My daughter is in seventh grade. She’s reading Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff (and that Homer guy), and enjoying it. She was sitting on a Saturday morning (after a good shot of cartoons) reading – every parent’s hope! My wife suggested she keep reading – that she didn’t have to stop when she got to the end of her current assignment.

My daughter didn’t miss a beat: “But if I read further I might get confused and not do well on the quiz or class discussion.”

My first reaction was disappointment.

School does this to us, I thought. We hold back. Our pace is set artificially. We play to win the game, not for the sake of play.

She just started at a new school (after attending another progressive, anti-NCLB school), so her reaction says more about the essence of formal schooling than the specifics of the modern American K12 system.

At her new school the archery teacher had brought styrofoam legs to school for practice – so they could aim at the Achilles heel rather than abstract round targets. This seems like the ideal sort of thing a middle school teacher might do to bring a musty old story into the present day. Certainly anything connected to archery, thanks to Katniss Everdeen, is going to be popular with teen and pre-teen girls. Pretty cool. And the NRA will be satisfied, knowing that we’re training our children to defend themselves against assault weapons in the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. If the kids read All Quiet on the Western Front or The Red Badge of Courage next year perhaps they’ll enjoy firearms practice and schools will become that much safer.

The Hunger Games could be seen as the ultimate extrapolation of competency-based education. It doesn’t matter what your skills are, or how big, fast, or even smart you are. All that matters is the outcome. The faster you get there (killing all the other contestants…or at least letting them all kill each other), the faster you win. It’s a brutal, gruesome, but authentic setup. I’ve had faith that any move to competency-based education in higher education would be similarly authentic. That is, moving to competencies would bring greater rigor to our processes.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal on Wisconsin’s UW Flexible Option program, titled (in typical hyperbolic mainstream media fashion) “College Degree, No Class Time Required,” has spun my head around on the subject.

The article, and the University of Wisconsin’s website on the program, paint a picture of students with considerable knowledge (life, MOOCs, books…doesn’t matter) earning undergraduate degrees by sitting for multiple choice exams. And, as UW explain, “Best of all, you graduate with a degree from UW institutions: schools that employers recognize and respect.”

I’m curious why UW, of all state systems, would engage in this approach – seemingly leading the nation on the boldness of vision that assumes there are thousands of highly qualified students who just need a couple of classes and a raft of testing to earn UG degrees. Texas has made headlines with goals to deliver a $10,000 UG degree, but UW (for in-state residents) is already at $21,000 for the same. And without fanfair (see details on Wisconsin’s $5,200 per year full-time tuition).

It’s a reminder of what a fantastic deal education can be, especially if families approach things rationally. You could borrow $20k, work five shifts a week at Starbucks, and get through UW-Madison without any fuss.

I’ve never visited Wisconsin. But the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a highly-ranked institution (tied for #41 on US News and World Report’s list of “Best Colleges”) and, perhaps more importantly, was used to film one of the greatest movies ever made about higher education: Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School.

Rodney represents the other end of the competency-based spectrum. In fact, you could argue he was Wisconsin’s first beneficiary of the UW Flexible Option: the successful businessman, who never earned a degree, returns to college to do it “face to face” (f2f) as we’d say now. He hires Kurt Vonnegut to write a paper – on Kurt Vonnegut’s novels – then gets mad when the paper is failed. The professor’s feedback (along with busting Rodney as a cheat) is that “whoever wrote the paper doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut”). It’s a clip worth watching, and conveniently queued up here:

Rodney eventually comes around and works hard – the old fashioned way. He is grilled by a panel of full Professors in an exceedingly authentic final exam scene worthy of a PhD dissertation. That was 1986. Apparently all he’d have to do now is stay in his mansion taking some online exams. I bet Kurt Vonnegut would have done better at a multiple choice exam on his work. Or, more likely, Rodney would have hired some underemployed humanities PhD to take all the gen ed exams for him.

I’m attending a symposium on competency-based education hosted by the Florida Virtual Campus on February 7. Titled “New Models of Instructional Delivery and Credentialing,” the session brings together leaders from accrediting bodies, state systems, and other institutions to discuss the “significant opportunities and challenges facing competency-based education and credit-for-prior-learning models.” Katniss and Rodney will be on my mind. If The Hunger Games moved to the competency model suggested by the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of Wisconsin, Katniss would have been sitting in front of a computer answering questions like,

If, when near starvation, you come across a nest of Tracker Jackers (genetically engineered hornets) do you:

          1. Run away
          2. Consider how to use the hornets as a weapon
          3. Scoop out the honey, being careful to avoid angering the hornets
          4. All of the above
          5. None of the above

As all students know, the inclusion of “None of the above” raises the difficulty level considerably. Unless you know that hornets don’t create honey (Or do they? They are genetically-engineered, after all).

In a Hunger Games world of standardized testing, there would be thousands of ‘winners’ and very little interest in the quality of the honor. Of course there wouldn’t be any dead teenagers, either. But, in our world, if the pressure around MOOCs, the costs of higher education, and requirements from employers for more “college educated workers” results in short-circuited degree paths we’ll be doing ourselves a significant disservice. And employers won’t “recognize and respect” UG degrees anymore, except from the top 50 schools (maybe).

My oldest daughter is the one reading Black Ships Before Troy. So we haven’t really engaged with the whole college thing yet. But $5,200 a year for UW Madison seems like a killer deal. Moving to Madison to live for a year, earning residency, then enrolling is a workable strategy. And a life-expanding one. I just hope a UW degree is worth something for the class of 2023.