[An original contribution to Hacking the Academy.]
The academy should hack itself to transform public education. Here’s how:
1. Stop complaining about public education.
Since Sputnik, American schools have been anxiety-driven to produce “college-ready” students. Standardized testing, A Nation at Risk, the No Child Left Behind act, the Race to the Top Initiative, and the upcoming Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization are all bastard efforts to make sure that America’s high school graduates are “college-ready.”
We have spent decades and an inordinate amount of money on public education – on trying to find the perfect formula of “college-readiness.” Nevertheless, you don’t need to go any further than #edchat to hear college professors bemoaning their fate as babysitters of intellectually unwashed undergrads. And who gets the blame? That’s right: public education.
This is utter nonsense. Public education is obsessively, compulsively trying to make students “college-ready.” Guess where public education looks to determine what “college-ready” means? That’s right: colleges.
So long as university faculty continue to bitch and moan about public education instead of taking on their own institutions’ admissions standards, then university faculty can expect to teach more of the same: students prepared to pass multiple-choice tests and to game the weighted high-school grading-systems that serve as gateways to AP courses and higher education.
Professors, go to your deans and provosts and urge them to align your admissions standards to what you want to see in students. Then stop admitting students who don’t meet them. Stop taking their money and passing the buck.
2. Invest in authentic admissions processes.
So how does this look? I don’t know – it probably varies by department, school, and institution. Regardless of programs’ differences, colleges need authentic demonstrations of applicants’ capabilities. You want creativity? Ask for an art portfolio. You’re sad that the arts are under-valued in our society? Require proof of high quality arts education for college admittance and watch privileged parents vote #artsed money back into schools. You want excellent writing? Damn grades and transcripts – ask for a piece of written work from each credited course a student attempts. You want self-sufficient and financially literate students? Ask for work experience and proof of financial literacy education. You want community-oriented students who will give back to your local community? Require proof of and reflection upon service learning. You want undergraduates who will take risks and contribute to campus intellectual life? Require proof of and reflection upon entrepreneurial learning.
You want public education to make students college-ready? Have an authentic and relevant admissions process. Figure it out.
3. Invest in pedagogy.
Then, once you’ve enrolled students who want to learn with you and with whom you want to learn, provide them with a relevant and authentic education. Look at each kid as a prospective protégé. Train yourself to teach well and structure undergraduate courses to be engaging. The only place less relevant to a teenager than a traditional public school classroom is a freshman lecture hall.
You might be getting crappy work from undergraduates because you’re offering them crappy classes. Do they really need to fulfill all of your prerequisites and requirements to do excellent work in the fields they love? Is it a money thing? A politics thing? I’m being #nonrhetorical here. Help me understand. My college program had no prerequisites or requirements. I still don’t know how to do statistics and probability, but I can set up a democratic classroom in a public school, help my students program in Scratch, and chat in Spanish with immigrant parents and Pulitzer Prize winners. My college didn’t fail me by freeing me. Nor did it fail me by holding me back or making me pay to take classes and do work I loathed.
Kids can teach themselves what they want to know. They can start businesses. They can enroll in community colleges during high school. It’s possible to succeed in an increasing number of fields without a college education. Higher education needs better courses for undergrads and more compelling teaching to remain relevant and useful to kids and their dreams.
Okay, Professors, here’s your nightmare scenario: as “college-readiness” continues to drive American public education into the dirt of low expectations, college itself stops being enough to ensure America’s competitiveness in the global marketplace. Brave reformers pass legislation requiring all public university professors to be “highly qualified teachers” and to be evaluated by their students’ GRE scores. Grad school becomes the new college experience. State colleges have to compete with for-profit schools for federal subsidies. “Profess for America” starts displacing tenured professors left and right with the best and brightest undergrads looking to get their hands dirty before rising above it all.
Are you looking forward to hacking that?
If not, then make the undergraduate experience important to kids, their dreams, and their lives well lived. Quit decrying public education and help us partner with you in that bold and messy endeavor.
Chad Sansing teaches humanities at the Community Public Charter School, an arts-infused, literacy-focused charter school for non-traditional middle school learners. He blogs on reforming classroom practice at Classroots.org and CoöpCatalyst. He is a National Board Certified Teacher and NETS*T Certified Teacher.