Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Case Against One-Size-Fits-All Education

At the 2009 National Conference of the Education Writers Association, I debated Kati Haycock, president of EdTrust on the question, "Should all students be required to take a college-prep curriculum?" I argued against one-size-fits-all education.

I was shocked that she opened the debate by deeming me (and anyone who opposes college-prep for all) racist. After the presentation, audience members told me I shouldn't be surprised--that's the tactic she and her predecessor at EdTrust, Russlyn Ali, use to quell dissent. I also learned that many experts believe that EdTrust-created data is suspect. For example, respected U.S.C education professor, Stephen Krashen wrote an article, "Don't Trust Ed Trust." Gerald Bracey, who for decades in the respected Phi Delta Kappan authored reports on the state of education, wrote an article in the Huffington Post called "The Education Trust's Disinformation Campaign." A Democratic member of the California Board of Education, Jim Aschwinden said "Everyone knows Ed Trust is a sham. Go talk to Carol Liu, a Democratic senator who wanted to investigate Ed Trust and was stonewalled but eventually found out that the statistics EdTrust reports about its poster-boy program--San Jose Unified School District--are bogus."

In addition to Haycock unfairly playing the race card and presenting dubious statistics, she heavily relied on vague feel-good, politician-like slogans such as "Don't we want to give all kids a chance?"

I tried to limit my remarks to the substantive. Here were my major points:

We send almost twice as many students to college today as we did in 1970--now admitting, every year, 200,000 students to so-called (see below) four-year colleges who graduated in the bottom 40% of their high school class. As a result, professors dumb down their classes. That devastates the quality of education for those ready for college-level instruction. Pew Trust-funded research and the president's Spelling Commission document the minuscule freshman-to-senior growth in reading, writing, thinking, etc. For example, according to the Pew research, 50% of college seniors scored below 'proficient" on a test requiring such basic tasks as understanding the arguments of newspaper editorials or comparing credit-card offers. Almost 20 percent of seniors had only basic quantitative skills--they couldn't estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station!

Despite the dumbing down of college instruction, the U.S. Dept. of Education reports that, of the aforementioned college students who graduated in the bottom 40% of their high school class, 2/3 won't have completed their degree, even if given 8 1/2 years! Meanwhile, they will have accumulated a mountain of debt, a devastated self-esteem, very little learning (even less than the Pew averages described above) And ironically, they are less(!) employable than if, after high school, they had pursued a path other than a four-year-college education: apprenticeship, learning entrepreneurship at the elbow of a successful, ethical businessperson, a career-prep program at a community college, or the military. Why? Because even those students from that 200,000 that graduate, disproportionately have low-levels of skills, poor GPAs in minimally marketable majors (e.g., sociology) from no-name colleges at the same time as employers have more college graduates to choose from and demand high-level skills especially in science, math, and technology.

The statistic that the universities like to trumpet to justify their $200,000 four-year sticker price is that "You earn a million dollars more over a lifetime with a college degree." That is a grossly misleading statistic:

-- For starters, even the College Board, whose customer is the colleges, admits it's only $600,000.

-- Far more important, that million-dollar-more statistic hides the fact that the pool of college-bound students is brighter, more motivated, and has better family connections than the pool of non-college-bound students. So you could lock them in a closet for four years and they'd earn much more than the non-college bound.

-- Perhaps most important of all, that statistic is retrospective--reporting what past generations of college students earned. That bears little relation to what today's college graduates will earn over their lifetime. Why? As I mentioned, we have far more college graduates than in the past, graduates with far weaker skills at the same time as employers, with so many more bachelor's degree holders to choose from, are demanding ever higher-level and science/math-intensive expertise, and are offshoring, part-timing, temping, and automating ever more jobs. Those 200,000 students who get admitted to four-year colleges each year from the bottom half of their high school class are likely to earn much less over their lifetime than if, for example, they had become a surveyer, chef, machinist, or medical equipment technician. The supply-demand imbalance is perhaps simplistically made clear when one compares the average hourly pay of sociology majors with a modest GPA from a no-name college even if they did graduate, with a plumber's average hourly rate.

Four-year colleges are unethical when they admit students whom they know, from past experience, would more wisely be served elsewhere--Is it wise to expect most of the 200,000 who did poorly in high school to do better in college where the work is harder? Better than if, for example, they had entered an apprenticeship program to become an electrician who could, for example, be one of the hordes needed to build President Obama's Smart Electrical Grid? In the countless professions where there is a shortage--e.g., robotics technicians, welders, respiratory therapists, etc? Is it worth depriving the vast majority of those 200,000 of a wiser life path merely so a handful of unpredictably late-bloomers who would might better off at at "four-year" college can attend? I believe universities admit such students less because they believe it's in the students' interests and more to fill seats and impress their funders, especially legislatures, of their willingness to serve everyone.

If a physician recommended a treatment that cost a fortune and took years to complete without disclosing its poor chances of success, he'd be sued for malpractice and lose in any court in the land. Yet not only are colleges not sued, they're rewarded with our tax dollars: the government continually increases the amount of financial aid to students. That merely enables colleges to raise their prices even more, which is, of course, what they've been doing.

Four-year colleges should not admit students with a low probability of graduation. At minimum, they should provide prospective students with full disclosure, at least equal to that that we require of tire manufacturers. Every tire sold in America must, molded into their sidewall, include its rating on treadlife, temperature, and traction. Similarly, colleges should be required to prominently present their four- and five-year graduation rates for students with varying high school records and its students' average amount of growth in reading, writing, thinking, mathematical reasoning, and, yes, employability.

That would be core to what I advocate: A Student's Bill of Rights, not another Tuskegee Experiment, in which we subject people, without full disclosure, to a highly risky treatment.

For more, see my article, America's Most Overrated Product: The Bachelor's Degree: and a 3500-word article that is an expanded version of this blog post: The Case Against One-Size-Fits-All Education.


Anonymous said...

Should all students be REQUIRED to take a college-prep education? Of course not. Not everybody wants or needs to go to college. Some children don't want to go to school at all. If the student doesn't possess the ability or desire to go to college, why make them?

And to call a person racist without knowing anything about them or hearing what they have to say is simply childish. I keep expecting more from people who are supposed to be educated, but I'm beginning to think that I overestimate people a lot.

People want to use their skills and abilities well. They want to be successful. Not all people can be successful at college, so they should be able to find a place where they can be successful. That adds far more value to the world (something I know you can appreciate, Mr. Nemko) than forcing everybody to do the same thing. That is just basic level common sense and, in my humble opinion, should not require a debate.

So honestly, who do you think won the debate: your facts or her slogans?

Marty Nemko said...

I believe, on the merits, I won hands-down. But journalists have a bias in this area and so I believe most of them would have called it a draw.

The Perimeter Primate said...

I just posted a link to this entry on The Oakland Tribune's Education blog


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