Prof: Group learning wastes time

Group learning “is a waste of classroom time and an obstacle to student learning,” argues Bruce Gans, who taught English at City Colleges of Chicago.

At a community college where he worked, non-tenured English instructors were evaluated on whether they fostered “group activities such as study groups and team projects.” Those who didn’t use group learning risked losing their jobs.

Gans observed teachers who were up for tenure or contract extensions.

A literature instructor wanted students to understand metaphor. She “circulated a set of lachrymose pop song lyrics and divvied the students into groups of three to identify and analyze the lyric’s figures of speech.”

During the collaboration period, most of the groups alternated between working desultorily and not at all. The instructor leaned against the edge of her desk silently observing her realm, then circulated briefly among the groups.  There were many to visit, which precluded going into great depth with any.

Much might have been accomplished had the instructor used that class time to present accurate analysis and modeling the thought process of decoding metaphor and to directly question her students. Instead, the students learned very little from their group work.

In a class on how to write a research paper, another instructor paired students, distributed readings on the research topic and told students to teach each other how to paraphrase the passages.

Students texted, made phone calls, chatted and joked. It “seems exceedingly unlikely” they learned about paraphrasing, Gans writes.

The central value of being in a classroom consists in the opportunity to be instructed directly by an expert credentialed in a core skill and complex body of knowledge, a teacher who has experience articulating ideas clearly and in holding students to rigorous standards of proficiency and civility.

. . . The strategy of group work, in contrast, is to unleash learning by yoking together two or more students who often possess neither aptitude nor concern for the assignment.  If a professor divides a class into small groups to correct grammar errors in their papers, no one should be surprised when the final papers substantially retain the original errors and have incorporated new ones.

Group projects are supposed to teach students to collaborate. Gans is dubious. “Groups are creatures of compromise, consensus, the intellectual mean, the mediocre.”

Having students evaluate each other’s writing doesn’t work if nobody’s a good writer, argues Troy Camplin, a lecturer in English at University of North Texas in Dallas.

A remedial writing student asked why we did peer review since, “I feel like I’m getting nothing but bad advice. I mean, they don’t know any more than I do.”

. . . I spent about half of my time going around telling students to ignore practically everything their fellow students told them to do. My students did not know grammar, or how to write a good sentence, or how to write a coherent paragraph, or how to make an argument – and I was asking them to critique their fellow students on precisely those points!

Good writers tend to be avid readers, Camplin argues. “The practice of reading good writing allows you to see what good sentences, good paragraphs, and good arguments look like.”  Students need to read extensively “before they can learn how to write well.”

Students do well on fast track to college English

An accelerated one-semester reading and writing course helped remedial students succeed at California’s Chabot College, concludes a Community College Research Center study. Compared to students in the two-semester course, fast-tracked students were more likely to complete college English, earn a certificate or degree and transfer to a four-year college or university. They accumulated more credits and earned higher grades.

“I like the one-semester idea,” said an adjunct who’d taught both versions of the course. “I think when you give them two full semesters, you give them that much longer to find a reason to leave.”

However, some instructors believed weaker,  less confident students, especially immigrants still learning English, needed more time in developmental English. One veteran teacher said:

Maybe ESL students do need to be taking it a little bit slower because they are not just acquiring cognitive and academic skills. What they are acquiring are language skills. … And you can accelerate your progress to some degree, but a certain amount of that is just going to be time.

Chabot’s English department rejected “remedial pedagogy” — drill and practice on subskills — years ago, the researchers write. Assignments in developmental English are designed to mirror tasks students will be expected to perform in college-level English, but with “lower levels of complexity and more scaffolding.”

 Several instructors said the accelerated course helped students by more closely resembling the expectations in college-level courses. Fast-tracking gives students “that college feeling,” said a faculty member who teaches both developmental and college-level English courses. 

While fast-tracking remedial English had “greater benefits for students with higher English and reading placement scores,” lower-skilled students weren’t harmed, the study found.

Stop pretending college is for everyone

College isn’t for everyone, writes Mike Petrilli on Slate. So let’s stop pretending it is.

All students — regardless of their academic or “soft skills” — are told that college is the only path to a decent job, he writes. But low-skilled students are set up for “almost certain failure,” Petrilli argues. They need “high-quality career and technical education, ideally the kind that combines rigorous coursework with a real-world apprenticeship, and maybe even a paycheck.”

Poorly prepared students can go to an open-access college, but few succeed, he writes. Less than 10 percent of community college students who start in remedial courses will complete a two-year degree within three years, estimates Complete College America. Most will quit before taking a college-level course.

College access advocates look at those numbers and want to double down on reform, seeking to improve the quality of remedial education, or to skip it entirely, encouraging unprepared students to enroll directly in credit-bearing courses, or to offer heavy doses of student support. All are worth trying for students at the margins. But few people are willing to admit that perhaps college just isn’t a good bet for people with seventh-grade reading and math skills at the end of high school.

Unfortunately, our federal education policy encourages schools and students to ignore the long odds of college success. Federal Pell Grants, for instance, can be used for remedial education; institutions are more than happy to take the money, even if they are terrible at remediating students’ deficits, which is why I’ve proposed making remedial education ineligible for Pell financing. On the other hand, Pell can only be used for vocational education that takes place through an accredited college or university; job-based training, and most apprenticeships, do not qualify. That should change.

By pretending that low-skilled students “have a real shot at earning a college degree,” we mislead them, Petrilli argues. They’re less likely to pursue a path that might lead to success.

Petrilli’s argument represents the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” charges RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. “Vocational ed tracks are a legacy of ability tracking and the comprehensive high school model, both of which emerged from the bigoted assumption that poor and minority kids (especially those from immigrant households) were incapable of mastering academic subjects.” 

“College-preparatory learning is critical for success in both white- and blue-collar professions,” he argues. Young people who are not “college material” won’t be “blue-collar material” either.

High-paying blue-collar jobs require high levels of reading, math and science literacy, Biddle writes. All require postsecondary training, often at a community college.

Welders, for example, need strong trigonometry and geography skills in order to properly fabricate and assemble products. . . . Machine tool-and-die work involves understanding computer programming languages such as C . . . Even elevator installers-repairmen, along with electrical and electronics installers, need strong science skills in order because their work combines electrical, structural and mechanical engineering.

I agree with Petrilli that young people get very bad advice. By ninth grade, they should be told the odds — based on high school grades — of completing a bachelor’s degree, vocational associate degree or a vocational certificate. They should know that a dental hygienist or a welder may earn more than a four-year graduate in sociology, theater arts or just-about anything studies.

They need to know early, so they have time to develop the reading, writing and — especially — math skills they’ll need to pursue a technical or academic education.

Students who master middle-school math can study statistics, data analysis, applied geometry and/or mathematical modeling to prepare for a range of careers, concludes What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready? by the National Center on Education and The Economy. “Fewer than five percent of American workers and an even smaller percentage of community college students will ever need to master the (algebra to calculus) sequence in their college or in the workplace.”

How much sex is too much on reading list?

How much explicit sex is acceptable in a book required for a college class?  asks Siobhan Curious, who teaches in Quebec’s version of community college.

This year, she put Scott Spencer’s Endless Love on the reading list for a course on novels about adolescence. She’d read an excerpt, but not the whole thing, till after she placed the order.

Thirty-five pages in, I was greeted with a graphic, dripping, pulsating depiction of teenage, heterosexual anal sex.

The scene is not gratuitous.  It’s fundamental to the fabric of the novel.  It is beautifully, if shockingly (at least to me) rendered.  It is absolutely appropriate to the book.

The questions is, is it appropriate for a college classroom?

Some of my students will be under eighteen; some will be deeply and narrowly religious; some will be really immature.  Others will be able to handle explicit sex scenes and appreciate them for what they are: an integral part of the story.  When I briefly present the book to the class and mention that some of them may wish to avoid it if they’re uncomfortable with graphic sex, many of them will be titillated and will choose the book for that reason.  (This is what happens with Alice Sebold’s Lucky in my memoir course, when I tell them they should avoid it if they are worried about the opening rape scene; the vast majority of students choose it as one of their readings.)  Others will be absent that day, will be assigned the book or choose it themselves, and will be outraged.

Curious wonders if she should trust her students “will choose wisely and handle the consequences” — or find another book.

After 12th grade, it’s back to middle school

Community college means a return to middle school for many students, writes Kenneth Terrell in The Atlantic, citing a recent National Center on Education and the Economy report on college and career readiness. “A large fraction of students are leaving the 12th grade with a high-school diploma, and they’re about to begin a course of studies at the 8th grade level,” said Marc Tucker, president of the NCEE.

NCEE randomly selected one community college in each of seven states, then examined eight of the most popular programs–accounting, automotive technology, biotech/electrical technology, business, criminal justice, early childhood education, information technology/computer programming, nursing, and the general education track. NCEE researchers examined the programs’ textbooks, assignments and exams to see what math and English skills truly were necessary to succeed.

While the researchers found that “the reading and writing currently required of students in initial credit-bearing courses in community colleges is not very complex or cognitively demanding,” the report’s math findings are even more striking. The report also states that middle school math–”arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations”–were more central to the community college math courses than the Algebra II most high schools emphasize in college readiness programs. “What really is needed in our community colleges–and really for the majority of Americans in the work that they do–is middle school math,” Tucker said.

Raising admission standards would exclude most would-be community college students. And for what purpose?  Only a few “will ever need to use advanced math skills in college or the workplace,” according to NCEE, which equates requiring advanced algebra to requiring Latin. “It looks like we’re denying high school graduates the opportunity to take credit-bearing courses because they can’t master math that they don’t need, and that seems very unfair,” Tucker said.

Is the new GED too hard?

The GED exam will be harder in 2014, reports the Bay Area News Group. Maybe too hard. The new four-part test, which will be taken on computers, is aligned with Common Core’s college and career readiness expectations.

The new exams are designed to better prepare students for vocational training, college or careers by testing the skills employers are looking for now, said Armando Diaz, spokesman for the GED Testing Service.

There will be fewer multiple choice questions and more questions that “require test-takers to read longer passages and show understanding by defending opinions in short answers or essays.”

I wonder if the new test is too difficult. Consider the reading skills required by this sample social studies question for the 2014 exam:

Excerpt: “There would be an end to everything, were the same man, or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals.”

Based on the excerpt, which important principle held by America’s founders did Montesquieu help shape?

A. Wider participation in government is essential to democracy.
B. Government will fail unless it performs a variety of functions.
C. Divisions of powers within government are necessary to prevent abuses.
D. Government power should be shared among the different classes of society.

(Option C is correct. The excerpt states the belief that concentrating all governmental power in one person or group would be very detrimental to a society.)

Go here for more on the new exam.

Only 12 percent of GED recipients go on to earn any other credential, GED officials say. They want the GED to be rigorous enough to be the first step to a vocational credential and a decent job. But it’s going to be a high step.

It’s possible to be stumped by Montesquieu but capable of  learning how to weld, cut hair or drive a truck. The GED is most useful as a minimum qualifications, not as an indicator of college readiness. If it’s too hard, a lot of people will give up.

Pass rates are up for Texans using computers to take the current version of the GED, reports the Waco Tribune. About 83 percent of testers have passed the computer exam this year at Texas State Technical College’s testing center, compared to 67 percent who took the paper format.

Technology aids disabled ‘middle college’ students

Technology is helping high school students with learning disabilities take college courses, writes Michael Yudin,acting assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education.

In the heart of Silicon Valley, the Santa Clara Unified School District and Mission College have created Mission Middle College to enable students to earn college credit while still in high school. High expectations  and e-literacy services build students’ confidence, said program coordinator Jennifer Lang-Jolliff. All students develop a postsecondary plan that includes attending community college or a university.

Students with visual impairments, physical disabilities and severe learning disabilities are helped to find the right assistive technology, computer software application or device to help them achieve academically. Students with reading problems can use Bookshare, a free and federally funded online library developed by Benetech, a Palo Alto company.

Bookshare provides timely access to curriculum in digital formats and offers a large collection of eBooks (currently over 190,000 books and growing) as well as reading technologies to enable students to experience multimodal learning—the ability to see and hear text read aloud.

Kate Finnerty, a high school senior with dyslexia, uses Bookshare to keep up with reading and research. She plans to study graphic design in college.

NCEE: Rethink readiness

What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready? Community colleges expect little of first-year students — and get even less, concludes the National Center on Education and The Economy.

The report paints a grim picture.

High school graduates have trouble reading textbooks written at the 11th- to 12th-grade level, so instructors provide study aids to help poor readers get by. Students do little writing. When they do write, “instructors tend to have very low expectations for grammatical accuracy, appropriate diction, clarity of expression, reasoning and the ability to present a logical argument or offer evidence in support of claims.”

Despite taking high school algebra, geometry and often advanced algebra, most students are placed in remedial math. They’re not prepared for “college math,” which amounts to “Algebra 1.25,” basic algebra with a bit of geometry and statistics. Yet what students most need to succeed in college courses is mastery of “middle school mathematics, especially arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations.”

Cover edit 3

Community colleges enroll 45 percent of U.S college students: About half hope to earn a bachelor’s degree, while the rest are pursuing a vocational credential, NCEE estimates.

It’s not enough for community colleges to raise expectations, the report concludes.

We need to bear in mind that a very large fraction of high school graduates does not meet the very low expectations that community colleges currently have of them. The nation may have to learn to walk before it runs, which means that it is important, first, to enable our high school students to meet the current very low standards before we ratchet those standards up.

Common Core Standards, if implemented well, will help, eventually, the report concludes. But there’s a long way to go.

Researchers analyzed textbooks, tests, assignments, student work and grading at seven community colleges in different states. The study focused on general education and popular career programs: Accounting, Automotive Technology, Biotech/Electrical Technology, Business, Criminal Justice, Early Childhood Education, Information Technology/Computer Programming 1 and Nursing.

Only one program at one college required mastery of advanced algebra, the study found.

Increasingly, high schools are requiring students to take Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II, with hopes they’ll make it to Calculus. That should be only one option, the report recommends.

Mastery of Algebra II is widely thought to be a prerequisite for success in college and careers. Our research shows that that is not so. . . . fewer than five percent of American workers and an even smaller percentage of community college students will ever need to master the (algebra to calculus) sequence in their college or in the workplace.

Students shouldn’t take algebra till they really understand middle-school math, the report advises.  If they wait till 10th grade, that’s OK. They can study statistics, data analysis, applied geometry and/or mathematical modeling to prepare for a range of careers.

States should “build alternative math pathways through the last two years of high school that are aligned with student interests and career plans,” says Harvard Education Professor Robert Schwartz. “If the Report’s assertion is correct —that only 5 percent of jobs require the mathematics embodied in the calculus pathway —then our education system should focus more on the mathematics that most young people will actually use in their civic and work life, e.g. statistics, data, probability.”

However, the path to 12th-grade calculus usually starts with eighth-grade algebra. At 12 or 13, students would have to decide whether they’re aiming for a university degree in engineering or science. Imagine a STEM-prep track for 5 percent of students — or even 20 percent — with everyone else preparing for a low-tech university degree or a community college job training program. The future engineers and physicists are likely to predominantly Asian-American, white, middle class and male.

An all-day conference on the report will be livestreamed today starting at 9 am EDT.

Reading, writing and knowing

Core Knowledge got its start from E.D. Hirsch’s years teaching literary theory as an English professor, he writes in How Two Poems Helped Launch a School Reform Movement in The Atlantic. He discovered the importance of background knowledge when he looked at ways to improve college students’ writing.

When the topic was familiar to readers, you could measure the benefits of good writing (and the problems caused by bad writing) quite consistently. But the time and effort it takes to understand a text on an unfamiliar topic completely overwhelms the effects of writing quality.

At a Richmond community college, students couldn’t read or write clearly because they lacked a base of knowledge, Hirsch writes.

These students, primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds, could easily read a text on “Why I like my roommate.” But even after controlling for vocabulary level and syntax, they could not easily read about Lee’s surrender to Grant. These Richmond students, surrounded by Civil War mementos on Monument Avenue, were clueless about the Civil War. Their lack of knowledge was the reason they were unable to read well about anything beyond the most banal topics.

Researchers have found that “relevant prior knowledge — information already stored in one’s long-term memory — is the single most important factor in reading comprehension,” Hirsch writes.

Schools talk about “grade level” reading skills. This makes sense for decoding skills, but not reading comprehension, Hirsch argues. Students can comprehend a reading passage if the content is familiar, but struggle if it’s unfamiliar. ”

For understanding a text, strategies help a little, and knowledge helps a lot,” Hirsch concludes.

Ex-con is poet, essayist and teacher

After serving eight years in prison for carjacking, Reginald Dwayne Betts enrolled at Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) in Maryland. The ex-con is now a poet, essayist and teacher and a published author, reports Community College Times.

Betts had spent his prison time reading and writing. At PGCC, he earned a full scholarship to the Honors Academy. Betts founded Young Men Read, a book club for African-American boys, and taught poetry at several Washington, D.C. public schools.

After graduating  in 2007 with an associate degree in general studies, he earned his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Maryland College Park in 2009.

He wrote A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (Avery/Penguin) and a collection of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm  (Alice James Books), while earning a master’s degree in creative writing from Warren Wilson College.

Betts currently teaches in Massachusetts at Middlesex Community CollegeEmerson College and Bunker Hill Community College.

“My experiences at the community-college level taught me how to get the best out of the college experience,” Betts said. “It’s more than success in the classroom.”