How do we know what anyone knows? For school admissions, for hiring…

An experiment in the second category is well under way in US K12. The Common Core has landed, with children and parents boycotting the tough new exams in NYC.What is more valuable: What we say we can do? What we’ve demonstrated we can do (in some artificial and simplistic assessment)? Or what we have actually done?

K12 seems to have learned its lessons from NCLB and is attempting to make formal assessment more authentic. For instance, The Common Core English exam, as described in today’s NYTimes, asks students to analyze how an author created suspense in a story.

That does sound difficult, and engaging, and a worthwhile assessment of an 8th grader’s ability to think about a text. NCLB would have them answering a multiple choice question like,

What is the predominant tone of the story:

a) Comedy
b) Suspense
c) Terror
d) Pathos
e) None of the Above
f) All of the Above
g) Some of the Above

Higher Education, though, is heading into its own disastrous NCLB phase via a mutated form of Competency-Based Education.

I’ve been thinking deeply about CBE since 2000. Back then I was teaching 300+ first-year engineering students a year in an interdisciplinary engineering and humanities program. After a year of teaching I grew frustrated by not knowing whether I was actually making an impact. Was I just stamping kids with “As” for skills they already had? Or helping them improve in important ways?

What, exactly, was I actually trying to help them “improve” at doing?

I created Waypoint Outcomes to help me efficiently answer that question.

But today’s CBE focuses on cost. CBE and low-cost higher education have been conflated, by who exactly I’m not sure. But it seems to be a done-deal.

CBE is now synonymous with self-paced education: watching videos, reading stuff, and proving ‘competence’ by taking automated exams. This is the only way we can get to a $10,000 UG degree, apparently. WGU has been offering this approach for quite a while, and now SNHU, Capella, NAU, and others are piling on, terrified that if they don’t cannibalize their high-priced degree programs, someone else will.

It’s frustrating for me, because CBE is such a logical approach. But it doesn’t have to be cheap, or based on multiple-choice exams.

I could design a very effective CBE program that costs $80,000 a year. And that’s without hiring ten assistant provosts at $200k/year.

The program would gather ten students in a room once a week to discuss their academic program with a series of recognized experts. The experts assign readings, formal and informal writing assignments, and oral discussions. The experts, with only ten students to manage, give detailed feedback and guidance. They push the students, using a competency model to measure advancement. If a student can demonstrate mastery, they move ahead – perhaps within the first week. Perhaps all the way to the final stages of the degree program.

No multiple choice tests.

Obviously something in-between could be created to offer faster paths to degrees for motivated and already competent students, ending the dominance of the credit hour and artificial “seat time” gates.

Why does any of this matter, aside from me stomping my competency-clad bootie in frustration?

Because employers are already deeply frustrated at the cannon fodder most universities churn out. Can’t think, can’t write, what can you do?

Aside from pre-existing capabilities, or capabilities developed outside of a $2,500/year CBE program, students will gain nothing from these self-paced programs that will help the competitiveness of their future employers. They’ll learn how to type and how to click little buttons. Maybe once the majority of India is highly educated, and has better opportunities for employment, those call center jobs will come back and our CBE button-clickers can find minimum wage employment answering calls for AMEX.

The sad reality for these programs is that they’re basically MOOCs, but with tuition. The opportunity has never been greater for motivated individuals to get a great education without spending a penny – who cares about some paper certificate you can buy from Coursera? Just take the class and learn.

If, in five years, all that matters is what capabilities you can validate, then diplomas and certificates will be the equivalent of a regional, no-name MBA today: the crutch of the unimaginative and unmotivated.

But I’m not all about the criticism. I have a much more efficient suggestion for employers and those motivated to prove their capabilities without indenturing themselves to student loans or spending weeks of their lives reading crappy content and taking overly-simplistic multiple-choice exams.

Share your activities with prospective employers. Call it Big Brother Validation.

Login to some website, connect all your purchasing and activity accounts (like using Mint), so that the system knows what you’ve bought, what you’ve watched, where you’ve traveled. Apply something like Netflix’s Cinematch and BOOM, you get a score that can prove your worthiness far more than a degree from a university. Add in some security features like Axciom (“Amazon says you recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Does Gladwell discuss US baseball farm leagues or Canadian hockey as an early illustration of his theories?”) with a short timer and you have a high confidence level that the person actually did everything they say. Tie in financials from Mint (did the person do a high-risk mortgage in 2005), your eating habits from Whole Foods, and you’ve got a great picture of critical thinking, resilience, and other crucial skills.

I’m just sketching, of course, All sorts of sub-optimizing behaviors could result. But I’d much rather know the five last books a candidate for a position read than whether they received a B+ or A- in financial accounting.

The whole process would put multiple-choice questions exactly where they belong: a tiny piece of a much bigger, much more authentic process. And Amazon, Target, Netflix, Google, and a dozen others would have the real data on student outcomes. Not universities.