Tuesday, May 27, 2014

College Readiness: Spanning the Gap

Before tackling college readiness, a logical question is, is it worth it?  A study reported in today's New York Times answers the question for now -- definitely!  "A new set of income statistics answers those questions quite clearly:  Yes, college is worth it, and it’s not even close.  For all the struggles that many young college graduates face, a four-year degree has probably never been more valuable.”

Good to Go...Oops?

At the outset the question of college readiness of our public school graduates points at the tactical issue students face; lacking readiness, the prospect is remedial work that increases college costs, extends programs, and is allegedly associated with a reduced probability of surviving to a degree.  A subtext for many treatments of the challenge is, what do our colleges and universities want and why; an alternate premise is the demands are legitimate so how do we either make remedial work less costly or expedite the courses.

Only after fishing through a lot of empty or self-serving rhetoric do the real questions emerge:  Are our public system secondary schools and their strategies inadequate; are their teachers unprepared; are our students inadequately motivated or improperly counseled; is there something basically out of whack with America’s embedded educational strata of public 9-12 versus collegiate organization?  The answers may be yes to all of the above.

Following are expansions of those questions, and some possible answers.  You will need to practice some “hard fun" (work) to build the knowledge needed to traverse the terrain, but the result is worth the effort if you care about our education futures.

Questions and Answers
  • Why are U.S. higher education and secondary public schools not, arm in arm, happily marching together down the learning trail?  Alternate universes?

Synthesis and Conclusions

If the reader does their homework, there are some robust conclusions from the above linked presentations:

Given the dating of the discussions, neither the corporate reformers, nor Obama/Duncan, nor the Gatesian contingent, nor 50 states’ alleged education gurus, nor some unnumbered additional cast did their homework before invoking the college readiness mantra.

The issues separating secondary and post-secondary education are not simply the tactics in the classroom or even curricula employed, but both structural and elemental differences in how learning is pursued.

Lastly, unless higher education reduces its rigor in configuring and presenting knowledge — a pattern already unfortunately evident in too much watered down learning in U.S. community colleges and satellite campuses — the change needed has to come from the public secondary systems feeding higher education.

A dozen years of NCLB indicate that it has failed to trigger the public system changes needed to create that promulgated college readiness.  The fault is not in the stars but in the entrenched resistance to change from a century of entitled public schools, and refusal of the reality that they have not been organized or prepared to deliver that readiness.  

But NCLB, RttT, the very “common core,” and the complex of testing relegated to the private sector were never about real change; they were the updated but still obsolete product of the same early 20th century philosophy that created our production-based conception of public education.  That conception, to puncture some naive bubbles, had less to do with sustainable learning and an erudite population than oligarchy-driven social engineering to ensure a just literate labor force and product markets. 

That quality and testing model failed American industry last century; how did any thinking leadership believe it would work to evolve results far more complex than churning out finite products?  Unfortunately, the answer to that rhetorical question isn’t rocket science.  Flipping open the lids to look inside the respective education systems reveals characters in need of different motivations and scripts.  Real reform means changing the oversight, changing the strategies, changing the way education is implemented and perhaps even the players, with the possible massively challenging need to redo basic structure of the years 9-16 window to the baccalaureate.


Oft cited, rarely practiced in public education, “thinking outside the box” refers to the solution to the 1914 nine-dot (three-by-three box) puzzle, connecting all of the dots with four lines in a continuous line.  The solution requires literally getting outside the box, the mantra becoming a later 20th century analogy for thinking differently and creatively.

If there are viable models for changing principally that 9-16 window of learning, it won’t emerge from business as usual, or present reform, or from public schools suddenly purging self-righteousness and discovering creativity, but from propositions outside that proverbial box, along with the new demands and risks that accrue to thinking differently.  The next Edunationredux will take a swing at that pitch.

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