Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fear, Blame, and Financial Aid

Some stories have deeper roots than others.

This story is about a change to Federal financial aid policy that’s taking effect July 1.  At that point, no new students can receive financial aid -- or from what I’ve been told, could even pay their own way if the college itself is financial aid eligible -- to attend college if they don’t already have a high school diploma or a GED.  (Dual or concurrent enrollment programs are exempted.)  That means that the “ability to benefit” test will no longer work; students who show up without either a diploma or a GED have to go get one.  (Students previously admitted under ATB will be allowed to finish.)

At the same time, as an outgrowth of No Child Left Behind and the various state-based “accountability” movements, 28 states have instituted high-stakes, must-pass standardized tests that students have to pass to graduate high school and receive a diploma.  Depending on the state, students who finish the twelfth grade but don’t pass the test fall into a sort of limbo.  They’ve run out of high school, but they don’t get diplomas or GEDs.  

I don’t think the new policy was written with this cohort in mind, but it’s not a trivial-sized group. Yes, theoretically they could get GEDs, and maybe, eventually, a few will, but it’s one more hurdle, and a uniquely dispiriting one.  

Worse, Adult Basic Education programs are often oversubscribed already.  Adding a whole new client base without adding new funding -- call me cynical, but I’m not holding my breath here -- is just asking for trouble.

The punish-the-dropouts movement is colliding with the test-’em-all movement to create a cohort of students who stuck out high school until the end, only to leave without diplomas and without eligibility for a second chance in community college.  Add an underfunded ABE network and you’ve created a real problem.

Underlying the collision, I think, is a tension between a drive to punish and a need to offer second chances.  

American culture gets scarily enthusiastic about punishment.  We lead the industrialized world in incarceration rates, and still apparently feel so scared of dark people that we’re willing to look the other way when a gun nut chases down an unarmed black teenager carrying nothing but iced tea and skittles and shoots him in the chest.  We’re scared enough of women being sexual that we pass laws mandating stillbirths to be carried to term because, well, that’ll teach ‘em to have sex.  And we’re scared enough of failure that we want to believe that people who fail are somehow at fault themselves, and that failure will go away if they do.  

But that’s not how things work.

If half of the students in a given high school don’t graduate -- some drop out, others run out the clock but never pass the test -- who do you punish?  Punishing the students, which is what the new policy will do, has the undesirable effect of essentially punishing the poor for being poor.  It also leads to a loss of hope, which can lead to some awful places.  

Punishing the teachers doesn’t solve issues of student transience, unstable home lives, or suboptimal peer groups, and it virtually guarantees that good teachers will avoid those districts in the future.  Punishing principals doesn’t seem to help, judging by the “meh” effects that the charter school movement has had nationally.  

No.  We’re not going to get through this by punishing our way out.  Okay, some school districts struggle more than others; the statistics are easily available, and we all know the major variables involved.  Are we content with that, or can we find ways to help people climb out?  (Knowing that one could climb out -- even if the option is never taken -- has value.  Nothing is more dangerous than fatalism.)  Yes, eventually it would be lovely if every school did a great job the first time, nobody ever needed remediation, everyone was college-ready, and the economy was begging for new employees at all skill levels.  That would be nifty; sign me up.  But in the absence of that option, we have choices to make.

By all means, let’s work on improving the high schools.  But we have students graduating now for whom even the best improvements will come too late.  What to do about them?

Where fear and hope collide, let’s choose the second chance over the punishment.  Let’s not write off entire classes of students when they turn 18, if they even make it that far.  We need to get past the destructive and self-defeating drive to punish people who have already lost, and instead get serious about bringing the outsiders back in.  This should be an easy place to start.  Let them in.  And then let’s get serious about facing those fears.