Thursday, March 20, 2014

Learning to Earn? Learning to Learn? Learning to What . . . and For Whom? Big Choices for Big Kids

So already, it all began about a month ago when I read Tom Keane's  February 18 Boston Globe editorial, "Is college worth it?"* Soon thereafter, I became aware of the very different ways that the four-year college educations of two college friends' daughters--both former high-achieving high school students--were culminating:  the daughter matriculating at a prestigious liberal arts college/university was putting the finishing touches on a senior honors thesis; the daughter enrolled in a college/university highly regarded for its co-op and internship programs was wrapping up an internship at a local music performance venue. Both young women are anticipating employment after graduation, one in the field of her college major through contacts made during her internship experiences, the other in a field not directly related to her college major or career goals in part to help fund future career-preparatory graduate school. Neither is confronting the need to pay off substantial college-related debt. Two academically able, responsible, savvy, financially fortunate young women; two extremely different but valuable college experiences and outcomes.

And two college success stories that suggest very different notions of the primary and secondary purposes of a college education and a college diploma--and, by extension, a high school education.

Keane contends, as the editorial's featured pull-quote highlights, that "College doesn't make you smart.  Rather, smart people go to college. And it's an important distinction."  He seems to be defining "smart" as academically "successful" enough to pass through those collegiate entrance gates in the first place--and I concur with him that many American kids continue to be systematically denied the opportunities not only to develop and demonstrate their academic eligibility to pass through those gates, but to qualify for the scholarship opportunities that make passing through them economically feasible in the long- and short-term. But why he believes that college don't make people smart--or smarter--eludes me:  thanks to the efforts of some very good college teachers and my own work, I know I got smarter in college--learned more, gained learning skills, gained enough confidence to apply my skills and knowledge in new learning situations, even learned much that I used in my long career as an English language arts teacher.

Interestingly, in the online version of Keane's editorial, the pull-quote is relegated to near invisibility by an advertisement for a TD Bank bank card.  Set below the advertisement, it sits on a plain white background that, identical to that of the column, pales next to the cash-green rectangle on which TD Bank's white, bolded letters proclaim, "Introducing the reloadable TD Go Card for your teen." But herein lies the tale. Keane's article concludes a college education's value rests almost exclusively in its yielding a college diploma: "The degree is a marker [to prospective employers], a shorthand way of saying you're smart and educated.  And this is where the college-educated do have . . . [the employment] edge" over those otherwise educated. If you choose to further your education by going to and finishing college, chances are better you're going to be able to get and reload that TD Go Card.

As I contemplate the different collegiate paths of my two friends' daughters in conjunction with Keane's ideas and the T.D. Bank advertisement, my teacher brain starts generating questions -- not only about what kids should be learning and when, but about our values and priorities as a culture. 
  • When and where should students learn the skills that will make them employable in our current economy? 
  • When and where should students explore the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences--and for what purposes?
  • What kind of learning belongs in high school and what kind in college?
  • How--and when--are different kinds of college and high school experiences valuable--and to whom?
  • Do college educations matter as investments, experiences, or both? Are they worth the economic hardships and burdens they create?
  • How much do people's answers to all of these questions reflect students' various socioeconomic situations and the economic realities/needs of the country?  
  • How much should the answers to all of these questions reflect students' various socioeconomic situations and the economic realities/needs of the country?  
  • Who is not only thinking about, but actually caring about, the day-to-day experiences of students in high school classrooms and the degree to which they are genuinely engaged in them? 
My urban public school teacher perspective takes over as I contemplate my last three questions and inequity rears its head

A few years back, while working with a Cambridge Rindge and Latin School senior researching the advantages and disadvantages of various student grouping practices in high schools, I was struck by the fact that educational literature that characterized the boredom and disengagement of high-achieving students as "unacceptable" seldom similarly characterized the boredom and disengagement of low-achieving students--if it mentioned their experience at all. High-achieving students were presented as sympathetic beings entitled to stimulation and meaning; low-achieving students, by virtue of their absence in the literature, were relegated to the status of nonsentient problems needing solving or managing.

In my opinion, all college students who are on track to complete four years of college as a result of purposefully fulfilling academic requirements and successfully striving for and reaching rigorous performance standards deserve to be characterized as high-achievers. But the experiences and concerns of such high achievers can be very different because of their differing economic situations. Some college students have time to learn, experiment, dabble without immediately worrying -- or worrying at all -- about how they will make a living and begin to repay their college loans (if they have them) in the near future; others, facing the imminent need to support themselves and to begin repaying their loans, struggle to balance "impractical" learning opportunities with those that will enhance their chances of finding a job in the very near future.  

So I wonder: of the different high school and college student groups I mention, whose needs and situations will ultimately shape the learning landscape for older adolescents? I fear I know the answer to that question, given our nation's tendency to pit the interests of one group of kids against the interests of another group, even though we should be--and could be--concerned with the interests of all.

Interesting that Keane's column should have appeared right when I was in the middle of reading both Time's February 24 feature article, "The School That Will Get You a Job:  A New Kind of Education Shows Why Four Years of High School Isn't Enough" by Raina Foroohar,** and Sonia Sotomayor's My Beloved World.*** To read both of these simultaneously is to be immersed in so many possible purposes of high school and college, including their very significant roles in helping students develop their personal and social identities; their pathways as students, citizens, and workers; and their senses of agency in their own lives. Economic realities play roles in both Faroohar's article and Sotomayor's autobiography, but there's no cold calculus that restricts urban students to certain pathways, decisions, and aspirations. If anything, both of these are about hope and possibility. 

In fact, I believe that My Beloved World should be required reading in every public and private high school: not only does Sotomayor detail her experiences of successfully negotiating the often painful complexities of being the Puerto Rican, female minority in a world of unexamined privilege, but she is the poster child for Carol Dweck's growth mindset concept. Completely transparent about how she learned to learn throughout high school and college, Sotomayor explains how she learned to trust in sustained effort, especially when she struggled to do high quality work; to seek mentors; to notice what seemed to work for her, and what didn't; to ask for feedback and help when she needed it. She also learned how to persist politically and institutionally.  Her efforts as a Princeton undergraduate resulted in the history department's creation of a seminar about Puerto Rican history and politics.  Sotomayor recognized that a developed sense of personal identity and selfhood, generally connected in some important way to group identity, needs more than the identification of individual passions, interests, and tendencies and a knowledge of the present; it needs backstory, historical and cultural context.

But wait:  Sotomayor's sense of the importance of her own origins is just one important indicator of the multiple ways My Beloved World is completely out of step with the priorities outlined in so many quantitative-data-centered school improvement plans and innovative education grant proposals.  Even its title is suspiciously soft, emotional, and affective in our current educational climate. Sotomayor was not just a focused, self-aware learner during her formative years; she was also a loving family member, a joyful participant in family traditions, and a loyal friend whose attachments to Nancy Drew mysteries and Perry Mason shows shaped her career aspirations. Furthermore, some of the jobs she took--for example, the data-entry job she did at Princeton as part of her scholarship package--lacked clear, direct springboard potential for someone intent on becoming a lawyer and judge.

From my point of view, it's the ways Sotomayor's book is both in step and out of step with our current priorities that argues for its inclusion in the high school curriculum. Schools need to provide students with opportunities not just to cultivate the skills associated with "college and career readiness," but to read and discuss literature in diverse groups so that they can explore their collective and differentiated humanity and love it without fear of censure or ridicule; Edutopia's recently republished column from last April, "Five Reasons Why We Need Poetry in Schools," says it far better than I can: at our own peril do we ignore literature about character, cultures, history, and civic engagement.

When I read about innovative STEM schools--schools that emphasize science, technology, engineering, and math--I often worry that backstory, culture, civics, and character will be seriously neglected. I also want to say that I recognize that when I do read about such schools, I'm often reading about them in relatively short articles published in educational journals or magazines intended for the general public--so I know that there's much about those schools that I can't know.

I did not anticipate feeling positive and hopeful when I began reading Foroohar's article about Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy****, the six-year high school in Chicago from which each graduate earns a high school diploma, an associate's degree, and "the promise of a $40,000-plus opportunity at IBM, the school's corporate partner and key developer of the curriculum" (24).  Yes, I loved that students earn associate's degrees and qualify for jobs upon graduation, but I worried about aspects of Sarah E. Goode that were not related to economics. While I understood that calling students "innovators" rather than "students" might create positive self-fulfilling prophecies, I wondered what was gained and lost by equating innovation and learning; the message seemed to be that anything NOT innovative lacked value. My biases against privatization made me suspicious of IBM's stake in the school: I wondered how much IBM was banking on Sarah E. Goode's providing it with a steady stream of qualified entry-level employees. Finally, given IBM's leading role in curriculum development, I wondered how significant a role teachers were playing in shaping teaching and learning, and how they experienced the partnership on a day-to-day basis.

Early in the article, Foroohar states that "realigning American education for the jobs of the future isn't just about the duration of school.  It's a question of what to study and how to encourage kids to see their education through" (24-5)--through and even beyond high school. There's no question in my mind that education should contribute to students' becoming economically viable and secure; and I always want kids to earn the credentials that can up their chances of taking a next meaningful step, whenever they might identify it. But that nagging question of "what to study" really bothered me. I fell in love with poetry as a junior in high school.  Could one fall in love with poetry at Sarah E. Goode, or was it absent from the IBM menu? 

Then I came across a paragraph that gave me hope that Sarah E. Goode does not exist solely for economic purposes.
Vilma Smith, a 10th-grade math star at Sarah E. Goode, who claims she started off at the school as a shy and quiet outsider, wants to go on not to IBM but to UCLA to be a screenwriter, inspired by both software-design classes and literature courses. "I want to learn how to tell stories to other people, but I also want to understand how to tell my own story better," she says. Those are dream words for educators who want kids to have multiple pathways and a multidisciplinary approach to learning and to life. They also reflect the sort of person that your typical American blue-chip company would be dying to hire. "After one year, Vilma has become a leader, someone who can reflect, articulate and self-assess," says Charlotte Johnson, a former teacher and now the IBM program manager at Sarah E. Goode. "Believe me, not everyone in a company can do that." (28)
Vilma doesn't have to go to IBM; she's interested in the screenwriter's art of storytelling, and she's clearly had curricular experiences that have helped her identify this interest and taught her that there's an professional/academic field associated with it.  If reflection, self-expression, and self-assessment are must-learn skills at Sarah E. Goode, I can feel more comfortable with its IBM-guided education. And Vilma's story, I thought, might reassure "families who didn't want their kids off the 'academic' track" (25).

There's another part of the Sarah E. Goode story that excites me: "Right now about half of the juniors--none of whom were screened for ability and many of whom will be the first in their family to graduate from high school--are already taking college-level math. It's an impressive achievement in a city where only 64.7% of kids graduate from high school" (25). College-level math requires knowledge, perseverance, and critical-thinking:  good things for any student, not just those in the school-to-IBM pipeline.

Last but not least, I liked that Foroohar did not cast IBM as an educational hero but rather as a somewhat altruistic pragmatist and capitalist: "And there are a growing number of blue chips, like IBM, that believe getting involved in education is good for both their long- and short-term business models: it simultaneously addresses their skilled-labor shortage and helps build a stronger middle class that will spend on their products in the future" (26). No need to treat IBM as if its involvement is all about civics and sacrifice; no halos needed.

But then I began having other questions.
  • How many Sarah E. Goode students who went to IBM would eventually go on to earn college diplomas? And was that important?
  • What kind of learning opportunities are available to IBM employees in general? What does IBM want from its employees besides their hard work, productivity, and active consumerism?
  • Given the article's point about the scarcity of such industry/school partnerships, due to the relatively small number of corporations who are willing and able to participate them, who gets included and left out when such partnerships can't become the national rule for reasons of money and location?
  • Exactly how and where do the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences fit into a Sarah E. Goode education? 

Meanwhile, since the above articles and My Beloved World were published, the College Board has announced its new version of the SAT.  In his column entitled "College President: SAT Is Part Hoax, Part Fraud"***** in this week's Time magazine, Botstein argues that teenage children (and their families) should not be subjected to an exam that cares about them first and foremost as a market; secondarily as future consumers and drivers of the national economy; and not at all as human beings and citizens. He views the SAT, even in its revised form, as the perpetrator of the inequitable, arbitrary, not-really-educational, and therefore unacceptable status quo: "The victim in this unholy alliance between the College Board (a profit-making business masquerading as a not-for-profit educational institution serving the public good) and our elite institutions of higher education are students and our nation’s educational standards."

To compete with the ACT, the College Board is putting on a not very good act to assure the public that its purposes are educational equity and excellence, says Botstein. Explaining how the tests aren't authentically educational, Botstein states, "First, . . . , these tests remain divorced from what is taught in high school and what ought to be taught in high school.  Second, the test taker never really finds out whether he or she got any answer right or wrong and why. . . . What purpose is served by putting young people through an ordeal from which they learn nothing?" Given that the new SAT is bound to spawn accompanying test-prep resources and services that some students will not be able to afford, "Nothing that is now proposed by the College Board breaks the fundamental role the SAT plays in perpetuating economic and therefore educational inequality."  

There's so much that students might learn, and somewhat limited time and opportunity to learn it: 21st-century college-and-career-readiness skills, SAT test-prep content and skills, Common Core content and skills within and across multiple subject areas. There are so many choices for the student thinking about what's worthwhile in both the present and future.

As civic life deteriorates, the middle class evaporates, and college diplomas continue to correlate strongly to economic and social opportunity, schools must be concerned with the ability of their graduates to seek and find employment immediately and/or soon after high school and/or college graduation. But at what peril do we make education only about the individual's and the country's economic future? I'm talking about "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness"--about the joy that people--including students--feel when they identify what interests them, what piques their curiosity, what they care about, and then experience themselves as empowered and competent enough to pursue it, learn (more) about it, share it, even advocate for it. Again, my experience as a classroom teacher tells me that students revel in experiencing themselves as increasingly competent as learners, creators, and citizens/community members--as persons who can create high quality work, raise others' consciousness, and effectively advocate for change. Kids--in college and in high school--love to feel that they're smarter than they thought, that they're getting smarter, that they can actually apply their skills and knowledge in contexts and communities that matter greatly to them, and that they will eventually be able to find and do paying work that matters to them and lets them live with some degree of peace of mind.

P.S. My good friend and former CRLS colleague Donald Burroughs reminds me that I've been writing this while tenth graders across Massachusetts have been taking the long composition section of the MCAS exam!!!! That's CRLS in the last photo above.

* Keane, Tom. "Is College Worth It?" N.p., 19 Feb. 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.
** Foroohar, Rana. "The School That Will Get You a Job." Time. Time Inc., 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.
*** Sotomayor, Sonia. My Beloved World. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.
****Screen shot in next paragraph from photo on*368/sarah-goode-stem-academy-1.jpg.
***** Botstein, Leon. "College President: SAT Is Part Hoax, Part Fraud | TIME." Time. Time, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.


  1. I think I now have to read My Beloved World, and then pass it on to a couple of students I can think of who are struggling to find their voice in a seemingly predetermined future...
    Thanks Joan!

  2. Joan --
    Even better than your reflections (which are so articulate and so spot on!) are your questions. That essential question -- what are we learning and teaching for -- I ask myself daily, multiple times, and feel as if I am completely out of sync with the soul-crushing bureaucracy within which I try to function and do good. That anyone would ask is somehow suspect; that we should try to answer (and not simply, but by trying to understand the many ways in which we can offer students an experience that, as you've observed, allows them to
    "revel in experiencing themselves as increasingly competent as learners, creators, and citizens/community members--as persons who can create high quality work, raise others' consciousness, and effectively advocate for change") must be central to our work.
    I'm glad you're out there writing. I think I should print this out and read it before I enter school each day.