With the election happening, I hear a lot about increasing the number of students attending college—especially students of color. For some reason, people think that by purely increasing college attendance rates, our society will be uplifted. Sure that data would look great, but what about the data on college drop-outs? On the number of students enrolled in remedial classes? What about the data that clearly demonstrates we are not preparing our students—ethnic minorities or otherwise—to excel in college?
In our haste to raise summary achievement scores (e.g., standardized test scores, college admission rates, SAT/ACT scores), we’ve neglected the process in favor of the outcome. We’ve promised them we won’t leave them behind, so we water down our curriculum to ensure everyone can ‘make the grade’. We’ve hired teachers who know nothing about teaching or learning so we can say we have smaller classes led by graduates from top institutions. We’ve ‘transformed’ schools by giving them a random designation as a ‘Magnet’ with no real changes in instructional practices. We’ve provided students and families with ‘choice’ in their schools, but refuse to equally equip schools to provide quality educational opportunities. In other words, we’ve focused our efforts on looking good instead of being good.
I argue that our focus should not be on increasing college attendance rates, but instead on increasing college readiness rates. So many students enter college lacking the writing, reading, computational, and study skills to succeed. If we want our students to do well, we have to help them develop the knowledge and skills that facilitate academic success.
What does this look like? Most important of all, I believe this means universalizing K-12 education. The tracking that leads to academically segregated college campuses begins in middle school. It begins with the opportunities students have to learn. Take a simple example borrowed from a great book on educational opportunities, Inequality for All:
Emily and Carrie are first graders from similar families with similar SES living in qualitatively similar communities in different states. Emily’s state has math standards that contain 10 topics not covered in Carrie’s state. With different teachers using different textbooks and different standards, the two girls have very different opportunities to learn mathematics. Emily is exposed to fractions a bit in second grade and a lot in third grade. Carrie is first introduced to them in fourth grade. By 6th grade, Emily is well prepared to transition into more complex issues of positive and negative integers whereas Carrie is just becoming comfortable with the ideas of decimals, fractions, and distributive and associative properties. In 7th grade, Emily is ready for Pre-Algebra. Carrie takes a Basic Math class that spends time reviewing concepts covered in 6th grade math in more depth. Emily takes Algebra in 8th grade; Carrie takes Basic Math II which continues to review content from 6th and 7th grade with a bit of algebraic concepts covered. By high school, Emily is clearly on a different track than Carrie. Emily enrolls in Geometry, Algebra II/Trig, and then Calculus in 9th-11th grade, whereas Carrie is required to take the Pre-Algebra, Algebra I, and Geometry sequence.
When they apply for college, who is more prepared to do college level math? Emily. Only because she had different content coverage than Carrie, not because there is a true difference in their intellectual ability.
The variability in content coverage in this country is a direct effect of the loosey goosey educational policies that frame our educational system. We allow states to choose their own curriculum; teachers to choose their own texts; students to choose their own courses (with little attention to long-term goals). We confuse ability grouping and tracking, wherein the latter has separate curricula and the former has differentiated levels of the same curriculum.
Our refusal to institute a national curriculum (like most other countries in the world) is one of the primary reasons we see so little diversity in our colleges. We are setting our students up from Pre-K to attend a certain caliber college. The Emilys of the world have been fortunate enough to attend schools in states with a more rigorous curriculum and are therefore well prepared to attend the nation’s top colleges (many of which do not offer remedial courses). The Carries on the other hand have been required to make do and are effectively barred from admittance at colleges that require higher level science and math courses.
Why do we let providence instead of potential dictate children’s futures?