Every now and again, a serious news outlet runs a story that requires multiple readings to tell that it is not someone trying deliberately to invoke Poe’s Law. The internet axiom states that it is not possible to construct a satire of an extreme form of belief that will not be mistaken as sincere belief by a substantial portion of readers. Poe’s Law is most often invoked to humorously highlight beliefs that are both fervently believed but so devoid of actual factual basis or a semblance of reasoning that they lampoon the person holding them.
Welcome to Poe’s Law: College and Career Readiness Edition.
“College and Career Readiness” is language that is plastered all over the Common Core State Standards and the accompanying standardized examinations offered by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). In essence, the expression means that every student in the country should be taught a curriculum that prepares him or her with the essential mathematics and literacy skills necessary to succeed in entry level college courses or to successfully complete entry level job training in presumably desirable careers. Proponents of the Common Core State Standards assure us that the common standards provide a proper and attainable platform from which elementary and secondary teachers can educate students to that level, and proponents of the accompanying PARRC and SBAC examinations, frequently the same people, assure us that exams will help us know that every child is on track to be college and career ready — or not. Regardless of your assessment of those claims and the foundation that underlies (or fails to underlie) them, that’s the promise for standards beginning in Kindergarten and yearly examinations beginning in third grade.
So enter the New York Times with an article asking, and this is not a headline stolen from The Onion, “Is Your First Grader College Ready?” detailing various programs and efforts to raise preparation for college with children as young as first grade:
What is college? To Madison Comer, a confident 6-year-old, it is a very big place. “It’s tall,” she explained, outlining the head of Tuffy, the North Carolina State mascot, with a gray crayon. “It’s like high school but it’s higher.”
Elizabeth Mangan, who plans to be a veterinarian because she loves her puppy, pointed out that she, too, would attend North Carolina State. “Me and Madison are going to the same college,” she said.
And what is college? “It’s someplace where you go to get your career.”
Billy Nalls, meanwhile, was drawing curving horns and jagged teeth on Rameses the Ram on a paper pennant representing the University of North Carolina. “I’m drawing him as angry,” he said. In college, Billy wants to learn to make a Transformer (“It’s like a robot that comes from Cybertron”). And what happens at college? “You get smarter and smarter every day.”
Let me say that some of what is discussed in the article is not precisely off base. Proponents of these approaches are correct that many students who will eventually go to college grow up in homes with college educated parents and with an underlying assumption that college is just a normal part of growing up. When both of your parents had post-secondary education and career paths requiring that education, it is simply a background assumption in your life that college is likely compared to growing up in entire zip codes were very few of the adults have studied beyond high school. It is also true that many first generation college students face challenges to their success that are not common among families with a history of college education, and that they often require support beyond the traditional college “bridge” programs.
So what is almost satirical about some of the approaches described in the Times?
It is one thing to talk to first grade students about what they want to be when they grow up. For students who are growing up without many community models of post-secondary education, I can see potential in the middle school activities described that emphasize recognizing what would be needed to accomplish their ambitions. However, the early elementary discourse transforms from surprising to comical to frustrating in very short order. Six year-olds are not simply talking about what they want to be as grown ups; they are naming specific schools and filling out mock applications for the bulletin board. The first grade teacher is quoted discussing that it is not enough to ask children what they want to be: “We need to ask them, ‘How will you get there?’ Even if I am teaching preschool, the word ‘college’ has to be in there.” The approach is not simply being applied in districts with high concentrations of disadvantage; the article quotes a college planner from Westchester County, New York who compares college preparation to becoming an Olympic skater whose training begins in earnest at age 6.
A 6 year old future Olympian, however, is capable of understanding that she loves skating and perhaps that she is unusually good at it and wishes to spend a lot of time doing it. It might not be a stretch for that 6 year old to know that the world’s best skaters can get a gold medal and to want that. Her ability to visualize the path from being 6 to an Olympic medal? Not there. And it is pretty much guaranteed that future college graduates, at the age of 6, are simply incapable of envisioning something so distant and abstract. This is the kind of “program” you get when a vaguely attentive superintendent hears the constant repetition of “college and career readiness” in reform circles and hastily writes a memo.
What is also close to farcical in the described approaches is how ways that students “prepare for college applications” in wealthier communities that first grade mock applications and middle school campus visits miss. Those children have access to community recreation and athletic leagues. They have schools with library/media centers that are funded and staffed. They have community and school based arts and music education. They have summer camps. Their homes have books and toys suitable for free play. Their schools are often new or extremely well maintained and upgraded. Very few of them are food insecure or at risk of homelessness.
Everything I have listed is directly connected to students becoming “college and career ready,” so while I can support consciously organizing very young children to play “grown up” and following that with earlier than typical planning for certain students, that does not even qualify as a quarter of a loaf if we do not discuss the kind of cultural capital activities that have nothing to do with pinning mock college applications on a first grade bulletin board. Are we willing to embed resources in beautifully designed community centers that replicate what suburban kids have at home? Are we willing to fully fund school and community libraries and art and music programs? Are we going to expand recreation and summer camp opportunities? Will we rebuild crumbling school infrastructure in our urban and rural communities? Will we embrace, rather than cut, our obligations to keep people from being hungry and homeless?
Meanwhile I have a suggestion that would do a lot more for the first graders described in the Times article than a “cut and paste worksheet” describing the steps to get into college. Give every kid in that class a good set of plain Legos, some dolls, and other toys that promote unstructured, creative PLAY — let them negotiate and explore their SIX YEAR OLD MINDS. There will be plenty of time to stress them out and confuse them in only two more years when they take their third grade PARCC or SBAC examinations:
Ginger graduated high school college and career ready, and she got into Harvard University. Her parents make too much money to qualify for needs-based financial aid, and they are underwater on their mortgage. At $60,000 a year for tuition, room, and board, and at 8% interest, calculate for how many years SALLIE MAE will OWN Ginger if she begins her career at Starbucks. Then recalculate how that will change if Ginger’s loans are bought by a securities bundler after five years and sold as bonds. Show all of your work.