Trends: Banging on the PK-16 Pipeline
Why am I so ill-tempered when I read a sensible report like “Bridging the Gap: How to Strengthen the Pk-16 Pipeline to Improve College Readiness”?
The authors, Ulrich Boser and Stephen Burd, know their stuff. The sponsoring organization, New America Foundation, has a great reputation. (Bias alert: It also employs one of my sons as a senior fellow, but he does California politics and direct democracy, not national education policy.)
My problem is that smart and industrious experts like Boser and Burd often unearth startling facts but don’t follow through. “Bridging the Gap,” available at Newamerica.net, details the large percentage of first-year college students in remedial courses and the duplication in federal college preparation programs. This is interesting information of which few people are aware.
But their recommendations follow the standard line: Let’s have more meetings and spend more money. Example: “We recommend that the federal government provide states with incentives to come together and adopt national college and work-readiness standards in math, science and the language arts.”
Or: “The federal government should work directly with states to foster partnerships between high schools and postsecondary institutions to smooth the transition between high school and college.”
You might think that sounds reasonable. I think it misses an opportunity. Why not harness the energy and ambition of a new president to shake things up?
The Obama administration doesn’t have much money to spend getting more students ready for college. The Education Department’s $100 billion in stimulus funds will mostly go to less sophisticated projects that create jobs fast.
But Education Secretary Arne Duncan can dispatch officials to ask embarrassing questions, identify glaring deficiencies and dissolve the rust that has accumulated on the PK-16 pipeline. (Jargon alert: PK, more often called pre-K, means pre-kindergarten, and 16 refers to 16th grade, better known as the college senior year.)
What will boost the chances of success in college for most students is not more money but a change of attitude. American schools, from pre-K through college, labor under the misimpression that children whose parents don’t make much money, and never went to college, aren’t up to such academic stress, and should be shunted aside to less demanding schedules. The few schools that give such students a dose of great teaching find that the assumption that they can’t learn at a high level is dead wrong, but convincing most schools of that is going to take a lot of effort, and a willingness to break some bureaucratic crockery.
Here are some ways to rattle the relevant cages. Meetings and money have their place, but I prefer forceful words to the right people, including reporters:
1. Ask elementary and middle schools why they are not preparing most students to complete algebra by the end of eighth grade, and give recognition to schools that do. I visited a charter school in San Jose last week where almost all eighth-graders successfully complete not just Algebra I but geometry. Eighty-six percent of these students come from low-income families. That math advantage will make their path to college much smoother.
2. At every news conference, call for an end to the standard high school practice of requiring high grade point averages or teacher recommendations for enrollment in Advanced Placement courses. No other policy is a greater hindrance to preparing students for college. At least half of college freshmen never took a college-level AP course and test in high school, mostly because they were not encouraged to, or more commonly barred from doing so. We have data showing that even students who flunk AP tests in high school do better in college than students who were never allowed to take AP.
3. Provide matching funds (okay, I want to spend a little money on this) to pay AP, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge test fees for any public high school that requires AP, IB and Cambridge students to take those tests. These college-level courses are often not taught very well when students are allowed to skip the final exams. The tests are written and graded by outside experts and are the best tools we have both to expose inadequate high school teaching and motivate better instruction.
4. Investigate the hidden world of college remedial classes. Who sets the passing scores on tests that determine who has to take non-credit remedial courses? Why do those scores differ from college to college? I have only suspicions, not facts, on this issue, but it is possible that colleges have turned remedial courses into cash cows -- funded by students who pay tuition but get no credit.
5. Encourage community colleges to experiment with letting students take for-credit courses even if they have failed the qualifying exams. Compare their results with those from students who do pass those exams. My hunch is that some professors are good at challenging marginal students and helping them pass credit courses. Demanding motivated students to take a dumbed-down remedial course before they take a course for credit is a great way to slow their progress toward a degree and lead them to conclude that colleges don’t want them.
6. Cut off federal funding to any college academic department that gives credit for good exam scores at the end of one-year AP courses but gives no credit for good exam scores at the end of one-year IB courses. Most departments in most colleges practice such discrimination, even though the AP and IB courses have been shown to be similar in rigor and content. The college department heads, who are responsible for this injustice, ignore the problem. They might pay more attention if their grants were in jeopardy.
7. Do the same for any college academic department that fails to give credit for AP students who score 3 or above on the five-point exams, unless they provide data showing that those students do less well on follow-up courses than students who have passed the department’s introductory course. Many selective colleges refuse to give credit for 3s, and even 4s, on AP exams but have done no research to justify the policy. This discourages high school students from taking the AP courses that would lubricate the PK-16 pipeline.
Got any more suggestions? Send them to me or put them in the comments below. We might persuade New America Foundation to do a whole new report on outrageous solutions that might actually get somewhere.
Washington Post editors
| February 20, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
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