Thursday, May 29, 2008

College isn't for everyone...or is it??

A recent opinion column in the Dallas Morning News suggests that college isn't for everybody.

Though I am very much in agreement that colleges are businesses looking for profit and agree with many of Mr. Nemko's suggestions that college give much fuller disclosure to the students they serve, I sense he is also saying that some students just shouldn't waste their time.

I disagree.

Sure, part of the problem is that colleges have turned into businesses looking for dollars...and student loan companies have gladly jumped on board to reap the proceeds. But I don't believe only encouraging those who have enough money and academic knowledge is the answer. By doing that, we leave out a whole lot of kids who have perfectly good potential, but have not received the same adequate benefits and opportunities to ready them for college. Instead, I think the responsibility is on us as a society to do a much better job of educating and preparing all students.

Take Jennifer.* She wants to go to college. I was looking forward to attending her graduation this year. Instead, when she called, she explained to me that she wasn't going to graduate because she hadn't passed her Math TAKS. She was upset and had decided to visit the district office to try to convince them that she just couldn't do math and they needed take that requirement off of her. I, of course, encouraged her to let me set her up with a tutor so she can be prepared to re-take the TAKS...and went on to explain to her that she has the capacity. I continued to talk to her about the importance of learning the basic math concepts because they will impact her throughout life--the way she handles money, the way she gets loans, purchases cars, houses, etc.

Jennifer is not dumb. I have known her most of her life. She obviously has missed some basic mathematical concepts along the way. As she moved through high school, math classes got progressively more difficult. However, without the foundational concepts, she "got by" but never understood. She now believes she is incapable of understanding math.

Israel* was just like Jennifer. He was supposed to graduate last year but he couldn't pass the Math TAKS. After re-taking the test and continuing to fail, he had one shot left. He kept trying to convince me that he just wasn't good in math. Though there wasn't much time, I set him up with a tutor. Sure enough, just as I thought, the tutor let me know that he was making good progress. However, they had to start at the beginning and they weren't able to get through all of the material before he had his last chance at the TAKS in March. We are still waiting to hear from him about the results.

The issue with Jennifer and Israel is not just about their lack of knowledge. Their lack of knowledge has now impacted their self-confidence and their belief in their own capabilities.

Unlike Mr. Nemko, I admire the ones who go on to college despite their academic challenges. I hate that they have to pay for a remedial course out of pocket and get absolutely no credit toward their degree, but at least they will finally get the knowledge that their elementaries and high schools should have provided in the first place.

Tammy* is one who went to college despite her math deficiencies. She entered college determined to finish. In fact, she wants to go on to get her master's and doctorate in Education. But math was (and is) the thorn in her side. Her college entrance exams showed she needed the absolute basic math course, which meant she had to pass two developmental (remedial) courses before she was able to enroll in basic college level math. She failed both developmental classes and had to re-take each of them. Yet she persevered. She will enter into her senior year this fall and will finish in December. As a result of all of her remedial math courses she will graduate a semester late. But she *will* graduate...and she will be more knowledgeable...and have more opportunities in the job market...as a result.

Students like Jennifer, Israel, and Tammy need to be noticed and targeted at the beginning of their struggles...not their senior year in high school.

We need to challenge the academic rigor in lower income schools and we need to recognize this as a long-term battle. I realize the odds have been stacked against us in that battle through years of neglect. There is a lot of work to do. Therefore, we need to provide easy and free access to individual tutoring (and I'm not talking about TAKS tutoring!) by people who know how to help kids understand the concepts they are missing. ("easy" and "free" are key here. The beauracracy of getting assistance for children in the public school is a nightmare for even the most educated and resourceful of parents!...at least in the low-income neighborhood schools I've been a part of.)

We need to fight with and for these students to ensure that everyone is afforded the opportunities they deserve to be intellectually competitive and enter a profession they enjoy.

To leave people like Jennifer, Israel, and Tammy out because they are not "college material" is asinine and will perpetuate the economic and racial segregation that is already prevalent in our society. Instead of encouraging the students differently, we need to challenge our academic institutions to educate differently.

*names changed
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