demographics, part 1

silhouette student

We’re proud in California to be the demographic bellwether for the other states: as we pick up more dialects and ethnicities, so shall they. That affects our work on student success; for us, closing achievement gaps isn’t merely a matter of social justice, but also urgent:  as white people age and die off, those left to carry on will be more diverse than we are.

So far our position out front has done us little good.  We face stubborn gaps along ethnic lines in academic preparation, achievement, and completion.

Lately I’ve wondered if the remedy might lie in learning outcomes assessment, of all places.  For decades we’ve placed our student success bets elsewhere, delivering homogenous teaching and curriculum to increasingly heterogeneous students, and adding auxiliary functions or remediation to accommodate difference.  It’s a failed strategy.

Focusing instead on demonstrated learning may better address variations in learning style, culture, and preparation, by letting go of mandated inputs, and giving local educators more discretion to serve local needs.  Get to the agreed finish line however you want, the thinking goes, just get there.

One area of such reform is at the level of individual courses, “redesigned” with technology.  The technique reduces each course to the learning it seeks, then rebuilds the semester with student work meant to develop and highlight those proficiencies from multiple angles – for example by blending real-life science labs with computer simulations.

Gaps are closing, but these are early days. Experience with past efforts suggests that over time and across multiple instructors, practice regresses. In the absence of larger scale reform – an outcomes approach at the level of the degree rather than course – it can feel like digging a hole in dry sand.

At a broader scale, we’re experimenting with bulk articulation of courses bundled into Associate Degrees for Transfer.  In theory, these new roomier containers of credit could house explicitly contextualized, practically motivated experiences – including the traditional list of high-impact practices, but also on-campus employment and others with a paycheck – that transcend individual courses.

Such approaches might be especially beneficial for the likeliest to drop out, by making college look and feel more useful, and less like a four-year hiatus for the affluent. Early results are good, but the programs are in infancy.

So that’s our answer to observers in other states: we’re working on it.

Let’s zoom out a little.

irish voteAs a descendent of Irish Catholics, I was as surprised as anyone when the old country voted overwhelmingly last May to recognize gay marriage.

Amid the commentaries one point stuck with me, that not just same-sex marriage but homosexuality itself remains illegal in most undeveloped countries – a symptom of what we could call the tolerance gap.

That is, along with per capita domestic product and a free press, we can add legal recognition of diversity as one of the symptoms that you’re purple instead of blue:

world map

(This post uses the United Nations division of countries into “Advanced” and “Developing.”)

Before we get even purpler with self praise we should note how far we still have to go.  North Africans in France, say, or immigrants in Japan, would be surprised to learn they inhabit a zone of enlightenment.  And that’s to say nothing of the U.S., where race relations have managed to sink lower since the Irish vote.

But the broad trend seems to hold, that in wealthier countries legalized bigotry is going the way of famine and Ebola.

Educators can claim some credit. For all our failings and conflicted interests, we at least seem to be doing the one thing we agree we should, which is opening minds.  And indeed, there’s a correlation; our best estimate is that people in the purple area are more than three times likelier to hold a college degree:

attainmentThese metrics of education, wealth, and tolerance are related. Smarter people make better choices, which accumulate to make a smarter culture.

And yet – just as we see with California and the other states – globally the demographic trend is to add more of the people who aren’t going to college.

That purple area of developed countries is not only fewer square miles than the blue; it’s also fewer people, and slower population growth.

In fact, the populations in the college-going countries actually shrink between now and the end of this century, while in the countries that go less, the population grows:

population growth

In other words, college seems to work globally the same way it does in California: mostly for a population that’s in the minority, and getting smaller.

This is distressing. The world’s problems going forward – like sustainability and resource distribution and human rights – will be solved only if we can develop more of the human capacity to address them. And on our current trajectory, we’ll instead be developing less of it.

Can California’s experiments with gap-closing and outcomes-learning help?  Maybe, if we keep prioritizing this, and stay connected to those efforts elsewhere.

I see a couple of other reasons for hope, too, but I’ll save them for a later post.


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