By Bill Maxwell, St Petersburg Times Correspondent
Although America’s education system is one of the best in the world, the philosophy that underpins the system is seriously flawed.
We have two separate cultures in education: elementary and secondary schools (K-12) and postsecondary schools (undergraduate and graduate institutions). This separation is expensive, wastes human capital and harms the public welfare.
Each year, we send more than a million freshmen from our high schools to our colleges and universities who are not “college-ready,” ill-prepared for the intellectual rigor of postsecondary study. They must take humiliating noncredit remedial courses, which many never complete, in their attempt to catch up.
As much as 30 percent of students enrolling at four-year colleges and 60 percent of those enrolling at community colleges take remedial courses, meaning that our colleges and universities spend millions of dollars annually to teach skills that should have been taught in K-12.
A major reason for this problem is that an overwhelmingly large number of U.S. educators have drawn a sharp line between secondary and post-secondary education, resulting in a lack of communication that has led to a paralyzing blame game.
Large numbers of university professors, along with administrators, disdain the very notion of speaking with, let alone working with, high school teachers, and many high school teachers are resentful of their higher-status university counterparts. Additionally, government departments and committees at all levels deal exclusively with either secondary schools or postsecondary institutions.
A consequence is that postsecondary institutions do not inform public schools of the basic skills and core knowledge students need to become college-ready and successful candidates for graduation.
Of late, however, a budding trend seems to be gaining ground as a new breed of educators recognizes the wisdom of establishing effective K-16 and K-20 collaborations. Ideally, they argue, American education should be one seamless system for lifelong learning and success.
Two weeks ago, I was encouraged when I attended the PK-20 Summit at Santa Fe College in Gainesville. With the theme of “Achieving Student Success through Collaboration” and sponsored by the Palatka-based North East Florida Educational Consortium, or NEFEC, the event brought together more than 100 participants, including the chancellor of Florida’s public schools and the chancellor of the state’s community colleges, their top staff members, superintendents and administrators from 13 school districts and the presidents of seven community colleges in the region.
James Surrency, executive director of NEFEC, said the purpose of the summit was to get key educators in the same room “to strengthen collaboration and to improve the college/career readiness for all students.” A highlight of the event, he said, was the “presentation by Seminole State College and Seminole School District relating to the turnaround in their percentage of high school students needing remediation. It was truly amazing and a great model for secondary/postsecondary partnerships.”
Nine years ago, the college’s math chairman was so frustrated with the problems and expenses associated with remediation, he met with the district’s high school principals to learn why 71 percent of their students annually scored poorly on the College Placement Test, which required them to take at least one remedial math course when they entered SSC.
The main problem was obvious: Florida was requiring high school students to take only three years of math. Most did not take math in 12th grade. The chairman offered the principals a special 12th-grade course he would bring to their campuses to reduce the number of students needing remediation when they entered SSC.
Only one school, Oviedo High, initially accepted the challenge. SSC provided the course content and mentoring, and Oviedo’s teachers taught the course.
Within a few years, Oviedo High reduced its remediation rate from 70 percent to 10 percent. A team of SSC and Seminole County public schools administrators began meeting once a month for breakfast at a local Denny’s to collaborate and replicate the Oviedo program in all Seminole high schools.
These administrators rose above the blame game, shared critical data and spoke honestly about their goals. Even more, they became friends — eating together, riding to meetings together and visiting schools together.
Currently, Mathematics for College Readiness is being taught at all of the county’s nine high schools, and officials are tracking the data to determine the course’s impact on the need for remediation. The long-term goal is to reduce the number of matriculating seniors needing remediation in math from 71 percent to 21 percent.
Numbers from 2007-08 for the pilot schools indicate that the rate for math remediation already has declined from 71 to 59 percent.
I am convinced that the effort between SSC and the Seminole School County District is a model for the nation. The administrators and teachers there understand that education from K-20 should be a seamless process.