Monday, March 11, 2013

Should High Schools Be "College" or Be for Getting Ready for College?

I met Georgina Hickey at the recent Ypsilanti Community Schools meeting that I went to--yes, the one where they chose the Superintendent Triumvirate. (In fact, while there I took a picture of a sign a woman was holding. You can see the picture here.) Although Georgina was holding the sign, she was not in the photo.

In any case, Georgina has just written this letter, reproduced below, to the Ypsilanti Community Schools board. I asked her if I could reproduce this because she raises an issue I've been thinking about a lot. On the one hand, new state rules about credits mean that it's hard for even motivated students to graduate from high school early, and on the other hand we appear to be very focused on getting kids to "do" college before they are even out of high school. Anyway, I could say more, but I'll just say that Georgina's letter raises some really important issues, not just for the Ypsilanti Community Schools but for all schools, and I'm hoping for some discussion about these issues in the comments. (Please?)

Dear Board and Superintendents,
I would like to express my concern about the "college credit or career credentials" pillar that somehow became one of the goals of our new district (I participated in all the public meetings this summer and it was never clear to me who decided these were the pillars). 
I won't speak to career credentials as I have no experience in that area and what I have heard others discussing, such as the culinary arts program, seem realistic and well tended. I can speak to college credit, however, as I am a professor and I regularly teach freshmen and transfers from community colleges.
My recollection from YPSD's strategic planning a 2-3 years ago is that a surprising number of Ypsi students say they intend to go to college (good) but most don't make it through to a degree or even more than one year (bad). This is the disconnect where we need more focused attention: kids think college is an option for them, but for some reason it is not workable once they get there. I strongly advocate we work on excellent college preparation: particularly math and writing skills for the academic realm. Based on what I see at UM-Dearbon students also need more help information literacy and mastering independent learning skills.
My thinking is that college should be a viable option for all of our students who want it. Getting students a handful of credits here or there before they graduate HS is a distraction from the larger issue: making sure they are ready for college with the academic, emotional, and social skills they will need to pursue a degree.
I would far rather promise parents that, should they and their kids want it, this district can prepare the kids to succeed in college. That is a higher and harder goal but more meaningful than 6 credits they will never use because they weren't actually prepared to take a wide range of college classes on a college campus.
I have raised this issue repeatedly since the first time I saw this pillar. It came up again at the forum on Saturday but since no one from this advisory group was there, I wanted to be sure the message got through to you. I know that WCC is helping with this initiative, which is wonderful, but you should know that transfers from community colleges often struggle with the rigors of a four year institution. I hope that at the very least we can include Eastern and other 4-year colleges in the discussion. I think they have much to tell us about where and why students struggle. I'm happy to connect you to college staff and faculty at UM-Dearborn who can help with this.
Thank you,Georgina Hickey


  1. I wholeheartedly agree with this letter. I have frequently thought the very same thing. Getting college credits in HS is a distraction. There is plenty to do in HS, and the time our schools get with our kids should be dedicated to maximizing social-emotional learning, teaching kids to be independent learners and stewards of their own mastery, and introducing electives that could inspire passion.

  2. I teach at a local university that allows area students to take college courses. While these are sweet kids, many of whom seem serious about their studies, they lack the reading, writing and critical thinking skills needed to do well. They work hard and are usually able to pass the classes I teach, but they don't have the intellectual maturity needed to get the most out of these college courses. They would be much better served spending their high school years taking college prep classes that allow them to fully develop these important skills.

    Taking one class or two while in high school to get a feel for campus is a nice idea, but taking college classes instead of high school classes robs students of important educational opportunities.

  3. These are great discussion topics!

    I embrace the idea that high school should be preparing students for college, rather than having college prepare students for college.

    The problem at a school like Ypsi High is that the preparation was not as strong as it might have been to begin with, and along came other options such as Early College (EMU) and New Tech (which has a WCC component) which ended up diluting the YHS program. Then parents and students are further dissatisfied, so even more of them turn to the alternatives. You see where this is going, right? Vicious cycle.

    The allure of free college tuition is difficult to resist, and so is the idea of attending classes that allow a student to stretch academically.

    I've known kids who really were ready to move on to college early, and I've known some who shouldn't have tried it.

    I don't think we should go back to "one size fits all" education, but I do think that strengthening the foundation at the high schools would also increase their enrollment, while offering students the many benefits of age-appropriate education.

    - YpsiAnon

  4. When my son visited WiHi, he commented to my husband that a lot of the kids came from Willow Run. At WiHi, if you do well on the IB tests, you can get college credit.

    I started thinking about this as a math problem. If the top 10% of the kids in Willow Run go to WiHi (or ECA, or Washtenaw Technical Middle College) then not only have you actually lowered the range of the students in the school, you have also removed a lot of the kids who would take those college prep classes (leaving less opportunity for the school to offer the classes) and making it more likely the school as a whole will make adequate yearly progress on tests which really rely on having at least some high-performing students. So you are right, YpsiAnon, I think you create a vicious cycle and the initial idea that choice is good may be true for the individual student but is definitely not in the school district's interest.