Unbundling Education: Separate Out the Grading Process

The theory behind outsourcing is that it enables specialization: you do one thing really well and let others do the rest.

Some of the more frustrating customer service experiences happen with entities where there's limited outsourcing and specialization. As I've written before, airlines do way too much. They market their brand and flight routes, they handle reservations and bookings, they maintain aircraft, they deal with luggage. More airlines should do as they do with their regional jet business: focus on something and outsource the rest. In the regional jet example, the big airlines handle reservations and ticketing and outsource the actual flying of planes.

City governments are another example. They try to manage parks, sewers, potholes, utilites, and more. Yes, a government entity, as the sole provider of police, fire, roads, and a few other things, will always be more diverse in scope than any sane for-profit corporation. But many governments still do too much beyond the core essentials, and are not able to do any one of these things very well.

One way to think about improving complex, ill-performing products, services, or experiences is to see whether there's a way to unbundle it and allow greater specialization. Arnold Kling applies this approach to improving higher education. Specifically, he thinks schools should separate the task of evaluating students' work from the task of teaching the concepts. Here's the background:

In the legacy education model, teachers combine coaching, feedback, and content delivery. By coaching I mean advice, guidance, and encouragement. Feedback includes formal grading as well as informal praise and criticism. Content delivery includes lectures and reading assignments.

Perhaps the key to radically changing education is to break up those functions.

1. The coach should be someone who knows the student well, who can relate to and motivate the student, who can recommend a good educational path, who takes account of the student's strengths and weaknesses, and who stays on top of how well the student is doing relative to the student's ability.

2. The formal feedback can come from strangers. Students can solve problems or write essays and have these graded by a separate service.

3. The content delivery should be "pulled" by the student rather than pushed by a teacher. For example, a student and a coach could agree that the student should learn statistics. The student then selects a statistics curriculum and works through it. The Khan Academy lectures on statistics are particularly good, in my opinion. But Carnegie-Mellon has a good on-line stats course, also. My guess is that, overall, there is enough content on line to obtain a world class education.

Then, Arnold writes:

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?

Arnold's proposed solution: A Means A.

A Means A solves the problem of credibility and comparability of grades in courses taught at different institutions of higher education. The innovation is to separate the grading process from other aspects of higher education. For any college-level course, A Means A will devise an appropriate exam and use independent professionals to grade the exam, according to transparent, standard criteria

A Means A will extend the reliable, independent grading model of the AP exam to a broad spectrum of college-level courses. However, while the AP program compels instructors to "teach to the test," A Means A will "test to what you teach." That is, A Means A will take course objectives as given by instructors. It will design and grade tests that align with the objectives of the course.

It's a great thought. And it looks like one university is actually implementing part of it.

As a business opportunity, Arnold identifies the risks with A Means A, Inc. A company that promises to accomodate the idiosyncracies and variance of different schools' curriculua will have a hard time scaling the grading process in a cost-effective way. And making the credential have currency in marketplace in the early days will be tough. So while I am not so sure of the business opportunity, I think the high level prescription of unbundling is spot on. There are probably good business opportunties along these lines for education entrepreneurs–just need to brainstorm and iterate a bit more.

What Arnold has done with his A Means A post is bring to the table very specific ideas for improving the education system–not vague griping. And he aims his provocations directly at entrepreneurs–not policy wonks or politicans. A refreshing and useful approach.

30 comments on “Unbundling Education: Separate Out the Grading Process
  • Arnold Kling’s essay Schools without Classrooms is provocative.

    His suggestions for breaking up the functions of legacy education– coaching, feedback, and content delivery– seem workable, but the weak point would be coaching.

    When I was in high school, the “coaches” were called guidance counselors. There were like two to serve a student body of several hundred, so there really wasn’t much guiding going on.

    I remember being summoned twice to the office of some oblivious old woman who looked at my transcripts (they were good) with a patronizing air and uttered some obligatory feel-good tripe about succeeding in life. That was pretty much the extent of her guidance.

    The year I made the highest score in my school on the PSATs I was “coached” for one fifteen-minute session by some cadaverous drone who told me I could do whatever I wanted in life. That was it.

    No information was proffered– no inquiries as to what line of study I was interested in or whether or not I had a plan, no suggestions of where or how to pursue scholarships, nada.

    I can see how feedback and content delivery could be handled efficiently in Kling’s model, but the personalized (“someone who knows the student well”) coaching seems problematic. How would such a costly service be provided?

    I can certainly appreciate applying creative thinking to the improvement of higher education, though I’m leery of certain reformers whose real agenda seems to be the privatization of public education and to starve public schools of resources.

    Not so coincidentally these are usually politicians who often have incestuous relationships with charter school companies.

    Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy talk about a “consumer-based approach” to higher education, and that brought to mind this from Thom Hartmann about the schools that deliver “consumers” to colleges:

    “President Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, just announced $49 million in federal education grants that will also go exclusively to New York and Florida for-profit charter schools. And President Obama’s 2012 budget calls for $372 million to go to for-profit charter schools all around the nation. So here we are outsourcing the education of our children to corporate CEOs and religious leaders.”

    From an editorial in the St. Petersburg Times:

    “Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers also failed to provide any state money for construction or maintenance for 3,355 traditional public schools, but found about $55 million in taxpayer dollars to offer to operators of the state’s 459 privately run charter schools — some of which use for-profit firms to run their schools.”

    It’s well known to readers here that Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh have a zeal to see the teachers’ unions crushed, but I see the unions as one of the last bulwarks of defense against the efforts of certain politicians to undermine public education and channel public funds to cronies, relatives, or political allies.

    Arnold Kling’s suggestions for radically changing education are far more realistic than the politically motivated corrosive ideas promoted by “reformers” like Jeb Bush.

    I was a bright misfit in school, one of the type who would rather read on his own than sit in class. I wish someone had offered me Kling’s alternative system.

    Who knows? I might have learned almost as much as I did from spirited philosophical discussions at drinking parties.

  • I’m glad to get name-checked as an anti-union crusader. Nothing would make me happier than to see people refer to me as the anti-Barbara Eherenreich.

    But ironically enough, I think Vince and I want the same thing. Charter schools are simply a means to an end, and that is more experimentation and diversity.

    The problem with the public school system is that it is a centrally managed, rule-driven system. It doesn’t innovate, and it doesn’t try new things.

    People who are familiar with my writings know that I’m a huge admirer of the unschooling approach of the Sudbury Valley School.

    The unschooling approach solves the “costly coaching” issue by recognizing that the students are capable of coaching each other and themselves.

    Even the greatest guidance counselor in the world is still handing down wisdom from on high. Far better for students to learn how to ask the right questions and figure out ways of guiding themselves.

  • Thanks for your reply, Chris, except for the part about being an anti-union crusader.;-)

    I had to resort to my favorite encyclopedia, Wikipedia, to get up to date on the Sudbury Valley School.

    I love that Sudbury schools see ethics as a course taught by life experience.

    The philosophy that “classes arise only when an individual creates them, and staff are not expected to offer classes as any sort of curriculum” is appealing, but I’m not so sure about the part where “schools are run by a democratic School Meeting where the students and staff participate exclusively and equally.”

    I remember all too well being persecuted by militant teenage vegans. I would not trust them to run a school.

    When I was a teenager, being stuck for seven hours a day in the fluorescent-lit cells of that oppressive institution, the typical all-American high school, always made me feel like a prisoner incarcerated in a particularly diabolical factory-jail run by demented cyborgs.

    The thought of education as an industry was anathema to my worldview in which the public schools were agents of cultural imperialism locally and globally.

    I had read R. Buckminster Fuller’s seminal book, Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth, when I was sixteen and took it for holy writ.

    When I got around to reading another book by Fuller, Education Automation, Freeing the Scholar to Return to His Studies, it came as a revelation.

    Here was a respected engineer and systems theorist saying things like, “Einstein, when he wanted to study, didn’t sit in the middle of a school
    room. That is probably the poorest place he could have gone to study. When an
    individual is really thinking, he is tremendously isolated. He may manage to isolate himself in Grand Central Station, but it is despite the environment rather than because
    of it. The place to study is not in a school room.”

    That was heavy-duty.

    Then he said something that should be enshrined as a prophetic credo for education:

    “Our education processes are in fact the upcoming major world industry. The cost of education will be funded regeneratively right out of earnings of the technology, the industrial equation, because we can only afford to reinvest continually in humanity’s ability to go back and turn out a better job.”


  • The fact that university educators serve as both teachers and graders has at least two deleterious consequences.

    1) teachers invest a considerable amount of their valuable time in administrative tasks related to grading. this does not only include grading itself but also in dealing with students’ concerns, minor squabbles about points, etc.

    2) Because teachers set the grades, they have the power to adjust the difficulty level of the course accordingly. I like to say that teachers prefer to keep their class in a state of “controlled drowning”. If too many students ace a test, the subsequent one will be harder, and vice versa. One can change the width of the goalposts so that more or fewer students will score, but having this power, teachers have less urgency to invest time in *teaching their students how to shoot well* than, say, a private tutor.

    Those are the problems. I am not sure what the solutions are. I am certain that whatever solutions are proposed will come with their own problems, and must be judged accordingly.

  • It would be great if an A meant an A, but it seems like most grading systems have a behavioral component (attendance, classroom participation, etc.) to them, which many teachers rely on to manage.

  • I have published three articles on the unbundling of higher education (the first in 1975; most are available through an internet search): “The Unbundling of Higher Education,” 1975 Duke Law Journal 53. “The Dismantling of Higher Education,” published in two parts in 29 Improving College and University Teaching 55 (1981) and 29 Improving College and University Teaching 115 (1981) “The Restructuring of Legal Education Along Functional Lines,” 17 Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues 331 (2008)(discusses legal education, but applies to higher education generally); abstract below


    ABSTRACT Currently, law schools tie together five quite distinct services in one package, offered to a limited number of students. These five functions are: (1) impartation of knowledge, (2)counseling/placement, (3) credentialing (awarding grades and degrees), (4) coercion, and (5) club membership. Students do not have the opportunity to pay for just the services they want, or to buy each of the five services from different providers.

    This article proposes an “unbundled” system in which the five services presently performed by law schools would be rendered by many different kinds of organizations, each specializing in only one function or an aspect of one function. Unbundling of legal education along functional lines would substantially increase student options and dramatically increase competition and innovation by service providers. This offers the hope of making available more individualized and better instruction and giving students remarkable freedom of choice as to courses, schedules, work-pace, instructional media, place of residence, and site of learning. Most importantly, this improved education would be available on an “open admissions” basis at much lower cost to many more individuals throughout the nation, or even the world.

    In order to explain how to restructure the existing law school system, this article will discuss the five educational services presently performed by law schools, the disadvantages of tying these services together, a hypothetical unbundled world of legal education, the advantages of the unbundled system, answers to some possible objections to the system, and some recent developments in the use of technology and distance learning in law schools.

    The main theme of this article is the advantage of unbundling. A more modest sub-theme is the benefit of use of technology and distance learning.

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  • Separating out grading system can be more helpful education system and there is need for such action in India also. Students in India get their learning not only from classes but also educational apps on their smartphone.

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