Wednesday, June 26, 2013

 

A Warning to My Colleagues

I wasn’t surprised by a new study showing concrete benefits for low-income students who attend Early College High School programs.  The study used a random lottery to assign certain students to Early College programs, while keeping other, otherwise-similar students out.  Attendance in the programs is positively correlated with subsequent college enrollment and graduation.

Programs like that can do wonders for kids in difficult circumstances.  They can demystify college, making it seem real.  They can take kids out of high school settings that just don’t work for them, whether because of bullying, homophobia, or whatever other dysfunction the local high schools happen to suffer.

From experience and observation, though, I have to offer a warning to any of my colleagues who are considering establishing one.

Some of your faculty will hate it.

I say “some,” not “all,” because the sentiment isn’t universally shared.  But among those who will oppose it, statistics about success won’t matter.  Neither will appeals to social justice, testimonials from students, or solicitations of alternatives.  

They’ll take a program like that as a threat to their status as college professors.  They’ll see it as encroachment by high schools onto college territory, and feel it as an implied insult.  It will strike at the heart of a status anxiety that ultimately won’t be soothed with statistics.  You’ll know that this is the issue when you start hearing arguments about “identity.”  

It’s easy for faculty to feel embattled.  (My friend Lesboprof had a nice piece on that last month.)  Higher ed is acutely status-conscious from the outset, and community colleges don’t carry the prestige of universities or elite colleges.  Over the last several years, cc’s in most of the country have endured some pretty rough budget years, even by the standards of a sector that’s underfunded in the best of times.  Faculty have seen the move towards adjuncts, and many of them see it, with some warrant, as a devaluation of their role.  And recently, calls for higher graduation rates and more workforce development strike many liberal arts faculty as offensive; they read the former as a veiled order to lower their standards, and the latter as foreshadowing downsizing.  Taken in combination, that’s a powerful set of stressors.

When you start with a hair trigger, and then hear something about high school students coming on campus, it’s easy to read an ECHS program as an intolerable insult.  It’s a misreading, and a dangerous one, but I can see where it comes from.

In a perfect world, we could address the various stressors directly and thereby lower everybody’s blood pressure.  At that point, it would be easier to discuss the merits of a given program.  But the anxieties run deep.  Local administrations don’t have the power to undo years of state austerity.  The higher ed prestige hierarchy predates all of us, and has psychic effects far beyond anything a given dean or vp could address.  And while 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.  When a legislature announces point-blank that it will base allocations on a given set of metrics, there’s really no ignoring that.  The people whose courses don’t fit the metrics as cleanly as others are capable of connecting the dots.  

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.

Comments:
I can't speak to all early college programs, and I certainly see the potential benefits. However, I have a different set of concerns and objections than the ones you mentioned, concerns applicable to the proposals I've seen locally but perhaps not applicable to all proposals.

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.
 
BTW, I'm not at a CC, so perhaps the cultural issues are different, but I am at a non-elite state university (4 year, primarily undergraduate).
 
I'll start by saying that an "Early College" program like this has existed in my state for decades, yet we don't seem to be any worse off as far as status goes.

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.
 
I think the reason these programs succeed is that our classes get respect and are taken more seriously than a corresponding HS class. IMHO, the medium bright students can see what is going on with extra extra credit so everyone can pass HS and doubt the value of their own grades. Once they find out that we actually fail students, our grades have value. For now. And it certainly doesn't hurt to ease them across the transition from "everyone passes" to "take responsibility".

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?
 
They should take it as a threat to their _status_ as college professors. It's an admission that whether the students in front of them are 18 or 22 or even 32, they are n ow reduced to nothing more then Junior High teachers, because that's where the students would still be if the public school system hadn't spent the last few decades reducing standards, eliminating content, and socially promoting at the end of the year. By keeping "High School Students" off campus, they can continue to pretend that the students who are on campus are real "College Students" and that they are therefore "College Professors".
 
I teach at a massive state university with reasonably high admissions standards.

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.
 
CCPhysicist,

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.
 
Regarding concerns about maturity and time to college graduation:

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'm in the humanities -- so my concern is generally about the ability of my students to read and write at a level sufficient to do college work.

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.
 
My CC is in the inner city, in one of the most violent parts of that city. When this has come up at my CC, the very real concern about having minor students walking the halls with adults 2x their age is mentioned. Perhaps this is not a concern in more suburban or rural campuses, but is one for my school.
 
Anon2:15, what do you do at your school to try to ensure the safety of your regular students? Wouldn't whatever you already do apply to your potential early college students too? Honestly, I'm not understanding how age is the issue, here. Most CCs and regional 4-yr publics already have a lot of non-traditional students mixed in with traditional students, so it is highly likely that you already have students mingling with people twice their age. I'm not sure why that's an issue for you, but even so, how does the potential addition of a small group of 15-17 year olds change the safety profile of your entire campus?
 
About college algebra:

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.
 
I think the only status anxiety that needs to be called into check here is your own. Plain and simple -- you work for the faculty so the faculty can work for the students. Don't ever forget this. You have constructed numerous posts where you are disingenuous in your treatment of faculty, but I find this particular post to be unusually reprehensible. Are you really saying that faculty should be partitioned into little groups, i.e. "good" vs. "bad", simply based on your need to cling to all things data-driven? Are you seriously advocating a "warning" about faculty to your colleagues? What comes to mind is the robot from "Lost In Space" -- Danger Will Robinson, Danger Will Robinson. Perhaps your faculty, if you actually ever asked them (you may speak with them but do you really listen) might be more concerned with the mixed message of where HS ends and CC begins, and how that message resonates with the current student population, whether they be college students or dual-enrollees? I know of no CC faculty member who relishes the idea that a community college is nothing more than an extension of high school. Get over yourself and start talking with your faculty -- you might be surprised by how much thought they have given on this very topic. The faculty are always going to be old and young, seasoned and green, outspoken and shy. How can you possibly advocate for what faculty do and for what faculty need when you treat the faculty as trivialities. Myopia -- thy name is Deandad.

 
Anonymous at 4:29: Attacking the person rather than the argument seems to show that immaturity is not only an issue with students.
 
I graduated from a dual degree program ("Running Start") in Washington State--I took all my college courses at the local community college, and I got my associates degree at the same time as my high school diploma. Professors were not told who was dual-enrollment, though they knew there were likely to be a few RS students in their program. Most RS students largely kept their age/status to themselves, because there were faculty who were upset about having HS students in their classrooms. But it was telling when these same professors would complain about RS students *to me* not knowing I was one of them. Since I knew quite well who was and who wasn't, it became pretty clear they assumed that poorly behaved high school graduates were RS students, and couldn't tell most of the RS students unless they were particularly young and looked it--and even then, they didn't believe the evidence in front of their eyes when the students were like me, and more articulate, well read, and good at math than the average traditional CC student. So, now that I am a college faculty member, I don't have much sympathy for the faculty who disdain teaching HS aged students. If they can do the work, and behave appropriately for the classroom, those faculty need to get over themselves and get on with the teaching.
 
Well, one thing grabs me about this thread. DD suggests that opposition to such programs may not be grounded in obvious territory, and may not be susceptible to evidence or reasoned discussion. When I read his post this morning, I thought he was being kind of condescending, but the comments on this post (and on the IHE site) do seem to bear out his observation.
 
I think there's a lot more to it than just status, DD. There's more of an in loco parentis expectation, strict reporting requirements (sending out grade averages every two weeks for some programs), and more of an expectation to discuss students' academic performance with parents. This should definitely be opt-in as far as faculty are concerned; this is not what they signed on for. And I say this as an administrator, albeit a middle-management flunky version. If they had wanted to teach students that age and at that stage of development, they would have gotten degrees in secondary education and sought jobs as high school teachers.
 
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