Thursday, August 18, 2011

College for All?

The time has come--in the life of this blog, at least--to address one of education's hottest current topics: "college for all." I've mentioned the concept in passing in a few previous posts, but my thoughts on the subject didn't really begin to gel until recently, when I read two new publications.

The first catalyst was Mike Schmoker's Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning (Alexandria: ASCD, 2011). Although the book is targeted toward K-12 educators and policy makers, the author included some helpful ideas which could easily be applied to teaching at the undergraduate level, and his support for "college for all" is as enthusiastic as is his disdain for standardized testing. His basic premise was the absolute centrality of "authentic literacy" as the key to success in all subject areas. Teach students to read (or "decode," in the new jargon) in kindergarten and first grade, and then throw away the reading groups and basal readers (the graded reading textbooks that most of us probably used in elementary school, which mostly contain excerpts from short stories and/or pieces written specifically for the textbook). From second grade on, students should read entire works of varying lengths (novels, short stories, poems, newspaper articles) and genres as an entire class, with the teacher modeling a critical reading method and having students pair up and share thoughts, reactions, and answers to self-generated questions before completing written assignments related to the piece. If all teachers would follow this disarmingly simple plan, he argues, students would actually exceed the standards that have bloated our current system, and they might just retain a love of reading in the process.

Mike Schmoker--who has actual classroom experience, unlike many policy makers--makes his case for reforming language arts and social science instruction using this model well, but he lost me when he applied it to natural science and mathematics instruction, and it was in the context of doing just that that the nuances of his interpretation of "college for all" came through. Schmoker believes that all students could succeed in college if his model were used, because they would have mastered critical thinking and writing skills (in a usable form). Moreover, he states that the skills needed for success in college are the same skills needed for success in the work force and for responsible citizenship. In an ideal academic world, his assumption might be correct. Unfortunately, colleges have their share of instructors whose primary methodology is to do nothing more than lecture for 90 minutes at a time and then test students on what they can remember later. Listening and memorization are useful skills in college and in the workplace, too, and some students actually need more helping learning how to learn in these environments than they do in the critical thinking department. On the other side of the aisle are those students--and let's face it, they do exist--who just never seem to make the jump to independent, critical thinking no matter how much they are prodded. I admit to being something of a visionary myself, but Schmoker's world is a bit too perfect even for me. Furthermore, Schmoker divulges, in his chapter on mathematics instructional reform, that even he can't envision "college for all" as a reality unless schools abandon the new algebra II high school graduation requirement. Most colleges and universities require incoming students to have completed algebra II or its equivalent (whatever that is), yet the traditional high school curriculum has allowed students to graduate with no mathematics mastery beyond geometry. For the policy makers who initially envisioned "college for all," the solution was to require all high school students to complete algebra II. For Schmoker, the solution is to cater to the average student's ability and eliminate algebra II as a college entrance requirement.

I disagree with both proposals; the United States would be best served neither by dumbing down college standards nor by imposing unrealistic (and, as Schmoker repeatedly points out, untested) standards on all high school students, but by bringing back tracking.

Those of you who didn't run away screaming at the word "tracking" probably realize that not all jobs truly require a college-level education. A degree from CalTech or even from the local State U won't make me more likely to choose one auto mechanic or plumber over another, but good reviews and certifications will. I'm also unlikely to query the first responder to a house fire to see if s/he has completed the new BS in "Fire Service Administration" (no joke--click on the link) from UMUC before I let him or her put out the fire. And you might also realize that most European countries--countries who consistently outperform US students on standardized tests--have maintained tracking programs even after American educators declared them "discriminatory."

If you're still reading, and you still believe that "college for all" is a realistic and desirable goal, let me introduce you to the second publication that is responsible for this post. A headline in today's EdWeek Update proclaimed, "ACT Deems More Students College Ready." Apparently, data from the ACT (a competitor of the more famous SAT) results of the class of 2011 indicates that "...25 percent of those students produced scores in English, reading, math, and science that correlate with higher chances of earning B’s or C’s in entry-level college courses." This, the article goes on to reveal, is an improvement from 21 percent in 2005. ACT's senior vice president for educational services stopped short of gushing, calling it a "great sign," but cautioning that the pace of improvement is still too slow to meet the desired goals on the desired timetable.

In spite of ACT's optimism, the results of the study look grim. First, only 49 percent of the class of 2011 took the exam. Second, even though nearly 75 percent of the testing cohort reported taking the new standard "core curriculum" (4 units of English and 3 each of math, science, and social studies), 75 percent of test takers failed to meet ACT's "college ready" benchmarks in all four of its subjects. And while math and science performance saw modest gains, English scores flatlined or fell. Does this look like a cause for optimism?

I've been a fairly outspoken critic of US public educational policy for some time. With Mike Schmoker, I feel strongly that K-12 public education has been taken over by political agendas, to its detriment. The policies that were intended to ensure a consistent, quality education for all children in this country have actually obscured the teaching of basic skills, and those who make the policies often have no real teaching experience. Committee-generated lists of standards aren't helping anyone. The effort to bring real reform to our schools is entering its second decade, and we don't have much to show for it. The policies and procedures are deeply flawed.

But the "college for all" mentality hasn't helped, either. From my perspective in higher education, all it's really done is brought more underprepared students to our campuses, a phenomenon which has too frequently been followed by the dumbing down of our programs. Many students spend their entire first year in courses that have been completely redesigned to address their academic deficiencies, and part of their last year in special "workplace readiness" courses. I hope that they are really learning in their middle two years, but I'm skeptical. Let's stop kidding ourselves and admit that just maybe both the reform policies and the basic assumption--college for all--that has driven them are flawed. Real reform will begin when we relearn the art of seeing students as individuals with different interests, aspirations, and abilities, rather than as clones produced from the same material.