On the heels of my predictions for education in 2015, activity around renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as ESEA or No Child Left Behind) reached a fevered pitch seemingly out of nowhere, and President Obama further elevated education to the national agenda in his State of the Union address with a focus on making community colleges free for students and protecting student privacy.

For those with limited time, here’s a quick take on what each means for innovation in education toward creating schools that are student-centered, higher quality, and more accessible.

Free Community College

This idea doesn’t have a chance of becoming law—which is a good thing because it is a bad idea, as I explained in detail in this CNN.com op-ed. It’s not that community colleges don’t perform valuable services for certain people; they do. But that doesn’t mean we should make their tuition free. Their track record as a sector is poor—especially as a pathway to the middle class; there are already generous subsidies supporting low-income students to attend them, but more to the point, community colleges are actually far more expensive than commonly understood in terms of total expenditures to educate students; given this reality, community colleges have limited capacity to even serve more students in high-demand areas, which further reduces their ability to realize the President’s goals; and making community college free would nudge students toward community colleges and undercut more tailored, innovative, and affordable offerings emerging for helping students succeed in the workforce. Because of all this, the President’s proposal amounts to trying to help students afford an expensive education for only a questionable return, rather than trying to make higher education fundamentally affordable and of higher quality. We need to change education, not charge it to future generations in the form of debt.

A big part of the rationale for this proposal apparently stems from the insights in Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz’s book, The Race between Education and Technology. The basic idea is that the United States had a big advantage over the rest of the world by making high school free and universal first, but then much of the rest of the world caught up and has surpassed us in educational attainment, which translates to better economic returns. The administration’s apparent conclusion has been to make community college free so higher education is universal. Two problems. First, as my colleague Michelle R. Weise documented in the Wall Street Journal, a degree has always been an imperfect communicator of what someone knows and can do, and that signal has grown even worse, particularly as more people have entered college with highly different levels of preparedness. In other words, simply giving out more degrees doesn’t mean people will have learned more or be more prepared for life’s challenges. Furthermore, emerging competency-based programs and professional certifications that will create stackable credentials will solve many of the problems resident in traditional degrees in communicating what students know and can do. Second, each time the United States has had to expand access to education, a new set of institutions has essentially arisen to fulfill that need—entirely predictable for those who understand disruptive innovation theory (Chapter 2 of Disrupting Class explains the logic behind this phenomenon more). Comprehensive high schools were inventions of the first half of the 20th century and acted to fill the nonconsumption of education for that age group. State colleges grew out from the land grant acts in the 1860s to expand access to higher education. Community colleges flourished to further expand access in the 1950s and 1960s. Given that the President is trying to create a legacy of bolstering Americans’ educations to be productive citizens, expecting existing institutions to alter their value propositions to step up rather than creating more space for new, disruptive institutions to fulfill this mission is virtually a non-starter. The theories of innovation help us understand why it’s difficult for existing institutions to pivot and become disruptive themselves; ignoring these realities is a mistake.

Student Privacy

Student privacy stormed to the top of the agenda in state legislatures around the country last year. Over 100 bills were introduced that grappled with how districts, educational providers, and students and families can use student data. This is an important issue. Protecting student privacy is critical, as is being able to harness student data in a world of digital learning to help educators deliver improved and more personalized educational experiences to each student. Striking the right balance is key.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) does an imperfect job at the moment in part because it was written before the advent of online learning. Regulations need updates. Would the President’s proposal help? Unclear. Certainty would be valuable for all actors and help spur responsible innovation, but judging from this EdSurge article, many think a federal statute would complicate the patchwork web of regulations emerging. Stay tuned.

ESEA Reauthorization

Although the President didn’t mention ESEA reauthorization in his State of the Union, the Senate, led by Senator Lamar Alexander, and the House, led by Representative John Kline, appear gung-ho about at last updating this law, which was never intended to go over a decade between reauthorizations. The challenge in this reauthorization is to balance the good things that NCLB did—shed transparency on how our students are doing and lay bare the appalling achievement gaps—but eliminate onerous requirements and barriers that constrain educators on the ground from innovating to better serve those students. We need a law that elevates the importance of individual student outcomes but frees up the means—or inputs—to serve individual students who have different learning needs at different times. The way the annual testing mechanisms and Annual Yearly Progress requirements were written in NCLB constrained the ability to innovate toward competency-based learning with lighter touch and adaptive systems of assessments that could be both for and of learning and focus on each individual’s growth. It also constrained the ability to solve the problem former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein encountered when he would ask his leadership team in December how the schools were doing this year, and he would receive the answer that he wouldn’t be able to know until a few months after the school year was over. Not exactly actionable accountability, although useful for a post mortem.

In the rewrite, a central tenet at this point should be “Do no harm.” Rolling back at-least-annual testing and risking obscuring at-least-annual transparency doesn’t seem wise. Asking all states to adopt competency-based learning and move to a next-generation system of assessments isn’t practical: the technology, know-how, and reporting systems just aren’t there yet. But we need to create the room and incentives for innovation so that districts and states can move toward such a system that better serves students—which should also help address the legitimate concerns of parents and others upset about testing regimes that don’t further learning. The early signs appear promising that we could end up in a better and more balanced place.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.