Sunday, March 06, 2016


When Success Gets Scarce

I remember high school, college, and grad school as being academically competitive.  Students tried to outshine each other to stand out when the time came for selection to the next level.  It felt like a “pyramid” model, and a process of weeding out.  Each level was more selective than the one before it.  By the end of the sequence, we had a bunch of people who were very good at school, and who were pretty intensely nervous about it.

The “bracket tournament” model, like March Madness, has a distinctly familiar feel to it.  Some of us probably heard the story of the college president saying at freshman orientation “Look to your left.  Now look to your right.  One of you will make it.”  It’s a sort of secular Calvinist model - any failings are taken as signs of deeper, underlying flaws in the student.  With each level the scrutiny gets finer until only a select few are left standing.  We lived in fear of being found out.  Rampant “impostor syndrome” was pretty much inevitable.

The model had plenty of issues.  Its methods of measurement were narrow, game-able, and often obscure.  It left out a lot.  It tended to give the winners an unhealthy sense of entitlement.  And it hid systemic or structural issues -- race, wealth, the availability of “extra” opportunities -- under a curtain of “meritocracy.”  But it was the way things were, and at that age, it seemed inevitable.

Moving from that to institutions that prized “student success” was a culture shock.  Suddenly, the onus for student failure was on the professor or the institution, rather than the student.  (I should say “in addition to,” but that wasn’t how it felt at the time.)  At first, it felt like a betrayal.  But over time, the upside became apparent.  The world is a much bigger place than grad school, and a good thing, too.

The Boy is a freshman in high school now, and he’s suddenly making the opposite move.  He’s going from the “everyone can succeed!” model of elementary and middle schools to the more competitive high school model.  Suddenly, teams have “tryouts” and “cuts.”  Not everybody gets to be in the Honors class.  Strata are starting to take definable shape.

Both models have truth in them.  Yes, the world is a big place with lots of different ways to succeed, including many we haven’t thought of yet.  (When I was TB’s age, “google” was just a cute name for a big number.)  And to the extent that we’re talking about relatively basic skills, I don’t see the point of a zero-sum model.  The more people who can write clearly, use mathematical reasoning, and know something about the history of the world, the better.  I see no point at all in hoarding those skills, or confining them to a select few.  

But it’s also true that the world is a competitive place.  Most kids who play baseball will never play in the majors.  Skills that everyone has aren’t worth a lot in the marketplace, precisely because everybody has them.  You make your mark by being better at something than most other people.  That involves accepting that other people will be better than you at many things.  It’s a hard lesson, but a necessary one.  Finding that niche takes time, and a frustrating process of trial and error; in the absence of “error,” you’ll never find it.  

TB is making the adjustment as well as I could ask.  But it’s still hard to watch.  Until recently, in his world, success was there for everybody.  Now, and abruptly, it has become scarce.

American culture loves to create winners and losers.  (I suspect that his, well, liberal use of the term “losers” is part of Donald Trump’s appeal.)  We consider the division “realistic,” even when it has to be contrived with great effort.  As Jim Gaffigan noted, we live in a culture in which people compete on television to see who makes the best cupcakes, missing the point that when someone makes cupcakes, everyone wins.

Community colleges fight an uphill cultural battle, because they lean more in the direction of success for all.  To the rest of the culture, that seems suspect.  At one point, it did to me, too.  

Success in any given realm may have to be scarce.  But I’m happy to contribute, however indirectly, to developing realms nobody has thought of yet.

I make it a point to refer to former students who I know have done well after becoming engineers because they learned what they needed to know regardless of what they did on tests. (You can get a C on a test but remember what you learned, or you can get an A and forget it all the next day. The latter looks good at first but creates huge obstacles a year or two down the road.) No test can measure the creativity or people skills needed to do well in a profession like engineering or the corporate world that hires physical scientists.

One thing that high school reunions and Fb groups eventually show you is that valedictorians and other top graduates quite often are not the most "successful" (pick your measure) after a few decades go by. There are things that grades do not measure, or are not associated in any way with the courses that are most easily measured by grades, that matter a great deal to lifetime success.

I am most struck by those who can retire early and happily travel the globe (or their favorite parts of it) or share hobbies and time with their children and grand children without ever having been anywhere near a classic millionaire career. That approach to live is seldom shown in the movies or episodic TV.
I didn't comment on what may have been the real target of your article, and that is the problems new faculty AND older faculty have with adjusting to the developing emphasis on Success as measured by Passing Rate.

"Some of us probably heard the story of the college president saying at freshman orientation “Look to your left. Now look to your right. One of you will make it.” It’s a sort of secular Calvinist model ..."
followed by
"Moving from that to institutions that prized “student success” was a culture shock."

I have no idea if that story is even true, because places where 2/3 of entering students drop out of college usually don't brag about it. The true story I have heard is that Caltech freshmen were told -- after a quick show of hands of those who had a perfect 4.0, were valedictorian, etc -- that from now on half of you are below average. An important teachable moment, because that is quite an adjustment to make from high school.

My version would be that the difference between a CC and a flagship R1 isn't you, it is who is sitting next to you, the person you might compare yourself with. At the flagship, usually someone just like you is sitting next to you. That difference has nothing to do with the pyramid you describe, because grads from the CC will have to deal with the demands of a university and eventually (along with grads from a sub-mediocre "success"-oriented private college) with the demands of an international economy.

My undergrad flagship institution prized student success, and the faculty put a lot of effort into developing it, but they never confused success with the passing rate. When I was first hired, my CC had the same point of view. We looked at how our grads did after transfer, and worked at improving that performance. Success was preparing you for the next class or your career, not keeping the classrooms and dorms full for the spring semester. (I am told by someone in a position to know that the last metric is a consideration at less-selective public and private schools because empty dorm rooms are big cost problem. Fewer sections just means fewer adjuncts in the spring, just like at a CC, but empty rooms still have a mortgage and maintenance costs.)

The change is when passing rate becomes part of faculty evaluations, not success in the next class or how the course compares to the same one at a nearby university. Then the person teaching the next class starts getting increasingly unprepared students and gets blamed for it. I hear about this regularly from math faculty where long sequences enhance the effect and they are now under immense pressure to make it worse.

That emphasis on passing over education is new, and threatens the ultimate success of those students as it turns CC into HS. If that isn't what you want, you need to think long and hard about how you evaluate faculty and what you tell them about your emphasis on "success", and what you tell legislators and the future employers who fund their campaigns about your views on both the number and the quality of your graduates under circumstances where you are required by law to admit them.
I'm kind of pissed that we turned HS into HS.

I agree with CCPhysicist ...
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