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Category Archives: Education

The Core Of The Matter

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If you’ve been out of your home or watched commercial television you know that it’s Back To School time! As we eek out the last promises of summer, the (retail) world is telling us the party’s over. Soon children across the country will be sent off to “have a great year!” Parents and guardians will demonstrate varying degrees of engagement with classrooms and curriculum. But this year there may be a more unified sentiment as The Common Core curriculum is rolled out. The new national (K-12) standards have already been adopted by New York City; and the recent test scores confirm the early complaints of teachers and parents; the stuff is hard.

The tests evaluate what most K-12 tests evaluate; mathematic and language skills. Governor and school superintendent appointed experts developed these standards. The broad (and obvious) mission is to create a national standard for education. The outcome goal is to prepare children for college. That sounds too logical for discussion, right? Well of course K-12 should prepare an individual for college! Not so fast. First off, for approximately 50% of (admitted) college freshman that is not the case. Almost half of all incoming freshman need remedial work when arriving on campus. Secondly, it is not possible that 100% of K-12 students want or need to attend college.

The early grumblings of parents (most of whom have not yet experienced this new curriculum) suggest the roll out is going to be bumpy. Change is always rocky particularly when it’s been too long in coming. No one anywhere will argue that a high school degree is not what it was 50-70 years ago. Most high school diplomas do represent some level of achievement. But unlike the degree of yesteryear they do not necessarily indicate workplace or college readiness. The amount of remediation that occurs on college campuses (at a very high cost) should be alarming enough for parents and educators to demand tougher K-12 standards. However we do need to demonstrate a bit of caution; keeping in mind that colleges and universities are admitting unqualified students. This fact might indicate a bit more to the story.

Higher education is big business. In 1940 only 5% of American men were college graduates. In 2010 the percentage of Americans with baccalaureate degrees was closer to 40%. Colleges and universities are doing eight times the business they did seventy years ago. New buildings have been built, new colleges have been created, programs and institutes have received large amounts of public and private funding, and people have been hired. If they build it and they don’t come, they don’t survive. Tuition never covers the cost of running a college, but there’s no business to be done without product; and students are the product. So yes, the high school graduate with weak writing, or high school level math skills is admitted. And on the tuition payer’s dime, they take the equivalent of high school level classes. For each remedial class they take they prolong their stay and diminish their electives options. Accepting unprepared students means the institution has the income stream for at least four years (often more.) (For a student who is college ready, and arrives with advanced placement credits, graduating in three years is often a viable option.) Large entry-level courses are far more profitable to offer than smaller seminar style classes. This isn’t to suggest that college presidents and boards are collectively twisting their mustaches in some sort of plot. It is to suggest however, that higher education doesn’t suffer from less prepared students.

Students are harmed however when they graduate from high school without basic skills; such as reading comprehension, writing, algebra and geometry. Few parents want their children spending their school day doing test prep. It is a boring and stressful way to spend a school day and comes dangerously close to ignoring all learning beyond basic skills. But parents do want their children to learn and do well. Raising the standards of K-12 curriculum is a step in that direction. Ideally we want our children to graduate from high school fully prepared for the next step in their lives. They should be ready to enter the workforce, vocational training or college. It is not too much to ask and it is simply what we owe to them.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2013 in Education

 

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How To Navigate A Campus Tour

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The summer brings many familiar family rituals; barbecues, beach vacations, sleepover camp and college visits. The college visit almost always includes at least one parent (and requisite high school student.) Other configurations include; both parents & high school student, both parents & high school student & other sibling. The high school student is as likely to be wide-eyed and humbled as he/she is to be petulant and infuriating. (It is interesting to watch the sullen teen rise and fall in his/her fevered pitch of resentment according to the hard sold enthusiasm of his parents.) These potential customers are given the tour of the property, offered one or two logo emblazoned keepsakes & given a shiny reference sheet (either in heavy card stock or in app form). It’s really like any other open house, except the “agent” showing the property is usually a current student and nobody asks about the taxes, energy bill or condition of the roof. In fact, it’s rather fascinating to overhear what people don’t ask on a campus tour. Questions about meal plans, housing, and campus celebrity appearances are a sure thing. Less common, but still overheard are questions about majors, athletics, and faculty accessibility. These generalist questions are quite appropriate given the fact that the tour guide is in fact a student. But deciding where to spend the next four years and perhaps $200,000 necessitates more than broad strokes.

Some potential students (and their entourage) sit in on a class. This is probably mildly entertaining for the visitors, but not entirely relevant. Summer school classes bear little resemblance to regular classes; they are small, often taught by graduate students, and are more endurance test than educational experience. To make a decision that could possibly pave the way for a teenager’s professional and personal life warrants more than a show and tell. Most people (unless they have money to burn) would not purchase a home without having an inspection first. With any large expenditure or potentially life-altering endeavor, a little crawling through the basement and poking at the eaves is in order. Real questions about specific majors, research opportunities, job placement, lifetime alumni support, 3-year baccalaureate degrees, joint degrees, advanced degrees, graduate school admission rates (and more) need to be asked and answered. (A college or university committed to transparency will have a website that will clearly and visibly answer some of these questions.) Depending upon the size of the institution, a student (and entourage) should meet with a college dean, dean of students or vice president of enrollment. Admissions officers are very knowledgeable and helpful but their area of expertise is that of the front end, not the middle or back end. The President of an institution will be approachable and perhaps a compelling speaker, but rarely has full working knowledge of how the sausage is made. The people who can answer specific questions about educational opportunities and outcome are those who wrestle with and analyze those issues on a daily basis.

There is a lot to glean from visiting a campus and getting a feel for the environment. Sitting in a college town coffee shop can be a heady experience for a 17-year-old kid. Picturing your 17-year-old kid in one of those sweatshirts, traipsing off to class can be overwhelming for a parent. It can be a very emotional time for a family. Is this the little boy I carried, is this the little girl at play? For some families the road to the college tour was bumpy and relief is the primary emotion in play. That’s why it’s important to develop a strategy before leaving the house. What do you and your student want to get out of an undergraduate college experience? What are your investment expectations? These are hard issues to focus on if your primary concern is the acceptance letter. Try as hard as you can to let go of that. Shopping is always a two-way street. You can’t possibly know if an acceptance letter is meaningful until you know if the school is the right choice. Modeling this research and course of inquiry to your student (and his/her sibling) is priceless. A college student is a customer and he/she should navigate higher education as such. Setting the tone before freshman year may very well result in empowering that freshman to ask questions and pursue opportunities throughout his/her higher education experience.

 
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Posted by on August 1, 2013 in Education

 

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Letter To A Graduate

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Dear College Graduate – Congratulations on your brand spanking new diploma! No matter where you go or what you do you will always have this accomplishment. You can never become a lapsed graduate or have your degree expire. There are few things like that in life so by all means bask a bit. No doubt you’ve heard a few rumblings about the job market and your prospects of doing better than your parents. Some speaker at your graduation (or older relative at your party) thought himself or herself insightful and wise to depress you with their opinion. You may have taken loans that have a looming repayment date. The thought of which may waken you in the middle of the night, the young adult version of a monster under the bed. This would be a good time to remember that with any luck, life is long and you’re going to be just fine. But there are some harsh realities that must be faced.

Uncle Don is right; the job market is different for you than it was for him. When he (and Aunt Joyce) graduated college, sometime during the heyday of network television and the invention of the answering machine (look it up) there was such a thing as “entry-level” jobs. A person could join a firm (that’s what companies were called then) at the bottom and work their way up. These jobs were plentiful as back then people did the work of machines. A mailroom in a large firm had to be staffed as emails and texts were sent in paper form and had to be sorted and delivered by people. Receptionists and switchboard operators did the work of automated phone trees. And secretaries did just about everything. In the finance world clerks and administrative assistants (which meant entry-level administrator before it became a euphemism for secretary) were an integral part of the pre-technology workplace. Back then Don and Joyce would have sent letters to dozens of firms and answered ads to get an interview with personnel (aka H.R.) During that appointment they would most likely be given aptitude tests and then placed within the organization according to their strengths. Once placed Don and Joyce would learn the ropes, distinguish themselves, serve their time and move on up or even out.

While technology is a wonderful thing, as is progress in general, and the new(ish) field has created jobs, it has also diminished an entire classification of jobs. Of course this phenomenon isn’t entirely new. Don and Joyce may remember their ancestors starting out as “office boys” or runners. There was a time when department stores (which ruled the retail world) were staffed with; counter help, salespeople, cashiers, wrappers (items went home wrapped in brown paper and string not in bags), elevator operators, restroom attendants, doormen, models, dressers, dressing room assistants…You get the idea. Department stores themselves are practically a relic from the past, let alone the diversity of employment opportunities. So yes, with each generation there seems to be a dramatic change in the employment tableau. But you and your classmates are also facing much more competition for the sparse opportunities. Many many more people go to and graduate from college today. Many more people borrow substantial amounts of money to do so. Don and Joyce knew little about that. Their friends went to schools they could afford. They might have worked their way through school, went on scholarship or went to state schools that were highly subsidized.

So great news, right?! Don was right to rain on your parade! Well not exactly. Challenging isn’t the same as hopeless. Tenacity is your best friend right now, that and humility and hard work. Be willing to do anything (that’s legal) and work like a dog. Put your head down and get it done. Knock on every door; don’t wait for anyone to do anything for you. You need to be your own manager and press agent. Style yourself and your profile to be attractive to an employer. Prove why you’re an asset, not why you deserve a job. Let go of any notion of a dream job, and embrace the concept of a job. Believe in destiny and really hard work and let go of fantasy. And once you get that job, and you will, treat it and others with respect. Go get ‘em.

Signed,
F.O.D. (Friend of Don)

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2013 in Childhood, Education

 

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Equal (Higher Education) Opportunity

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Higher education is the launching pad for the American dream. No matter where you come from or what you’re parents have done, college holds the promise of the pathway to success. We take enormous pride in being a classless society in which anyone from any means can grab their piece of the pie. We love nothing more than stories that prove our beliefs right. Every year or two a new “homeless to Harvard” story populates lifestyle media. Colleges/universities love profiling their hard-knock life graduates come May. And why not? Who doesn’t want to be inspired by people who have Horatio Alger-ed their way to commencement? But beyond the headlines or sentimental stories is a less than cheery reality.

Higher education is much more democratic than it’s ever been in many real and meaningful ways. But institutions are rather limited in what they can do. They can throw their metaphorical doors open for any and all (who have academic potential) but they can’t make them come. There are many many truly academically gifted students who are accepted and never attend outstanding universities. These students come from homes in which they may be the first to attend college. The family may be very reluctant for a child to leave home or simply not have the resources to support the travel costs. The student often attends a local college and lives at home. There is nothing wrong with either of these two phenomenons, but when performed in concert they are seriously limiting. The point of higher education is to expand the knowledge base and worldview of students. College is most meaningful when it makes a student’s world bigger. Attending classes with people who are just like you and living with people just like you can render the higher education experience more vocational or technical than intellectual. Yes, great ideas can be explored in the classroom, but only to an extent. Lack of diversity limits the value on the exchange of ideas. Colleges and universities know this and work (to varying degrees) to rectify it. But by the time kids are filling out college applications it’s too late to impact a family’s will.

Kindergarten is the time to start exposing families to the idea of what higher education can mean to their child and how to embrace the most expansive experience possible. There is little point in preparing and urging children to soar if their parents are not on board. Over the course of 13 years (K-12) parent-teacher meetings, PTA, homework, and extra-curricular activities can have a higher-education component. School administrators, teachers and staff will no longer assume that all families are educated higher education consumers. Clinics can be held to help families navigate the (often opaque) terrain of colleges/universities. Topics such as financial aid, return on investment, defining degrees, career placement, and areas of study could be offered from middle school on. The more families are included in the conversations, from the earliest possible point, the more likely they will support the best choice possible for their child.

There are enough impediments to a truly equal opportunity for college students without this major hurdle. Some students, regardless of academic talent often have a first-class college experience while other students, of equal or greater talent, are stuck in coach. Some students are just go-getters, they will seek out and uncover any and all opportunities and not rest until they’ve squeezed every last drop out of the experience. Some students’ parents do that for them, and arrange (through personal contacts or friends of friends) network and resume building internships. Many students either need to work during the summer and/or don’t have their parents doing their work for them and graduate with a lesser experience. The same is said for many academic experiences as well. Studying anywhere off-campus cost money that is rarely covered by financial aid. Summer classes, remote campuses or study abroad programs are often not an option for students who must make every dollar count. Even on-campus these financial decisions must often be made. Most campus events and some courses of study cost additional monies. There are areas of study that necessitate equipment or fees that might not be covered in financial aid packages.

Creating a college student body that reflects the greater society is an admirable goal. However to do so in any meaningful way will take more than opening up the doors. Resources and attention are needed so that we don’t just democratizing education we also equalize it.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2013 in Education

 

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Testing K-12

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Could it be? Yes it could. School testing seems to have turned a critical corner in New York. Testing is going beyond the No.2 pencil darkened bubbles. Teacher evaluation is now expanding to domains not suited to multiple choice or True/False standardized tests. Evaluations will now include actual classroom observations and assessment of meaningful classroom work (ex. research papers.) While no one is suggesting shredding those bubble sheets once and for all, this is progress.

This expanded evaluation including areas such as Kindergarten, art, gym and remedial curriculum forces us to ask valuable questions regarding intent and outcomes. Keeping the budget in mind (which one must always do in real life) we now ask ourselves what gym is really all about. Do we feel that an integral part of a child’s K-12 education should be mastering the rules of team sports? Should gym be focused instead on combating inactive lifestyle and obesity? Is gym the euphemism for all things physical and be the source of nutrition, health and puberty education? We can only form meaningful evaluation when we decide why it is we’re doing what we’re doing. The same is true for art in schools. If we decide that the arts (in all forms) supports and expands all areas of K-12 education than art evaluation must be integrated into all evaluations. If art class means making projects than the mastery of those projects should be evaluated.

These examples (gym and art) might initiate conversation about teaching skills versus innate talent. And that is good. For what is any achievement (academic or otherwise) than an amalgamation of innate talent and learned skill? A talent with language, math, abstraction, memorization or analytical thinking is at the core of certain classroom achievements. Having a visual/spatial, physical or musical gift is at the core of (what’s often considered) extra-curricular classes. Which begs the question why? If we believe in (Howard Gardner’s) Multiple Intelligences* (which by the spate of bumper stickers out there, we do) than why shouldn’t all areas of intelligence be equally nurtured and valued? If we believe that the role of public K-12 education is to prepare our children for their place in the world, our focus should be less about specific subjects and more about learning.

There are countries that are leaps and bounds ahead of the U.S. in science, technology and math education and that makes some people nervous. The truth is that there will always be learners who are drawn to science and math and technology can be taught (as anyone who has ever transitioned from a walkman to an iPod can attest.) The role of public education is not to compete with other countries’ strengths but to cultivate the strengths of its own students. Curriculum should not be reactionary and teaching approaches should be designed for the benefit of the learner. Creating critical thinkers, cultivating a love of learning, and providing a well-rounded education will ready graduates for their place in the world.

*Visual-Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Linguistic, Mathematical

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2013 in Childhood, Education

 

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