Schworm’s angle on the study, that Massachusetts public schools are failing the Commonwealth and its students, is reflected in the article’s third graph:
The study raises concern that the state’s public schools are not doing enough to prepare all of their students for college, despite years of overhauls and large infusions of money.
The report didn’t seem to raise concerns when it was released in February, but Schworm has plenty of sources expressing concern ranging from Higher Education Chancellor Patricia Plummer to future Secretary of Education Paul Reville. I’ve written about Plummer’s problems interpreting research here, but aside from the three-strikes-and-your-in approach to the MTEL which seems to have come from Reville, I haven’t written much about him. His contribution to the Schworm article, however, demonstrates a similar lack of research literacy:
“We’re hopeful high schools will regard this [study] very seriously. This tells us that higher standards are necessary. We’re not fully preparing students for non-remediated college work.”
Mr. Reville seems to be implying that public high schools are not doing their work. Reville, however, ignores several issues, including the limitations of this particular study, the transition from high school to college, and role of standards-based education in improving learning. The position of Secretary of Education will no doubt be a challenging position, requiring leadership, management, and political skills, but it should also be an educational position, one that not only directs the Commonwealth’s educational bureacracy, but also works to educate the public.
With this mission in mind, here is how Reville and his colleagues might have spoken about the Massachusetts School-to-College Report High School Class of 2005:
1. Acknowledge Statistical Limitations First. The Globe article ignores one important limitation of the study. It doesn’t include “students who attended private Massachusetts high schools and students who attended a Massachusetts public high school and enrolled in a private or out-of-state postsecondary institution are not included in this report.” How many students are not included? About 40,000. Almost 60,000 students graduated from Massachusetts public high schools in 2005. This study tracks the one-third attended public higher education in Massachsuetts. Some certainly went to private colleges and universities. Others may have entered the military. Still others entered the work force. Others may be living on the street for all we know. Counting only students who enter public colleges from public high schools skews the percentages.
Here’s what one high school’s students might look like:
Let’s consider a hypothetical graduating class of 100 students. 85 of them decide to go to college. Fifteen choose to enter the military or enter the workforce. Of the 85 who pursue higher education, 18 decide to attend private colleges, leaving 58 to enter public colleges. 37% of these 58 students take a remedial college class. How many of the original graduating class of 100 students take a remedial college class? 21 or 22.
If these numbers were real, one-fifth of this graduating class would take one (or more) remedial classes in college. Is that significant? It could be. But it’s a lot lower than the 37% average reported in the Globe. Percentages for different high schools could vary widely. An affluent high school, for example, sends more students to private colleges. Less affluent high schools send a disproportionate number of students to public schools. The state-wide average, therefore, provides a poor picture of what’s happening in high schools.
2. Are remedial college classes after high school problem? Criticism of high schools for college readiness begs the question of whether every high school student is socially, emotionally, and intellectually ready for college after 13 years of schooling. There is no psychological reason to assume this. The number of years spent in American high schools is the result of culture and tradition, not research. In some countries, students have 14 years of schooling. Others turn non-college-bound students out of high school at 16. Why shouldn’t some students take remedial courses in college if they are prematurely forced out by an educational system that arbitrarily tries to cut them off after 13 years of school?
Of those taking remedial college courses, 65% have learning disabilities. Half are lower-income. More than half are students of color. Half have limited English proficiency. All of these students deserve a higher education, but given their particular challenges, it should be expected that some of their high school education may need to be extended into the college years. Why shouldn’t colleges fulfill this role?
3. Standards Don’t Always Mean Standards. To those unfamiliar with the nuances of educational double speak, a standard is an ideal, something to be met, a basis for evaluation. Few rational people would argue against encouraging our students to work to a high standard. Yet the conversational use of the word “standard” is not the same as an education standard. In education, there are no standards without curriculum frameworks and standardized tests. One can certainly argue that standards-based learning and standardized tests are the way to lead students to achieve at a high standard, but the point is hardly a given. When Reville tells us that higher standards are necessary, he’s talking about more MCAS, not necessarily better education.
The research is just starting to come in on the effectiveness of standards-based education. Critics have pointed out for years now that preparing for standardized tests has the effect of increasing the amount of time students spend learning test-taking strategies and spending less time critical thinking. Here in Massachusetts, Ed Moscovitch, one of the original educational reformers admitted the underlying assumption of reform (more specifically, standards-based education) was wrong:
the reform law was based on the premise that teachers and principals knew what to do but for some reason weren’t doing it; embarrassing them through low MCAS scores, while decreasing their enrollments through school choice, would somehow get them in gear. This fundamental premise was mistaken.
At the end of eras, one response to problems is (even) more of the same; the other response is to try something new. Mr. Reville’s small quote in the Globe article suggests he’s invested in the former rather than the latter. If educational improvement requires thinking outside the box, we have a standard problem.