The Man Who Wants To Fix Education’s Secrecy Problem

Jim Shelton, the deputy secretary of education, wants to find technological solutions to shed light on what makes better teachers and how to reward schools for better outcomes.

The Man Who Wants To Fix Education’s Secrecy Problem
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Education is a system shrouded in secrecy. Parents don’t know which schools are best for their kids, most educators can’t learn the tricks of their best colleagues, and students usually get feedback after they take a test. Now that the Department of Education has promoted their resident technology guru, Jim Shelton, to the number two spot in the organization, he’s bringing his tech chops to fix our education system with a little dose of Silicon Valley meritocracy and a heap of transparency.


“Right now, because of the lack of transparency on outcomes, people focus on lots of other things,” Shelton, the deputy secretary and chief operating officer at DOE, says. Mediocre colleges can skate by on reputation, even if their graduates aren’t able to get jobs; a struggling elementary school student may get labeled a failure, even if they’re really just stuck on a single concept.

Jim Shelton

Shelton, and boss’s boss, President Obama, have a bold (if contentious) plan to make the inner workings and outcomes of education less secret.

The Myth Of The Failed Student

We may have radically overestimated the number of middle and high-school students who “fail.” Often, struggling students just get stuck on a single concept earlier on in the course. But, because students are often dragged through rigorously timed curricula, an unfortunate few never make it back onto their feet once they’ve stumbled.

Indeed, Khan academy founder, Sal Khan, told me at the 2012 San Francisco Disrupt Conference that when students are allowed to review lectures at home, at their own pace “some of these kids, in two months, three months, four months become the best students in the class.” That is, once students get over one challenging concept, they race ahead of the class.

Khan Academy, which started out was a YouTube channel of viral education tutorials, was among the first experiments in the country to pilot both self-paced learning and rigorously tracked student progress. Khan and the pilot district of Los Altos, California, found that previously failing students shot to the head of the pack after the opportunity to re-watch difficult passages on their own.


Of course, the need to diagnose problem students isn’t new, argues Shelton. “The very best teachers are relentless problem-solvers about individual students.”

But, even if a dedicated teachers do throw away their limited personal life to attend more closely to each individual student, juggling the idiosyncratic struggles of more than kids is not in the cards for most educators. Technology permits more teachers to be those “relentless problem solvers,” especially as classes become more crowded.

Though to be sure, there are critics of using technology to track students’ learning habits: civil liberty hawks worry that giving each student the equivalent of a 24/7 digital tutor is quite literally an omnipresent watcher. “It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,” Tracy Hurley, the dean of the school of business at Texas A&M, whose department is experimenting with e-reader technology that tracks every highlight, page flip, and moment of inattentiveness, told the New York Times.

Eventually, educators will have to find the right balance between privacy and transparency. Shelton remains optimistic that this kind of tracking will be a boon for all educators. “The very best teachers figure it out; we just need to make tools to make it easier for us mere mortals.”

All Eyes On Performance

Perhaps no other educational institution has benefited more from secrecy than the university system. To date, we have almost zero idea of how most students fare after graduation and reputation often has little to do with whether a student will land a job.


College graduates from the ritziest Ivy League schools don’t always enjoy the best life post-college. When Forbes ranked colleges based on student satisfaction and post-graduate income, the lesser-known Pomona College ranked second whereas its California compatriot Berkeley, tanked to 22nd.

And yet, every year, new cohorts willingly dig themselves a deeper grave of debt without knowing if they’re going to strike job gold after graduation. To bring some sunshine to the graduate problem, President Obama has already promised to peg federal funding to a college’s graduate outcomes.

These proposed transparency are essentially a long-over due public audit; schools that have floated by on their reputation alone may not have the same lifeline of federal credit they once enjoyed.

While details of the federal government’s new funding criteria are coming together, Shelton’s knows the policy could have a massive impact on the entire high education system:

“My sense is that when you have that information, people make better decisions,” he says. “My sense is that some of the folks who should not be getting as many students and as much resources as they ought to get will start to feel the pain of that; they will either adjust and improve their performance, or somebody else will flourish and they won’t.”


Some teacher unions, especially in higher education, are concerned about the implications of meritocratic overhaul of school funding. “In reality, measuring the output of our colleges and universities in a meaningful way is simply not possible,” writes Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of The American Association of University Professors.

While professors’ unions may have the political muscle to derail a more transparent higher education system, Shelton shows no sign of letting up on the President’s plans.

When it comes to the transparency in the K-12 years, the government’s gaze shifts from institutions to students themselves. “I’ve become excited again about Peter Bergman’s study showing the power of sending texts to parents with simple notifications about homework, upcoming exams, and other actionable items,” Shelton says.

Bergman is an experimental education scientist at Columbia University, who recently found huge gains from some schools piloting SMS programs between teachers and parents [PDF].

For a long time, it’s been easy for underperforming students to skate by unnoticed. The same technology that keeps teens constantly connected can now be applied to fixing the education system.


MOOCs As Big Data

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been one of the most controversial break-out education innovations of the new decade. When hundreds-of-thousands of students can attend lectures of the world’s best professors in an ultra-cheap format, it’s questionable how many teachers and schools the system will need going forward–and what the value of paying to actually attend a college might be.

MOOCs for official college credit, however, have had mixed results, leading many experts to call into question whether quality education can be done at scale.

Shelton sees MOOCs in a much different light: a searchable database of learning. MOOCs can record every click, page flip, and question. Indeed, at UC Berkeley, engineering professor Armando Fox tells me the lessons he’s learned from teaching a free MOOC have “have permanently changed the way that I plan my on-campus class.”

Fox eventually integrated the auto-grading tech from his MOOC into into his campus classes: “Students not only get finer-grained feedback than they’d get from human TAs, who can spend at most a few minutes per assignment, but now have the opportunity to resubmit homeworks to improve on their previous score and increase mastery,” he writes [PDF].

Shelton sees this as a natural extension of bringing digital tech to the classroom. “You have the usual user experience data being collected which also gives us some insight into not only the outcomes of learning but the process,” he says. “When these capabilities are combined with serious course designers with the intent of not only improving learning but improving the learning about learning, big things can happen.”


An Eye Towards Meritocracy

“Ultimately people start using information about performance–different kinds of performance, but performance–in context to make decisions,” he says. “When that happens, people get focused on, ‘What does it take for people to choose me? What do I have to do as an institution for people to want to come here?'”

Technology, through rigorous tracking of learning, graduate outcomes, and engagement, gives us a deeper look into what really works. The adjustment period is going to hurt, and established interests will resist the future with all of their considerable political might.

Eventually, the brightness of open data will help industry, parents, students, and teacher work more collaboratively towards common goals. And that just might help us bring our beleaguered education system into a brighter future.

About the author

I am a writer and an educator. As a writer, I investigate how technology is shaping education, politics, Generation Y, social good, and the media industry