A black graduate asks: Why do so few make it?

Jamaal Abdul-alim earned a journalism degree at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Jamaal Abdul-AlimHe returned, writing for the Washington Monthly, to ask why only 19 percent of black students complete a degree in six years, half the rate for the university as a whole. Why did he make it when so many fail?

UWM admits more than 90 percent of applicants, but its graduation rates are low compared to other nonselective universities, he writes. Bowling Green State University in Ohio, which admits 80 percent of students, graduates 50 percent of black students within six years.  Nationally, the black graduation rate is 31.2 percent.

Abdul-alim had one huge advantage over most of his black classmates: “strong familial and financial support.”

 My father . . . worked for Wisconsin Bell . . . From the earliest days of my childhood, I remember my father talking about the need for me to “go further” than he did educationally, how he enrolled in a technical college once but was distracted by wanting to hang out with his buddies in a pool hall in his hometown.

My mother, a woman of Polish descent from Milwaukee’s South Side, investigated insurance claims for Blue Cross Blue Shield. She was always taking me on trips to museums and the like and exposed me to a wide variety of books, such as Manchild in the Promised Land, which she required her only son to read once he started to veer toward trouble in school and in the streets. I had my own desk and shelves full of books for as far back as I can remember. My parents earned enough to invest in a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica for me back when encyclopedia salesmen still went door to door.

Still, his predominantly black high school didn’t demand much of students. He transferred to a predominantly white high school to get a better education, but “couldn’t hack” the rigor and transferred back.

At UWM, he barely passed remedial algebra, then failed college-level algebra three times, before passing an intensive summer course at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC).

Math is a significant barrier to black students at UWM, Abdul-alim found. He met a young newspaper reporter who completed a journalism degree — except for the math requirement. While she tries to pass math, she’s starting to make payments on $34,000 in student loan debt.

Weak academic preparation isn’t the only problem, black students told Abdul-alim. Some said they lacked focus, discipline and career goals.

Lester Kern Jr., a dreadlocked 23-year-old psychology major, started in spring of 2008 but was still a junior five years later. “I was partying too much for my first two semesters,” Kern said. “The biggest factor for why I didn’t do well is I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I figured there was no big goal I was working toward so I felt if I messed up, no big deal.”

Abdul-alim decided in high school that he wanted to be a journalist. He worked part-time for the Milwaukee Sentinel, whose editor said he wouldn’t hire him full-time without a bachelor’s degree.

He meets Nick Robinson, a black graduate who’s an architect. The son of an engineer and a court reporter he had “a very strong intellectual base” that others lack, he said. “They don’t understand that concept of, if you want something go get it. They think it’s some mystery. Like it has to work out in the universe. No, you put it in the universe.”

It’s not clear why UWM’s black graduation rate is so much lower than at other nonselective universities. The university is working on improving remedial math, writes Abdul-alim. Academic advising for black students (aka “segregated” advising) has moved to the center of campus. But nobody’s gone to Bowling Green to see how they do it.

To be employable, study philosophy

Would-be journalists (and others) who want to be employable should avoid journalism programs and study philosophy, advises Shannon Rupp, a Canadian journalist, in Salon. She majored in political science and English, but also took philosophy classes that taught “something applicable to any and every job: clarity of thought.”

While “vague, trendy subjects” go out of fashion, philosophy stays relevant, writes Rupp. The University of Windsor is closing its Centre for Studies in Social Justice, possibly because “no one can actually define ‘social justice’.”

. . .  the importance of defining terms to ensure we all mean the same thing when we’re talking is one of those skills I picked up in philosophy.

I spent a semester defining ordinary things. Hats. Chairs. It’s harder than it looks. And I remember a classmate’s resistance to it. He kept ranting that it was stupid — everyone knows what a chair is! — before dropping out.

Of course, everyone only thinks she knows what a chair is. Or social justice, for that matter. Politicians, CEOs of questionable ethics, and all PR people count on exactly that. They will say something vague — I find the buzzwords du jour all seem to have some reference to “social” in them — and leave us to fill in the blanks with whatever pleases us.

Voila: we hear whatever we want and they get away with whatever they want.

Epistemology — the study of what we can know — teaches how to distinguish beliefs from facts, Rupp writes. Many people confuse the two.

The philosophy of science teaches about objectivity, which journalists often confuse with “being fair or denying personal bias.”

As newspapers began introducing advertorial copy and advertiser-driven sections, they retrained their staff to talk about “balance” instead of objectivity. As if printing opposing opinions somehow makes up for running half-truths.

What objectivity really means is to test for accuracy — regardless of what you suspect (or hope) might be true. In science they test knowledge by trying to poke holes in each other’s research. News reporters were taught a variation summed up by the cliché, “If someone tells you it’s raining, look out the window.”

The version I’ve heard is: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

Teaching “critical thinking” (as opposed to uncritical thinking?) is all the rage these days. Should K-12 teachers study philosophy?

Urban high schools lose newspapers

Urban high school newspapers are folding, reports the New York Times. Fewer than one in eight of New York City’s public high schools reported having a newspaper or print journalism class and many of the surviving newspapers publish only a few times a year.  Some exist as online publications or blogs.

Nationally, nearly two-thirds of public high schools have newspapers, according to a 2011 media study, but urban, high-minority schools are the least likely to have a newspaper.

Even the World Journalism Preparatory School, a public school in Queens that teaches its 600 students to use journalism skills to explore the world around them, has struggled to find a way to support the school paper, an experience the principal said provided a valuable real-world lesson about the industry. This year, the school eliminated financing for the paper after repeatedly telling students that it could not afford to indefinitely pay $10,000 a year to print it. The students, after failing to sell ads, opted for an online paper.

As funding is shifted to college-prep classes, school newspapers are turning to bake sales and PTA appeals to stay afloat.

In the Bronx, The Clinton News has published though the Great Depression, two world wars, school budget cuts and a spell in the 1990s when it looked as if it might go under. The school’s alumni have raised tens of thousands of dollars to help cover printing costs, buy new computers and software, and upgrade the pages to color.

Still DeWitt Clinton may close. It’s received an F grade for the past two years from city education officials.

When I started on my high school newspaper, it had just been cut from weekly to every-other weekly. My daughter was editor of her high school newspaper, which came out monthly. I’d much rather see school newspapers go online and be updated frequently than turn the school newspaper into a once-a-semester ink-on-paper leaflet.

I volunteer for Mosaic, a student journalism workshop run by my friend and former colleague Joe Rodriguez. Joe is trying to adapt Mosaic to fit the changing nature of high school journalism.

Teaching to the (good) test is good

Teaching to the Test Is Good – if the test is good — writes Walt Gardner on Reality Check.

When he studied journalism at UCLA, students practiced writing news stories in a three-hour lab. The professor provided immediate feedback. Students practiced the skills needed to pass the final exam — and to work as reporters.

When I was teaching English, I took great pains to provide my students with practice writing what I thought would serve them best in the long run. I concluded that making a persuasive argument would meet this need. Therefore, I gave them ample practice writing persuasive essays in which they had to take a position and support it with evidence. It’s not that other forms of writing were not important, but I had to prioritize. Was this teaching to the test? Definitely. But students never knew which topic they would have to write a persuasive essay about.

As a speech teacher, he developed units based on speech tournament categories such as humorous interpretation and dramatic interpretation.

After each speech, students were asked to make constructive comments based upon a sheet that I handed out. This was my version of what my journalism professor taught me: appropriate practice followed by immediate feedback. The result was that students won a host of trophies and placed high in state tournaments held on college campuses.

Gardner would prefer to use standardized tests only to diagnose problems, but that’s not going to happen, he writes. “Therefore, I suggest we use our time and energy to design standardized tests that are sensitive to effective instruction involving the most important material.” It’s the only to build public support for public schools, he concludes.

What the Chinese are studying

University enrollment has soared by 30 percent in China in recent years, but graduates are having trouble finding jobs, reports Online Colleges. “It’s estimated that one-third of China’s 5.6 million 2008 graduates were unemployed during their first year after school.”

Information technology tops the list of The 10 Hottest College Majors in China. China produced half a million IT graduates in 2009, but  there are plenty of jobs for well-qualified IT grads.

In addition to electrical and mechanical engineering, medicine, accounting, architecture and business management, the top 10 include English (not many jobs, but it helps with study in the U.S.), journalism (way too many graduates for the jobs) and law (too many graduates.)

‘I teach to empower kids’

I teach to “empower kids to live satisfying and productive lives,”, writes Esther Wojcicki, a long-time English and journalism teacher at Palo Alto High School, on Learning Matters. “I am helping grow adults.”

(Teenagers) tend to be energetic, creative and humorous, and their drive for independence empowers them to think outside the box. I love to see what far-out ideas they dream up. Some of them have turned out to be real winners. Kids are amazing — if you encourage them.

I try to create a classroom atmosphere in which students are not afraid of making mistakes. In fact, they are encouraged to take intellectual risks and occasionally fail, because that is the way they learn best.

Paly journalism students develop their own story ideas, she writes. Student editors assign the stories and supervise the reporters.  She lets them “do the work themselves.”

I know this is true because Woj was my daughter’s journalism teacher. Working on the newspaper as a writer, news editor and editor was one of the most important experiences of Allison’s life. Woj lets students lead, even when she’s the one who’s going to catch the flak. She really does grow adults.

Student newspaper isn’t a PR sheet

On Community College Spotlight: A college newspaper that makes the administration happy isn’t much of a newspaper, writes Ron Feemster, who was fired as journalism instructor and newspaper advisor at a Wyoming community college.

Are college newspapers obsolete?

Are student newspapers obsolete? On Confessions of a Community College Dean, the blogger wonders whether a student-written print newspaper that comes out twice a semester is worth maintaining.

I’ll admit some affection for any project that gets students writing readable non-fiction. The ability to assemble a coherent narrative out of a swirl of rapidly-changing facts is useful in all kinds of contexts, certainly including business. But it’s not clear to me why that needs to happen in the context of a newspaper.

I worked for my college newspaper for four years and used that experience to get a low-paying job, which led to another low-paying job, which led to a very good job at the San Jose Mercury News. The Merc has cut its reporting, editing and photo staff by about 60 percent. The editorial pages had 11  employees when I left in early 2001. It’s down to three.

I’d advise the journalism instructors to put the paper online with daily updates. Include video reports. Students will learn to gather facts and write clearly in the modern context.  In addition, make sure they know the average starting and median pay for print, online and broadcast journalists.

College degrees that lead to a job

The most marketable college degrees of 2009 are nursing, computer/information science, engineering, economics and education, says MSN Encarta.

The least marketable degrees start with print journalism and include film studies, advertising, real estate and architecture.