6.9.06

FINDING THE MARGINAL BENEFITS. The New York Times discovers that sometimes college is the new middle school.
Along a wall is a rack of handouts explaining points of grammar that might have last been explicitly taught in middle school, a measure of the immense ground to be made up. One covers comparative adjectives, explaining “more” vs. “most” or “smarter” vs. “smartest.” Another discusses using pronouns and verb tenses.
Two very different essays have reacted to this article, which I have deliberately cherry-picked for the worst news first.

The dean at Anonymous Community offers some observations on the necessary evils of remediation from the perspective of a remediation provider, as well as the potential for an incorrect remedy.

After a considerable amount of back-and-forth with the department, the high school, and the testing center, I think I've located the gap. We test different skills. The high school defines 'good writing' as error-free prose. The college defines 'good writing' as 'sustaining an argument.' So the high school kids take our essay exam and write “See Spot run,” which got them accolades in high school; they place remedial with us, and get terribly upset.

My concern there is that with the current push for some sort of standardized national outcomes assessment test, we'll move to the high school model. It's easier to count errors 'objectively' than to assess the weight of an argument, so I'm worried that, in the name of uniformity, we'll move to error-counting. “See Spot run” will become exemplary.

I submit, however, that he's placing the blame for the toleration of poor work in the wrong place.

On a more mundane administrative level, the article highlights the glaring flaw in the move to define higher education as a private good. To the extent that cc's and other less-selective public colleges are forced to become more tuition-driven, it becomes harder for us to deliver bad news to students. If a student marches out the door upon being told he needs remediation – a fairly common occurrence, in fact – then the institution shoots itself in the foot financially by doing the right thing. At my previous employer, a for-profit, the bar for remediation was set so low that almost nobody was placed into it, despite some glaring skills deficits. That was a policy decision set to ensure that we didn't blow the sale when a student came to enroll.

When public colleges got smaller percentages of their budgets from tuition, it was easier to hold the line on these issues. As the public sector has shifted its funding to prisons and tax cuts, we've had to rely more on tuition, making the temptation to lower the standards much more compelling. If we're serious about fixing skills deficits, we have to stop punishing the colleges that actually try.

I disagree. The strategy of pursuing short-term tuition revenues by lax standards comes undone when those graduates write a "See Spot run" cover letter on a resume (or, worse, send "can u give me a job?" as a cover letter.) When the employers quit showing up at the job fairs or sending recruiters, the self-esteem game is over. Sorry to sound like a broken record. It is time for the mid-majors and the community colleges to stop apologizing for higher tuitions and recognize that their talk of access and accommodation simply gives promising students more reason to get sucked into the U.S. News driven positional arms race. (I'm beginning to suspect that the U.S. has precisely the wrong kind of excess capacity in higher education: inefficiently much College Lite and inefficiently little Rigorous Learning.)

The dean's conclusion is one that conflates marginal with total spillover benefits.
In this, as in so many things, defining a public good (an educated citizenry) as a private good (a credential for making more money) works fine for those at the top, but screws over those at the bottom. Thanks to the Times for noticing the existence of the bottom. Any time it would like to bother doing some actual analysis, that would be great.
What the article suggests is a failure of somebody (the common schools? the prisons? the churches?) to produce the genuine public good, life management skills, which both the dean ("The article acknowledges that many college students arrive with serious skills deficits, outside jobs, and family obligations. Some may never have made it through a serious book cover-to-cover; some may have only the foggiest grasp of algebra") and the article ("Two or three students in a class of 10 women carried most of the discussion, which seemed more like Ricky Lake than Lit 101, with students reacting to the film almost exclusively in terms of their personal experiences.") gloss over.

An American Thinker article asks some of the same questions I do.
There is a similar concern for the fitness of things in Schemo’s report on education problems. It does not seem to occur to her to wonder, let alone ask tough questions, about the national problem with remedial courses. How could the young man not know that he was unprepared for college-level math? And how could the folks at his Maryland public high school not have advised him? Did they not know that their graduates were being forced into remedial courses? And weren’t they doing something about it?

Isn’t there maybe something really wrong with an education system that allows this problem to develop and then allows it to fester?
His perspective on the changes to come is different.
But what if they are missing the point? What if the institution of work for cash wages—the common form of employment since the industrial revolution—is now in its decline, and that people must now offer their services to the market on a different basis?

What if they are missing the point on education as well? In the past generation we have doubled the inflation-adjusted monetary input into K-12 education, yet the positive effect as expressed in tests like the SAT has been less than zero. Could this be telling us something?

Two centuries ago the industrial revolution transformed the world of work for the common people and the elites of the world decided that every boy and girl should go to school. Perhaps the information revolution will do the same, and provoke an utter transformation in the world of work.
A Robert Samuelson column (via Betsy's Page) attempts to square the circle, suggesting that a mugging by reality often motivates people to continue their education.

Up to a point, you can complain that this system is hugely wasteful. We're often teaching kids in college what they should have learned in high school -- and in graduate school what they might have learned in college. Some of the enthusiasm for more degrees is crass credentialism. Some trade schools prey cynically on students' hopes and spawn disappointment. But these legitimate objections miss the larger point: The American learning system accommodates people's ambitions and energies -- when they emerge -- and helps compensate for some of the defects of the school system.

In Charlotte, about 70 percent of the recent high school graduates at Central Piedmont Community College need remedial work in English or math. Zeiss thinks his college often succeeds where high schools fail. Why? High school graduates "go out in the world and see they have no skills," he says. "They're more motivated." The mixing of older and younger students also helps; the older students are more serious and focused.

But despite Mr Samuelson's enthusiasm for spontaneous order, he sees inefficiently much reliance on Reality Check.
This fragmented and mostly unplanned learning system is a messy mix of government programs and private business. In some ways it compares favorably to other countries' more controlled governmental systems. Of course, that isn't an excuse for not trying to improve our schools. We would certainly be better off if more students performed better.
Is "performed better" the outcome of Habits of Highly Effective People that can be learned starting in kindergarten?

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