In an earlier article, I explained how School of Humanity’s Human Literacies Framework supports hyper-personalization for learners. In this blog post, I explore the impact an ‘analog’ approach to school and assessment regulation has on educational innovation and future learning communities. The argument is that standardizing school operations and student credentialing is hindering education’s reinvention. After all, the repeated suggestion by global think tanks is that as many as 80% of today’s jobs will have gone by the time today’s ten-year-olds leave school, but our school models and credentials have changed little in over half a century.

Like many aspects of society, education is in a culture war. Some want to double down on traditional approaches to reading, writing, and arithmetic while others are committed to providing greater diversity through increased personalization.

At the center of this debate lies two fundamental structures in the machinery of industrial-scale education: the operational regulation of schools and the standardization of assessment practices. Both were designed to provide legitimacy to teaching and learning in an era when our ability to accumulate reliable data on curriculum and student learning was technologically limited.

Adding to this, the value of university education is coming under greater scrutiny because of the financial burden it places on students, with many undergraduates facing decades of debt. Indeed, some argue that the undergraduate degree has rejuvenated the medieval practice of indentured servitude! Not exactly what we intended when many societies increased tertiary access more than fifty years ago.

Today’s reality means older school learners and their families are reconsidering the value proposition of an undergraduate credential at a time when many businesses publicly question the relevance of traditional degrees.

Amidst growing calls to re-engineer education to better incorporate new knowledge areas and place greater emphasis on specifically human skills, current mechanisms for determining schooling’s legitimacy are stifling efforts to build rigorous future-focused curricula and credentialing. Furthermore, such regulatory constraints are reinforced by a university system struggling to acknowledge future human skills development due to its own disciplinary traditions, which directly impact innovation in the compulsory schooling and its credentialing.

Unscaling at scale

Historically, the early industrial migration from the land to the city meant it made sense to standardize quality control learning delivery and have content coverage defined by a narrow set of knowledge and skills. Transforming agricultural manual labor into an urban factory workforce required a basic level of literacy and numeracy. Then, as the industrial period matured a wider and more sophisticated set of academic knowledge and skills became important. As the scope of industrialization spread so did the proliferation of the disciplinary curriculum both in school and universities. The important point to grasp here is that while the range of disciplinary courses and programs widened, validation largely remained a standardized process.

Nowadays, digitization of a post-industrial workforce means standardized approaches to learning design and credentialing are struggling to meet society’s needs. The industrial era relied on economies of scale that at the time made perfect sense, but as we move to a world requiring greater skills diversity, the model has become limiting. Complex societal changes mean we need to ‘unscale’ education so we can enable more personalized learning pathways and modes of credentialing. However, this means changing both how we accredit schools and recognize learning through qualifications. In a later article, I will explore how such personalization can be acknowledged with more appropriate school credentialing, but here I concentrate on obstacles school regulation places on innovation.

Today, becoming an accredited school involves a lengthy process (around two years) of planning and development. It consists in applying to an accrediting body and carrying out a self-study using standards, principles, or protocols provided by the accrediting body. The self-study requires the school to collate an enormous amount of documentary evidence to support its alignment claims, and once submitted the report is studied by a team of evaluators drawn from accredited schools. Subsequently, this evaluation team visits the school to corroborate the self-study and its supporting documentation by interviewing the wider school community.

But, in most instances accreditation only offers a cursory standard, it does not scrutinize in any meaningful way a school’s principles of learning design and practices of assessment. In fact, accreditation does not provide enough legitimacy to a school’s high school diploma for most university systems, which are often driven by practices determined by ministries of education. This is why most international schools rely on external examination-based qualifications such as AP, A Level, and IBDP, which largely mirror well-established national education leaving certification. It is a standardized system relying on curriculum content and outcomes benchmarking for its legitimacy. But such standardization stifles both learner personalization and credentialing innovation in an era where both are being transformed by technology. Consider, for example, the impact GPT4 is having on both learning design and how to evidence learning and growth.

New models of regulation

At School of Humanity, we use a Learning Pathway Advisory program from grade nine onwards to help students curate a personal learning journey that will be reflected in their credit profile. Largely, the approach helps students understand the realities of pursuing four specific pathways: conventional universities, progressive universities; workplace; and entrepreneurism. Each of these paths requires students to build a bespoke approach to their high school transcript and it is this that we want to see have better regulation in the longer term.

Currently, with other future-facing schools, we are looking to establish a network of like-minded high schools that want to provide rigorous alternatives to the existing exam-based credential models. We are actively working with a range of forward-looking universities to build out a framework to validate interdisciplinary, challenge-based assessment practices at the high school level.

The aim is to develop a reliable regulatory mechanism to support best practices and provide pathways to a digitized wallet of pre-tertiary credentials. These credential pathways will recognize student learning across a wider range of knowledge, skills, and dispositions. We feel that existing qualifications jeopardize human flourishing because of the inflationary reality of the grade increases driven by the university admissions system. Until we address the challenge of how to better acknowledge diversity in student learning and growth, we will continue to see increasing levels of depression and anxiety because students see the vacuity of the current system.

School accreditation is a key regulatory process that could rapidly enhance high school provision. However, as it stands, accrediting bodies can only accredit school teaching and learning from an operational perspective. But, as discussed, an accredited high school diploma carries little weight because many university admission systems often demand an externally awarded qualification. In other words, schools, and their teachers, do not have sufficient legitimacy in the eyes of the university system, even though the tertiary’s own awarding powers are largely self-governed.

My contention is that by leveraging technology and improved school quality assurance frameworks schools can develop the capacity to credential a more diverse range of knowledge, skills, and dispositions. However, today’s large qualification providers have little interest in disrupting a business model that generates enormous profits using summative examinations. Their rhetoric for maintaining industrial-scale examinations often uses arguments about validity, equity, or trust. Yet today’s technological innovations raise significant questions about such arguments with their reliance on disciplinary, content-biased school qualifications.

Imagine if the world’s big-name universities worked with schools and accrediting bodies to reinvent regulatory practices instead of maintaining brand value by narrowing access using inflationary measurements provided by an industrial credential cartel.

For too long the complexities of regulation in education have been left in the ‘too hard’ bucket. When it comes to the regulation of school and credential models, we owe it to our children to try and revisit our systemic validation of standardization.

If you’d like to hear more or get involved in some of our work to shift the needle in school accreditation and qualifications do reach out to me through LinkedIn.

Kevin House

Educational revisionist. Regenerative learning and leadership advocate.