Friday, April 10, 2009

Going to college

This post got me thinking about why high school graduation tests don't align with college admissions. Just to be clear up front, I am talking primarily about open-access institutions such as community colleges.

One obvious reason is that the K-12 education and public higher education are overseen by different bodies (except at times in Florida) and have different groups of policy-makers. And one of the most frightening specters to anyone in higher ed is the idea of being as highly regulated as K-12 (because, you know, it works so well there). So talk of aligning standards elicits an almost knee-jerk reaction.

But the other reason there isn't alignment is a deep-seated belief on the part of plenty of people that just graduating from high school isn't sufficient preparation for college. I found this belief lurking inside of me. It's a little voice that says, "Geez, anyone who barely passed algebra and took the lowest-level of courses offered with mediocre grades, do you expect them to be able to do college-level work?" Leaving aside special education programs for students with serious disabilities, which I think constitute a special case, why shouldn't a high school diploma guarantee college readiness? - in theory.

I'm not entirely comfortable with this reaction, and I'm trying to decide how much of it is a simple recognition of the status quo and how much of it is an argument that college entrance ought to have a higher bar than a high school diploma. Bringing this sentiment out into the cold light of day where I can look at it makes it squirm a little and say, "Um, I'm just talking the status quo. Never mind me."

But at the end of the day, while I do believe in greatly expanded college access and deplore the connection between socio-economic status and educational achievement, I really don't believe that everyone ought to go to college. Some people aren't smart enough, some people don't enjoy it, and some jobs don't require it.

And if graduating from high school equals the ability to do college-level work, than some people just won't be able to graduate high school. Yet we've decided as a society that a high school diploma is a personal and societal necessity; anything less than a 100% graduation rate is failure. But if I believe all this, it leads to the inevitable conclusion that a high school diploma should not be considered sufficient preparation for college.

Practically speaking, maybe we need a system like the Brits where diplomas are given by levels. At the moment, however, I'm less interested in thinking of a solution to the corner I've boxed myself into than in the discomfort I feel with my own assumptions. I often believe entirely incompatible things, but usually I'm OK with that.

P.S. Here's a totally different response.


Rebecca said...

Somewhere along the line the move from high school to college became just like the move from elementary school to middle school in the minds of most of the public. It is seen as a rational next step, not a leap over a chasm.

Yet not all high school degrees are created equal, even in the same school. Ever guidance counselor will send some kids toward the unofficial "pre-college" track while others will be sent off on a less rigorous journey or one filled with more vocational courses. My brother has a diploma from the same high school where I got mine but at no time in our lives would people have said those are the same degree.

I've started to wonder how much of the difference is related to the fact that, once you get past basic arithmatic and reading, we as a society no longer agree that everyone should have to meet the same standard. 8th grade is still the end of what we agree everyone has to know, and beyond that high school starts to splinter. (Before that tracking is more about speed than difficulty.) The confusion comes in with the fact that the work is different but the degree mostly looks the same.

I think I agree with you - the british levels system has some merit. But in a country where credential inflation has become such an issue I don't know if we can ever get back to that model.

Shennen Dean said...

Undereducated people are so much fun to be around that I purposely choose jobs well below my ability so that I can hang out with them. After all, four years of school is all that one needs after high school to join the ever growing pool of people who actually know a little something. Considering two of those are much like high school and two are like trade school, what exactly is the point of a college education anyway?

If you look at the statistics, more education = more money. If you look around you in undergrad school, you quickly learn that even in difficult programs like psychobiology, all men are not created equal.

As to college readiness, some high schools are excellent and it is odd that you would malign them as I am sure you are aware that we actually attended pretty decent schools. Teachers only need a BA to teach, so what do you expect from them? At least they get trained on how to teach to some degree. I am convinced professors should be subjected to at least the same amount of teaching training as public school teachers.

Everyone should be able to attend school as long as they are making progress.

For a guy who got his GED and went to college, was then dismissed, and is now in a doctoral program, I find it hard to believe that the papers you have to show whether you are ready for college means anything at all.

turducken said...

As to your last point, Shennen, the anecdotal may be a good antidote to an overreliance on statistics, but it does not obviate them. In the aggregate, high school grades provide the best predictor we have for college grades. Certainly some students will beat the odds (in either direction) and the one outstanding characteristic of the American system is that they are given the opportunity to do so. That does not negate the fact that if one is the president of a community college, one must either anticipate a high dropout rate or add remedial and other interventionist courses (and good luck getting the funding to do that).

I'm not sure at what point I was maligning schools in my original post. As you say, some schools are excellent. Some, however, are not. I lived for two years in Indianapolis, where the graduation rate for IPS is 30%. Not good, right? But as Rebecca points out, talking about school quality as uniform is highly problematic, because quality can vary dramatically within a school. I don't think there is anything novel in this paragraph. Is this unfairly slandering schools in any way?

And I would entirely agree that college professors ought to be taught to teach, and that most of the time they are not.

More broadly, the problem with talking about what ought to be at the college level is that questions of is, ought, and feasibility began to clash. I think we can agree that at birth there are varying levels of ability; some people are born with profound cognitive disabilities, for example. However, for most people their subsequent socialization at home and then at school does a great deal to form their abilities and attitudes. By the time they reach college, if they do, the college has to deal with the fact that some are better able to pass freshmen comp than others, and some are more willing to pass freshmen comp than others. If student Y is not passing freshmen comp, this opens up a wide range of options and remedies, only some of which are available to, variously, the student, the professor, the college president, or the policy maker.

The other thing I would like to make clear is that when I talk about "college for all," I am referring to the movement that says college ought to be mandatory. To say that I do not agree does not mean that I therefore believe that anyone should be barred from college. "Everyone should be able to attend school as long as they are making progress," you say, and I have absolutely no quarrel with that. The reasons I disagree with college for all would be a very long post in and of itself, but it boils down to a) credential inflation means that the reason some college jobs pay more than high school jobs is because employers are able to require college diplomas for what were formerly the best-paying h.s. jobs, and b) we have no business making any self-pay system mandatory, whether in law or simply in order to have a decent life.

Shennen Dean said...

My dear friend Eve,

I think we agree completely and you've hit the mark in many places. I too believe that the inflation of education has gone too far, but on the other hand, I can't help but thin that perhaps k-12 isn't enough. Didn't the fact that Bush was elected twice prove that? I realize there is a fallacy in that argument, but as we say here in the south, "Can I get a witness?"

Should we have colleges for the mentally handicapped? Hmmm I am belly laughing but there is a sort of truthiness unveiled here.

Let us keep in mind however, only approximately 1% of the population has doctoral degrees, so the idea of inflation beyond the basics is unlikely.

I can't recall exactly where you maligned schools and it's not that important to the discussion. As a public school teacher, I am obliged to defend schools I suppose, but can you recall what kind of student I was? I am tickled pink that someone I perceived as being much more intelligent than me has not outpaced me (there's no competition here), and that on top of our very different economic backgrounds furthers my belief that only personal determination matters. The system, despite its quirks, does allow opportunity for all even if it doesn't pay for it.

Let's do coffee. My state or yours? Call me sometime and stop being strange.

Shennen Dean said...

PS - On Rebecca's statements... I too have thought that it is kind of a logical mistake to think that one should naturally move from high school to college as a natural transition. In our schools it is a mantra. I often tell students and parents alike that one does not need to go to college to be successful. To add sauce to this meat, I argued in a class the other night that one need not obtain IRB in order to do research and that a researcher does not need to be in a doctoral program at all to conduct research. Who died and made universities the guards of research? If I want to be a backyard researcher, who is to stop me short of gross infringement on other people's rights? But I digress, often.

The response to why every student has to be prepared for the opportunity to attend college is a result of the global competition. Would it be awful if everyone went to and attended college? Would it be impossible to find ways to determine if the quality of one degree was better than another? If not better, shouldn't we consider them as simply different?

I also believe that No Child Left Behind is an argument that "8th grade is still the end of what we agree everyone has to know."

What I would suggest however is that we stop teaching so much by grade level and start emphasizing teaching based on achievement level. Unfortunately, we have a legal mess between those concepts.