Sunday, January 24, 2010

Can You Dumb That Down For Me?

I recently heard two statements that I find disturbing. Let me begin with a disclaimer that I have not researched the validity of either. I am responding on the basis that perception is truth (and sometimes it is).

A. Arkansas high school students are not meeting the minimum standards for math; thus we need to lower the minimum.
B. The Arkansas Challenge Scholarship has a disproportionate distribution to African American students because the ACT minimum is too high; thus we need to lower the minimum.

Obviously, I am paraphrasing, but this is the essence of the statements. The bottom line is Arkansas is being called upon to lower minimum standards because we are not performing on an acceptable level. Can you dumb that down for me?

College remediation is like a small stream in a dark cave that trickles along and eventually touches everything in the cave system. Students who need remediation in math, English, or reading have added expenses and a delayed graduation. Parents of these students are charged with finding additional funding. Colleges are charged with providing staff for leaning and tutoring centers, in addition to the extra educational needs for instructors who teach the remedial curriculum. Taxpayers finance a good portion of remedial instruction and required materials by funding grants and scholarships that students use to pay for education. Nearly everyone in the state is touched by the trickle down of college remediation in some manner.

The 2007 legislature created the Access to Success Task Force to address this and other problems in the Arkansas educational system. Their findings (based on the 2007-2008 academic year) on remediation are stunning. Nearly 40% of student enrollment in 4 year institutions of higher learning needed remediation (English 22.5%, Math 33%, Reading 21%). I read that number and sat with my mouth gaping as wide as I thought possible . . . until I read the next chart. Nearly 78% of student enrollment in 2 year institutions needed remediation (English 48%, Math 67%, Reading 42%).

Based on these numbers, it is fair to say high school students are graduating without basic skills in readin, ritin, and rithmatic. Sending a student to college without basic skills is paramount to sending him into that dark cave with a candle -- but no matches. Colleges are reacting by building learning centers and providing tutoring. Is that the answer, or does it provide a manner for institutions of higher ed to dumb it down? Obviously, a portion of the population believes that we should dumb down higher education because we hear these demands for lowering the minimum standards for entering and financing higher ed. However, some will argue that colleges should not provide remediation at all. Colleges do not receive funding that is based on or addresses the need for remediation in the classroom or learning centers.

The time when college is a privilege granted to students with exceptional academic skills and plentiful financial resources are gone. Anyone can go to college today. Thus we accept underprepared students and strive to catch them up. Instead, we need to narrow that gaping abyss between high school and college. This may mean changing the relationship between colleges and high schools. That might mean creating an office of outreach to work as a liaison between colleges and high schools. It might mean a reward or bonus system for teachers who take additional courses or workshops that enable them to better prepare students. It might mean bringing back Summer School for schools or students who fail to meet minimum standards.

I do no not pretend to know all of the nuts and bolts behind how the Arkansas educational system got into this situation or what we need to do to get out of it. I am merely an observer. Obviously, there is more to it than what we observe on the surface, but one thing has had a huge impact on the system. That is funding. High schools have to perform on the Benchmark exams to keep funding, so students are taught to take a test. Where is the critical thinking? The question is pointless if students do not know how to read or articulate critical thoughts. Can you dumb that down for me?

New college funding rewards graduation and retention numbers. Unfortunately, we need more funds to serve the underprepared students. Should we push these students through the higher ed system without caring about the quality of education they receive? Sometimes it seems like that is what the State wants us to do. Leave no child behind. Dumb it down. Get those numbers up. Do what it takes to make it look pretty on the surface.

And the consequence? We are graduating educators who do not know how to educate those high school students who will become college students who need remediation in order to get an education to educate others.

Unless Arkansas finds a way to infuse education with higher standards and provide the necessary services to meet those standards, we will always be have the image of an ignorant hillbilly. Wait . . . the hillbilly can do enough math to prosper selling shine.

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