All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


03 June 2012

The End of Need-Blind at Wesleyan: Loneliness and Acculturation

Wesleyan University, my alma mater and the only college in the nation to accept me out of high school, is ending its policy of universal need-blind admissions.  That's not to say that need-blind admissions is going away entirely... just that there is going to be a portion of the class that may not be admitted on that basis.

Before I start in on this topic, you should go read two other blog posts at Rachel Levy's education blog.  The first is by her; she's also a Wesleyan Alum, and we were there at the same time.  The second is by me.  Now our dialogue isn't about need-blind as such, but rather about the sort of student that Wesleyan should be pursuing for admission, and the opportunities that various people have to become that sort of student.  But the issues raised are important ones, and are indicative of the sorts of things that alumni think about.

With those arguments in mind, let's get back to the subject of need-blind:

In the face of financial pressures, Wesleyan University is moving away from its blanket need-blind admissions policy. Instead, the college is planning to peg increases in the size of its financial aid budget to the size of its overall budget. As long as that money meets need, it will consider students irrespective of their ability to pay. Once the aid runs out, however, the college will start factoring in family income and ability to pay. 

So there's a limited pot of financial aid money, and it gets doled out until its gone, and then it doesn't.  I have to say, this seems to be a pretty equitable solution, and I say this even though I can pretty much guarantee that I wouldn't have been admitted under the new system.  I had to be among the last people admitted in my class -- I was rejected from quite literally every other school to which I applied.  (The list was short and distinguished, true, but not all the schools were higher-ranked than Wesleyan.)  I was also pretty hard-up for cash.

The fact is that I seriously doubt that student quality is going to be hurt much; and in any event, as President Roth pointed out, the trade-off would have to come in terms of educational quality:
 Wesleyan President Michael Roth said there is a moral argument for a college like his to not accept students if they can’t meet their need, and not to compromise quality in the name of access.

“I’m willing to give up the label of need blindness in favor of giving students who are here the best chance of succeeding,” Roth said. “Our job is not to wear a badge of moral purity. Our job is to provide the best chance of success to the students we graduate.”

This all seems right to me.  There is a worry I have, though -- one that goes right to the heart of "providing the best chance of success to the students (Wesleyan) graduates."  I'm not sure it's well-founded, but since when do all of our worries have to be well-founded?  Let me start by saying a little about my time at Wes.

Wesleyan wasn't an easy experience for me.  It was a really, really nasty culture shock that took a lot of painful adjusting.  The interpersonal norms and social skill sets for New England/New York Middle-Upper Professional class life and Southern California Lower Working class life are very, very different (and I wasn't even that great at the latter, despite being something of a native).  The biggest help in getting me through it all was a lovely lady I fell in love with -- someone who grew up in the sort of academic/professional social circles that produce most of Wesleyan's students, and to which nearly all of Wesleyan's students aspire.  She was able to teach me a great deal.

But also of great help was my circle of friends, a substantial chunk (30-40% maybe?) of whom were also not really from that world.  There was a certain amount of comfort to be found there, a respite from the aggravating and trying process of acculturation.  There was also support: we sometimes talked about things in indirect (or very rarely, explicit) ways.  There was a certain humor to be had in being foreigners together in a world we were not yet quite a part of.

Now, to the degree that Wesleyan reduces need-blind admissions, they are necessarily going to be thinning the ranks of those of us who are by birth aliens to the elite social milieu.  And that, I think, is going to make it more difficult to adjust.

It's a bit of a tightrope, of course, if your goal really is acculturation.  I think it's the goal  -- perhaps unconsciously so -- of many of the students who come to Wesleyan "from the outside", as it were.  And despite all the very vocal talk about diversity and multiculturalism, I strongly suspect that, for good or ill, that what Wesleyan really "wants" -- as far as institutions want things like this -- is cultural and racial diversity in its students, combined with a very homogenous set of middle- to upper-class values.  So from a certain perspective, the goal of acculturation may be Wesleyan's goal as well.  (I am not passing judgment on this -- just pointing it out; though, from a certain perspective, education is by nature a process of acculturation.)

But if that's your goal, and if you want to be able to maintain a light touch and avoid heavy-handed indoctrination, then the mix of students is critical: too few people with whom to share the struggle and your students from lower-class backgrounds become isolated and withdrawn.  College is stressful enough.  Too many, though, and they start to aggregate and withdraw, and the social pressure to adopt the new values diminishes. There's a happy medium somewhere in there for the assimilation-minded, but the more you cut need-blind admissions, the more you move towards the "isolated and withdrawn" end of that spectrum, and the harder it becomes for those who are left.

While I am committed to equity and fairness, I don't see the end of need-blind admissions as a moral violation; as I said in my post at Rachel's spot, I was grateful that Wesleyan admitted me because they didn't really have to.  And President Roth has it right when he says that the University's moral commitments are to its students first and foremost.  But with those commitments in mind, I did want to try to tease out what I saw as a possible difficulty that the end of universal need-blind may pose to the very students who are supposed to be helped by whatever portion of need-blind admissions is kept in place.

Maybe there's no real choice, financially.   And maybe the "outsiders" who come to Wesleyan will just have to grit their teeth a little harder and suck it up.  Life's not fair, after all, and I still think it's simply amazing that a school like Wesleyan would admit people who couldn't pay in the first place.

But let's also be mindful of what might be going on, beneath the surface, and what the unintended consequences of our policies might be.

Gratuitous Repost: Give me 6 benches, a stick, and a clear patch of dirt.

This is another gratuitous repost of yet another one of the posts I put up during my recent spell of blogging over at Joanne's most excellent blog. This piece was called "Give me 6 benches, a stick, and a clear patch of dirt". Only minor edits have been made, primarily to the penultimate paragraph.


I was reading this earlier today…
Two schools in the Washington DC area are taking a completely opposite approach to technology in the classroom. One, the Flint Hill School in Oakton, has classrooms filled with latest electronics, and equips all its students with Macbook Air laptops. In the other, the Washington Waldorf School, classrooms look about the same they might have looked at the turn of last century, where pens, notebooks, and a chalk-wielding teacher in front of a blackboard still play the starring roles.
…and it got me to want to blog.  Not about the little article, really, but about the subject of educational technology in general.

My purpose in writing this post isn’t to valorize one model over the other (though I have a marked personal preference for the Washington Waldorf model).  I’m sure that both schools are scrumdidiliumptiously wonderful places for students to learn.  What I want to try to articulate is a series of thoughts about the role of technology in education.  This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit in the last year or so… enough that I feel like taking a stab at setting down some thoughts in writing, anyway.

First, the obvious.  People really like to talk about technology in education.   Just look at the journals:  Technological Horizons in EducationJournal of Educational Technology and Society, Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, etc. etc..  Educational Technology Review.  Etc. etc. etc.  When’s the next conference on Educational Technology?  EDUCAUSE is going on right now.   ISTE is next month, as is ICEITGaETC is in November.

Technological fluency (or at least passing a class in educational technology, which isn’t the same thing) is a requirement for most teacher certification programs — as if to say that a teacher cannot be competent at his or her job unless he or she knows Glogster from Twitter, a PDF from an e-Book, Voicethread from Prezi, or a BBS from a Blog.

And let us be frank: if education is to prepare a student for living a flourishing life within his or her society, then that education should probably include — inter alia — the development of an understanding of and an appreciation for the technology that helps create and maintain the society’s infrastructure and economic success.

Yet I have heard, on multiple occasions, people offering lavish praise to their best teachers in something of the following form:
“The best class I can imagine is a log with Mr. (insert name) on one end, and me on the other.”
I haven’t just heard this once or twice… I’ve heard it almost verbatim well over half a dozen times from different people about different teachers at different levels of education.  It’s a lovely thought, and one of the things that is most lovely about it is that the focus in such an imagined scenario is exactly where it should be: on the interaction between the teacher’s mind and the student’s mind.

Teachers are not a necessary part of all education; much can be accomplished in isolation (although even reading a book is a sort of conversation with the author).  But teachers are (or can be) valuable, and to the extent that they have a role to play in learning, it’s an inherently interpersonal one.  I’m not saying you have to like your students, or care for them; you don’t.  (I generally do, but one need not.)  Nor am I saying you need to be empathic and give them hugs.  But you do need to acknowledge them as people, and create a conversation of learning if you want to be a successful teacher of anything.

Technology can make this task much easier in a lot of different ways.  A chalkboard allows a teacher to schematize his or her thoughts on the fly, to put an idea up where it persists long after the echo of his or her voice has faded into the classroom carpet.  A video projector allows the teacher to, with a little planning, instantly display complicated graphs, maps, movies, and important points in much the same way.  Grading software frees up teacher time to focus on teaching. allows the policing of academic integrity in a quick, relatively painless way and also gives the teacher insight into some of the writing process.  Clickers can get you instantaneous classroom response that isn’t colored by the social pressure that goes along with shows of hands.

But a classroom without clickers, or without a smartboard, isn’t going to be inherently inferior to one loaded with all the latest gadgets, because it’s not the gadgets that do the teaching: it’s the teacher.  And the teacher should use whatever technology he or she thinks will improve what he or she is up to vis-a-vis the students — no more, and no less.  Whether a piece of technology will be useful and fruitful is primarily a question of how a particular bit of technology relates to that teacher’s methods, personality, and style.

This is the big problem with technology mandates (e.g., “All teachers will use software platform X in their classes…”): not all technology “fits” every teacher’s individual style.  All too often, technology is treated a lot like curriculum is: as a way to standardize teaching and education to such a degree that the teacher becomes just a generic component of some set of committee-approved best practices.

I would love to listen to a lecture by Aristotle, or Avicenna, or Anselm, or even Neitzsche.  But it would be stupid for me to require that they use Powerpoint. (Though I doubt any of them would have trouble picking it up if they thought it would help.)

I worry about the razzle-dazzle of technology when it comes to teaching; I worry about it a lot.  I worry that it gets used for the sake of using it, and not to make things better: a sort of fetishistic totem, the product of a cargo-cult mentality.  I worry that students learn to become dependent on it in ways that undermines their ability to develop the very capacities that  teachers are charged with cultivating.   There is understanding to be had in doing things the old fashioned way, understanding that cannot be obtained if we allow our capacities to atrophy from disuse.  Technology can be an amplifier of our capacities, or a substitute.  I prefer the former.

Teenagers are consistently impressed by the fact that, given a minute or so, I can multiply two three-digit numbers together in my head without using pen and paper.  They think it’s a sort of magic.  This is not an impressive skill, but rather a very basic one that one gets after doing enough pen-and-paper-algorithms.Seeing the structure of the algorithm a thousand times lets you start to understand exactly why it works.  And once you understand why it works, you don’t need to use the mechanical algorithm any more.  You can just break it down in your head. But it’s not something you develop if you have used calculators all your life.  (Some of my critics have said that not everyone would acquire this skill after the same amount of practice, and that I'm being unfair in thinking of myself as a good example; there may be some truth to this.  But even if the effect is less dramatic for other people, I feel certain there would be an effect.) 

I worry that students are allowed to use technological tools to produce elaborate projects that shine and impress, but which have extraordinary little substantive content in them.  Students are often charged with things like creating powerpoint presentations, with huge chunks of the grade depending on the use of pictures, sounds, and video.  (Here’s an example of a rubric that gives 6 our of 27 points for aesthetic design, and here’s one that gives 50%.)

I worry that living in a digital world is, at base, incompatible with living in a world of medium-sized physical objects, and that we’re elevating a pseudo-Cartesian view of the self as a disembodied intellect to a station that far exceeds its warrant.  We might be thinking things, but that’s certainly not all we are.

I saw one of my students writing a paper out by hand once.  Without ever having seen anything she had produced, I knew that her writing would be better than average, though that probably has a lot to do with the student population I work with at UCLA.   You have to think more about what you’re writing when you’re putting ink on a page than you do when every mistake is just a backspace or an update from oblivion; and if you're handwriting, you're actually writing and not simply cutting and pasting from Wikipedia (which in some situations is enough to make the paper above average all by itself). 

I like technology.  I have lots of ideas (most of them none-to-original) on how to use technology in teaching.  But when I hear education professionals talk about it, when it becomes a matter of best practices, policy, professional development, and all that other institutional claptrap, more often than not I yearn for what seems to me at times to be the perfect classroom: a handful of students, 6 benches, a stick, and a clear patch of dirt.

Gratuitous Repost: Education and Rights

This is a gratuitous repost of one of the posts I put up during my recent spell of blogging over at Joanne's most excellent blog. This piece was called "Education and Rights". Only minor, cosmetic edits have been made.


I was working through some ideas for a paper I’m sketching out, and I thought I’d share a little bit of what I’d been thinking about. Now, we’ve all heard about inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And most of us have probably heard (ad nauseum) that education is a right. We know because, among many other organizations, the United Nations tells us so.
Education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights. It promotes individual freedom and empowerment and yields important development benefits. Yet millions of children and adults remain deprived of educational opportunities, many as a result of poverty.

Normative instruments of the United Nations and UNESCO lay down international legal obligations for the right to education. These instruments promote and develop the right of every person to enjoy access to education of good quality, without discrimination or exclusion.

 Article 26. 
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. 

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. 

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children. 

There are manifold state Constitutional provisions, and a small host of legislative statutes and court decisions establishing various rights to education here in the United States, as well.

So what, exactly, is the extent of this right? There’s an obvious legal-realism sort of answer that I want to put aside for now: I’m not interested in hearing how the extent of the right is whatever the courts say it is. My question is aimed at the right not as a legal phenomenon, but as a moral one. Let’s assume there’s a moral right to an education, a right that one holds against one’s parents, or against one’s society. How far does such a right go?

Well, it’s not absolute, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those rights are inalienable — partly because they’re negative rights. It’s pretty clear that a right to education is a contextual sort of right,and that it varies based on the situation. (This is true of many positive rights.) You don’t have a right to a molecular biology class in 1450, because there’s no such thing. Likewise, you don’t have a right to be trained as a warp-drive technician here at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

I suspect that the “right to education” is really reducible to a specific manifestation of right of social inclusion — a right to learn the sort of things that one needs to learn in order to be a functional, flourishing part of one’s social milieu, whatever that may be. To exclude someone from education, on this view, is to exclude them from being able to participate in society without built-in-limitations. (When you do not teach your slave class to read, for instance, they really do become “unfit” for civic life; that’s a big part of why people don’t teach their slaves to read, historically.)

But what about limitations to the right to education? Can we simply take away a student’s rights to a public education? That seems fairly extreme, but it certainly doesn’t seem fantastical to talk about limiting a child’s right to an education.

If a student insists on attempting to murder all of his or her classmates at every opportunity, for example, we’d not keep that student in the classroom. That student would have forfeited his or her right to at least the typical sort of publicly funded education. That’s an easy case. Maybe we could afford such a child some sort of education in their rehabilitative facility, but it’s something of a joke to think that we will be able to provide that child with a reasonable chance to be a productive, integrated part of society. And even if that is what we’re trying to do, we’re not giving him unlimited opportunity anymore. The quality of instruction he’s likely to receive is significantly lower.

So it seems that we’re OK with fairly harsh limits on the right to an education.

But if this is true, this means we’re line-drawing. At what point does a child lose their right to participate in the sort of mainstream educational opportunities available in our society? Well, like most positive rights, it seems like it’s going to run up against other people’s rights and be limited in that fashion. We seem to give the right to education an awful lot of leeway, though. Kids seem to keep their right to education even when they’re pretty clearly impairing other students’ rights to education, by being disruptive in the classroom, soaking up an inordinate amount of the teacher’s attention, etc. We give second, third, fourth, and fifth chances — maybe because we’re OK with hurting a few people’s rights to avoid destroying one person’s. We’ll let a classroom or two get a marginal, substandard education if it means not having to totally exclude someone else.

Remember what we’re up to here: we’re trying to get children integrated into society in a meaningful way, and through a process that doesn’t place prior limits on the scope of their achievement. That means we don’t want bakers’ sons to only be able to grow up to be bakers; if they want to be biologists, actors, or philosophers, we want them to have that opportunity. To that end, it makes sense that we’d be willing to take smaller harms by the dozen to avoid really big ones like cutting off a student’s future entirely.

 But do we want to avoid just placing prior limitations on their opportunities? Or do we want to avoid placing limitations at all?

It’s an undeniable fact that not everyone is going to be a doctor, and even further -- not even everyone has the “right” to study to be a doctor. (That’s why there are admissions committees for med school.) We could very easily go into second grade and start sorting: you guys here, you are going to be doctors. You girls over there, you’re going to be seamstresses. But that’s not what we’re up to at all; that’s antithetical to the project in some important way. We want to give everyone a fair chance.

Yet at some point, we start to think of the limitations that get imposed on a student’s life as no longer “prior”, but rather as the result of their own choices, aptitudes, and behaviors. At some point we say, “We’re not limiting you anymore by telling you that you can’t go to college; you’ve limited yourself.”  They've had their fair chance. And then it becomes OK for us to take away their “right” to education, or to simply say that it doesn’t exist. It would be needlessly cruel, though, to spring this on someone one day by surprise.

Age 6: You have been a really bad student and you mistreat your classmates. But you have a right to an education, and we want you to be all you can be. You can keep on learning. No limits for you.

Age 9: You continue to disrupt the classroom and underachieve. But you have a right to an education, and we want you to be all you can be. You can keep on learning.

Age 15: You’ve got a petty criminal history, and you spend three days a week in detention. You hate your teachers, and the feeling’s mutual. But you have a right to an education, and we want you to be all you can be. You can keep on learning, because we don’t want to limit the sort of opportunities that you’ll have in your life.

Age 18: Screw you. You’re on your own. There’s a job at the local car wash. 

 That, of course, isn’t really what happens. It’s more gradual than that. We start everyone out in the same classrooms, then we start sorting. We foreclose certain opportunities to certain students because of choices they’ve made, or aptitudes they have or don’t have. By high school, some students really have been completely cut off from the possibility of being a nuclear engineer. They no longer have a “right” to such an education. You don’t have a right to AP Calculus unless you’ve taken Trig. You don’t have a right to AP Chemistry if you failed General Science 2.

We accept that children have a right to an education, that is, a right to assume some sort of integrated role in society. But that right is not absolute and inviolate. It’s a highly qualified right.

It’s probably a violation of that right, and thus immoral, to tell a first-grader that you won’t teach them how to read because they’re going to grow up to be a gum-scraper and reading won’t do them any good. You’re seriously impinging on that first-grader’s ability to join society in a meaningful way (not that being a gum-scraper isn’t meaningful, mind you, but the joining of society under those conditions would not be).

At the same time, it’s probably not a violation of the right to education to tell a student they can’t sign up for AP classes if they failed every single class in junior high except Remedial General Pre-Basic Reading Skills I, where they earned a C-minus. The student has, by choice or performance, in some way vitiated his own right to an education, his own right to an open future in society, and made it OK for us to narrow the bounds of his future in important, far-reaching ways. (You may want to think of this not as a narrowing, but as a withholding of assistance for the broadening of his future; negative and positive rights are tricky things and our language is sometimes geared to blur the distinction.)

The upshot of my discussion is this: talking about ways in which we might institutionalize the limitation of educational rights is not, therefore, in and of itself talk of violating those rights. It can be — and, I maintain, often is — an effort to pin down and articulate the frontiers of those rights, to understand what is right and what is wrong. And because it’s not necessarily violating those rights, but rather can represent an honest attempt to establish their legitimate limits, it’s not always immoral to talk about tracking, or separate schools for special ed students, or any of a whole host of other practices that run counter to the modern prevailing wisdom among the educator class and which regularly draw scorn and shocked glances.

The moral principles at issue aren’t unqualified or absolute, and they aren’t without inherent limitations. Even the most ardent defenders of these rights, if pressed, would have to admit this (despite their rhetorical protestations to the contrary).  And because they’re “fuzzy” in this way, it’s understandable that we’re going to disagree about exactly where they begin and end.

We should all try to remember that.