Sunday, January 22, 2017

Foggy College Readiness

Chester "Checker" Finn is concerned. The former head of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and current Maryland State Board of Education VP thinks that our students and families are enveloped in a giant bank of foggy lies, lies about their college readiness and their future prospects and the quality of their K-12 education.

National Affairs includes Finn in their Winter 2017 issue with "The Fog of 'College Readiness'." It's a piece that wants to set off some alarms, but actually has some serious fog problems of its own.

Finn opens by saying that maybe more than half of graduating high school students are not ready for college-- according to "some estimates." This is a problem because the "vast majority" of high school students plan to attend college. This is a very foggy place to start; I teach a Pretty Large Number (to use Finn's style of metrics here) of students who are the future welders, auto mechanics, body repair experts, home health care aids, and heavy equipment operators of America. None of them intend to go to college, and none of them need to (and in my English class, my goal is not to prepare them for college). So to summarize our starting point-- some number of students aren't ready to go to college, and some number of those students actually want to go to college.

So how does Finn think we arrived at this foggily-delineated problem?

The source of this gap between belief and reality is the K-12 education system. Our schools create a fog when it comes to academic preparation for college success. Concerned more with inclusiveness, validation, and graduation than with college preparedness, administrators encourage teachers to, for instance, consider pupil effort in their grading, and push students to take advanced courses for which they have the ambition but not the readiness. 

He devotes a paragraph to Hillary Clinton's free college ideas (leading me to believe that this piece was wrapped up before, say, mid-November) and then notes that while ambition and optimism are swell things, there just comes a point--

But at a certain point, encouragement becomes damaging. 

K-12 schools and colleges and universities should stop lying. It's an interesting position because it points in a direction that Finn never suggests or even hints at-- the conclusion that some students just aren't going to get that special level of success and they should start figuring out how to face the truth that there lives are not going to be all that great or successful. It's the subtext of so much reformsterism-- that some people are just destined for Better Things than other people, and we should stop trying to raise false hope and doomed aspirations for those other people, and we should most especially stop dumping money in a system that raises those false hopes and doomed aspirations. Instead of building Great Hope Academy, we should be offering Know Your Place and Be Happy High School.

But as I said, Finn isn't going to go there, or even admit that such a there is implicit in his argument (of all the reformsters, only Finn's successor at Fordham, Mike Petrilli, is willing to just say that some students are of a better type and therefor need a better type of school, away from the non-strivers).

So where does he go?

It's no secret that possessing a college degree vastly improves one's chances of attaining the "good life." It helps greatly in the quest for a decent job, a living wage, upward mobility (if one's parents had no such degrees), and full participation in American society. Indeed, a society full of college graduates is apt to be not just wealthier but healthier and more stable than one populated by dropouts and people with only K-12 schooling.

Well, no. Finn tried to muster some evidence for this by citing Coming Apart and Our Kids. But I'd argue what Robert Putnam shows in Our Kids is what is supported by other research-- the best predictor of the Good Life is being raised by parents who have the Good Life themselves. A college degree is just one of those things that people on the Good Life track get; it's an effect, not a cause. When Finn envisions a society full of these Better People, he's not envisioning a society full of college grads so much as he's imagining a world where more people are Better People from privileged backgrounds. Although he's also imagining a society in which a lot of people might be cranky about being fast food managers and garbage collectors with college degrees and college debt out the wazoo. College degrees do not make college degree-requiring jobs appear, and they do not make laboring jobs disappear.

Finn rings the bell about disappearing lower-skills work, and that's a fair point. We seem to be slowly figuring out that automation is a much a threat to our workforce as outsourcing. That means we need more college-educated folks, and Finn also wants to ring the bell of college remediation-- which means that those students must not have been prepared to attend. To his credit, Finn lays some blame for this on the college's choice to accept the student in the first place. I would love it if the right-tilted Finn recognized this as an effect of the free market on education-- that if the market shrinks, the business must get fast and loose about whom it accepts as customers, and in this way, competition and free market pressures can actually lead to a worse product, rather than the high quality that free market acolytes believe must be the result of competition.

Anyway, Finn would be okay with the over-acceptance of deficient college freshmen if colleges were any good at remediation, but they aren't. For this moment, at least, Finn and I are in agreement. Finn also notes that remediation is now part of the business model, which matches what I hear from former students.

So where is this terrible honesty gap sneaking in?

Finn names several culprits. Grade inflation, leading to lost of students getting Bs and As. Students getting scores that have incorporated things like hard work. Kids These Days, with their droopy pants and participation trophies.

But Finn is also unhappy with standardized tests, and he argues against norming because that ends up defining "fifth grade level" for readings as "about average for all fifth graders." Finn wants standards-- hard, tough, immovable standards that will give lots of students the failing scores they deserve. It is not clear what Finn thinks the standards should be based on-- who exactly will decide what a fifth grader "should" be able to do. Nor does he mention that the modern emphasis on normed testing and rating and ranking is built into the dna of the reformster movement, which has repeatedly insisted that we need standards in order to compare students, teachers and schools, to sort out the winners and losers.

Oh, and look-- coming out of the fog is this large piece of baloney. Finn believes despite the "furor" raised over the Common Core, "a welcome outcome of the recent round of improvements in state standards is that young people who actually master them will be prepared for college-level academics." So wrong, in so many ways. Do the CCSS math and English standards guarantee that someone is ready to be a biology major or history major or music major? Is there a single solitary piece of evidence that the standards prepare someone to be a math or English major? And we've had the standards for years now-- do we see a corresponding spike in college success? No, to all of that?

Well, Finn can explain the last part. Wimpy states have balked at setting honesty cut scores for tests because they don't want to face the truth that huge swaths of students should be labeled deficient. And the primary and middle school grades sent home form the tests are "cagey" about whether or not students are on track for college. Because surely you can tell whether a ten year old is on track for college or not, and you shouldn't be "cagey" about it.

Finn says that high schools add to the fog with things like lots of AP courses. As with many of his other complaints, Finn skips the part where he and his reformy friends have added to the problem. AP courses (which are a product sold by the College Board, the company that is now headed by David Coleman, architect of the Common Core) are widely added because in some states like mine, offering AP courses helps improve your school performance score.

Finn does note that pressure from all (feds, reformsters, etc) over has pushed schools to increase grad rates some way, any way, and he sees ties to the Go To College rate here. That creates pressure to finagle, which creates students and families who are lied to by "adults in the K-12 system," none of whom will suffer any adverse effects for their duplicity. But teachers who give those As and Bs are like doctors who prescribe opiates.

There are all sorts of pieces lost in the fog of Finn's portrayal. One piece is the students and families themselves. In thirty-some years, I have lost track of the students and parents who have chosen less rigorous coursework so that they could get higher grades or have less stressful lives. Give me control of those students' educational choices and they would have been much more prepared for college-- but that's not how the system works. Every year I have at least one or two students in my non-college prep class who want to go to college, but don't want to take college track courses, despite my explaining in no uncertain terms the mistake they're making.

One proposed Finnian solution? Well, colleges could be honest and tell high schools "you can give a diploma to anyone you want, but they can't come to college without evidence that they're ready to do the work here." Finn envisions a two-tier graduation system, with one track for Plain Old Vanilla Diplomas and one for Ready For College certificates. Colleges would be completely upfront about who could and could not gain admittance and which students would be denied the opportunity to pay tuition to the college and again I ask, has Finn ever met the Free Market?

I do think he's on the verge of another realization here, which is that colleges and universities, as engines and markers of the regular old systems of privilege, often make admissions decisions that have nothing to do with academic promise. Can you imagine Yale telling George H. W. Bush, "Sorry, but your son George, with his lackluster high school performance and poor test scores simply isn't Yale material, and he'll have to go somewhere else because, you know, we have standards here. Also, can we count on your generous donation to the alumni fund again this year?"

This is also as good a place as any to note another giant gaping fogbank in Finn's reasoning which has been typical at every step of the College Ready reformster movement. College Ready is not a single, measurable thing. Not even a little. "Ready to major in art history at Harvard" does not look remotely like "ready to major in biology at Penn State" which does not look remotely like "ready to major in Spanish at Outer Dipwillow Community College" which does not look like "ready to major in underwater basket weaving at Bob's For-Profit Online University." When Finn says that colleges should be frank with high schools about what students need to be admitted there, I am imagining a 300-page document from every single college in the country.

If Finn or anyone else wants me to take this College Ready baloney seriously (because I'm sure he's losing sleep worrying about my approval), they should show me a specific list of exact skill and knowledge areas that they believe defines College Ready for all schools for all courses of study. It cannot be done. College Ready is not a thing.

Finn imagines the ripples that would spread if colleges implemented his policy of hard honesty:

If colleges stopped admitting sorely unprepared students — or Washington curbed their access to financial aid — there would be an initial uproar, with cries of discrimination, narrowed opportunity, and fresh barriers to social mobility. A number of colleges would lose enrollment and some — especially community colleges, but also some private colleges, including a number of "historically black" campuses — would shrink. At least a handful would likely close.

Yes, Checker Finn just said that if we tightened college standards, black students would be hit hardest.

Finn imagines that high schools would get a whole lot of pushback from parents who discovered that Junior was not doing well enough to get into college.

But those schools, too, need to be part of the solution, not just by preparing their pupils more effectively but also by advising parents — in those annual test-score reports, of course, but also in teacher conferences, quarterly report cards, and other bulletins — as to the kinds of colleges that their kids are or are not on track for.

Yeah, we could add new staff-- we could call them Know Your Place counselors.

Somewhere in all of this classist mess is the notion that college is not for everyone, which is dead on, because there are plenty of rewarding, well-paid, and absolutely essential jobs that are necessary, as Mike Rowe sayd, "to make civilized life possible for the rest of us." In fact, if folks like Finn want to help with this issue, one thing they could do is stand up for unions and advocate for solid union protection and good union wages, thereby helping folks realize that blue collar jobs are not the jobs people "settle" for because they're not "smart" enough to go to college. That would be a huge help!

But in the meantime, we will float in the fog where the proposed solution to a problem that may not even exist is to assess a quality we don't know how to measure to foster outcomes that we don't know how to create, all in the name of separating out the winners from the losers, the Betters from the Lessers, even though we're so lost in a fog with our non-existent measuring tools that we can't tell our elbows from our ears. Should be a piece of cake.



  1. Oh I hope Finn reads this blog!

    Thank you, Curmudgucation, for exposing the BS, and for doing so with such humorous, common sense writing. YOU should be the one making the big paycheck, not Checker Gates-grant Finn.

  2. Here is some help in figuring out the number of high school students who plan to attend college.

    According the the BLS, about 69.2% of students who graduated from high school in the spring of 2015 were enrolled in a college or university in October of 2015.

    Surely the students actually attending college and university the fall after graduating from high school were planning to attend college or university while in high school. No doubt some students who planned on attending a college or university while in high school did not attend the following fall for a variety of reasons, and that would push the number up. The same BLS press release reports that among recent high school graduates, about 9 out of 10 where enrolled as full time students in October of 2015. Not every high school student graduates from high school, so it is not likely that 90% of the students attending high school will be enrolled in post secondary education as a full time student.

    I hope this cuts through the fog a little bit.

    Source of data on post secondary education enrollment:

  3. Hello Peter
    I wanted to know what you might think of metro-wide (or county-wide) school districts as a way of attacking racial and economic segregation in large urban areas. I grew up in Rochester, my mom taught high school English, then kindergarten there. where the gap between the RCSD (consistently described as among the worst in the country) and the suburban school districts (many of which are regularly ranked as some of the best s. districts in the country) was as wide and glaring as any I've seen anywhere. I've heard that desegregation via county-wide districts in NC brought much higher (though not perfect) test scores to poor students without impacting performance for wealthy suburban kids. Do you have a post on pros/cons of this somewhere?

  4. Checker lives in the world of the Betters. He thrives on having more than the others. He's not far from the DC Elite in the glorious country club which is Montgomery County, MD. His type are what make education nothing but a test prep mill for all of Maryland. AP courses shoved at high school children for the sake of competition and rankings. PARCC and other BS testing imposed upon ALL children for the sake of competition and ranking. It's sinful. That man (along with Petrilli) needs to drive out of his gated community and into neighboring PG county so that he can see what life is like on "the other side." There is a special hot place in hell for him and the cretins like him.

  5. Greene's criticism of Finn seems almost comical because they agree so much. At first, Greene satirizes Finn's recognition of predictable education outcomes - " It's the subtext of so much reformsterism-- that some people are just destined for Better Things than other people ..." But then Greene says basically the same thing - "But I'd argue what Robert Putnam shows in Our Kids is what is supported by other research-- the best predictor of the Good Life is being raised by parents who have the Good Life themselves." The difference is not the recognition of difference, but rather who is culpable. Greene argues that "inheritance" of your parents socioeconomic conditions tells all (and therefore people should have no expectation that teachers can change this fate). Finn's views aren't really explained here - except that the distinction between students should be accepted and proposes an honest assessment where only truly college-ready students should be recognized as such.

    First, the data appears to back up this distinction. Fewer than 40% of seniors are college-ready according to the NAEP (which Greene has previously lionized).

    However, about 80% of seniors graduate high school.

    This suggests pretty clearly that there are a middle 40% of students who graduate high school but are not ready for college. And the NAEP data is pretty consistent with college enrollment and graduation data. The enrollment gap has narrowed significantly - 45% of poor high school graduates now enroll in college up from 28% in 1970. And black enrollment is now on par with whites (about 67%).

    But graduation rates have not mirrored this progress. Only 9% of poor students and 39% of blacks graduate college.

    Where I disagree with Greene (no surprise) is the objective. All students should finish high school either college-ready or job-ready. And yes, we can be more honest with families about their child's prospects WITHOUT denying them the opportunity to attend college if they insist. And in apparent contrast to Greene/ Putnam / Finn, some schools have demonstrated an ability to influence whether kids from tough circumstances graduate college-ready.

    But lost in this discussion is a needed focus on vocational education. Greene satirically recognizes that he teaches a lot of "future welders, auto mechanics, body repair experts, home health care aids, and heavy equipment operators of America." But he fails to recognize the abdication of our K-12 system in teaching students to weld, repair cars or operate machinery. Because of the failure of K-12 to teach these skills in high school, these are among the most common courses that non-college ready students pay for after high school.

    Improved preparation for all students and an honest assessment of their standing - is that really too much to ask of our educational system ?

    1. Just a couple of notes for accuracy. First, I do not "lionize" the NAEP. I've cited a few times the study that shows roughly half the students deemed unready for college went ahead and successfully finished college.

      Second, my notes about my students are not satire. I know I teach the future welders etc because that is what they are studying right now, in high school. My area has had a robust vocational-technical program for almost fifty years, and it serves both the students and the community well.

    2. Mr. Backman, Peter and Finn (along with other "reformers") are not saying the same thing about the "Betters". Finn and Petrilli think that only some students merit the "Good Life": Finn says that "poor and minority students" won't "benefit" from AP classes because they aren't "strivers". Peter does not think this distinction between "Betters" and "Lessers" should be made, as demonstrated in other posts about Putnam where he writes that Putnam's point is also that students from higher socio-economic backgrounds are successful because they benefit from "social capital". Then there is Peter's point that unions are a type of "social capital" that help those hard workers who are not academically inclined to achieve a decent life.

  6. We bristle at the notion that public education is solely about future employability (and college-readiness could be another term for that). On the other hand, we champion vocationally oriented high school curricula which better serve populations who are not headed towards professions requiring a B.S. or a B.A., etc. Peter lives in Western PA where local students may eventually choose to go into careers like welding and other industrial-based skilled jobs.

    But what about my favorite topic and city? Chicago? Chicago is such a special story. It has so many claims to fame. It is still the crossroads of the nation. It hasn't lost that honor for the drug traffickers, which is a problem for all of us and not just the residents of the city. Chicago is a bastion of the Democratic party, with no chance whatsoever for a Republican or Independent or Green Party candidate to have a shot at leadership. That should be comforting news to many.

    The impoverished students of Chicago (and other urban areas) are the subject of a lot of blog posts here and elsewhere. Let's consider for a moment the reality of employment in Chicago for graduating students. Do you know who the five largest employers in Chicago are? Have you ever wondered? Would you be surprised that they are (according to Crain's): The U.S. government, the Chicago Public School district, the City of Chicago, Cook County, and Advocate Healthcare? If we want the most impoverished people to not be impoverished, to have a genuine sense of self-efficacy and opportunities to establish lives that are rewarding to some degree, we need to look at the job scenarios children face more closely and not think in general terms. Government jobs are the main source of employment in Chicago. Government jobs pay local residents who are then taxed to cover the agencies they work for.

    Talking about urban schools as a general topic is not helpful. Talking about people in their unique situations is. Chicago is a big bureaucratic machine. Its a machine that's not functioning well, to say the least.

    People in impoverished areas tend not to move away. This means people have to make due with what is available. Chicago is a great case study for anyone interested in seeing what a one-party system can do with piles of money. Chicago is being ignored by most of the country, except for the homicide headlines. They should also make headlines for their real estate tax increases, or their policies about CPS teachers having to live in the city, or Rahm's idea to tax people who drive into the city (has not yet been enacted). Get to know Chicago. And then get to know other cities individually. Let's not talk in generalities. They don't apply.

  7. I believe you misconstrued Finn. It's not telling kids to "know your place" but about giving them honest feedback about their readiness for college. We saw this all the time at Penn State. Teaching mostly freshmen level classes, each semester we'd encounter several students where the question wasn't why admitted this person to Penn State, it was who the f@!k have this child a high school diploma. Yes, it was that bad. Typically it was students coming from either urban minority or rural poor public schools.

    They had been badly lied to by the adults in their life: their parents, their teachers, our admissions counselors. If their doctor had lied to them this badly about a medical condition, the kid could have sued for malpractice and the doctor stripped of his license. But in education, everyone goes on their merry way collecting paychecks.

  8. "Finn envisions a two-tier graduation system, with one track for Plain Old Vanilla Diplomas and one for Ready For College certificates." We're already doing this in Florida. We have a standard diploma with one set of requirements and a scholar diploma that requires ... um ... passing a few more BS EOC tests. And we have a diploma for those with industry certifications (in other words, heading for a non-college, skilled trade.)