April 10, 2013

Expert panel: Education needs major reform

While divergent in their prescriptions, a panel of eight Cornell-affiliated education advocates stressed the importance of reform during a lively discussion on the future of education at the Cornell Club in Manhattan April 3.

“I don’t know what exactly the solution is,” education writer James Altucher ’88 told the sold-out crowd of 125, “but there’s a major problem, and it’s happening at almost every level of education.”

Structured as a series of 15-minute TED-like lectures, the event brought together Cornellians across education. The conversation moved from K-12 curriculum to the cost of college; throughout the discussion, panelists agreed that education was ripe for reform, if not disruption.

“There are fundamental changes happening in education,” said Éva Tardos, Cornell professor of computer science and chair of the committee on Cornell’s involvement with MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses). By shifting large introductory lectures online, Tardos said, MOOCs could free professors to concentrate on smaller or project-based courses. “The higher education world is experimenting with what to do next,” she said.

Changes are also being felt in the areas of budgeting and financial aid at Cornell, said Elmira Mangum, Cornell vice president for budget and planning, who works to set the price of tuition. “We know that there is concern in the media, and there’s a problem nationally, with the cost of education,” she said. Cornell has been working to meet this challenge with a “robust” financial aid policy, she said. The average student loan of a Cornellian at graduation, is about $20,000, and has been declining since 2008-09, Mangum said.

Even with declining debt, audience member Kyle Scott '11, an associate producer at NBC News, questioned the value of postsecondary education.

“Is college still worth it?” Scott asked the panelists. “You have debt, you have unemployment, but also have the fact that a lot of people make a lot more money with a bachelor’s degree.”

Harold Levy '74, J.D. '79, former chancellor of New York City schools, quickly responded: “For most people who don’t have the creative genius of some of the panelists, college is the way up. Education is the way out. It always has been so and it will be so … for the vast bulk of people? the vast majority? Of course they need to go to college,” he said.

Altucher said that the debate was symptomatic of a need to think more creatively about education. “I think the issue is not whether college is worth it or not, but how we can start thinking – not from the bottom down, but from the bottom up – how we are educating our children,” he said.

“Cornell's Land Grant Legacy: The State and Future of Education in America” was hosted by the Cornell University Northeast Corridor Office of Alumni Affairs and Development. The other speakers were Andy Boas '77, founder of Achievement First; Richard Jones '71, Ph.D. '78, senior consultant for the International Center for Leadership in Education; Justin Serrano '94, CEO of Editure Professional Development; and David Welch, Ph.D. '85, co-founder of StudentsMatter.

Claire Lambrecht 06 is a freelance writer in New York City.