I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Finding New Ways To Say "Schools Are Failing"

It's a booming cottage industry: blaming "failing" schools for just about everything:
Top educators and advocates met Friday as part of NJ Spotlight’s Roundtable Series to discuss the growing consensus that high schools in New Jersey – if not nationwide – are not adequately preparing all students for college and careers.
Even in higher performing suburban schools, business leaders see too many students without the necessary skills.
One of the panel members was Jeffrey Scheininger, board chairman for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and owner of a small tubing manufacturer in Linden.
“Let me tell what has happened the last couple of years as my initial work force has moved into retirement,” Sheininger said.
“I ran an ad for an entry level manufacturing position,” he said. “Of 100 applicants who were self-described as high school graduates, two were able to pass an elementary arithmetic test…They couldn’t read a ruler. It was stunning.”
Scheininger has been singing this tune for a while.  Frankly, I think the guy is full of it: you're telling me you couldn't find a someone who could read a ruler? The more likely problem, as I wrote before:
There are plenty of kids who graduate from New Jersey's schools who can answer this problem if our SAT scores are any indication. Perhaps the problem Mr. Scheininger faces is that he isn't paying enough to attract those people to work in his factory.

There is, of course, no way to know what his sample was for this little anecdote. If we care to look at real research, we'll find that test scores have been rising in New Jersey for all students, both rich and poor. But that doesn't help him make his case that the problem with New Jersey business is teachers, and not businessmen, does it?
I find this little episode instructive, however, because it illustrates the current state of our national conversation about American education. When Scheininger couldn't get someone with the requisite skills to take his "entry-level" job, he instantly blamed the school system. It never occurred to him that maybe he wasn't offering competitive wages and benefits; he just assumed that anyone qualified for his "entry-level" position would be willing to work for "entry-level" compensation. Maybe he's not getting the applicant pool he needs because he isn't offering a job that would be worth the while of qualified workers.

In other words: if he can't get the workers he needs, it couldn't be his fault; it must be the schools!

This is the default position for corporate America these days: our economic woes are pretty much all the fault of the education system. And folks like Jeff Scheininger are running around trying to convince us that his inability to find qualified applicants for his dead-end job is a good metric for determining whether the schools are actually teaching kids.

Scheininger seems to look back at his "initial work force" with nostalgia. Is anyone really going to try to convince me that young people were smarter 30 or 40 years ago than they are now? That the schools were so much better? Could it be that back then businesses didn't look to the schools to do all of their training for them? That maybe they were happy just to have loyal people of good character with a basic education? And that they, as a responsible, self-sufficient businesses, would be willing to make a long-term investment in training their workers while paying them living wages?

This is a world view that the Jeff Scheiningers of the nation do not want to acknowledge under any circumstances; doing so would mean acknowledging their own complicity in the rising inequity and stagnating wages the afflict the middle- and working-classes. So, rather than looking at rising test scores over the last 20 years and concluding that the problem may lie somewhere other than education, they come up with new ways to say that schools are failing.

What's particularly galling, however, is when the people who are actually in charge of education policy play the same game:
On Friday, state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said the testing would provide a valuable measure of college and career readiness that isn’t measured accurately by the state’s High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). The HSPA testing in language arts and math is given in 11th grade, with two chances for retesting and an alternative test for those who still do not pass.
“We are graduating children in high schools by pretty high rates, about 83 percent by new federal standards, and all have passed certain requirements and the HSPA in particular,” he said.
“The problem is a very material percentage of them, notwithstanding they have completed requirements of graduation, are in fact not college- and career-ready. Something like 90 percent of students at Bergen Community or Essex Community need remediation and not ready to take college-level courses.”
Also on the panel was Raritan Valley Community College President Casey Crabill, who said the high remediation rates were only hurting the students themselves.
“They are ill-prepared, and they don’t know it,” Crabill said. “You spend about six months in remedial education trying to convince them that this really will help. For many of them, it is discouraging. They come to us because they want to study automotive tech, but they don't have the skills to read the textbook.”
Again: who decided that the number of students taking remedial classes in community colleges was a good measure of whether American K-12 education is succeeding?

We are seeing a leveling-off in community college enrollment, but that was preceded by a huge prolonged boom. This parallels the fortunes of for-profit colleges. The students who have been enrolling at these institutions would have been part of Scheininger's "initial work force" a few decades ago. Now, they know they won't be able to live a decent middle-class life working in manufacturing; they are heeding the siren call of those who tell them the only chance they have is to get a college education.

But there's no evidence that their K-12 schools failed them; in fact, there's evidence that the colleges themselves are the schools that aren't doing their jobs:
"Simply putting (students) in three levels of remedial math is really taking their money and time with no hope of success," said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America.
The group's research shows just 1 in 10 remedial students graduate from community colleges within three years and a little more than a third complete bachelor's degrees in six years. Yet the classes are widespread, with more than 50 percent of students entering two-year colleges and nearly 20 percent of those entering four-year universities put in at least one remedial course, the report said.
"At the end of the day if we could say that we are getting more students to graduate, particularly those coming into college without the requisite skills, the investment we have now is worth it," said Bruce Vandal, director of postsecondary education for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan group that researches education policy. "I think the fact that we aren't getting that result is why legislators and policymakers are up in arms and rightfully so."
Well, not Cerf: he seems to think the blame, once again, lies with the K-12 system. He'd rather put aside the evidence that test scores are rising for New Jersey (and the nation's) students and instead use a bad proxy - college remedial course enrollment - to once again make the case that our K-12 schools suck.

I've been at this for a while, but one of the things about this reformy world that still amazes me is how many of these people seem to have an investment in slamming our public school system - and, by extension, our students. It's like they are actively searching for ways to beat up on schools.

Could it be that they are looking to distract us from where the real problems in our society lie?


Anonymous said...

I watched this news story on Yahoo this morning.


According to government data, there are more than 3 million unfilled jobs in America. One of the people in the video said that employers are having trouble filling these positions because they can't find skilled workers. As you state in your post, the implication is that employers are no longer willing to train new employees.

I'm no business owner (too bad people don't say that when talking about education), but wouldn't training an eager new employee be a good investment that will more than pay for itself down the road?

Unknown said...

Duke/Jazzman: I found this link to charter schools from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution very enlightening...

Unknown said...

High schools are also throwing all of their resources at the populations with the lowest test scores and teaching them via drill and kill. They have zero critical thinking skills now because of this testing culture brought on by NCLB. They only have the ability to put everything into neat little "steps" to solve a problem.
It is the most damaging thing that I've seen as a Chemistry teacher since the onset of NCLB.
My school began "detracking" kids because it has a proven result of raisning the lowest scores. But NOBODY and I mean NOBODY cares what happens to the kids who used to be very high scorers. Their needs have gone to hell in this environment because I don't care what anyone says, you always end up teaching to the bottom of the class.
Parents are none the wiser to any of this because we just eliminated the lower level courses and put those students into the "college prep" classes so that the parents don't know what is happening and the parents of the lower level kids now think their kids are at that level. It stinks.
We have less kids taking AP courses in science and math as a direct result.