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School disconnect (07/11/2012)
By Frances Edstrom

In the July 8, 2012, St. Paul Pioneer Press, there appeared an article entitled, “State looks to boost college readiness.” The article, about the cost of remediation at colleges and universities, began with this statement: “After decades of spending millions a year to teach thousands of college students skills they should have learned in high school, Minnesota’s institutions of public education are moving toward an overhaul to improve college readiness.”

The Winona Post has taken a lot of heat over the years for being critical of K-12 public education (we refrain from criticizing private education, since it is paid for by parents, not the taxpayers at large). But we felt vindicated when we read that in 2010, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) — of which local Winona State University and Southeast Technical are both members — “spent $30 million teaching remedial English, mathematics and other courses to ensure students have the skills to succeed in entry-level college courses.”

The author of this article, Christopher Magan, wrote that about 40% of high school graduates need at least one remedial class. That’s up from 33% a decade ago, and the kids come from schools from the top to the bottom of the achievement spectrum. To add insult to injury, students, who nationally are racking up student loans to the tune of over $1 billion, often have to pay for these remedial classes without receiving college credit for them. They are paying to study material they were supposed to have mastered in high school, on the taxpayer’s dime. And don’t forget it is the taxpayer who is on the hook for MnSCU costs as well.

How can it be that high school graduates, many of whom I am willing to bet made the honor roll, have not been held accountable for material they were supposed to have been taught and learned? How can public high schools be so off track in the curriculum they offer, they way they teach, or in the way they assess student achievement?

We can’t help but feel there is a connection between Minnesota “opting out” of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal mandates of student assessment, and the fact that 40% of our high school graduates are not achieving up to expectations. The new system that the Minnesota Department of Education has come up with to assess students and schools is not only incomprehensible to those of us not in the department’s inner circle, it also has no teeth to demand better schools.

The education professionals that Mr. Magan interviewed for his story agreed that something must be done. But in what has been a typical reaction by those in public education in the state to criticism of public education at any level, these professionals shy away from pointing fingers towards themselves.

No, it is not the fault of public education, they seem to be saying, it is the fault of — the students, and by extension, their parents.

Andrew Nesset, acting academic dean at Century College in White Bear Lake, said, “For me it is a culture change, not just here, but across the country. High schools do a wonderful job of college preparation if students pursue it. Students have the power to do college-level work. Often, they just see it as hoops to jump through.”

Paul Carney, at the Center for College Readiness, says, “College readiness really needs to be prenatal.”

But the reluctance of the education establishment to criticize itself is to be expected. K-12 schools are charged with producing accomplished students — but public higher education is charged with educating those students to become the teachers in those K-12 classrooms.

The Center for School Change, led by a long-suffering Joe Nathan, did convene a meeting of college and high school teachers and administrators last month to address the problem. As Nathan said, “There is a huge disconnect between the requirements for graduating high school and the requirements for being ready for college in key academic areas.”

What should you do? Don’t saddle yourself with thousands in student loans. As many are finding out, trust in education doesn’t always translate to success in the job market, which you will need to pay back the loans. In four-year colleges and universities, only 35% of the students who take remedial courses will earn a diploma in six years. In two-year colleges, fewer than 10% in remediation will earn a degree in six years.

And all you expectant parents, start thinking smart thoughts — college readiness needs to be prenatal, you know. 


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