The current national dialogue around greater access to higher education is encouraging, but zeroing in on it leaves us dangerously close to overlooking the full spectrum of challenges facing today’s students. By limiting national debate to the financial barriers that prevent students from earning a college degree, presidential candidates ignore the larger problem: we are an undereducated nation. Too many of today’s students are unprepared to succeed in college and, worse, in life and work after they graduate.
We know this trajectory begins long before students reach college, and yet we neglect to tackle the problem at its source. We -- all of us in education -- have to reach out to these kids earlier. Despite a clear need for K-12 schools and higher education institutions to work together as one complete system of education, we still operate and receive funds as two separate and distinct entities. And effective systems don’t operate in silos.
Presidential hopefuls should consider a plan that will incentivize K-12 and higher education to get our acts together -- ideally, through a funding model that binds our sectors and ensures investment only in what works. To be truly effective, we should target support to data-driven, evidence-based programs and services that we know not only increase access to college but also boost completion -- and ultimately lead to career success.
As in other states, we see the dire need for this kind of collective action in my home state of New York. For every 100 ninth graders here, it’s estimated that only 73 will graduate from high school. Of those, 51 will go directly to college, 37 will return for their sophomore year, and only 23 will complete their degree even close to on time. Just 23 out of 100, and that is only the average. In our upstate urban centers, it drops to 16. And that’s just in New York, a state that’s doing better than most.
“A Roadmap to College Readiness,” recently published by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and the National Association of System Heads, reports a similar trend of underpreparedness nationally and looks at what 10 state systems are doing to address it. In California, each of California State University’s 23 campuses employs an early-assessment program coordinator who works with high school advisers. In Texas, “go centers” pair recent college graduates with low-income and minority students who are academically ready but do not plan to attend college. And each of the states studied offers a senior-year transitional course for students who score below a college-ready level in 11th grade, helping to bring them up to speed before high school graduation.
The common denominator among successful strategies highlighted? All 10 states report that their most effective strategies are a result of K-12 and higher education working together.
To be truly effective in preparing students for successful lives, this partnership model must carry over into a student’s college years and after graduation. Because even the students who are prepared for college aren’t always completing their degree, and even those completing their degree aren’t necessarily finding a job in their field.
Less than 50 percent of adults in New York hold a postsecondary credential of some kind, yet by 2020, almost 70 percent of jobs in the state will require one. That’s an astonishing gap, one that is only slightly narrower than the national average. Any education strategy that doesn’t directly impact that bottom line is not worth pursuing.
As the state’s public university system, the State University of New York owns the challenge of grappling with this issue on behalf of New Yorkers, and we are confident that we have a path forward: a completion agenda that aims to deliver 150,000 SUNY degrees annually, up from about 93,000, by investing in proven strategies that support student completion. Among the approaches we are taking to scale are:
Strengthening cradle-to-career partnerships. As many as 40 percent of children nationwide are not ready for kindergarten. They lack the basic vocabulary and sensitivities this early work demands, and this level of unpreparedness often follows them as they progress through the education pipeline. Adapting the StriveTogether model and working closely with the national organization, SUNY is partnering with communities across the state to ensure that every child, every step of the way, has a chance at success. In Albany, N.Y., one such partnership -- the Albany Promise -- has improved student outcomes with a number of targeted interventions. Through a partnership with Albany High School, for example, they put in place New York’s first in-school administration of the SAT in 2014, raising student participation from 53 percent to 82 percent.
Recruiting, training and retaining more excellent teachers. We know that excellently trained teachers are the No. 1 in-school factor for student success. And while New York is home to some of the best schools and teachers in the country, too many students still never experience great teaching. Through TeachNY, we are partnering with all of New York’s education stakeholders, including the state Education Department, to address a significant teaching shortage by transforming teacher preparation. One of our goals is to cement teaching as a clinical practice profession. Because like a doctor performing surgery or a pilot flying an airplane, we want to provide every opportunity for future teachers to gain live classroom experience before their first day on the job.
Streamlining high school to college transitions. Throughout the country, innovative new high school designs that offer college credit are serving the needs of students who are traditionally underrepresented in college and making a crucial connection between K-12 and higher education. Dual enrollment programs in Maryland, New York, Tennessee, and Texas allow students to earn college credits -- oftentimes even an associate’s degree -- before they graduate from high school.
In New York, we now have 20 early college high schools that offer dual enrollment for students who are traditionally underrepresented in college; 33 P-TECH partnerships, for which students complete an industry-aligned curriculum; and five New Tech Schools, which use a project-based learning model and emphasize the integration of technology in the classroom. Some are transitioning to what we call Smart Schools, which will provide a streamlined program where students acquire an associate degree in high school, at no cost, and then transfer to one of our four-year colleges to earn a higher degree. In our state, these models share an average graduation rate that exceeds 90 percent.
Bringing applied learning to every degree. The value and effectiveness of learning by doing is unrivaled. Our students consistently point to internships, clinical placements, service-learning programs and other work-based experiences as the highlight of their education. Job-placement rates for cooperative education programs nationally are nearly 100 percent. We are bringing applied learning to the broadest possible scale while also working with the state’s Department of Labor to ensure our graduates are meeting workforce needs.
These efforts are a small sample of the interventions and strategies that we know will increase completion for our students. There is so much more to be done in our state and across the country. Cutting costs only scratches the surface.
Free college is a well-intentioned and, in a growing number of states, successful model, but it falls substantially short of what today’s students really need. If presidential hopefuls want to tackle the costs of college and truly make a difference, they should support significant and targeted investment in student achievement that spans the education pipeline and incentivizes schools, communities, colleges, employers and everyone else with a stake in education to work as one cohesive system.
If we could begin collectively serving the whole student, from his or her start in pre-K to and through college and into career, we can help more of today’s students be successful in school, in their chosen field and in life.
Nancy Zimpher is chancellor of the State University of New York.
Let’s face it: no one likes grading student essays, because student essays, in general, aren’t very good. When you’re halfway through a pile of essays that seem rote and devoid of thought, it’s easy to feel your soul shriveling. Students don’t usually enjoy the experience, either -- for them it’s hard, time-consuming and anxiety producing. And, as several writers have recently pointed out, academic essays don’t play much of a role outside academe.
But does that mean we should stop seeing essays as the baseline work college students do? A rash of articles in recent years have suggested exactly that.
Canadian teacher Jon David Groff, for instance, writes that essays don’t prepare students for the real-world work. They are, he says, “a highly inauthentic form of writing.” Rebecca Schuman, in an article that got a fair bit of attention in Slate, also claims that writing essays isn’t worth the time and trouble. Schuman focuses on three issues: “bad” essays, the careless students who produce them and the labor involved in teaching and grading essays. Schuman concludes by saying that essays should be reserved for advanced humanities majors and that everyone else should just take exams. After all, she says, “you cannot bullshit a line-ID.”
It’s true that the prevalent essay form -- the five-paragraph essay -- is usually awful to read and boring to write. Karen Harris’s recent piece for TimesHigher Education focuses, quite reasonably, on how formulaic that kind of essay is. (A typical five-paragraph essay starts with a big, overarching thesis statement, backs it up with three interchangeable examples, then restates the thesis). Harris blames fusty academics wed to an out-of-date and restrictive form for the essay’s failures. She would prefer that students have more options: perhaps, she suggests, a student might create “a dialogue, a series of letters, an animation or a documentary.”
Options aren’t a bad thing, of course, but while animations and documentaries may feel more contemporary, they don’t actually offer students the learning opportunities inherent in essay writing. If our goal is to teach students to think hard, then the essay remains a crucial feature of a college education and trashing it is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Teaching writing may be difficult, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort. And though it’s tempting to imagine a world without lousy papers to grade, the let’s-get-rid-of-the-essay movement has many problems.
First, it’s mistaken in its understanding of what we’re setting out to teach students. If our goal is to instruct them in who Renoir or Freud was and what they did or said, then a line-ID or animation works fine. But if our goal is to teach students to read critically, ask questions, perform meaningful analysis, marshal arguments, draw conclusions and communicate complex ideas -- the most “real-world” skills of all -- then there’s no replacing the essay. You may not be able to “bullshit a line-ID,” but you also can’t fake the skills essay writing requires. Those habits of mind are hard to learn and hard to teach -- but they’re the most important approaches that students acquire in college.
A second, related problem is the old story of academic labor and the question of what academe values. When student papers are terrible, we tend, in our frustration, to blame the students. But students who are “bad writers” are actually the victims of a system rigged against them. As anyone who has taught a composition course knows, the profession tends to view the teaching of writing as a “service” or “skills” activity. It’s scut work, and it’s usually foisted on the least powerful and most overworked people in the system: adjuncts, contract instructors and pretenure instructors. Some unfortunates have to teach writing -- and spend countless hours grading papers, at very low pay -- while others can focus on teaching the exciting big ideas they went to grad school to study. Unsurprisingly, given this system, writing pedagogy receives short shrift in graduate programs and professional development -- so most professors never learn how to teach writing. We’ve met plenty of eager, dedicated teachers doing their best with virtually no training in the work they’ve been asked to do.
As a result of this lack of preparation and downplaying of writing pedagogy as a meaningful activity, professors tend to see writing as a more or less “natural” activity, one that some people are born to do and others are not. But that is a confusion of student preparation and student ability. When we assume that some students just “can’t” write, we overlook inequities in resources and preparation. It’s easy to laud those who “can” write while overlooking the fact that they tend to be privileged graduates of elite public and private schools, clustered in colleges and universities that value the liberal arts. And when professors suggest that some students aren’t served by the essay, they’re signing off on a tiered class system where some students get the good stuff while others are spared the task of having to think hard.
The third, related issue that affects students’ writing and learning is affinity. Students who resemble their professors -- who think in narrative, have read widely, understand writing as a persuasive act -- are rewarded and valued. Those who don’t think like their instructors are not. But often students who “can’t write” can write quite well if they’re taught in ways that make sense to them. At the Cooper Union, where we’ve done most of our teaching, our students are art, engineering and architecture students. And they often tell us that they don’t think in narrative but in numbers and equations, or in 3-D, or in images. They don’t necessarily learn by listening to a lecture on writing. They learn by doing, and they learn better -- and produce better work -- when they understand the point of essay writing. That means understanding essay writing as an analytical act that involves starting with something in a text that they don’t already understand or know, taking apart the text to try to figure out what’s going on, coming to some conclusions, and then sharing their discoveries with readers.
Teaching students who aren’t “instinctive” (or privileged or well-prepared) writers isn’t easy, because it requires us as teachers to approach writing in new ways. But as we’ve learned over the years, the payoff is considerable: when writing makes sense to students, they produce work they care about and find interesting and challenging -- as well as work that is much more engaging for their instructors.
If we really value meaningful student learning, it’s time for all of us -- not just the small world of composition and rhetoric studies, but academe as a whole -- to put time and resources into the project of better writing instruction. “Bad” writers aren’t the problem; bad assignments and ill-trained and underpaid teachers are. And this means that the essay isn’t the problem and that throwing it out won’t fix anything. Instead, what’s needed is a reassessment of how the essay is defined and taught. And that isn’t our students’ responsibility: it’s ours.
Gwen Hyman and Martha Schulman are the co-authors of Thinking on the Page: A College Student's Guide to Effective Writing (Writers' Digest, 2015). Hyman is past director of the Center for Writing at Cooper Union and founder of Workshop Teaching. Schulman is director of the Cooper Union Summer Writing Program and adjunct instructor of humanities at Cooper Union.
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