Do We Ask the Right Questions? A Brief Review of Education in Connectciut

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

This article in The Connecticut Mirror by Jaqueline Rabe Thomas covers some of the flurry of legislation pertaining to Higher Ed in Connecticut. I must say that SB40 and other bills came at us fast and many faculty and staff at my college were deeply involved, to the degree that access was provided to legislators and the legislative process, in the discussion.

Some issues bear comment. The writer, for example, provides this quote. The context is Senator Beth Bye’s opinion on “remediation” as an element in a causal chain:

“As we slow them down, they are less likely to graduate,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee.

Here Bye’s logic appears to be tracing this course: (cause) students are placed into “remedial” courses (note that at the college we call these “developmental” courses, as we don’t see ourselves applying a “fix” or remedy) (effect) therefore, they are less likely to graduate. The effect of a student’s likeliness is the “course.”

The problem with this logic is that very little evidence exists to support it. It may be true, indeed, but we really don’t know if it is true. For example, most teachers in college know students who have been placed into developmental courses. I’ve advised students about their placement into developmental courses, and their reactions are negative. They want to take credit bearing courses. Everyone does. But in this sense, the logic changes: cause: resentment :: effect: dropout. In another case, a student may come into a developmental course and flub the thing because they can never get over their anger, resentment, or apathy at being there in the first place. This kind of analysis, of course, might call for research on the complexity of attitude on success in any endeavor, which we, indeed, know a lot about. The real problem with Bye’s logic is that it is correlative not causal. I have had students who were living out of their cars in my courses and we able to pull it out. I’ve had students who were successful in dev courses and who did just fine. I’ve had students who tested into and flubbed.

Most college teachers know students who have been misplaced into developmental. They also know students who, if allowed into college-level courses, would more than likely be bewildered by the content because they are underprepared, some severely so. We’ve had students who were prepared but who did not function successfully because they simply did not care to do so. The complexities of preparation and maturity are not treated in Senator Bye’s statement.

Next, Thomas writes and includes this:

Bye and many other legislators have referred to these remedial courses as the colleges’ Bermuda Triangle: Just 13.6 percent of the full-time students who take them actually earn an associate’s degree in four years, twice the time it should take, reports the Board of Regents.

“That status quo is not working. There is a fundamental problem… It needs to change,” said Mike Meotti, a top official at the state’s Board of Regents for Higher Education, whose colleges enroll 15,000 new students a year.

There are all kinds of oddities in the first and second paragraphs. The metaphor doesn’t work but is a success at applying fallacy as appeal. Of course, Meotti’s is what I call “trigger statement.” Things that people say in passing without evidentiary requirement. The numbers reference by the Board of Regents is misleading. Perhaps 50 percent completed in 5 years. Maybe small numbers of students who did not take developmental courses earned their degrees in 4 years, too. Look at Complete College America’s front page graph. It complicated things, doesn’t it?

My readers should consider a basic idea. Let’s illustrate with a simple arithmetic question.

Let’s say 100 students enter college and 10 percent of those students graduate within four years. That means that 90 students failed to complete within 4 years. Let’s also assume that 5% of the graduates worked hard and that 5% had a pretty easy time of it. Continue: 70% percent of the second cadre (the 90 who didn’t complete) didn’t work hard or had personal problems or whatever other circumstances prevented graduation.

The basic question is this: does this represent a problem? Or, does this hypothetical illustrate human reality in a social construct?

In my 20 years teaching in higher education I’ve wrestled with my own basic questions. One of them is this: can all students in a writing course do well enough to meet passing requirements? “In” is a significant word here, as the students “in” a course got there via any number of methods: they met a prerequisite. They did okay on SATs or Accuplacer. Every semester and every course I teach provides a laboratory and a caseload of anecdotal evidence. And the question changes when asked of 100 level and 200 level courses.

Consider my recent Creative Writing: Fiction course, which started in the teens and ended with low single digits. Many students did not complete the source. (It is important to distinguish “did not” versus “could not.”) The prerequisite for the course is any literature offering, which presupposes a year of straight writing courses, successful achievement in all. This means that the students should have been prepared for the course. But there are a few givens, which some of my readers will grasp. Writing fiction, number 1, is not easy. Story writing concepts are not easy to grasp and demonstrate. The underlying pedagogy is not easy to keep up with. The formal demands of the pedagogy put lots of intellectual pressures on students. And, finally, students need to do lots of work to show that they know how to develop a character, write dialogue, and establish a coherent narrative. This is true of most college courses. Since I have taken creative writing courses and chemistry courses, I have a good sense of comparative difficulty. Guess what: you can’t compare them. I studied harder for creative writing than I did for chemistry. Hours out of the day devoted to writing. A few moments to Chemistry, as, at the time, I was disinterested.

So, my basic question comes back: is being unsuccessful in the course an example of a problem, let alone requiring legislation? What pass rate constitutes a successful benchmark in any college course? What if the answer were 100%? If I pass everyone, someone will cry foul. But why?

I would be reluctant to establish a benchmark. Rather, we look to our anecdotes for “stories.” How many students “should” typically do well enough in any number of courses? Every teacher has an answer to this question: the answer is: those that pass. There is no benchmark.

But there are average benchmarks for those students who pass as scored divisibles. Typically, the majority of students in a course with a pass rate fall at the top of a bell curve. Very few students perform with excellent achievement, but they do well enough. Most people expect a range of performance and a range of achievement explanations. And most people know that as students approach a professional standard, the numbers change dramatically with expectation. In my graduate program, for example, a C would have been considered a failing score in any course. This assumes an “ecology” of economies of scale across professions requiring graduate degrees.

The point of the above is that the issue of college success, college entrance, and learning in institutions is a complicated affair. The Connecticut legislature can do what it wishes to accomplish what it choses. But in my estimation, it’s judgement of the question of college entrance is at best a red herring.

Concept Problems
Consider this bit in Thomas’s article:

Before the vote in the House late Friday, Rep. Mary M. Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, said she plans to support the bill because, “Remedial coursework is too much a barrier to earning a degree.”

And this barrier disproportionately affects black and Hispanic students, reports Complete College, a national nonprofit organization funded by the Gates Foundation and others. Seventy-two percent of black freshman are sent to remediation compared with 56 percent of white students, the organization reports. Graduation rates are similarly uneven.

Here is where I would call Thomas to task in not contextualizing or parsing these numbers. These numbers are uneven across the board, as exposed in Connecticut’s achievement gap, hence this amounts to conflation. CT Mirror has reported on this:

In West Hartford, test scores are rising. But the difference in the percentages of low-income students and their more affluent peers who achieve proficiency has been stuck at around 20 percent despite years of reforms. Although Connecticut is typically praised for its schools, disparities in the performance of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds–which are often referred to as the “achievement gap”–reveal that, in truth, the state has significant inequities in its educational system.

Maybe Rep. Mushinsky is correct to claim that “Remedial coursework is too much of a barrier to earning a degree.” Again, the problem is that this statement amounts to belief not factually based analysis. It also introduces a balance problem for legislators. We could, for example, list the five most significant barriers to “earning a degree” and then go about addressing them. What solution, for example, would work well enough so that students taking entrance exams would all pass and be admitted with smiles into college-level courses? This is a vexing issue, to be fair to the advancers of SB 40. But, it invokes an old-time paradox: if everyone is excellent then everyone is mediocre.

Teachers will not determine who can and cannot learn. They should not make judgements about this. Indeed, an underlying principle in learning is that all humans can do it. My understanding of cognition amounts to this conclusion: the brain is made for learning. But learning in school is a manufactured context. Mass education in institutions is a relatively new idea in human history. But mass learning in an socio-ecological sense is not. Everyone, for example, learns how to eat, with some exceptions, say in the case of brain injury. Every culture provides for contextual learning. What’s even newer now is a concept of mass higher education.

I would argue that mass education, K-12, higher ed, has presented an economical quandary for most industrialized nations, a set of problems we have yet to solve. In the United States, we have yet to totally commit to it. To educate a public takes an enormous amount of resources, but our country refuses to scale it to reasonable proportions, just as it refuses to scale other resources, like law enforcement and public transit, preferring to meet a standard of “just barely get it to work” and then “listen to the complaints.” And much of the arguments about “developmental education” are about money. Thomas provides some information about this in her article:

The 100,000-student college system has had its state funding cut by nearly $30 million this year.

But Bye isn’t buying that argument.

“There are community colleges in the state who are making money on these courses. They need to figure something else out,” she said, noting that she suspects the pushback is because significantly less faculty will be needed. “What we’ve done with this bill is we’ve drawn a line in the sand. We had to say to them, ‘Look we’re the parents here. No more of this.'”

One of the issues we’ll be talking about at the college is how to spread our recourses around to meet Connecticut’s legislative mandate. We’re also scratching our heads wondering how diminishing developmental courses will save money, as the numbers of students to be served will not diminish and will likely rise, given the intent of the legislation: to reduce barriers to access and to increase the numbers of degrees conferred. The last I checked 100% subtracted by zero equals 100%. Minus, of course, $30 million.

Let me finish with my own riddle. What has three wheels, four doors and an engine? Hint: it’s not a bicycle.

Another question: thousands of people will be graduating from college this and in the next several years. What are they going to do?

2 responses to “Do We Ask the Right Questions? A Brief Review of Education in Connectciut”

  1. gibb says:

    I feel that too much emphasis is placed on a college degree (rather than the education) to the effect that many who will not do well in college for lack of interest or choice of career will be pushed through regardless, feeling insecure and stupid if they don’t go through the motions.

  2. gibb says:

    …and probably feeling worse when they fail.