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Julia Steiny: The Education Non-System Sets Kids Up for Failure

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

 

Currently we aren't giving kids the basics, never mind a strong sense of what the future has in store for them, believes Julia Steiny.

While debates about standards still burn out of control, "readiness" has become a hot topic. Wherever the standard or benchmark lies, what does a kid need to be ready to meet it? What prepares a kid to be work-ready? Ready for college? Ready for high school? We've hit a wall with beating up kids, teachers and schools for failing to meet standards, so now pundits are looking upstream to understand what could be improved before students drop out of high school or post-secondary training.

In May 2013, the National Center for Education and the Economy published a report called What Does It Really Mean To Be College And Work Ready? As they searched for answers to their question, they found endless unsubstantiated opinions. Employers, Higher Education and even folks on the street have very strong feelings about the skills necessary to the adult work world, or the training grounds that eventually lead to said world. Such feelings abound because even with America's high unemployment, many jobs go unfilled for lack of qualified workers, while low-skills jobs, like old-style factory manufacturing, are drying up. The U.S. way outspends all other developed nations on K-20 education, so why aren't more youth ready to be successful in the modern economy?

NCEE contends they found virtually no research on the subject, so they conducted their own. They focused on the English and math skills necessary to be ready for community colleges because at any given time, roughly 45 percent of America's college students attend community colleges. For many students, these are the gateway to a 4-year degree. And they offer the bulk of initial vocational and technical training, "for everyone from auto mechanics and nurses to emergency medical technicians and police officers." The report asserts that without the skills to complete at least a 2-year certificate or degree, young people will struggle to keep a family out of poverty.

Standards exist along a continuum

We would love for all kids to be medical-school ready, but let's walk before we run. College drop-out rates are alarmingly high generally, but community colleges experience the greatest losses. "College for all" is not practical or helpful. But all students should be at least community-college, which is to say, workforce ready. Currently, we send a high proportion of badly-prepared students off to borrow and spend tuition money before they drop out, inadvertently creating a crisis of debt and wasted human capital.

(At the other end of the standards spectrum are the utterly-neglected talented kids. They deserve our – my – attention, but not today.)

Community colleges often replicate the bad literacy habits of high schools

NCEE found that community colleges generally require texts that are of an 11th or 12th-grade reading level – not highly demanding – but that high-school graduates struggle with them nevertheless. Most importantly to my mind however, "students are not expected to make much use of those texts." Apparently, the days of ubiquitous essays and book reports, using texts that teachers know well, have given way to what's known as "high-engagement" reading – think the "Twilight" series – and maybe writing a "reflection" paragraph.

Writing itself teaches reading, literacy and thinking. Learning to write unpacks the structure of language and teaches how to use evidence to build an argument, to make a point. The advent of computer-scored tests has been no favor to writing which can only be assess by capable readers and editors. Grading papers has always placed a heavy load on English teachers, eased only when schools were clever about ways of giving them extra time to grade work and coach students directly.

But from the first job-application cover letter to the world of work itself, writing skills are deal-breakers. Kids aren't ready because the system didn't get them ready.

K-20 needs to re-think the Algebra I through Calculus path

Nor is the system serving them with math.

NEEE argues that many students and career paths depend on "middle school mathematics, especially arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations." Also critical to community-college career tracks are subjects that are "rarely, if ever, taught in American elementary and secondary schools, including complex applications of measurement, geometric visualization and schematic diagrams." But Algebra II is the gatekeeper to college admission to any but the least selective college. So students get pushed through the traditional track without ensuring the solidity of middle-school foundations. Kids can't build high-level mathematical skills on educational Swiss cheese. That's the system at work, setting a lot of kids up for failure.

Mind you, all students should be encouraged to shoot for the Calculus goal because math trains the mind in useful ways, including "modeling" or the ability to frame a real-world problem in mathematical terms. But unless the 8th-grade skills are strong, why bother?

Identifying a basic platform -- call it "community-college ready" -- is not a dumbing down because it's only the guarantee of the basics. Currently we aren't giving kids the basics, never mind a strong sense of what the future has in store for them. Selective colleges and employers are not going to put up with cheesy work.

Most impressive to me was NCEE's image of a so-called system that is really fragments, sections not particularly talking to one another.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building demonstration projects in Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

 

Related Slideshow: RI 4 Year Colleges & Universities with the Highest Student Debt

Seven in 10 college seniors (71%) who graduated last year had student loan debt, with an average of $29,400 per borrower, according to a new report released by the Institute for College Access and Success. According to the Institute’s Project on Student Debt, Rhode Island has the fifth highest student debt in the country, but what about the state's individual institutions? Check out the slides below to see the average debt graduates accrued at Rhode Island colleges and universities.

Note: All data is based on four-year or above institutions for students graduating in the 2011-2012 academic year. Johnson and Wales University and the Rhode Island School of Design are not included in the data below, because they did not report the average debt of their graduates.

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#7 Rhode Island College

Average Student Debt: $23,110

Percent of Graduates with Debt: 79%

Non-Federal Debt, Percent of Total Debt of Graduates: 11%

Bachelor's Degree Recipients: 1,307

Full-time Enrollment Fall 2011: 5,794

In-State Tuition and Fees: $7,268

Total Cost of Attendance: $18,964

Percent Pell Grant Recipients: 36%

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#6 Brown University

Average Student Debt: $23,521

Percent of Graduates with Debt: 37%

Non-Federal Debt, Percent of Total Debt of Graduates: 45%

Bachelor's Degree Recipients: 1,603

Full-time Enrollment Fall 2011: 6,114

In-State Tuition and Fees: $42, 230

Total Cost of Attendance: $56,150

Percent Pell Grant Recipients: 14%

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#5 Providence College

Average Student Debt: $26,832

Percent of Graduates with Debt: 70%

Non-Federal Debt, Percent of Total Debt of Graduates: 21%

Bachelor's Degree Recipients: 914

Full-time Enrollment Fall 2011: 3,804

In-State Tuition and Fees: $40,975

Total Cost of Attendance: $54,840

Percent Pell Grant Recipients: 16%

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#4 Univ. of Rhode Island

Average Student Debt: $30,387

Percent of Graduates with Debt: 77%

Non-Federal Debt, Percent of Total Debt of Graduates: 31%

Bachelor's Degree Recipients: 2,614

Full-time Enrollment Fall 2011: 11,672

In-State Tuition and Fees: $11,366

Total Cost of Attendance: $25,311

Percent Pell Grant Recipients: 24%

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#3 Roger Williams Univ.

Average Student Debt: $38,550

Percent of Graduates with Debt: 66%

Non-Federal Debt, Percent of Total Debt of Graduates: 39%

Bachelor's Degree Recipients: 872

Full-time Enrollment Fall 2011: 3,834

In-State Tuition and Fees: $30,908

Total Cost of Attendance: $47,568

Percent Pell Grant Recipients: N/A

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#2 Salve Regina Univ.

Average Student Debt: $39,996

Percent of Graduates with Debt: 80%

Non-Federal Debt, Percent of Total Debt of Graduates: 33%

Bachelor's Degree Recipients: 436

Full-time Enrollment Fall 2011: 1,904

In-State Tuition and Fees: $32,800

Total Cost of Attendance: $47,100

Percent Pell Grant Recipients: 24%

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#1 Bryant University

Average Student Debt: $44,580

Percent of Graduates with Debt: 88%

Non-Federal Debt, Percent of Total Debt of Graduates: 53%

Bachelor's Degree Recipients: 831

Full-time Enrollment Fall 2011: 3,211

In-State Tuition and Fees: $34,624

Total Cost of Attendance: $50,153

Percent Pell Grant Recipients: 17%

 
 

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