Friday, May 23, 2014

Who Gets to Graduate?

In other words, a half-hour online intervention, done at almost no cost, had apparently cut the community-college math dropout rate by more than half.

Who Gets to Graduate?
By PAUL TOUGH
New York Times
MAY 15, 2014

When you look at the national statistics on college graduation rates, there are two big trends that stand out right away. The first is that there are a whole lot of students who make it to college — who show up on campus and enroll in classes — but never get their degrees. More than 40 percent of American students who start at four-year colleges haven’t earned a degree after six years. If you include community-college students in the tabulation, the dropout rate is more than half, worse than any other country except Hungary.

The second trend is that whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t. Or to put it more statistically: About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.

When you read about those gaps, you might assume that they mostly have to do with ability. Rich kids do better on the SAT, so of course they do better in college. But ability turns out to be a relatively minor factor behind this divide. If you compare college students with the same standardized-test scores who come from different family backgrounds, you find that their educational outcomes reflect their parents’ income, not their test scores. Take students like Vanessa, who do moderately well on standardized tests — scoring between 1,000 and 1,200 out of 1,600 on the SAT. If those students come from families in the top-income quartile, they have a 2 in 3 chance of graduating with a four-year degree. If they come from families in the bottom quartile, they have just a 1 in 6 chance of making it to graduation...

In 1999, at the beginning of the fall semester, Laude combed through the records of every student in his freshman chemistry class and identified about 50 who possessed at least two of the “adversity indicators” common among students who failed the course in the past: low SATs, low family income, less-educated parents. He invited them all to apply to a new program, which he would later give the august-sounding name the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan, or TIP. Students in TIP were placed in their own, smaller section of Chemistry 301, taught by Laude. But rather than dumb down the curriculum for them, Laude insisted that they master exactly the same challenging material as the students in his larger section. In fact, he scheduled his two sections back to back. “I taught my 500-student chemistry class, and then I walked upstairs and I taught this 50-student chemistry class,” Laude explained. “Identical material, identical lectures, identical tests — but a 200-point difference in average SAT scores between the two sections.

Laude was hopeful that the small classes would make a difference, but he recognized that small classes alone wouldn’t overcome that 200-point SAT gap. “We weren’t na├»ve enough to think they were just going to show up and start getting A’s, unless we overwhelmed them with the kind of support that would make it possible for them to be successful,” he said. So he supplemented his lectures with a variety of strategies: He offered TIP students two hours each week of extra instruction; he assigned them advisers who kept in close contact with them and intervened if the students ran into trouble or fell behind; he found upperclassmen to work with the TIP students one on one, as peer mentors. And he did everything he could, both in his lectures and outside the classroom, to convey to the TIP students a new sense of identity: They weren’t subpar students who needed help; they were part of a community of high-achieving scholars.

Even Laude was surprised by how effectively TIP worked. “When I started giving them the tests, they got the same grades as the larger section,” he said. “And when the course was over, this group of students who were 200 points lower on the SAT had exactly the same grades as the students in the larger section.” The impact went beyond Chemistry 301. This cohort of students who, statistically, were on track to fail returned for their sophomore year at rates above average for the university as a whole, and three years later they had graduation rates that were also above the U.T. average.

Two years ago, Laude was promoted to his current position — senior vice provost for enrollment and graduation management. His official mission now is to improve U.T.’s four-year graduation rate, which is currently languishing at around 52 percent, to 70 percent — closer to the rates at U.T.’s state-university peers in Ann Arbor, Chapel Hill and Charlottesville, Va. — and to achieve this leap by 2017. The best way to do that, Laude decided, was to take the principles and practices that he introduced 15 years earlier with TIP and bring them to the whole Austin campus.

One complicating factor for administrators at the University of Texas — and, indeed, one reason the school makes for such an interesting case study — is that U.T. has a unique admissions policy, one that is the legacy of many years of legal and legislative battles over affirmative action. After U.T.’s use of race in admissions was ruled unconstitutional by the Fifth Circuit in 1996, the Texas Legislature came up with an alternative strategy to maintain a diverse campus: the Top 10 percent law, which stipulated that students who ranked in the top tenth of their graduating classes in any high school in Texas would be automatically admitted to the campus of their choice in the U.T. system. (As U.T. Austin has grown more popular over the last decade, the criterion for automatic admission has tightened; Texas high-school seniors now have to be in the top 7 percent of their class to earn admission. Automatic admits — Vanessa Brewer among them — make up about three-quarters of each freshman class.)

At high schools in the wealthier suburbs of Dallas, the top 7 percent of students look a lot like the students anywhere who go on to attend elite colleges. They are mostly well off and mostly white, and most of them rack up high SAT scores. What sets U.T. apart from other selective colleges is that the school also admits the top 7 percent of students from high schools in Brownsville and the Third Ward of Houston, who fit a very different demographic and have, on average, much lower SAT scores.

The good news about these kids, from U.T.’s point of view, is that they are very good students regardless of their test scores. Even if their high schools weren’t as well funded or as academically demanding as schools in other parts of the state, they managed to figure out how to learn, how to study and how to overcome adversity. Laude’s experience teaching Chemistry 301 convinced him that they could succeed and even excel at the University of Texas. But when he looked at the campuswide data, it was clear that these were the students who weren’t succeeding.

“There are always going to be both affluent kids and kids who have need who come into this college,” Laude said. “And it will always be the case that the kids who have need are going to have been denied a lot of the academic preparation and opportunities for identity formation that the affluent kids have been given. The question is, can we do something for those students in their first year in college that can accelerate them and get them up to the place where they can be competitive with the affluent, advantaged students?”...

Though Laude is a chemist by training, he spends much of his time thinking like a psychologist, pondering what kind of messages or environmental cues might affect the decisions that the students in his programs make. He’s the first to admit that he is an amateur psychologist at best. But he has found an ally and a kindred spirit in a psychological researcher at U.T. named David Yeager, a 32-year-old assistant professor who is emerging as one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of education. In his research, Yeager is trying to answer the question that Laude wrestles with every day: How, precisely, do you motivate students to take the steps they need to take in order to succeed?

Before he arrived at U.T. in the winter of 2012, Yeager worked as a graduate student in the psychology department at Stanford, during an era when that department had become a hotbed of new thinking on the psychology of education. Leading researchers like Carol Dweck, Claude Steele and Hazel Markus were using experimental methods to delve into the experience of students from early childhood all the way through college. To the extent that the Stanford researchers shared a unifying vision, it was the belief that students were often blocked from living up to their potential by the presence of certain fears and anxieties and doubts about their ability. These feelings were especially virulent at moments of educational transition — like the freshman year of high school or the freshman year of college. And they seemed to be particularly debilitating among members of groups that felt themselves to be under some special threat or scrutiny: women in engineering programs, first-generation college students, African-Americans in the Ivy League.

The negative thoughts took different forms in each individual, of course, but they mostly gathered around two ideas. One set of thoughts was about belonging. Students in transition often experienced profound doubts about whether they really belonged — or could ever belong — in their new institution. The other was connected to ability. Many students believed in what Carol Dweck had named an entity theory of intelligence — that intelligence was a fixed quality that was impossible to improve through practice or study. And so when they experienced cues that might suggest that they weren’t smart or academically able — a bad grade on a test, for instance — they would often interpret those as a sign that they could never succeed. Doubts about belonging and doubts about ability often fed on each other, and together they created a sense of helplessness. That helplessness dissuaded students from taking any steps to change things. Why study if I can’t get smarter? Why go out and meet new friends if no one will want to talk to me anyway? Before long, the nagging doubts became self-fulfilling prophecies.

When Yeager arrived at Stanford in 2006, many of the researchers there had begun to move beyond trying to understand this phenomenon to trying to counteract it. In a series of experiments, they found that certain targeted messages, delivered to students in the right way at the right time, seemed to overcome the doubts about belonging and ability that were undermining the students’ academic potential.

Yeager began working with a professor of social psychology named Greg Walton, who had identified principles that seemed to govern which messages, and which methods of delivering those messages, were most persuasive to students. For instance, messages worked better if they appealed to social norms; when college students are informed that most students don’t take part in binge drinking, they’re less likely to binge-drink themselves. Messages were also more effective if they were delivered in a way that allowed the recipients a sense of autonomy. If you march all the high-school juniors into the auditorium and force them to watch a play about tolerance and inclusion, they’re less likely to take the message to heart than if they feel as if they are independently seeking it out. And positive messages are more effectively absorbed when they are experienced through what Walton called “self-persuasion”: if students watch a video or read an essay with a particular message and then write their own essay or make their own video to persuade future students, they internalize the message more deeply.

In one experiment after another, Yeager and Walton’s methods produced remarkable results. At an elite Northeastern college, Walton, along with another Stanford researcher named Geoffrey Cohen, conducted an experiment in which first-year students read brief essays by upperclassmen recalling their own experiences as freshmen. The upperclassmen conveyed in their own words a simple message about belonging: “When I got here, I thought I was the only one who felt left out. But then I found out that everyone feels that way at first, and everyone gets over it. I got over it, too.” After reading the essays, the students in the experiment then wrote their own essays and made videos for future students, echoing the same message. The whole intervention took no more than an hour. It had no apparent effect on the white students who took part in the experiment. But it had a transformative effect on the college careers of the African-American students in the study: Compared with a control group, the experiment tripled the percentage of black students who earned G.P.A.s in the top quarter of their class, and it cut in half the black-white achievement gap in G.P.A. It even had an impact on the students’ health — the black students who received the belonging message had significantly fewer doctor visits three years after the intervention.

Next, Yeager did an experiment with 600 students just entering ninth grade at three high schools in Northern California. The intervention was 25 minutes long; students sat at a terminal in the school computer lab and read scientific articles and testimonials from older students with another simple message: People change. If someone is being mean to you or excluding you, the essays explained, it was most likely a temporary thing; it wasn’t because of any permanent trait in him or you. Yeager chose ninth grade because it is well known as a particularly bad time for the onset of depression — generally, depression rates double over the transition to high school. Indeed, among the control group in Yeager’s experiment, symptoms of depression rose by 39 percent during that school year. Among the group who had received the message that people change, though, there was no significant increase in depressive symptoms. The intervention didn’t cure anyone’s depression, in other words, but it did stop the appearance of depressive symptoms during a traditionally depressive period. And it did so in just 25 minutes of treatment.

After the depression study, Yeager, Walton and two other researchers did an experiment with community-college students who were enrolled in remedial or “developmental” math classes. Education advocates have identified remedial math in community college as a particularly devastating obstacle to the college hopes of many students, especially low-income students, who disproportionately attend community college. The statistics are daunting: About two-thirds of all community-college students are placed into one or more remedial math classes, and unless they pass those classes, they can’t graduate. More than two-thirds of them don’t pass; instead, they often drop out of college altogether.

Clearly, part of the developmental-math crisis has to do with the fact that many students aren’t receiving a good-enough math education in middle or high school and are graduating from high school underprepared for college math. But Yeager and Walton and a growing number of other researchers believe that another significant part of the problem is psychological. They echo David Laude’s intuition from the early days of TIP: When you send college students the message that they’re not smart enough to be in college — and it’s hard not to get that message when you’re placed into a remedial math class as soon as you arrive on campus — those students internalize that idea about themselves.

In the experiment, 288 community-college students enrolled in developmental math were randomly assigned, at the beginning of the semester, to read one of two articles. The control group read a generic article about the brain. The treatment group read an article that laid out the scientific evidence against the entity theory of intelligence. “When people learn and practice new ways of doing algebra or statistics,” the article explained, “it can grow their brains — even if they haven’t done well in math in the past.” After reading the article, the students wrote a mentoring letter to future students explaining its key points. The whole exercise took 30 minutes, and there was no follow-up of any kind. But at the end of the semester, 20 percent of the students in the control group had dropped out of developmental math, compared with just 9 percent of the treatment group. In other words, a half-hour online intervention, done at almost no cost, had apparently cut the community-college math dropout rate by more than half. ...

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