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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Thursday, May 22, 2014

When Public Universities Make Supposedly Dumb People Smart

Two recent stories show that public research universities can revive high-end educational quality.  I've been arguing (here and here) that this is the core of their public mission and the only way to end the decades-old funding melt.  

One story is about Berkeley Connect, a program that started in the English Department through a gift from Berkeley alumus Peter Chernin.  Mr. Chernin was prompted by the fact that his son started college at UC Berkeley and then transferred to USC because he was fed up with a factory-school lack of personal academic attention.  I will try to drum up insider coverage of this interesting upgrade at a campus well-known for its stadium-sized lecture courses--hopefully by someone who will harp less than I would on the irony of a public ed upgrade having to come from a private donor.


The second story was "Who Gets to Graduate," Paul Tough's epic treatment of a program at the University of Texas at Austin that reduced the higher drop-out rate of lower-income students.  The article nailed the twin problem for American higher ed today: American colleges have the highest dropout rates of any (OECD) country other than Hungary, but this dropout rate is tied to student income, not to individual achievement.


The problem is nicely illustrated by the above chart I've borrowed from the article. 


 The majority of high-SAT students drop out if they are low income.  Not only does the SAT score build in class position, as studies have shown for years, but universities tend to override a low-income student's high SAT score and redirect her to the dropout line.  


When this happens, public universities betray two aspects of their public mission: to reduce social inequality rather than reproduce it; and to develop every student's capability regardless of background.  Unless public universities can override their growing tendency to lock in existing race-class inequality, they become yet another stratification mechanism for a neo-social-Darwinist age, which a Pell Grant program chart nicely pictures:


Educationally, the U.S. is two countries segregated by income. US-1 is the best of the OECD group, and US-2 is the worst.  Private and privatized institutions already do a great job of stratifying outcomes according to preexisting resources. Why would citizens want to spend tax money on public universities that do the same thing?


UT Austin identified its own version of the problem: "only 39 percent of first-generation students . . . graduated in four years, compared with 60 percent whose parents both graduated from college."   It then set about to achieve equal outcomes, ones that wouldn't be affected by the students' parents' educational status.


We should ponder this idea for a second, because it defies the orthodox meritocratic assumption that your ability is your testing performance--just as a product has no intrinsic value other than its market price.   I have called this axiom "meritocracy I," which justifies the view of education as finally about sorting people by performance into a natural hierarchy of ability (chapter 6).  In Mr. Tough's piece, UT-Austin rejects meritocracy I and deploys "meritocracy II," which assumes that high intelligence is widely distributed in the population, and is universal in the population of the students UT-Austin admits. The University then sets out to produce general achievement--high learning and graduation for all--rather than a rank-order running from greatness to large-scale failure.


So there is a philosophy of the public mission that is embedded in the academic program the article describes. It is the general provision of higher education, with no one left behind, particularly not those from the lower half of the income ladder that have sunk to the bottom of the international rankings.   This is not the MOOC dream of universal access, but of universal achievement.  This kind of achievement is made, not born.  It requires lots of work and non-spontaneous learning, meaning that it has nothing to do with concepts like aptitude or ability.  Here's UT-Austin's core insight, referring to the lead character in the piece, a low-income first year student from Dallas called Vanessa Brewer:

Vanessa was caught in something of a paradox. According to her [high school] academic record, she had all the ability she needed to succeed at an elite college; according to the demographic statistics, she was at serious risk of failing.
The deep thought here is that ability and failure are entirely compatible.  Failure is the shadow that hides capability. 

Enter a remarkable chemistry professor named David Laude, who started breaking out a group of low-achieving chemistry students and taught them as though they were just as smart as the successful ones.   In other words, he assumed that they were being held back by some combination of their socio-economic status and its attendant psychological formations.   He put into practice a further assumption, which is that educational intensity (not his term) will reverse low achievement, neutralize inequality, and create essentially equal outcomes.


Prof. Laude identified students likely to fail via his "adversity indicators," and then did several things.  First, he created a program for these potential low-achievers that was not remedial but special -- the "Texas Interdisciplinary Plan, or TIP."  Second, he taught the same chemistry material to these students in smaller groups--not dumbed down, but differently. Third, he set up an advising and support structure of a kind that public universities decreasingly can afford: 

He offered TIP students two hours each week of extra instruction; he assigned them advisers who kept in close contact with them and intervened if the students ran into trouble or fell behind; he found upperclassmen to work with the TIP students one on one, as peer mentors. And he did everything he could, both in his lectures and outside the classroom, to convey to the TIP students a new sense of identity: They weren’t subpar students who needed help; they were part of a community of high-achieving scholars.
The results will surprise only those still in the clutches of Meritocracy I: "When the course was over, this group of students who were 200 points lower on the SAT had exactly the same grades as the students in the larger section" (emphasis added).  They also returned for sophomore year at higher than average rates for the university, and had higher than normal graduation rates.  In other words, deep instruction, which addresses the whole person, made "dumb" people smart.  Educational intensity revealed the intelligence veiled by a purely situational mediocrity.

The second half of the piece focused on a UT psychologist named David Yeager, and featured an online orientation program that helps keep students from "overintepreting discouraging events" and ruining their performance by feeling like outcasts and losers. 


This had been Vanessa Brewer's experience when she failed her first test in statistics: "I just started questioning everything: Am I supposed to be here? Am I good enough?"  Good performance hinges on not wondering these things all the time--on having a sense of  belonging and a sense of capability.  Prof. Yeager's online orientation helps neutralize negative self-stereotyping so that the susceptible student can take advantage of Prof. Laude's deeper teaching.


This is how I'd summarize the formula that emerges from this article for a politically profound and widely popular public mission:



  1. Intelligence is widely distributed in the population, but unjustly unrealized and concealed (Meritocracy II)
  2. The social purpose of the public university is success for all who enter (high order capabilities for non-elites)
  3. Success for all is achieved through educational intensity or deep instruction, in which the  institution teaches everyone as a whole person.  (Identity is always part of learning; bildung is always intertwined with content.
The point of public universities is to do inclusive high quality at scale, and its great to see a public juggernaut like UT putting this into practice. 

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

This makes a lot of sense… for STEM, U Maryland Baltimore County did something similar to Laude. There is also Carl Weiman's work, which successfully got large lecture instruction to do a lot better, not with MOOC's, but with various strategies to get increased human engagement. My memory is that he had turbo-charged sections for more at-risk students.

Sadly, in my experience at UC doing STEM, the institution is not receptive to any of these advances. Less resources and more students is the top-down directive. So we all fake it and smile, knowing our courses are being driven down to the level where MOOCs do bring similar success rates.

Toby Higbie said...

Great post. I think this is particularly relevant for transfer students. They arrive as juniors, but have not really been exposed to rigorous educational environments, and usually come from less affluent homes. In addition to academics, they are trying to get in all the social experiences of college that students who entered as freshmen have had for two years already. Most are able to get up to speed by the end of the first quarter, but not all. Would be interesting to know the drop out rates. What they need is a more intensive support network academically and emotionally as the make their transition to the UC.

Tristan D. said...

Very interesting and disturbing. I skimmed that NYT article before I saw your post and that graph caught my eye as well. Would you posit any connection between class-influenced performance trends as well as the conflation of ability and testing performance you discuss here and the faculty biases of post-grad education you discussed a few posts back? It seems that if these trends were marked along racial lines, then they could certainly influence racial bias towards grad students.

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