kitchen table math, the sequel: High Schools Too Obsessed With College

Friday, April 24, 2009

High Schools Too Obsessed With College

This was the title to a letter to the editor that caught my eye.

"The examinations for high school graduation now sound like a college-entrance exam instead ..."

"Keep business math and general math plus general science in the curriculum for those students not planning careers in math and science."

It struck me that schools are screwing it up at both ends of the spectrum. They don't provide the needed education for those who want a technical career as an engineer or scientist, and they don't provide a proper education for those not wishing to go to college. All kids are told that they will earn so much less money if they don't go to college. Somehow, technical schools and trades get lost in the discussion. Even the Achieve organization is doing workplace studies that show that everyone needs Algebra II.

I don't agree.

The workplace studies were based on a self-serving evaluation of what kinds of tasks each job needed. These tasks were translated into a specific course in a traditional math curriculum. They did not look at exactly what math was needed to get the certification or degrees required for each job.

Schools want more rigor, but they get it all screwed up. Instead of fixing up and adding rigor to basic K-8 math, they try to impose some sort of false rigor in high school, which is usually translated to algebra I or algebra II for all. (not to mention capstone projects and portfolios) The more capable students don't get what they need and the rest get courses designed to prepare them for community college. Many just drop out of school. I can easily see why many kids think that high school is a joke.

We have a well-regarded technical school in our area and if kids can survive high school, they will find a wonderful sense of reality there; something that is completely missing at our community colleges.

I'm all for setting a goal of a proper course in algebra I for all by 8th or 9th grade. This keeps all doors open. After that, the math curriculum needs to offer courses based on specific educational needs, not vague concepts of rigor or workplace analysis. Educators love real world problems, but they can't seem to apply it to themselves.


Paul B said...

Did you ever notice the incredible variety of cars on the road? Sometimes I think it's just astounding that there are so many different tastes and so many companies in line to accommodate those tastes. For now at least, cars are a free market with lots of competition and that explains the proliferation of offerings.

I think a lot of the failings we lay at the feet of 'education' are really just manifestations of what happens in all large organizations. Choice goes the way of the dodo bird in the name of efficiencies. The more locked in the monopoly, the less they have to listen to their customers.

This doesn't excuse the issue you bring up but it explains it. My take on this is that it will never change as long as the gomonpoly is driving. Like all such beasts, it knows best because its ears are on the inside of its body.

SteveH said...

"Choice goes the way of the dodo bird in the name of efficiencies."

This is not about efficiency. It's about philosophy, pedagogy, and ignorance. Even with choice, these problems won't disappear overnight. There have been long discussions about the possible mechanisms (and drawbacks) of choice on KTM over the years, but we haven't packed up shop to wait for some special condition to be met. That's because it's not just one thing.

Paul B said...

I disagree that this has nothing to do with efficiency.

If you stick with the car analogy, huge color selection has a cost to producers and a value proposition to consumers. In a system with competition, producers 'bet' that the added cost of variation is offset by the competitive advantage they gain from it. In a monopoly there is no offset to the cost, i.e. providing huge color selection has only a downside.

Consequently, efficiency as practiced in a competitive environment is dramatically different from efficiency practiced in a monopoly. In a competitive environment, producer efficiency strives to drive down the costs of all of its bets (find the cheapest way to offer a rainbow of product choice) while maximizing the customer's value proposition. In a monopoly you strive to eliminate all the bets, i.e. drive out all the variants (secure in the knowledge that it is safe to ignore the customer's value proposition). The natural outcome of this is that monopolies tend toward one size fits all kinds of products.

Educational monopolies are no different than private ones. Every variant of their 'product' has a downside and no upside. They don't get a competitive advantage from offering a variety of curricular choices. They don't need one. They don't seek one. They are not driven to make bets to gain advantage in the marketplace because there isn't one.

Do I think that's the only thing going on? Of course not. But, neither do I think that the issues raised in the original post are due to venality or ignorance. The education-industrial complex is driven by its internal voices; research, ed schools, publishers, consultants, bureaucrats, and assorted experts with skin in the game. External voices carry little weight because they're not a value factor. They're noise!

It's a serious mistake to assume that these 'crats are stupid, ignorant, or evil. They're not. While it might be true that things can look that way on the surface, one should never forget the forces driving the system are many, powerful, and thoroughly monopolistic in nature.

SteveH said...

"It's a serious mistake to assume that these 'crats are stupid, ignorant, or evil."

Don't misquote me. I never said they were stupid or evil, but yes, many of them are ignorant of math.

"The education-industrial complex is driven by its internal voices; research, ed schools, publishers, consultants, bureaucrats, and assorted experts with skin in the game."

Philosophy and pedagogy; isn't that what I said? These "internal voices" aren't driven by efficiency or saving money.

Do you think that issues of monopoly are some sort of revelation to KTM? It's understandable to think there won't be change until the monopoly has been eliminated, but what do you plan to do in the meantime? Many of us have advocated choice for years, but I don't assume that there has to be (or can be) a discontinuous break for that to happen. It also doesn't stop me from raising other issues.

There are different discussions that go on at KTM, many of which could be trivialized by raising the specter of monopoly.

"My take on this is that it will never change as long as the gomonpoly is driving."

Well, I don't believe that. I work for choice and change at the same time because choice does not guarantee change in the right direction.

mazenko said...

New Hampshire, as well as potentially Utah and Massachusetts, is addressing this issue in a potentially revolutionary way. They will begin allowing graduation for students at sixteen who prove competency to enter technical schools and associate degree programs. Students who stay for their 11-12th year will take a rigorous college-prep curriculum based on AP/IB, and they will test to get into four-year universities.

It's a model based on Europe/Asia, but far less rigid, allowing greater choice for students. One variation of this idea was presented in the model "Tough Choices, Tough Times." I'd like to see a variation of it adapted here in Colorado, though we are fighting the "college for all" mentality that is coming from the top down.

The system needs to be far more pragmatic and choice based, and society needs to stop assuming one outcome for all students. There should also be more faith in, and expectation of, students to be more mature and focused by mid-adolescence.

VickyS said...

That is so interesting. I had no idea there were any states experimenting with this model. This is the most encouraging thing I've heard about in a long time.

How *does* one fight that "college for all" mentality without coming off as elitist, racist, non-pc or something similar? I for one have opted out of that meme. College (meaning 4-yr programs) is *not* needed for all. If it is, there's something very wrong about what we mean by "college." Indeed, college has in essence come to replace high school! And there are a lot of very sane people who don't want to spend their precious time and money be in school until they are 23! You combine a decent high school experience with good trade schools, 2 yr colleges, vo-tech training and the like, and young people have a much wider range of good choices.

One last thought. Let's say you want to be a beautician, or an auto mechanic. You're not going to learn that trade in college. What does the "college for all" set do about that? Do they expect this person to go to college and then to beauty school? Do they think we are going to lose the need for beauticians or auto mechanics? Something doesn't add up.

SteveH said...

"They will begin allowing graduation for students at sixteen who prove competency to enter technical schools and associate degree programs."

I like it. Many high schools are already allowing and paying for kids to take community college courses, such as computer and network training courses. This would just carry it to the next logical level.

Students will be more mature and focused if they can see that they are not wasting their time. By twenty, they might have an associate's degree, a good paying technical job, and no major loans to pay off.

The tuition at one of the best vocational schools in our area is between $16,000 and $19,000 per year. That's cheaper than many of the high schools in our area.

SteveH said...

"How *does* one fight that 'college for all' mentality without coming off as elitist, ..."

Actually, I see the lines getting fuzzier. The vocational school I mentioned has all sorts of associate and even bachelor programs. As with our community colleges, there are ways to move from one of these schools to the state university if you show the ability and desire.

Vocational schools and community colleges are not necessarily terminal paths. I talked with some professors at our community college and found that they have specific plans to help students migrate up to the state university with little or no lost credit.

It makes you think that this might even be a good idea for those students who want to go to the state university in the first place. Take CC courses in high school and maybe get to skip a year at the major state university.

I think the key is that students are offered a "Get out of jail early" card. I trust the vocational school much more than our high schools when it comes to defining realistic 21st century skills. Vocational schools live and die by whether their students can find a real job or not.

lgm said...

"Who Pays" seems to be a big problem here. Our IB program has been dropped as elitist and too costly. Students needing that quality and level of coursework have been told to go to the CC, on their own dime, no transportation provided, or take some of the five AP classes (Biology, Studio Art, 2 of the social studies ones). If there are sufficient students interested, the CC will send an adjunct out to the district. Students one step lower - i.e. nonaccelerated college bound - also must take their math from Trig up at the CC. On the other hand, BOCES and SPED are are completely paid for by the district, transport included even if it is one child to one provider 2 hours away. I wish the politicians would stop listening to the anti-elites with their minimum class size policy mandates and come to an equitable solution that meets ALL children's academic needs. Either that or waive that P.E. credit requirement that keeps the top students from graduating h.s. in three years.

Ben Calvin said...

Take CC courses in high school and maybe get to skip a year at the major state university.If our son goes to a public high school, it will be with this strategy in mind.

Anonymous said...

As a parent of several kids who entered college as full sophomores, I love the idea. It gave my kids the option of finishing a year early, triple-majoring and doing multiple internships and TA gigs. In their cases, it was mostly because of AP passes. The one caveat I would advance is that the caliber of the class, either AP or CC, is dependent on the caliber of students as well as the caliber of teachers. In some areas (either geographic or subject-matter), the AP class is far more demanding than the corresponding CC class, because the CC students are not as advanced as the top students in the high school. In other situations, the CC class and/or teacher is stronger. I've seen both and I would advise anyone trying to get a head start on college credits to check out the options three ways - by subject, by CC and by HS. Minnesota has a great state-wide program (PSEO) which allows qualified HS students to attend the CC or university of their choice - usual placement procedures- at the local school district's expense. I have heard of students who entered CC right from middle school - no HS at all.

Anonymous said...

I also like the idea of a choice point about the sophomore year of HS - either choose a vocational program or intensive college prep. Better yet, allow acceleration for those who can - school is supposed to be preparation for a productive life, not a warehouse in which an arbitrary time must be spent.
Also,get a handle on discipline and remove the seriously disruptive (whether from intellectual, emotional or crimimal causes). There used to be great vocational programs and we are letting down the students who would still benefit from them. Now they have to pay after HS for the same programs their parents and grandparents could choose during HS.