Have a challenge? Need a challenge?

Challenge is a challenging word.

We in education most often use the singular noun to mean a task that demands special effort or dedication, but which is within the ability of the person who accepts the challenge.

We like kids who accept a challenge.

By contrast, we typically use the plural form, challenges, to mean things that require more ability than an individual has, as in “that kid has serious challenges.”

We prefer kids with challenges be in another teacher’s classroom.

I ran across two items today on Twitter that made me think about those two opposing usages.

Challenged workers

The first is a National Skills Coalition report showing roughly 20 million Americans employed in key service-sector industries lack basic skills in literacy, numeracy, or digital problem-solving.

These are people that we educators would probably say “have challenges.”

A large proportion of these people work in just three areas: retail, health care and social assistance, and in food services and accommodations. Surprisingly, 58 percent of them have been with their current employer at least three years, and 23 percent of them are supervisors.

Here’s the most astonishing fact about these workers:

More than one in three (39%) participated in a learning activity over the past 12 months, including 27% who are pursuing a formal degree or certificate.

Ignore for the moment the question of how all those people get into post-secondary education when they trouble with reading, writing, arithmetic, and problem solving: Think about how someone with challenges becomes someone who accepts a challenge.

Workers who take on challenges

There may be many factors the lead to someone accepting a challenge, but they certainly include:

  • Having a personal reason for accepting the challenge of learning.
  • Sensing that doing nothing will produce a bad outcome.
  • Believing the desired outcome is worth the effort it requires.

At some point, we educators have to start figuring out how to get those “kids with challenges” to accept the challenge of learning how to learn what they will need to know in their work and in their lives. It’s particularly important for us to do that for the students who aren’t natural, book-learning scholars: the hands-on, vocational, CTE students.

They crave a challenge, too, and they deserve it.

What else could we be doing to see that all students have opportunities to take on challenges?

Dual enrollment courses: How students may benefit

I’ve been thinking about dual enrollment courses lately.

My musing was prompted partially by the Obama proposal to give high school graduates two free years of community college, partially by a new report from the Education Commission of the States, and partially by an item in my local school district newsletter about its program’s success.

Dual enrollment or concurrent courses are classes taken by high school students for which they receive both high school and college credit.

Usually the higher education institution is a community college. Less often it is either a public or private college or a proprietary school.

In most cases, the college courses are taught at the students’ home schools instead of on the colleges’ campuses.

Financial benefits for students

hs-tcs graphicIn view of the high costs of college, dual enrollment courses are an attractive option for students and their families. The post-secondary institution doesn’t charge students tuition.

Ambitious students whose home high schools offer the courses they need through concurrent enrollment can graduate high school with two years’ worth of college  credits for which they did not have to pay.

There are other savings as well. Students don’t have to pay some of the fees students enrolled for only college credit must shoulder.

They don’t live on campus, so they save on dormitory costs.

And, since in most cases the instruction is delivered on the high school campus, students save on transportation costs.

Students who graduate high school at age 18 with two years of college credits could have their bachelor’s degree at age 20 with only a fraction of the outstanding debt of those who take four years to go through college.

Academic benefits for students

The academic area is where things get murky.

Publicity materials for concurrent enrollment programs emphasize that that being able to take remedial work in the familiar environment of their home school is helpful for students with skill deficits. They make a similar argument in favor of home-school advantage for students who don’t have people in their home circle who have attended college.

It is certainly a fact that the more remediation students need at the post-secondary level the less likely they are to succeed in college. I’m not sure, however, that a remedial course at the home school will be any more beneficial than remedial course in a college classroom. (I’ve had students in my first year college composition classes who had taken remedial English on campus; they were still not ready for college composition.)

The value to be derived from of acclimating disadvantaged students to the college environment by seating them in high school classrooms also strikes me as suspect.  Even if the course in the high school setting is every bit as good as the one on the college campus, students still are not having a college experience.

Classes that meet on a less-than-daily schedule and classes that meet for longer time sessions are college features that students typically don’t experience on a high school campus.

More important is that the high school environment rarely provides the diversity of a college campus, even if the two are in the same city. The experience of working with people different from yourself is one of the key experiences of college.

The final academic question is whether the courses taught at the high schools are every bit as good as the ones on campus.

That is a tough question to answer.

Nationally, only 11 percent of academically-oriented courses and 14 percent of career-technology education courses are taught by college faculty, according to the National Center on Education Statistics. The vast majority of the concurrent enrollment courses (61 percent of academic and 67 percent of CTE courses) are taught by high school faculty.

That does not mean the high school teachers don’t know their material or are not good teachers.

It does, however, raise some questions about whether they can teach high school students at the college level.


My local school district gets its college credits through  Tompkins Cortland Community College, TC3.  Here’s how the process works, according to the TC3 website.

A local school teacher applies to the college for authorization to teach specific courses at his/her home school. The college’s website says:

Many instructors find that courses they teach, or hope to teach, can be adapted to align with TC3 courses. For example, many 12th grade Honors English teachers offer ENGL101 and even ENGL102, Regents chemistry may be aligned with CHEM101 and 102, and a government class may be adapted to meet POSC103 expectations.

If accepted—the college has a list of minimum teacher requirements for each course—teachers must follow a master template for the course. Here’s a link to the mater template for the first half of TC3 first year English, ENGL100.

TC3 requires faculty to file copies of their course outlines with the college. It also assigns faculty liaisons observations to assist concurrent faculty. (I’m assuming someone other than John Updike does the English course observations; he’s not on the TC3 staff roster.)

I’ve just touched the surface of aspects of the concurrent courses that need some more investigation.

I’ll hold that for another day.

If you’re interested in this topic, I recommend Jennifer Dounay Zinth’s 2015 report written for the Education Commission of the States: http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/01/17/16/11716.pdf

[corrected broken link 12-Nov-2015; corrected broken link 2016-01-22]

How Should We Define "Real World"?

Jordan Tinney, superintendent/CEO in Surrey School District in British Columbia, Canada, posted a piece earlier this year about preparing students for “the real world.” He raises the question of what people mean by the phrase, which, considering how often the term is used, certainly merits investigation.

Tinney argues that the only way secondary students’ “real life” experience differs significantly from adults’ “real life” experience is that secondary students are not typically financially independent. Tinney writes:

Separate from financial independence which is a huge deal – is life in secondary school as you remember it much different from life at work? Were the social situations similar, did you experience power structures, expectations, were there consequences for not doing things you should? Did you have opportunity, and were there both times of celebration and times of disappointment?

Although I agree with Tinney’s point that students’ life at school is as real as adults’ life at work aside from the issue of financial independence, those rhetorical questions bothered me. After chewing on them for a few weeks, I’ve concluded that although life at work and life in secondary school may have broad similarities, secondary school and post-secondary-school work as I experienced them were different in three significant ways.

One of the big visible differences between school and full-time work was the technology used. At school, we had the latest electronic gadgets; at work, I was expected to use equipment that I’d only seen stacked in the back of the janitor’s closet. Not only was I expected to use what I thought of as antiques, but I was expected to know how to maintain those devices.

Employers still expect employees to be able to hand write a short note legibly. Windows XP is still the dominant operating system in entry-level employees encounter in today’s businesses. And employees are still expected to be able to operate and maintain fax machines and mail meters without instruction, even though they may never have seen either before.

A second major difference was in the way deadlines were treated. In school, students were allowed to take as much time as they wanted as long as they met the deadline for the assignment. At work, I was not only expected to meet the deadline for the project but to do it without working any overtime and while completing all my other work on time.

The third major difference between my secondary school experience and my post-secondary work experiences was that my employers didn’t try to make work fun. In school, teachers assigned projects that were supposed to be fun and to allow students to be creative. They rarely succeeded, but it wasn’t from lack of trying.

On the job, I was told what to do, forbidden to deviate from the directions, and expected to keep busy, but not so busy that I worked hours for which I wasn’t scheduled.

In my post-secondary work life before I got professional credentials, I cleaned rat cages, shelved books, opened mail eight to 12 hours a day, and sterilized eight-ounce brown bottles. I did not find any “times of celebration” in my work,  although I did get a pair of gerbils to keep.

I don’t know whether my personal experiences are representative of anyone other than myself. I do think, however, that since so many people use the phrase “real life” as an antonym for school, it’s important to know what they mean by it.

Maybe Tinney is right in thinking that school life adequately prepares students for work life aside from the actual transition to financial independence. I suspect, though, that there are elements of entry-level jobs available to secondary school graduates that are qualitatively different from their secondary school classwork equivalents.

How do you see the issues?