Thursday, July 05, 2007

Hire education?

As I look over the slate of topics and news stories I hope to cover in upcoming posts, I realize that almost all of it relates to pride. Not real pride, mind you—the kind that's actually earned—but perceived pride. The sort of faux, push-button pride that's so popular (and so deeply ingrained) in American culture nowadays. Next week, for example, we'll be discussing racial pride, which—aside from being baseless*—also happens to be one of the most divisive and subtly destructive forces there is. For today, however....

HIGH SCHOOL MATH FAILING TO MAKE THE COLLEGE GRADE reads the page-one, above-the-fold headline in my Morning Call. The story goes on to explain that large numbers of students** these days are arriving on college campuses needing remedial classes in some of the most rudimentary mathematical operations. As the article notes at one point, one local college, "finding that students were struggling with pre-algebra courses, added a low-level basic mathematics course and arithmetic course to its offerings for the fall 2007 semester." Later in the piece, describing the underwhelming nature of today's typical college-level calculus class, the reporter quotes a math department chairperson, Marie Wilde, as follows: "The change [from past years] is astounding. It's like calculus lite." Wilde adds that there's no way that you can expect to confront most students with the advanced problems that used to be staples in such courses, because "students have never thought at that level." This reflects a nationwide trend, says the reporter.

Such events are just one more form of fallout from the "success movement"—a more tightly focused offshoot of self-esteem-based education that seeks, in this case, to confer to high-school graduates an instant, spray-on brand of success: a high GPA and the cachet of having taken and passed "advanced placement" courses. That faux success looks good on paper and opens doors at higher educational levels (as well as in the job market), but signifies nothing of real value because the underlying skills simply aren't there. The students received inflated grades for dumbed-down coursework. (And yes, I know how ludicrous it sounds that coursework would be dumbed-down in "advanced placement" classes; but apparently it's happening, and it's happening all over.) How can this educational double-whammy not be at least partly responsible for the U.S.' steadily deteriorating posture in the international science sweepstakes? (If you have a copy of SHAM handy—and by now, you really should [wink]—see chapter 10, especially pp. 185-6 and page 200.)

Further, though this isn't a primary emphasis of the Call piece, I find it interesting that the colleges are clearly wimping out, too. Instead of setting standards and holding fast...instead of just bouncing these unqualified students out...colleges "enable" the whole process by accommodating to this new, lowest-common-denominator student body. They waste precious college time on grade-school coursework...and then they dumb down the college-level classes (e.g. "calculus lite") as well! Thus the colleges, too, in at least some meaningful percentage of cases, end up awarding degrees that do not attest to the level of knowledge and capability they should. (Otherwise administrators would have to pass up millions of dollars in tuitions and lose market share to other colleges that take a more "forgiving" approach.)

So where does it end?

Incidentally, when I taught, I had students who harbored no illusions about the process, and wouldn't mince words. They felt that they were "buying" a college degree in strict commodity terms, and "expected me" and my colleagues to give them the kinds of grades that would help them compete in a tough job market. "That's what my parents are paying my tuition for," said one unflinchingly. "Let's face it, that's what pays your salary."

* no matter which "race" we're talking about, of course. See previous post for my general feelings on race.
** "half" of all college-bound students, speculates the reporter.


RevRon's Rants said...

"So where does it end?"

Unfortunately, it ends with us collectively shouting, "Oh, s**t!" when we finally realize that the Chinese, who are positively obsessed with catching up with us economically and academically, have not only caught up, but passed us by.

The Japanese took the lessons we offered (yet didn't follow, ourselves) and are rapidly taking our place as the manufacturing behemoth. We didn't pay any attention to the process until Toyota surpassed GM as the world's biggest car maker.

China has already taken our place as the high-tech manufacturing powerhouse, and if we don't get our act together academically, they - along with India - will leave us moaning about even more jobs "lost to foreigners." Truth is, those jobs - and that manufacturing/technical/academic supremacy isn't lost... it's being given away. And all we're doing about it is blaming them for doing what we should have been doing all along.

Kim said...

Honestly, I welcome this change not because of any sinister self-esteem-based education but because I came from a crappy country school system and was not adequately prepared for Big 10 university calculus, but being "too smart" (by placement exam) for the remedial classes that's where I got dumped. I know I was not alone in this in my state. I'm not sure why it's a problem to have the classes cover a little more preparatory ground and be more inclusive of kids with lower quality preparation: they're still going to need to cover all of the required tools of calculus in order to succeed in later classes that build upon those tools.

Steve Salerno said...

This is an interesting perspective, Kim, and a bit of a wake-up call to those of us who think we've got it all figured out and therefore tend to paint all situations with the same brush. Having said that.... Even if there are such things as "crappy country school systems," I'm still not sure that justifies diluting college curricula to the point where U.S. students are functioning at several levels beneath our more aggressive global competitors. I ask you, in all sincerity: If "no child left behind" means, in practice, that the entire educational system has to be geared to what the least-prepared (or least-competent) student is capable of grasping, then what have we really accomplished?

Of course, as always, I welcome opposing POVs.

Anonymous said...

Although aptitudes vary -- mine was weak in mathematics -- some high school courses seemed dumbed down to me. Skeptical of the depth of material presented, many times, I asked teachers, "is this all there is to that," only to be branded a troublemaker when I dug deeper and raised challenging questions in class.

I was one of those who took remedial math classes in college, and struggled with them for numerous reasons -- my stubborn disposition toward rigorous practice being chief.

But what floors me -- just a few months ago was the integration of undergraduates into a graduate-level class. The course information was watered down to accommodate the younger and less experienced students.

We graduate students filed a formal complaint without much reprieve from university higher-ups.

The universities are perpetuating this devolution of educational rigor, but that's because of the values Americans possess nowadays.

We have become a market-obsessed society, driven by self-interest and fixated on making the next buck. These colleges that tailor course work to the under qualified and pander to the ill-prepared, do so because without a certain head count some bean-counting chancellor in charge of policy and salary raises won't have the money to give his closest university friends higher-than-average wage increases.

There is hope, however, tides turn. Everything cyclic.