Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Large-scale high school failure in Florida

Kids need to go to community colleges to learn what they should have learnt in High school

Marcus Brown writes sentences the way he text messages. Mike Cote passed the FCAT in high school on the first try, but doesn't always know the difference between its and it's or that "should of" should be "should have." Simone Ashman's words get all jumbled up when she types and sentences come out like this: "The eating disorders is very dangerous because it can cause the person to die from less weight."

The three are recent high school graduates, yet standardized tests show they need remedial - now called "preparation" - classes before they'll be ready for college-level work. About 55 percent of students entering Florida's public colleges and universities find themselves in the same educational purgatory, learning fundamental reading, writing and math skills in college prep classes that they didn't get in high school. Those classes cost taxpayers $70 million in 2005, according to a state report released this year.

This year, more than 29,000 community college students are enrolled in courses to prepare them for college-level classes. Of those, just 52 percent are expected to complete those classes. That means of the 15 or so students sitting with Brown, Cote and Ashman in Palm Beach Community College Professor Valerie Lazzara's English preparation class, about seven are expected to pass their prep courses. "These kids are learning things for the first time in this class," Lazzara said in October, the beginning of a second-level writing class. "Sometimes I wonder if they have undiagnosed learning disabilities. It's like in high school, if they showed up, that was a great thing. That was enough."

A task force charged with reducing the number of students needing college preparation classes made recommendations this month that include requiring all high school students to take more academically rigorous classes and adopting a state definition of "college and career readiness." Colleges have taken the lead in improving remedial pass rates, scheduling courses back-to-back to immerse students in a subject. Also, students are not allowed to take other classes while completing remedial work.

But teachers and students confront more than academic barricades. There are social hurdles, too. In Lazzara's PBCC classroom, the phone number for campus security is written in green on the whiteboard behind her. Early in the semester, the instructor had one student who slept through class. Another turned around in his chair to chat incessantly with the student behind him. Both cursed her out in front of other students when she tried to discipline them, and three weeks into class, she threw them out for good. After one charged menacingly back into the classroom, she began wearing a vial of pepper spray on a cord with keys around her neck.

"There are a lot of them who don't want to be here," said Lazzara, 42, who, after ridding the class of the troublemakers, grew to adore her students. She stopped wearing the pepper spray midway through the semester. "I had to take my class back. There were students who were dedicated from day one." And in the end, after the grueling, make-or-break, 75-minute final essay, one student had perfect attendance, another wrote a story so good it neared a perfect score and a third already was planning her classes at Florida Atlantic University.

In general, Florida has seen little change in the percentage of students needing remedial education. Over the past several years, it has fluctuated between 47 percent and 55 percent... Only Florida's 28 community colleges and Florida A&M University are allowed by law to offer remedial classes.

Some students end up in remedial classes because they are bad test takers, said Judith Klinek, supplemental services director and former principal for the Palm Beach County School District. Others may be adults going to college for the first time, she said. The longer people are out of school, the more likely they'll forget the fundamentals needed to score well on standardized tests. "Overwhelmingly, our students are prepared for college-level work," Klinek said of Palm Beach County graduates. Yet the state has recognized there is a problem of students entering college unprepared.

That's part of the reason then-Gov. Jeb Bush introduced the FCAT in 2000 as a measure of student competence. But the test ends in the 10th grade, meaning it doesn't evaluate what a student needs to know as a high school senior preparing for college. If students take few high-level courses in their junior and senior years, they may graduate but might not be able to pass college-level placement tests.

In 2006, legislators passed bills to increase academic rigor in middle and high school, requiring high school students to take an extra year of math and choose a major field of study. "Just recognizing we need to do something is important," said Judith Bilsky, executive vice chancellor for Florida's community colleges...

Community colleges, however, aren't waiting on the state. Palm Beach Community College is requiring remedial students to take a college skills class that teaches them note-taking and study skills, as well as how to use the campus computer lab and library. This semester, PBCC also changed its scheduling so students take a yearlong course in one semester by taking classes four days a week instead of two....


The facts: Education expansion unlikely to do much good

Comment from Australia

IMAGINE you are Julia Gillard. As the new federal Education and Employment and Workplace Relations Minister, it's your job to reform the Coalition's Work Choices legislation and to implement Labor's election promises on education. You are itching to get started, but wading through the paperwork on your desk you discover two other pressing problems demanding your attention. First, employers are complaining about a skills shortage. After 15 years of sustained economic growth, we are running out of skilled workers. Forecasters predict a shortfall of 250,000 by 2016.

Second, unskilled workers are finding it difficult to get jobs. Official unemployment is at its lowest for 30 years, but many jobless people have been transferring to the Parenting Payment or Disability Support Pension. Many of these people could work but relatively few of them have formal qualifications and most of the new jobs created today are for graduates.

As you ponder how you may solve these two problems, there is a knock at the door and in come representatives of the business community, the education profession and welfare organisations. Speaking with one voice, they demand that you expand education and training. The business groups want an increase in the number of youngsters completing high school. In 1980, one-third of Australian pupils completed Year 12. Today, three-quarters do. But this upward trend has stalled in recent years. The Australia Industry Group says the Year 12 retention rate should be raised to 90 per cent. The educationists agree with this and add that you should expand the universities, too. The number of university places has doubled since 1980 and 40 per cent of young people are in higher education, but the delegation tells you we need more if we want to be a smart country.

The welfare organisations want more training for the unemployed. The Coalition emphasised getting people off welfare and into work. The thinking was that any job was better than no job. But the welfare lobby says jobless people should not be required to take dead-end jobs. They should be trained and given new skills so they can compete for well-paid jobs in the new skills economy.

Relaxing in the bath later, you mull over what you've heard, then: Eureka! You realise you can solve both your problems with the same bundle of policies. Increase Year 12 retention rates, expand university numbers and boost training for jobless adults, and the result will be an increase in the supply of skilled labour and a fall in the number of unskilled, jobless people on welfare. What's more, expanding education and training will be popular. The pressure groups will love you and the voters will get a warm glow. Nobody will criticise you for increasing education spending.

Next morning, you summon your bureaucrats and set out your plans. "First," you tell them, "I want Year 12 retention rates raised to 90per cent." There is some coughing and shuffling of feet before one brave soul outlines the evidence. Pupils doing vocational courses beyond Year 10 receive no benefit when it comes to getting jobs. And while bright students who remain at school improve their earnings and their employability, this is not true for low-ability students. Their risk of unemployment increases with two additional years of schooling and their earnings fall. If you push retention rates beyond their present level, a lot of children will end up taking courses for which they are not suited and that may even damage their prospects.

"Well," you respond, "we can still expand the universities. This country needs more graduates." Another awkward silence. It turns out that 500,000 graduates (more than 20 per cent) are unemployed or doing jobs for which a degree is not required. There are shortages in some specialist areas, but the country is drowning in arts graduates.

You throw your final dice. "Surely," you say, "it makes sense to train jobless people on welfare. Employers report skills shortages, let's train the unemployed to fill these jobs." The same deathly hush. Someone pushes an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report across the desk that shows training jobless adults rarely does any good. Middle-aged women returning to the labour market after rearing families do benefit from training; they are motivated and they have skills that just need brushing up. Few others get anything out of it.

"If you want to solve the skills shortage," one adviser tells you, "it makes more sense to delay early retirements, increase skilled immigration and attract more women back into work. All these people already have skills. "Training unskilled welfare recipients doesn't work."

You send the bureaucrats away. It seems this government lark is more complicated than it appears. Policies that sound attractive don't necessarily work. But how do you break this to the PM? You take a deep breath and pick up the phone. "Hi Kevin, it's Julia."


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