Saturday, May 10, 2014

College Ready or Not?

The rhetoric over the last year, from Mr. Obama, Arne Duncan, and the diverse barrel of public K-12 reformers, has been heavily laced with "college readiness."  This theme, picked up indiscriminately and walked backwards through our schools, has resulted in the question being applied -- ridiculously -- even to the learning and testing of early primary grades.  

More destructively, linearly and simplistically backing up from a high school diploma to the early grades has -- equally ridiculously -- resulted in testing in those grades wholly out of proportion to real childhood learning progression and variances.  Hey kid, get off the playground, or park that skateboard, or drop that basketball, and get with the program, you need to be college-ready.  Huh?  

Semi-humorously, if you have actually spent much time lately on college campuses, that readiness may cleave closer to having a cell phone surgically implanted, checking for condoms, having football or basketball tickets at ready, or hosting your personal barf bag for Friday night "study" sessions at a local watering hole.  When self-discipline kicks in, along with the curiosity that drives real and sustainable academic learning, it will have little to do specifically with most of that prior education and assuredly not its related mechanical testing.

As earlier represented, Edunationredux is transitioning from looking at our public schools to attempting some assessment of U.S. higher education.  Even though that is intimately familiar territory, and with much humility, that entails as much if not more complexity than currently permeates public K-12 reform issues.  Just a prelude to future discussion:  Our colleges and universities are increasingly disconnected from our states and broader oversight because of governmental funding reduction; tuition is soaring; acceptance rates are being restricted; teaching has moved from tenure track faculty to part-timers; and at least one credible major study asserts that higher education matriculants learn virtually nothing (at least academic) in their first three years as undergraduates.

Leaving those topics for futures, this blog addresses the sticky issue of the linkage, normative versus actual, between high school preparation and transition to post-secondary work.

To enable practical length, the questions raised today are three:  Why the discontinuity between American high school and college; what happens to the student jumping the gap; and what are the implications for both K-12 reform and collegiate change?  A fourth question, for future debate, is whether the need for and utility of a higher education could be experiencing a major shift?

Why the Gap?

Seems simple enough, but the history of education is rooted much earlier than the American experience, and paradoxically, the concept of the university preceded what we now term primary and secondary schools.  Credited as the first university is Bologna (Italy), founded in 1088 A.D., but schools as entities date to 350 B.C. and earlier.

America's first formal grammar school was Boston Latin, 1635, slowly evolving into local initiatives that had all states with elementary schools by 1870. Horace Mann heavily influenced secondary schools and grade-based designation, but by 1880 they were still college preparatory schools, with not unexpectedly highly selective students.  By 1910 secondary schools or programs had been merged into the common or public school movement.  By 1920 today's blessing, or curse, had been established, local funding of schools with large gymnasiums and sports fields, attracting large crowds, and installing sports as a dominant secondary school theme.

The development of higher education faculties, and curricula, versus the common school movement, never converged except for some of the private academies that became the premier sources of early college preparation.  Preparation of their respective faculties diverged, with the far greater reach of common education catalyzing state teachers colleges and university schools of education.  But the failure of the education curricula to root in basic disciplines, versus self-defined alleged principles, branded schools of education university outliers, usually perceived as the weakest program on a campus.  This persists, with an April 2014 report on teaching finding, in surveying students, that only 17 percent are very interested in being a K-12 teacher, and only 35 percent describing teachers as “smart.”

In the college explosion post-WWII, from the vantage point of a major university, the dogma was that education was a weak, isolated higher education alternative, recruiting the “bottom one-third of their class.”  Counterpoint, though perceiving academic superiority, newly minted university faculties were typically clueless about the legitimate principles of classroom management and rubrics that drive good classroom learning.  Arguably, that has changed little for tenured faculty, higher education teaching improving only because more teaching is by non-tenured faculty not assessed primarily by research and publication.

Periodically among the reform issues raised has been the question of whether grade bands and the secondary/post-secondary distinction have outlived their relevance, but little formal K-12 and collegiate concordance or even exploratory progress has occurred.

Informally, and functionally, there have been developments that have created at least a footbridge between colleges and high schools:  One is the evolution of advanced placement courses and testing, buying many successful takers collegiate credit for 9-12 work; another has been a few creative public programs that have out-boarded usually senior courses and better students to accessible colleges, giving in reverse high school credit for that work; and still another link, increasing instances of summer internships for high school students in college settings, though these have frequently been research-based. 

For a 21st century-based view of American learning, the links are too few and too selective; the gap persists, costing our collegiate bound both performance trauma and higher costs of higher education by requiring remedial work.

The Difference

What differentiates high school work and collegiate work?  This is in one sense so basic when modal public 9-12 is juxtaposed against quality collegiate work, that the wonder is why a small army of allegedly smart people has via the standardized testing orgy persisted in degrading 9-12 preparation for post-secondary work?  At a deeper level, the entire philosophy of higher education engages points of view, and curricular structuring that has never made it into most schools of education.  That the two faces of learning have difficulty communicating is not mystery, just politely suppressed.

Major differences are embedded in higher education's:  Greater emphasis on learning progression and related testing than memory of fragments of knowledge; more use of constructivism as a learning device; greater reliance on student self-direction and appraisal; technology is simply assumed and deeply embedded in regular curricula; greater reliance on language arts for expression versus discrete testing; greater emphasis on explanatory chains and scientific method; emphasis on critical thinking versus programmed answers; and more frequent reliance on collaborative learning.

Also central to higher education versus public K-12, is a profound difference in how knowledge is inventoried, updated, and employed in instruction.  Public K-12 has been controlled by the textbook publishers and their market goals for a century, along with authorship that would rarely survive higher education assessment.  Public K-12 classroom mechanics frequently trump critical thinking, massively exacerbated by current standardized testing.  That embedded position has become even more intense with the hand off of standardized assessment in K-12 to an entrenched testing oligopoly, and driven by profit goals.  The "common core," were it defensible, would still be a shadow of the genuine knowledge base that is both created by, vetted by, and protected by higher education.  Couple that with teacher education that only exceptionally features genuine knowledge excellence by subject, and the largest weakness in public K-12 glares at one.

Implications – Public 9-12 Versus Post-Secondary

A first is that the nouveau, obsolete model of public K-12 learning, wrapped around corporate reform and standardized test scores, isn’t likely short term to ease the transition to higher education; it may exacerbate jumping the gap.  The alleged reform model of K-12 looks disturbingly like the production model of public education that had been rejected decades ago, resurrected by corporate myopia with just a larger and sharper ax used on both students and teachers – it is as if the creators of this reform model worked overtime to reject virtually every organizational and leadership concept of the last 50-60 years, approaches they would automatically reject as the basis for contemporary corporate success.

Higher education, in turn, is ramping up by idealism the case for its own saga of reform:  Tuition pretty much out of control; the cost of education pushing down acceptance rates, while self-selecting the socioeconomic participation that all proclaim needs to be moving in the opposite direction; increasing corporatization and bureaucratic layering to expand the mission beyond education, even making raising endowment dollars the prime directive; an emerging schism between traditional definitions of faculty, and how they are assessed versus increasing reliance on non-tenured, temporary, part-timers to man the classrooms; and the increasing difficulty of accessing quality higher education has created a bonanza for for-profit and local collegiate programs that pull down overall levels of higher education achievement.  In many cases they are simply high school II, both in terms of quality of curricula and faculty.

This should be sharply contrasted with the conscious recognition that collegiate education expresses no inherent value to society that might not also be achieved by quality practical and trade-based training and apprenticeship.  Germany, decades ago, recognized the duality of human skills and contributions, fashioning a dual track program for students.  The U.S., still wading in a false image of exceptionalism and pseudo egalitarianism, continues to work on the hypothesis that one size fits all human resources.

Trying to diagnose how our two strata of education got there is doable, but prospecting a way to bridge the divergence is not a happy task.  Given that there currently appears no mechanism, or trauma, that might forge some path to reconciliation, the conclusion is that present differences in missions and destinations of public schools versus collegiate tracks will simply get larger until the U.S. is forced to get beyond partisanship.

Three trends developing may change the game.  One is the increasing rhetoric from our private sector changing its tune about the need for and utility of a collegiate education.  With increasing frequency, those sourcing human resource excellence are looking at creativity, risk-taking, entrepreneurship, and social connectivity, versus the traditional sheepskin, as the basis for hires.  A second, though the interest has temporarily cooled, is the long-term effects of MOOC (massive online open courses, e.g., Coursera, edX, and other).  These kinds of quality, self-directed learning packages frequently exceed in content and vastly skill of presentation, regular collegiate course work. 

Lastly, anticipating a next post, there is growing conviction among those conceptualizing “the future of work,” that down the trail professional performance will hinge less on memory of fragmented knowledge from past learning, and more on being able to access and know how to employ just-in-time knowledge sourced digitally.  At the outer limits, as artificial intelligence forms a logistic growth curve, the skill set may have to embrace socialization with a robot.

Quo Vadis?

U.S. public education of all types, from pre K-12, through collegiate, also through even the ongoing development of our educators, to the U.S. adult version, still basks in the historical rosy haze of past deduction and invention, reluctant to acknowledge that the rest of the developed world has not only caught up, but is outclassing us.  And paradoxically, all of the profound governmental verbiage aside, public 9-12 learning driven by “corporate reform” is both failing to produce change, and heading in precisely the opposite direction of collegiate readiness.

Higher education wants to shoot for Mars; public K-12 wants to slink into a foxhole and pull it in behind (just send money); schools of education are already in that hole; U.S. adult education barely exists; and those making public K-12 decisions were educated in the same systems now prompting “corporate reform.”   Meanwhile, too much of our private sector believes in the mythology of Ayn Rand’s polarized and naive conception of hypothetical free markets, our economic unicorns, and their use as major surgery for every economic and social challenge including our schools.

The rest of this decade promises to invite somewhere between the fallout from one of Nathan Taleb’s “black swans,” and a slow motion learning train wreck unless some of that desired critical thinking about public education materializes from somewhere.

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