Why Go to College? Why Test Schools?

Ben Farmer graduated from high school with good grades, but didn't go to college. "It was going to be this big, tough, hard, hard time in which all you'd do is write papers, which I don't like to do," Ben told a Washington Post reporter. And he suspects most of his friends are in college for beer and girls.

Ben's got a good point, writes the Cranky Professor. College requires hard intellectual work. Those who go for the beer don't make it. So why does the Post story go on and on about angry and alienated white males? The Cranky Prof observes that the story was assigned when the D.C. sniper was supposed to be an "icy white loner." He writes:

Mr. Farmer is the only person in the article who suggests what college should be about work. Writing papers. Learning. Every consideration Ms. Stepp provides -- from sociologists and high school guidance counselors, from community college administrators to her own presuppositions -- is that college is a preparatory step to a ‘good career.’ It has no content or purpose of its own.

Ben's thinking of asking his boss to pay for him to take community college classes at night so he can qualify for a technical job. Sounds like a plan. With a bit more maturity and a goal in mind, Ben's likely to do better at college than his beer-guzzling buddies.

Low-income black and Hispanic males are more likely than poor white males to go to college right out of high school, the Post reports.

"Latinos and African Americans have horrendous problems, too, but at least they have a group identity," says (University of California Professor Patricia) Gandara, who studies low-income, primarily minority youths. "These poor white males don't know where in the culture they fit. Some are really alienated and angry."

So, group identity keeps people from being angry and alienated? Golly. I hadn't noticed.

It's not clear that Ben is stuck in a dead-end job. He works with a welder who makes more money than his wife, who's a teacher. Skilled blue-collar workers make more than many white-collar workers, and Ben can go to community college to improve his skills, when he's ready.

So why insist that everyone go straight from high school to college without motivation or purpose?

The flip side of the story is told by a veteran history professor who tries to teach students at University of Wisconsin-Parkside, which takes all applicants, however apathetic. Most students are working, often full-time, so they don't have time or energy for schoolwork. Thomas Reeves can't get students in his American history survey class to read 40 pages a week, or to read a book or even to watch a movie for extra credit. They don't talk or ask questions in class, assuming they show up. They "don't do dates." They don't come to office hours to ask for help.

Juniors and seniors majoring in history refuse to read 100 pages a week. Yet they must be passed or the history department will lose majors -- and money.

Reeves writes on History News Network:

In order to keep them from failing, I handed out a take-home exam for the first mid-term. One student said in class that all her professors were doing that now. As conditions worsened, I was forced to distribute the questions that would appear on the final exam.

Reeves' students want a college degree so they can get better jobs and earn more money. But they don't want to do the work. Few actually make it through. Only 12 percent of Parkside's incoming freshmen in 1994 earned a diploma in four years, writes Reeves. He says the six-year graduation rate is 20 percent and falling.

More than two-thirds of high school graduates go directly to college; about half end up with a degree. Even fewer get a genuine college education.

Accountability Backlash

Democratic candidates for governor in Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Texas are promising to rollback state testing and accountability programs, reports the Los Angeles Times (registration required).

Bill McBride, who's running against Jeb Bush in Florida, said in a debate: "High-stakes testing has never been supported by people who know anything about how kids should be treated and how they should be evaluated." McBride said he'd keep giving the tests, but wouldn't rank schools by performance or give vouchers to let students in low-performing schools go elsewhere. In fact, he'd give more money to low-performing schools.

Rewarding schools for failure is an idea that's been tried for years. Guess how well it works. Go ahead. This is not a trick question.

Principals of highly effective schools for low-income students strongly support testing, Number 2 Pencil points out. Al Shanker, the brilliant leader of the American Federation of Teachers, argued for the power of testing. Who opposes testing as a means of holding schools accountable? Despite Shanker, teachers’ unions are deeply hostile.


On self-esteem, James Ingram writes:

A very fine judge I once worked for ended his fatherly advice to a newly appointed colleague with the admonition to: "Above all just be yourself. Unless you are a jackass. Then by all means be someone else." 

Joanne Jacobs used to have a paying job as a Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer. Now she blogs for tips at JoanneJacobs.com while writing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. She's never gotten a dime from Enron.

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