Wednesday, June 26, 2013
A Warning to My Colleagues
Since status anxiety is likely to persist, any of my colleagues out there who are considering an ECHS-style program would be well-advised to take the temperature of the faculty, and to offer whatever assurances they can, before jumping in. The program itself may well be worthy -- I’ve been impressed by the results I’ve seen -- but it may set off a serious trip wire. Proceed with caution. I’m not suggesting that it’s worth sacrificing a generation of kids just to avoid irritating some adults. It isn’t. But be aware that what seems in isolation like an obviously good idea may sound to some faculty like a mortal insult, and that they may respond accordingly. Don’t be blindsided.
The proposals that I've seen often include giving HS students credit for our "college algebra" course. That sounds fine, on the surface: It's called "college" algebra, we're a college, and if they've taken the prereq for it, why not take it and get credit?
Here's the thing: We have a 1-year sequence that covers "college algebra", trigonometry, and "precalculus." The material in these classes would usually be covered in about 2 years (give or take) in most high school curricula. We cover it in 1 year, for a lot of reasons. The best reason I can give is that the students have allegedly seen this before so it's just a "refresher." We all pretend not to notice that STEM majors who start in "college algebra" tend not to be doing so hot at math when they get to higher-level courses.
So, 2 years (or so) of high school math crammed into a year is sub-optimal for the students. It would be far better if they spent a couple years going at it gradually and getting it down, rather than cramming it. Moreover, the proposals that I've seen have these classes taught by high school teachers for college credit. Forget about contract and job security issues. These same teachers could not get the students to master the material with two years of study, so they came to us and took these classes again and collected generous C's. I'm to believe that somehow these teachers will lead students to mastery of the same material if it's taught in a compressed time frame?
So, here's what I want for the students: I want them to get the fundamentals down. I want them to spend a couple years really going at advanced algebra, trigonometry, various pre-calculus topics, etc. I want them to do that, then come here and test into calculus. I don't want them to cram all that material into a year and then take a test that is graded, um, "progressively" and collect the generous C's that we give out because we're expected to. That isn't any good for them.
Yes, we give those generous C's, and we have to answer for that. Maybe that means we've forfeited our right to cast stones from our glass houses. Despite that, I'd rather that they have the chance to do something gradually and master it, rather than take the worst of what we do and spread it down to the high school level.
The root of all of this is that high school algebra 2, trigonometry, and precalculus have been labeled "college level" courses for some reason that baffles me. That labeling is what enables this mischief. So far we've resisted it, but some day they'll succeed at relabeling all of those high school classes as "college algebra" and whatnot, and compress the time frame to the detriment of students who need time to get the fundamentals down.
I'll save the rest of my response for later so I can comment on what Alex wrote, from my perspective as one of two resident curmudgeons.
1) The people who teach our CC courses in local high schools are the same ones who teach local high school students who take classes on our campus. They have 18 graduate hours in mathematics, blah blah blah and some adjunct at night on campus. I understand that some CCs might not do this, but accrediting agencies are supposed to check on that.
2) I see no evidence of any difference between students who start above college algebra at our CC and those who start in college algebra or even well below, and I have looked at this carefully. The reason might be that our precalculus classes are all taught to a common standard by full-time and select part-time faculty. I highly recommend that approach, with well-defined and oft-discussed outcomes and assessment of same.
3) IMHO, my HS Algebra 2 class (one HS semester) and trig class (one HS semester) were each superior to what is called college algebra and trig at my CC and way beyond what one finds in most high schools today. I think the main reason was (emphasis on was) that those skilled teachers made full use of all 5 days of class and, in addition, we all actually knew something about proofs and Euclidean geometry. That same HS today does not have a class like the ones we had, nor do the ones that feed my CC. That sort of college-prep tracking seems to have been replaced with a scheme that uses actual college courses instead.
So why is it called College Algebra? I suspect the simplest reason is that it actually was algebra that was first taught in college when my father graduated HS during WW II and the book titles haven't changed since then. Yes, many students take a one-year course equivalent to college algebra in HS, but there are a great many students who attend a HS where an Algebra 2 course like that is not required for graduation -- so it is still algebra that is first taken in college.
There isn't a veiled threat to lower standards out there, there is a clear agenda to do so, just as was done in high schools. Is it ironic that the same Republicans (in my state) who want more students to graduate from CCs without regard to performance standards are pushing to put some standards back in HS? Yes. Do they notice? No.
Dean Dad writes: "[W]hile I absolutely agree that local administrations should be clear on rejecting grade inflation as a retention strategy, it’s simply impossible to ignore the larger social pressures to ensure the employability of graduates."
I agree, but I want to put a name on that pressure: Cargo Cult. [Wiki it if you don't know the term.] It was that same social pressure, based on the belief that it was the diploma rather than the education that made HS graduates valuable in the workforce that led to demands that everyone go to HS and graduate. Now it is a college diploma and a pair of Dr. Dre headphones that will bring wealth and success. I was thinking about this because of an article about celebrities and the anthropology of prestige. Can anyone else see why colleges want to move up from CC to 4-year to Football Power R1 pseudo-ivy, or from nothing special private to actual ivy, and react negatively to having HS students around?
I see a lot of students who come in effectively as sophomores or juniors through dual enrollment, early college, or other such programs.
I find these students exceptionally well prepared with regards to content.
They lack maturity. This is both an emotional maturity as well as the maturity to take on the responsibility of deciding what they want to do with the rest of their lives. I find they are being asked to decide on majors and career paths two years younger than their academic peers. Many of these students (I'd love to see stats -- I'm going based on the traffic through my office as an UG major advisor) change majors enough times that they still spend 4 years at our university, or effectively 5-6 years in college.
I'd love to see this aspect of maturity studied.
Fair points on college algebra. I think you are exactly right when you say that one strength of a good HS math class is that you cover the material in a 5 days/week manner. That and the fact that they take twice as long to cover it. Similar things can be said of a number of AP subjects: The AP teachers often cover in 3/4 of a year at 5 days/week what a college class would cover in half a year at 2-3 days/week.
No doubt there are some 16 year-olds who are prepared to take their Algebra II/trig (or whatever) in the format of an equivalent college class. However, those students seem to be few and far between, as is discussed by the Anonymous poster who raises the maturity issue. I'd rather keep them on the high school format as long as possible. Even among our 18 year-old college students there are far too many who aren't prepared; why push the issue onto younger students as well?
The focus should be on things that promote success, not things that get stamped on transcripts.
Although the two years of "free" college credits tend to get a lot of attention, in my opinion that is not the major benefit of early college programs; it is merely the most tangible and therefore, the most easily measured outcome. When people fixate on this outcome, it is understandable that the next assumption is that these kids ought to graduate college in another two years, and then we're headed down the path of all the challenges that come with that assumption (maturity, time to completion, etc). But I think that the assumption is incorrect, and doesn't match what many folks in early college programs expect or hope to see.
Although merely anecdotal, I'll use my own family's experience as an example. My kiddo is graduating from an early college program this month, with about 2 years of college credits. It will probably take him another 3 years to graduate from college, and that's fine with us. Our goal was never to have him graduate college at age 19 or 20(technically possible but undesirable - who is going to hire a 19 year old?); it was to help him find a place that was a good intellectual and social fit for him (high school wasn't it). The benefits that accrued to him via the early college program went well beyond the number of credits earned, or time "saved." I think that most parents, students, instructors, and program administrators involved in early college programs would say something similar.
I have high school students in my courses on a regular basis. I don't know that they're high school students unless they tell me -- and I'm often surprised that they are high school students because their work is often better than the regular students in my course.
As for college classes happening in high schools -- if the syllabus and preparation level of the faculty conducting the course isn't the same as on the college campus, then regular faculty have a reason to be concerned -- so, perhaps a bit more oversight is necessary to assure everyone that Comp 101 is the same when taught on the college campus vs. on the high school campus.
In my state (Oregon) three years of math, at Algebra 1 and above, are required for high school graduation. At the last school I taught at, this meant that students took Algebra 1 as freshmen, Geometry as sophomores, Algebra 2 as juniors, and then we lost them all after that because math wasn't required, getting an A in precalculus was by no means guaranteed, and if they took AP Biology instead they'd get graded on a 5.0 scale instead of a 4.0 scale (meaning a B in AP bio, far easier to get than an A in my precalc class, would get them the same 4.0 for their GPA), plus the possibility of college credit if they did well on the AP exam. There is no such thing as AP precalculus. Their little min-maxing hearts would thus lead them out of math (we're talking a pipeline of maybe 7 out of every 50 kids choosing precalc). Students who were tracking into Geometry or high as freshmen were somewhat more likely to stick around since they'd hit AP calc if they persisted past precalc, but I think I had TWO seniors stick with precalc all year the last time I taught it.
If they'd been able to get college credit for that precalc class (which is mostly trig, proofs, and hammering advanced algebra topics harder now that not everyone has to pass to graduate), I suspect an awful lot more of them would have seen the point of taking a hard class that would quite possibly ruin their GPA.
I'd much rather they were able to get college credit for that work at a normal high school pace if it's actual college level work, but if my choices are them skipping math for a year or two or them seeing if they can do it in a semester, well, they'll be better prepared to cram it in that semester if they don't take the rest of their high school years off first.