• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.



Standouts -- or not.

May 25, 2017

I had to smile at this story. It’s about a study done of high school valedictorians and their subsequent career paths. The short version is that they did perfectly well for themselves, but they tended not to stand out or blaze trails. Most of the later standouts weren’t 4.0 students.

I’ll admit some level of confirmation bias here, since it’s consistent with something I wrote years ago. Drawing on my teaching days, I claimed that “A” students come in three (admittedly overlapping) flavors. There’s the supernaturally gifted group, about whom little more need be said.  It seems like they were sent down from a higher league to make the rest of us feel bad about ourselves. They invent vaccines. They’re often lovely people, but they seem preordained. In my observation, they tend to be pretty evenly distributed by gender.

The second group I called the “conscientious.” They’re the ones who, back in the day, turned in every paper with a plastic cover, and often color coding. They’re very, very good at following rules.  They get great grades not because they’re brilliant, but because they’re utterly uncritical about following rules. They’re good at school. In my observation, they’re overwhelmingly female.

The third group I called the “maniacs,” though I’d choose a different term now. (I found out later that the term carries baggage I didn’t intend. “Quirky” doesn’t quite capture the intensity, but for lack of a better word, I’ll use it.) They’re the ones whose interest is unevenly distributed.  When they don’t care about something, they can’t (or won’t) fake it enough to do especially well.  But when they’re engaged, they perform at high levels.  Their GPA’s tend towards the middle of the pack, but not because of a lot of B’s. Their grades tend to follow a U-shaped curve. When they’re into it, they’re very good.  When they’re not, they’re not. In my observation, this group is somewhat more likely to be male.

The conscientious ones have higher grades overall than the quirky ones. But the quirky ones often make the best contributions. GPA’s reward generalists, but the world rewards specialists.  If you’re very good at a lot of things but not passionate about any of them, it’s easy to stick with established channels. When your tastes and talents are spikier, you have the ironic blessing of knowing more clearly what you should do.  

As a sector, we don’t always do a very good job with the quirky ones. The supergeniuses will be fine, and the conscientious ones pretty much take care of themselves. But the quirky ones often walk away, frustrated at having to endure distribution requirements when they’d really rather get to the good stuff.  

I don’t mean to romanticize or excuse the quirky in all their glory. Everyone needs to have a basic core of skills, even in areas in which they don’t specialize. But I’m concerned that as we focus ever more intently on standardized testing, reduced time to graduation, and all sorts of “accountability,” we’re inadvertently tilting ever more strongly in the direction of the conscientious, at the expense of the quirky. I can’t help but wonder if the significant and increasing gender gap in grades and college enrollments has something to do with an approach that increasingly favors the conscientious over the quirky.  

This may be where a competency-based approach, or a project-based approach, offers promise. To the extent that students are able to get to the good stuff more quickly and focus on it more intently, some of the issues around completion may fall away.  When I spoke to the IR director at College for America, the CBE arm of Southern New Hampshire University, he mentioned that they’ve found that gender and race are not statistically significant predictors of completion. That’s the way it should be. Most community colleges, or colleges generally, can’t say the same.  

The issues facing “A” students aren’t representative of everyone, of course. Institutionally, we have much more reason to worry about students whose basic skills are shaky and lives are complicated than we do about students who’d rather study Game of Thrones as a sacred text than do their math homework. But the community includes “A” students too, and if we’re driving them away, we’re doing something wrong. 

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen or found a good way to help the quirky ones get through a system that isn’t really built for them?  

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Matt Reed

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