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Monday, December 19, 2011

Weeks Sixteen and Seventeen

This Much We Know... It's That We Don't Know

Most of us have our own ideas about what should be taught in school, how it should be taught, and what kids should know at the end of grade 12 (or 14 or 16.. or even 20, for that matter).  Seems like everyone has an opinion - not that there's anything wrong with that, except that anyone who disagrees with yours is dead wrong.  Right?  So, when you listen to anyone who's ever weighed in, you eventually reach the conclusion that this much we know - school is a good place for kids to be.  And there's this much we don't know - what kids should learn by the time their tickets are punched for life-after-high-school.  Do you know?

What we do know is that piles of data collected in recent years show the value of education in terms of how much money you've banked, whether you dine on Taco Bell or Bell & Evans, if you remember to vote and care to show up at the polls, and if you choose to volunteer or are forced to live in fear..of the next crisis - health, financial, or otherwise - that puts you under.  If schools function to prepare students for productive work and active citizenship, then we know they are.   So, we can safely conclude that a relationship exists between higher education and higher income, etc. (see Education Pays, But How Much?).  This is why we know that school is a good place for kids to be.  But do we know what it really means to be an educated human being?  And do we really know what we should expect a high school graduate to know at graduation in 2012?  It sure seems like we really don't know.

So, let's... get... ready....to... r...u...m...b...l...e!!! 

OK - this doesn't really need to devolve into a brawl, but it often does because both questions tend to be politically charged.  Why?  Because the answers reflect value judgments that often clash among competing interest groups (think evolution vs. creationism - or Scopes Trial  II).  What does it mean to be an educated person?  What is it that they know that earns them this status?  What skills do they possess (even "have in hand" as in hands-on skills)?  Is this "knowledge" different today than it may have been, say, a decade ago? 

Well, this much we knowwe don't really know ( actually, we know but others who disagree with us really don't know).  High schools and colleges can't seem to agree, either. They can't agree among themselves within groups or between the twoWhich group knows for sureOr put another way, who's right?

Even a cursory review of graduation requirements at three colleges, never mind the three thousand or so more out there, will reveal pretty significant differences in what students are expected to know.  St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland (and Santa Fe, New Mexico), a highly respected (in academia) but little known (in the public) college, requires all students to complete the exact same curriculum - reading the same books and taking the same courses.  The school promotes itself as the ideal liberal arts institution and assigns students many of the "Great Books" chosen by a panel of faculty members and students (changed periodically).  So, students are expected to know the same curriculum.  Brown University in Providence, RI, on the other hand, is the yogi master in higher education. The school offers total flexibility, giving students the freedom to choose ANY courses they wish as long as the credits bend (I know - I'm stretching it here) in a way that match the number of credits prescribed for a degree.  And all the other schools fall somewhere along the continuum that begins with St. John's College at one point and ends with Brown at the other.  UConn is one of these "tweeners", a hybrid of sorts that requires students to choose from a menu of courses that's organized kind of like food groups.  Students are free to choose items as long as they select from each of the four "tables" (content areas).  Know that it resembles a Sunday brunch - lots of items from which to choose and plenty to digest. But you'll probably discover that your plate looks much different from others' at your seating arrangement - unless you're sitting with someone who's selected the same major.

So, think about it - is it a stretch to say that one college produces more educated graduates than another?  Do we really know?  What's more, do we even know what these graduates know (more on this below)?

And what about high schools?  What should students really know when their date of manufacture is stamped at graduation?  The CT State Department of Education (CSDE) provides broad requirements for high schools in the state to follow (which are supposed to change in a few years), but local school districts usually add their own ingredients to the mix - presumably because they know what students are expected to know.  But even within high schools there are differences in department requirements - some are more specific than others.  Take EOSHS, for example.  Four credits in math are required, but there isn't any specific math course mandated for all students.  It's not like you have to successfully complete, say, Algebra 1 in order to graduate.  In science, there is - but just one and that's Biology (that's life).  Otherwise, students are required to earn two more credits besides Biology to meet graduation requirements, and these credits can be anything, just as long as they're science courses.  Four credits in English are mandated, and these courses are relatively fixed at each grade level (and course level), although the CSDE doesn't dictate the content that must be offered in any of these courses for credit.  And the Social Studies Department defines its requirements even more specifically (I'd say inflexibly just to keep that "stretching" thing going, but it sounds too pejorative, so I won't) - all students must complete Politics (required by the CSDE), Geography, U. S. History (also required by the CSDE), and World Civilizations.  So, it seems like groups (and individuals) have their own opinions about the specificity of subject matter required, not that there's anything wrong with this (just as long as no one messes with "my" control panel). 

Do you know what else? A student can earn a "D-" in each of these required courses and...still graduate.

Confusing?  I think so.  Everyone seems to have their own ideas about what students should really know (and, of course, be able to do), but there doesn't seem to be much agreement.  It's little wonder, then, why many colleges still cling to the SAT requirement in order to evaluate readiness for success in higher education (for those who now make it optional, there are other reasons for this than simply thinking they agree that the test is flawed - one major reason is that it drives up applications)?  However "invalid" the test may be, it's at least a measure that may be applied to all students (who choose to take it) regardless of the schools they attend or even courses of studies they take within their respective schools.  And there's still another test for some students to "pass" - the Accuplacer has received its fair share of attention in recent years as more students opt for community colleges.  If you don't know, the Accuplacer is a placement test designed to accurately place students in English and math courses (see more about this below).  Both tests - the SAT and Accuplacer - are suppose to measure what students know and are able to do. 

There are all sorts of discussions about common assessments and a common curriculum that should be set in stone for all high schools throughout the country to follow.  I don't know about you, but it seems like this stone is a boulder too large for anyone to grasp. Even colleges are arguing about this as the federal government is putting pressure on them to put in place some kind of assessment that measures growth over the duration of a college experience (click on the link to learn more about the Collegiate Learning Assessment).  All that exists now to measure the "value" of colleges are SAT scores, acceptance rates, and yield rates on those accepted - all measures of entering students and not of those graduating from the colleges.  And if you've read or heard about Academically Adrift, a book authored by two college professors and published last year, you're left wondering what's under the hood of that high-priced "vehicle" you just purchased that's guaranteed to carry you to a middle-class lifestyle.  Just to further drive home the point, check out this article.  Makes one wonder - "You can't get there if you don't know where you're going?" 

What's more, high schools and higher schools (colleges) don't agree with each other on what a student should know at the time in their lives when they become eligible to vote.  Of the seventy percent of high school graduates who go on to some form of higher education, less than half actually complete a four-year degree (that's about 28% of the population - did you know this?).  And many take more than four years to do it.  For those who choose (or have no choice but to go to) community colleges, about forty percent don't meet the benchmarks on placement tests (Accuplacer) and are placed in not-yet-ready-for-prime-time remedial courses that cost lots of money but are worth nothing in terms of college credits.  For the vast majority of these students, college ends before they officially ever get there  (see False Hope ).

So, at this point, if you've made it this far, you may be wondering, "Wait, so where is he?"  OK - let's say I'm at Big Y in the produce department sorting through apples and you stumble upon me. The conversation goes something like this:

You:  I read that blog piece.  I don't get it.  So, what's the problem?
Me:   I'm sorry.  I'm trying to decide how fresh these  apples from New Zealand could really be.  Would you say that again, please?
You:  The blog - what's your point?  You argue that schools are a good place for students to be and then go on a rant about these same schools not agreeing on what kids should know these days.  So what?  As long as they're going!
Me:  You're right.  And, although much is said about the disconnect among and between colleges and high schools in terms of what students are expected to know, the real issue is that more and more students are leaving high schools assuming they're ready for higher education and find out they're not. 
You:  But you said just last week that our PSAT scores are way above national averages.  And, for that matter, so are our SAT scores.
Me: Absolutely, and we should take immense pride in this.  But we should also keep in mind that the participation rate - meaning the percentage of students who take the test - hovers in the low 60% range.  That means another 40% or so are not taking it.  While we're on this subject, a similar percentage of EOS graduates go on to four-year colleges, and another 15% or so matriculate to places like community colleges.  So, when you think about it, these numbers resemble those reported in the blog piece - about 70% of graduates go on to college.  What we don't know is if the completion rate - meaning fewer than half (28%) - for EOS graduates mirrors the national average.
You:  Really?
Me:  Really.
You:  What about this Accuplacer.  Are those numbers for EOS students similar to the national averages?
Me:  Yes.
You:  Oh.  So some of these kids aren't finishing, or even starting college courses because they're buried in remedial courses?
Me:  I believe so. 
One other number worth mentioning here is the percentage of students receiving free-and-reduced lunch.  It's fast approaching 20%. 
But, I need to go now.  The frozen Bell & Evans chicken in my shopping cart is melting.  Nice talking to you.  If you have a chance, read the articles I posted in the piece.  Taken together, it's pretty compelling stuff.  And, oh yeah, Happy Holidays!

OK, so these are the articles (I know it's a lot, but it's Week Sixteen and Seventeen combined.  And it's important stuff.) Read this -  (Inconvenient Income Inequality).  And this - Class Matters - Why Won't We Admit It?.  If you're still not convinced, how about this - The Wrong Inequality.  If you listen to the experts, there's a growing divide between those who have and those who wish they had.  The middle is disappearing.  Where's this taking us?

Let's acknowledge (meaning - we know this) that a four-year degree is not for every high school graduate - nor should it have to be.  But some form of higher education needs to be, especially in a changing economy that's beginning to take on an hour-glass shape, one in which there will be plenty of jobs available that require professional degrees and plenty that we'll always need - plumbers, electricians, automotive technicians - that will still require certification and requisite skills as evidenced by performance on entrance exams required for admission to certification programs.   If the numbers tell a story, almost 4 of every 10 students aren't going there.  And, of those who are, some aren't able to enroll in "ready-for-prime-time" courses because...well, you know why.  This leaves too many kids academically adrift, and they're not even in college.

So, we know that school is a good place to be for students.  We know that there is significant variance in what's expected among and between secondary schools and institutions of higher education, not that there's anything wrong with that.  It also appears that some of this variance leads to problems for kids when they sit for placement tests.  And we know, too, that high school graduates need to move on to some form of meaningful educational experience if they have any chance of meaningful employment in their adult lives.  If they don't, then there's something wrong with that.  Well, guess what?  More and more don't appear to be ready - according to measures used by postsecondary insititutions.  There's something wrong with that.  And it seems like we don't know (can't agree) on what to do about this.

Do you know? 

Still one other thing - I want to know how many people are reading this vs. just clicking on it and quickly moving on.  So, to this end (and, if you've made it to the end - which you have if you're reading this), I encourage you to send me a quick email at dmelody@eosmith.org.  I'll, in turn,  fold up your email and include it in a drawing for a $25 Starbucks gift card.  If the response is anything like what I got when asking for replies on reading is to writing as _____is to______, then you're chances of winning are real good.  Emails need to be delivered by midnight on December 22.  I'd like to at least know this - how many are paying attention.

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