NCTM New Orleans 2014:Levine's The Coming Transformation of American Education: Implications for Mathematics Education

Dr. Arthur Levine - President of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation (amongst other things)

NCTM Research Conference - Monday, April 7, 7:00 pm

Arthur Levine.
The 2014 NCTM kicked off this evening with a poster session (which I missed, sadly) and an address by Dr. Arthur Levine, President of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and former President of Teachers College, Columbia University. In this talk, Levine detailed what he saw as six current and future forces that have the capacity to transform education.

Force #1: Demographics

In this section of the talk, Levine focused on demographic shifts, such as an aging population, an increased number of people moving to the Sun Belt, changes in color and diversity, and increasing immigration. Here are some of Levine's thoughts and claims:

  • We're going to see an extraordinary number of retirements, both in our university and K-12 systems, and they must be replaced.
  • There's been a 12% increase in math majors in the past 10 years, but it's really hard to recruit them into math education because other professions are more lucrative.
  • We're going to see a new majority of students in higher education: older than 25, part time, overwhelmingly female, and working. Higher education won't be their primary interest as they juggle responsibilities of work and family.
  • Students of the future aren't going to want higher education with "softball leagues or psychological counseling," as they can get those elsewhere. What they want is convenience, service, reliable financial aid, quality instruction, professors who are current in their fields, and low cost. They won't want to pay for things they don't use and they won't care about elective courses. These students will be prime candidates for online instruction.
  • People are moving to traditionally conservative states and we'll have a "Republican hegemony," at least for the near future. This will stress some education systems and deplete others.

Force #2: Economy

Here Levine talked about the shift from an "analog" economy to a "digital" economy and the jobs that either went abroad or no longer exist. Some claims:

  • Entry-level job skills are higher-skilled, with a particular demand for STEM knowledge and skill.
  • States are increasing their graduation standards to the highest levels in history and saying dropouts aren't acceptable, like they could in the past when dropouts could more easily find steady jobs.
  • We're going to find that the fastest growing job fields are STEM fields.
  • Levine says governors who he talks to only talk about economic development and STEM.
  • Everyone will have to be fluent in two languages - words and numbers. We thought we needed to teach kids Chinese, but instead we realized we need to teach them how to code.
  • The symbol of the industrial era is the assembly line. Our schools looked like that and, for a time, it worked. Students moved through by age, taking courses measured in Carnegie units devised in 1910. Now time is variable, process is variable, and we're switching from process to outcomes and a focus from teachers to students. States are imposing standards and outcomes, and this means more accountability and regulation.
  • We're going to see a proliferation of equity lawsuits. Equity used to mean access to the same process. Now students need access to the same outcomes. We've started to see the rise of these lawsuits and they're going to go "through the skies" in the coming years.

Force #3: Relationships with Government

More thoughts from Levine:

  • The emphasis in education is economic development, with STEM on the rise and humanities on the decline.
  • Higher education has shifted from a growth industry to a mature industry. Truman convened a committee in 1947 to engineer for growth. Now it's different. We're not trying to bump from 70% completion rates to 90%. Instead, we're trying to tighten regulations and become more efficient, doing more with less money.
  • If you look at the Obama education plan, you see choice, charters, and accountability. We used to have a name for people who supported those things: Republicans. Republicans and Democrats now only differ on two big education issues: Republicans trash unions in public, while Democrats do so in private, and they disagree on vouchers.
  • Educational improvement has been on the agenda for 30 years. Baby boomers are such a large segment and when they agree on what they want - which isn't often - they get it. Boomers had kids in the 1980s and they demanded great schools. "If you were running for dog catcher or president, you needed an education plan." Now boomers are older and their issues are their parents, if they still have them, and they want health care, elder care, and social security. There are limited budgets and health care will compete with education for public dollars.

Force #4: Technology

Technology is a marker and driver of change, and Levine predicts that curricular materials will change drastically, making traditional textbooks a thing of the past. The same technologies that we use to construct virtual environments like possible sci-fi visions of the future will be used to make rich simulations of history. No longer will students be limited to reading about fifth-century Athens; instead, they can go there virtually, where they'll virtually interact with classmates from around the world. Levine continued with thoughts on "digital natives":

  • "This year's freshmen were born in 1995. That's like last week."
  • "I asked a student in a focus group, 'How are you adapting to new technology?' He said, 'It's not technology unless it happens after you're born.' It's just reality, digital natives at analog universities being taught by digital immigrants."
  • "Sometimes what we call cheating students call collaboration and file sharing. These students float in miles of data one inch deep. If we're hunters, they're gatherers. If we do depth, they do breadth."

Force #5: Privatization

For Levine, this one is relatively simple. Education is very appealing to the private sector. They see it as a growth industry that's counter-cyclical: the market for education goes up when the economy goes down, and education is subsidized with dependable cash flows. Private says they educate more efficiently and with stronger leadership, so we can expect to see more and more money from the private sector in both post-secondary and K-12.

Force #6: Knowledge Producers

Publishers and other content producers are all after the same information, says Levine. He recalled a conversation he had with someone in the educational content/publishing industry:

Publisher: "We're not in the book business anymore. We're in the knowledge business. We have products in 15,000 schools and we offer professional development. No higher education institution can match that."
Levine: "Where are you getting your content from?"
Publisher: "We hired full-time content providers."
Levine: "I thought to myself, 'I don't know anyone who is a content provider,' so I had to ask what one was. What the publisher described is essentially what I would call 'professors.' So we're competing for the same people, except he can offer bonuses."


Levine summarizes with the claim that we'll see an increase in education providers, with a blurring about what's private and what's public. We'll also see a blurring of local and global. We've transitioned before, says Levine, when our country went from a predominantly agricultural economy to an industrial economy. The Latin and Greek classes the educated elite enjoyed weren't of much use in an industrial economy, so new universities were created that were more specialized and technical, like MIT, along with land-grant universities straddling the worlds of arts and sciences and community colleges that made higher education local. Our coming transformation will re-position faculty as assessors, prescriptors, diagnosticians, while learning will increasingly become outcome based.

More from Levine:

  • We're going to see three kinds of higher ed institutions: brick, click, and brick-n-click.
  • For students, we'll see more choice, "anytime" studies (study anyplace, anytime, any style/mode)
  • "If students are going to school and every choice doesn't look like 15 weeks, 3 hours a week, there's got to be a way to calibrate it all, and I think we'll do it based on outcomes."
  • "I think we'll see a change in high-stakes assessment. Imagine if our GPS gave us results every hour. What would it tell us? 'You're 80 miles out of the way. Recalculating.' That's not useful. Assessment will move from largely summative to formative, formative, formative until it's summative. I think we're also going to see data, data, evidence, evidence as we focus on outcomes and learning. We'll ask what George W. Bush once asked: 'Is our children learning?'"
  • We're also going to see much more lifelong learning. "Now we have students taking all their courses just in case they'll need them." In the future, courses will be delivered just-in-time.
  • I think we'll see talent prioritized over the institutions where talent works. Is it more important to have 100,000 students in a class, or be faculty at Stanford? Someone with 100,000 students doesn't need Stanford. They'll say, "I'm the product. I don't need their branding." These faculty won't have jobs - they'll have agents. Faculty will want MOOCs, consulting deals, book deals, TV deals, and they'll negotiate for them. This happened in Hollywood; for a time the movie studios dominated, but now we go for the actors and don't care about the studio. That will become increasingly true in higher education.

Lastly, Levine believes that mathematics and STEM is in a spotlight we haven't seen since the Sputnik era. So what do we do? This won't last forever:

"When it comes time to talk STEM and math, right now the media is much more likely not to come to us instead of Bill Gates. He's seen as being ahead of where we are. But these are the fields of the future, the ones our children will depend upon. I think universities are still the right ones for the job. Ninety percent of STEM educators are prepared there. Research shows that nobody's better than we are at this."