Category Archives: Adult Education

Miss Chris Goes to Washington

LessonPlanI stood at the dusty old chalkboard scratching out numbers, struggling through my third week of trying to teach fractions. I was enveloped in a half-circle of students in desks, but these weren’t ordinary students. They were almost all older than me, a scrappy midwesterner trying to deal with an unprecedented batch of allergies. The flora was so different in DC. Something had been making me stuffy for weeks. I sounded so goofy with every word that came out of my mouth. My students seemed to be immune to the plant life in town, as well as the oppressive heat. Southeast DC is surprisingly scenic for an urban area. In some ways, nature seems to be reclaiming ground from the residents, an almost exclusively black population. It’s a place where white folks are so rare that I was called “Snowflake” on more than one occasion.
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Even Educators Could Use Some Enlightenment Sometimes

10-30Despite the best of intentions, educators do not always understand where students and their families are coming from. I learned of this troubling lack of enlightenment and compassion among some educators at an education studies graduate school function in 2012. As I sat with other students at a meet-and-greet luncheon, we shared stories of how we each became interested in our graduate programs. During my turn, I related my experiences as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Washington, DC and how working with adult students with low academic skills had inspired me to make a career of education reform. Continue reading

The Capitol Dome and Its Two Cities

Capitol DomeFor a year after I graduated from college, I worked as an educator in the shadow of one of the weightiest symbols in the world, the embodiment of all of the ideals that make up the great ideological experiment that is America. The Capitol Dome feels omnipresent when one travels around Washington, DC, and the city planners have made sure of that Continue reading

Identity Impacts Education, and Vice Versa

Education and IdentityThere’s a growing body of scholarship around how students’ social identities impact their educational experiences, but it’s so important to consider how education affects their identities as well. In fact, I think it’s entirely possible that identity and education interact with each other as a cycle, or even a series of them, in which identity and our experiences in education feed into each other in different and overlapping ways. For some students and teachers, that cycle plays out every day and in some unexpected (and challenging) ways. Continue reading

Reforming Developmental Education: We Need a Holistic Approach

We might think of developmental education at the college level as the traditional approach to transitions services for students who may not be prepared for college-level coursework. Recent experience has shown, however, that tradition is not helping enough students graduate from college, as detailed in last week’s AP article on college developmental courses. “Only about a quarter of students nationally who take developmental—or remedial—classes ever graduate,” the article points out. That figure is staggering. Postsecondary institutions are dealing with two main problems when it comes to improving those numbers and reforming developmental education (aside from the growing need for it): how to accurately assess whether students need development, and how to best help students who do in fact need that development.

The predictive value of standardized tests has come into question at all levels of education in recent years. Assessments of college readiness, and specifically placement tests, are the latest among them. Thus, colleges’ attempts to find new ways of assessing students’ preparedness are a welcome change. However, some experimental approaches currently in use still do not take the entire student into account and may be just as one-dimensional as assessment tests like the ACCUPLACER. Allowing students to decide themselves whether or not to take remedial courses could be risky for students and institutions. Using GPA as a lone indicator gives only a narrow idea of a student’s needs.

Still, there are plenty of students who clearly are not ready for the rigor of credit-bearing courses. I saw that first-hand when I was an advisor and teacher’s aide for a college bridge program for GED recipients in 2010. The program was designed specifically to reduce the need for developmental courses once students got to college. Although the nonprofit I worked for geared the program toward non-traditional students aged 16-21, the model had the potential to help any students who needed to improve their college preparation. Indeed, most of our students were graduates of The Next Step Public Charter School, which employed an academic model that was a hybrid between a traditional high school and a GED preparation center.

The instructors for our program included actual college professors who had several years’ experience teaching developmental-level courses. To supplement those academic courses, my fellow AmeriCorps volunteer at my site taught a study skills course that was developed at a Big Ten university and had been taught at the college level for several semesters. In addition to my role as a teacher’s aide for those three courses, I also designed and implement a college advising program. Advising focused on college and career research in addition to filling out college and financial aid applications. In short, we took a holistic approach to support as many aspects of the college transition process as possible.

This model showed so much promise, but after just one cycle, the entire organization was shut down due to funding shortfalls. That lack of financial support is telling of how our academic system overlooks students’ transition needs. Solutions to student preparedness are directed at high schools or colleges, but approaches that target both and attempt to bridge that gap are rare. Of course, early intervention is best, and there is no substitute for giving a child a solid educational foundation before she reaches college. However, we can’t turn back the clock for students who are already moving on to postsecondary education. Those students need and deserve help, too.

Developmental students’ struggles to graduate also demonstrate that academic skills are not enough for success in postsecondary education and the workforce. Learning non-cognitive skills such as time management, self-motivation, and effective communication is essential. Those sorts of skills are innate in some students and must be learned by others. Study skills courses can go a long way in guiding students to success, but how often do we hear about high schools that offer those courses? Convincing college students to put some of their valuable financial aid toward a study skills class can be difficult as well. Nonetheless, equipping students with a holistic set of skills should be a priority at all levels of education.

It’s clear that postsecondary institutions, and community colleges in particular, are suffering from a lack of essential information about students’ needs and their potential for success. Grades and test scores can only communicate so much, but a student’s teachers, counselors, and coaches can communicate a wealth of information about his potential. In order to bridge this gap between high school and college for students, we as educators need to bridge that same gap among ourselves. We need to talk to each other. Colleges need to reach out to high schools more to gain a fuller understanding of what students have learned and what they are capable of, and policy makers need to give colleges the funding to maximize those human resources. K-12 schools need to be more aware of students’ postsecondary options and interests along with the expectations of colleges and universities. Further, nonprofit organizations and community college programs specifically designed to help students transition into and persist in college deserve more financial and community support.

As with every other stage in our education system, developmental education programs suffer from a lack of coherence with the stages of education both above and below it. Colleges are taking important steps to find solutions for assessing whether students need developmental courses and which approaches are most successful for students who do need extra help. For the sake of those students, reform efforts should focus on students’ needs and experiences in their entirety.

Trying to Improve Education? Talk to Some High School Dropouts

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I’ve learned more about education from high school dropouts than I’ve learned from any book, article, or lecture. Despite holding a master’s degree in educational studies, working as a GED instructor for adult minority students in Southeast Washington, DC opened my eyes more than any other experience to the realities that students face as they go through the American educational system.

In many ways, my classroom was a microcosm for larger systemic educational issues. Students were shockingly lacking in basic math and literacy skills. Most of them had been repeatedly told as children that they were lazy or stupid because school was difficult for them and to this day experience anxiety just from walking into a school building. I even had a mother and her 18-year-old son in my class, evidence of the cyclical nature of academic failure and lack of opportunity in families.

Although these students should have been in adult basic education programs, my supervisor informed me that the organization had abandoned that program years ago. Many students received negative pressure in their social circles about going back to school, but being able to say, “I’m getting my GED,” still held a good amount of social prestige. There was no prestige, however, for those students to say that they were learning basic math and literacy skills. Due to sharply falling attendance, the basic education program was dropped in favor of an all-GED program.

While I was frustrated that my students were underprepared, their desire to be in my class signaled some important realities to me: they took pride in their decision to go back to school and were emotionally invested in doing well. Their reasons for returning to school were noble. Most wanted to get good jobs or hold onto the ones they had. Others wanted to be able to help their children or grandchildren with their homework. A couple even told me that they wanted to go onto college.

In all likelihood, many of those students will need to study for years before they pass the GED, and many will never pass it. And yet, they maintain hope. Perhaps merely having a positive educational experience was enough to put them on a good path after years of discouraging encounters with education.

My students knew very little of the scholarly theories we use to explain their situations. I am sure that few of them have ever learned about social capital theory, non-cognitive skills, or the legacy of Brown vs. Board of Education. They made no excuses for why the American educational system did not work for them.

As scholars, we rarely understand high school dropouts as anything other than a set of statistics. I was fortunate enough to learn at an early age that these people are valuable for much more than that. In our discourse about educational reform, these should probably be the first people we talk to about how we can improve our system, not the last. They prove that it is just as important to learn from education’s failures as its successes. And they prove that the people behind those statistics can share with us a wealth of knowledge and perspective.