Monday, June 9, 2014

From All Sides

One of my co-workers brings something invaluable to her classroom: perspective. Her greatest strength is her ability to explain difficult, complex math concepts to struggling students because her own struggle allows her to see where the potential blocks are. I imagine that academic and "student" skills associated with success in school were not a struggle for many college decision-makers. As a result, it may be more difficult for some administrators to understand what those struggles are or what is needed to overcome them. The approach to the issue of remediation in college, then, becomes misdirected.

Yet another example of how out-of-touch some decision-makers are made an appearance in the Journal-Sentinel article "Regents: Are students in remedial classes set up to fail?" The article summarizes what was discussed at the Board of Regents meeting for the University of Wisconsin system, particularly on the function and responsibility of post-secondary for students who need remediation before beginning college-level classes. Although there are several points that are a relief to hear come from such a high decision-making level, I can't help but notice how much isn't being included.

The essential question is not, as the article says, "Why are these students drawn into [college] with so little chance of success?" Instead, the essential question is "What do these students need in order to be prepared?" There are as many answers to that question as there are college students currently enrolled.

This is a long, long overdue discussion. The way post-secondary handles students who aren't ready for college-level work has been under scrutiny for a while, but college administrators have failed to consider all sides when looking for a fix. Consider that around 97% of 2-year institutions employ "open enrollment" in which all applicants are accepted (Aud, et al., 2013). What does this say about the student population of these colleges? It's highly unlikely that colleges can make effective decisions from a desk since this method of admissions allows - and promotes - a diverse student body, with diverse student needs. Without any automatic "sifting" mechanisms, it's essential that administrators get in touch with as many faculty and staff working with these students as possible.

This is especially the case in developmental education. Developmental educators and researchers have known for some time, my own team included, that yes, not many students make it through the classes (the article gives 25% as a stat; I've seen anywhere between 10% [Bailey, Jeong, & Cho, 2010] and 30%). In fact, 30% of students assigned to developmental classes fail to even show up for the first day of class (Jenkins, Smith, Jaggars, & Roska, 2009). But, the ones who do finish typically perform as well or better than their peers who didn't go through a developmental sequence. Why is this? On the surface, we believe that we mean "unprepared" for college in terms of academics. Indeed, this is the easiest and most number-friendly way to measure preparedness. But have we truly considered, from all sides, what a student needs to be prepared for college? Especially a two-year, technical program?

Research on what is needed to be successful in college, aimed at student outcomes, is relatively hard to find (Foster, Strawn, & Duke-Benfield, 2011). Instead, the data we have is focused around the vertical movement of students toward transferring to a bachelor's program or the effect of financial aid on the probability of re-enrolling (Alfonso, Bailey, & Scott, 2004); in other words, the data available focuses on money. This may have a place in this discussion, but aren't we leaving out some students?

It's been estimated that 42% of all undergraduates attended 2-year institutions (Aud, et al., 2013), and Hirschy, Bremer, & Castellano (2011) provide a list of the characteristics of the typical two-year student: minority, older than 24, married, first-generation, receiving financial aid, work full-time, and have taken a vocational curriculum in high school. What I find the most interesting is that the majority identify themselves as an "employee who studies" instead of a "student who works". How do these contrast with those characteristics of a typical four-year student? And, considering these characteristics, what specific needs might these students come in with?   

One of the solutions given in the article was to look at what reforms are needed at the K-12 level. That may be a worthwhile conversation, and it likely will address this issue in time. In the meantime, there are a growing number of reports (ACT, 2007; National Center of Education and the Economy, 2013) that present data to suggest that a high school diploma does not equate to college readiness. What's more, a 2009 survey by ACT, Inc., found that 76% of high school teachers believe that at least half of their students are ready to do college-level reading, and 71% believe that the state standards they are required to follow define well or very well what students need to know to get ready for college. If K-12 believes they are doing a good job already, how effective will any reform be?

Probably more indicative of this data is how the non-cognitive components of college and learning go uncovered - or downright ignored - in both K-12 and post-secondary. The literacy requirements of a college course include a greater accountability for what is read (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010b), meaning a student is required to not just be able to academically comprehend the material, but also use time management and goal setting skills, as well as any number of interrelated success-relevant skills, to complete the task. But how often do we consider all the factors that go into something like successful comprehension of a text? 

In terms of technical education, I hold from my own experience that this is a matter of identity. Vocational education is still seen as a second-choice option (Pearson, et al., 2010), and many students don't perform as well as they could simply because they don't identify themselves as a "student." In fact, my guess is that many found an identity in being an "anti-student" in high school Intro to Welding or Woodworking II classes. What effect does this have on a student's college performance? Certain "student skills" are not developed. For example, I've had a number of instructors ask me if I've got any tips on how to get students to take notes. It's been clear to me that, to the instructor, it is a matter of invigorating the "student skill" side - motivation, buy-in, active participation in a lecture. We always cover if it appears that students know both how to take notes and what to write down for notes, but it's clear even at the classroom level that it's very easy to forget that there are two sides at work. Do students know what to write down? Most of the time. Do students know how to take notes? To some extent, yes. So why aren't they taking notes? Because it requires a certain level of commitment and change of identity so great that they aren't prepared to take that leap yet.

This is an incredibly important issue to discuss, if only to understand the costs that are involved for improperly doing so. The U.S. spends close to one-third more than the OECD average on post-secondary education (Council on Foreign Relations, 2013) and how much do we really know? The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that by 2018 - just 4 years from now - 63% of the projected 46.8 million job openings will require workers to have at least some college education, and mostly due to a need for more sophisticated, comprehensive skill set (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010). The lack of qualified applicants has been covered well in the media. In a recent survey by the firm Manpower Group (2013), four out of ten businesses associate a shortage of qualified candidates with reduced competitiveness and productivity. Additionally, many businesses are so frustrated with the current system that they feel pressed to take on the task of created a qualified candidate themselves (Hirsch & Johnson, 2011). We cannot afford to ignore the differences among students any longer, especially not technical students.

If so many high school students are graduating unprepared for college or the workforce and so many college hopefuls struggle to finish their first remedial course, we would do well to consider this issue from all sides - not just the obvious one.

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