You're encouraged to join and participate in what I hope will be an on-going conversation. Your participation will make this effort a much more worthwhile endeavor. Be sure to click on the "Comments" tab below to read what others have written in response. I look forward to hearing more from you.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Reading at Risk

Chances are that you aren't reading this.  Of course, there could be lots of reasons why but I won't touch any of them - except one; that fewer people are reading today than was the case almost thirty years ago.  At least this is what was reported in an extensive study conducted by the Census Bureau back in 2002 (at the request of the National Endowment in the Arts), and the findings - mixed with anecdotal observations - seem to be even more relevant in soon-to-be 2011. So, if you devote time each day to reading, you're in a club whose membership is dwindling each passing year.

Here are the ten significant findings:
  1. The percentage of adult Americans reading literature has dropped dramatically over the past 20 years -now 30 - with less than half of the adult American population reading literature.
  2. The decline in literacy reading parallels a decline in total book reading.
  3. The rate of decline in literary reading is accelerating  - meaning that the percentage of adults who aren't reading is declining faster than in previous decades.
  4. Women read more literature than men do, but literary reading by both groups is declining at significant rates.
  5. Literary reading is declining among whites, African-americans, and Hispanics.
  6. Literary reading is declining among all education levels (the higher the level of education, the higher the reading rate - but it's still declining).
  7. Literary reading is declining among all age groups.
  8. The steepest decline in literary reading is in the youngest age groups.
  9. The decline in literary reading foreshadows an erosion in cultural and civic participation.
  10. The decline in reading correlates with increased participation in a variety of electronic media, including the Internet, video games, and portable digital devices.
This is telling data - if you've made it this far in the post.  It does not bode well for the future of American democracy if there is a positive correlation between reading rate and voter participation rate - which there is.  But some also feel that it's innacurate data because it doesn't take into account the various forms of literacy that have emerged in this age of technology.  For instance, they claim that individuals need to cultivate a digital literacy that is more visual (video) than the reading literacy addressed in the above report.  Given the various ways in which information is now presented, it calls into question how one actually defines "reading" these days.

No doubt, we're deluged with information from every which way.  And we're challenged in our efforts to manage this information, to sort through and make sense of it. Keep it short.  Keep it simple. Where is the Spark Note version?

We were told back in 2002 by the Commission on Adolescent Literacy of the International Reading Association that teenagers entering the 21st century would be reading and writing more than at any other time in human history.  What do you think?  If teenagers are modeling their behavior after the adults described in the above report (see http://eosguidance.blogspot.com/ ), then it may be easy to read the tell-tale signs.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Survey Says Students and Parents Are to Blame for Dropout Rates

There has been no shortage of criticism unleashed about (or upon) public schools in recent years, with the latest vitriol wrapped in a movie called "Waiting for Superman ".  So, it may appear like old news when word arrives that Stanford University united with the Associated Press recently to conduct yet another survey about what's wrong with schools.  Except what is new(s) about this is that the results of the survey point the accusing finger at a different target.  In this case the subject of the survey was higher education and not K-12 schools, and it addressed the issue of low graduation rates for those students who matriculate after high school graduation to four-year public institutions.  With this data, it now seems like no one has been spared on the battle front.  Continue reading to see why.

Let's first frame this research. The AP-Stanford University poll was conducted during the last week of September, it involved interviews on land line and cell phones with 1001 adults across the nation, and it has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.  It was made possible by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

So, what did the survey say?  See the bullets below:

  • seventy (70) percent of respondents said that students should shoulder much of the blame (either a great deal or a lot of it) for low graduation rates, while 45 percent felt that way about parents.
  • between a quarter and a third placed the blame with college administrators, professors, teachers, unions, state education officials, and federal education officials.
  • not to leave out politics, 70 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of Democrats (an anomaly, of course, in that there is agreement here) fault students for low graduation rates.  Republicans were also more likely (ever so slightly) than Democrats to cast blame on federal officials.
  • fifty-seven percent of minorities blame parents while 40 percent of whites do.
  • minorities are also more likely to blame professors and teachers, with 40 percent of the former doing so and just 29 percent of the latter.
  • interestingly, when asked about the quality of schools, public four-year institutions received the highest grades, with 74 percent saying they were excellent or good.  Not far behind, though, were nonprofit private colleges (71 percent), two-year public colleges (69 percent), and private-for-profit colleges (66 percent).  Fifty-seven percent of respondents gave high marks to private for-profit trade schools.
The report indicated that just over half of first-year students who entered college in 2003-04 had NOT earned a degree or certificate within six years, and this is slightly worse than what was found in 1995-96.  According to the Census Bureau, about 4 in 10 adults between the ages of 25 and 64 have a two-year college degree or more.

This survey addressed the relationship between education and the economy as well.  Eighty-percent agreed that the country's system of education has a major impact upon the health of its economy and they also agreed that the economy would improve if all Americans had at least a two-year degree.

So, the verdict here is convincing - the better the education that students experience (and degrees earned), the stronger will the US economy be.  It certainly appears that money spent on education is seen as an investment and not an expense.  And it would appear, too, that the perceived failure of schools to graduate students - at least in higher education - is the fault of students who attend and their parents as well.

But is that what the public really believes?  And is anyone growing tired of this blame game? 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

How Accurate Is This 20/20 Vision?

So, in the short life this blog has had thus far (almost a month old), there have been four posts (this counts five) and over 1350 page views, the latter a pleasant surprise, but the written response of participants in what is designed to be a public discussion has been sparse.  Still,  blog life will go on with the hope that more voices will be heard in this space.  And this post is a continuation on the theme of education in the 21st century.

In a recently published book entitled 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times, authors Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel (Co-Chairs of the Standards, Assessment, and Professional Development Committee of the Partnership for 21st Century Schools) offer up suggestions for schools in a world that has clearly seen fundamental change.  This shift has been so dramatic in the past few decades that "the roles of learning and education in day-to-day living have also changed forever."  Skills like critical thinking and problem-solving that have been highly valued for years may be even more relevant today, but the authors contend that what has changed in this 21st century is the manner in which these precious skills are learned and practiced in everyday life.  Some new skills (not even imagined several years ago), like digital literacy, are also required in order to compete successfully in a global world that - with expanding technology - grows smaller (and moves faster) with each passing day.

Trilling and Fadel begin early on to construct their argument - that schools must adapt to this fundamental shift in the roles of learning and education in everday life - by posing four questions, imagining that the reader has a child, grandchild, nephew, niece, or friend (you get the idea) who has just entered kindergarten this year.  Here are the questions:

1)  What will the world be like twenty years or so from now when your child has left school and is out in the real world?  (I think of what life was like even ten years ago, when email first entered our lives, and never did I ever imagine I'd be writing in this medium.  Words like "blogging", "emailing", and "google it" are now common words in our language, and "text" - once used often to refer to books - has obviously assumed a much different meaning in the con-text of what kids "read" today).

2)  What skills will your child need to be successful in this world you have imagined twenty years from now?  (There are things we know that we know, things we think we know but don't, things we think we don't know but really do - "oh yeah, I know that" - things we know we don't know, and there are things we don't even know we don't know.  It's this last point that I think of when contemplating question #2).

3)  This next question involves the reader's personal experience when Trilling and Fadel ask the reader to think about their "own personal peak experiences" in life.  What were the conditions that made your high-performance learning experiences so powerful?

4)  Taking into consideration your answers to the first three questions, consider this last one - What would learning be like if it were designed around your answers to the first three questions?  The authors wonder if your answer would be "more in tune with the demands of our times and the needs of today's students."

Seriously, take a few minutes to reflect upon these questions.  It's clear the world has changed in fundamental ways, and a vision of the college  in 2020 that reflects this change was offered in a previous blog post.  It's also clear that we need 20/20 vision as we look ahead to predict what more will change in our lives.  What would your answers look like? Would you be willing to share them?  This isn't a multiple choice test?  And there isn't one right answer.  Rather, there are many.  Trilling and Fadel offer their answers in the book.  

What are yours?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What Does A High School Education Mean?

Piles of data collected in recent years show the value of education in terms of income earned, healthy habits observed, civic involvement, and participation in a democratic process (meaning that more education translates into more likely to vote, and - while we're at it - likely to earn more money, lead healthier lives, and more likely to volunteer.).  If schools function to prepare students for productive work and citizenship, then they are  - as long as students continue to climb higher up Mount Formal Education (while avoiding a landslide of debt that buries many long into their adult lives).  So, we can safely conclude that a relationship exists between higher education and higher income, etc. (see http://chronicle.com/article/Education-Pays-but-How-Much-/124552/?sid=pm&utm_source=pm&utm_medium=en), but what does it really mean to be an educated human being?  And what should we expect a high school graduate to know at graduation in 2011? 

Both questions tend to be politically charged because the answers reflect value judgments that often clash among competing constituencies/interest groups.  What does it mean to be an educated person?  What is it that they know that earns them this status?  What skills do they possess (dare I say "have in hand" to suggest hands-on skills?)?  Is this "knowledge" different today than it may have been two decades ago?  Well, colleges can't seem to agree.  Even a cursory review of graduation requirements at three schools, never mind the three thousand or so more out there, will reveal pretty significant differences.  St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland (and Santa Fe, New Mexico), a highly respected (in academia) but little known (in the public) college, requires all students to complete the exact same curriculum - reading the same books and taking the same courses.  The school promotes itself as the ideal liberal arts institution and assigns students many of the "Great Books" chosen by a panel of faculty members and students (changed periodically).  The University of Chicago is a bit to the right of St. John's College but still offers little flexibility in its core curriculum.  Brown University in Providence, RI, on the other hand, is the yogi master in higher education. The school offers total flexibility, giving students the freedom to choose ANY courses they wish as long as the credits bend in a way that match the number of credits prescribed for a degree.  And all the other schools fall somewhere along the continuum that begins with St. John's College at one point and ends with Brown at the other.  So, is it a stretch to say that one school produces more educated graduates than another?  Or is there more than one way to scale the "Mountain"?

And what about high schools?  What should students really know when their date of manufacture is stamped at graduation?  The CT State Department of Education (CSDE) provides broad requirements (which are supposedly about to change in a few years) for high schools in the state to follow, but local school districts usually add their own ingredients to the mix.  Even within high schools there are differences in department requirements - some are more specific than others.  Take EOSHS, for example.  Four credits in math are required, but there isn't any specific math course required of all students.  In science, there is - but just one and that's Biology.  Otherwise, students are required to earn two more credits besides Biology to meet graduation requirements.  Four credits in English are mandated, and these courses are relatively fixed at each grade level (and course level), although the CSDE doesn't dictate the content that must be offered in any of these courses for credit.  The Social Studies Dept. defines its requirements even more specifically - all students must complete Politics (required by the CSDE), Geography, U. S. History (also required by the CSDE), and World Civilizations.  So, there's quite a difference even among departments within a school in terms of deciding what students should know once they reach that stage in life.  Imagine what it's like "out there" across the country?  It's little wonder why many colleges still adhere to the SAT requirement in order to evaluate readiness for success in higher education (for those who now make it optional, there are other reasons for this than simply thinking they agree that the test is flawed - one major reason is that it drives up applications)?  However flawed the test may be, it's at least a measure that may be applied to all students (who choose to take it) regardless of the schools they attend or even courses of studies they take within their respective schools.

There are all sorts of discussions about common assessments and a common curriculum that should be set in place for all high schools throughout the country to follow.  Good luck on this.  It's a political football in Texas alone as the State Board of Education there scrimmages over the content that should be included in textbooks.  This "gridiron" battle is producing nothing more than gridlock as the opposing parties play out the partisan politics seen too often in Congress.  Crafting a  national curriculum will prove to be all the more challenging.  Even colleges are arguing about this as the federal government is putting pressure on them to put in place some kind of assessment that measures growth over the duration of a college experience (click on the link to learn more about the Collegiate Learning Assessment - http://www.collegiatelearningassessment.org/).  All that exists now to measure the "value" of colleges are SAT scores, acceptance rates, and yield rates on those accepted - all measures of entering students and not of those graduating from the colleges.

Finally, it seems that high schools and higher schools (colleges) don't agree on what a student should know at the point of one's high school graduation.  Of the seventy percent of high school graduates who go on to some form of higher education, less than half actually complete a four-year degree.  And many take more than four years to do it.  For those who opt for (or have no choice but to go to) community colleges, about forty percent don't meet the benchmarks on placement tests and are placed in remedial courses that cost lots of money but are worth nothing in terms of college credits.  For the vast majority of these students, college ends before they ever get past the next remedial course required.  Let's acknowledge that a four-year degree is not for every high school graduate - nor should it have to be.  But some form of higher education should be, especially in a changing economy that's beginning to take on an hour-glass shape, one in which there will be plenty of jobs available that require professional degrees and plenty that we'll always need - plumbers, electricians, automotive technicians - and that will still require certification and requisite skills as evidenced by performance on entrance exams into certification programs.

So, what should students know after four years in high school?  What should they be able to do, no matter what direction they take in "life after high school"?  Are the requirements that have been in place for so many years now still pertinent in the 21st century?  Is the mode of instruction appropriate as well?  Twenty-first century skills - what are they, really?  Will the high school of 2016 prepare students for the college of 2020?  And, more importantly, will they prepare students for successful entry into adulthood, even though we may not even know what kinds of jobs will be needed in a world that is changing so rapidly?

What do you think?