With the enactment of a new GI Bill, the time has come to once again recall former University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins' prediction that the original 1944 legislation benefiting World War II soldiers would convert colleges and universities into "educational hobo jungles." Perhaps it's unfair -- Hutchins, a veteran himself, was a noted legal scholar and philosopher whose influence on the university he led is still quite visible today. But that's the price you pay for being so spectacularly (and quotably) wrong about one of the great policy issues of our time. Helping returning veterans attend college was only the beginning of the massive mid-20th century expansion of access to higher education in America. Most people see this as an unequivocal good and a job not yet done.
Yet an active strain of educational hobo-phobia remains, a persistent, largely sub rosa muttering that perhaps too many of the wrong kind of people are being allowed inside the ivy-covered walls. It's not respectable conversation outside of conservative circles, due to its unvarnished elitism and 0-for-the-last-60-years-and-counting historical track record. But it lives on, and now has a new standard-bearer in the person of Charles Murray, author along with the late Richard Herrnstein of the hugely controversial 1994 treatise, The Bell Curve. In his new book, Real Education,Murray offers "four simple truths for bringing America's schools back to reality." The third is: "Too many people are going to college."
The book has many flaws, like the fact that the "four simple truths" descriptor is inaccurate. Murray actually offers one simple truth, one tautology, and two opinions (one somewhat legitimate, one not). The one (very) simple truth is that "ability varies," by which Murray means intelligence, or I.Q. All reasonable people acknowledge this; the question is how it varies, and what that variance means. The tautology is that "half of the children are below average," an odd statement to offer as evidence in support of Murray's main subject: educability, which is an absolute quality -- not, like below-averageness, a relative one. Basically, Murray believes that (coincidentally!) half of all children are more or less uneducable in the traditional sense and thus need to be identified as such via mandatory first grade I.Q. testing so they can be shunted off into vocational education programs for their own good. This is absurd and immoral, for reasons too numerous to recount here.
Murray continues in a similar vein as he begins the second, higher education-focused half of Real Education. "No more than 20 percent" of students have the innate ability to do college level work, he opines, and really "10 percent is a more reliable estimate." His evidence: a study showed that students with SATs of X have at least a Y chance of getting decent grades as freshmen at 41 average-or-above colleges. Only about10 percent of students actually score that high on the SAT, ergo the rest have no business trying to get a B.A.
Among the many problems with this line of reasoning is the fact that roughly 35 percent -- not 10 percent -- of young adults actually do earn bachelor's degrees. But Murray simply explains this away as prima facie evidence that academic standards in higher education are too low. Real Education is shot through with this kind of circular reasoning; once you decide that variance in cognitive ability = pervasive uneducability, everything else falls in line. Murray's only other real "evidence" is a random selection of passages from some survey textbooks, which he notes are "not easy to read." Indeed, they're often "demanding to tortuous," "studded with unexplained references," replete with words the meaning of which is "sometimes downright obscure." Notably, this cannot be said of any sentences in Real Education. Why? Because Murray is a good writer who communicates with economy and precision. (Whether this is a function of his I.Q. or Harvard education, I won't speculate.) Perhaps college students would learn more if the same were true of the people who write their textbooks.
But that idea and others like it lie outside the bounds of Real Education, which is, more than anything else, an argument against the efficacy of schools and universities. It seems not to occur to Murray that a student's capacity to successfully meet college standards is substantially a function of how well he or she is educated in high school and college, as well as the broader social circumstances in which students live. Instead, the bell curve rules. The book is full of confident and largely unsupported assertions about the cold hard truth of limited human potential, e.g., "people of average reading ability do not understand much of the text in the assigned [college] texts." Not "may not," but "do not." Or: one third of all children are "just not smart enough to become literate or numerate in more than a rudimentary sense." Stuff like this is catnip for his likely audience: people with an unhealthy appetite for the politically incorrect and a strong need for so-called simple truths.
Murray could have wrapped up his argument for the futility of educating below-average students here, around page 75. But that would have left him well short of a book, even one as slight as this. ( Real Education is an expansion of three previously published Wall Street Journal op-eds, and it shows.) So he devotes the remaining 80-some pages to a broader critique of contemporary higher education. And I have to admit: it's pretty good. He notes that most students go to college primarily to prepare for a career, and that it doesn't really make sense to assume that such preparation should always take exactly two or four years, regardless of the field. He observes that most institutions haven't really come to grips with the implications of Web-based distance learning. Lacking any reliable information about the rigor of college learning standards, Murray says, employers mostly use the B.A. as an inexpensive first-cut screen for general, non-academic attributes and skills, to the detriment of capable applicants who drop out of college or never go. Fair critiques, all.
Murray then turns to an impassioned argument for the restoration of liberal education. The nation is run by an "unelected elite" of cognitive top-10-percents, he says: CEOs, journalists, doctors, lawyers, scientists, clergy, even (because we're apparently still in 1944) "a large number of housewives" who lead local civic organizations. For all of our sake, they need a college education that teaches them to be wise as well as smart, that trains them in the arts of rigorous verbal expression and nuanced judgment. They need to be steeped in our shared intellectual inheritance, to reflect on the human yearning for transcendence and grapple with timeless conceptions of virtue. I agree; I just think this is true for far more people than Murray allows. Lose the I.Q. determinism and the second half of Real Education is worth reading.
It's wrong to say that too many students are going to college. Too few are going, particularly those from disadvantaged communities. The history of American education is one long series of decisions to open up the halls of academia to students who, at the time, were looked down upon as undeserving. The naysayers have been disproven, over and over again. More broadly, our nation has long had an usually open economy and education system, one that puts a premium on second and third chances and shies away from giving the government power to shut citizens out of educational opportunities based on some imperfect estimate of "ability." Again, the wisdom of this philosophy in hindsight seems clear.
But it's fair to say that too many students are going to colleges that are unprepared to serve them well. Colleges often seem unwilling to make the hard choices required to provide a true liberal education to the students who want and/or need one, while simultaneously failing to adjust their ways of teaching and credentialing to a world where 75 percent of high school graduates go to college and many are primarily interested in training for a productive career. In observing this -- and only this -- Charles Murray has a point.
Bell Curve author Charles Murray takes direct aim at higher education in his new book Real Education by asserting that we are wasting our time trying to educate too many people. Murray contends that only 10 to 20 percent of those enrolled in four-year degree programs should actually be there. His pessimistic view of people’s ability to learn ignores not just good evidence to the contrary but the real pressures the American economy is facing. Removing some 80-90 percent of our students in in my state, or just about any state would interrupt the pipeline of skilled workers, making it nearly impossible to meet the needs of a society that has defined postsecondary credentials as an entry point for most professions.
Consider the following:
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the country needs more graduates if we are to keep up with, let alone lead, other nations in the global economy.
By the end of the next president’s first term, there will be three million more jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees and not enough college graduates to fill them.
90 percent of the fastest growing job categories, including software engineers, physical therapists, and preschool teachers, 60 percent of all new jobs, and 40 percent of manufacturing jobs will all require some form of postsecondary education.
We need more, not fewer university and community college graduates, even in rural states like mine. South Dakota’s aging population will require 30 percent more health care workers in the coming decades -- and those workers will require degrees. We’re also facing a teacher shortage; educators of all levels need postsecondary education to successfully command and manage a classroom, let alone impart wisdom on elementary and secondary students. Our state also lacks accountants, and the industry has informed us that tomorrow’s professionals will require 150 hours of postsecondary education to successfully complete the Certified Public Accountant’s exam.
Those left out of higher education would have fewer employment options than they do today. Low-wage, low-skill careers are disappearing rapidly, as manufacturing jobs head overseas and American companies are looking for new ways to compete. Those workers who hope to maintain their current standard of living must have some sort of postsecondary credential -- participation in the knowledge-based economy demands it. Without some type of degree, their ability to pay for basics like housing, food, and gas will diminish greatly.
We cannot survive in an international economy by simply working cheaper, as there will always be companies overseas who are willing and able to use unskilled work at a lower cost. If we are to work smarter, our workforce needs to acquire more knowledge and skills that are adaptable in a constantly changing world. The people who have proven to be the most knowledgeable, skilled and adaptable are those with postsecondary credentials. Murray’s suggestions are completely contrary to this. Dummying down our workforce would result in a lower standard of living for most Americans.
The United States has long enjoyed the enviable position as the leader in educational attainment -- just a decade ago, we led all other industrialized nations in this area. That’s no longer the case. Now, we rank tenth behind other nations in the percentage of young adults with postsecondary credentials. The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems indicates that the U.S. will need to produce 63.1 million degrees to match leading nations Canada, Japan and South Korea in the percentage of adults with a college degree by 2025. At our current pace, we would fall short of that threshold by 16 million degrees.
Educating a larger percentage of the population does not amount to “educational romanticism,” as Murray contends. It simply makes sense -- both economically and socially. Higher education allows people of all backgrounds to hone their writing, reading, cognitive and critical thinking skills that enable them to actively participate as citizens. Not everyone who completes a four-year degree will be able to write like William Faulkner -- and some may argue that’s a good thing. But the papers students have to research and write in college are valuable and marketable experiences to future employers who need workers who can craft memos, reports and strategic plans, all valuable skills in the knowledge economy. Moreover, people with postsecondary degrees also tend to be healthier, are more productive throughout their work lives, are more engaged in their communities, more philanthropic and are less likely to be involved in crime.
The State Higher Education Executive Officers are calling on political leaders make college access and success a national priority. To heed this call, SHEEO believes we need to take immediate action by:
Targeting low-income and first-generation students (populations who are historically least likely to succeed in college and complete their degree programs), by allocating greater public resources to community colleges and regional four-year institutions, while also providing adequate need-based financial aid.
Overhauling the notoriously complex financial aid system. We can start by making most of the required data for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid directly transferable from the federal income tax form. Also, Pell Grants should be pegged to students’ basic living costs, rather than tuition, to highlight the responsibility of states and colleges to moderate tuition and fees and to provide grants for tuition to low-income students.
Developing information systems to better track students’ progress and determine whether they are at risk of dropping out.
In South Dakota, we’re committed to raising our graduation rates by 20 percent by 2010, so we can be competitive both nationally and internationally. To do so, the state is reaching out to nontraditional adult learners by offering more university classes in urban centers. The state’s public institutions are opening our doors to more out-of-state students by cutting our non-resident tuition rates in half. So far, the increase in students has offset any potential revenue shortfall. The state is also providing $5,000 scholarships to students who take more rigorous courses in high school, maintain a B average, receive a 24 on their ACT and pursue their education in South Dakota. We also want to make sure that those students who start college, finish college. To that end, our Board of Regents has tied retention rates to a pool of performance dollars; retention rates are on the rise.
To Murray’s point, people do vary in academic ability, and not everyone can handle the rigors of a postsecondary degree program. I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to spend four years at a flagship state institution, or even two years at their local community college. However, everyone should have at least the option to participate successfully in some form of postsecondary experience -- be it a Ph.D. program or a short-term certificate program for dental assistants. Educators need to help more average Americans and educational elite succeed. It’s common sense. And our future depends on it.
Robert T. Perry
Robert T. Perry is executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents.
As a resident of the District of Columbia, it's been fascinating to watch the ascendant rock star-dom of Michelle Rhee, the D.C. public schools chancellor. A 38-year old Harvard grad and single mother of two, she's been profiled in Newsweek, interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, and featured on Charlie Rose. Her panel at the Democratic National Convention drew capacity crowds. All because she's trying to reform an urban school system legendary for incompetence, corruption, and failure. And she's not alone: Big city mayors across the country have seized control of their school systems in recent years, risking political capital on the premise that schools can serve predominantly low-income and minority students far better than they have in the past. Those schools and students have become the central K–12 education challenge of our time.
Washington’s public school system is not, however, the only public education institution in the city. There's another with very similar problems: deteriorating facilities, shrinking enrollment, rock-bottom graduation rates, and a troubled history rife with tales of mismanagement and worse. It's the University of the District of Columbia. But while the recent announcement of a new UDC president garnered respectful coverage in the local newspaper, it's a safe bet that Allen Sessoms -- a Yale-educated physics professor and former leader of Delaware State University and Queens College -- won't be making the national media rounds anytime soon. Urban higher education simply doesn't generate the urgency and attention directed to K–12, even though it faces many of the same challenges and educates many of the same students. This is a huge problem, and a quick look at graduation rates for the less selective public urban universities on the table below shows why:
Enrollment, Fall 2007
6-Year Graduation Rate
Black 6-Year Graduation Rate
Hispanic 6-Year Graduation Rate
% of Students in Graduation Rate Data
Transfer Out Rate
Chicago State U.
Northeastern Illinois U.
U. of District of Columbia
Metropolitan State College
U. of Texas at El Paso
U. of Texas at San Antonio
California State U. at Los Angeles
Indiana U.-Purdue U.
Wayne State U.
U. of Memphis
U. of Mass at Boston
New York City
CUNY City College
U. of Colorado at Denver
U. of Wisconsin at Milwaukee
U. of Nevada at Las Vegas
Tennessee State U.
San Jose State U.
U. of Houston
U. of Missouri at St. Louis
San Francisco State U.
These self-reported numbers (courtesy of NCES) come with many caveats. They're six year graduation rates, and some students graduate in more than six years. They don't include students who move elsewhere, and some universities -- those in California stand out -- produce more transfers than graduates. They only include students who start full-time (the "% of Students in Grade Rate" column shows those students as a percentage of all students).
But even taking all of those things into account, it's clear that a great many students are entering urban universities and never completing a degree. There's a good chance that including part-timers would make graduation rates worse. And in most cases, the numbers for black and Latino students are particularly bad. Among the 20 universities on this list -- institutions that collectively enroll over 300,000 undergraduates -- the median six-year graduation rate for black students is 25 percent. No amount of extensions, adjustments or allowances would raise that number to a level that anyone should accept as good enough. (Increasing the timeline from six to eight years at Wayne State University, for example, boosts the black graduation rate from 10 percent to 20 percent -- twice as good, but still very bad.) One constantly hears policymakers lament the fact that barely half of minority students graduate from high school on time. For these universities, that would be a huge improvement.
These catastrophic failure rates are certainly not all the universities' fault. The latest UDC schedule of classes shows the fallout of the K–12 district's historical failure. The math department is offering:
16 sections of "Basic Mathematics"
13 sections of "Introductory Algebra"
9 sections of "General College Math I"
7 sections of "General College Math II"
4 sections of "Intermediate Algebra"
2 sections each of "Pre Calc with Trig I," "Pre Calc with Trig II," "Calculus I," "Calculus II," and "Calculus III"
1 section each of "Differential Equations," "Number Theory," "Linear Algebra," "Advanced Calculus," etc.
Any number of high schools in the DC metropolitan area offer proportionately more advanced math. Overall, nearly 70 percent of incoming UDC freshmen need some remediation. Like too many colleges and universities, UDC is often forced to be an essentially secondary -- not postsecondary -- institution.
UDC's budget was also slashed during the city's financial restructuring in the mid-1990s. Most UDC students juggle work and family while trying to pay for college with limited means. All commute; there are no dorms. The small campus of nameless, numbered concrete buildings, rendered in the brutalist style, has been allowed to crumble.
But UDC is also an institution that is often described as "poorly run" and worse. The average age of the unionized, highly-tenured faculty is 68. Despite having a relatively small student body with concentrated academic needs, UDC offers a range of degree programs that grant very few degrees. More than 30 years after being created through the forced marriage of a local teachers college, city college, and technical institute, old institutional divisions remain.
To varying degrees, these problems are mirrored in urban universities nationwide -- academically unprepared students, insufficient funding, and the worst of city politics and higher education administration put together in one tangled mass of dysfunction. There are exceptions, of course, institutions and departments doing great things despite many challenges. But on the whole, the odds are stacked against many city college students, and the outcome data reflect the end result.
Beyond specific problems of preparation, funding, administration and teaching, the terrible success rates at urban universities reflect the fundamental difference in the way K–12 and college students are viewed. The underlying premise of any conversation about elementary and secondary education is that the schools bear significant responsibility for student success. But the moment a student walks off their high school graduation stage, they are magically transformed in the public eye into a fully actualized adult who bears 100 percent of the burden for any and all educational outcomes that subsequently occur -- or don't occur. As Peter Smith, founding president of California State University-Monterey, said of high college drop-out rates in his book The Quiet Crisis: How Higher Education is Failing America:
"In colleges and universities, the institution is not at fault; I, as president, am blameless. The traditional model of college tells us that it is the students who have failed, not the college. They bear the shame."
No wonder political leaders aren't throwing their weight and money behind improving urban universities. If the onus of success or failure falls entirely on the students, what's the point?
So we find ourselves, in a time when more students want and need college than ever before, herding large numbers of academically at-risk, disproportionately low-income students into urban universities built on a traditional model that doesn't serve them well. They are the very same students whom we're trying so hard to get through high school -- only to turn our attention away from them just a few months or even weeks before they falter in college. All because of the strange and dangerous idea that educational institutions bear little responsibility for how much their students learn or whether those students earn degrees. Until that changes, the quiet crisis of urban higher education will continue, and much of the best work of K–12 reformers will come to naught.
To dramatically increase the numbers of low-income and under-represented students on college campuses, colleges and universities will have to offer more than handsome financial aid packages. If we really want to get serious about making colleges and universities more diverse and accessible, institutions must help to change the long-standing perception -- among both teens and their parents in some low-income communities -- that higher education is only for wealthy white students.
To change such long-held beliefs, we need to do more than simply stand at information booths on college nights or line school hallways with glossy posters. We need to dedicate the time necessary to motivate them, and we need to do it earlier -- when they’re in middle school.
Colleges cannot simply leave it to high school guidance counselors to inspire these young adults. We must, instead, take a more active role by reaching out to students when they’re in middle school, when college preparation begins. Almost all college-track programs require students to take Algebra I in the eighth grade. And yet many children with parents who haven’t gone to college -- including high-achievers -- are steered away from those courses by well-meaning friends and adults, who, by adhering to the myth that “college isn’t for people like us” mistakenly divert promising students off the college-going track. If we don’t step in and show these students and their parents that they are not only capable of going to college, but that we can help them find ways to pay for it, the money we pour into financial aid programs may never reach them.
For the last five years, Spelman College has participated in Project Nobility, an after-school and summer enrichment program at Brown Middle School in Atlanta. Financed by the Georgia State Department of Education, Spelman’s program supported hundreds of students and their families with tutoring, enrichment activities and workshops. But beyond that, we helped students get on the path to college by encouraging them to take those more difficult classes, teaching them essential study skills, and demonstrating to them that we were investing in their futures.
Just as critical, we worked with parents, offering them workshops on supporting their children’s academic success, financial literacy, and saving for college, constantly repeating the message that their children were worthy of a college education. Some parents were so inspired that they signed themselves up for continuing education courses, further fostering the college-going mentality while acting as examples to their children.
We can’t stop at the schools. Churches, particularly African-American churches, are fertile ground for promoting higher education in low-income communities. Several youth ministers take students on campus tours and are eager to formulate partnerships with colleges and universities. But if we want to reach more of these students — and help their parents understand that college is a possibility for their children — we need to go to them.
The California State University system did just that last year. Its Super Sunday program brought the system chancellor and campus presidents to 52 African American churches throughout California, where they offered students, parents and grandparents advice about college preparation, financial aid, and the application process. More of us should follow Cal State’s lead and spend time reaching out to ministers, parishioners and younger church-goers in our communities and beyond.
Admittedly, Spelman has no shortage of qualified applicants for a class of just 550 women. Still, it’s incumbent on all of us as educators to reach out to all potential students — men and women of all income levels and racial backgrounds — and encourage them to pursue a higher education, whether it at private institutions like ours, at state universities, or community colleges.
This isn’t just a priority for Spelman. In its report, “Coming to our Senses: Education and the American Future,” The College Board’s Commission on Access, Admissions and Success in Higher Education recently recommended that colleges and universities reach out to schools, communities and faith-based organizations to make sure students and families from underrepresented communities are preparing for college in middle school.
I cannot count the number of admissions essays that detail how young students were discouraged from applying for college by members of their own community, including teachers and other adults. But they persevered, inspired often by tutors or youth ministers to leave their communities for something better. We cannot expect to reach all of these kids by simply promising them scholarships. Instead, we’ve got to demonstrate that they, too, belong on a college campus, that they can do the work, and that we are ready to show them the way.
Arlene Cash is vice president for enrollment management at Spelman College.
Denver Public Schools recently became only the fourth school district in the country to track its graduates up to six years after they leave high school. This took courage because, as expected in any poor, minority urban district, the results were abysmal. In a district where first-grade classes average just over 5,000 students, the number of graduates in the monitored class receiving any type of college certificate or degree within six years of high school was 539. As the former principal of two high-poverty Denver high schools, these numbers fail to surprise me, but they do make me angry. As a relatively new staff member of the Colorado Department of Higher Education who has battled nose-to-nose with college presidents unwilling to reach out to kids not usually seen as college material, it makes me wonder – when will more colleges realize this is their problem too?
Denver’s Class of 2002 begin in first grade with 5,152 students and, by fall of grade 11, was down to slightly below 4,000, a not atypical decline in numbers. In the spring of 2002, 2,854 students graduated. Of those graduates, a third would enroll in college within a year and, within six years, 1,777 would have spent at least one month in a two-year or four-year institution of higher education. Only 149 low-income students would earn a college degree of any kind, from a one-year certificate to master’s level. Keep in mind the student poverty rate in Denver Public Schools is 65 percent. The other 390 to earn a degree were not low-income students. Oh, and another 291 graduates were still in college, six years later.
These numbers are appalling. Denver Public Schools’ graduation rate of 52 percent is shameful. But so is the fact that nearly 1,800 students enrolled in college, attended for at least a month and, six years later, only a quarter of those students have anything to show for it. A six-year time frame, rather than four years, was used because that’s considered the national standard for college completion. I don’t doubt this to be true. In our state, the University of Colorado at Boulder – considered our premiere public institution – has a four-year completion rate of 41 percent. At Metropolitan State College in the heart of Denver, the rate is a ghastly 6 percent.
The answer can no longer be to point a finger – pick a finger – toward K-12 education, though it certainly is a large factor. There are ways to improve. But there has to be a real commitment from both sides. I now run the federally funded program GEAR UP for the state of Colorado. Yes, it’s a program that has been around for awhile and yes, results in some states aren’t exactly knock-your-socks-off news. Hold on, though, because in our state, it’s shaping up into something else.
We began working with more than 500 low-income sixth-graders across Colorado in the fall of 2004 and will follow them into college. This school year, 79 percent of those students – who are now high school sophomores – are currently enrolled in or have completed a college course. In contrast, only 7 percent of the non-GEAR UP students in those same high schools are receiving that early exposure to higher education.
Not only are Colorado GEAR UP students taking college courses, they’re succeeding in them. In the fall of 2008, 15 GEAR UP students at Abraham Lincoln High School in southwest Denver enrolled in Psychology 101 taught by Parker Wilson, a professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. Fourteen of the 15 students passed, for a success rate of 93 percent. One student flunked for failing to turn in a required research paper. The average grade earned by those students was a B. That’s the same average grade earned that semester by UC-Denver students taking Psych 101.
To participate in Colorado GEAR UP, students must come from families poor enough to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. Most students will be the first in their families to go to college. Convincing Colorado colleges to join this program was not easy. In each site, some professors thought the idea of high school sophomores -- particularly these high school sophomores -- in college classes was absurd. But there was at least one person in each site willing to give it a try. Community colleges were the most interested, and some four-year institutions have come on board. Not all of them. One president flat-out refused, adamant that this was not the mission of his institution. His students, by the way, have a four-year completion rate in the single digits.
Let’s face it. This should be a slam dunk for all college presidents. We serve a population that few of these institutions have successfully tapped into. If one of our students takes a course from them as a sophomore, another two or three classes as a junior and even more as seniors, the relationship is already built for the full college load. More importantly, having that many courses under their belts should help students flow through the pipeline faster, which will grow graduation rates – for high schools and for colleges.
We believe a vital part of our program is the early connection, starting in grade 6, between our students and our advisors. The advisor has a lower student-counselor ratio, at 150:1, than most public middle schools nationally can afford. Advisors are responsible for meeting with each student at least twice a month. If a student is struggling academically or socially, the frequency increases. Advisors initially meet with sixth-graders to discuss traditional concerns such as grades, attendance and behavior. Where Colorado GEAR UP differs from traditional counseling practice is in the seventh grade, when advisors begin a curriculum that addresses different topics each month. These topics range from grade point averages to the importance of transcripts to college entrance exams.
Our surveys of GEAR UP students in grade 9 and their classmates not in the program show marked differences in knowledge about financial aid, college entrance requirements and expectations in achieving post-secondary degrees. The percentage of low-income GEAR UP students who reported they expect to earn at least an associate’s degrees was 87 percent, compared to 73 percent of their same-age classmates from all income levels. Also, 72 percent of GEAR UP ninth-graders reported knowledge about college entrance requirements compared to 50 percent of their non-GEAR UP classmates. And 76 percent of GEAR UP students said they know about college financial aid compared to 40 percent of their non-GEAR UP peers.
We’re even changing the conversations our students have with their families. In the ninth-grade surveys, 88 percent of GEAR UP students said they had talked to their parents about college that fall. Of the non-GEAR UP students, 72 percent reported having those conversations. Finally, our GEAR UP students are staying on grade levels at higher rates than their classmates from similar economic backgrounds – and in most cases, they’re being promoted on grade level at higher rates than their peers from all income levels.
President Obama, in his recent speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said that, “In just a single generation, America has fallen from 2nd place to 11th place in the portion of students completing college. That is unfortunate but it’s by no means irreversible. With resolve and the right investments, we can retake the lead once more … with the goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020.” I believe this can be done. But K-12 and higher education will need to work together to get there.
As the principal of Denver’s drop-out retrieval high school, Scott Mendelsberg created a program putting his students into college classes. While leading another high-poverty high school, he launched College Now, a dual enrollment high school/college program that state lawmakers have voted to expand across Colorado. He is now executive director of Colorado GEAR UP.
The Public Agenda report “Can I get a little advice here” sounds a clarion call regarding success in K-12 schools and higher education. We agree with the report’s suggestion that students from all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds must complete some form of postsecondary education in order to gain skills necessary to compete in today’s economy, and that school counselors play a crucial role in preparing students to succeed in the postsecondary arena. However, we believe that the report is in many aspects out of date with current trends in the counseling field.
As the old commercial for a particular carmaker assured viewers that this is “not your father’s” car, the profession of school counseling is in the midst of a significant shift in focus and training. School counseling professionals in the last decade have been tasked with answering the question, “How are students better off as a result of the work we do?” To do so, we are using data to examine and illustrate our impact on essential student outcomes, including student achievement and rates of success in postsecondary education. While we acknowledge our role historically and currently in creating and sustaining an unacceptably inequitable and less than optimally efficient system, school counselors have moved to the forefront in advocating for systemic changes to address the concerns cited by the Public Agenda report.
Recent research on school counseling program efficacy shows that students from schools that employ a comprehensive, developmental school counseling program have higher academic achievement and better school attendance than their peers who attend schools without such programs.
Comprehensive, developmental school counseling programs involve assisting students in building the skills necessary to achieve academic, career and personal/social success. Students whose counselors operate under such a model report a better overall school climate, more help preparing for their futures, more college and career information readily available for use, and better grades than students from schools with outdated counseling programs.
This new vision for school counseling is a relatively recent phenomenon. The American School Counselor Association National Model was published in 2003. Public Agenda’s research participants, however, were individuals between the ages of 22 and 30, who graduated from high school between 4 and 12 years ago. These young adults likely did not benefit from working with counselors trained under this comprehensive model with its focus on student success. The report’s suggestion that these participants’ responses are reflective of today’s school counseling programs, therefore, is not entirely accurate.
In addition, although the Public Agenda report states that the national school counselor to student ratio is 265:1, research from the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) indicates that the ratio is closer to 460:1, with some counselors holding a caseload of over 1000 students. The Public Agenda report also illuminates the reality of the tasks often delegated to school counselors, such as test administration, cafeteria duty and developing the school’s master schedule. These duties often leave school counselors with inadequate time to use their unique training to serve students and contribute fully to successful educational outcomes.
School counselors are currently trained to foster student academic achievement and enhance family and community collaboration in education. School counselors use school-specific data to identify and target achievement gaps between low-income and minority students and their more advantaged peers, and then utilize research-based strategies to eliminate these gaps. By addressing the underlying personal, institutional and systemic factors impeding student success, school counselors can contribute in invaluable ways as essential members of the educational team.
While we are grateful that the Public Agenda report alerted readers to the dire situation facing our students, families and schools today, we fear that students and families who read the report may be inadvertently misled. We are concerned that students and families may be discouraged from seeking college and financial aid assistance from their counselors and could potentially miss out on pertinent opportunities. We are also concerned that students and families might view the report as rationale to utilize private counselors, who are available only to those who have the financial where-with-all to do so. Furthermore, in light of massive budget cuts in public education, we fear that the report will be used by some school districts as justification for eliminating counseling staff. Any of these scenarios are entirely unwarranted and serve to further the equity and access gap in higher education.
We appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight on the status quo and future hopes of school counseling. While concern is merited and improvement in the types and efficacy of services provided is needed, school counselors have begun concerted efforts to systematically address barriers impeding student access to postsecondary education. School counselors will continue to engage in efforts to rectify the concerns addressed in the Public Agenda report while striving to make demonstrable differences in educational equity and success for all students.
Christine Ward, Tim Grothaus and Catherine Tucker
Christine A. Ward is a research scientist and Tim Grothaus is assistant professor and school counseling coordinator at the Darden College of Education at Old Dominion University. Catherine Tucker is an assistant professor in the Bayh College of Education of Indiana State University.
Last week, the New York State Board of Regents adopted a new policy that will enable non-universities, including organizations such as Teach for America, to create teacher education programs, with the Board of Regents granting the resulting master's degrees to teachers.
This move comes at a time when criticism of university-based teacher education programs is mounting and an increasing number of efforts, like the new Regents approach, seek to compete with or replace traditional programs entirely. While I have some sympathy with the frustration behind these policies, and while I do believe that we can learn from new alternative programs and should support the best of them, I think the easy tendency to seek to replace rather than strengthen university-based programs is a serious mistake.
Despite a barrage of criticism, including some from my own research, improving the current system is a step the nation has not been seriously attempted. It would be better for New York to put their education schools on notice, monitor progress, and shut them down in favor of other alternatives if they fail.
This was the key recommendation of my 2006 study, Educating School Teachers. In that report, a team of researchers and reporters found that, despite some excellent programs nationwide, most teacher preparation programs have low admissions and graduation standards, inadequate curriculums, disconnects between academic and clinical instruction, and alumni who say they were not adequately prepared for the classroom. But the study also set forth a method of improvement that included setting clear requirements and timelines for colleges and universities. If their teacher-prep programs did not improve within the given timeline, they would be shut down. Evidence of poor performance would include criteria such as low admission and graduation standards, low passage rates on standardized teacher tests, and poor performance by students compared with peers in their graduates’ classes. Marginal programs would be monitored and reviewed regularly by the state to ensure improvement with the promise of closing those as well if they failed to make progress. New York State’s latest effort avoids working to improve the schools that educate most of the state’s teachers. To build a whole new sector instead is to give up, prematurely, on schools of education.
There are other crucial reasons not to give up on education schools. Four years ago, the board of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation decided to launch a fellowship program to enhance teacher education in America. A key question was which teacher education organizations to focus on: universities, alternative routes or a combination. We chose universities, for five very pragmatic reasons.
First, more than 90 percent of all teachers are prepared at universities. In contrast, the alternatives tend to be small hothouses. This is the Willie Sutton principle: Asked why he robbed banks, his answer was, "Because that’s where the money is." The capacity of universities so dwarfs every other competitor that it makes sense to try to fix them first, and makes focusing only on ways to end run them misguided policy.
Second, change at universities is self-sustaining. In contrast to many of the alternative teacher education programs, which require annual philanthropic dollars to continue their programs, university teacher education is self-funding. Students pay tuition. Universities are among the few not-for-profit teacher education institutions with proven business models.
Third, universities, unlike most alternative producers, have content expertise. Research shows that teachers’ mastery of content — math, science, language and the other fields that are taught in schools — raises teacher performance and student learning. Universities are the only teacher educators with arts and science colleges in which future teachers can learn the subjects they will teach in addition to the pedagogy associated with teacher preparation. To assume that aspiring teachers have mastered all the content they need prior to starting their teacher preparation program, as many of the alternatives do, is to separate the "what to teach" and "how to teach" elements of teaching in a destructive way.
Fourth, the research on teacher preparation gives little compelling evidence that university-based teacher education is substantially better or worse than the alternatives.
Fifth, both universities and schools are in the midst of adapting to dramatic global change. As a consequence of demographic, economic, and technological shifts, universities and schools — like so many of our social institutions, including government, health care, the media, and financial institutions — appear broken because they were built for a different time. All of them need to be repaired, through no fault of their own.
For these reasons, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has deliberately chosen to work with, not around, education schools. And those schools now working with us in three states (to date) — Indiana, Michigan and Ohio — are demonstrating that they can change. We have seen universities move from a mostly on-campus program to a truly clinical program in which aspiring teachers spend most of their time in K-12 schools observing master teachers, teaching under supervision, and melding theory and practice. We have seen universities break down the liberal arts/education divide and engage discipline-specific arts and sciences professors in mentoring novice teachers.
In New York State and nationwide, we should likewise give university-based teacher education programs the support and impetus to improve. There is simply too much at stake to abandon them.
American colleges and universities hold dear their independence, not only from government but from each other. Each college and university, irrespective of its sources of support, perceives of itself as self-contained, free to define its mission and to control its own operations. Competition rather than cooperation among them is expected in the intense search for students, dollars and prestige. While common understandings on mutual obligations do exist, none rise to the level of a sense of shared national purpose.
There does exist an overriding purpose that all should openly share -- the care, feeding and reform of elementary and secondary education in America. A growing consensus among scholars and practitioners is that the most important element in student success is the teacher and the most important element in school success is the principal. Who prepares the teachers? Who prepares the principals?
Many, if not most, academics may plead innocence for the inadequacy of the public school system on the ground that their teaching and research obligations do not involve elementary and secondary school issues. But how many have lamented the inadequacy of their students’ academic skills and blamed the performance of elementary and secondary education for their deleterious impact upon higher education?
Who or what is responsible for the disappointing portrait of America’s system of public elementary and secondary education? Multiple answers are typically offered: Uncaring parents, uninspired teachers, unqualified principals, selfish teachers unions, corrupt politicians, partisan school boards, politically harassed superintendents and disgraceful school buildings. Social ills such as poverty, racism and drugs are in the mix as are the debilitating impact of television and twittering. We blame the lack of money but that collides with data showing that many poor performing schools and school districts spend more per student than good schools.
What is missing from this litany of the obvious? The free pass being given to higher education.
How did we get to this perverted assignment of blame to those at the end of the educational chain who are totally dependent upon the existence and products of the top of the chain? Who is preparing the teachers, principals, superintendents and most school board members who form the key ingredients for educating our children?
What you have heard, when we address it at all, is widespread condemnation of schools of education, treating them as weak spots while all the other departments and disciplines in the university, teaching the same students, share none of the blame. Incompetent or unsuitable teachers? Well that’s the fault of schools of education, right? Students in other programs or professional schools are considered products of the whole university’s efforts but, apparently, education students emerge as a tabula rasa who reflect no benefit from their relationship to the rest of the university.
You don’t have to dig too deeply into the literature on schools of education to find a pattern of criticism, much of it related to the perception that such schools emphasize teaching methodology instead of subject matter competence. Who is supposed to teach how to teach children to read, write or do arithmetic? And who is to teach what to teach if not the scholarly disciplines? How many liberal arts departments offer courses sensitive to what an elementary or secondary teacher would find useful? Instead, even introductory courses are usually geared to the production of majors with little if any idea about what is actually taught to children. A faculty member who espoused that his or her department make that part of its agenda would be viewed as a pariah, out of step with the department’s academic discipline.
Another favorite of critics is that education programs attract and accept students with lower qualifications than other liberal arts programs. This allegation is questionable and irrelevant, since the prospective teacher must pass all requirements of the academic disciplines to earn a degree. Debate rages about whether teachers need unique educational credentials to teach or, instead, if we should open the profession to people with other training who desire to enter the teaching profession. Still, it is expected that such people will take some traditional educational methods courses.
The history of the training of school teachers in this country is instructive. The early colleges and universities stressed classical education for the learned professions (clergy, law, medicine), but teacher education was not considered part of the mission. Public elementary education was sporadic and geared to the needs of an agrarian society.
Teachers were unlicensed and poorly compensated. Not until the late 1830s were public “normal schools” established to provide post-eighth grade education to prepare primary school teachers and to establish “norms” for schools. By the beginning of the 20th century, school systems grew and stabilized, secondary education expanded and many normal schools extended their curricula to agricultural and vocational training with some liberal studies. Only after World War II and the enormous population boom did the United States approach the idea of universal secondary school education, an idea that is not yet realized in graduation data.
With those developments, normal schools developed into the four-year “teacher colleges,” the earlier format of the “state normal colleges” which evolved into the “state colleges” and, during the 1950s and 1960s, to the numerous regional state universities, typically named according to location in the state -- “eastern, western, northern, southern and central.”
At each step of this astonishing growth of higher education in America, teacher training slipped in status as a lesser-regarded area of study. Though prospective teacher enrollments remained high, they served as the proverbial “cash cows” with lesser qualifications for entering the teacher education programs and education faculty salaries lower than for other growing disciplines.
It happens that I was twice part of the morphing of the normal school, teacher college, and state college into a regional state university, with a diminished role for teacher education within the growing university. I can recall the overall atmospherics of a community rooted in the training of school teachers. Whatever subject matter you taught, you knew that most of the students in your class were prospective teachers. Many departments were involved in curricular discussions with teacher education units to coordinate substantive subject matter with teaching methodology and to advise students on suitable courses to meet state and school district requirements.
Subsequently I became the dean of a newly established college of arts and sciences at a former teacher’s college and there experienced the unraveling of longstanding faculty and curricular arrangements as general education programs overtook the focus usually allotted to the preparation of teachers. At both universities, the gradual separation of teacher education from the central mission of the institution reflected new directions for higher education in America.
There are now so many alternative routes to become a teacher without teacher education certification that the teacher education units are further diminished. For example, avenues are available for teaching positions in private schools, charter schools, through national programs such as Teach for America, and special accelerated courses for persons holding any undergraduate or professional degree who would like to try teaching. Elementary and secondary teaching was viewed largely as “women’s work” until opportunities for women opened in all realms of professional and business life, suggesting that more academically talented women populated schools of education than do so now.
What would it take to mobilize higher education to assume more responsibility for the preparation of teachers? Here are three suggestions:
First, all major college and university associations should declare in concert with their membership that, in the national interest, the preparation of teachers will receive the priority treatment usually accorded to showcase programs or schools. This could mean, for example, that all would agree to raise the requirements for admission to education programs along the lines used for special undergraduate honors or other selective programs and at the graduate level to law, medicine or business. Such unprecedented action would be contrary to higher education’s penchant for institutional and programmatic independence, making it all the more dramatic and establish the preparation of elementary and secondary teachers and principals as a core value of higher education.
Second, all academic departments should work in concert with education faculty to maximize the marriage of subject matter with methodology for teaching elementary and secondary students. Many universities have participated in both academic and social programs to assist local schools. Such programs are usually remedial in character, limited in scope and disconnected from higher education’s overall relationship to the plight of the schools. To connect would require acknowledgment that in the case of children and adolescents, subject matter competence of teachers is not sufficient. What counts is some standard for what should be taught and recognition that teaching methodology can and should be taught. Such alliances are beginning to make some headway in numerous colleges and universities, and their activities should be studied and publicized. Especially hopeful is the release in June 2010 of a set of national standards for elementary and secondary education by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to prepare students for college. Many college officials say that they will train teachers to meet the standards.
Third, in order to maximize the use of limited resources, a return to the concept of the teacher colleges with their combined dedication of subject matter and methodology should be explored. Colleges and universities with small education programs could use existing consortium arrangements, or establish new alliances, to share a free-standing teachers college that joins their education and special subject matter faculty and to which they will send undergraduate and graduate students preparing for teaching and administrative posts. Properly executed, with serious attention to recruiting high quality students, faculty, and research scholars, the diminished prestige of teacher education programs could be raised to the essential place that they should have among the learned professions. It is likely that such experiments would be attractive to major private foundations, with eventual benefit to colleges and universities, and to local business groups eager to repair perceived weaknesses of elementary and secondary schools in their communities.
Henry Wyman Holmes, the inaugural dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1920-1940, stated some 80 years ago that "the training of teachers is a highly significant part of the making of the nation." He called for "a more serious conception of the place of the teacher in the life of the nation,” urging educational and political leaders to join him in "changing the systems that support poorly trained, paid and esteemed teachers." He found few supporters. To realize Holmes’s efforts to raise teacher education to higher professional levels, leaders in teacher education formed the Holmes Group, renamed the Holmes Partnership, to encourage linkages among education professionals and with liberal arts departments, still seeking the same goals.
Others, notably in the political world, are putting pressure on schools at all levels. Congress enacted the “No Child Left Behind” program emphasizing testing and assessment of learning. The U.S. Department of Education has put more rigorous requirements on teacher education accrediting bodies and is using “Race to the Top” funds to encourage both program and personnel changes for failing school systems. Another notable development is the aggressive initiative of private foundations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation for Education, to promote improvements in the teaching profession. Increased action by political and private power centers should be expected.
To avoid further loss of treasured higher education independence, remediation of teacher education should begin with higher education’s role in the decline of the schools. This calls for shoring up their teacher education programs and awakening the traditional academic departments to their responsibilities for the education of teachers.
American colleges and universities are the envy of the world for their excellence in so many endeavors. As the population grows and diversifies and technology poses enormous challenges, we need to concentrate on the ingredient that makes continuing achievements possible -- the education of children. This is one obligation we should openly share that can provide that sense of shared national purpose so lacking in higher education.
Milton Greenberg is professor of government emeritus at American University, where he served as provost and interim president.
We all want more young people to attend college. Who would argue with that? Politicians and educators at all levels extol the obvious virtues, from enhanced earning potential to a greater satisfaction in life. One increasingly popular way to encourage college attendance is through dual enrollment, in which students take courses in high school for both high school and college credit.
In theory, dual enrollment enables high school students to accrue college credits for very little cost and imbues them with a sense of confidence that they can complete college work. If students can succeed in college classes while still in high school, conventional wisdom holds, they will be more likely to matriculate at the postsecondary level.
In Indiana, dual enrollment is encouraged at the highest levels, with state Education Secretary Tony Bennett maintaining that at least 25 percent of high school graduates should pass at least one Advanced Placement exam or International Baccalaureate exam, or earn at least three semester hours of college credit during high school.
In reality, though, dual enrollment may do more harm than good.
Increasingly, students are turning up at college campuses with an impressive number of college credits, thereby bypassing introductory college courses. The problem is that high school is not college and completion of a dual enrollment high school class is not always a guarantee that students have learned the material. For instance, students earning a “C” in a dual enrollment English class in high school with a high school teacher are exempt from a basic writing course in college. They would immediately be placed into upper-level college classes where faculty members assume a basic skill level the students might or might not possess.
As a result, classes that used to be termed “college-prep” are now seen as college proper. The rationale is that if high schools offer the same psychology class, for example, as colleges and cover similar material, these students should be earning college credit. Dual enrollment proponents argue that high school teachers are trained by a university and follow the same syllabus. In practice, however, courses covered in a high school setting on a high school calendar are often vastly different in practice.
This is not a criticism of high school teachers. Many are excellent educators and care deeply about students. But they often teach more classes than college faculty do, have myriad extracurricular responsibilities, and lack the requisite training that enables college faculty to introduce best practices in the field. In contrast, college faculty members expect a higher level of work from students, including having them study independently, write in the discipline and be exposed to the latest research. They are less likely to offer extra credit, or evaluate students based on an inflated high school norm.
High school teachers and college faculty have different roles, equally important. The line between the two shouldn’t blur.
Even the classroom dynamic is different. High school students, especially sophomores and juniors, are not like college students. A collection of 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds are normally at a different stage of intellectual and moral development than are college students. Treating a high school student like a college student does not always do them a favor.
It is too soon to know how this phenomenon of early college will play out, but my fear is that students will be hurt. In a rush to adhere to federal and state initiatives, high schools have opened dual enrollment classes to as many students as are willing. What student would not be interested in taking college classes for little cost with their own high school teachers in a familiar setting?
We have a concrete example at Manchester College that shows how this new program may impair students. Manchester admitted a student from a celebrated articulation program between an Indiana two-year college and a high school with a strong academic reputation. This student, as a sophomore in high school, earned a “C” in a “college” English course, which exempts her from our basic English 111 College Writing class. Even though her ACT score indicates her writing skills are deficient, we are limited in what we can do.
Like many students who have already passed a “college” class, she thinks she already has the necessary writing skills to be successful in college. We know she very likely does not. Our willingness to increase student access by accepting transfer credit means that, without taking this student’s credits away, we cannot help her with her writing. Instead, by virtue of an average performance as a high school sophomore, this student will be placed into college classes for which she is unprepared.
Many students who presumably have taken more-rigorous writing classes in high school receive no college credit. They are, however, better prepared to succeed at college.
High schools are looking for willing university partners to sanction classes they are already teaching. Colleges are looking to facilitate transfer students; are no longer differentiating between courses taught at accredited colleges and those in a high school.
Other programs like AP (Advanced Placement) make an attempt, however imperfect, to assess student learning using a standard national examination. Colleges feel better about accepting credits when students demonstrate mastery of material on a recognized exam. However, the percentage of high school students able to do well enough on the AP exam to earn college credit is very small.
Most colleges willingly accept credits from like institutions because we trust that our courses are equivalent and that our faculty are credentialed. I doubt that same trust applies to high schools. The best service a high school can provide is to prepare students for college, not substitute for it.
The more we try to expedite learning, the more we send students mixed messages about the distinction between a high school and college education. And we cheapen a college education by making it seem accessible to nearly everyone despite the age and ability of the student or the qualifications of the teacher.
Glenn Sharfman is vice president and dean for academic affairs for Manchester College, in Indiana.