Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"Oh, it must be the fault of the instructor...." [LONG]

I did a head-count of how many people are still active in my Tuesday/Thursday AM class: officially eight, but unofficially five, out of a class that had twenty-three students enrolled on the first day. Even by community college standards, that is a big ol' number of drops. Knowing something of how administrators in the modern age of pedagogy think, I feel compelled to rebut in advance the argument that "oh, it must be the fault of the instructor...."

I do try very hard to acknowledge that, as a community college instructor, part of my job description is that of bridge-builder for students who want higher education but who may not be Quite There Yet in terms of ability and/or maturity. But at the same time, I'm not doing them any favors by automatically passing every student who shows up. That's what they learned in high school, and that's what they'll take with them into the Real World if we're not careful: a sense of false entitlement. College is about learning, not deserving.

But a close-to-80% attrition rate is a bit hard for anyone to swallow. None of my other sections this semester has anywhere close to that level of drops. So I did a bit of digging. As usual, there was a significant drop-off in enrollees around the time of the first exam --which, coincidentally, was the time that several series of student loan/grants/gimmes sent out their final payments for the semester. I'm not going to mince words: many students who drop around this time were only enrolled to pad their wallets with financial aid, and were going to drop out no matter what. A few more usually drop after they actually see the results of their first exam (cf. The Gut-shot Post). But then I'm generally left with a more-or-less serious core of between 60% and 80% of the original roster.

The next round of drops usually occurs immediately after the results of the second exam are released, and the students who realize that they aren't going to magically improve their grades head for the door. This is what got me this time around: about half of the class in that morning section did this. Some of this was aid-related in that some aid programs required enrollment for at least half the semester. But a bigger part this year was along the lines of this: "I needed an A in your course but I wasn't going to get it so I dropped."

Whose fault is it that you aren't getting an A?

Is it my fault for not dumbing down the course to where you could ace the exams? Is it similarly my fault for not spoon-feeding you the exam? Most of these students are at least marginally competent --they wouldn't have stayed enrolled after the first exam otherwise. Is it the fault of the exam for being invalid? Is it the very nature of history classes to be dull and tedious and Worse Than Having Wisdom Teeth Pulled?

I could go on but I think most of you have seen the direction I'm going. More often than not it's the fault of the students for not being ready to be in a college-level history class. I don't necessarily blame them: many of them were told to "go ahead and take it, you don't need to read well to learn history" (and yes, enrollment counselors do say things like that); or "you're only working 30 hours a week, you can go ahead and take five classes." But sticking the most egregiously in my craw are the ones who are going into programs like nursing that require a very high GPA for admittance. These are the most notorious students around, they will whine and complain and appeal until they have that A, and if they don't get it, they run for the door and try to find an easier instructor the next semester. I'm not sure I want someone with that approach to learning (or work) trying to run a foley on me or making sure my meds are correct at 3AM. (No disrespect to nurses in general, that's a hard job --which is precisely why I want good students going into the program.)

But back to my original premise: the path of least resistance is to blame the instructor. K-12 administrators learned a long time ago that the best way to keep their own jobs was to keep parents happy, and parents are happy when their kids are getting passing grades. It's almost never written down, but most school districts drill it into the heads of the teachers (backed up by education professors, some of whom are my friends but most of whom are Fairly Useless) that anything above a 15% failure rate is Unacceptable. The path of least resistance is to curve up everything until that magic number is achieved --which works right up to the moment that the students figure out the game and begin doing less and less work, knowing that the teacher will be the one to get into trouble and not them. News flash: we were there ten years ago (at least!), and things haven't gotten any better. Today's college students come less prepared than ever, feeling more entitled to good grades than ever, and more prepared to blame their instructors for not giving them good grades than ever. And college administrators, concerned most about the Bottom Line (money based on enrollment), are starting to pressure instructors about failure rates. It's never directly said. It's always couched in terms like "retention" and "achievement," but the intent is clear: more students passing means more students enrolled means more money. Numbers trumps quality. Students who are limited-proficiency ESL or enrolled in remedia---err, developmental writing classes are channeled directly into writing-intensive courses with no thought beyond "well well, our numbers are up for the third semester in a row!"

The real losers in the long run are the students. Many do get discouraged and drop out. But the ones who are Passed Along suffer the most, because they actually come to believe that they are learning when in reality they aren't, and when they do finally get out into the workforce or into a four-year institution, they get that 4AM-bucket-of-ice-water-to-the-snarglies-wake-up-call. The ones who succeed are the ones who rise to the challenge, but many more turn around and blame their old instructors for doing a poor job of preparing them for What Was Coming.

It is frustrating to see students fall into that trap. I don't regret being thorough and challenging my students --no good instructor ever does. I do it because I don't want them falling into that trap. But in a community college you walk a fine line between challenge and bridge-work. My own institution is part of a regional system, and I regularly endure the abuse of my colleagues from other campuses with better-prepared clienteles: "oh, you dumb down your instruction too much," or "you guys don't assign enough writing or reading, you're almost not a college." In other words, "we're better than you and you should really do things more like we do." (NB in public school they sometimes refer to Gifted/Talented Syndrome: teachers of G/T students come to believe that they themselves are somehow G/T and that their students are only G/T because of their efforts --the sad fact is that most of the G/T teachers I knew were barely competent, and their students knew it. I'm a G/T kid myself, and I know the looks they give when they know that they are smarter than their teachers...) But when I talk about requiring more reading I get told not to Rock That Boat because "students don't read and besides they don't want to buy all those books" and "you're only making harder for your students to pass."

If I thought it really was my fault, wouldn't I be the first person to want to fix the problem? I'm not that sinister to intentionally set students up for failure --I'm not paid extra for failing more students. But this idea that everything ultimately falls to the instructor simply does not stand. If you don't want students to fail, eliminate grades and go to a standardized pass/fail rubric based on attendance and the ability not to sleep or text or Google in class. If you want the students to actually learn, on the other hand, send them to me.

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