In today’s Chronicle there is a rather depressing piece about an ACT study on student preparedness for college, measured by student literacy. Only 51% of the students are ready for college by this metric. This constitutes a 12-year low in this performance standard as stated in the Executive Summary of the ACT report. (The full report is available for download at the ACT Web site http://www.act.org/path/policy/reports/reading.html.) I don’t doubt the findings. I do doubt the prescribed remedies and I’ll say why in a bit. But this post is about what I don’t understand and on this matter it is whether I should care. I can see the argument on both sides and I just don’t know how to reconcile the two.
First, however, let me clarify what I mean about caring since, to state it in a callous and overplaying-the-hand way, if I were a bleeding heart liberal, then of course I would care. Society is doing poorly by some of its citizenry. These kids can’t read and literacy is a prized skill. There is no doubt about it. But that’s not what I mean about caring. I care about my own children. And I care about the students I teach at Illinois and those students likely to attend Illinois in the future. Does this result matter for my own kids or the kids I teach? That’s a better way to put it. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to answer the question. So, generalizing to others like me who do care about both Higher Ed and hence indirectly about K-12, I can’t tell whether this is a call to action type of item or just more of the same old same-old.
I do know how to frame the possible answers and here it is very helpful to look at a couple of columns from the New York Times Op-Ed pages the last couple of weeks, because both sides of the arguments are represented in these columns. The first is this piece by Paul Krugman, Graduates versus Oligarchs, from a few days ago. (You need to subscribe to Times Select for the link to work.) Krugman, based on a study by Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon (somewhat ironically, I had Gordon as a prof for grad macroeconomics in Jan 1977, when he was again wondering about the productivity slowdown in that case because of the “stagflation” during the Carter years) argues that the economy is becoming more of an Oligarchy as wealth is getting increasingly concentrated among the very rich. He argues further that this is bad for the rest of us, since the oligarchy encourages cronyism and corruption, while the lack of income growth for the rest of us suggests market forces are becoming less important in terms of allocating the pie. Whether you buy the argument or not, it is clear to see the analog in educational case. Those lower 49% who are not reading well are going to suck resources and instructor initiative away from those higher 51%. Indeed, I’ve heard many discussions that the primary effect of No Child Left Behind is the dumbing down of the curriculum, eliminating enrichment for the higher achieving students in favor of more preparation for standardized tests that perhaps serve as reasonable meters of student learning (???) but otherwise doesn’t prepare our students for the future.
The other argument has been made recently by David Brooks, both in his slot with Mark Shields on the News Hour (I still call it Macneil-Lehrer), and in this compelling column, where he argues that political forces are quite limited in achieving social ends (he obviously is focusing on Iraq, but if the point is true there…) and that the real power to move people toward action comes from religious and cultural means. So the kids with the families that have the requisite cultural patterns will develop the reading habit, increasing their maturity as thinkers in their own way and in their own time frame, driven by their own curiosity and perhaps by the reading selections offered by others, and thereby thrive intellectually if not materially or socially. My kids, who live in a town dominated by the University and where both parents have at one time been faculty members, have that cultural advantage. So why worry about the schools and the possible pernicious influence of the No Child Left Behind or the lower 49%. But of course the town itself is infused with this culture and so the schools themselves reflect that. What about living elsewhere in the state in medium sized towns that are not dominated by a major research university? Should one worry then? I don’t know.
I do know I can’t endorse the ACT view that the schools can impose critical thinking through the reading of serious texts that are a part of the required curriculum when the reading habit is not otherwise present. (And they do seem to acknowledge that frequently it is not present at all.) I would much rather see a campaign for the earlier years of student development where TV and Video Games are limited and possibly even sports so that the pleasure of reading is encouraged for its own right and try to see whether it is possible to make a dent into how kids today spend their own leisure time and whether reading can become a part of it, especially where those cultural forces wouldn’t otherwise predict this would happen. To do what the ACT suggests in the absence of such a campaign is to make reading serious content a repeated experience in confronting ones own personal failures. How can that work?
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Because of my own emotional difficulties when I was a teen in spite or perhaps because of some obvious success in the classroom, I’ve really worried less about my kids’ successes with literacy and more about whether they can establish their own identities and learn to live within them and not have to feel that they must do things just to please the parents, who after all are prone to get some vicarious thrills from their achievements and to (unfortunately) compete with colleagues who have similarly aged children and who likewise live somewhat vicariously through their offspring. After all, this is a college town and such are the foibles from growing up in this type of community.
Truthfully, I’ve played only a background role in their education to date – a source to consult when the math problems are harder than usual or when some unusual complexity arises elsewhere that doesn’t suggest an immediate resolution. And I’m quite content to play that role on purely academic matters. But I wonder if on an emotional level I can be of more use to my kids and help them short circuit some of the developmental problems that I experienced and that are at root a matter of nerve, not intellect.
We Arvan’s have many talents but not on the list are poise and stage presence. Everyone gets nervous, I know we are not unique in that regard, but I don’t believe everyone punishes themselves afterward for underperformance when they feel they can do better and fixates on that punishment rather than simply moving on to the next thing. In my own case, finding a way out of this so that every new social experience didn’t seem like an out of control rollercoaster required giving myself a break, getting joy out of my weaknesses as much or more than out of my strengths so I could get pleasure from things like singing off key, telling bad jokes, and more generally not having to perform up to some standard that unfortunately paralyzes the performance rather than encourages it. In my teens I bounced from being a high performer with even higher expectations and living in that universe to being a completely miserable and neurotic Nervous Nellie. I only started to find some personal balance on this front when in my twenties and I sure hope that my kids don’t have to go through such a long period before they find their own peace of mind. But can I actively affect that or do they have to learn this on their own and the best I can do is be there for them when they want to talk about it?
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Returning to the literacy theme, but this time thinking about it at the College level and from the point of view of writing and creating, a friend at Purdue told me that at his school, which is seemingly not bound by general education requirements determined by the campus, but rather has all requirements dictated by the department or the major, the Engineering departments have become dissatisfied what the English/Writing department is producing in the required writing course; they want their students to be able to write tolerable to read engineering reports, and explorations with Blogs or Wikis, or other new approaches that are not instrumental in improving the writing of engineering reports is viewed as wasteful and pernicious. My friend said the Engineering departments are thinking about creating their own offering in writing. I joked, “How would they be able to find graduate students to teach it?” But really, this is no joking matter. Looking narrowly at Purdue, do the English/Writing faculty understand how the Engineering faculty perceive this course? And looking at this more emblematically across universities, do those who teach writing, surely armed with the belief that they have the student’s best interests at heart, concern themselves with what others on campus want to see in student writing and let themselves be influenced by that in the teaching? Or do they deliberately put blinders on in that dimension, with the justification that those others are outcome driven only and haven’t thought through at all what processes might successfully generate those outcomes? Hmmm.
On my own campus, the situation is somewhat different. We have a new course called Writing With Video that is rightly getting a lot of attention because it is has demonstrated that the student can communicate with power and insight through video and that they very well may show more aptitude in this dimension than communicating via written text. If we left it there, it would be fine and no source confusion on my part. The confounding factor is that we are now considering an “informatics” minor and the Writing With Video is being offered up as an exemplar course in such a minor. Further, the off the cuff justification for the minor is that students who as undergrads major in the humanities don’t have much of a job market upon graduation. But students who had the informatics minor would have technical skills so would be employable, I suppose by companies that also hire engineering students. Does this make sense?
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This is already a long one so this section will be brief. It’s on iTunes University. At a CIC meeting I attended on Monday, everyone who spoke up on the issue said that Apple was into iTunes University to sell more iPods and more content distributed through their iTunes Store. Frankly, in the grand scheme, I don’t see it. We’re going to have academic content drive purchase of entertainment hardware? And that is going to happen after the students are on campus, after they’ve purchased their computer and received their financial aid and figured out how they are going to afford the college experience? Well then, I am Mr. Rourke. Welcome to Fantasy Island. I wonder what my colleagues have been smoking. But I could see it, sort of, if Apple is talking about iTunes High School and iTunes U represents a step toward that. Has anyone else been asking about that?