On Honesty, Rigor, and Success in College

Recently, I spoke to a group of AmeriCorp volunteers at Peace Lutheran in Tacoma, WA. Many were University of Puget Sound graduates working in K-12 classrooms and tutoring after school at the church. I was told they wanted to know the answer to two questions. What is learning? And how do students learn?

The fact that these whip smart young people didn’t think they knew the answers to those questions communicates a hell of a lot about schooling today. Specifically, too few teachers take time from “teaching to the standards” and “collecting and analyzing data” to think together with students about the learning process.

The cynic in mean assumes self-assessment and student-led conferences are en vogue because some policy analysts think they’ll lead to higher test scores. What’s needed is a genuine, substantive commitment to intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence. Too few teachers “press pause on the class DVR” and ask what went well in today’s activity? What could have gone better? Which aspects of your group’s work went especially smoothly? Which parts were most challenging? When working with classmates, what do you do well? How do you know that? What could you improve upon? Why? What contributes to your learning? What thwarts it?

I asked the AmeriCorps to list a few meaningful things they’ve learned in the past. Looking for patterns and themes, I then asked them to reflect on how they learned them. “I’m learning how to cook,” one offered up, “by hanging out with roommates who are really good cooks.” We could have spent the entire two hours mining that gem of an anecdote.

When I turned to assessment, I implored them to honestly evaluate the quality of their high schoolers’ work. I said many of the secondary students they tutor get very good grades because they distinguish themselves by attending class regularly and turning in their work. Their simultaneous nodding communicated they understood this rarely talked about dilemma for many urban and rural poor districts and schools—you can’t fail the majority of your students, so students who attend and submit work get passing grades without nearly enough attention paid to the quality of their reading, thinking, math, and writing skills. Understandably, college admissions’ offices know and adjust for this, but that complicates those students’ transition to college.

Absent rigor, many students start to think of themselves as “A” students. But grade point averages can mislead. So it’s understandable that they’re sometimes devastated when they receive “C’s” on their first college assignments. Which is why I keep a box of kleenex handy in my office.

How can teachers, tutors, and parents help high schoolers come to grips with the fact that they may not be ready for college level work without those students giving in to a debilitating hopelessness? There’s no easy answer to that question, but passing students along without honestly assessing the quality of their work is inefficient and uncaring. Here are three starting points:

1) Impress upon them that their commitment to improving their skills is the single most important variable in determining whether they’ll catch up to their college bound peers and that closing the gap will take months and years of tireless work.

2) Invite successful college students from their community back to tell them that they too can overcome the same long odds if they commit to working hard and taking advantage of the resources available to them.

3) Make sure resources are in place, whether it’s well funded public schools, Peace Lutheran-like after school tutoring programs, or intensive summer remediation programs hosted by college campuses admitting first generation college students.

Delusions of Grandeur

During faculty workshops, like last weeks, I sometimes get a feeling that my university colleagues think they’re better than high school teachers. Smarter. More rigorous. Better teachers more generally.

Last week nothing explicit was said by any particular person, it’s just a vibe, and maybe I’m off-base. A handout from our university’s Academic Assistance Center contributed to this sensibility. Titled, “High School vs PLU”, it lists about 30 differences. Some value neutral, “you spend 30 hours a week in class” versus “you spend about 15 hours a week in class” and some that hint at hierarchy, “makeup tests are easily available-h.s.” versus “makeup tests are seldom an option-uni” or “tests ask you to give back facts-h.s.” versus “exams require analysis and synthesis as well as facts-uni”.

The lists are presented as factual, but many of the assertions could be challenged. Newsflash—some university professors use multiple choice exams that emphasize factual recall and some high school teachers require students to analyze and synthesize content.

Two points of distinction under “High School Teachers” and “PLU Faculty” deserve special attention. High school teachers “teach to the intellectual middle of the class” and “write key info on board or give handouts”. PLU faculty “teach at a more challenging level” and “expect you to figure out what’s important, what you need to do”.

I’d put it differently. Secondary teachers work hard to adapt their teaching to their students’ varied learning styles. They accept the burden of “differentiating instruction” or “individualizing the curriculum”. University teachers expect students to adapt to their one or two preferred methods of instruction. Differentiating instruction is more logical and more challenging, and yet, we hold university professors in higher regard. Why is that? Is it because they completed some more coursework and wrote a dissertation that few outside their committee ever read?

The truth of the matter is elementary, middle, and high school teachers are woefully unappreciated by university professors and the public more generally. Compared to university faculty, they teach many more students, many more hours a day and week, for many more days a year. And they receive little to no support for scholarship or professional travel. And they have to work their magic with legions of parents, some who truly believe they have it out for their children. And more and more of the public—the same public that too often delegates both educating and parenting to them—think they have too much job security and too many guaranteed benefits. And to top it all off, the students are compelled to attend so there’s a much, much wider continuum of motivation.

Throughout my career in both secondary education and higher ed, I’ve been fortunate to work beside some outstanding teachers. After periods of adjustment, I suspect the best high school teachers I know would flourish at the university level and many of the best university teachers I know would probably do okay at the K-12 level.

Apart from job swapping, I’m not sure what it will take for university faculty to demonstrate greater understanding, humility, and respect when it comes to their skilled, smart, hardworking, unappreciated K-12 brethren.