are working hard to minimize glitches, but they'll have to figure out a way to measure students' learning online even when they experience issues, said U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr.
“The move to computer-based assessments is inevitable," he said.