Universal college, but what about readiness?

President Obama wants to make the first two years of college just like high school. Free, that is.

Robert Fusco teaches division in a remedial math class at a New Jersey community college. (Photo by Elizabeth Redden)

Robert Fusco teaches division in a remedial math class at a New Jersey community college. (Photo by Elizabeth Redden)

“It seems that we can’t fix our high schools, which already send hundreds of thousands of graduates into remedial courses at community (and other) colleges,” writes Checker Finn. Adding two more years of universal education is “nuts.”

Community colleges are heavily subsidized, so tuition is low. In most states, Pell Grants cover the full cost of tuition for low-income students with money left over for books, rent and food.

The challenge isn’t access. It’s readiness—which is the precursor to successful completion of a degree or certificate from the community college. If you’re not prepared for college-level work when you arrive, the odds that you will succeed there are grim.

. . . (Universality) diverts resources and creates windfalls in ways that diminish the likelihood of ever solving the real problem.

Universality is “genius,” argues Richard Kahlenberg in The Atlantic. In Tennessee, almost 90 percent of graduating high school seniors have indicated interest in the state’s tuition-free community college plan, he writes.

The high interest suggests some middle-class and wealthy families whose children would have otherwise attended four-year colleges may be giving two-year institutions a second look. While some argue that free tuition for upper- and middle-class students is a waste of resources, in fact it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that community colleges are socioeconomically integrated.

Community colleges that serve middle- and upper-income students will gain the political capital to get more state funding, he argues.

The new segregation is socioeconomic

The New Segregation is a matter of social class, not race, argue Richard Kahlenberg and Carl Chancellor in the Washington Monthly.

Starting in 2000, Montgomery County, Maryland schools have spent an extra $2,000 per pupil in high-poverty schools. The money funds all-day kindergarten, smaller classes and teacher development.

In addition, zoning policies have placed some public housing in affluent areas.

Lower-income students in low-spending, low-poverty schools far outperformed similar students in high-spending, high-poverty schools, concluded a 2010 study by Heather Schwartz

. . .  public housing students attending low-poverty schools began to catch up with their well-to-do classmates—cutting in half the initial achievement gap in mathematics, for example. . . . Schwartz found that roughly two-thirds of the positive effect was attributable to attending a lower-poverty school, and one-third to living in a lower-poverty neighborhood.

We should put “money and energy into economic integration in schooling and housing,” they argue.

Inequality has destroyed a once-great black high school, writes Chancellor after a visit to his old school, Kennedy High, in Cleveland’s Lee-Miles neighborhood. “Four decades ago, Eagles were the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, small-business owners, and white-collar professionals, factory workers, civil servants, and skilled craftsmen.”

Graduation rates were high and a majority of graduates went to four-year colleges and universities. “In the school’s first decade, the Eagles won several statewide competitions in science, math, and music — along with a state track championship and two city football titles.”

Over time, middle-class blacks moved to the suburbs. The community declined. Kennedy now serves “economically disadvantaged” children; many are raised by single mothers. On the state report card, the high school earns straight F’s.

. . . at least 75 percent of students can’t pass the state test at the minimum level in any area: mathematics, reading, science, social studies, and writing. Equally dismal was the school’s four-year graduation rate of 50.2 percent—though that was a significant improvement over the rate in 2010, 38.9 percent.

A $3 million foundation grant is paying to divide Kennedy into three themed high schools. Chancellor is dubious. “Unless they find a way to change the school’s economic mix—by putting poor kids in classrooms with more-affluent students—I am afraid this latest reform experiment will also fail to meet expectations.”

Once middle-class families have abandoned a community or a school, what can be done?

New York City is losing upper-middle-class blacks and gaining upper-class white singles and low-income Latinos, according to a new report.

Making integration work

Is economic integration a feasible goal? By creating high-achieving schools in high-poverty areas, charter networks such as KIPP and Achievement First, derailed the debate on school segregation, writes Dana Goldstein. But Rhode Island is creating charter schools that mix urban and suburban students.

The Rhode Island Mayoral Academies (RIMA) model, authorized by state law in 2008, lets mayors of neighboring towns and cities create regional charter schools.

RIMA’s first school, Blackstone Valley Prep, is located in affluent Cumberland, but draws elementary and middle students from low-income Pawtucket and Central Falls as well as Lincoln, another well-off town. Fifty-five percent of the students are black and Latino, 65 percent are poor, and 43 percent are English Language Learners.

In its pedagogical methods, BVP is a traditional “no excuses ” charter, with uniforms, an extended learning day, and privately-funded extras, including free breakfast and a gorgeous, newly renovated building. Administrators and teachers greet students each morning with a handshake and eye contact, the kids are expected to line up and walk through the hallways in silence, and there are songs and chants to help the students memorize their multiplication tables and phonics principles. Standardized test gains and scores are impressive.

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BVP kindergartners and first-graders “get their wiggles out” after their daily breakfast and morning meeting.

The no-excuses model doesn’t always attract middle-class and affluent parents, Goldstein writes. But there are 299 Cumberland and Lincoln students signed up for BVP’s next lottery as well as 431 Pawtucket and Central Falls students. That should boost the percentage of middle-class students.

RIMA is awaiting approval of five new regional charter schools in a partnership between Providence and the town of Cranston.

Goldstein also visited troubled Central Falls High, a failing school in a failing  town. New leaders are trying to change the school culture, she writes, but it’s hard when the teachers are demoralized after last year’s mass firings. Discipline remains a problem.

“The kids, when they’re here, need to know this is a place of learning,” (math teacher Anthony) Kulla said. “Right now they don’t.”

Central Falls High students are predominantly low-income and Hispanic.

‘Toxic’ transfers

High-poverty schools are bound to fail because good teachers don’t want to teach in “toxic concentrations of poverty” with low expectations and less parent involvement, writes New York Times columnist Bob Herbert.

If you really want to improve the education of poor children, you have to get them away from learning environments that are smothered by poverty.

A Century Foundation study in Montgomery County, Maryland, showed that low-income students enrolled in affluent elementary schools outperformed  similarly low-income students in higher-poverty schools, Herbert writes.

Studies have shown that it is not the race of the students that is significant, but rather the improved all-around environment of schools with better teachers, fewer classroom disruptions, pupils who are more engaged academically, parents who are more involved, and so on. The poorer students benefit from the more affluent environment.

However, economic integration requires racial and ethnic integration, which “provokes bitter resistance,” Herbert claims. Despite our claims to be a “postracial” society, middle-class whites don’t want blacks and Hispanics to transfer in to suburban schools. (Why would they welcome “toxic” transfers?)

Herbert is confused about the meaning of  “postracial,” writes Liam Julian on Flypaper.

There’s a practical problem with economic integration: Too many poor kids. The Montgomery County study found low-income students learned more in schools in which no more than 20 percent of students qualified for a subsidized lunch; the benefits vanished when 35 percent of students came from low-income families. “Nationally, 41% of American students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches,” Sara Mead writes.

We can’t solve our problems by trying to bus all the poor kids to the suburbs. The challenge is to create healthy, education-valuing school cultures in poor neighborhoods. My book is about a school that’s done that. I also recommend Samuel Casey Carter’s new book, On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Character.