Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Remedial College Classes

The public education critics in Colorado gained more ammunition after the Denver Post reported that one-third of the state's high school grads need remedial classes when they start college. This may seem shocking to many, though it's important to keep in mind that only one-third of the country even has a college degree. Thus, it may be only one third of the country that is shocked and outraged by these statistics. Sadly, the issue is much more complex than a simple statistic on remedial classes in college. Instead, it should generate genuine discussion of the high school curriculum, college prep classes, and the necessity of a college-educated workforce.

Pew Researcher David Connelly has noted there is a fundamental difference between "college eligible" and "college ready," and that distinction is at the heart of this debate - a debate which reveals a lack of understanding of the goals and curriculum of public education in this country. We are sending twice as many students to college as we did in 1950, yet the number of people achieving bachelor degrees has remained virtually unchanged in that time. Clearly, we are sending a large number of students unprepared for college. The questions that need to be asked concern issues of standard versus college-prep curriculum, as well as the performance of the students on standard assessments.

In the United States, students can go to college after graduating high school with a D average, or not even graduating at all. That is true nowhere else in the world, and it reveals much about the need for remedial courses in college. By contrast, students who graduate from AP and IB programs rarely require such courses and are far more likely to achieve a degree. Thus, we should not be shocked by the remedial course issue until we understand who the students are and whether they should have been admitted, or even advised to go, to college.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Standards-based Learning

An old adage about learning goes, "when the student is ready, the master will appear." The focus on a child's "readiness" has been of interest me since my son was born six years ago and my daughter arrived three years later. Though I've been teaching for sixteen years, my rather traditional approach to education (no doubt influenced by Catholic schooling) never led me to consider anything other than the rigid guidelines of curriculum for each level. However, after my son was born and I started reading books about parenting and early childhood education, I began to wonder how I might feel if my child wasn't ready to read or write at first grade as standardized tests are now encouraging. Luckily for me, my children are already passing standard benchmarks for skills. However, I no longer fully accept the concept of a one-size-fits-all education system. I am more intrigued by Waldorf and Montessori models, (philosophies that, years ago, I would have flippantly referred to as "foo-foo" education).

Thus, I am intrigued by the decision of the Adams 50 school district in Colorado to make a move away from grades and approach schooling from a readiness and skill proficiency perspective for its struggling schools. There is a simple wisdom to allowing kids to proceed through proficiency of skills at their own pace. Of course, I have always worried about the kid who still isn't "ready" to read at the age of eighteen, and guaranteeing considerable levels of accountability is absolutely paramount in a reform-movement based on this idea. Yet, I recall a colleague from years ago who completed k-12 in the Waldorf model. He explained how he started reading and pres-school and his sister didn't read or write until the "third grade." Yet, he is a high school English teacher with a Master's degree, and his sister has a Ph.D. in Humanities. Thus, there is some validity to the argument behind "standards-based learning." I wish Adams 50 all the best, and we should be watching its progress with hope and scrutiny.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Health Care; Health Care

As the dawning of the Obama administration nears, there is much hope for systemic change, not the least among it being health care reform. Not since 1993 has there been such hope for developments in this perplexing industry that accounts for 16% of the nation's GDP. Morton Kondracke weighed in today with a comprehensive op-ed piece which attempts to address all the variables. However, I'm not entirely sure what to make of the piece other than noting the habitual scare-tactic ranting about the evils of the Canadian system. That aspect of the commentary saddens me, as it implies that any nationalized system would inherently mimic the style and the problems of Canadian or British health care systems. This ignores the possibility that the United States could do something better, or even emulate systems that blend public and private health care, as they do in Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, etc. I also suspect that this is one more case of a pundit criticizing something about which he has no personal experience. I have rarely met critics of foreign health care systems who have actually lived under those systems. More likely, they are wealthy individuals who have yet to feel the pain of increasing premiums and decreasing benefits. I am still holding out for a blended system that offers all Americans a base health insurance while allowing for the purchase of additional private coverage. At this point, I see the Wyden-Bennett plan as being the most feasible, and I hope it will continue to generate support.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

An Educated Electorate

In the realm of truly bad ideas in the world of government spending and education reform, Colorado state representative Don Marostica of Loveland has proposed cutting all state funding for higher education and privatizing all colleges and universities in Colorado. While this is a shocking statement for most educated people, it doesn't seem all that unusual in Colorado where conservatives are especially zealous in their anti-tax, anti-government crusade. This proposal was probably pretty well received by numerous Coloradans who oppose the idea that "government knows how to spend their money better than they do." This is despite the fact that Colorado has the distinction of being one the most well-educated states in the union while at the same time failing miserably at educating its own children. Though I am fiscally conservative, this issue is where I depart with the Republican Party in Colorado, as their support for TABOR (the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights) has severely curtailed higher education spending for a decade now, and the side effects are clear.

Regardless of most citizens' stances on taxes and government power, a majority of Americans have always accepted that funding of public education is a good investment for a state. The state mandates of free public education k-12 was a good idea. The establishment of state colleges and universities was a good idea. Public funding of the university system was a good idea. Despite all the criticism, much of it unfounded, the American public education system is still the envy of the world, and the U.S. educates a greater percentage of its population to the highest level than any other nation at any time in history. This serves us well, even as most other industrialized nations fund public education through college at a greater rate than we do. To consider moving in the opposite direction is, quite honestly, irrational, if not outright ludicrous. Yet, it just goes to show how blinding ideology can be.