Education Blues

Listening to people discuss the state of public education in America today often reminds me of that old story of three blind men describing an elephant. One is holding an ear, another is holding a leg, and the last is holding the tail. Therefore, each has an entirely different idea of the elephant based on his limited “reality”.

Such is the case with so many of our assessments of public education today, and the realities described by all concerned many times boil down to naked economic and political self-interests that skew “reality” in one direction or another—and all are blind in their own wonderful ways.

Teachers and administrators working within traditional public schools see K-12 systems that are struggling against a tidal wave of societal dysfunction and doing a great job against all odds. This constituency both hates and discounts the dismal data provided by standardized testing, and they see test advocates as dupes and conspirators in a right-wing plot to defund public schools, destroy democracy, and turn our children onto compliant drones incapable of thinking of anything beyond the narrow interests of their cruel corporate and political masters Anything that even smells like an educational standard is immediately suspect because it might crush a child’s individuality and unique preciousness—and prompt unwelcome questions about academic outcomes. These individuals and their interest groups believe those who seek to highlight deficient educational results are simply partisan and wrong, and their pointed negativity also, by the way, might screw with a lot of paychecks—so cut it out!

Those outside of traditional public schools—particularly those pushing for charter schools and school vouchers—cannot believe that anyone would want to continue to pour money into public school systems that, if the numbers are to be believed, each year graduate vast numbers of young adults who can barely read, write, or perform the most basic arithmetic. They see public schools as entrenched and ossified failure factories that rob taxpayers today while producing generation after generation of illiterates who are fodder for tomorrow’s food stamp, public housing, and Medicaid programs—all of which will help to bankrupt our cities, states, and nation in the decades to come. To ignore problems with our public schools is, as far as they are concerned, a form of slow societal suicide. Give us your money, they shout, and we can definitely do a much better job educating your children than your local public schools.

As for the union bosses, think tank experts, education professors, and politicians lining up on one side or another, they are easy to both understand—and ignore. Their “expertise” is wholly a function of whatever will advance their careers. Whether they are sniffing for money, tenure, or votes, their motivations are obvious, deeply compromised, and unworthy of serious consideration—unless you are particularly partial to circular logic and pretentious posturing. If all of them were never heard from again, it would make not a bit of difference to intelligent discussions about improving the educations of our children.

Three blind men…

Those who advocate for spending more money on public schools are sometimes correct that targeted dollars can help our children, but they fail to account for a pervasive tendency to pencil whip students through the grades regardless whether actual learning has taken place, and their refusal to confront systemic academic shortcomings identified by standardized testing cripples their credibility.

Opponents of charter schools and vouchers are correct that sometimes these don’t work as well as expected, and they typically shirk any responsibility for educating children with special needs, but one simple fact cannot be denied: growing numbers of students who have escaped from traditional public schools are now succeeding in college at far higher rates than those left behind.

Politicians and education “experts” are sometimes correct that what is educationally preferable might not always be possible, but their default settings of blaming families and society for all that ails our public schools neatly avoids any discussion of the roles teachers, administrators, and staff all play and in gaming the numbers to both mask deficiencies and keep their funding flowing.

Given the countless economic and social advantages inherent in our nation, it is simply unbelievable that we stand firmly astride the lower-middle tier of nations in terms of our educational achievement, and it is a perverse tribute to the peculiar power of low expectations, active deception, and willful blindness that so many parents are still content to each day send their children public schools that will rob them of their futures while frittering away mommy and daddy’s tax dollars.

In the final analysis, the only policies that have any hope of helping each child reach their potential are those that give maximum power to parents and the least possible power to education bureaucrats, many of whom have built their careers on that most well-worn of governmental activities—spinning bad news into good. However, the feverish buffing and shining of academic outcome data that range from the mediocre to the disastrous is now unable to conceal that sad fact that we are saddled with a nation full of public schools that many times manage to combine the highest possible costs with the weakest possible results.

What should we do? The only way forward is simple yet revolutionary: partner with the schools and not the systems. I know that the systems currently control the schools and act as gatekeepers, but to the greatest extent possible parents and concerned citizens must find ways to bypass and—if at all possible—ignore those who preoccupy themselves with “adminis-trivia”, battle against any changes that might threaten their sinecures, and refuse to recognize the legitimate educational needs of students because to do so might allow for frightening honesty regarding the shortcomings of our public schools.

This is a tall order that is going to create stress for all concerned, but some discomfort might be exactly what is needed at the moment. Pursuing reforms within the parameters of what will keep the educational bureaucracies happy has produced decade upon decade of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. For all the sound and fury surrounding the many widely-touted reforms to our public schools, shockingly little as actually changed—which is just what one expects when a broken system is asked to fix itself.

The revolution will, as all must, come from below—communities, parents, and students who are tired of being ignored, shortchanged, and shunted aside so that the paychecks can keep flowing to those who are screwing over so many of our children. Stop waiting for politicians and bureaucrats to change the future; they have not yet and never will. Unless those in the trenches are willing to march, boycott, and agitate, the brick walls of bureaucratic obfuscation and impenetrable jargon will continue to serve as obstacles to improving our children’s education—and “school choice” programs are the key to real changes.

Providing parents with the power to control where their child goes to school—public, private, or parochial—is truly the only viable way to ensure that progress is actually made because a system where the money follows the student will compel changes that are never going to happen as long as we stick to funding formulas where the student follows the money. As much as many dislike and distrust President Trump and Secretary of Education DeVos, their push for expanded school vouchers might be our best—and perhaps last—hope for rescuing our children from public schools that promise much, provide little, and push back against any common sense notions of accountability. Watching the frenzied efforts in Washington to bury school choice, a single question should rise in the minds of anyone who cares about our children and our nation: What are they so afraid of?

Any educational reform that fails to maximize parental power over the shape and content of each child’s education has no hope of succeeding. I realize that parents can sometimes be pushy and are occasionally unreasonable, and it is certainly true that we cannot ever allow a loud clique of parents to hold sway over any school because we run the risk of privileging the few at the expense of the needs of the many. However, the changes that are needed in our public schools will not come from above because too many have vested economic and political interests in the dysfunctional status quo—and decade upon decade of failed reforms have amply demonstrated the futility of trying to “work within the system”. It’s just like gambling in Vegas; in the long run the “house” will always win.

Now is the time for our children to win, and this is long overdue….

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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.

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.

Where Are The Grown-Ups?

It seems rather pointless to any longer discuss the twin crises of college preparedness and completion in America today; bringing it up just annoys the heck out of people.

Parents insist that their children are doing just fine—because they’re wonderful parents and their children are great. K-12 educators insist they’re doing a fine job against almost impossible odds. Colleges insist that the constant churn of students accumulating debt but earning no degree is due to circumstances—lack of grit, too much partying, sheer homesickness, or a host of other difficulties—that are largely beyond a school’s control. Government officials—federal, state, and local—insist that more money (on top of the more and more money already spent each year) will solve any and all problems with student achievement—guaranteed.

In other words, everyone is doing a great job, and to suggest otherwise means you are a bigot, an ideologue, or a crank. It hardly seems worth the bother to point to the quantifiable—and quite dismal—academic outcomes associated with our nation’s elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education systems because we seem far more interested in cheery anecdotes than in grim facts. I suppose it is just simple human nature to avoid bad news.

Should anyone be interested in an excellent (but also rather depressing) overview of the realities of education in our nation, I have attached a link here regarding the many challenges and some possible (although painful) solutions, but I’d rather focus on another topic: the question of how we are ever going to be able to solve problems in education—and everywhere else that the levees are leaking badly—if we just refuse to acknowledge the problems at all because those who suggest a concern exists are obviously hateful or unhinged.

It does not take a genius to note that everywhere one looks there are signs of trouble. Most individuals are stressed and frustrated; most families and communities are struggling and exhausted; most governmental entities are breaking down or going broke; most people’s faith in their futures and in our nation are shaken. Seemingly unable to come together (one of my students joked this past semester that an extraterrestrial invasion might be the only remaining way to unite us in common purpose), we growl, insult those with whom we disagree, and willingly believe the most outlandish and horrible stories about those whom we deem our enemies in order to justify our hatreds.

I was not a fan of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump during this past Presidential election. However, I do not believe it was right or honorable to use the Internet to spread unsubstantiated rumors that she was at the center of a satanic ring of pedophiles, and I am likewise disgusted that equally unsubstantiated rumors claiming President-Elect Trump was induced to engage in deviant practices with Russian prostitutes as part of a Kremlin plot to blackmail him are now common currency. People will talk—and we are, of course, always titillated by the scandalous and salacious—but perhaps we need to occasionally be reminded of the basic responsibilities associated with personal decency and respect. Enough said.

If they those who hold viewpoints contrary to our own are, by our own definition, immoral and stupid, there is simply no way to have a reasonable and respectful discussion and arrive at a solution that many, if not most, can support. Perhaps it is not always possible to arrive at a middle ground—a woman cannot, for example, have half an abortion—but to insist that your morality, values, or beliefs prove you are a higher form of humanity compared to those with opposing views condemns us all to unending strife. We may sometimes need to agree to disagree, but we also need to agree to remember that a person or group with whom we disagree is typically just as honorable and moral as we are. The middle ground can accommodate everyone only when we stop trying to angrily push one another off of it.

We also need to keep in mind, going back to my point about our problems with college preparedness and completion, that all of us bear some measure of responsibility for this particular problem. For example, perhaps some parents have a blind spot about their children’s academic achievement and study habits, so they fail to recognize that their children are skating by rather than learning. Maybe some K-12 educators want to take the path of least resistance when it comes to pushing students to learn, and this results in students being unprepared for college-level coursework. It could certainly be the case that some colleges are not being entirely honest with students regarding their chances of earning a degree, so they load them up with loans before crushing their dreams. Problems with college preparedness and completion are similar to every other problem confronting us today insofar as there are certainly multiple causes or culprits at its root, and shouting about our own innocence makes it impossible to hear what others are saying—which is just as true for every other issue facing our nation today.

Blaming others or outside forces when difficulties arise is the habit of children; assuming responsibility for our own roles in causing problems and working cooperatively to seek improvements is the sign of adulthood. Unfortunately, I fear we don’t seem to have enough adults in the room a good deal of the time, and our current toxic media and political cultures encourage tantrums all around. Given the very, very hard feelings across the political spectrum after the election of Donald Trump, I am not at all certain now will be the time when we finally decide to stop being partisans and focus instead on being Americans.

However, until we do find a way to work together, we will continue to spin our wheels and atomize into millions of bitter pieces of hopelessness. Moreover, barring the arrival of those armed extraterrestrials, the decision about whether our futures will feature unending conflict and discord will ultimately be entirely up to us. It’s time to grow up….

College Remediation Rates Reveal Significant Problems with Illinois’ Education System

Two years ago, I published a commentary in my local newspaper entitled “Data Must Drive Education Decisions” that read in part as follows:

“I have a suggestion for those who believe standardized testing in our public schools is untenable, unreasonable, and unfair: look at the national and local data on the numbers of college freshmen who require remedial coursework when they enter college and see where students who graduate from your local district stack up.    
Given that some passionately feel that testing in our public schools is rife with problems, perhaps a more persuasive case can be made for examining what happens to our area high school graduates (and the sub-groups of those graduates) after they receive their diplomas. Our area colleges and universities gather student data that matches their high schools with information on who requires remedial courses upon admission….
This would be very instructive information to make available on a school district’s website because it will allow local residents to have a very clear snapshot of whether their high school is better or worse at preparing their students for college success, and it would allow us to really drill down into what our schools are—and are not—doing well.”

I made this suggestion because I was tired of “champions” of public education who fuss endlessly about using standardized test scores to measure the performance of America’s public schools. Apparently my suggestion that we should be concerned about how few of our nation’s high school graduates are college-ready based on measures as “flawed” as the ACT, SAT, or PARCC tests was simply failing to recognize what a truly wonderful job our public schools are doing. Given the heat that standardized testing sometimes generates, it seemed to me that college remediation data would allow us to move beyond the argument and controversy so we could look at real-world student outcomes we could correlate with academic achievement at the high school level.

I also presumed this would never happen because it would shine a politically problematic light on the education provided in our state’s public schools.

So imagine my amazement when I discovered that this year’s Illinois Report Card, which provides a searchable database of every school in our state, has new charts attached to the Academic Progress tab when you type in the name of the public high school in your community: “Post-Secondary Remediation.”

I encourage every parent and concerned citizen to spend some time on the website and learn about the characteristics and academic outcomes of your public schools. Now that this information is available, pay particular attention to the percentage of your school district’s graduates who require remedial coursework when they enroll in their local community college, which is the starting point for about half of our nation’s high school graduates.

Hopefully, you will be pleased—but many will not.