To the Editor:
I was happy to see my dual credit course for high-school students, Poetry in America: The City from Whitman to Hip Hop, featured among other interventions to close equity and achievement gaps in Steven Mintz's recent blog post. As Mintz testifies, many of the 11th- and 12th- grade students from under-resourced schools whom I teach in that course have all the raw talent and drive they need to enable them to master high-level content, and many have life experiences that give them depth of understanding and drive to succeed beyond what one typically sees among their more privileged peers.
It is also the case that few of these students have been afforded the preparation and crucial skillbuilding in independent critical thinking and writing they will need to succeed in the colleges that admit them. I agree that dual enrollment programs that provide co-requisite (as opposed to pre-requisite) skillbuilding in tandem with genuine intellectual stimulation and challenge can allow students to succeed at much higher levels than old models of remediation.
But for such interventions to succeed at scale will also require partnerships and infrastructures connecting Higher Ed and K-12 that are far more comprehensive than any we now have. Racial and class divides are part of the problem, but so, too, are the profound administrative and systemic disconnects between educational domains and cultures. In my field, English, I’ve found that professors have little knowledge (and often little interest) in what students actually study in high school, while high-school educators crave content-based professional development opportunities that would allow them to share in and support the intellectual journey their students are making toward college -- but such opportunities are rare or, quite often, prohibitively priced.
Add to these challenges the filtering model we use in the U.S. for college admissions -- and the cumbersome and inflexible systems for the awarding of credit at most universities -- and the moat between K-12 and college widens: millions of students fall in.
Far too much emphasis is placed on admission to elite schools. These schools accept only the smallest fraction of those ready for college, and admitted students who lack the preparation afforded their more privileged peers are sometimes stranded, expected to know how to succeed academically and socially without much, if any, institutional support. Nor are most elite schools set up to educate students beyond their traditional (and small) undergraduate and graduate populations: supplying the teaching assistants and even the technology to get large numbers of non-traditional learners registered for courses presents a real challenge.
I piloted Poetry in America: The City from Whitman to Hip Hop for high-school students at Harvard in 2019, developing its syllabus out of the same content I'd taught for 35 years at Penn and Harvard. But offering this course to high-schoolers at scale required the innovative infrastructure of a public institution, Arizona State University, which has made a pillar of its mission the bridging of that moat between college and high school.
Those institutions and programs that prepare themselves to meet learners’ needs -- not the other way around -- and that invest in the technologies and personnel needed to serve the many -- not the few -- will be the ones to lead the way toward greater equity and access.
Founder and Director, Poetry in America
Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature, Harvard University