Julia Steiny: The Education Non-System Sets Kids Up for Failure

by Julia Steiny

While debates about standards still burn out of control, “readiness” has become a hot topic.  Wherever the standard or benchmark lies, what does a kid need to be ready to meet it?  What prepares a kid to be work-ready?  Ready for college?  Ready for high school?  We’ve hit a wall with beating up kids, teachers and schools for failing to meet standards, so now pundits are looking upstream to understand what could be improved before students drop out of high school or post-secondary training.

Julia Steiny

In May 2013, the National Center for Education and the Economy published a report called What Does It Really Mean To Be College And Work Ready?  As they searched for answers to their question, they found endless unsubstantiated opinions.  Employers, Higher Education and even folks on the street have very strong feelings about the skills necessary to the adult work world, or the training grounds that eventually lead to said world.  Such feelings abound because even with America’s high unemployment, many jobs go unfilled for lack of qualified workers, while low-skills jobs, like old-style factory manufacturing, are drying up.  The U.S. way outspends all other developed nations on K-20 education, so why aren’t more youth ready to be successful in the modern economy?

NCEE contends they found virtually no research on the subject, so they conducted their own.  They focused on the English and math skills necessary to be ready for community colleges because at any given time, roughly 45 percent of America’s college students attend community colleges.  For many students, these are the gateway to a 4-year degree.  And they offer the bulk of initial vocational and technical training, “for everyone from auto mechanics and nurses to emergency medical technicians and police officers.”  The report asserts that without the skills to complete at least a 2-year certificate or degree, young people will struggle to keep a family out of poverty.

Standards exist along a continuum. 

We would love for all kids to be medical-school ready, but let’s walk before we run.  College drop-out rates are alarmingly high generally, but community colleges experience the greatest losses.  “College for all” is not practical or helpful.  But all students should be at least community-college, which is to say, workforce ready.  Currently, we send a high proportion of badly-prepared students off to borrow and spend tuition money before they drop out, inadvertently creating a crisis of debt and wasted human capital.

(At the other end of the standards spectrum are the utterly-neglected talented kids.  They deserve our — my — attention, but not today.)

Community colleges often replicate the bad Literacy habits of high schools. 

NCEE found that community colleges generally require texts that are of an 11th or 12th-grade reading level — not highly demanding — but that high-school graduates struggle with them nevertheless.  Most importantly to my mind however, “students are not expected to make much use of those texts.”  Apparently, the days of ubiquitous essays and book reports, using texts that teachers know well, have given way to what’s known as “high-engagement” reading — think the “Twilight” series — and maybe writing a “reflection” paragraph.

Writing itself teaches reading, literacy and thinking.  Learning to write unpacks the structure of language and teaches how to use evidence to build an argument, to make a point.  The advent of computer-scored tests has been no favor to writing which can only be assess by capable readers and editors.  Grading papers has always placed a heavy load on English teachers, eased only when schools were clever about ways of giving them extra time to grade work and coach students directly.

But from the first job-application cover letter to the world of work itself, writing skills are deal-breakers.  Kids aren’t ready because the system didn’t get them ready.

K-20 needs to re-think the Algebra I through Calculus path.

Nor is the system serving them with math.

NCEE argues that many students and career paths depend on “middle school mathematics, especially arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations.”  Also critical to community-college career tracks are subjects that are “rarely, if ever, taught in American elementary and secondary schools, including complex applications of measurement, geometric visualization and schematic diagrams.”  But Algebra II is the gatekeeper to college admission to any but the least selective college.  So students get pushed through the traditional track without ensuring the solidity of middle-school foundations.  Kids can’t build high-level mathematical skills on educational Swiss cheese.  That’s the system at work, setting a lot of kids up for failure.

Mind you, all students should be encouraged to shoot for the Calculus goal because math trains the mind in useful ways, including “modeling” or the ability to frame a real-world problem in mathematical terms.  But unless the 8th-grade skills are strong, why bother?

Identifying a basic platform — call it “community-college ready” — is not a dumbing down because it’s only the guarantee of the basics.  Currently we aren’t giving kids the basics, never mind a strong sense of what the future has in store for them.  Selective colleges and employers are not going to put up with cheesy work.

Most impressive to me was NCEE’s image of a so-called system that is really fragments, sections not particularly talking to one another.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny