Sunday, September 23, 2012

The College Lie

        The education system in the United States is contributing to a huge social and economic gap, and we are functionally pretending that this gap doesn’t exist by disingenuously claiming that we are preparing every student for college.

        The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 Demographic Characteristics for Occupied Housing Units estimates that 30.6% of the nation's householders have a bachelors degree or higher.

        The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has a new report out that indicates there are currently 29 million jobs available in the U.S. that pay middle class wages (defined as $35,000 a year or more) and don’t require a bachelors degree. That number amounts to 21% of all jobs

        So, 21% of the jobs available to non-degree holders promise a middle class wage, yet nearly 70% of Americans are competing for those jobs. If you do the math, as high school teachers look out on their classrooms, seven out of 10 students will not get a bachelors degree and only two of those seven will find a job giving them the opportunity to join the middle class. And that’s the average–it is undoubtedly far worse at some schools. What incentive do these students have to work hard and aspire to the American dream?

        While there are probably other sets of data that would help illuminate this issue, at the least these numbers should give us pause to reconsider the purported ideal of preparing all students for college. Hopefully someone out there is doing research on the degree to which our focus on preparing students for college is preventing investment in skilled technical jobs that don't require a bachelors degree.

        But first let's discuss why the college lie has always been a fantasy. I think there are two reasons,  neither of which schools can make go away.

        The first is that college, as originally conceived, was not an institution designed for everyone. The university was intended to be a place where social elites, who had no need to earn a living, could pursue knowledge for its own sake. It was learning purely for the sake of learning. In some ways, parts of the university system is still like that, filled with corners of esoteric research and discussion. 

        Over time, colleges have become much more aligned with preparing students for a particular career, and have become vast sorting institutions, where students are obliged to jump through a series of hoops to become blessed with the acknowledgement of the institution that they have successfully jumped through said hoops and have certified themselves to be thus qualified to pursue particular career options. 

        At the heart of the college enterprise is the sorting of students into two piles: qualified and not qualified. Inherent in that sorting is the value judgement that the qualified are in measurable ways superior to the non-qualified. At the end of the day, then, college is still a way to separate the elite from the not elite. While it has become more egalitarian in opening up the process to students from more divergent social and economic groups, it is still in the business of training the intellectually elite. At its heart, the college experience is designed to train students in the modes of thinking that academia favors.

        Part of the disconnect between what high schools believe they are doing and the real world is that American high schools have a mission that begins with the premise that every student can learn. This belief, often piously intoned with tears in eyes, is fundamental to public education’s ideal of taking every single kid and making him or her better. At its heart, though, saying that every student can learn is akin to saying water is wet. It is simply stating the obvious but blithely ignoring the real differences in the the speed and means by which different students learn, which has everything to do with what learning outcomes are functionally possible for a particular student.

        This, then, is the truth that every teacher knows but finds it difficult to admit out loud: not every student is suitable college material. 

        A great many students find it difficult to think in the abstract way that college demands. Their thinking is too rooted in the physical world to easily make the leap to thinking abstractly. As an English teacher, I battled this constantly as I tried to help students recognize the differences between literal and figurative speech. Algebra teachers struggle to help students learn how to use symbolic thinking to solve problems. Science and history instruction attempts to move students from the mere memorization of facts to the conceptualization of complex cause and effect relationships. In all these, significant numbers of students make little or no progress.

        In the old days the conventional wisdom said that these students weren’t “intelligent” enough for college. Now we know that there are lots of different intelligences, so that explanation isn’t sufficient. College, like other social and economic venues, utilizes and rewards specific kinds of intelligence. It isn’t that students who go to college are smarter, but the that their brains make connections between the specific kinds of information that college relies on more quickly and retains those connections more reliably. Those whose brains don’t work this way have a much more difficult time, and are thus unlikely to stick it out even if they make the attempt to begin with.

        Which brings me to the second reason why public schools are not realistically capable of insuring that every student become prepared for college.

        Every day, in high schools across the country,  teachers face substantial numbers of students who refuse to engage in the process. Many, maybe most, of these are the students who don't belong in college. The are mired in the day-to-day grind of trying to force their brains to operate in a way that doesn’t suit them, and they don’t see anything in it for them. They aren’t engaged because they intuitively know that it doesn’t suit them. Plus, what we are asking them to do makes no sense to them.

        Some of this group might be able to go to college and succeed if they can be convinced it will benefit them. Others, though, should never be encouraged to pursue an academic post high school education.

        As a profession, we are convinced that if we could find the magic bullet to stimulate their engagement, we could turn their lives around. I don't believe we can. While there have been success stories, I believe that if we look closely, we'll find that successful programs have found students who had the attributes needed to succeed in college and found ways to motivate those students to help them blossom. 

        Like every teacher, I have had plenty of students who simply take too many trials to learn the same material as faster students. Time, in its inevitability, does not pause for those students who take longer. They cannot catch up with the students who process academic information more quickly, and nothing can change the trajectory of that line on the chart.

        What, then, should high schools do?

        First and foremost is that we need to stop lying to ourselves. Every day teachers face their students and know it’s a lie that all of them are going to college. We know it is true for some of the students, but we can see in the others’ eyes that they absolutely don’t believe that college is a realistic goal for them. We do them no favors by indulging in this lie. If our goal is to help students succeed, then we need to be realistic in helping them develop the tools that have a realistic probability of assisting their real life pursuit of success. For many of them, those tools aren’t always going to be the same tools that get you to college.

        Second, we should never again get into the business of telling students which curriculum they should pursue. Our profession got a black eye because we did this in the past. The problem isn’t having multiple tracks, including non-college bound tracks. The problem is deciding for students which track they should be in. When we do that, we open ourselves for charges of bias, and human nature being what it is, that bias is probably unavoidable. Rather, we should assess students with an eye toward identifying the intelligences they have, then provide the student and the parents with the information about how and what the student learns best. We should be open and honest about what career options are available to students who choose particular tracks. Let them decide what they think is best, then provide feedback on how well the student is succeeding. That's a school choice that matters.

        Third, high schools have to adapt and position themselves as an institution that focuses on the transition  to a variety of post-secondary options for students. A high school diploma is no longer an ultimate goal, and hasn’t been for a long time. Transitional means that we have to work harder with a variety of post-secondary institutions to adapt our curriculum so that it prepares students for the particular rigors they will face in whatever type of learning they pursue. When we have a one size fits all perspective, which we have now with our belief that our mission is to prepare students for college, then many students will not get what they need for the next stage.

        Fourth, we have to be a voice in the conversation around helping all Americans find work that is meaningful, dignified, and helps more of us achieve reasonable financial security. This is not something that schools can do on their own, but it is something we can contribute to. High paying, non-skilled work is probably gone forever, but American education should be at the forefront of preparing all students to develop the technical skills they need to qualify for a high paying, skilled job. If we produce large numbers of students capable of thinking critically and possessing technical skills, we are likely to find that American business will find profitable ways to utilize their skills.

        Many of our students, who would find it difficult or impossible to succeed in college, can find more satisfying work by becoming technically skilled. We need to provide them that opportunity. The best part is that by becoming more relevant to more kinds of students, we will find our classrooms have become places where students are much more engaged in what we are trying to help them learn.

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