Tell the truth about college readiness

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“Sam” earned mostly B’s at Average High. Is he/she/they prepared to pass college classes? Maybe, if the B’s were for achievement rather than effort and teachers’ standards were high enough. Maybe not.

U.S. schools don’t tell students the truth about college readiness, writes Chester E. Finn, Jr., former Fordham chief and assistant U.S. secretary of education, in National Affairs.

Then colleges admit unprepared students who require remedial classes. Most will “leave school with nothing but debt and disillusion,” writes Finn.

Ambition and optimism are laudable traits. So is this country’s long tradition as a place of second chances, a land where you can always start over, compensate for past mistakes, choose a new direction, and find the educational path that takes you there. But at a certain point, encouragement becomes damaging.

Nearly all high school students say they want to go to college. They know that college graduates do far better in the workforce than those with only a high school diploma. But don’t realize they’re not prepared to earn a degree.

. . . our K-12 education system has never gotten more than one-third of young Americans to the “college-ready” level by the end of the 12th grade. Twenty percent drop out before finishing high school, and of the rest only about two in five graduate with the reading and math skills that equip them to take credit-bearing college courses.

If colleges stopped admitting unprepared students — or the feds linked student aid to college readiness — people would be very, very angry, Finn writes. But what if it were possible?

We’d see greater seriousness about academic standards and achievement throughout the system and a lot more truth-telling. Fewer people would drop out of college, dejected and burdened by loans they cannot realistically pay back. More young Americans would truly be prepared for good jobs, economic success, upward mobility, and full participation in 21st-century life in a post-industrial economy. The country would be more competitive, too.

The money saved could go to high-quality technical education, he writes. Instead of  “college for all,” the mantra should be “honesty is the best policy.”

While elite students are loaded up with AP courses, most U.S.  high school students are learning less in high school, writes Marc Tucker.  They go to open-admissions colleges “with little more than middle school knowledge and literacy,” well below what it takes to earn a degree or go on to “attain a middle-class standard of living.”

Raising standards requires persuading parents that “their children have more to fear from standards that are too low than from standards that are too high,” Tucker writes. “Therein lies the core challenge for education leaders in the years ahead.”

Include working-class whites in ed reform

Image result for white "working class" american familiesTrump supporters recite the Pledge of Allegiance at a June campaign rally in Redding, California. Photo: Stephen Lam/Reuters

By framing education as the “civil rights issue of our time” and focusing on the racial achievement gap, reformers “tacitly made education reform a race-based endeavor,” Robert Pondiscio wrote last year. There’s been much praise for inner-city charters for black and Hispanic students, little attention to small-town schools that educate (or fail to educate) white working-class kids.

Pondiscio didn’t think Trump would win. But he saw the people who might be drawn to Trump.

There are about twice as many non-Hispanic whites as blacks living below 150 percent of the poverty line in the U.S.

. . . Keen observers like Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart warned us that we are becoming a nation divided less by race than class. Births out of wedlock, crime and joblessness are not uniquely inner city problems. They are almost as prevalent in Murray’s “Fishtown.” As work disappears, physical disability claims have skyrocketed by millions, creating a new economic underclass helpfully absent from sunny unemployment figures.

“If education reform truly is the civil rights struggle of our time, it’s time once again to widen the definition of rights-at-risk to include working class white people too,” wrote Pondiscio.

I’d like to see a serious push for high-quality career-tech education linking high schools to community colleges to employers. Two-thirds of young Americans do not earn bachelor’s degrees; a majority won’t earn any college credential. They need more than college-failure prep.

Go to high school, learn a trade

Lance Cohen uses a cutting wheel to shorten a piece of ductwork as Dulaney High classmates (left to right) Zach Iacoboni and Xavier Engleton watch. Photo: Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun

At Baltimore County’s Dulaney High, students can learn a skilled trade, reports Jonathan Pitts in the Baltimore Sun. Students can go on to become heating, ventilation and air-conditioning technicians, a high-paying and booming field that doesn’t require a college degree.

“It’s satisfying to be able to diagnose problems, develop a plan and carry the plan to completion,” says Hailey Brennan, 16, who plans to become a mechanical engineer. The junior already is a certified air-conditioning technician.

Jamie Gaskin’s students design and build an air-conditioning system each year for a classroom.

They break into three groups: one to measure and cut sheet metal for a duct system, one to make and hang the ducts overhead, a third to shape, connect and install the five-eighths-inch copper tubing that will carry the refrigerants.

Senior Zach O’Neill brings Gaskin a length of pipe he’s trying to bend to 90 degrees.

Gripping it in a clamp and twisting hard, the teacher shows him how to create the crook without leaving too much ribbing in the metal.

“Harder than it looks — thanks,” O’Neill says, and lumbers off.

At the end of the school year, Gaskin “coordinates meetings between his HVAC students and representatives from about a dozen local businesses.”

Meritocracy’s losers: No degree, no respect

Horatio Alger stories spread the belief that anyone can succeed, if they work hard enough. Educational elitism marks the modern U.S. economy, writes Victor Tan Chen in The Atlantic. College-educated winners scorn working-class Americans as “as lazy, untalented, uneducated, and unsophisticated.” A Virginia Commonwealth sociology professor, he’s the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy. 

Our culture is an extreme meritocracy, writes Chen. We believe anyone can “make it” in America. It follows that those who don’t succeed deserve their low status.

“The well-educated and well-off who live in or near big cities tend to endorse the notion, explicitly or implicitly, that education determines a person’s value,” writes Chen.

More so than in other rich nations, like Germany and Japan, which have prioritized vocational training to a greater degree, a college degree has become the true mark of individual success in America . . .

For his book, Chen interviewed laid-off auto workers, all former union members, who shared the view that the educated deserved to live better than the uneducated. Yet, “two-thirds of Americans age 25 and over do not have a bachelor’s degree,” he writes.

The labor market has become more polarized, as highly paid jobs for workers with middling levels of education and skill dwindle away. And as many have argued, advances in artificial intelligence threaten a net loss of employment (even for the well-educated) in the not-so-far-off future.

A new government report warns automation will increase demand for high-level technical skills — and decrease demand for routine skills.

Fordham’s Mike Petrilli calls this the great “coming apart.” Educational attainment (or the lack of it) is “the new dividing line.”

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He suspects “that a college education is simply a marker — of people who were lucky to be born into relative affluence and the stable homes that generally accompany it; of individuals with the ‘soft skills’ that allow them to persevere in their educations, but also—when they’re so disposed—in their jobs, even in their marriages.”

Some countries — Singapore, Switzerland, Germany — offer high-quality career and technical education linked to apprenticeships and jobs, he writes. The U.S. pushed a “bachelor degree or bust” strategy, writes Petrilli.  “The number of bachelor degrees has increased a bit, but the size of the ‘bust’ is much, much larger.”

As 64% take ACT, scores fall

ACT scores are dropping as more students — 64 percent of 12th graders — take the exam. Some states require the ACT, even for students who aren’t planning to enroll in college.

Only 38 percent of test takers tested as college ready in at least three of the four subject areas (English, math, reading and science). Thirty-four percent are not prepared to pass entry-level college courses in any subject, according to ACT.

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“While 60 percent of Asian American students and 49 percent of white students showed strong readiness for college coursework, meeting three or more of the ACT benchmarks, just 23 percent of Hispanic students and only 11 percent of African American students earned that same level of achievement,” ACT reports.

Most community college students believe — incorrectly — that they’re prepared for college, according to a study by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) at the University of Texas at Austin.

While 86 percent of new students believe they are academically prepared, 68 percent take at least one remedial class.

Sixty-one percent think they’ll earn a certificate or degree in two years or less. Only 39 percent of first-time, full-time community college students earn a credential in six years, reports the National Student Clearinghouse.

LA’s 75% grad rate: What do kids know?

A “credit-recovery binge” helped Los Angeles Unified raise its graduation rate to 75 percent — while requiring all students to pass college-prep courses, reports the LA Times. Are credit-recovery graduates prepared for college, jobs or anything else?

“When we see kids completing three years of high school in a year through credit recovery, that should raise alarms,” said Pedro Noguera, director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of School Transformation.

The district can’t track how those students earned diplomas, reports the Times.

In some cases, students were allowed to make up work to change recorded grades. All records of the prior grade then disappeared from the district’s central data system, according to school site administrators, making it difficult to track such remediation in order to be fully accountable.

This year, graduates had to earn D’s or better in a college-prep sequence known as A-G that includes Algebra II, two years of foreign language and a year of a college-preparatory elective such as geography or statistics, reports the Times.

“We know 100% of all kids can graduate fully passing the A to G,” said Steve Zimmer, the school board president. (State universities don’t accept grades lower than C in A-G courses.)

Even before the credit-recovery push, many Los Angeles Unified graduates found themselves in remedial classes in college, Noguera pointed out.

College for all is a mistake, writes Walt Gardner, who taught in Los Angeles Unified for 28 years. Many of his former students “who gained skills through high school vocational courses or through certificate programs in community colleges are steadily making a good living working with their hands,” he writes. “In contrast, some former students with a bachelor’s degree have been underemployed for protracted periods of time, all the while struggling to pay off their student debt.”

College degree or competence test?

udacitybillboardUdacity guarantees its “Nanodegree” will lead to a job within six months.

“Alternatives to traditional college diplomas,” such as competence tests, would let students “pursue their own best options for learning” and  “demonstrate educational mastery to prospective employers,” says a new report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Colleges would have to cut costs to compete.

“Even as IT and the Internet have created new ways to research, learn, and impart knowledge,” colleges have no incentive to innovate, the think tank observes. Helping students learn outside the classroom “would cut into their revenue.” Raising standards might “drive away customers.”

Students meanwhile have little incentive to push themselves harder than necessary to earn their degrees, since degrees are opaque, deriving their value from institutional brands rather than clear measures of academic achievement.

The report goes beyond “attempts by the Lumina Foundation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the Measuring College Learning project and other reform-minded players to determine the right competencies or desired learning outcomes for academic disciplines or degree tracks,” reports Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed.

The think tank calls for the federal government to encourage “standardized assessments from outside groups, not colleges or other education providers,” to measure learning normally certified by a college degree.

And those assessments should not discriminate based on where a student achieved the necessary proficiency, whether through learning on the job, by taking MOOCs, studying on their own or by attending a four-year university or a community college.

When  hiring, federal agencies should require proof of competence, not degrees, the report said. Student aid should include alternative learning options, such as MOOCs.

Glenn Reynolds wraps up the case against college for all: Most students won’t learn much and many won’t find jobs that use their degrees, he writes. Meanwhile, tuition and debt keep rising.

Udacity’s online Nanodegree comes with a job guarantee: Find work within six months or get your money back. Students pay $299 a month to qualify as an “Android Developer,” “iOS Developer,” “Machine Learning Engineer” or “Senior Web Developer.”

In prison — and in college

Some prison inmates will receive federal college aid under the $30 million Second Chance Pell Grant program.

Under a pilot program, 12,000 inmates at 141 state and federal institutions will receive grants worth up to $5,815 to pursue a two- or four-year degree from an approved college or university,  reports USA Today.

The 1994 crime bill explicitly banned giving Pell aid to prisoners. Secretary of Education John King is using “experimentation authority under the Higher Education Act” to evade the ban.

Donald Daniels, who spent the last 29 years in and out of prison, is now an A student at his California prison's school. Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Pro Photography Network

Donald Daniels, who spent the last 29 years in and out of prison, is now an A student at his California prison’s school. Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Pro Photography Network

The program is focused on prisoners likely to be released — and job hunting — within five years, reports Inside Higher Ed.  “Most of the colleges chosen will offer classes in person at the correctional facilities, while some will offer online classes.” In addition,  many “plan to offer a range of support services and tailor their instruction to local labor markets.”

Many of the 67 participating colleges are community colleges with expertise in job training, but others are universities such as Rutgers and Ashland University (Ohio) with experience in correctional education.

“Inmates who participate in any kind of educational program behind bars—from remedial math to vocational auto shop to college-level courses—are up to 43 percent less likely to reoffend and return to prison,” according to a 2013 RAND study. “They also appear to be far more likely to find a job after their release, and the social stability that comes with it.”

Every dollar invested in correctional education saves nearly five dollars, RAND concluded, by keeping former inmates out of prison.

Two-thirds of prison inmates are high school dropouts and many are illiterate. But they’ve got plenty of time to study. Online education makes it more feasible to educate prisoners.

From special ed to the workforce


Kelly Custer teaches horticulture students at River Terrace Special Education Center in Washington, D.C. Photo: Grey Korhonen/Atlantic

After years of “inclusion,” only two-thirds of special-ed students earn a regular high school diploma. Those with intellectual or developmental disabilities are even less likely to complete high school. As adults, most are unemployed or underemployed.

Now, “specialized workforce academies for students with intellectual/developmental disabilities are growing in popularity,” reports Alia Wong in The Atlantic.

At the River Terrace Special Education Center in Washington, D.C., mentally retarded students who’ve completed a mainstream high school train for jobs in plant care, hospitals and hotels.

When they’re in the classroom, students learn soft skills—What does it mean to have a job? How do you keep a job? How do you deposit a paycheck?—and practice their work tasks in retrofitted classrooms. (Students in the hospitality track, for example, learn how to prepare a basic meal, make a bed, clean a bathroom, and load a laundry cart in a room that’s equipped with a bed, a hotel-like bathroom, a washing machine, a dining table, and more.) But students spend most of their days doing internships in their respective industries, all of which are paid.

Adrian Bland tried various jobs at Embassy Suites — housekeeping, laundry attendant, dishwasher and door person — before deciding she likes to be a porter. A June graduate, she’s been hired for a permanent job.

Jannika Napper works at a VA hospital

Jannika Napper works at a VA hospital, where she washes tables, stacks trays, restocks the food court and other tasks.

“Many of [my students] have experienced school as a place where, academically, they’re left out,” said Kelly Custer, who teaches in the horticulture track. “In previous experiences they were the ones that were doing very poorly in class; now, they’re getting 100s in their classwork, and you can see . . .  it changes their confidence—and that spills over to the worksite.”

Workforce academies are controversial, writes Wong. Some critics value inclusion above all. Others complain “the programs pigeonhole severely disabled students into a vocational path and as a result never encourage them to consider college.”

Some colleges offer special programs for intellectually disabled students, she writes. However, these focus on social skills, not preparing students for jobs they might be able to do as well as anyone.

Some River Terrace students have exited 13+ years of mainstreaming without having learned how to read. Half didn’t complete their year-long program this year and only five got permanent jobs. Should they rest consider college?

Most young adults with significant disabilities can work in non-sheltered jobs, according to the Collaboration To Promote Self-Determination.

Job training doesn’t require college skills

Students don’t need college-level academic skills to learn marketable job skills, write Northwestern researchers James Rosenbaum and Caitlin Ahearn.

Occupational certificates require 8th to 10th grade-level math and English, according to community college faculty in California and Illinois.

Pump operators with a certificate earn good money.

Pump operators with a certificate earn good money.

A Cisco Certified Network Associate starts at at $45,600 in Florida, they report. Pump operators who’ve earned a certificate are in high demand: 92 percent are employed at an average wage of $56,196. Paramedics and practical nurses also do well with a certificate, but no degree.

Florida’s College and Career Readiness Initiative informs 11th graders if they’re on track for college-level courses, giving them time to remediate in 12th grade, they write. However, it “targets college readiness exclusively, and assumes that the same standards apply to occupational tracks.” Students and teachers have no idea there are community college programs that will admit less-prepared students and train them in marketable skills.