The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

A Vision for Comprehensive Educational Reform:
Where Learners Control Their Own Education

Everyone knows the problems with American education; there is no point in rehashing them. Identifying the source of those problems, however, is essential to any meaningful reform. At every level, educational innovation is choked off by bureaucratic administrators who benefit from the current structure’s inefficiencies. Let’s be clear, there is no grand administrative conspiracy— both game theory and public choice economic theory predict that when a structure empowers a certain group1 (in this case, educational bureaucrats), the structure will gradually evolve to manifest the priorities of the group in power. Understanding this simple point leads to an understanding of how educational reform could occur. True educational reform would require creating a structure that empowers the learner, not the administrative bureaucracy. This article describes in detail a workable plan for doing so. Every one of these ideas is feasible for implementation right now. Beginning with higher education, here is a vision for what American education could be.

Higher Education

My 2021 Skeptic article on post-pandemic higher education,2 described how the same market forces that had made entertainment cheap and constantly accessible had done the same for educational content. Indeed, learning has never been cheaper or more accessible—unless you need certification in the form of a degree. American colleges and universities, emboldened by a scam-of-the-century system where students could pay for higher education with easy-toget Pell Grants, and where the school could keep the money even when students defaulted on loans,3 leveraged their ability to verify the transaction of education (through degrees). School “leaders” expanded their bureaucracies, football stadiums, campus amenities, and diversity efforts, while undercutting the teaching faculty by injecting adjuncts and teaching assistants to do the actual instructing.4 Students who went to college to enjoy four years of a lazy river ride,5 or to attend mega-sporting events, seemed not to mind, but cynics saw the whole system of higher education as beyond saving. There was, however, a notable exception—a new program, led by a visionary at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Sanjay Sarma, who led in a variety of roles at MIT’s Open Learning Department from 2012 to 2022 developed an open-learning “micromasters” program. In his book, Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn,6 he pointed out that the educational structure is designed to both teach students and to “winnow” them into next level institutions based on judgment and performance. The “winnowing” function has now largely been eliminated because high-level education can be made accessible to just about anyone at any time.

Anyone can “get into” MIT right now on the Open Learning website.7 If you pass the Open Learning course, and perhaps even take a test, MIT will award you with a micro-credential indicating that you have mastered the content in, say, supply chain management to the extent that MIT’s faculty thinks it sufficient to earn MIT verification.*

The cost is between $1,000 and $1,200. In 2021, I predicted that the disjunction between the high cost of college education and the lowered cost of learning could not last. Just a few months later, MIT’s Open Education model was sold to edX (2U) for 800 million dollars.8

The Open Learning concept has given birth to two new players in the “game” of higher education. The first is Axiom, which delivers high-quality instruction through an open-learning model.9 The second is the Digital Credentials Consortium, a process dedicated to finding ways to use blockchain technology to verify educational transactions.10

Currently, a teacher or professor passes knowledge and skills on to students, but it is their school or college that verifies the “transaction” by issuing diplomas bearing its imprimatur. Blockchain verification, administered largely through rigorous mastery-level testing, could eliminate the need for diplomas. In practice, digital credentialing would look something like peer-to-peer lending verified by a blockchain, where a bank is not necessary to act as a third-party verifier.

If peer-to-peer lending has been around for a while, why do banks still exist? The answer is that institutions that have built up a century’s worth of legal leverage by aggressively lobbying their politicians, don’t die easily. And that’s what makes Sarma and MIT all the more significant. It is as if the CEO of a major banking or insurance institution decided to cut profits and deliver better services. MIT has a credentialing power, thanks to its earned reputation, to verify a transaction of learning through an open-source model.

After my 2021 paper was published, I contacted Dr. Sarma and he invited me to the MIT campus. I met with him and several members of MIT’s Open Learning faculty. At that time, I had just finished my second decade as a public high school teacher and had spent several years developing education programs for in-service STEM teachers. The entire secondary structure seemed strained to the point of collapse (a subject I wrote about for the Skeptic Reading Room in 2022),11 and I left MIT in June of 2022 believing their Open Learning system could save education.

It seemed that education, at all levels, was or is on the verge of a “Netflix-Blockbuster” moment. When Netflix started streaming in 2007, Blockbuster stores could be found in every hamlet in America. Just a few early adopters could recognize what streaming services would do to the home entertainment business, and at that moment Blockbuster still looked like a strong business model. By 2014, Blockbuster went bankrupt as home entertainment turned to a cheaper and more agile model of entertainment delivery. Between 2007 and 2014 there was little technological change on the part of Netflix. Instead, those seven years represent the amount of time that it took users to recognize, understand, and use the new streaming service. A critical mass of users had to be reached before the business model turned.

With education available at all times, schools really should just teach two things: how to become interested in an academic subject and how to use the educational ecosystem to saturate that interest level.

It is clear that even if Axiom and digital credentialing are offering an impressive new world of Open-Source education, a student population that graduates from traditional schools won’t know how to use or access this type of content. The current Open-Source model needs to begin early in a student’s education for students, teachers, guidance counselors, and parents to understand how it works and become comfortable with it.

Open-Source learning does have some weaknesses. It lacks a face-to-face component, and because Open-Source learning is universal, it is not local. These are issues that can be effectively addressed by connecting the model to existing educational institutions, but in order to explain how, we first need to connect Open-Source learning to K–12 education.

Open-Source Learning and Secondary Education

Before offering a new vision for education, I submit there are three educational myths that need to be dispelled. First—online education and face-to-face education only exist as an either/or construct. Second—interest-based education, where students develop an interest in a topic and then explore content and develop skills around that interest, does not constitute a serious method for learning. Third—an educational structure must be hyper-competitive (the winnowing function) because it is the pressure that forces students to learn complicated topics. Let us examine these three myths, and explore solutions:

1. Online Education and Face-to-Face Education

In Grasp, Sanjay Sarma explained that education currently operates within a Seat-Time Model (STM) where students are generally rewarded with grades after they have spent a certain amount of time in a class. He advocates a Mastery-Learning Model (MLM), or a competence-based model for education, one where students leave a course of study once they have demonstrated mastery. If the goal is “mastering” certain material, methods, or procedures (for example, the alphabet, adding fractions, changing a tire or a diaper), it would make sense to combine the best aspects of online and face-to-face learning so that a student attains the most complete education possible.

Students who study through a MLM module can still read actual books and work with pencil and paper, but their progress would be tracked through constant testing. A MLM treats tests as living parts of the learning process, not as “educational autopsies” to be administered after students have absorbed content. Again, the MLM lacks a face-to-face component, and it is not localized, though these weaknesses can be filled by teachers.

If students work through a MLM, teachers would no longer have to assign them grades. They would also not be subject to the various external forces that often cause or reward grade inflation. MLM tracks both student progress and mastery. Teachers, then, would need to localize the curriculum by showing how the content that students are learning in an MLM connects to the local community and workforce.

In practice, this means that an MLM on, say, chemistry would have “gaps” built into it. Teachers would no longer be record-keepers (no grading) but rather would need to be connected to workplaces and universities, to access the content-area knowledge necessary to guide students. Teachers would therefore need to be sustained through a new type of professional development that begins with them being exposed to the intellectual community around them and ends with their creating a Teacher-Generated Curriculum.12 Ideally, community members would take an active part in student education. When a local business leader comes into a high school classroom and says, “I’m paying people to do what you just did for your classroom project,” it is certainly a powerful moment.

This brings up an important problem for traditional methods of education—there are populations of students who are unlikely to go past high school given the current educational model. Lowering costs and increasing accessibility for higher education can help reach them, but if their only experience of high school involves failing classes and a revolving door in the teaching staff, they are unlikely to advance, either in school or at work. Students need to have a positive, engaging experience, and have someone from a post-secondary institution come in and explain that if they find school engaging, they’re likely to continue on to the next level.

2. Interest-based education is not a serious method.

Eventually, if learners are empowered, then a mastery-learning “ecosystem” will evolve.13 The ecosystem will offer mastery education to anyone at any time. It’s likely that grade-level distinctions for mastery will fade. A top-down, seat-time approach to educating students will cease to make sense in such an educational environment. Currently, most state educational standards are designed by experts in various fields with little concept of what students can accomplish. (Meet every stated requirement for high school graduation, and I will congratulate you on being the smartest person on the planet.) But with education available at all times, schools really should just teach two things: how to become interested in an academic subject and how to use the educational ecosystem to saturate that interest level.

Obviously, the state has a right and duty to enforce a basic level of educational proficiency on schools, but a traditional top-down educational model has simply not worked.14, 15 Students at all levels cheat the system either through a skim-and-scam method toward content material,16 or through outright cheating. A qualitative study completed way back in 1992 found that 67 percent of students at 31 college campuses self-reported having cheated on classwork and exams.17 This was all before ChatGPT and other Artificial Intelligence systems began being used by students to write essays.

Cheating is the most cynical act in which a student can engage because it shows they see no value at all in the actual content of education, but only in obtaining the necessary grade (“even a D will do”) and/or credential. Traditionally, this problem has been solved by a hodgepodge of educational assessments. College entrance administrators recognize that grades, where the standards vary widely from school to school and teacher to teacher, are not a very good indicator of a student’s abilities. To correct for this, the ACT , SAT, and Advanced Placement exams have been (until recently) adopted by local educational systems as a means of providing a nationalized standard of ability to master successfully further education.

This creates an unnecessarily exhausting situation for students, teachers, and guidance counselors in high schools. Grades must be kept so that students can meet local graduation requirements, but because those grades are but a limited predictor of either present subject mastery or predicted future performance, the College Board tests offer reliable and valid metrics. Students, for example, who take an AP course earn a grade in the class from the teacher/school, then also receive a score (1–5) on the AP exam. The grade does not affect the score nor the score the grade.

The decentralized nature of the system keeps credentialing power in the hands of administration. Placing that credentialing power in the hands of the learner, by means of micro-credentials accrued through blockchain in a digital transcript, would rapidly reshape the educational landscape.

The College Board has, in the past, provided an important function, but one that, I submit, is now obsolete for three reasons:

  1. The College Board has moved to unify its testing requirements across the AP classes, and the purpose of most of the classes now seems to be to teach students how to effectively meet the requirements of the College Board rubrics. Students taking the short answer questions on the AP history exams, for example, are exhorted to use a three-sentence Answer-Cite-Explain model. This is not necessarily the best means of showcasing an understanding of history, but it does make it easier to grade the exams through an assembly line approach.
  2. The College Board is invested in the idea of testing a student’s college potential. Testing students for potential was only necessary when colleges needed to winnow out the most likely to benefit from attending a college campus and learning from the small amount of information that could be transferred in a classroom/lecture hall over four years. When education is available to everyone at all times, it is useless to measure potential or aptitude.
  3. The College Board’s educational model has always been political, and legally unstable. The AP courses essentially set national curricula, and states have had to adopt their local standards and laws to allow for students to take AP courses. Controversies, particularly in history, become inevitable.18 It would seem impossible to get Americans, many of whom are more politically-charged (in whatever direction) than ever, to agree on a set of content standards for a U.S. history course.

An educational ecosystem could save American schools from curricular paralysis. Simply turn the questions over to the students, and then let them access the educational ecosystem to answer those questions. For example, students in a U.S. History course might be asked “What is the main narrative in United States history from 1877 to the present?” Students would need to answer the question with a central thesis but address three other points of view in the process. A student who stated that the African American experience is the main narrative would need to show a mastery of other perspectives and explain the primacy of the African American experience in their final work.

When people read because they are interested in the subject matter, they don’t cheat. They also don’t compete. This brings us to the final myth.

3. The educational structure must be competitive.

Please consider, for a moment, the absurdity of an educational system that implicitly tells teenagers that their entire future (for kids who might live another 75 years!) will be determined by how well they learn the volume of a cylinder formula, or by their ability to retain the definition of the word “catholic” before they turn 18. For most students and parents, the system is bewildering and frustrating. However, the worst thing about a competitive educational system is what it does to the people who succeed in it.

Ivy League professor William Deresiewicz noted that a competitive structure ultimately deprives students of the ability to be happy for another’s successes.19 This might sound menial, but if someone is jealous that another person has made a creative breakthrough, then it becomes impossible to build upon that breakthrough. How can someone become a genuinely creative thinker in that context?

Removing the winnowing function from education would create opportunities for cooperative education where students learn to converse rather than debate. Again, in an educational ecosystem no one is trying to “get in” anymore. You can access the ecosystem at any time. This is not to say that face-to-face learning will disappear or that brick-and-mortar universities will cease to exist.

One can imagine an educational structure where students learn and test to mastery and then receive a micro-credential that verifies their learning. Those micro-credentials would accrue in a centrally administered digital transcript, sometimes called an “achievement wallet.” Institutions might require that students earn their way onto campus (and thereby access to valuable face-to-face learning) by obtaining a certain specified set of micro-credentials. This would embed fairness into college admissions, drastically reduce administrative costs by eliminating the cumbersome and controversial admissions procedures, and ensure that students entered campus with the right knowledge.

The current system of “grading” students is not only useless for verifying the transaction of content and skills, it actively harms the educational process itself20 by distracting both teachers and students from instructing and learning.

$2 Million Is All It Took to Get the Ball Rolling

This entire concept of a cooperative educational future, with mastery-learning micro-credentials, and a new definition of what it means to be a teacher might sound fantastic in both senses of the word. However, all of this technology already exists. Currently, however, decision-making power rests with an educational bureaucracy spread out across almost 14,000 K–12 school districts and nearly 4,000 colleges and universities. The decentralized nature of the system keeps credentialing power in the hands of administration. Placing that credentialing power in the hands of the learner, by means of micro-credentials accrued through blockchain in a digital transcript, would rapidly reshape the educational landscape.

Eventually, students will go to school for the purpose of learning how to become interested in subjects and how to navigate a Mastery-Learning Model. They will have to learn to deal with frustration, how to study independently, how to read at a deep level, and how to converse with other students about content.

Teachers and guidance counselors will no longer need to take grades or keep records. All of that will be done through the ecosystem, and students will prove mastery via testing. Teachers, then, could connect with their colleges and universities through new forms of professional development and be respected as knowledge producers and content masters. Guidance counselors, freed from record keeping and college admissions, could work to help students emotionally and intellectually navigate their actual learning process.

By implementing this vision, we can reduce pressure on the teen years. A student who hates math at 15 might develop an interest in math at 40. There’s nothing preventing it. If teenagers go through a trauma, or a growth spurt, or sometimes just feel paralyzed by “all the drama,” it would be possible to back off for a while, or to develop alternate means of education. (Many a fifteen-year-old boy might benefit from six months off from school to learn a trade, or just work, or see how professionals in an area in which they have an academic interest actually go about their day and earn a living). They could always come back later and pick up on their more traditional style of learning.

Still, this much change seems overwhelming, and educational change in the U.S. will, by law, have to happen on a state-by-state basis. After leaving the MIT campus in 2022, it made sense to me that a process of mastery learning should actually begin with in-service teachers. This makes sense because teachers are a population of adults who have constant contact with students. If the teachers understand how mastery learning and micro-credentialing work, they can gradually make students and parents understand.

At the start of the 2023 legislative session, Sanjay and I met with leadership in the Indiana Senate and House. As a result of these discussions, two million dollars was allocated, over the biennium, to develop education programs for in-service teachers. The money would be awarded in competitive grants to Indiana’s colleges and/or universities and the educational programs must focus on the study of content (History, English, STEM, etc.) and can have a workforce education component.21 Teachers can earn a micro-credential after completing a combination of online and in-person education that culminates with a Teacher Generated Curriculum ready for the classroom. Programs will be overseen by the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.

The state already had a contract with a vendor for “achievement wallets”22 and was looking to overhaul the high school experience by making new forms of work-based education, with new forms of credentials, possible. Why not issue every teacher in the state a digital transcript, and allow them to accrue micro-credentials for both extra pay and for license renewal?

Just like that, a new type of education program, with a new type of credential and a new kind of transcript were all encoded into law and overseen by centralized institutions. An experimental group of over 60,000 teachers now have access to a new form of affordable (indeed compensated, since teachers are paid to complete coursework) and accessible education largely devoid of messy bureaucracy. If the teachers become familiar with such an efficient system, how long before they, and then their students, and the parents of those students, start to demand it? END

About the Author

Chris Edwards teaches World History, English, and Mathematics at a public high school in Indiana. He is a frequent contributor to Skeptic on a variety of topics and has had his original connectthe- dots teaching methodology published with the National Council for Social Studies. He is the author of numerous books, including the young adult STEM title All About the Moon Landing (Blue River Press, 2023), the fantasy novella The Strongman’s Tale (See Sharp Press, 2023), and Self-Taught: Moving from a Seat Time Model to a Mastery-Learning Model (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2022) about educational reform.

  1. Yoeli, E., & Hoffman, M. (2022). Hidden Games: The Surprising Power of Game Theory to Explain Irrational Behavior. Basic Books.
  2. Edwards, C. (2021). The Future of Higher Education: Reengineering Learning for a Post-Pandemic World. Skeptic (Vol. 26, No. 1).
  6. Sarma, S. (2021). Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn. Anchor Books.
  12. Edwards, C. (2011). Three Cheers for Teachers: Educational Reform Should Come From Within the Classroom and Science Can Inform Our Reforms. Skeptic (Vol. 17, No.1).
  14. Caplan, B.D. (2018). The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. Princeton University Press.
  15. Arum, R., & Roska, J. (2011). Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. The University of Chicago Press.
  16. Carr, N.G. (2020). The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W.W. Norton & Company.
  17. Williams, A.E. & Janosik, S.M. (2007, November). An Examination of Academic Dishonesty Among Sorority and Nonsorority Women. Journal of College Student Development, 48(6), 706–714.
  19. Deresiewicz, W. (2015). Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Free Press.

This article was published on December 20, 2023.

Skeptic Magazine App on iPhone


Whether at home or on the go, the SKEPTIC App is the easiest way to read your favorite articles. Within the app, users can purchase the current issue and back issues. Download the app today and get a 30-day free trial subscription.

Download the Skeptic Magazine App for iOS, available on the App Store
Download the Skeptic Magazine App for Android, available on Google Play
Download the Skeptic Magazine App for iOS, available on the App Store
Download the Skeptic Magazine App for Android, available on Google Play
SKEPTIC • 3938 State St., Suite 101, Santa Barbara, CA, 93105-3114 • 1-805-576-9396 • Copyright © 1992–2024. All rights reserved • Privacy Policy