What If Community Colleges Could Save High School?

I began teaching as a mid-career change after many years in the private sector, and my business mindset followed me into the classroom: I expected measurable progress from my students, and I presumed any school where I taught shared my goal.

How very naive I was.  All these years later, I have come to realize that most education “reform” pretty much boils down to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic: don’t hope for much actual benefit from all the time, effort, and expense because the underlying system is impervious to change.

It has likewise been instructive to watch the national pushback against the Common Core standards.  Parents, teachers, and students have often spoken as one against higher academic standards that ask for more work, may result in lower grades, and produce data that indicates our schools and students are not succeeding to an international standard of excellence.  When you sit down and think about it, why would we expect a different reaction when just skating along with minimal accountability at maximum expense serves everyone’s purposes quite well?

College tends to serve as the wake-up when it comes to discovering the problems inherent in low academic standards and achievement.  The boomerang return back home of so many students after flaming out during their first semester at college has become as predictable as the sun rising in the east each morning.  Being forced to take out student loans to attempt to remediate academic deficiencies in the often vain hope that college success will follow is the cruel reality for far too many unprepared students—the vast majority of whom will leave with lots debt but no degree.

I have argued for years that we must not wait until after a student arrives at college before shortcomings in reading, writing, and math skills are addressed.  Although the politics and optics of early intervention tend to put public schools in a defensive crouch, it seems sensible to identify at-risk high school students after their junior years of high school—or even earlier—and enroll them in non-credit developmental classes at their local community colleges in order to push them toward academic readiness before they arrive at college.

One might a natural question: Why could these sorts of classes not be taught at the local high school by high school teachers?  The answer is simple: high schools are trapped by the political imperative to make certain that every student receives a diploma—regardless of actual academic achievement.  On the other hand, non-credit workshops at a local community college can assert that the responsibility for success lies with the students and the effort they are willing to make.  Moreover, having no statutory responsibility for babysitting lazy or disruptive students—the essential daycare function of much public education—the local community college can enforce classroom discipline and academic rigor in a manner public schools simply cannot.

I encourage every community college to consider a pilot program of this type, possibly funded by grants, donations from local businesses, or tax carve-outs.  So much is already done for successful high school students through dual credit programs that it seems only fair that some resources be directed toward helping struggling students to succeed.

Of course, this sort of aggressive effort to help at-risk students before they arrive at college prepared for nothing other than failure tends to be DOA because it by necessity asserts that in-district high schools are not up to the task.  It is no surprise community colleges are concerned that their partnerships with local high schools—which supply the students that keep their own classrooms filled—will be jeopardized if the basic competence of the public school system is challenged by the establishment of pre-college math, reading, and writing programs for high school students.

Nonetheless, despite the obstacles inherent in attempting to bypass politicized, bureaucratized, and unionized school districts that continue to send academically deficient graduates off to near inevitable failure at college, perhaps this is a fight that frustrated parents and impatient state legislators can begin today in order create a better future for our children tomorrow.

Also published in Education Post (educationpost.org) February 10, 2016

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