"Incremental improvement is a losing battle in a
high-stakes game," he said. "What Minnesota needs for its system of
postsecondary institutions is a real game-changer, a bold move." After
much debate in his working group, Johnson said, "the boldest thing we
could suggest is that the whole system move from its calculation of time
you've spent in courses and the number of credits you've collected to
actually documenting your proficiency."
He said documenting proficiency means that for
every course and every learning experience, the instructors outline what
it is that students will be expected to know and what they should be able
to do consistently and effectively in applying that knowledge.
"We're convinced you can take every valuable
course there is and document what students should be able to know and to
apply and do if they successfully complete that course. We think this
would make the most profound change possible," he said.
"It's not a fanciful notion," Johnson asserted.
"There are 30 to 40 postsecondary institutions in the country already at
work on this. There's already abundant demonstration that faculty, once
they understand this opportunity, see it as a chance to reassert their
intellectual control over postsecondary standards."
"For a lot of students for whom learning doesn't
have intrinsic value, but is just a utilitarian investment in a credential
necessary for getting a job, they learn very quickly how to collect
credits," Johnson said. Some choose the least challenging courses in order
to get the credits and thus the degree. "It becomes much like a game for
Moving to a proficiency-based system implies an
obligation for institutions to know more about students and what they're
learning along the way. He gave the example of a young woman who was
admitted to an elite college after undergoing many tests and much
scrutiny. Johnson said the college knew less and less about her every
year, so that when she graduated, the school knew less about her than
before she was admitted.
"That would be different if the student had to
demonstrate proficiency," he said. The proficiency system lends itself to
a portfolio approach, where evidence of proficiency is collected over the
course of one's postsecondary career to eventually form a very revealing
composite of one's actual learning accomplishments.
Make Minnesota a pioneer in changing its
"Minnesota has consistently been willing to be
the first bird off the wire in terms of policy change," Johnson said.
"We've been willing to be the pioneer. This is our chance to do the same
with our postsecondary system."
He said at least once a decade there's some big
blue-ribbon commission studying what we should do with our colleges and
universities. The results are usually "promotional reaffirmations of the
status quo." The committee hopes this new effort is a departure from those
past efforts. "We hope to generate enough discussion about these issues
that people will have to reframe the conversation," he said. "It's not
about the number of institutions; it's not about the cost; it's about the
product, the experience, the validity of the learning that takes place."
Let willing institutions be a model of change.
Johnson said Minnesota State Colleges and
Universities (MnSCU) Chancellor Steven Rosenstone has said he wants to
move all MnSCU institutions at the same time to this new proficiency
model. "While laudable," Johnson said, "that's not the way innovation
Even if the odds are long, though, Johnson
applauded MnSCU's commitment to start the conversations that could change
"The committee concluded that broad use of the
proficiency model would come faster if we let willing institutions be a
model of change." Johnson noted there will be several institutions who
will step up and say, "We'll move to this and we'll demonstrate that there
is a market for it and that it will communicate more clearly to employers
what our graduates know and can do."
"Once that happens," Johnson asserted, "the
change will begin to disrupt the conventional model. And it will get
imitators and it will spread and it will scale up to become the new norm."
Even if only one department does it, disruption will occur. It can take
root at any point. "We think this has that catalytic power. It is just a
matter of getting some people to try. And when they do, the rest will
follow. It's a question of who gets out in front," he said. "Leadership
can make a powerful difference."
Locally, Johnson said, Concordia University in
St. Paul, Anoka-Ramsey Community College and Macalester and Carlton
colleges have all expressed interest in the proficiency model. He said
community colleges are often more open to this type of change than large
universities or liberal arts schools. "Community colleges are more
adaptable, more nimble, more open to change."
Adams concurred, "Establishing proficiency is a
little easier to do if you're dealing with a diesel mechanic than if
you're dealing with a philosophy major."
Change the postsecondary system in fundamental
ways or face a decline in the quality of Minnesota's work force.
Johnson said the group came to the conclusion
that what we're doing today is not sustainable. "The population groups in
the rapidly changing demographic landscape in Minnesota that need some
preparation beyond high school show no sign of getting it. If we don't
change the system in some fundamental ways, we're not going to have the
work force Minnesota has today or will need in future."
Johnson displayed a chart often used by both
state economist Tom Stinson and retired state demographer Tom Gillaspy
showing a coming labor shortage in Minnesota. "There's no way we can fill
the jobs our employers will have if we don't do a better job of preparing
everybody in some appropriate way. That does not mean a headlong,
obsessive rush to say 'everybody's got to go to college.' Not everybody
needs a BA degree. But nearly every job will require some kind of
preparation beyond what kids get in high school."
There are multiple explanations for the
mismatch, Johnson said. Are employers not paying wages high enough to
attract people to certain jobs? Are employers trying to foist off training
responsibilities they used to do themselves to the public sector because
they're unwilling to invest in someone who might leave and go to work for
a competitor? Or aren't we doing things in the right way in educating our
"Proficiency-based assessment is a
game-changer," he said. "Transcripts would not show just credits earned by
students, but would show what the students can do. It would be an entirely
different kind of message to employers, a message about whether people
have mastered what they need to be good citizens and worthwhile employees.
It's not about how good students are at collecting credits or how long
they warmed a seat."
An interviewer commented that the work world
operates collaboratively today and very often in teams. However, most new
engineers and technicians fail at working on a team, he said. They can do
the engineering, but they can't communicate and work collaboratively with
their fellow workers. That's the greatest issue for many companies, he
suggested. Adams added that young people who are the best students in
today's schools and colleges most often work alone and have a negative
reaction to working in teams. "There's often nothing done to prepare kids
to collaborate either before they get to college or while in college and
before they get to professional schools."
In response, Johnson noted that by using a
proficiency model, colleges could very easily assess and document those
desired skills in a way both students and potential employers could
Foster a better connection between industry and
An interviewer noted that industry would like to
have a better connection with education. Adams responded that when
technical colleges were run by school districts, each technical college
had a local advisory committee of employers in the region. There was lots
of "back and forth" about what employers needed, what they were getting
and how it could be improved.
When the state unified technical and community
colleges and universities into the MnSCU system, some of those
relationships at the local level went away. That made it harder for
employers to convey what was needed and how that differed from what was
being produced. However, Johnson believes that under new MnSCU leadership
any relationships that may have been diminished are being rapidly
Recognize that online learning in postsecondary
education will be a major factor.
Johnson said online learning in postsecondary
education is not a fad; it's an inevitable reality and will be a big
factor. "It's the only place with serious growth in postsecondary
Places like Stanford and MIT have developed free
online courses that get hundreds of thousands of students to sign up, with
20,000 to 30,000 actually finishing. "It's only a matter of time until
that way of learning gets validated," he said. One Stanford professor said
that having had the online experience, he could never go back into the
classroom with only 30 students again. He realized he could have much more
impact through the online courses.
"This is bound to expand, bound to get better,"
Johnson said. "Maybe the online courses will exceed the quality of onsite
education. Possibly we'll end up having the best courses in the world
Prepare for technology to change the role of
In response to a question about the impact of
technology on the role of teachers, Johnson said, "Some of us predict it
will change as technology continues its inevitable disruption of the K-12
system. Teachers are more likely to be called on as planners, facilitators
and coaches. Getting to knowledge is not the problem any more. It's
understanding what you've encountered, applying wisdom to it, learning to
exercise judgment and knowing how to apply it. Further, colleges of
education, which are still run as if it's the early 20th century, will
have to change as well."
Make changes throughout the whole education
system-from preschool through college-to create a more seamless experience
Johnson said the committee recommends that the
entire education system change to provide a more seamless experience for
students. Now students encounter one system for early childhood learning
then switch to another system for K-12 and to yet another system for the
"We have a quarter century of experience with
Minnesota cracking open the door to allow high school students to take
college courses and get the credit to apply toward both high school and
college graduation requirements. We need more of that, not less. We need
to allow students who can move faster to move faster and students who need
more time to have more time. Then time becomes the variable and learning
becomes the constant. Moving away from credits and toward proficiency at
all levels will allow that to happen."