Saturday, May 4, 2013

Another false choice in remediation: "addition and subtraction over and over again" or Marxism and Shakespeare

A recent New York Times Education Supplement article entitled "Rigorous Schools Put College Dreams Into Practice" showcases Bard College's new "early college high school" for disadvantaged students in Newark.

For the uninitiated (like yours truly until I read this), an early college high school is one that merges high school courses with "some college." As the article explains:

Students can earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree, and some are set on the path to a four-year degree.
The early college high school is also a growing movement:
There are now more than 400 early college high schools across the country — North Carolina has 76 of them — educating an estimated 100,000 students.
Across the country in communities like Newark, the early college high school model is being lauded as a way to provide low-income students with a road map to and through college.
What makes early college high schools different from, say, a college prep track of a regular high school? For one thing, they seem to be specifically geared at students who need "catching up," and they aim to offer an alternative to remediation:
The ethos of early college high schools: catch students up, not by relegating them to the kind of remedial classes required at community colleges but by bombarding them with challenging work. At the Bard school, that means works by Dante, Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois that have populated and enriched the lives of their more affluent peers.
Can Dante really replace traditional remediaton? At Bard's Newark branch:
Students say the transition has been tough. Al-Nisa Amin, now a sophomore, remembers slumping over a math problem that first year, crying out of sheer frustration. But she has stuck it out, partly because she is scared of being sent to a zoned high school.
In particular, the article cites students who were getting A's at their zoned high schools now getting D's and F's. And here's what their Shakespeare seminars are like:
Flipping through their Signet Classic paperbacks and scribbling notes, they reviewed the first act of “Twelfth Night,” intuitively understanding that Orsino, Duke of Illyria, had become obsessed with Olivia. When their professor, David Cutts, asked what was going on in Orsino’s heart, several called out matter-of-factly: “Love.” The class then discussed the vagaries of love at first sight, and voted on whether they believed in it. Most didn’t.

Some were confused by the shipwrecked noblewoman Viola and her motives in disguising herself as a servant. “He’s rich, so why is she trying to hide?” one student asked, befuddled. Another hypothesized: “I think she’s interested in him.”
Then there's the Marxism and Postmodernism seminar:
...which on this day involved mulling over a densely written essay by the Marxist political theorist Fredric Jameson on the meaning of self in a postmodern world. Reading aloud a 2006 article in The Economist titled “Post-Modernism Is the New Black,” one student stumbled over “facade,” “anachronistic” and “grandeur” — words that would seem fair game for late high school.

Another student wanted to know: “What’s a phenomenon?” One inquired about the meaning of “sinister.”
The article cited Auschwitz as an example of how the Enlightenment had “given birth” to totalitarianism. Not one of the 10 students knew what Auschwitz was. Debate ensued over whether it was a city in Switzerland, Russia or Poland. Their professor finally interjected: “It’s usually used as the big example of the Holocaust.”
It's important to note that this may not be representative of early college high school seminars in general:
In similar classes in Bard’s New York schools, students’ vocabulary, communication skills and historical knowledge appear noticeably more advanced.
But, as the article notes:
The disparity raises an uncomfortable question. Can students who are so behind be brought up to college level in a few efficient years, even with good teachers and good intentions?

So far, the school has lost 7 of the 36 students who entered in 2011 as first-year college students and 20 of the 87 who entered as high school freshmen.

Najee has repeated one class. Both Miles and Billy have repeated several. More than half the class had to repeat one of the required seminars in a monthlong intensive at the end of the last school year.
The article proceeds to elaborate on the pedagogical philosophy of these early college high schools:
Taken as a group, early college high schools place a premium on teaching rudimentary study skills — how to take notes, how to interact with professors, where the best spot is to sit in a classroom. But the greatest emphasis is on thinking. Students are encouraged to see themselves as participants in an academic world, and as interested in gaining knowledge as in getting good grades. Dr. Ween calls it “joining the debate.”
So far, so good. But, as the next paragraph makes clear, "thinking" and "joining the debate" mean something troubling specific and Constructivist:
The students at Duplin Early College High School in eastern North Carolina take an applied math class in which they learn about velocity and graphing by building roller coasters out of wire, piping and masking tape. Then they are asked to defend the project. At the Dayton Early College Academy in Ohio, students learn about constitutional law in mock trials. And at Bard, in an environmental science class, students read articles about the effect biofuel is having on corn prices and debate the merits of renewable energy.
These activities do not address the deficits that colleges most often need to remediate: those in essay writing and pre-calculus.
“You cannot pull off an early college high school successfully without fundamentally changing pedagogy,” said Joel Vargas, vice president of Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit organization based in Boston that develops early college high schools. He calls it the opposite of “chalk and talk.”
I agree with Vargas' first statement. But fundamentally changing pedadogy in a way that prepares disadvantaged kids for high school means less project-based learning and more direct instruction and pen and paper exercises ("chalk and talk"?).

As articles like this one make clear, the edworld is increasingly convinced that remediation can be bypassed:
Gone is the thinking that students must master all the basics before taking on more challenging work.

“Traditionally, what has happened is that kids who come in below standards are put in a remedial track and they do addition and subtraction over and over again,” said Cecilia Cunningham, executive director of the Middle College National Consortium, a network of more than 30 early college high schools. “They’re bored out of their minds and the message is: ‘You really can’t do this.’ ”
To maintain beliefs like these, the edworld depends on such false dichotomies. Remediation = doing addition and subtraction over and over again = boring kids out of their minds and telling them they're incapable. The only alternative is project-based learning and Postmodernism seminars. It simply doesn't occur to them that remediating a child's academic skills at their Zone of Proximal Development is less likely to bore them and make them feel incapable than forcing them through a seminar on the meaning of self in a postmodern world (even with the implicit threat of having to return to their local high schools if they don't play ball).

Do such tactics nonetheless work? In general:
Studies show that high school students who take classes in which they get both college and high school credit — often referred to as dual-credit courses — fare better academically.
A study last year of more than 30,000 Texas high school graduates found that those who took college-level classes in high school were more likely to have finished college after six years.
Studies like these, however,
aren’t able to determine if it is the type of students drawn to college-level coursework that makes the difference. And no long-term studies have been conducted about early college high school students and college graduation. [Italics mine]
A refreshing voice in the edworld wilderness comes from emeritus professor Sandra Stotsky
who notes that there is not any substantial evidence that the model being tried out in Newark will help at-risk students get through four years of college. Dr. Stotsky finds the idea that students should have to go to college to get a good high school education counterintuitive, and has called on educators to refocus their efforts on making high school coursework more challenging.
Otherwise, the opposite may happen--at the college level:
Critics also worry about rushing students through the material and pushing them prematurely onto college campuses, thus dumbing down classes for the other students.
It's interesting that, for all the permeation of the "learning differences" and "differentiated instruction" memes, what current trends in education have most amounted to in practice is a one-size-fits all curriculum in which the same hands-on, arts-based "multiple learning styles" assignments are inflicted on everyone and neither advancement nor remediation are allowed.


momof4 said...

There are frequent discussions of Jay Mathews' "AP for all" mantra (no prerequisites) at the WaPo. A regular meme is that the kids need to take APs because it is the only alternative to low-level, boring, worksheet-based classes. To me, that's an indictment of the whole school/district. I can see no pedagogical reason that lower-level classes cannot be just as well-taught and interesting, if kids are grouped according to preparation/educational level (by subject). Shoving kids with 5th-grade reading levels (and lower writing ability) into AP English, as is apparently the practice in Prince George's County (suburban DC), means that the kids who really belong there will not get the "real" course and the other kids cannot read the material and will not get the help they need to improve. However, since PG County requires an AP course for graduation, the AP English teacher who often comments in the WaPo says English is usually the default class.

Coming from a small-town 1-12 school (about 35/grade), I had very good ES (1-8)preparation. All of the kids had decent literacy, numeracy and general knowledge, even though only 2-3 would go to a 4-year college and most would go right to work. The bottom line is that it really takes that long to develop such skills and knowledge and there really aren't any shortcuts. The ed world is now fixated on shortcuts and magical solutions, combined with totally unrealistic expectations (college for all). Also, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink.

Barry Garelick said...

Jay Mathews assumes that lower level classes are not taught well, as Momof4 points out.

The case for ability grouping
,of course, does not enter into his arguments.

FedUpMom said...

Hi, Katharine! I discussed the same article here:

The Pleasure of Making Somebody Else Work Hard

Anonymous said...

Here's the thing: the descriptions of these classes sound as if the teacher (or the curriculum) is force-feeding the students some version of what they (the teachers or the curriculum developers) think is a high-level offering (Shakespeare, post-modernism). Force-feeding never works for long. Those who are force-fed don't really own the material, and can't connect it with other important stuff. That which I was force-fed in high school (pre-calculus) is long gone; that which I could grasp and own pretty much by myself after competent instruction (geometry, parts of Algebra 2) I still have 50 years later.

It's true that you can't sit high school students down and drill them in elementary school or middle school basics all day. There has to be some content that interests them. Ide4ally, lots of content. But the content does not have to be post-modernism, and the goal doesn't have to look like an academic college class.