The Problems Posed By To Kill A Mockingbird

Recent media reports regarding efforts by a school district in Biloxi, Mississippi to drop To Kill A Mockingbird from their curriculum have generated understandable concern. As schools continue to grapple with both disorienting societal changes and increasing political polarization, we are inevitably going to see more challenges to specific classroom content and practices, which should concern any professional educator. Anger rarely results in good policy decisions.

Our societal discord certainly connects to broader questions regarding what we expect of our K-12 schools. That fine line between education and indoctrination will be ever more difficult to discern as educators struggle to find ways to challenge students to think without falling into the trap of preaching to them. However, given the well-documented deficiencies in critical thinking skills that colleges and employers must grapple with today, it is more important than ever to encourage our K-12 schools to shake students from their easy assumptions and comfortable mental inertia. The question is, of course, how best to do this.

I’ve taught To Kill A Mockingbird to high school students in the past, and they were often shocked to read about the routine degradations inherent in the entrenched racial discrimination of our nation’s history. If nothing else, the novel served as a lesson that allowed us to ladder into discussions about what has—and still has not—changed in America today. It has been many years since I’ve had the opportunity to teach this particular novel, but I suspect that my classroom lessons and activities regarding To Kill A Mockingbird would need to be very different now because I would be compelled to address uncomfortable changes in our perceptions of the characters and their motivations.

The cartoonish delineation between the heroes and villains in To Kill A Mockingbird has always posed pedagogical problems, although it eases reading comprehension for an audience often composed of 8th or 9th graders. On the one side we have the Ewell family, who are a caricature of what we expect—and perhaps prefer—our racists to be, an ignorant and violent clan devoid of even an iota of decency or honesty. Facing off against them, we have Atticus Finch, a caring and compassionate lawyer and tragic widower raising two intelligent and inquisitive children who are miraculously free of the least taint of racism. Caught in the middle we have Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape by the evil Ewells, and the very personification of stoic dignity in the face of injustice. There are no shades of gray among these main characters; there are only, if I may be forgiven this analogy, broad strokes of black and white.

To Kill A Mockingbird, were it to be published today, would likely face a somewhat more mixed critical reception. Aunt Alexandra’s desperate efforts to put a gloss of girlishness on the tomboyish Scout would likely be more harshly judged by contemporary feminist critics. Mr. Dolphus Raymond’s sexual relationships with African-American women would raise questions regarding power differentials and consent. Boo Radley’s peculiar interest in his prepubescent neighbors, which obviously includes covertly observing them and following them outside the house at night, might not be so wondrously free of any question of pedophilia—or at least “stranger danger”—in today’s less innocent world. It may well be that the year of the novel’s publication back in the mists of 1960 was the very last moment in our cultural and social history when the questions and answers seemed quite obvious and easy, so complexity and nuance could be blithely set aside in the pursuit of an uplifting fable.

I’ve always been a bit leery of joining in the chorus of hosannas regarding To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps this is because I have always found Atticus Finch a bit less than admirable—which I realize is near to sacrilege to some. Although he has the best possible intentions in the worst possible situation, Atticus Finch and his legal machinations, in a final and flinty-eyed analysis of outcomes, actually come to nothing. Tom Robinson is dead, no minds are changed, and the Jim Crow system that informs the actions of the town and its people is wholly unaffected.

Atticus Finch’s attitudes and actions are in many respects a foreshadowing of the well-meaning (but ultimately ineffectual) white liberals in the 1960’s whose best intentions would be overrun by the flame and fury that finally destroyed Jim Crow segregation and its many local permutations. Although the novel suggests that readers should derive some cosmic satisfaction from the death of the thoroughly despicable Bob Ewell, which also allowed Boo Radley to finally reveal his essential human decency (although it might be reasonably observed that manslaughter is a mighty odd plot device to get there), it would be impossible to argue the trial of Tom Robinson produced any significant changes in the town or its people.

Of course, all of this speaks to the many moral compromises that inform the book. The worst of the town of Maycomb and its racist attitudes is on display, but the best of the many small but significant accommodations the decent need to make each day to survive in an indecent world also bear our examination. It could be argued, if one really was looking for hope for a better future, that the most moral course of action Atticus Finch could have pursued would have been to refuse to represent Tom Robinson, thereby removing the thin veneer of respectability that placates those whose mute compliance is needed. Imagine how different the novel would have been if Judge Taylor had not been able to use Atticus’ stirring but pointless speech to soothe the consciences of those who knew just how profound an injustice was being done. Moral but meaningless victories serve the needs of tyrannies that need to smooth over the rawness of oppression, and we should not fail to recognize that Atticus’ carefully restrained outrage sounded lovely but changed nothing at all.

All of this is, of course, beside the point of why the novel is now often banned. The norms that now rule in many communities judge the politically incorrect—but historically accurate—usage of the “N-Word” as both insult and casual descriptor to be too much to bear in our sensitive school and social climates. This is understandable, but it also opens up opportunities for classroom discussion of the novel and its context. If we are going to crusade to excise every questionable bit of U.S. history from our schools instead of engaging in the conversation, research, and exploration of our past that is a core mission of education, we condemn our children to facile sloganeering instead of intelligent and well-rounded inquiry that will prepare them for a future where the answers will be neither obvious nor easy.

Perhaps the key to continuing to use To Kill A Mockingbird in our nation’s classroom is to gently remove it from its pedestal and recognize its limitations—just as acknowledging our own human limitations is the precursor to a better understanding of our world and ourselves. To Kill A Mockingbird is not a perfect novel, and the tiresome insistence on canonizing it impedes an honest engagement with what can be learned from a thoughtful and critical reading. Just as a person can be wonderful but flawed, so can a book fall into that same category. If we can accept this, perhaps we can finally move forward instead of squabbling without end, which ultimately does nothing to improve the education of our children.

 

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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….

America’s “Affordability” Problem

If one were to make a list of the three spending categories that bedevil the average person’s budget, the list would read as follows: healthcare, housing, and education.

Now make a list of the spending categories where federal and state policies have most actively attempted to improve affordability, and three race right to the top: healthcare, housing, and education.

Quite a coincidence, isn’t it?

When I entered college in 1976, the following were true:

• Annual cost of healthcare per person: approximately $690
• Median home value: approximately $44,000
• Average annual cost of a four-year private college:          approximately $10,700
• Average annual cost of a four-year public college: approximately $1,200
• Average annual salary: approximately $9225

It was, therefore, quite possible—if one was careful with money—for the average person to obtain healthcare, find somewhere to live, and obtain an education at a public college or university. Purchasing housing and funding an education did, of course, require some borrowing and some hard choices about where and how to spend, but a comfortable life with reasonable aspirations was available for individuals who were willing to work hard and make sacrifices in pursuit of their goals.

Nothing was easy, nothing was guaranteed, and nothing was free; however, everything was possible for those with initiative and perseverance. Obviously, this is no longer the case. Although local conditions and circumstances vary somewhat, the aspirations of average American are being crushed by the onerous costs of healthcare, housing, and higher education—the expenses associated with these essentials having far surpassed both the CPI and personal incomes. What happened between 1976 and today, and what role did government play in advancing—or impeding—our dreams?

The short answer is that government “helped” you—but not in the manner you expected. Instead of improving affordability by allowing transparency and market-based efficiencies in these three critical areas of the economy, heavy-handed and clumsy government interventions have completely obliterated honest and open markets driven by basic value and sensible pricing. Healthcare, housing, and education are now almost wholly controlled by rules and regulations that are written and interpreted by unelected bureaucrats at the behest of elected officials who are beholden to their campaign contributors. Given how disconnected from economic reality our healthcare, housing, and education markets have become over the past few decades of government interference, any attempt to allow them to operate independent of supervision and—more importantly—the overt and hidden price supports now baked into the system will surely lead to startling price deflation across these three sectors that will rattle the very foundations of our economy, financial systems, and society.

*   *   *

The explosive growth of the cost of healthcare is obviously affected by the simple fact that the average American is older than 40 years ago—therefore, requiring more healthcare. However, it is also a fact that Americans pay far more for exactly the same procedures, medications, and services than any other developed nation in the world; an aging population does not, therefore, tell the whole story. We should instead look at the manner in which governmental policies have disastrously skewed the health insurance market by promoting fee-for-service reimbursement (which perpetuates endless medical “churn” to drive up provider incomes), poor internal controls to identify fraud, and virtually non-existent efforts to control costs—producing an almost perfect mechanism for driving up healthcare costs for everyone.

Moreover, the politicization of healthcare through government interventions—Obamacare being the most recent and visible example—causes what should be a free market to be captured by special interests and lobbyists whose sole concern is making certain that the gravy train keeps rolling so that profits can endlessly rise. This fatally flawed public marketplace, of course, affects the private healthcare sector in turn because all the rules and regulations written by state and federal legislators affect both—and focus almost exclusively on expanding access with almost no concern for costs.

As a result, whether it comes out of our own pockets or is “free” healthcare paid through taxes and government borrowing, every aspect of American healthcare costs more and more—yet our health outcomes compared to the rest of the world lag further and further behind because the system is driven by a quest for profits rather than outcomes. A system that benefits itself by paying for a heart transplant instead of a health club membership is not serving the public’s interest, and the glacial movement towards reimbursement models that incentivize patient outcomes and pay a flat annual amount per patient rather than allowing every separate service to be endlessly billed through a fee-for-service model are wonderful, but their growth is held in check by the political capture of the healthcare market by powerful corporations and interest groups that buy the legislative process with their campaign contributions.

Not surprisingly, decades of “reforms” have seemed to do little to help the actual patient—but they always line the pockets of the pharmaceutical industry, big hospital conglomerates, specialty care providers, and durable medical equipment manufacturers. Today healthcare costs absorb 18% of our nation’s entire Gross Domestic Product and cost over $10,000 per person, which is twice the average for other developed countries.

*   *   *

The catastrophe of government efforts to improve housing “affordability” would require an entire bookshelf to detail, but we can easily see the broad outlines of the problems that have been created in three areas.

Public housing—the signature effort of government to help provide homes for the poor—has obviously contributed to urban blight, crime, and a host of social pathologies while trapping generations of Americans in conditions that are little better than prisons. This all has, of course, been facilitated by a political process that rewards insiders and campaign contributors with lucrative contracts, politicians who are happy to cut ribbons yet are be nowhere to found when roofs leak and furnaces malfunction due to shoddy construction and maintenance, and the sheer magnitude of government incompetence—quite a toxic brew.

In addition, government lending programs have for decades encouraged the more affluent to flee their poor neighbors by creating swathes of new housing stock that lock out the unfortunate and actively discourage any attempt to create mixed-income neighborhoods. The result of decades of these programs and incentives has been the creation of suburban and urban mono-cultural monstrosities that allow developers to turn a nice profit yet contribute to cruel segregation driven by income levels that serve to only more thoroughly isolate the most vulnerable families based on their credit scores. The endless sprawl that results also drives the building of expensive and expansive infrastructure to support this insanity—legacy costs we pay for through escalating property and state taxes that many can ill afford on top of their mortgages.

Finally, the ruthless suppression of mortgage rates to improve “affordability” has encouraged ruinous speculation through “house flipping” that has enriched a few but further ratcheted up prices and inflated a series of housing bubbles that have resulted in real estate crashes that always seem to lead to taxpayer bailouts of lenders stuck with a fistful of non-performing mortgages. Government policies that turn basic shelter into a crazed casino of greed serve some well but cause widespread damage to the social fabric of our nation. Today the median price of a home in the United States has hit $345,000—which places an unconscionable strain on families struggling just to get by.

*   *   *

Education is, sadly, perhaps the most pungent example of the harm government efforts to “help” can cause. Briefly, the federal government decided decades ago that the best way to help students to afford education was to facilitate their transformation into debt slaves. Between the mid-1970’s and today, the aggregate subsidized loan limit for the Stafford Student Loan program jumped from $10,000 to $65,000, thus allowing colleges and universities to dramatically and unconcernedly raise tuition, room, and board prices because students could, after all, simply borrow more to cover the increased costs.

However, just in case students want to go all in on that Art History degree and graduate school, students can now blithely sign away their futures with additional unsubsidized loans up to a total of roughly $138,000 in borrowing. In addition, let’s not forget those lovely Parent PLUS loans that help college and universities to destroy the golden years of mom and dad by allowing them to accrue their own crippling debts to help pay for the salaries of an army of Assistant Deans and the whirlpool tubs in the new Student Center. It seems little wonder that college enrollments are dropping nationwide. All this “affordable” education is destroying the financial futures of generations of Americans by impoverishing both the young and the old—a disaster that has led to a terrifying total of over $1.4 trillion of student loan debt.

*  *  *

In short, decades of government efforts to make healthcare, housing, and education more affordable have been a costly and damaging constellation of failures that have enriched a few and emptied the pockets of everybody else. Given the inherent unsustainably of these markets absent increasingly intrusive and expensive government programs, one can easily foresee a point in the future when they can no longer be propped up.

There is an old saying: Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked. As government debt and voter frustration grow, the chances that we will be forced to reckon with long-hidden price realities in healthcare, housing, and education looms ever larger. This will be an unpleasant and unwelcome wake up call for many who were led to believe in values that were artificially created and expensively maintained, but it is likely to soon become an unavoidable reality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is This The End Of Laughter?

Kathy Griffin’s mock beheading of the U.S. President obviously failed the humor test; it was too crude, raw, and violent to be funny. Just as we don’t laugh at injured children, this horrific image could never be seen as a joke except by those who are damaged and devoid of human compassion.

There was, to be sure, an attempt at political protest embedded in that photograph that followed a fairly infantile path of logic: Hate Trump, injure Trump, and laugh at injured Trump. This also fell flat because no one but a psychopath could find anything enlightening or entertaining within an image of such extreme violence. Political protest requires more subtlety and sophistication than a Three Stooges short or snuff film.

There are other recent and notable examples of failed political humor: Bill Maher dropping an N-Bomb during his broadcast, thinking would be good for a few laughs, and Stephen Colbert suggesting on air that President Trump’s mouth was suitable only for performing oral sex on Vladimir Putin. Both of these incidents were in incredibly poor taste—but at least neither was outright violent.

Is there some reason that the comedic sensibilities of those who skewer politics and politicians seem to have landed in a ditch—or perhaps the gutter—in this day and age?

One reality that must first be acknowledged is that a good deal of the political left has been trapped in a world of self-pitying hurt since the election of Donald Trump as President. Why is this important to the state of comedy? This matters because comedians seem to live on the liberal side of the political spectrum, so our drastically altered political climate makes an incalculable difference in the practice of their satirical craft.

Think about it a minute: Do you ever hear of conservative political comedians? This is one of those odd facts of life that perhaps points to some basic wiring issues that might require further study, or it could be that the class clowns of the world spent their youths tormenting anyone who tried to enforce the rules—so they continue to plague those who represent a power structure because it is baked into their psyches. Instead of pestering their parents and teachers, adulthood brings the opportunity for comedians to provoke government officials, industry executives, religious leaders, or anyone else who represents an entrenched order or status quo solution that rubs uncomfortably against their iconoclastic souls. Donald Trump must seem like a nightmare version of every angry dad, mean Gym teacher, or barking Vice-Principal in America to many political comedians—rolled right in with the loutish ex-husband who traded you in for the younger and blonder version to many women—so it is not at all surprising that we can hear the alarm bells ringing in the minds of stand-up comics and Comedy Central jokesters across the nation.

Class clowns of the world unite! The most incredible target in the world has arrived. Although many certainly disagree with President Trump’s policies and philosophies, there seems to be something far more visceral—and vicious—in the comedic air today. This is every kid who got bullied in school now bullying right back in a misbegotten quest for justice, and we are reaping the whirlwind of their rage, but there does seem to be an additional—and larger—question worth considering. Have we reached a point when much of what passes for political humor just doesn’t work anymore because bitter people brimming with bile are rarely all that funny?

Political humor can illuminate the absurdity of certain ideas and provide a relief valve for societal tensions. A full 50 years after the fact, one can still enjoy the amazing satiric musical stylings of Tom Lehrer, and Jon Stewart often did an admirable job highlighting mendacity and sheer stupidity in the contemporary political scene. However, both were doing their best work when they felt the political/cultural winds were blowing their ways, and I wonder if what made their work so successful was that their comedic sensibilities were leavened by optimism. It seems likely to me that each felt that they needed only to point out intolerance, injustice, and incompetence—and innately good government agencies and progressive individuals could then rush to the rescue.

However, now that mainstream Democratic beliefs are being rejected by many voters and traditional liberal institutions—public schools and colleges, the Supreme Court, the Environmental Protection Agency, and United Nations, to name just a few examples—now find their funding, credibility, or core missions facing fundamental changes that few could have foreseen prior to November 8th of last year, a clear sense of siege has descended upon America’s shell-shocked political left. Therefore, it perhaps should not be much of a surprise that our nation’s political humor, which of course largely emanates from the liberal end of the spectrum, has turned sour and sneering. Somehow voters they thought they owned abandoned them, their cultural hegemony is seriously in doubt, and a man they roundly detest is now in the White House. It should not be a surprise that the comfortable smiles have turned into teeth-baring grimaces, and the knowing chuckles have mutated into obscene rants.

We face a number of difficult challenges as a nation and society in the years ahead, so a little political humor could provide some welcome relief—and perhaps even some helpful clarity. I am just not certain it will be possible under our current circumstances. We might be asking for that which can no longer be readily provided, and this is not funny at all.

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.