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On college costs, and standards

This business about the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is so polarizing as to make your head spin.  It’s a brilliant example of the difference between intention vs. policy, idea vs. implementation, and goal vs. mechanism.  Politicized beyond belief (although since when has public K-12 education not been politicized), the CCSSI is, at its core (ahem), an intentional attempt to identify the kinds of skills and abilities students need in the modern world.

I’m not going to wade into the political elements of the debate, or the apparent deficiencies in the standards model itself, but I am quite fascinated by how the CCSSI views and expresses (implicitly and explicitly) what it thinks higher education is all about.  There’s an emergent view of higher education’s “job”, and I suppose you can only evaluate whether we are “doing our job” if we can all agree on what that job is.  Educating the masses?  Elite education for the few?  Create new knowledge through research? Develop independent thinking skills in our students?  Create entrepreneurs?  Generate wealth?  Service learning?  There’s many more possibilities here…

But the CCSSI seeks to “standardize” one aspect of our enterprise:  what it means to be “ready” for college.  This does not talk about maturity, financial resources, or any of the other multitude of reasons students might not be ready for college.  It focuses on the academic credentials of students.  The CCSSI presents standards for “college and career readiness” in both English language and mathematics.  And their guiding “criteria” document states: “The Common Core State Standards define the rigorous skills and knowledge in English Language Arts and Mathematics that need to be effectively taught and learned for students to be ready to succeed academically in credit-bearing, college-entry courses and in workforce training programs.” (emphasis mine)  The standards themselves are interesting, and posed in a very positive way.

One of my favorites involves “modeling”, which is the process of developing a mathematical model which describes a physical phenomenon.  The standards rightly point out that “even simple models can be useful”, and that the complexity of the model is driven by the goals of the model (how accurate does my answer need to be?).  My read on these is that they are well-thought-out, very concise statements about many of the mathematical issues relevant to engineering education.  Rarely can we find these sorts of things written down in such a compact, accessible form.  And this is good;  it represents sober, analytical thought about what students need to be able to do with mathematical tools.

The standards describe both what students should know (“concepts”), and what they should be able to do (“skills”).  This is a subtlety too often lost on educators:  “knowing” is not enough.  It’s really what students are empowered to do–applied knowledge–which makes a discrete difference in a student’s ability to succeed in college and in life.  So while there will certainly be wrangling over the details of the standards, it certainly seems like a noble effort to put forth a set of concepts and skills that will serve students will in the modern world.

But back to the “job”:  what does the CCSSI think the function of higher education is right now?  It appears to be, much like many of us in higher ed, schizophrenic:  should college be a place to treasure and absorb a broad, critical-thinking-oriented, liberal arts education?  Or should it be more like pre-professional training for engineers, scientists, and others with clear career imperatives in the modern world?  The CCSSI english language arts document is somewhat revealing:

“…the Standards also lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century. Indeed, the skills and understandings students are expected to demonstrate have wide applicability outside the classroom or workplace. Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. They habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally. They actively seek the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens worldviews. They reflexively demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic…”

No real mention of college or workforce in that one.  And from the mathematics document:

“…It is important to note as well that cut scores or other information generated by assessment systems for college and career readiness should be developed in collaboration with representatives from higher education and workforce development programs, and should be validated by subsequent performance of students in college and the workforce.”

A very deliberate statement about the pragmatism involved with mathematics standards.  I suppose you can’t become, say, a carpenter unless you know some math, but you can regardless of whether you’ve read Plato.

In the english standards, we essentially reference important yet large concepts like digital citizenry, a thriving democracy, deep literacy, curiosity, etc.  These are things that span all career paths, and is a tall order for K-12 systems indeed.  Here, there’s really no mention of the essential difference between “college” and “career” as there is in the math standards. The math standards clearly delineate between a “college” pathway and a “workforce” pathway for students, and they emphasize the kinds of essential mathematics required for each (and, apparently, the overlap between the two–which troublingly has components from as early as Grades 6-8?  The document on “transitions” states that many of the competencies and hallmarks of readiness reach back to standards from those earlier grades, which I can only assume means things like algebra.)

Implicit in all this complexity is the idea that college can help students become more literate, presumedly by engaging with a liberal arts curriculum and emphasizing the kinds of skill and concepts presented in the standards, but that this in itself does not constitute a career path.  So higher education should be about critical thinking, evaluation/consumption of information based upon critical review, and expanding one’s understanding of and views about the world.  Okay, I get it.

But it also suggest the well-recognized bifurcation for STEM and other technical fields:  these are things that get you a job, find you a career path, expand your wealth.  You become entrained in the “success thing” (My UVa compatriot Mark Edmundson–whom I have never met–idealistically argues that the humanities are crucial precisely because they are not about “success”;  rather, they are about self-discovery and some notion of the purity of learning.  That’s certainly one view…), which is apparently the apparatus of the economy involving jobs, innovation, entrepreneurship, a tax base, etc.

The CCSSI therefore is simply taking its cue from the broader confusion about why we need colleges at all, and purpose they serve.  I love the idea of the standards, of attempting to articulate what it is we want our kids to learn.  But as a reflection of our broader love-hate relationship and general confusion with higher education, it doesn’t shed much light at all on the question of how K-12 plugs into higher ed, or how we should teach out students to think about the purpose of college.

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