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Colleges Should Wake Up To Retention-Rate Problem

To the Editor:

I was fascinated by your report in the "Colleges" column (May 15, 1996) listing the top 10 issues in higher education, as identified by a group of higher education experts queried by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Conspicuously absent from their list was graduation rates, despite the fact that only 54 percent of white students, 41 percent of Hispanic students, and 31 percent of African-American students graduate from college within six years of matriculation.

High schools with comparable dropout rates are put under a microscope and labeled as failing educational institutions. Colleges, even public colleges, seem indifferent to the whole problem. Maybe they will soon wake up to the fact that it is less expensive and more humane to work at retaining students they've already spent lots of money admitting and recruiting than trying to replace them once they've dropped out.

Fortunately, some state legislatures are beginning to enact accountability measures that tie higher-education funding increases to performance standards such as improved retention and graduation rates. High school seniors and their families should join the movement by becoming more savvy consumers, researching college retention and graduation rates when they're deciding where to apply.

Debra Weiner
Coordinator of College Retention
Philadelphia Futures
Philadelphia, Pa.

Teach Future Workforce What 'Fulfillment' Means

To the Editor:

The Special Commentary Report in your May 1, 1996, issue ("Working at Learning") offered important perspectives on the discussion of school-to-work and service-learning programs. Without revisiting all the issues raised, I offer two observations.

First, Dani Hansen, one of the authors featured, bases much of her criticism of service-learning and school-to-work curricula on the legitimate issue of teachers' time. I cannot imagine a teacher who would not welcome the chance to work with students who are actively engaged in their studies. All the evidence gathered on the experiential programs I am familiar with indicates that these curricula are unusually successful in turning passive students into active learners. Both school-to-work and service-learning programs have been shown to reduce dropout rates and improve school attendance.

Certainly, we must always be mindful of making the best use of teachers' time; I believe these initiatives can help in that regard.

Second, a current poll indicates that almost no one in America has achieved the elusive goal of "job satisfaction." Most people spend much of their productive lives at jobs or careers for which they are unsuited or which rarely inspire or fulfill them. Preparing for a career path has focused less on choosing work for which the individual is ideally suited or devoted and more on choosing a job that pays well or brings status. Much of the boredom and lack of commitment people bring to their work can be traced to this attitude toward choice of livelihood.

To develop a generation of individuals who bring competence, character, and commitment to the workplace, our education practices must embrace a larger concept of the role work plays in the overall quality of our lives.

Both school-to-work and service-learning programs strengthen schools' efforts to prepare young people for the workplace by providing experiences that lead them to recognize the importance of choosing life work that serves both society and their own growth and development. With that comes the intrinsic motivation to perform well and a service-oriented attitude that transforms work into something meaningful for ourselves and others.

Schools will have made an enormous contribution to the preparation of tomorrow's workforce if they send forth people who have discovered that true fulfillment comes from improving the lives of others through the expression of one's own natural abilities and talents in the work one chooses.

Susan Carroll Keister
Newark, Ohio

Selling Same Corporate Cure For Two Economic Problems

To the Editor:

The Committee for Economic Development, in its report "American Workers and Economic Change," claims that school reform is needed in order to close the ever-widening income gaps in the United States ("New School Role Seen Critical To Respond to Modern Economy," May 8, 1996). This is the same recommendation the CED made to "beat the Japanese and Germans" in international economic competition.

In recent years, U.S. competitiveness has risen in a variety of international rankings, but this is largely due to low U.S. wages. Thus, corporations based in other nations are investing in the United States, particularly in the nonunion, low-wage South, a region that always rates lowest in the U.S. educational indicators. So much for education reform as the source of increased competitiveness.

Now the corporations propose to solve the disease (income gaps) caused by their previous cure (lowering wages to increase competition). How? By bringing schools under central control through standards and testing. This so-called school reform is also being promoted in various Canadian provinces and is under way in England. It has nothing to do with improving learning and everything to do with shaping obedient workers who will solve the problems management poses for them but not think critically about corporate control of social and economic life.

The CED's spurious reforms also fail to address that other income gap, the one among schools in this country. School funding on a per-student basis is declining, and the spending gap between rich and poor remains enormous, with educational results to match. To solve these problems, corporations might have to pay some taxes.

Perhaps, with luck, educators, parents, and community groups will see through this latest corporate ruse and reject the business agenda for control of schooling.

David Nelson
Jamaica Plain, Mass.

To the Editor:

The Committee for Economic Development report is trying to sell two pigs in the same poke. One specious claim is that schools should adapt themselves to the needs of business, the second is that test-driven schooling will improve U.S. education.

For years we have been told, by the CED and others, that U.S. public school failure was the cause of U.S. economic problems and that educational changes that met corporate expectations would produce improved economic competitiveness. Though prominent reports over the past two years conclude that the U.S. economy is the most competitive in the world, most educational measures show only slight improvements in U.S. schools' performance. That is, competitiveness has been attained independent of school reforms.

Meanwhile, income gaps between rich and poor have continued to widen. In response to that concern, the CED tells us--again--that schools must meet corporate expectations, this time to prepare workers in ways that will reduce income disparity. There is, of course, no evidence that meeting these corporate school-reform demands will either improve education or narrow the income gaps.

That brings us to the CED's second pig in the poke: the proposal that school reforms intended to produce better workers should focus on testing students. This was the same recommendation made by the CED when the goal was improved international competitiveness. More and more testing, with higher and higher stakes, is the near-certain result not only of the CED's call for a "voluntary national exam," but also the calls for "performance-driven education," "incentives," teachers' "demonstrated mastery," and linking hiring to "student performance."

Already, in state after state, tests are increasingly used to make decisions, control curriculum and instruction, and reward teachers, administrators, and schools. The call to reform schools through testing operates as a smoke screen for a deeper social and corporate unwillingness to support high-quality schooling for all children. The CED also fails to recognize that a centralized test apparatus used to control schooling is contrary to its other recommendations, such as more school "autonomy."

All this is not to deny the need for major reform in U.S. education. It is to suggest that before buying the reasoning or the recommendations of the CED, the poke be opened and the contents carefully examined. Educators, policymakers, and the public need to think deeply about what it should mean to educate all children well and then to think how best to do that, rather than just follow corporate proposals to inflict more tests.

Monty Neill
Associate Director
Cambridge, Mass.

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