Case against college II

According to Joseph Epstein, the merit in our meritocracy may not be genuine. “The only thing that normal undergraduate schooling prepares a person for is –– more schooling. Having been a good student, in other words, means nothing more than that. One was good at school. One had the discipline to do what one was told, learned the skill of quick response to oral and written questions, figured out what professors wanted, and gave it to them.” “The late, great American WASP,” Joseph Epstein, The Wall Street Journal, December 21 – 22, 2013.

This perception of college as the preferred goal for all students is the most difficult single problem that must be overcome if we are to allow individuals to flow naturally toward their own inclinations and abilities.

Most parents, especially middle-class parents, have one question when visiting friends they haven’t seen for a while. “How’s Janie; where’s she going to college?” Of course, it is assumed that she is going to college. If she isn’t, the friends might see Janie’s parents as failures and the parents themselves would feel embarrassed.

Some high schools have debate teams that debate other schools, and sometimes this competition is advertised not as a debate between high schools but as a “college bowl.” Other high schools in wealthy areas are given names such as “University High School.”

If we accept the college-for-everyone concept, these reactions would be understandable, but there are two underlying assumptions to this position that are not valid. The first assumption is that student failure has to do with parents not pushing their kids hard enough, rather than students’ ability level or motivation.

The second assumption is that with concerted effort all students can be helped. Helped to do what? It’s always a nice idea to give students extra help in anything, but fattening them up to satisfy the voracious appetite of state achievement tests? Maybe not. And maybe the failing students are trying to tell us something.

The only way to counteract this misperception is success in the real world of students who completed career studies. This will take time because of built-in stereotypes and prejudices against these students. After all, left-brain academicians make up a large share of our country’s cultural critics and writers. These folks believe they are the best and brightest –– and even the happiest. This carries over to newspaper and television programming as well.  But psychological research has consistently shown that after people acquire a solid but modest income, additional monies do not create sustained happiness.

In some ways the university world is a non-real world. It’s a think tank, a finishing school, and a self-congratulatory system that feeds the ego. But it is also an incubator of professional classes such as professors, physicians, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and scientists. From this system, our country expects leadership and the discovery of things that presently don’t exist. These innovations will come from the top 1%-10% of our academic strivers. (Excerpted from The Elephant in the Classroom, How Our Fear of the Truth Hurts Kids and How Every Student Can Succeed)

The Case Against College — Part One

So why this love affair with college? Many Americans think college equals success and they naturally want the very best for their children. Similar to infatuation, this love affair may not last long.

Most children should not go to college.

Substantial numbers don’t complete college in four years and are not successful financially. This misperception may go back to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) elite that ran our country in the 1800s. They have supposedly been replaced by a meritocratic system which is based on talent, but many still strive, consciously or subconsciously, for the Yale, Harvard, Princeton community, and the contacts that maintain the old establishment.

Bruce McCall, a successful writer who was a high school dropout, commented on his doubts about succeeding in New York City. “Everybody knew that everybody connected with the smart magazines came from old money; went to Harvard, or at least Yale, summered on the Cape, married a deb; recited Horace while playing squash; and mixed with literary royalty at chic dinner parties in Manhattan penthouses. From graduation day onward, this superior breed trod an endless red carpet to various forms of glory.” Bruce McCall, “Confessions of a High School Dropout,” Town & Country Magazine, August 2013.

Social snobbery.

The cultural critic, Camille Paglia, was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying that what’s driving the push toward universal college graduation is “social snobbery on the part of a lot of upper-middle-class families who want the sticker in their car window.” Bari Weiss, “A Feminist Defense of Masculine Virtues,” The Wall Street Journal, December 28 – 29 2013. That’s being a little harsh on parents who just want the best for their kids, but it is time to take a fresh look at these core prejudices.


Creaming: Where Did the Kids Go?

Some 10% percent of school-aged students are not in the neighborhood school because they are in private-religious, private-secular, or home-based schools. These students may not all be above average in academic ability, but they often have at least three of the elephant’s legs: ability to focus, motivation, and self-control.

Another 8% of all students are not in this school because they are in private voucher-supported schools or charter schools. A voucher program gives vouchers to parents to use to pay for private school tuition. Charter schools are part of the public system, but are operated privately. (A charter school is much like one large voucher, but that voucher goes to an entire school rather than to individual parents). Attendance at these private-voucher and private-public charter schools requires vigilance on the part of parents. They need to know which schools are available and need to be motivated to find the best programs for their children. This leads to selected students and typically more cooperative parents.

Public schools oppose these programs and even oppose their own public charter schools, because they suspect these programs cream off the “best” parents and kids. (Local public schools are less opposed to learning-disabled students finding their way to charters or private schools, however, because these children are poor test-takers who lower public school test scores).

Another 7% are not in their neighborhood school because they are in public, magnet schools. These schools were developed in part to compete with private schools and offer specialty programs such as the arts and technology. Included in this group are the highly structured, so-called fundamental schools that require parents to sign a contract agreeing to a standard dress uniform and compliance with explicit rules.

General open enrollment that includes Advanced International Certificates (AICE), virtual instruction, International Baccalaureate, Lab Schools, etc., make up another 13%. (For more details, please see Appendix 2).

Meanwhile, back in the elephant jungle, something extraordinary is happening. We should have as many as 80% of our neighborhood school students in career and technical training. What do you think that percentage is in the state of Florida? Five percent! Yep, this group makes up only 161,000 students (State of Florida figures) or less than 5% of the 3.5 million students in Florida in 2012-13!


Creaming off students


Why are we often unfair to students in our neighborhood public schools?.  Before I suggest a way to help these kids, let’s remove the eye mask and look at the real parade ground, where our elephant does her stuff. What kind of a place is this, and how did it evolve? Is this a diabolical system created to frustrate kids? No, but unfortunately it doesn’t work in the best interests of our young students.

Most of us believe that all children ages 4 through 18 are in neighborhood public schools or schools reachable by bus. They see this school as a neat and tidy box where children are taught the 3Rs plus lots of content material. such as history, foreign languages, and social studies. But believe me, that’s not the way it is.

A true analysis of our public schools, according to the elephant, shows us that students in the top 30% on achievement tests, who are also motivated, are excellent candidates for rigorous college-prep courses, but are instead taking some advanced courses along with many non-challenging courses. Why?

Blended classes.

Students are taking pretty much the same vanilla courses because of the myth that everyone is the same and the parents’ desire to have their children attend college, even if their kids are not motivated and do not have the academic ability and/or willpower to succeed in college. As a result, this frustrates college-bound students and It also frustrates students who are not going to complete college and will benefit most from performance-based career training that results in skills leading to employment and a successful career.

Students in the top 30% on academic achievement tests have also lost a number of their fellow academic achievers to other private and public school programs. In a school with a hypothetical 1000 students, we would have expected approximately 250 students who are both capable of, and motivated for, college-prep work. But of those 250 students, I would estimate that 70% (175) of this academically select group have enrolled in schools of choice inside or outside the public system. This leaves us with only 75 potential college prep kids and the number is often much lower.(This excerpt is from my new book, The Elephant in the Classroom).

I.Q and College, Part ll

We would like to believe that all students have the same potential, but that just isn’t the case. Children differ in terms of personality, motivation, and other factors that impinge on academic success. The idea that all people have the same ability is a great American myth.

Further along in the article cited above, Ellen Winner, a Boston college psychology professor and co-author of the study notes that the research doesn’t show a rise in cognitive abilities. My take is that IQ test scores may get a temporary bump but this doesn’t mean that intellectual capacity has changed.

Well, if we can’t change IQ, maybe we can call it something else or redefine it in a way that makes everyone happy! There has been much talk of multiple intelligences which break abilities into verbal intelligence, visual intelligence, music intelligence, touch and body-movement intelligence, mathematical and scientific intelligence, and social and self-insight intelligence. Thomas Armstrong, PhD, Seven Kinds of Smart, Identifying and Developing Your Multiple Intelligences, New American Library, 1999.

Trying to break intelligence down in this way tends to muddy the water, but it does force us look at other human capabilities and not put all our eggs in the basket of abstract, verbal abilities that are necessary for success in an academic high school or college. Students with these other special talents may be more successful than their academic peers if they are given the opportunity to develop these skills and abilities, especially through career education. As we all know, that’s not happening as much as it should in our schools today.

In my forthcoming book, The Elephant-in-the-Classroom, I will try to sort out the effects of cognitive ability on academic success and school reform.





Will Raising I.Q. Help Kids Learn?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal claims that music lessons may boost IQ. A University of Toronto psychology professor found that first-graders showed bumps in IQ scores after a year of singing lessons. And a 2009 study used an MRI to study the brains of 31 six-year-old children before and after 15 months of music lessons. They found that the music students’ brains grew larger in the areas of fine motor skills and hearing. Joanne Lipman, “A Musical Fix for U.S. Schools,” The Wall Street Journal, October 11 – 12, 2014.

Several groups have challenged the stability of intellectual ability over time, or believe IQ can be changed. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10 year or 10,000 hour rule. He believes you don’t have to be a genius to succeed; you just have to spend 10 years working at something for 20 hours each week. This is based on work by K. Anders Ericsson. “Is Genius a Simple Matter of Hard Work?” Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal, November 12, 2000.

Research has challenged the “10,000 hours of practice as a key to success,” however. Scientists measured the working memory capacity of pianists and found memory made quite a difference. Pianists with above average working memory accomplished more in the same amount of time than pianists with less working memory. That being the case, the total number of practice hours required to achieve is much less for people with higher intelligence.

James R. Flynn has examined cognitive trends over time and finds that individuals are stronger in some cognitive areas than in the past. Flynn suggests that people have greater abstract ability and that this ability is influenced by experience and culture. There may have been an increase in some IQ subtest scores over decades but no uniform increase in intelligence.

But if we are really smarter today, we would expect to see an increase in all IQ subtests. This is not the case. Flynn’s research is interesting and important, but our primary interest in terms of school success is comparing today’s children with each other and not with children from previous generations. James R. Flynn, What Is Intelligence? Cambridge University Press, 2007.