This academic year (and, from the looks of it, for the foreseeable future), I have been mentoring high school teachers from across the state who are participating in our university’s dual-enrollment/early college program. Students are registered at our university and the high school teachers are listed as instructors of record through our university, too. Because of the large number of teachers I am mentoring (English is one of the most popular early college subjects) and my heavy course load, I haven’t been as “hands-on” as I would like, but I did take the time over my Spring Break to finally visit some of the teachers.
Dual enrollment (as it is sometimes called) or early college (as it is also known) programs are controversial. The links will take you to an archive of the articles here on IHE dealing with the subject. Dean Dad and Mama PhD have also discussed the issue. A discussion has also erupted on the WPA listserv, going so far as to call it “credit laundering.” But by far the best resource I have come across dealing with this issue (which also includes AP and IB programs) specifically as it relates to writing and English courses is the book College Credit for Writing in High School: The “Taking Care of” Business published by NCTE. Seeing as how this program at our university is here to stay (it is an initiative from the President himself), I was encouraged to find that there are successful early college programs being run and, with proper support and (shudder) funding, this could be something useful and valuable to our service area (which is largely rural and poor).
I was skeptical going into the trips, however. We are constantly bombarded with negative messages about our K-12 teachers, and it is difficult not to internalize it a little bit. Much of the resistance to these kinds of programs stems from our distrust of the high school teachers; we wouldn’t need developmental writing or even Freshman Writing if students came out of high school being able to write proficiently (more on that in a second). I had been in close contact with most of the teachers I was scheduled to visit, and knew them to be conscientious, hard-working, and enthusiastic, but I still prepared myself for the worst of what I thought I would see in these high school classes.
I came away from these visits, however, really encouraged that this program could work. The problems that the teachers were facing were exactly the same as the ones we face with our Freshmen on campus (attendance, getting students to hand things in on time, etc). The writing itself was of comparable quality and even a little better; the best and the brightest at the high schools tend to flock to these courses, making the level of the students taking them a little more homogeneous than what we can face in a traditional Freshman Writing class. I got to sit one-on-one with the teachers and discuss their assignments, give advice and pointers, and work to reassure them that their students are basically the same as my students, for better or for worse.
But I also came away with a distressing picture of what high school today is like, for both the students and the teachers. Most of the teachers that I mentored expressed that they were very nervous about my visit; when they are “evaluated”, it is often much more invasive and draconian than my more informal visit. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t looking at the work they and their students are doing uncritically and without standards, but that I was looking more holistically at what they were accomplishing rather than trying to impose a common standardized method and curriculum on them.
I received some flack in my post on motivation, and I want to make something clear: I am not against standards and common goals, but I am against the increasing push in higher education to standardize how these goals are achieved. As I sat in on a “regular” high school English class (I was waiting to be able to meet with another teacher), I was struck by how boring it was. But, the teacher was following the curriculum as it was laid out for her, meeting the required goals in the accepted way. Later, the early college students were engaged in a heated debate on the question, is war ever justifiable (this was actually our 200-level class). Both the teachers and the students seemed relieved to liberated to talk and write in ways that were less constrained and prescribed.
Many of the schools in our service area are “failing” and thus become more and more scrutinized and standardized. I think early college programs, particularly in writing, can show that classes with common goals and standards but the freedom to achieve those standards in a variety of ways can show a different way forward, a more productive (and motivating) way to teach and to learn. I read this post from a Grade 8 English teacher, encouraging her students to fail their standardized English exam, and I know exactly why my students come into my classes writing the way they do; the rigid curriculum and standardized testing punishes her students for writing well.
The thing that discourages me is that only “the best and the brightest” typically take advantage of early college (and thus, potentially, more engaging) courses. Why are they any more deserving?