• Rethinking Higher Education

    Peter Smith's take on opportunity and access in higher education, the unmet challenges that remain, and the future that lies ahead for those willing to tackle it.

Recalibrating Our Understanding of Failure

We need to better grasp why marginalized student populations are likelier to fall short of their educational goals -- and how we and our schools contribute to the problem.

January 22, 2020
 

We know that a majority of the people who leave college before formal completion do so for nonacademic reasons, including financial insecurity. This suggests to me that, while technological enhancements will play a significant role in improving success and completion, we must also rethink our historic practices and assumptions. Specifically, what does it mean, in 2020, to respond to the needs of the learner? Because if our answer to that question doesn’t change, neither will the outcomes.

Georgetown’s Center for Education and the Workforce’s insightful study "Born to Win, Schooled to Lose" documents something that I have suspected for years. We are failing to achieve equal educational outcomes based on learners’ aptitude and capacity when economic status is taken into account.

In fact, it is worse than that. In a nutshell, Tony Carnevale and his colleagues at CEW lay out data that illustrates that poor kids with higher intelligence and aptitude are less likely to succeed in school than more well-to-do kids with lower intelligence and aptitude. Let me put that another, less diplomatic, way. Despite our best efforts and intentions, when it comes to academic success and persistence to date, schools tend to sort kids by income and zip code, not aptitude, and colleges complete the job.

If we agree that the social and economic ROI of a successful educational experience is highly desirable, then we need to come to terms with the causes and costs of low graduation and retention rates of marginalized populations in secondary and postsecondary education.

The CEW study findings clarify a subtle, yet brutal, ongoing inequity in our schools and colleges. I believe that the majority of people working in these places are good people who mean well, including me. So, what’s contributing to this failure to build on the aptitude and potential of poor children?

Do you remember the term “confirmation bias”? From a Google search: “Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor and recall information in a way that confirms one's pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses.” And I believe confirmation bias contributes to this education failure scenario, working from both directions: learners and teachers.

First, the learners. So, now you are a poor kid whose parents did not go to college. You are “smart,” but you are unsure what that means. And success in school has not been a part of your family’s history, although everyone knows it is important to “get an education.” All in all, you know school is important, but you suspect that school may not be for you. And when you get a C, or you are shunned in the cafeteria, or your money is running short, you decide school is not for you. You have “favored” a view of yourself that confirms your family background and the life you have lived, despite your innate, untapped capacity.

But the more well-to-do kid has a different reaction to that C or a difficult social situation -- shaking them off, doubling down and trying to do better. Why? Because they believe they are in the right place for the right reasons. Both scenarios favor the background, home life and history of the learner involved.

Now flip the lens and look at the teachers. How often have we, as faculty and advisers, shrugged and said to ourselves, “God, I tried.” So, viewed through the confirmation bias lens, succeeding with one of three poor kids and with three of four more well-to-do kids is “the way things are.” This is one of the ways the talent of previously marginalized people, documented in “Born to Win, Schooled to Lose,” fails to thrive in organized educational settings.

There are many emerging ways to right this systemic wrong. One example is evidence-based assessments as opposed to grades. I believe that grades are an inherent sorting device through which only a fraction of those being graded can be successful. And a more activity- and evidence-based approach to validation will not only give us better information about what the learner knows. It will also include a far broader array of learning styles and experiences. Technologically enhanced, evidence-based enhancements would allow performance and application to trump recalled knowledge leading to a fairer treatment of the learners’ knowledge, skills and abilities.

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