Sunday, December 27, 2015

College Is For Everyone. Except for Those It's Not

Seeing as how I'm an education dinosaur, having taught for the past 32 years, I've seen many a fad, meme, phase and reform come and go during my career. Each of these aforesaid events was billed as the new reality and the change that would ignite the staid and conservative field into a dynamo that would catapult American students into the learning stratosphere, nay, outer space, when it came to classroom success and global competition.

It turns out that all of that change resulted in a lot of change which resulted in a lot of public money going to programs that were quickly abandoned for the next change. As for the students, well, SAT scores are up and more students are taking Advanced Placement tests in the suburbs, but poverty has increased and with it so has the attainment and achievement gap in the less wealthy areas of the country. This does not auger well for the latest and, perhaps, greatest new education focus which is, that all students must go to college.

Education has run into this "all" problem before. Presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush proposed education programs that required that all students become proficient in their subjects and that all students pass either state or national tests to prove their learning. Of course, this is impossible; not all students can pass all tests and not all students can become proficient in every subject as measured by a test. So we know that, at least in statistics, all three of these presidents were substandard. All students can certainly learn, but not all students can achieve at the level they need in order to succeed in higher education. And the dirty little secret is that they should not be forced into doing so.

One of the consequences of this race to college is playing out across the country, and is laid bare in this article about the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district in New Jersey. The problem there is endemic to other suburban, wealthier school districts where the focus is on competition, grades, extracurricular activities and building a resume for college. I can say from first hand experience that this is the norm in many of these districts and it is also the norm that many students to feel too much pressure to succeed, to earn high grades consistently, and to be busy at all hours of the day doing homework, or not, as some districts including West Windsor have adopted a modified no-homework policy, playing sports, which has become a major conduit for girls to get scholarships for college, performing community service, or taking part in the arts, especially the Off-Broadway quality of many schools' music, dance and theater programs (and no, they are not Broadway quality. Sorry.).

The problem is that schools are now starting to abandon their roles as educational institutions and are quietly becoming warehouses where students spend a less-than-engaging part of their day until they can get to the fun stuff. The issue is that the school day places enormous pressure on the students to do things that do not come naturally, such as analyzing data and writing, manipulating ideas, and creating new knowledge out of disparate theories. They also need to, here goes, fail. That's right. If you truly want to learn, you need to fail a few times before you can master ideas. It's necessary to fail, but failure--goodness, even a C--is not an option. So parents put pressure on children. The school puts pressure on children. Children put pressure on themselves, and society says that if you don't go to college your life will be ruined.

Thus, the problem described in the article. I do not agree with relaxing standards or enacting less or no-homework policies (another fad), but I do think that we need to rethink the college part. It's not an admission of failure if your child does not go to college right away or ever if that's truly in their best interests. Not all students are academically inclined, and that's what higher education is all about. Colleges and universities are not job factories or technical-training institutions. They are laboratories for academic and theoretical research. They do provide internships and work experiences, but very few students who graduate with a BA or BS are well qualified or ready to actually work. That's another step in the process that all adults need to master.

Students who do well in college are proficient readers and can organize their time. They can sit for long periods and can absorb sophisticated and often contradictory ideas. They can navigate the social structure of an institution that might be radically different in scope, size and demographics from the community in which they lived, grew up and were educated. Does that sound like everyone? No, it does not. It's no wonder that 35% of adults in this country have a college degree. It's not for everyone and it wasn't meant to be for everyone.

Our challenge is not to shoehorn (dinosaur term) all students into an experience that is not meant for them but rather to find experiences in which they can succeed, enjoy and challenge themselves. Many parents want colleges to be those kinds of institutions, and that's why colleges are fighting back and saying that their purpose lies in other areas. We would do far better as a nation if we recognized that there are, or at least should be, other avenues for students who can be productive citizens without academic work. Then we can reduce some of the pressures that students feel and address
the problems associated with outrageous and unnecessary expectations.

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