What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?

Crabby wonders about form and substance…

The more I think about college access and success for underserved students, the more I find myself reading and thinking about primary and secondary education as well. Too often, I’ve found, even students at the top of their classes struggle to write a decent essay for an application–not understanding how to structure an essay, much less choose a topic. They tell me about how easy their courses are, with little homework and lots of test prep. They’ve “achieved” but it’s a hollow achievement, long on external recognition and short on substantive, internal accomplishment.

Most often, these students are bright and ambitious, ready to take on the world. They have actively participated in their schools and communities, been the pride of their family, and generally stood out from the crowd. But when faced with the college research and application process they are often hesitant and unsure of themselves. I think this has a lot to do with their own sense that, while they have been affirmed and supported and “empowered” through their schools’ “college days,” “no excuses” philosophies, and “aim high” pep rallies, there is still something missing at the center of their so-called achievement. 

That something is the substance of education, which has so often been replaced by testing, test prep, relentless progression through set course guidelines (think APs), and a programmatic reliance on scores and targets their schools need to reach. All of these elements chip away at the kind of genuine accomplishment that can give students a more substantive foundation for entering college. Affirmations about how “You can do anything if you put your mind to it!” and test prep rallies designed to get students psyched for taking standardized tests are hollow and even harmful when they replace actual learning and teaching, whether it’s in English or math or music.

Students, especially the most ambitious, may buy into these things because they at least seem like positives when they may be surrounded by many negative forces, but down deep they can sense that they aren’t being given the tools to make it academically in college. Imagine teaching carpentry by having students look at pictures of tools and finished products, then testing them with a multiple choice exam; then consider teaching essay writing by completing workbooks and memorizing terms without ever (and regularly) writing essays. Even if the prospective carpenter aces his exam, would anyone say he’s really ready to build a birdhouse, much less an armoire? 

I emphatically do not blame these students for their condition; the term “underserved” says it all. Just about any student I’ve encountered in my years working with students throughout Chicago has shown me that there’s plenty of brainpower out there. If they were enrolled in well-resourced schools, they’d be well on their way to great college careers. But they aren’t, and that’s the tragedy; even when they have access to college information, that doesn’t “cure” the deficiencies of their educations. We are simply acknowledging the raw material of their energy and intelligence and hoping they can survive in college long enough to finally make it on their own.

Evidence that relying on “positivity” and raising test scores is failing can be seen at the college level, where more and more colleges, even the most selective, are expanding tutoring and other support resources, tacitly acknowledging that these students enter college life at a disadvantage. The centers, accessed primarily by the bright and ambitious low-income and first generation-college students they have worked so hard to recruit, provide essential services to help them succeed. (While students from better high schools may use the centers occasionally, it’s a good bet that very few do or want to be seen doing so.) More and more, students at the community college level, for example, have to retake high school level courses (for no credit) to truly begin their post-secondary educations. 

While these supports are helpful and necessary, they should be seen as last, not first, resorts, yet when colleges talk to underserved students, they very often emphasize these supports in ways they don’t for more privileged (read “more prepared”) students. It’s a reality, of course, but it also presupposes that these students will start college behind their peers. 

Colleges are in a predicament: The drive to recruit and enroll underserved students comes up against the fact that, no matter how bright they are, they’ve often been miseducated and led to think that despite poor grades (and test scores, despite all the test prep) in math and science they can become doctors or scientists if that’s what they want. 

Underserved students are caught in their own dilemma: Miseducated yet told they can do anything, recruited by selective colleges while still being considered an “other,” they are forced to switch gears while going too fast, resulting in an unfortunate reality kickback. One other aspect that skews the picture for these students: Many high schools, especially those partnering with businesses or moguls investing their money in an increasingly lucrative market, emphasize their own ambitions regarding where their students should go over where it might be best for students to attend. Thus, they encourage students to apply beyond their capabilities in order to embellish their own college attendance lists. While this approach can sometimes work in the short run, the long term results can be discouraging as students drop out or transfer.

Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of bright underserved students who through stellar effort have managed to get through the morass of school and truly do well (aside from any social and cultural issues they may encounter). But for those of us concerned not only with finding these students but also with motivating their peers to take on the college challenge, it can be a discouraging process. We often see students too late in their high school careers to make a difference; we often realize that whatever we do to encourage them outside of class can be undone by any number of factors. Working in communities can be one approach that enables students and their adult mentors to think more broadly about their educations, encouraging them to take charge of their educations. 

Without a truly substantive and unified approach to ALL students’ educations, it’s difficult to achieve a genuine “college for all” spirit that will enable underserved students to feel genuinely capable of entering the post-high school world. Whether they attend college or not, they have the right to be educated well enough to have choices after college. That is the most powerful result of a good education.