As discussed in last week’s post, the situation that we find ourselves in educationally deserves attention: only 59% of students who enroll in college graduate with a bachelor’s degree within 6 years, leaving a whopping two-fifths of that population with debts to pay and no degree to show for it. As a comparison, the average high school graduation rate in 2014-15 for the nation was 83%, with the lowest state (and district) at 69%.
Now, on some levels this seems natural: after all, college is supposed to be harder than high school. However, these trends deserve a bit more analysis. First of all, students who go to college are not (despite it seeming that way sometimes in middle-class communities) the same population of students who are trying to graduate from high school. College students theoretically represent our ‘best and brightest,’ so when looking at college graduation rates we have to keep in mind that all of the students who did not graduate from high school have been removed from the statistic pool. So have students who graduated from high school, but struggled massively, or who have ambitions other than to be a white-collar worker (future auto-mechanics, craftsman, etc.).
Furthermore, we are comparing rates of graduation within 4 years for high school to 6 years for college. And, of course, there’s that tiny fact that students are actually paying for college, and those payments are not insignificant. Can you imagine being one of those 41% of kids in today’s world who enter their adult lives with debt (and probably very little experience or knowledge with managing debt) and no degree to show for it?
If you’ve agreed with me that this is a problem that deserves attention, the natural question is what solutions have been proposed, and of course that should lead us to ask first ‘What is the source of the problem?’ In following our society’s line of thinking on problems – backwards fashion – let’s examine a possible solution before trying to dig up the roots of the problem.
In 1995, the ‘P-16’ movement began in Georgia with the goal of using state-level reform to move towards “integrated system of education stretching from early childhood through a four-year college degree,” according to a report from the National Education Association. “The ultimate goal of a P-16 system is to acknowledge the interdependency and common goals of all levels of education and to create a “seamless” system of education,” one that spans Preschool through a four-year college (grade 16) rather than just K-12. The reason for creating a ‘seamless’ education is specifically related to the transition from high school to college. “There seems to be a bit of a disconnect when a high school diploma is handed over. Students are sent off to college as adults and there is a sharp separation between the support and guidance in all the classrooms they’ve ever visited and the new ones on the horizon.” Matthew Flynch, Ed.D., summarizes. “We seem to assume that our well-educated youth will know exactly how to act on their own when it comes to secondary education. That’s a problem.”
The solution that P-16 poses is, in essence, to standardize the post-secondary educational system to provide the same sorts of supports and guidance that students receive in high school. 45 states have now jumped on board and have some form of P-16 council or initiative. Some of the programs have actually named themselves P-20 to reflect a ‘seamless integration into the workplace’ – the idea being that students get extra support for the first 4 years after they graduate from college!
The issue with this line of thinking is that the ‘supports and guidance’ that we are talking about are forms of training wheels. As discussed previously, the big difference with our current educational training wheels from the ones we find on a bike is that it’s socially acceptable to keep them on – there’s no reason for a student to want to take them off unless they know a secret: that happiness is a problem. That is to say that human beings aren’t happy because we have no problems. Happiness comes from solving problems, and then dedicating ourselves to the struggle of solving the next set of problems we create. Even if we had no problems and just sat around for all our days living the contemporary life (aka the utopia of every person, even kings, living 500 or 1000 years ago) with our fancy computers and smart smartphones and fast cars and bars with the best brews, we wouldn’t be contented. We have to dedicate ourselves to a purpose greater than ourselves, as Viktor Frankl observed, and often that purpose also requires us to solve our own personal problems along the way (for example, to dedicate oneself to their family, one has to overcome their own ego, learn how to make enough money and budget, etc.)
When we deprive our kids of authentically solving problems on their own, they don’t recognize the joy of solving problems. The far extreme is that they actually can’t (or won’t) solve their own problems, and when people perceive that they can’t solve their own problems, as Mark Manson points out in an ironically pertinent book for educators (see the References) they handle it in one of two ways:
1. Denial. Some People deny that their problems exist in the first place. And because they deny reality, they must constantly delude or distract themselves from reality. This may make them feel good in the short term, but it leads to a life of insecurity, neuroticism, and emotional repression.
2. Victim Mentality. Some choose to believe that there is nothing they can do to solve their problems., even when they in fact could. Victims seek to blame others for their problems or blame outside circumstances. This may make them feel better in the short term, but it leads to a life of anger, helplessness, and despair.
As I write this, I am watching an intervention teacher who has asked to use my mathematics room during my planning period while the high school students have electives in different rooms. She has three students. They are acting like shit – pardon my french but it’s actually angering me how they are treating her – and have not done one single bit of work without her by their side. They keep making excuses to leave the room and do something else, and when she is basically doing the problem for one kid, the other two are yelling and messing with each other and figuring out ways to be disruptive/rude. They have training wheels on – in our Middle School, the ‘supports’ are so extensive that there is essentially no way to fail. This doesn’t lead these students to ‘feel good about their abilities’ or to ‘believe they are capable.’ It teaches them the converse: to not ask themselves the question “What if I’m not a rebel… what if I’m just scared? Scared that I actually can’t do this on my own.” They, of course, would never admit this to themselves because it’s so much easier to go on fulfilling tactic #1, denial, by ‘being a rebel’ that ‘doesn’t care’ and continuing to get to pass on to the next grade because if they don’t do their work, someone will do it for them.
Also as I write this, I have several students who are failing certain classes. Some of them have also taken on tactic #1, but interestingly, several of them have fully embraced victim mentality. You see, they have always had someone do the work for them if they didn’t do it (just like the three students described above), but when the training wheels finally bent, they felt as if not having someone do the work for them was hurting them. Not hurting in the sense of ‘getting behind for college.’ Hurting as in they felt as if, by adults in their lives not actively helping was equivalent to them attacking the student. They haven’t learned the joy of engaging in the ongoing process of solving their own problems, and when those adults (who love them very much, by the way) stopped helping and took on only a ‘supporting you in doing it yourself’ role, the students felt legitimately victimized. This is of course, crazy, but it’s their reality because of how they were brought up, and that means we have to manage it now.
Extending the training wheel period is not the solution, of course. We need to take off the training wheels earlier, as well as the pedals, and create a Strider bike that students will use to scaffold being able to learn on their own. To give a small example of this, I gave an exit ticket to my freshman class today. One student didn’t turn in his exit ticket (I knew he had not been taking notes all class and was probably hoping I just wouldn’t enter a grade). Normally, I let that student get a zero and move on, learning for next time that he simply has to take notes and stay engaged to know the content. But, for some reason I broke my own rule and gave him some training wheels by telling him at the end of the day that he hadn’t turned in his Exit Ticket. He somehow produced it and left it on my desk, sans name. Instead of entering it for the (low) grade it was, I put question marks on the name line and placed it back in the hand-back bin (which is another technique I use for increasing responsibility – students must actually go get their work instead of having it given back to them. If a student never collects their work, it’s thrown out). When he collected it, he told me that because I had known that it was his Exit Ticket, I should have just cut him a break and entered it for him. That – to me – would have been a training wheel. I told him the most compassionate thing I could have done was hold him accountable to being responsible for his own attention to detail in his work, and hopefully by the time he is a Senior he will both be able to ride life’s trails on his own, and understand why it was compassionate to hold him accountable rather than ‘cutting him a break.’
The unfortunate truth is that to take off the training wheels we need to re-introduce authentic failure. And authentic failure requires risk. When a kid is learning to ride a bike without training wheels, they are risking crashing and scraping themselves up, or worse. That’s OK – it’s part of the learning process! Of course we want to mitigate risk as best we can – we aren’t going to send a kid who just learned to pedal off a 30-foot jump. But we are going to ask them to risk crashing in order to fly. By keeping the training wheels on students for extended periods of time, we are not helping them or being compassionate – we are crippling them. And it seems to me that high school (or middle school or elementary school, for that matter) is a lot safer place to allow for failure than college, which with its high admission prices and graduation rates is akin to sending the newbie rider off that 30-foot jump. Perhaps this is the paradox of both education and conservation, and the meaning behind Leopold’s dictum: “A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run.”
Education Commission of the States. (2017). P-16/P-20 Councils – All State Profiles. Accessed December 11th, 2017 from http://ecs.force.com/mbdata/mbprofall?Rep=PCA.
Leopold, Aldo, 1886-1948. (1949). A Sand County Almanac, and sketches here and there. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Lynch, Matthew. (2014). P-16 and P-20 Initiatives: Critical for Education Reform. Huffington Post Online: Accessed December 10th, 2017 from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/matthew-lynch-edd/p-16-and-p-20-initiatives_b_4894357.html.
Manson, Mark. (2016). The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck: A Counterintuative Approach to Living a Good Life. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2017). The Condition of Education: Public High School Graduation Rates. Accessed December 11th, 2017 from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_coi.asp.