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Tag Archives: K-12

Pulling Back The Curtain

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In August President Obama called for a college rating system. College costs and student loan defaults have risen dramatically while the job market has increased its demand for baccalaureate degrees. More people attend college now than ever before. Means of obtaining a baccalaureate degree have expanded and diversified. Yet the entire enterprise has remained quite opaque. Calling for meaningful metrics to ascertain value is a very good thing. But before you can apply measurement you must know what it is you’re measuring. Is the value of a 4-year degree in the recipient’s lifetime earnings? Is the value of a specific degree the speed in which one can earn what was spent/borrowed? Is the knowledge accumulated in four years measurable (and how do we allow for varying disciplines and institutions?) Certain things are quite measurable, such as attrition and graduation rate. But there is nothing about a dropout rate that indicates a subpar education, it does however suggest an issue with the admissions process and students services. Should a college rating system take into account more than education? The argument could be made that vigorous student services have as much to do with higher education than job placement.

We may think that college is nothing more than job training for the majority of participants; we’d be wrong. There are still many people who major in the liberal arts. There are English, Mathematics, History, Religion and Biology majors graduating every year with no plans of attending graduate school. These (presumably) well-educated people will (hopefully) enter the workforce with or without debt. How do we rate how well their college served them? An undergraduate degree in Mathematics most likely will not produce the same income as the equivalent degree in Engineering. And what of the Fine Arts majors? Will we measure the income or job placement of an artist? Do we take into consideration why the budding artist chose to attend college (versus a conservatory or institute)? Clearly there are far too many variables at work to come up with a meaningful rating system. What if instead of a rating we demanded transparency? What if we eliminated all tricks of admissions (e.g., early admission, early decision, early action)? What if we made it crystal clear exactly how it all worked? What if front and center on every piece of admissions propaganda was the exact price of everything? Listed alongside was the true percentage of how many students pay the list price. By eliminating the new car lot/airline travel smoke and mirrors from the get go, people have a better sense of what they’re getting for their money. The next step would be all financial aid officers to be legally obligated to inform students of all options. For example, an officer would have to inform a student that he/she could (a) attend a community college, transfer in and save almost 50%; (b) complete his/her degree in 3 years and save 25% (c) apply for grants, research assistantships, and awards. Most undergraduate colleges/universities ask students to officially declare their major. Before a final declaration is made a student should be provided with timely and accurate information about areas of study and what can typically be expected from those majors. A student should be aware of all the different paths to a career as well as all the different careers that can result from one path. They need to hear from faculty and alumni about their own academic and career choices. Each department would be held to a standard of transparency and informed consent when approving a student’s choice of major.

Beyond transparency lie two less manageable realities; in the end people will pay more than they should for things they cannot afford and the workplace will continue to demand college graduates until they provide a meaningful alternative. This is the darker side of the issue. It’s far easier to point our fingers at the costly culprit that is college, than to admit that our K-12 system has eroded. There was a time in which a high school diploma was a ticket into meaningful (white-collar) employment. Today more than one-third of college students need remedial courses. There’s no reason to assume that college has maintained any semblance of rigor, so one can only imagine what the real state of education actually is. Bringing a high school diploma back to what it was is a complicated and daunting prospect. It would appear to be much easier to just consider a baccalaureate to be the new high school diploma. The ethics of pawning off a public obligation to a (mostly) private enterprise is questionable. We can (slightly) mitigate that failing by making the entire process as transparent as possible.

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Posted by on October 28, 2013 in Education

 

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Flowerless STEM

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STEM is such an oft-used acronym that people outside of the education industry no longer think of flowers and plants when hearing it. The origin of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math emphasis is a response to the United States’ position in the international market. In 2006 President G.W. Bush initiated policies to increase federal funding to support STEM education and output as a response to concerns that the U.S. was falling behind. That same year the Unites Sates National Academies (comprised of; National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, National Research Council) issued a plan to federal policy makers to address their concerns regarding the declining state of U.S. STEM education. When the President and national academies directly involved with very lucrative industry call for action, attention is usually paid.

Not many people would argue with improved education and higher standards in any subject. But when an initiative seems reactionary and the response narrow in focus, there is concern. Determining that there is an industry, in which the U.S. is not leading the way let alone keeping up, is relatively unprecedented. It is no wonder that we’ve reacted so strongly and rapidly. It’s a little disconcerting to start to lose one’s superpowers. But to focus on one area of study is tantamount to remodeling K-12 public education into vocational training. To do this while ignoring what other factors make many other nations superior in their industry and education is shortsighted. There are so many cultural, political and traditional differences in the ways countries conduct their business and education.

There are places in which children attend school six days a week and are in lengthy after school classes well into the evening. (There are countries in which one’s work life is as intense and prescribed as well.) There are countries in which K-12 educators are highly trained and paid and are given professional latitude and respect. But we don’t seem to be selecting much from the international buffet table beyond STEM emphasis; and that is what leads to thoughts of shortsightedness. When the money and policies are focused on one area it is inevitable that other areas will suffer. It is often those areas that are less quantifiable but no less necessary in the modern world. Most often and most likely it is Language Arts, History and the Fine Arts that are left behind. Science, math, engineering and technology are fabulous tools to help to understand how our world works and how to work within it. But being well educated is more than being well trained in one area. Understanding the world around us and knowing how to communicate to that world in which we live, knowing how to write, speak, and process the written word are crucial skills; without them there is no sharing of STEM or any other discoveries.

Without a sense of national and international history we are destined to stumble through the world half-seeing. Without exposure and access to the performing and fine arts what (to paraphrase President Franklin D. Roosevelt) are we even fighting for? The arts reflect the times in which they were created and are vibrant and pulsing history lessons. They also stretch the intellect and help us to see the entire world in more vibrant hues. Education (unlike job training) is meant to open and fill our minds. We need to be taught subjects but also how to critically think for ourselves. Education should be broad, deep and challenging. We should bolster STEM studies, and we should also ramp up all liberal arts studies. There will never be a national consortium of arts organizations with serious economic juice. But it is certainly well within the power of federal policy makers to invest in well-rounded education for all.

We have never been a country striving to make everything the same. We celebrate our diversities. We get a kick out of our different dialects, names for foods, and local customs. We are a 31 flavors kinda people. Do we really want the primary focus of our K-12 system to be in one subject area? Where will the political scientists, playwrights and lawyers come from? How will we get well-rounded novelists, historians and Supreme Court justices? There’s no doubt that our education system is not what it once was. Schools are asked to do way too many things besides educate, teachers are not treated well, and funding is elusive. The answer is not to be found by sticking our fingers in our ears and muttering “la la la STEM.’ We’re better than that, we’re bigger than that and we’re certainly more interesting than that.

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Education

 

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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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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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