A Means A
By Arnold Kling
A few months ago, Ben Casnocha wrote,
Maybe 5-10% of high school high achievers should pursue higher education without attending a four year traditional college. This is the “Real Life University” option for entrepreneurial spirits. This is for folks who can learn a lot on their own, can assemble mentors and advisors to guide the process, and most of all find their creativity smothered by drudgery of school — or otherwise are on a trajectory higher than what college can offer — and therefore need an alternative path.
His estimate of the percentage may be high, particularly in the near term. But that is the group that I wanted to aim at in my post on schools without classrooms.
Anyway, one important issue with alternative education models is interfacing with the legacy credential system. If you take a course from an alternative college, how can you get the credits to transfer to a traditional college or translate into a credible degree?
One solution might be an independent assessment center that is sort of a cross between the Advanced Placement testing system and Swarthmore College’s outside examiners. Like the AP tests, it would use a rigorous grading system that people could trust. Like the Swarthmore system, the examiners would show some flexibility in adapting to any course syllabus, so that the syllabus and the curriculum would come from the bottom up (teachers and students) rather than from the top down (the rigid curriculum of the AP folks).*
(*What if a teacher of, say, organic chemistry, offers a dumbed-down course that omits a number of difficult topics? The folks at A Means A would write an exam and give a grade based on the curriculum, but they would also report that the curriculum failed to cover topics that ordinarily are covered in organic chemistry.)
I think of naming this entity “A Means A,” to convey the notion that the standards for getting an A, B, C, etc. from this testing entity would be very clear. You do not have to ask how to translate a grade from a community college course into a grade at a top-tier university. You would not have to wonder about the propensity of some professor to be an easy grader or about overall grade inflation at an institution. Instead, this new entity would guarantee that A means A.
What would be the market for A Means A? I think that it would help community colleges and regular four-year colleges inter-operate more cleanly. In the for-profit college sector, A Means A could serve to separate the legitimate from the illegitimate. And for educational innovators in general, it could provide a means to obtain credibility for new methods of learning. Eventually, A Means A could enhance the effort and rigor of the legacy college system by separating the assessment process from the content-delivery process.