Thursday, September 26, 2013

2013 SAT Report on College Readiness

open etc.usf/clipart
"Reading the news and it sure looks bad", said Joni. 

I don't think she meant the just released 2013 SAT Report on College & Career Readiness, but I can't help humming the tune as I read. It says that only 43 percent of 2013 SAT exam takers will graduate high school academically prepared for the rigors of college-level course work. SAT exam takers are, of course, students who intend to go to college. Unprepared. Well, that...sure looks bad. Dig deeper and the news seems to get worse.

The people who administer the test, The College Board, compile data around their success benchmark - a score of 1550. Of the students who ARE prepared and met the benchmark, our best and brightest, the College Board's long-term studies show that only 54% of this population reaches a college degree within 4 years. The College Board thinks this is good news, because for those who do not reach the benchmark? Only 27% reach a college degree in 4 years. 

Then, things get goofy. College Board looks deeper at who succeeds, and surprise: wealthy kids going to elite schools do well. Who would have thought that when you hand someone deep pockets and huge safety nets, chances are good they'll finish college? Wow! Here, College Board stretches correlation like silly putty and offers help: 

"More than 50 percent of high-achieving low-income students attend less selective
schools where students are less likely to graduate and earn a degree. To date, the
College Board has produced and sent nearly 7,000 packets of customized college
information to high-achieving low-income students in the class of 2014. The goal of
this work is to ensure that these students have the necessary information to help them
more effectively find the colleges that best fit their academic performance. Over 20,000
additional students are set to receive packets in early October."

Yes, of course, why didn't we academics think of that? Let's create pamphlets that suggest more low-income students go to elite colleges! Not to our pesky, urban-serving, first-generation-focused, regional schools. Not to schools that are driving distance from their homes and social networks. Not to schools with small class sizes and instructors who understand and are committed to providing support. Not to schools addressing the problems of disadvantaged students daily. Let's send low-income students to the Ivies!

Oh it gets so lonely
When you're walking
And the streets are full of strangers
All the news of home you read
Just gives you the blues. Just gives you the blues.

We'll assume these students are too disadvantaged to choose what's best for them and we'll send them pamphlets about Harvard and Yale! Because students who struggle with 1000 issues that the College Board has never considered (financial issues, family issues, first-generation doubts, class issues, race isolation, connection, the $$ barriers that add up to high costs...) will do fine by some loose correlation of privilege and success. Proximity to the uber-privileged offspring of high-income parents should take care of low-income graduation rates. A nice and well-intended notion, but not backed by practice or fact

There were lots of pretty people there
Reading Rolling Stone reading Vogue
They said "How long can you hang around?"
I said a week maybe two
Just until my skin turns brown
Then I'm going home...

If wishing could make retention so I'd be blowing on dandelion puffs. If standing next to the elite rubbed off like the common cold, I'd be working to close the doors of our campus at University of Washington Tacoma where we work so hard to support and encourage persistence despite heart-breaking challenges. I would pass out fancy pamphlets that suggest our students just go sit next to trust-fund babies and prep school naifs. I'd send them on a bus to Seattle.

But everyone needs to do more than wish privilege. We, the not-Harvard, need to do better. There are things College Board is now getting right: SAT cost waivers and options for testing during class time is a start. Start with your own barriers and take them down.

There are things all of us not-Harvard could do better: create access, affordability, diverse learning options, shorter time to graduation, reduced seat time, expanded hours for support services, online and hybrid options, flipped classrooms, competency-based curriculum, and richer analytics to prevent conclusions like the above. We can be there for our learners when they fall. We can admit that students going to college now are not the ones of old. 

Oh will you take me as I am?
Will you take me as I am? 
Will you? Will you?
Will you take me as I am? 

More questions than answers in higher education today. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Let's Talk about Teaching

With Fall quarter speeding at us like a runaway train, our talk will be short but like any difficult moment in a relationship, someone has to sit down and say "We need to talk..."  or vital parts of the relationship begin to die. Figlio, Shapiro, and Soter (2013) did some interesting exploration of the "need to talk" moment regarding the question "ARE TENURE TRACK PROFESSORS BETTER TEACHERS?"

The answer is no, they're not. They're worse. You need to read the study. It's impeccably done. They don't hypothesize on why, but I'll take a crack at that here. I have a not very complicated theory about focus: where we put our energy is where we see meaningful results.

Tenure-track colleagues are torn. Teaching, research, service. The interesting question is whether this vortex of tensions affects learning in measurable ways. Northwestern suggests it does, and in stronger ways for more struggling learners.

This confronts a theory of mine that students know what grade they will receive when they enter a course. I watch students choose a lower grade (not retaking multiple attempt quiz, not making requested changes to a draft paper, not turning in assignments, not doing optional assignments...the list is long). They choose their grade, based on a history I do not know. Sometimes this comforts me. Not my fault! Other times, I want to change their history.

The article suggests my hypothesis is only partly true: yes, the best prepared students aren’t affected by teacher. An A student will still get an A, perhaps the same with B students. I can choose what I teach them, but I can't make them learn. I can make it more engaging, I can choose my content, I can create meaningful assessment of learning but I will still watch self-selection of effort and grade happen.

Where it gets interesting is where Figlio, Shapiro and Soter (2013) suggest that teaching matters in much larger ways:  "While we find that the best prepared students at Northwestern appear to perform about the same regardless of whether their first class in the subject was taught by a non-tenure line or tenure track/tenured professor, the estimated positive effect of having a non-tenure line faculty member is present and strongly statistically significant for all other groups of students.” (p14)

The political and economic decisions being made in higher education regarding the balance of tenure-track and teaching-track, tenure and non-tenure, full-time and part-time? That's not my conversation. When it's evident that the decision affects student success, we should start talking. About teaching. Even if it's a hard conversation.