Why Do Many College Students Fail To Succeed?

A significant component of the conversation surrounding higher education these days has to do with improving student success—particularly for those college students who start off in remedial/developmental courses in Reading, Writing, and Math. Those who have not closely followed the disturbing trends regarding the completion of bachelor’s degrees on America’s ivied campuses over the last couple of decades might be surprised at where we are now, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education:

The 6-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution in fall 2009 was 59 percent. That is, 59 percent had completed a bachelor’s degree by 2015 at the same institution where they started in 2009. The 6-year graduation rate was 59 percent at public institutions, 66 percent at private nonprofit institutions, and 23 percent at private for-profit institutions. The 6-year graduation rate was 62 percent for females and 56 percent for males; it was higher for females than for males at both public (61 vs. 55 percent) and private nonprofit institutions (68 vs. 62 percent). However, at private for-profit institutions, males had a higher 6-year graduation rate than females (24 vs. 22 percent).” [See “Note” at bottom of this post for explanation of school types.]

Six-year graduation rates for first-time, full-time students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree in fall 2009 varied according to institutional selectivity. In particular, 6-year graduation rates were highest at institutions that were the most selective (i.e., had the lowest admissions acceptance rates) and were lowest at institutions that were the least selective (i.e., had open admissions policies). For example, at 4-year institutions with open admissions policies, 32 percent of students completed a bachelor’s degree within 6 years. At 4-year institutions where the acceptance rate was less than 25 percent of applicants, the 6-year graduation rate was 88 percent.

It should perhaps not be a surprise that 6 year graduation rates, which seems to be the new American standard for completing a 4 year degree, vary so dramatically based solely upon the selectivity of an institution. Indeed, some argue that the overall poor college completion numbers in the United States are simply a function of more and more students seeking college degrees, so we should not be concerned. This is merely, the thinking goes, Darwinian academic selection at work.

However, the fly in the ointment is fairly easy to discern: An educational system that excels at educating only the brightest is failing the vast majority of America’s college students. Fixes that have been proposed or enacted to address problems with college completion rates range from more structured programs of study to increases in financial aid to campus mentoring programs—all of which have the potential to help some students after they arrive on campus but fail to address the underlying causes of their academic distress, our chronically underperforming K-12 public schools, which hobble our nation’s students in three key areas:

Poor Work Habits

After years in pokey and desultory high school classes, many students simply do not understand what will be required when they step foot on a college campus for the first time. They mistakenly presume classroom instruction and assignments will continue to slow down to meet their needs and are shocked college instructors will insist academically-deficient students work extra hard to reach college level proficiency—immediately, if not sooner.

Moreover, given that so much of the work in college must be completed outside the classroom because of the limited time available—a class may meet for only a couple of hours each week—the now-fashionable dismissal of homework as a hopelessly antediluvian educational artifact means that many high school graduates will be thrown into a situation where they are wholly unprepared to succeed, one where well-developed and disciplined study habits are an absolute necessity for academic success.

Weak Academic Preparation

Where does one begin? The problems that our nation’s public schools have with teaching and learning are so well-documented by now that they scarcely bear repeating. Of course, many affluent parents continue to comfort themselves by loudly insisting that their children’s public schools—all shiny and new—are doing a great job, but nothing could many times be further from the truth. The fact of the matter, according to a recent study by Education Reform Now, is that 1 in 4 college students will require remedial coursework—and 45% of these students will come from upper-income and middle-income households. Half of these students placing into remedial classes will start in our nation’s community colleges, but the other half will be enrolled in four-year undergraduate programs. Nonetheless, you will find no shortage of individuals and groups loudly proclaiming that America’s public schools are doing a heck of a job.

Denial: It’s not just a river in Egypt.

Lack Of Proper Time Management

This third problem is inextricably linked to the first two. Because they often fail to understand the amount of work they will be required to complete outside of their weekly class meetings—and are often academically unprepared besides—many students are sunk before they even start because they overbook themselves. Not understanding that a full course load is a full-time job in and of itself, students get crushed beneath their other commitments—jobs, children, family, friends, and recreation—and realize too late that there are only a certain number of hours in the week.

In addition, unlike high school classes, where deadlines are often extremely flexible or simply non-existent, college professors take a unsurprisingly flinty view of vacations booked mid-semester and tales of woe regarding the modern equivalent of “the dog ate my homework”, the lost flash drive. Although it might not seem so seen through the lens of popular culture, college is just like a job, and the “supervisors” expect punctuality and performance. I still find it amazing that so many students think nothing of being chronically tardy or absent and routinely fail to turn in their assignments on time—yet they believe their professors are being completely unreasonable if they give a poor grade.

Of course, more in-depth advisement when registering for classes might be a great help to some, but it is often difficult to convince students that college requires a lot of diligent work when they have little experience with anything beyond the dull reality today’s high school: show up when you can, hang out and pay little attention, turn in something you whipped together at the last minute, get a check mark for effort, advance to the next grade level whether you’ve learned anything or not, and eventually receive your diploma.

Ultimately, one question that many college freshman and their parents should be asking is this:

Why do so many public schools give young adults diplomas if they haven’t learned anything?

I wish I had a good answer for that….

 

Note: Public colleges and universities are those that operate with state supervision and support, and institution names—the University of Illinois, for example—are a clear indication of their nature. Private non-profit colleges and universities—what we typically imagine when we think of a college or university—operate with private funding (tuition, fees, endowments, donations, etc.), and their tax-exempt status allows more spending on students and research. Private for-profit colleges and universities are operated by private companies, often focus on career and technical programs—and are accountable to private shareholders who expect a return on their investment.

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Raining In Our Hearts

You Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live, Rock and Roll
The beat of the drum is loud and bold
Rock, rock, Rock and Roll
The feeling is there body and soul….
School Days by Chuck Berry

I have found myself recently taking a deep dive back into the filmed musical performances of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and marveling at just what an amazing explosion of raw musical talent drove rock and roll in its earliest years. Moreover, the sheer energy with which these young men and women performed is an almost textbook example of the type of innocent exuberance we associate with those years—after we put on our rose-colored glasses.

Of course, we know those years were no more innocent than any other time in our history. Problems still existed behind those bright eyes and bouncy melodies. However, even knowing what we know today, listening to the opening riffs of Johnny B. Goode or Surfin’ U.S.A. will bring a smile to our faces, and we can still hear the joy those artists felt as they reached inside themselves to find new ways to reach us.

How very long ago that all seems….

Today we are perhaps a shade too jaded for our own good. Too self-aware. Too ironic. Too prematurely weary of life. More than once I’ve realized just how impossible it is too suggest that someone’s motives might be pure without being judged to be hopelessly naive.

Part of this problem is basic: many people in our society are damaged—and we have no one to blame but ourselves. Our cultural encouragement for addictions (take your pick!), sybaritic self-indulgence, and a lack of personal responsibility has destroyed more lives than The Black Plague. This has now dragged generation upon generation through horrific family dysfunction and breakdown, which has produced generations of teenagers whose default settings run the gamut from hot rage to cold disappointment. We sadly seem to now excel at producing prematurely burnt-out young men and women, which is not a prescription for a healthy and happy nation.

This all hit home for me some years ago when I was teaching Romeo and Juliet to a group of 9th graders. Aside from the obvious difficulty with working through history and language with which they were not at all familiar, another problem presented itself when we reached the scene with Juliet on the balcony and the love-struck Romeo in the garden below.

The reactions of my students—particularly the girls—to Romeo’s words of love and utter worship were both stark and harsh: Beware! I was, I will admit, a bit taken aback at first by the bitter worldliness and smug assurance of some of their comments:

“Oh, he’s just trying to get in her pants.”
“She’s an idiot if she believes that.”
“He’s got some moves!”
“All guys say stuff like than when they’re wanting some!”
“Just how stupid is this girl?”

The beauty of The Bard’s words of love were lost on these high school students, and I attempted to understand just why I was hearing these responses. I will always remember the chilling reality check that class period provided.

Many of the children in that classroom—and they were all children despite their all-too-mature understandings of human weakness and failure—were the products of home lives that, to be charitable, just plain sucked. Most had parents who were divorced or who had never married. Many had fathers who were largely absent. Some had mothers who were M.I.A. Others had bounced through foster care. A few had direct experiences with police officers or social workers entering their homes because of fights and abuse—and arrests had sometimes followed. “Home Sweet Home” they were not.

It was a litany of horrors until the bell rang, and I had to come back the next day and try to explain that, although it could perhaps be argued that Romeo and Juliet’s love was unhealthfully obsessive in the way that young love sometimes tends to be, it would be a mistake to presume that their emotions were anything other than genuine. If my students were willing to suspend some little portion of their stunning disbelief about the possibility of genuine love between two people, the play might be both intriguing and instructive.

I am not certain how effective of a Shakespeare salesman I actually was, but we made it through the play. Whether I managed to wear down just a little of the rough callous already covering too many of those young hearts, I cannot really say. I shuddered to imagine just how disillusioned and defeated so many of those youngsters would be by the time they hit sixteen. Where were the hopes and dreams that are supposed to be the touchstones of youth?

I wonder sometimes whether we have grown so accustomed to the damage inflicted upon our children that we have grown blind to it. We no longer notice the dreary and depressing—or scary and violent—music and films that fill their days and minds. We perversely celebrate piercing and tattoos as a form of self-expression and empowerment, which they may be for some, instead of recognizing it as simply the more socially acceptable form of “cutting” that it likely is for many. Are the cries resonating across our college campuses for safe spaces and trigger warnings actually desperate pleas for our colleges and universities to substitute for the protective parents that were terribly absent in far too many lives?

Every period in human history has its problems; these problems simply manifest themselves in a manner unique to their time period. Rock and Roll was itself a rebellion against mid-20th century cultural and social norms that many found stifling, and Elvis haunted the nightmares of many parents who were certain their children were going straight to hell in a handbasket. It is certain that every American generation has had its issues and somehow survived them.

However, there is a matter of degree that must be considered. I cannot really see the equivalency between teenagers screeching out their excitement at a Beatles concert and the violent element of the Juggalos exchanging tips for cooking Meth at Insane Clown Posse gatherings. Something has clearly changed, and continuing to blame the pharmaceutical industry, added sugar, Donald Trump, or plastic baby bottles for the skyrocketing diagnoses of depression and anxiety that now are typical among the young—and no longer quite so young—segments of our society is beginning to sound sillier by the day. Cruelty and coarseness now seem baked into virtually every aspect of our daily culture and conversations, and this didn’t happen just because we drank too many cans of Dr. Pepper when we were in middle school.

We often look for easy explanations to complex problems, but perhaps the answer for much that ails our souls and psyches is more obvious than we imagine: we need to address the voids within ourselves in order to begin the hard work of healing our families, communities, and our nation. Although we might desperately wish for some outside semi-parental force to swoop in and rescue us, this is something that we simply must do for ourselves if we want to avoid creating, enabling, or stupidly celebrating more pain in ourselves and others.

So Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll—please

What Can Be Done To Improve Teaching In Our Public Schools?

If you Google the terms “Teacher Shortage” and “Teacher Turnover”, your hits will light up rather forebodingly. Obviously local conditions affect individual districts in a variety of ways, so not all schools or regions are suffering to the same degree. However, there does seem to be a fairly broad-based national problem of recruitment and retention of K-12 teachers that is becoming yet one more problem affecting our public schools.

Talented individuals leave the teaching profession—or avoid it altogether—for a variety of reasons. Poor pay, stress, lack of professional support, workplace dysfunction, administrative micro-management, long hours of bureaucratic busywork, disrespect and abuse from students and their parents, and many other factors have—and will continue to—make it difficult to recruit and retain top quality elementary and secondary educators. Moreover, our current model of training and credentialing teachers is costly and time-consuming, yet it still leaves many graduates lacking the basic pedagogical and student management skills necessary for creating a respectful and successful classroom environment.

I remember my own trip through “teacher education” after I left the advertising business—what an incredible waste of time and money. Although alternative teacher training programs obviously exist, the profession is still is dominated by the traditional model of teacher training and licensing, which—despite its documented shortcomings—persists because it is a cash cow for colleges and universities and creates lots and lots of jobs for local and state education bureaucrats.

The meandering and pointless journey through Ed School coursework that often seems only tangentially related to actual classroom practice also serves as a gigantic disincentive to mid-career entry for those who can bring real world experience to their teaching. This seems an obvious drawback—and it is generally acknowledged to be so—but we still blindly press forward with a model that pushes twenty-two year old young adults who have done nothing much other than sit in a classroom for their entire lives into yet another classroom—where they will now try to educate our children. Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Even worse, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow no longer seems to be attractive enough to hang onto many who go through the process—as evidenced by the many problems with recruitment and retention. What can be done?

I have a modest proposal…. Four, really.

Close all Colleges of Education.

Why continue to support a system that produces graduates who often don’t turn out to be very good teachers—or who quickly quit the profession altogether because they just can’t cut it? Our schools of “mis-education” are clearly not up to the job, and noodling around the edges with some cosmetic changes after year upon year of study and discussion is just a further waste of time, money, and human capital.

A simpler and more direct system of teacher training and licensure can certainly be devised, but it will run into a brick wall of bureaucratic resistance unless the public is willing to push for change. Obviously, I believe our students and society will benefit if we improve and streamline teacher training, but I fear that the political will—and this is all about politics—to do what is necessary is lacking. As long as one of our two major political parties is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the National Education Association, bold and inventive thinking will certainly be discouraged by many.

Require that all new teachers must have worked in jobs outside of education for five years before they step into a classroom.

Maybe I’m just looking at this all wrong, but I want people in my public schools who have lived some kind of life outside of a classroom before teaching my children. Work in a restaurant. Sell insurance. Join the Army. Presenting our public schools with truckloads of fresh college graduates who more than likely still had their moms doing their laundry the week before they begin teaching for the first time is kind of insane. We need individuals with a little grit under their nails and life experience under their belts so they are better prepared to deal with the challenges that now daily face our K-12 teachers.

License teachers based on proven performance—not college or continuing education credits alone.

Yes, teachers should go to college—and preferably graduate school—to earn degrees in the subject area that they plan to teach (no more “education” majors, please!). In addition, teachers should continue to sharpen their skills with classes and workshops throughout their careers.

However, how cool would it be to unlock the schoolhouse doors and get some real world experience into our nation’s classrooms? What parent wouldn’t be thrilled to have a chemist teaching their child Chemistry, a Physician Assistant teaching anatomy in their local high school, an editor helping their child learn how to write, or a local farmer showing that lucky student the practical aspects of how the business actually works? The possibilities would be endless, but it might obvious endanger an ossified status quo that likes everything just the way it is because it privileges paper credentials over job-proven competence.

Community colleges, for example, make outstanding use of practitioners in their classrooms—which is a great benefit to the students who are there to learn the skills they need to succeed. Recruiting teachers from the workplace is a proven winner at the 2 year college level, so why not extend this strategy to K-12?

If these working professionals can teach at their local public school only part of the day or the year, offer them a prorated salary and don’t waste their valuable time making them hop through a million hoops in order to share their valuable experience—and please don’t assign them to bus duty or lunch supervision. We desperately need more practitioners and fewer pretenders in our classrooms—particularly in our middle and high schools where content knowledge is so important. Assign the brain-dead busywork to minimum wage hires or parent volunteers.

End teacher tenure and pay based on seniority.

I know changing to a free market for teacher hires runs counter to the civil service model that has dominated public education for many, many decades, but it would be a game changer. It would encourage excellence, create desperately needed fluidity in the job market, and incentivize mid-career entrants who could bring job skills and life experience into the classroom. If we start to pay teachers based on their value rather than how many years they’ve sat in a school building—a measure that is typically divorced from actual performance—we can start to address the many problems caused by our highly uncompetitive system.

Can’t find a Math teacher for your district? Hire a local engineer who can show students how mathematics is used in the real world—and has the actual work experience to teach it. Need a Business teacher? Hire a manager at a local manufacturer—and also build a bridge with a local employer that might hire your graduates. Have a truly wonderful Music teacher you want to hold onto? Find a way to adjust their duties so they’ll want to stick around—instead of treating that talented person like just another replaceable cog.

In other words, instead of running public schools like hermetically-sealed vaults, open the doors and innovate. It will be scary as hell for some and drive the “edu-crats” crazy because they will lose control—and perhaps their jobs as well—but the alternative is to continue to sacrifice our children on an altar built out of rulebooks and dusty theories about education that do nothing but ensure that little learning actually happens. Think this isn’t true? Google the “college and career-ready” or “college preparedness” statistics for your local school or entire state and decide for yourself. The actual data can be a real eye-opener.

I think the time for a real education revolution is long overdue—and maybe we are now ready for it!

How Long Shall We Wait?

“One of the Obama Administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.”
The Washington Post
January 19, 2017

As this article sadly pointed out, between 2010 and 2015, the School Improvement Grants program poured $7 billion down the drain. $7,000,000,000: That’s a lot of zeroes that produced close to zero for children trapped in our nation’s worst public schools.

This lack of results is not a surprise. If our education establishment continues to insist jacking up high school graduation rates by ignoring weak educational outcomes is a benefit to our students, all the money in the world is not going to fix what ails our schools. If the education “experts” persist in proclaiming that homework harms our students, we are going to see yet another generation graduate without having learned that sustained study is a necessary precursor to learning. If we can’t find the will to insist upon reasonable behavior from students and educators—and impose consequences upon those who trash the educational environment—we deserve only the chaos that is the norm in far too many public schools.

Unfortunately, these issues have little place in our discussions about improving our public schools. The system instead focuses on keeping our nation’s diploma mills on full churn because it keeps the parents and students content, sweeps any and all problems under the rug (at least until our nation’s uneducated high school graduates finally flunk out of college years down the road), and keeps the money flowing and the public placated. The system is a sausage machine that grinds up students—and any silly do-gooders who try to change it.

It is, to be fair, not the case that our nation’s public school systems are filled with heartless employees. Many teachers and administrators are, in fact, decent individuals who are trying to do their best. However, public education is perhaps the most insular and ossified of all government services, and everyone on the inside knows that the system, no matter the ruin it leaves in its wake, must always survive. The $7 billion most recently wasted by the Obama administration is simply the last car of a long train of futility, over thirty years of education reform efforts sabotaged by public schools impervious to any real changes. It is frustrating to see so many futures—and human potential—sacrificed year after year.

I hope that incoming Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos can actually push forward programs that will help millions of students escape currently failing schools through greatly expanded school voucher programs. However, any move to give parents more control over their children’s educations is an existential threat to a status quo that will fight to maintain its enormous power and excessive prerogatives. Perhaps it is likely that she will crash into a brick wall of lawsuits and restraining orders, but let’s hope that she can persevere and make a positive change—and we need no longer wait.

Also published on Head in the Sand (headinthesandblog.org) February  12, 2017.

Money Talks: What To Expect From President Trump

America will be embarking upon a peculiar experiment over the next four years: turning the Presidency over to someone who has never before held an elective office. However one feels about Donald Trump’s personality and policy goals, his complete lack of governmental experience is leading many to predict choppy waters ahead for his administration because it is believed his unfamiliarity with Washington’s ways will lead to a great many problems.

Setting aside for a moment the ready availability of insiders to help him plow the bureaucratic path for the enactment of his programs, I wonder whether the fact that he is a businessperson rather than a career politician is more of an advantage than is apparent to many at first glance.

As crass as it might sound to some, those who work in the private sector quickly learn a signal truth: The most effective way to affect human behavior is to either put money in people’s pockets—or to take it away. I believe this will be the key to understanding the operating principles of the Trump administration. If we look at three areas where we can already expect significant changes—education, immigration, and jobs creation—it is already easy to see how Trump and his team are going to use the power of the dollar to shift the direction of our nation.

Trump’s comments during the campaign and his nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education are the clearest possible indications that his intention is to use a dramatic—and utterly unprecedented—expansion of school vouchers to allow parents to send their child to whatever school they wish. This move will be fought tooth and nail by teacher unions who understand that this is an existential threat to a system that provides millions of paychecks and vast political power—but has also left generation after generation of children trapped in failing schools.

Trump’s education goals will not be fulfilled through a grand policy design requiring an army of educational professionals to implement and oversee; he is simply going to hand the cash to parents and let the messy magic of the marketplace determine what changes are needed and wanted. This is a gamble to be sure, but given that decades of extraordinarily expensive top-down reform have produced virtually no benefit, it seems Trump has decided that the revolution needs to be entirely at street level, so tens of millions of parents will soon decide for themselves the best educational option for each individual child.

Businesspeople—particularly those who are entrepreneurs—are often allergic to glacial bureaucracy, and it would seem a lot of paper pushers are going to be left out in the cold by this “people power” approach to educational reform. Therefore, I am going to guess this policy will result in a lot of pink slips at the Department of Education.

Immigration policy will certainly be another area where the Trump team will utilize financial incentives and penalties—rather than rely on heavy-handed police powers—to alter behavior. Advocates for illegal immigrants are busily forecasting a dire future of thuggish midnight raids dragging people off to barbed wire detention centers when Trump takes office, but I simply do not believe this will be the case. He is smart enough to know this approach will be both unpopular and impracticable.

I suspect that Trump’s policies will instead focus on cutting off access to the most important wants and needs of those residing here illegally—jobs, cash assistance, healthcare, and education—by punishing employers, local and state governments, and schools with fines and funding freezes to compel compliance. If businesses will not hire you, your access to money and healthcare is cut off, and schools will not enroll you, the benefits of residing illegally in the United States largely vanish, which will dramatically change the financial equation for the millions now here—and those thinking of coming.

Law enforcement will, of course, still play a significant role in managing the procedures for the arrest and deportation of many, but their part will be secondary to the use of dollars and cents persuasion to change behavior, which is the hallmark of the business approach to problem-solving. However, the practicality of the businessperson will certainly prompt President Trump to agree to strategic compromises on immigration policy matters where needed. As with education reform, strict ideology will take a back seat to closing the deal and pushing for results.

As regards job creation, we can already see the broad outline in the deal Trump cut with Carrier in Indiana before he even had taken the oath of office. We can expect more use of the bully pulpit—and more out and out bullying—in order to force businesses to “in-source” jobs back to the United States from abroad. Given the particular importance of manufacturing jobs in creating personal and national wealth (as opposed to the “part-time waiter and bartender recovery” of the Obama years), I am certain Trump will do everything in his power to drag huge factory complexes back to our nation (which will drive environmentalists who want us all to live in yurts insane) by handing out all manner of Federal tax breaks—yes, tax breaks. This will send many into a frothing rage about evils of crony capitalism (I may be one of them myself) but Trump surely knows the reality of the situation is that a certain degree of tax code bribery is going to be necessary to lure back those facilities we foolishly let leave our shores during the thirty years of our great globalist adventure with trade treaties that enriched the few at the expense of the many.

There are, of course, a number of connections between education, immigration reform, and job creation that will cause some inevitable stress and strain for those desperately seeking ideological purity and consistency, but Trump probably will be blithely unconcerned with how all the pieces and parts fit together—as long as they achieve the desired outcome. In the final analysis, Donald Trump will be a frustrating enigma over the next four years to those obsessed with identifying a governing doctrine because he will be our first “CEO President”, and someday I expect this pithy motto will be the one carved in the marble above the door to his Presidential Library: “Just make certain that you get it done.” It may not be inspiring rhetoric, but this sort of businesslike practicality may be just what we need right now.