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Whiplash: Moving From K-12 to Higher Education

For those who have followed Dewey21C, hopefully you’ve noticed that I have been silent since the end of July. A month off from work followed that last post, and as we’re blowing through September, I have started a new chapter in my career as Dean of the Mannes College The New School for Music.

It’s not all that often that one gets a month off. It was a month that I viewed as time to leave behind the past seven years at The Center for Arts Education, while clearing my mind for the very new challenge of leading a music conservatory that is part of a fairly unorthodox university (The New School). It didn’t hurt that one of the founders of The New School, and father of its initial educational design was none other than John Dewey.

There is so much that I want to share about these early days in my tenure. I thought it would be a good call to start with something that had that sort of cold water in the face feel as soon as arrived at The New School.

In K-12, the pathway to college is and has been for many years the brass ring. Ten years ago it was simply getting students to college. For arts educators, we were being asked what we were doing to increase the high school graduation rates, with the presumption that graduates would move along to college at increasing rates, in addition to simply ensuring a higher high school graduation rate and all that it implies. Slowly it became about college and career readiness, which is the key frame for the Common Core Standards. What should a student know and be able to do in college and career.  One way or the other, K-12 policy has been about getting more and more students to college, even if remediation rates are alarmingly high.

At the very same time, higher education is under fire. In almost every respect higher education is being challenged, whether it’s on the basis of cost, design, relevancy, etc.

Some say it’s better to attend DIY college. Others question the value of the degree altogether. It’s too expensive. It’s too abstract. The model is busted. There is no accountability. There is no data. It is hand cuffed by tenure and unions. Freshman enrollment is down. Students are taking longer to graduate.

Naturally, the above includes just a few issues in common with K-12.

You have to admit, at the very least, how fascinating it is to witness a sort of accountability movement in higher education, one which at time calls to question fundamental value, while at the very same time, most of K-12 policy continues to triangulate on moving students to college.

For me, at my new position, there is one particular question from K-12 that I find to be the perfect lens to peer through: what should a graduate know and be able to do. It is through that particular frame that I believe assessment and improvement is possible at my new job.



  1. George Fisher says

    Richard asks, “What should a graduate know and be able to do?”

    I will pick up the ball on this one — not only because it’s an important question, but because as a member of the Mannes administration I will be working closely with Richard on this in the weeks and months ahead.

    Like all good questions, it leads to others more quickly than to its own answers. Some questions that come to my mind at the moment are the following: 1) “Who determines what a graduate should know and be able to do?” 2) “What is the link between knowing and doing here?”, and perhaps more searchingly, 3) “How do we balance the attention to assessment with the belief that a vital educational process will inevitably lead to results that are in themselves valuable and worthwhile?” I don’t have any of the answers yet — but I look forward to pondering the questions with colleagues inside and outside of my own workplace in the near future.

    Welcome, Richard, to Mannes and to the New School!

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