Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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Katrina in effect ripped off the blinders Americans use to shield themselves from the harsh facts of their country. Even the corporate-run media could not control its reporters and photographers in the field to keep us from witnessing how class and race discrimination are implicit aspects of our culture.
Despite the denials from the right wing that poverty keeps growing, that the Katrina response was a disaster in itself, and that the war on Iraq has turned into an exercise in deciding which of our young people are expendable, citizens have to face these matters and their moral consequences.
In the midst of this natinoal turmoil, I have been asked to help assess the state of higher education in our community. Although I have been retired for six years, I still get people asking what the problems are and what can be done about them. The questions come because I was at one time very involved in promoting educational reforms, and the conditions that need reforming are becoming more evident and more worrisome to professors who are faced with them.
I was involved in testing and assessing students for placement into writing classes. In so doing, I and my colleagues compiled materials on the ACT scores, grade point averages, class rankings of students, and the preparatory courses they took. Those scores made clear that we had an underclass entering some of our universities who were admitted solely to increase enrollment numbers and be relieved of their tuition and fees money
. Most of the students in this underclass did not qualify for admission into reputable colleges. However, they were readily accepted into colleges that have "open enrollment" policies.
The ACT score is one of the main indicators of academic preparation and potential success. The scale for the ACT score is 1 to 36. The national average is 20.9. Most "open enrollment" colleges, as at the one I last taught, set a minimum score of 18.
During one of my last years of teaching, 54 percent of the freshmen students admitted had scores below 18. In other words, more than half the students admitted had a "flag" that indicated they needed some academic work to help them qualify for college admission.
The university where I then worked decided it could afford to offer "remedial" help to only ten percent of the new enrollees. So, about 45 percent of the students who showed that they needed more preparation to do full-fledged college work would be struggling. What this means to professors is a decision as to whether to adjust the classwork to accomodate the under-prepared or to give competitive courses and face the fact that the success rate in many courses will be very low. Actually, it was not hard to make that decision. Professors whose classes had high failure rates received bad evaluations from the administration.
And the academic quality of the institution plummeted. It had trouble attracting capable students, and eventually it had trouble attracting students, period. The last time I helped at an information booth for a college recruiting fair, high school kids made sneering comments about Northern State Middle School as they sauntered by.
When professors tried to bring the problem up to the administration, the administration went ballistic. Some said the enrollment situation was not something mere professors could grasp and should keep their noses out of it. Others said we did not know how to read or interpret the statistics. Still, we were responsible for testing and placing students. And others said, if you want to keep your jobs, just shut up. All the professors, apparently, wanted to keep their jobs. They were effectively silenced.
I received a question from a professor last week who had students with ACT scores as low as 10. I also received a query from a high school teacher about the quality of people going into teacher education.
My reply is that education needs tremendous reform. The criteria of a good college or university is not the scores of entering students. However, the colleges and universities with enviable reputations are very selective. A previous place where I taught has an average ACT score of 26, compared with 20 at the last place I taught. Furthermore, tuition, room and board, and fees amount to more than $30,000 a year at the private "selective" school where I once taught. At the South Dakota university where I taught, those fees are around $5,000. However, the ultimate measure of a college is what students have achieved when they graduate, not what their entrance scores are.
The reasons behind low entrance scores are numerous. They reflect high schools that have very meager economic resources and, often, communities that place little value on academics. Most communities are much more interested in athletics than they are in academic preparation. The tough fact is that many communities could not care less about what takes place in their schools aside from Friday night football and basketball games. The students with the poorest preparations in South Dakota tend to come from school systems that are organized around athletic programs, as opposed to athletic programs being organized around educational purposes. District superintendents admit openly that a school district can tolerate low assessment test scores from its students, but will insist that something be done about losing athletic scores.
Like many professors, I found it disappointing to use a Ph.D. degree to teach students middle school subject matter in developmental courses. On the other hand, I found it satisfying to note that many students who took those developmental courses often did well in their advanced college courses and had a high success and graduation rate. But those successes do not mitigate the fact that they were admitted solely to bolster enrollment numbers and collect tuition from them. They are admitted to college by people who know that they have deficiencies in their educations to make up, but those same people rail against offering programs in college that address those needs. They take these students in to get the money that comes with them, but then they rail against their poor preparation. Or, as many professors do, they castigate the high schools.
In reading and watching the accounts of people left stranded in New Orleans by people who consider them too inconsequential and too low on the bourgeois class scale to matter, I could not help but think of those students admitted into colleges for the headcount and the tuition money, and then left to flounder and survive as best they can. The percentage of students who come in to colleges with inadequate entrance scores is generally equal to the attrition rate. For each freshman class, only about 60 percent at the "open enrollment" institutions make it back for the sophomore year.
Just as the lives of young soldiers in Iraq or poor people in New Orleans are deemed as worthy only of sacrifice by our "conservative" culture, we have a large contingent of students entering our colleges who are regarded as sheep to fleece, not minds to develop.
The Katrina aftermath has rubbed our nose in the real values that power our country. And Katrina is just the surface of the inequalities and injustice that signify what our country has become. A number of young people in colleges are part of that underclass that America likes to keep. And so much of America has forgotten that underclasses tend to revolt.
But if we are to actually reform education, we must begin by asking the teachers how to go about it. They are the last best hope in education. But we don't live in a culture that respects its teachers enough to ask them for direction. A political revolution is required to change the culture. We need to decide quickly whether that revolution will come through education or insurgency.