Not Quite Achieving the Dream

Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Back in 2004, Lumina Foundation for Education began pumping millions of dollars into its Achieving the Dream initiative, an effort to improve educational practice at two-year institutions through data-driven decision-making, the use of learning communities, and changing the way students are processed at community colleges. Seventy-six million dollars later, a new MDRC report suggests that there has been no significant impact on the achievement of low-income students at the 26 community colleges involved.

The Achieving the Dream idea was ripe for the picking and the focus on community colleges was appropriate considering these institutions play an increasingly prominent and important role of educating students in the US and Canada.

It is easy to sit in the virtual recliner and suggest that the “Dream” would not succeed. Hindsight is 20/20. However, it was destined with failure back in 2004. Not because it wasn’t a good idea; not because Lumina wasn’t the right organization to do this (it was); and not because they weren’t throwing enough money at the issue. In fact, they threw too much at the problem. Probably about $60 million too much.

The problem with Achieving the Dream, like other similar efforts funded in the past, including initiatives by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Early College High Schools—don’t work), The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation (what DID happen to that?), and The Annenberg Foundation (How to spend $500 million and have no significant impact on education….), is that they don’t get at the core of the problem in community colleges, let alone higher education in general: student preparation.

Student engagement is surely a major barrier to positive academic achievement and success in college. The research is littered (perhaps an appropriate term…) with “evidence” of the importance of “engagement” in higher education. But academic preparation trumps engagement every time. Not prepared? Read: won’t succeed. For those in the college prep business, for example, those at GEAR UP, TRIO, and other programs, as well as Student Support Services (SSS) and college-based entities, there are those students who beat the odds and succeed in higher education in spite of poor academic preparation in the 13-year precursor to college. But those students are relatively anecdotal—there isn’t a tsunami of students who do this—probably better described as a trickle of success. Trickle of success—not quite the ring desired in that statement…

Achieving the Dream wasn’t able to do anything about the poor academic preparation of students entering these institutions, and it didn’t do much to change what institutions did with those students. The achievement of students in developmental courses (read: remedial) didn’t change at all over seven years. Students from low-income backgrounds are likely to require remedial course work at entry to college. For some, it is a brush up on the skills, especially in mathematics and English, that they had acquired in high school. For others, it is their first “real” experience in these courses, because they flat-lined on them in high school. Sure, they passed, but they didn’t learn a damn thing because their schools, communities, and likely families didn’t put academics high enough on the proverbial totem pole.

I’m not quite sure why academics, researchers, and policymakers—and yes, taxpayers, who happen to be parents, future parents, and grandparents—don’t get the lesson from the ruins of billions of dollars of federal, state, local, and philanthropic dollars. Money itself doesn’t do the job. Changing the paradigm (yes, a 90s term) and structure of elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education will. To be fair, it requires both: money and change. Neither will be successful without the other.

I do know this: 26 community colleges and a dozen of research organizations are very happy with Achieving the Dream: about $76 million happy. How to measure love: a million at a time…

Here’s the reality: Learning communities in a vacuum do not work. I have no resonance with what the “literature” says—LCs are overblown. Can they work? Absolutely. But they aren’t a panacea for the ills of higher education. They need to be a strategic part of a larger-scale effort to reform education. But they don’t fix what was broken years before students matriculated to college. Not a chance.

Second, the developmental/remedial system lives in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) ward. We spend billions of dollars a year trying to remediate 13 years of poor education. I’m not blaming students, although they can certainly be blamed to an extent, but most of the blame should fall on parents, LEAs, and their communities. You want to know the difference between Finland and South Korea and us? They give a damn about education. They understand that education is the pathway to success. Go into a school district with a high percentage of free and reduced-price lunch—they don’t get it. They just don’t. We work on evaluations in these places every day—they… just…don’t… get… it… and worse, neither do their parents, their teachers, their administrators, their pastors, their mayors, their elected representatives. Ignorance is bliss for all… if they don’t know, it doesn’t matter. It’s sick.

I’m not blaming Lumina on this one, outside of lack of foresight and a waste of $76 million. Okay, maybe I am blaming them. But at LEAST they are trying to blaze a trail for youth.

Here is the ugly truth: we need to reformulate the ENTIRE SYSTEM of education. That’s ugly because we have clearly shown that we aren’t up to the task. I can make it happen in five years: but I need a powerful national system of education to do it. We don’t have it. Canada doesn’t have it. Finland does. France does. South Korea does.

As long as we work as individual education entities (50+ in the US and 10+ in Canada), we are destined to live in Middle Earth forever: exiled to academic obscurity. We shouldn’t be so worried that other nations have outperformed us as of late in PISA and other measures. We SHOULD be worried that we aren’t moving forward and meeting our own potential. We are simply mortgaging our future for political expedience. This is the best we can do. And it’s sad.

Adding insult to injury, New York officials say that less than half of high school students in the state are qualified for college, and less than one quarter (23 percent) were ready for college and/or career. Even worse, only 10 percent of students at NY Charter Schools passed the state standards, compared with 41 percent across the state. Take a look at that, Mr. Guggenheim. Sad…

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is an epidemic. But no wonder? We simply don’t focus on education! We don’t improve it, and we do little to improve the profession of teaching and learning. No WONDER we ended up here, in Middle Earth. Where IS Gandalf when we need him? (OK, no more Rings references…)

If we want to compete; if we want to sustain; if we want to see our children grow up and live productive lives—all children—we need to do much, much more. NOW.

And we aren’t even close…

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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