John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Turning the Ship Around: The Difficulty of Education Reform (Part 1 of a series)

Betsy O. Barefoot,
Vice President and Senior Scholar
For the past 20 odd years, I have worked in settings where the focus has been on improving student success in the first year of college.  Both the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education—my former and current employers—work with colleges and universities around the world to address the “first-year problem,” which is defined differently by different people.  But a generally agreed-upon component of the first-year problem is a lack of readiness for “college work”—at least what most of us recognize as college work.
All this focus on college readiness takes me back to my own wonderful high school education in the 60s and why today a high school diploma doesn’t seem to certify much at all in the way of preparation for college.  Okay, I know I’m generalizing.  There are excellent high schools and lots of special programs for bright students, but I find myself longing for “the good old days” of my high school experience.  What was so good about it?
The best aspect of my high school experience was the teaching – hands down.  My best teachers were women, unmarried women, who had devoted their lives to their students:  Ms. Ipock taught geometry and algebra, but also poetry.  I remember reciting Rudyard Kipling’s “If” in math class and doing artwork on the classroom windows.  Ms. Simpson taught English and Latin with uncommon enthusiasm.  I remember the class in which we were reading Robert Frost’s “Snow.” Ms. Simpson’s face lit up; she ran to window announcing that it was snowing, but we all laughed because it was only ash floating down from the chimney; Ms. Jones was an amazing biology teacher whose mantra in response to comments of “I can’t, or I don’t understand” was “do the best you can with what you have.”  Ms. Grant, who taught both my sister (who is 14 years older than I) and me, is still the source of nightmares about lack of preparation for the weekly test.   But I didn’t learn to write in college, I learned to write from Ms. Grant.
Is it possible to recruit such teachers today when the best college graduates have so many options that come with better pay and infinitely more status?  I’m certainly not advocating a return to a world where bright, career-oriented women could only do two things – teach and nurse.  But as I watch our state of North Carolina and others reduce available funding for public education, I despair.  What hope do we have of transforming young lives when the best and brightest among us cannot be persuaded that teaching is a viable career path?  

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