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ASU’s Michael Crow on innovation, access and outcomes

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  • Lisa Irish/Arizona Education News Service

Michael Crow HP

For Arizona State University President Dr. Michael Crow, innovation and helping students succeed are the keys to Arizona’s future.

“If you love children and you want them to be successful, and you believe in the future, we can get a lot of things done,” Crow told K-12 school leaders at a statewide conference attended by school administrators and school board members December in Phoenix. “You can achieve almost anything if you believe those two things.”

ASU's Michael Crow on innovation, access and outcomes MichaelCrowHP

Arizona State University President Michael Crow spoke about innovation and student success to K-12 school leaders at a statewide conference December in Phoenix. Photo courtesy of Arizona State University

Since Crow joined ASU in 2002, the number of students graduating has doubled to 19,000 a year, the university’s research funded by outside parties has quadrupled to $400 million, and technology is used to find better ways to help students understand concepts in courses like introduction to college mathematics, increasing the passing rate by 25 percent.

Other colleges have increased their graduation rates by raising their admission standards, but ASU has chosen a different approach by resetting the school’s objective, Crow said.

“Our objective as an institution now is to be known not for who we exclude, but who we include, how they succeed and to measure it,” Crow said. “To do research that has a measureable benefit for the people and to take responsibility for the outcome of our state.”

ASU accepts the upper 25 percent of the high school class while Columbia University, where Crow previously was executive provost, accepts the upper one percent.

“Somewhere in higher education, you have to find the diamonds, shape the diamonds, cut the diamonds, and then polish the diamonds,” Crow said. “That process is what Arizona State University exists to do.”

As another indicator of ASU’s success, Crow mentioned that last year ASU tied for third in the nation with Princeton in the number of Fulbright scholarships its graduates earned, just behind Harvard, which won the most awards, and University of Michigan, which placed second.

“What we need to build on is the idea of what a public university was supposed to be: accessible, engaged, unbelievable high quality, unbelievable faculty members, and make that work here in Arizona,” Crow said. “That’s what we do everyday. That’s how we advance. We have a long way to go, but Arizona is the kind of place where these kinds of innovations, these kinds of changes and these kinds of opportunities can be realized.”

Coming next week … Crow on tracking student success, rural outreach, and expanding and diversifying the teacher pool.

Q: Why is it important to change the way things are done in education?

A: We have inherited a system – a way in which things are done, a methodological approach to learning, a way in which things are structured, a logic around which things have been designed – which in my view has run its course.

It did fantastic things. In 1940, slightly less than half population of the United States graduated from high school.

In 1900, half of a percent of the population went on to college. Over time we built a model which was the pride of the world for universal education, universal high school, access to great public universities.

The model that we presently are implementing, in my view, peaked in 1970 when three-fourths of all kids graduated from high school.

I was in high school in 1970. I went to four high schools in two different states, by the way. My father (who served in the U.S. Navy) kept moving. We moved 21 times before I was 17 years old. That doesn’t count the places we lived for shorter than a month. I don’t count those.

So what does that tell me? It tells me we achieved great things. We built a fantastic platform. We were able to move forward and achieve fantastic educational outcomes.

Why do I focus on educational outcomes? Let’s say there’s a thousand variables that predict social mobility – that is entering society in one socioeconomic class and being in a higher socioeconomic class as an adult. Of those thousand variables, one outweighs all of the others combined, according to the data. The single most significant predictor of social mobility in the American society in that last 110 years is educational attainment.

We have not figured out how to get every kid through high school.

The kid that doesn’t graduate from high school is the single most expensive object in our society. We will spend more tax dollars on that person than 10 other people over their lifetime, providing for their social services, social benefits, incarceration, health benefits, health emergency room visits.

We have a system in which this nonsuccess is holding us back. It’s holding us down. We haven’t yet realized we need new approaches. We need a new system. This is true at the university also.

Q: What are some examples of these new approaches?

A: We re-engineered a new entity called Teachers College. We raised $150 million and used philanthropy to advance this new model that changed how we identify who might be a teacher. We built teacher-tracking mechanisms so that we could have a way to know how our teachers perform when they go out to school districts.

It’s not an easy process to overcome a 100-year-old design that’s underperforming and contributing to the underperformance of K-12 education.

We started that five or six years ago, and we’re well on the path.  We have reset our objectives. We have reset our design – what we call our design aspirations. The worst thing we could possibly be is like some other university. Arizona doesn’t need a generic public university. It doesn’t need a UCLA. It doesn’t need an Ohio State. It needs a university dedicated to this place.

We reset our values. Like most universities, ASU was a faculty-centric institution in 2002. Except we are not a faculty-centered institution, we are a student-centered institution. Faculty had thought that they were here to advance their careers. They’re there to advance the careers and the success of our students. If they want to advance their careers, work somewhere else.

We reset our objective. We reset our design. We had a series of design aspirations – eight of them. These are the things we want to be. If all you do is operate something from its existing operating modality, you will never improve your performance, except in some fractional margin of little consequence.

We have one about intellectual fusion. We don’t accept that there are disciplines like sociology or geology or anything like that. What we accept is that we’re trying to be an institution of intellectual fusion bringing together disciplines to excite students to enhance the ability to learn is the way that we approach things.

To innovate relative to the concept of time, we have done away with the notion of a regular semester. We’re allowing students to advance at their own speed and their own ways on different types of platforms.

We have to do away with the concept that class size is a meaningful thing. It is in some classes. It isn’t in most. These are not things we are thinking up.

These are things that we have come to know with analytically-based, rigorous data on student outcomes derivative of innovation – time innovation, pedagogy innovation, and structural innovation.

We eliminated 69 academic units, restructured new academic units, and did things that could only be done in Arizona. People here actually believe in the word change. Actually accept new ideas, as opposed to other places.

We focused on this notion of the centrality of students.

I’ll give you one example. Math is not a subject at Arizona State University in which a C is an acceptable grade. You have not mastered the material. We offer 16,000 different courses. I’m picking one class – Math 142 introduction to college mathematics. Every freshman either has to pass out of that course or take that course.

We have 10,000 incoming first-time full-time freshmen and 10,000 transfer students from community colleges. 20,000 new undergraduates.  A huge number of students.

The way we used to teach that class was in basically dozens of small sections. Failure. No connection to the students. No methodological understanding, no pedagogical platform.

Students who already knew the math, they did fine. Students that knew some of the math, but not all, didn’t do fine. Most that struggled were obliterated. Most of them quit the university.

Six years ago we had a 35 percent nonsuccess rate in that class. Of those students, half did not continue at the university.

We now have a 10 percent nonsuccess rate in that class at half the cost. We changed everything.

No one leaves that class that does not understand all eight core subjects in that freshman math class. That’s through re-engineering our pedagogy, re-engineering our technological platform, re-conceptualizing the way we do everything.

I’m just giving you this as just one example. I can give you hundreds.

(The interview was edited for length and clarity.)