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A basic primer on reinventing education

What can be learned from Hampshire College’s efforts to reinvent itself in the aftermath of a self-inflicted financial disaster

Photo by Richard Asinof

The view from Hampshire College of the Holyoke Range in Amherst, Mass., taken in 2015.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/24/19
As Rhode Island struggles to reinvent public education in the state, what lessons can be gleaned from the way in which Hampshire College has reinvented its educational vision and restored its financial footing.
How will the new educational curriculum in Rhode Island reflect the way that the nature of work and employment has changed? What is the best way to teach students how to ask good questions? Does entrepreneurial success in the innovation economy require a broader educational foundation, including fundamentals of a liberal arts education? How difficult will it be to change the dominant narrative about education and the way that students learn? Will public education become a commodity, rather than a right?
One of the intriguing dynamics of the current impeachment hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives has been the role played by career women diplomats in testifying about what happened. They displayed the kind of straight-ahead professional demeanor that seemed to leave the interrogators, particularly those on the Republican side, at a loss, unable to be successful in attacking their credibility or disputing their narratives about the facts.
How are the impeachment hearings being incorporated into classroom learning opportunities in the Rhode Island schools today? Are students being required to listen and to report on what happens? Good questions.
How are students being taught to distinguish between what constitutes the "truth" and what is a “false” narrative?

PROVIDENCE – As the state of Rhode Island grapples with its takeover of the Providence Public School District and the R.I. General Assembly confronts the need to recalculate the state’s school funding formula, numerous efforts are underway to develop a new framework of learning to support students to achieve educational success, focused on developing the skills needed to succeed in the 21st century economy.

The questions are: What are those skills? And, how can they be taught and measured?

The future challenges appear to be both daunting and laden with potential opportunity.

On the “daunting” side of the equation, the turnaround plan for the Providence schools still remains a work in progress, not yet published; the turnaround superintendent has yet to be hired; the time frame for success of the state’s takeover has been extended to five years; and the benchmarks to measure when the Providence schools have been “stabilized” so that the state will relinquish control are unknown. The costs of remediation of deteriorating conditions of “sick” school buildings remain an urgent, unknown budget calculation, without an audit conducted to identify the health threats or a timetable to correct the buildings’ deficiencies.

Further, endemic problems, such as concentrated poverty and persistent environmental threats, including childhood lead poisoning, can not be resolved by the schools working alone; it requires a more holistic, collaborative community-based approach. Could Child Opportunity Zones, an initiative launched 25 years ago but now faded from memory, be reinvented?

Demographic trends point to trouble ahead and trouble behind – a decreasing birth rate, an increasing population of English language learners, systemic racial divisions,  a growing “old old” population beset by peaking chronic diseases that threatens to bankrupt the existing health industry, and a dire lack of affordable housing amidst a real estate boom. The status quo is proving unsustainable to maintain and preserve, despite the latest algorithms, social media and personalized learning platforms being promoted by Silicon Valley corporate behemoths.

On the brighter, glass-half-full, optimistic side of the equation, the powers that be are mobilizing and rallying in efforts to create a better future for Rhode Island’s children.

On Saturday, Dec. 7, the Long-Term Education Planning Committee, convened by the Rhode Island Foundation, will host a one-day conference, “Make It Happen: World-Class Public Education for Rhode Island,” at which community members, public education stakeholders and business leaders will participate in breakouts and brainstorming around priorities and strategies for developing and sustaining a world-class public education system for Rhode Island.

No doubt, all kinds of ideas will be on the table, looking to carve out a future pathway for public education success, with the daylong conversation seeking to arrive at a consensus path forward.

The format follows the previous “Make It Happen” effort led by the Rhode Island Foundation in 2012 to address Rhode Island’s persistent economic struggles.

On Monday, Nov. 25, Rhode Island Kids Count will hold its annual luncheon celebration of children’s health, at which Gov. Gina Raimondo and the state’s entire Congressional delegation will be in attendance to receive “Covering Kids” awards, recognizing their efforts to increasing access to health insurance coverage and health care for children.

As Rhode Island Kids Count said in its media advisory promoting the luncheon, “Children who have health insurance coverage are healthier and have fewer preventable hospitalizations. They are more likely to receive preventive care, be screened for the achievement of developmental milestones, miss fewer days of school, and get treatment for illnesses and chronic conditions. Uninsured children are less likely to have medical homes and have fewer visits to doctors or dentists.”

Among the accomplishments to be touted at the luncheon are the fact that 97.8 percent of Rhode Island children under age 19 have health insurance, ranking the state third best in the nation. Other positive outcomes include ranking first in the nation for adolescent HPV vaccination, ranking first in the lowest number of teen deaths in the nation, and sixth in the lowest number of teen births.

Perhaps equally important is the continued positive advocacy efforts by Rhode Island Kids Count to promote fact-based data evidence and reporting based upon the yearly publication of the organization’s annual factbook.

Even armed with the measurable, evidence-based facts, the questions remain: How do the facts translate into political and legislative action, when such action threatens to disrupt the status quo? What will it take to increase Medicaid reimbursements, to transform DCYF, and hold corporate NGOs accountable for their dereliction of responsibilities?

Unanswered questions
The harder, unanswered questions moving forward about the future of public education in Rhode Island is the fundamental challenge about what exactly are the learning skills needed to succeed.

Is success to be measured by performance on standardized testing that reward rote learning techniques?

Is success to be measured by the number of students who graduate high school and then go on to apply and enter college?

Is success to be measured by the ability to find a “good-paying” job in the workforce?

Or, is success to be measured by the ability to ask good questions as a mode of inquiry?

It may seem far removed from the struggles of Rhode Island, but the experiences of how Hampshire College, an experimental liberal arts college, is now immersed in the process of reinventing itself following a self-inflicted fall into a steep financial abyss, could offer some important lessons for the parents, students, teachers and educational advocates on survival and success of public education in Rhode Island.

Background
In the fall of 1970, Hampshire College, a small liberal arts college in Amherst, Mass., part of a five-college community with Amherst, Smith and Mt. Holyoke colleges and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, opened its classroom for its first class of 251 students.

The plans for the college, detailed in a book, The Making of a College, written by the college’s first president, Franklin Patterson, and its first vice president, Charles Longsworth, laid out a blueprint for creating a new kind of approach to higher education, putting the emphasis on learning, not grades, and on developing competencies, not rote learning.

The school was always financially constrained, because it began with a very meager endowment and a dependency on yearly tuition to pay the operating bills.

Despite the consistent ability of its graduates to compete and succeed in the world of higher education, in business, in arts, in film, and in publishing, in science, the lack of financial resources and changing demographics threatened the viability of the school’s continued survival, leading to a crisis precipitated by then incoming President Miriam Nelson in the fall of 2018, who sought to dissolve the college and have it be folded into another institution.

A vote of confidence
On Friday, Nov. 22, the New England Commission of Higher Education voted to continue the accreditation of Hampshire College, a small, experimental liberal arts college in Amherst, Mass., an institution that had been teetering on the brink of dissolution and financial ruin, following a disastrous, unsuccessful push by ex-President Miriam Nelson to merge the college with the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a board decision she had urged not to enroll a fall class of entering students in the fall of 2019. Nelson resigned in April of 2019.

The successful rescue of the experimental liberal arts college was a collaborative, participatory effort led by students, professors, alums and academic community members, including a fund-raising drive led by one of Hampshire’s most iconic graduates, filmmaker Ken Burns, which has pledged to raise $60 million by June 30, 2024, with some $10.4 million already raised toward meeting that goal. [The latest film by Burns  is "College Behind Bars," a four-part documentary film series, tells the story of a small group of incarcerated men and women struggling to earn college degrees and turn their lives around.]

As part of the effort to reinvent Hampshire College, the school has undertaken a new vision of its core educational program.

The new vision, explained President Ed Wingenbach in a recent letter, “deepens our commitment to placing questions and projects at the center of every student’s education, organizing our program around questions rather than schools or disciplines or fields of study, enabling more innovation and collaboration across disparate fields, and freeing students to pursue questions never asked before.”

Wingenbach continued: “Asking great questions demands a suite of complex skills – starting with posing a great question and figuring out how to take a project from idea, to investigation, to concept, to completion; we’re committed to supporting all students in cultivating these entrepreneurial and design skills as they pursue meaningful questions and work across disciplines and specializations.”

Finally, Wingenbach said, “We are reorganizing ourselves in ways that reflect this commitment and enable more collaborative work, developing curricular structures that will challenge us to work across areas of specialization and practice trans-disciplinary learning in ways that are exciting, relevant, and meaningful. The new model aims to foster more integrative student experiences, build more collaborative opportunities across staff and faculty, and find new opportunities for alums to engage with the college.”

At the same time, Wingenbach, working in collaboration with stakeholders, has sought to control ongoing expenses, adopting an operation budget for 2019-2020 that is 20 percent lower than 2018-2019 and 30 percent lower than 2015-2016. The plan is to maintain the 2019-2020 operating budget as a baseline for future expenditures, adjusting for inflation and enrollment growth.

In the plans to reinvent public education in Rhode Island and have it come a world-class enterprise, what are the takeaways from the reinvention of the educational platform at Hampshire College that can be incorporated into the Rhode Island enterprise? Good question.

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