Monday, January 15, 2018

Which Problem Are We Trying to Solve?

I’m living this one personally.

Within the last week, I’ve been privy to two discussions about high schools, each conducted in complete isolation from the other.

  1. “What are the high schools doing?  Why do so many students need remediation?”
  2. “What are the high schools doing?  Why are they pressuring so many students to take AP and advanced classes?”

If I were, say, a high school principal, I might find that a little frustrating.  Put next to each other, they suggest that the core issue is only peripherally related to high schools.

They’re both about the disappearing middle.  And the disappearing middle goes far beyond anything high schools are, or aren’t, doing.  The high schools are dealing with the symptoms, but they aren’t the cause.

Something similar is happening in higher education.  Even as community colleges and relatively non-selective four-year schools are increasingly struggling for enrollment, elite and selective institutions grow ever harder to get into.  The Boy is a junior, so I’m privy to a front-row seat to admissions anxiety.  It was bad when I was his age, but it’s much worse now.   Counselors at elite places worry about students burning out from academic overachievement, while the dialogue at community colleges is about getting students through basic algebra.

We use the phrase “getting into college” to describe both ends of the spectrum, but we’re using the same words to talk about two very different things.  

There’s no shortage of contributing factors, but I think the biggest one is the narrowing of perceived avenues to economic success.  And that perception is largely accurate.  Yes, there are “middle skill” jobs that pay decent wages, and I’m glad that community colleges are paying more attention to those than they used to.  But if you look at income distribution over the entire economy of the US, you see good middle-class jobs moving either up or down.  My grandfather dropped out of the 9th grade to work as a tree trimmer, eventually getting a job as a lineman for Detroit Edison.  That unionized job allowed him to raise a family, own a home, and send both of his kids to good public universities.  If he were ever to take the Accuplacer, I’m sure he would have shown as needing remediation, but it didn’t matter.  If he were growing up now, he wouldn’t have the same options.

On the relatively elite side, the Great Chain of Being of institutional prestige is thoroughly national.  It wasn’t always.  For a while, outside of the Ivies, it was largely regional.  As it has gone national -- and international, given the appetite for full-pay international students -- and the elites haven’t added capacity, the competition has become tougher.  But the perceived payoff from a second-tier school, relative to a first-tier school, has dropped.  To many prospective students, rightly or wrongly, the penalty for a ‘safety school’ is much too high.

Public high schools, like community colleges, are built to serve everyone in the area.  That model presumes a relatively robust middle, sociologically speaking. As the middle has been strained, the schools are struggling to compensate.  The elite ones are up against a level of competitiveness that can become toxic; the rest are fighting to keep students on track at all.  

The ‘solution’ to this dilemma isn’t so much conceptual as economic and political.  If we had an economy in which the penalty for ‘safety schools’ wasn’t much more than diminished bragging rights, we could counsel students not to stress so much and actually mean it.  But their angst is based on something.  They don’t remember the economy we used to have.  They see it as it is, and have a sense of where it’s going.  In my darker moments, I wonder if they’re right.