Monday, March 29, 2010

Higher Expectations?

Both the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed featured articles discussing the findings of the the latest Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE). The study focuses exclusively on the experience of first-time community college students after three weeks. This is apparently a magical number in community college student retention. All of the recommendations (there are six in all) make a lot of sense: fostering "college readiness" programs for high-school students, connecting early with students, encouraging faculty and staff members to have high expectations for students, providing a clear academic path, engaging students in the learning process, and maintaining an academic and social-support network. I don't so much have a problem with the recommendations themselves, but why we even need some of these recommendations.

Many students going to community college come from an environment where they is not a lot of external support for education. There isn't a lot of positive reinforcement coming from those around them, encouraging them and pushing them to be as successful as possible at school. Once they get to community college, they need the tools to be able to navigate this entirely new and foreign world. The two recommendations that trouble me the most have to do with "college readiness" programs in high schools and encouraging faculty members to have high expectation for students.

Let's start with the latter. The study makes the recommendation based on the results: a quarter of students reported “that they did not turn in an assignment at least once” and another a third of students said they “turned in an assignment late at least once.” I have witnesses this phenomenon first-hand at the university level; students assume that all work, save for the final, is optional, even though my expectations were clearly outlined on the syllabus. Towards the end of the semester, students began to panic and ask, is there anything we can do for bonus marks?

Bonus marks? How about all the work you were supposed to do during the semester, but didn't? A colleague of mine pointed out that in high school, these same students were able to pass without attending class or handing anything in by simply doing a make-up or bonus assignment at the end of the year (see a NY Times article on the phenomenon here). They carried this attitude into university. A product of the pressure to increase graduation rates? Probably, but this is still leaving the students unprepared for the demands of community college and university.

The fact that this responsibility now falls onto community college or even university educators is ridiculous to me. When I was in high school (wait, I have to get out my cane so I can shake it at you while I write this) we were told by our high school teachers that our college professors would not longer treat us like children (nagging, hovering, not to be trusted, etc) and that the expectation was that we were now adults (independent, capable, responsible, etc). That is what having higher expectations of your students involves. Not trying to find a way to ensure that they a) show up to class and b) turn in their work.

I'm all for high expectations. I expect well-written papers by the end of the semester. I expect that students read what I assign to them, regardless of how challenging it is. I expect students take responsibility for their own performance in my class. I also have high expectations for myself. I will do whatever I can do to help students achieve their goals and meet my expectations. If, and only if, they are willing to do their part.

Let me I go back to the high schools. This is my market, making up for high schools' shortcomings, but I still have to ask, why are students coming out of high school unprepared for university or community college? Why do community colleges or universities even need to get involved in the high schools to ensure college readiness? Isn't it the university's fault to begin with? We trained these same teachers who don't produce college ready students. This is a post for another day, but I'll let you think about it.

Do we need students to be adequately prepared for community college and university? Yes. Can a high school completely overcome the shortcomings in a student's environment? No, but then how do we expect a community college to do the same. The seeds need to be planted sooner, but until they are, the rest of us are ready to try and make up for it.

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