Thursday, April 16, 2015

Caught in a Parenting Crossroads: Labels vs. Help

I spend a lot of time thinking about labels. I've written about them before, and they're especially important to me because I don't believe there's any such thing as an "authentic" self. We create our sense of selves and our place in the world based off of the way we position (and are positioned) with and against the world around us.

There are many reasons to resist labels. They're overly simplistic, denying the complexities and messiness of real lives. They can become shorthand ways to dismiss and deny.

But they're also unavoidable. We use labels because we need language to make sense of the world, and that includes making sense of ourselves. Having terms for who I am and where I see myself helps me to function on a very basic level.

It's with all this in mind that I find myself at a parenting crossroads. My daughter has always been headstrong and "spirited." In fact, a friend of mine posted this Scary Mommy post about spirited children that reads like the field notes from someone observing my child. She is fearless, opinionated, passionate, and stubborn.

Many of the traits that wear me out most are ones I am sure will serve her well. I am heartened when I read posts like this one from Role Reboot about the phrases we need to teach little girls. "Stop interrupting me." "I just said that." Those are right up there with my daughter's go-to favorites "I'll do it myself" and "Hey, watch this!" Especially when I compare my daughter's spirit and drive to my own childhood anxiety and shyness, I am convinced that she has many, many strengths for facing a world that will try to wear her down.

But the realities of those perceived strengths are harder to figure out. She's been in daycare settings since infancy, and even before she could talk I got reports from her teachers about her defiance. As the expectations put upon her to cooperate and follow directions grew, so did the negative feedback. "She doesn't listen." "She won't sit still." "She argues with her peers." "She throws tantrums."

She'll grow out of it, I told myself. In the meantime, I worked on sticker behavior charts tied to rewards and lost privileges. We read books about good manners. We role played. We worked and worked and worked. Some days were better than others, but the reports from school continued, and her behavior at home grew worse. There were meltdowns over minutia. She started hitting and kicking and screaming. I dreaded going to a restaurant or grocery store. Her behaviors seemed typical for a two-year-old, but she's four.

I started eating up friends' Facebook posts about their own behavioral challenges as signs that things were fine. I would watch other children on the playground and play compare and contrast even though I knew that wasn't the way to go about this. But feeling like it was normal was a comfort, so I sought out confirmation.

Until I couldn't anymore.

I started to get anxiety about picking her up from daycare, the time of the day when the meltdowns were the worst. Some days it would take half an hour to get out of the building, and even though I'd sit and finish her puzzle with her, look at all the classroom projects of the day, explain the plans we had at home, I'd still end up carrying her screaming and red faced over my shoulder as she kicked her shoes into the street. She'll be too heavy for this soon, I thought to myself. What am I going to do?

Some days her behavior was so bad that I felt trapped in my own home, afraid to take her anywhere. I would break down and cry uncontrollably after the fourth meltdown in as many days, exhausted and isolated.

Often, her screams would turn to sobs. Between hitched breaths, she'd pant out "I don't know how to stop, Mommy. I don't know how to listen. I want to be good, but I don't know how."

That was the trigger for me: watching her struggle and say that she felt out of control. It wasn't just that she couldn't find a way to fit into the expectations of the institutions around her; she couldn't find a way to fit into her own expectations.

So I took her to a therapist, and she loves going. They play and play, and somewhere in there she works through the things that are bothering her. Last week, the therapist met with me to talk about her progress. "I think she has a sensory processing issue," she said. "I'd recommend occupational therapy."

I left the meeting and bought an e-book version of The Out-of-Sync Child, hungry for information, for answers, for help. I found checklists like this one and felt waves of relief as I ticked off each and every symptom. Yes! This is it!

Everything from her nonexistent response to pain to her desire to climb to the highest point of the playground and jump off to her tendency to chew the neck of her shirts into oblivion were on the lists. And it all makes sense when you read about it. These needs for sensory experiences seem connected and meaningful.

More than anything, though, it makes me feel less powerless. If she needs more stimulation in very specific ways, then I can do that. I can buy trampolines and plan more activities that require pushing, pulling, and spinning. I can look at Pinterest boards of games designed to cross the midline. I can do massages. I can sing the "Hokey Pokey" ten times a day. I can do something to help her.

Part of me really wants to embrace the label. Does she have Sensory Processing Disorder, a controversial condition that isn't recognized as a clinical diagnosis but that is nonetheless getting placed on thousands of children?

Like any label, there are risks and benefits. And, like any label, those risks and benefits tend to fall along lines of belonging and exclusion. Labeling her can bring assistance, but it can also push her to the margins. Labeling is always a double-edged sword, but when you're so young, it feels particularly sharp.

Maybe it's not a disorder. Maybe it's just a typical expression of a spirited child pushed up against growing societal demands that kids sit still and follow directions at earlier and earlier ages. But if the treatment is jumping, running, lifting, pushing, pulling, and playing, then is mislabeling really so bad?

This feels like such a tightrope walk to me, and I want to make sure that I'm walking it with her interests in mind instead of my own. I don't want to grab onto a label to make myself feel better if it ends up hurting her, but I also don't want to push away a real problem in an attempt to make it disappear.

I'll tiptoe slowly and do my best, as seems to be the course of so many parenting crossroads.

Photo: Allison McDonald, SpDuchamp, Snugg LePup

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"Stop Ignoring Your Children": Guilt, Love, and Exhaustion

This afternoon, the fates aligned on one of the days where I finish teaching early, I didn't have a committee meeting, I don't have a presentation to give later in the week, the grading is caught up (enough), and tomorrow's lessons are planned. The sun is shining, I don't have a cold, and it's neither 20 nor 90 degrees. My dissertation is certainly in need of work, but I'm awaiting feedback on my last submission and feel sufficiently accomplished enough to take an afternoon off without writhing in anxiety.

All of those serendipitous things lined up, and I went for a run.

A run is a wholly self-centered act in the best sense. It is an act I do for multiple iterations of myself. When I run, it lets the present me relax and work through the mental stress of tasks and deadlines and lists. It is also a gift to my future self, a promise for tomorrow's strength. I run for me, and it feels great (even if I don't always recognize that red-faced and mid-stride).

On my way back to my house, I noticed this stop sign and accompanying sticker:

"Stop ignoring your children." 

Well, shit. 

That momentary passing caught me off guard and I was suddenly flooded with guilt, then anger at having been made to feel guilty, then confusion at trying to sort through the two. 

See, there are some things going on. Every morning on Saturday or Sunday (or sometimes both), I get up at 6 so that I can go work in a coffee shop on my dissertation for two hours before my husband and daughter wake up. I try to be home by 9, which is about the time they'll really get up and moving. If I'm not home by 9, I feel absolutely wracked with guilt. 

Why? It's not because my husband cares that I'm gone and thinks I need to be back to take care of the household. He has even told me to get a hotel room and write for the whole weekend, a move in support of my educational goals that we're working toward together. 

It's not even that my daughter particularly cares that I'm gone, though she does always greet me with "Mommy, I am so glad that you're back!" and a big hug, but then she's right back off to fighting imaginary enemies or braiding the hair of imaginary ponies. 

The guilt is internal. It's my fault. I put it there. I feed it. I help it grow. 

But I didn't do it alone, and this defaced stop sign proves it. 

I can't know the motivations of whoever enacted this socially conscious graffiti, but I doubt it's a personal attack. My daughter is loved, adequately supervised, and more than adequately entertained with toys, games of hide and seek, and trips to the playground/museum/whatever. I don't, in a very objective sense, ignore my child. 

But when I saw that sign, the first thought that ran through my head was, "Maybe I should have picked her up early from daycare and taken her somewhere." Then I rationalized that it was nap time until 3 anyway, and there was no reason to rush. Then I further guilt tripped myself by wondering if, instead of being out in the sunshine running, I should be at home reading the book I just ordered on how to more effectively communicate with children. At no point in this ping pong game of emotions and internal demands was I ignoring my child; she was foremost in my mind even when she wasn't present. 

See, we're having some "challenges" with my daughter that seem to stem from a  cognitive-social disconnect. This means that my four-year-old child throws tantrums like a two-year-old while using the vocabulary of a sixteen-year-old. It is exhausting. Sometimes I cry. 

We're taking several steps to redirect, address, and otherwise survive this obstacle, and I'm now reading on effective communication, which I thought was silly since I've taken multiple graduate-level courses in communication but am now realizing that all bets are off when you're talking about a child. I can explain ethos, pathos, and logos to her all I want, but she's still not accepting the fact that the dog ate her favorite red cup and that bedtime exists. 

Each day that I pick her up from school and hear the report that she threw a fit or was rude to a classmate or refused to cooperate at lunchtime or kicked her shoes across the room at nap time, I feel like a failure. Every time. And there are a lot of times. 

I hold my breath when I pull up into the parking lot, hoping that today will be a good day, that today the report will be positive, or even just neutral. 

And when it's not, I start to examine every moment of the past few weeks. Did I read enough bedtime books? Was I firm enough in sticking to the consequences? Did we play outside often enough? Were there plenty of structured activities? Unstructured activities? Did I leave her enough room to make her own decisions? Too much room? Had I let her listen to a Rage Against the Machine song on the way to school? Did that trigger her anger? Was the house too messy? Did she feel insecure in it? Was dinnertime too varied? Did she hear me complaining about the work I had to do? And on, and on, and on. And it is exhausting. 

The findings of a parenting study took my social media feeds by storm last week. This study found that the quantity of time spent with a child had no real bearing on their overall outcomes. In fact, the only thing that really mattered was that time spent with the child while "stressed, sleep-deprived, guilty, or anxious" was detrimental. 

Again: Well, shit. 

And while many commenters took this revelation to be a freeing one, all I could think about was how reading this was making me feel even more stressed, guilty, and anxious about all the times I'd spent with my daughter while stressed, guilty, and anxious. I was stuck in an Escher painting of parenting woes. 

Like this, only behind every door is a room where Doc McStuffins blares at full volume
and the floor is covered in particularly sharp-edged Legos.

Then today I came across this article by Jen Hatmaker (born in 1975) who reflects that her own mother didn't face these parenting standards of perfection and simply forced the children outside to roam the neighborhood freely "like a pack of roving wolves." 

And there's something comforting in her "return to our roots" parenting philosophy that reasons we survived what would now be considered neglect and so should stop worrying so much. But at the same time, those actions are now legally questionable and our decisions exist in a different social climate. 

Even so, I can't rightfully compare my own childhood to my daughter's as the two are so drastically different as to be nearly incompatible. I grew up in the middle of nowhere with acres and acres of lawn and forest. She's growing up in the middle of an urban neighborhood. I grew up first with a stay-at-home-mom in a working class family and then in a single-mother household in poverty with no transition in between. She's growing up with married parents who both work in professional fields. I never even went to preschool. She's been in daycare since she was seven weeks old. I was painfully shy and quiet around strangers. She's an outgoing daredevil who asks embarrassingly personal questions of strangers in line at Target. I don't even know how to compare what was normal for me to what should be normal for her, and attempts to do so often leave me even more distressed than I was when I started. 

Then there's the fact that, at it's core, this is an emotional (not logical) debate for me. I know, without a doubt, that going for a run this afternoon made me calmer, more focused, and less stressed and that all of those things make me a better mother. I am absolutely certain that taking time for myself is not only okay, but necessary. I would not hesitate for a moment to tell my other parent friends to do exactly what I did and more. Self-care becomes a radical act, and I'm all about revolutions. 

But I'd be omitting an important part of the story if I didn't tell you that sign stopped me in my tracks and brought forward the ever-present guilt that I try to stuff down with animated readings of Green Eggs and Ham and dining room dance parties to Katy Perry songs. 

Eventually, though, I had to stop looking at the sign and walk the rest of the way home, one step at a time and on legs shaky from the first real run they'd had in a while, and in the end that's exactly how I'll move through it all.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links!)

I'm not even going to make excuses for how this weekly link round-up turned into a kinda, sometimes monthly one. Life's just busy. Like, so busy sometimes I forget to eat. Like, so busy sometimes I lose four hours and have no idea how they passed. There's a light at the end of the tunnel, but until then (then being, most likely, December), this is the best I've got. So, without further ado, here's what I've been reading that made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious). What have you been reading (or writing)?

The Good

First and foremost, spring. We had a very mild winter with virtually no snow, and I really shouldn't be complaining about it, but I was so sick of cold, dark days. I took this picture today, and I am so ready for spring:

To celebrate all that glorious spring, I've been spending as much time as possible in the park. While there last week, a boy who looked to be about 10 asked me if I wanted to see a magic trick. He found my cards in an adorable, clearly oft-practiced trick. Then he went off to find some other stranger to continue honing his craft. 

Shannon Barber's Medium post reminds us that rules were meant to be broken, especially when those rules concern what grown women can and cannot wear on their bodies
I am over 30 and should have long ago hung up my fashion eccentricities- but what has happened is that I’ve shed my ability to care about how I am supposed to be doing it. 
I know the rules I just don’t care.
Also, my daughter finished her second round of roller skating classes:

One self-described "redneck Republican" is wearing IUDs as jewelry.

Michele Burmaster wants us to take back fitspo, and she has some choice words for a fitness magazine who asked her to submit "better" photos.

Read what K. M. O'Sullivan did when her teenage son brought home a condom.

The Bad

Everything about the DOJ report on Ferguson makes me cry, but this part is particularly shocking:
It turns out that nearly everyone in the city is wanted for something. Even internal police department communications found the number of arrest warrants to be "staggering". By December of 2014, "over 16,000 people had outstanding arrest warrants that had been issued by the court." The report makes clear that this refers to individual people, rather than cases, so people with many cases are not being counted multiple times. (Though clearly some of these cannot be Ferguson residents, since the number represents more than the entire adult population and Ferguson policing applies to visitors as well.) However, if we do look at the number of cases, the portrait is even starker. In 2013, 32,975 offenses had associated warrants, so that there were 1.5 offenses for every city resident.
While we're on the topic of North St. Louis County overreaches in the name of "justice," take a look at this lawsuit against the city of Florissant. A "defective muffler" charge that the woman paid ends with an unwarranted arrest and brutality.

Cherelle Baldwin faces decades in prison for trying to flee an abusive partner whom she had an order of protection against.

And to balance out (though definitely not to brighten) the law enforcement portrayal, here's one police officer's horrifying account of responding to a five-year-old gunshot victim.

The Curious

Anna Ross has a great post at Vida on the many implications of saying "I don't know how she does it":
I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know how you do it. Not surprisingly, the only people who are actually interested in hearing a response to this statement are other mothers, and for them the particulars are practical, not theoretical.
Mental Floss posted 15 Phenomenal Female Circus Performers.

This post about one family's journey through opting out of standardized tests really brings up some of the tensions in this debate.

Bonbon Break has a great post on why overwhelmed moms don't ask for help.

What happens when one identical twin exercises and the other doesn't?

XOJane published a truly unpopular "Unpopular Opinion" piece about not tipping, and this Jezebel response said everything I thought (and then a little more).

This Love, Joy, Feminism post about the balance of parental needs and children's needs in Attachment Parenting hit home for me.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

If We Don't Believe in Our Students, What's the Point?

Last night I came across this post from Jesse Stommel and felt a little leap for joy as I read it. See, he's taking to task the Chronicle of Education's recent blog series called "Dear Student." In this series, professors are asked to write responses to infuriating student-teacher situations. 

The series started a month ago and has so far enjoyed four entries:

Dear Student: Should Your Granny Die Before the Midterm. . . 

Dear Student: No, I Won't Change the Grade You Deserve

Dear Student: It's February and You Still Don't Have Your Textbook?

Dear Student: Sorry You're Too Late to Sign Up For My Class

The entries consist of emails written to these imaginary students, and while there are moments of educational reflection and maybe even some helpful ways to approach difficult situations, it's clear that those aren't the point of the series. The point is snark, cruelty, and a smug self-congratulatory air of superiority over the power instructors wield.

Maybe this is coming from a space of insecurity. Maybe facing down online lectures that make some of the most powerful classrooms freely available to the world coupled with the rapid availability of tools that allow students to undercut the power dynamics traditionally found in student-teacher relationships (sometimes in cruel, problematic ways of their own) is too much to take.

Whatever the source, though, those "Dear Student" posts dug deep under my skin. Every time they popped up in my social media feeds, I felt compelled to click, and every time I was met with deep disappointment and anger. Stommel identified the source of this feeling perfectly:
What everyone working anywhere even near to the education system needs to do:
Treat the least privileged among us with the most respect.
Recognize that the job of a teacher is to advocate for students, especially in an educational system currently under direct threat at almost every turn.
Laugh at ourselves and not at those we and our system have made most vulnerable.
Rant up, not down.
"Rant up, not down."


I have faced every single one of those situations mocked in the "Dear Students" series. I teach developmental writing, and my students often enter my classroom with no real sense of college expectations and very few habits of academia. Does this sometimes irritate me? Of course. Do I sometimes rant about it? Absolutely.

But key to my rant is an attempt to return to the center, an attempt to remember why I do what I do, an attempt to find a path that will lead that student to success, even if that success is clearly not going to happen this semester in my class.

The day that I feel the need to climb onto a pedestal of my own making to smugly look down on the students who I got into this profession to serve is the day I need to find new work. That's not so much a marker of my superiority as an instructor as it is a letter of warning to my future self. If I lose focus of that core respect and belief in my students, I can't possibly do my job.

And losing that focus is a real possibility.

As Adrienne Rich discusses in her article on teaching in an open admissions institution, "a fundamental belief in the students is more important than anything else." But she also admits it's not easy to maintain:
it is a very demanding matter of realistically conceiving the student where he or she is, and at the same time never losing sight of where he or she can be.
It's really hard to watch a student make deliberate, infuriating choices that practically guarantee his or her failure in the course and maintain hope in that student's future potential, but that's the job. That's the point. If we, the people tasked with guiding them through the obstacles between them and their desired futures, don't believe it's possible, then what's the point?

Many defenders of the Chronicle "Dear Student" series say that students need this dose of reality because people aren't going to treat them with kid gloves in the "real world." Of course students need to learn that their actions have consequences. Of course students need to learn about rigid expectations and firm deadlines. Of course students need to cultivate maturity and problem solving skills. Isn't that why they came to us?

We've already seen that there are online courses available for free on just about every topic imaginable. Students can go on Amazon and buy textbooks to teach themselves any course content they want. Our contribution to education is not and cannot be merely the knowledge we carry because I promise you there are streams of information that carry it better and more accessibly. If we're going to set ourselves up as knowledge-based competition with ever-improving content delivery systems, we will lose. In fact, we already have.

But what we can and should provide is a path to navigate that content, a respectful prodding into the right habits, a practice space for that "real world" that is both rigid enough to set up realistic expectations and flexible enough to allow for mistakes.

That means we have to stop seeing our students as the enemy of education. They are not diluting the power of knowledge. They are not destroying our institutions. They are simply trying to exist the best they can in a web of technology, inequities, and expectations that change faster than any of us can catalogue. They come to us for help, and we told them we'd deliver it.

Yes, I've been infuriated by a student who didn't have a textbook in February. I've also been awe-struck by a student who had an epileptic seizure in my classroom, was treated by EMTs, and then returned to class that day because he didn't want to fall behind.

I've been frustrated with a student who missed the deadline on an assignment after I talked about it in class, put it on the syllabus, created a separate assignment for it on Blackboard, and sent out a reminder email. But I've also been stunned into silence by a student who comes to my class after just having worked an overnight shift at a fast food restaurant and is leaving my class as soon as it ends so he can walk four miles to the store and start his next shift.

I've been angry when a student tries to hand in a handwritten draft instead of submitting a typed document online as instructed, but I've also been humbled when I found out that the reason the paper wasn't typed is because staying on campus to use the computer lab would mean not arriving at the homeless shelter early enough to secure a place to sleep on a sub-zero night.

I've written a slanted "A" with gritted teeth in the attendance box for the fourth consecutive class period before learning that the premature birth of my student's daughter has left her hospitalized and scrambling to find care for her other children.

Are there times that students are simply lazy? Sure. Are there times when they're abusing the financial aid system just to get a check with no intention of completing classes? Frustratingly, yes. Are there students who are immature and disrespectful? You bet.

But even those students might figure it out. Even those students have the potential for it to click into place, and I've seen it happen. It is my job, above all, to believe in that possibility, to fight for it, and to make them aware of it, too.

So I err on the side of belief. That is my job. And if I need to rant, I do it quietly; then I get back to work.

Photo: yusunkwon, Snapshooter46

Friday, February 27, 2015

Blogging to My PhD: The Gestalt, Ideology, and that White/Gold or Blue/Black Dress

Surely you've seen #TheDress, which is currently the top trending Twitter topic and flooding Facebook feeds across the globe as people argue about whether the dress is blue and black or white and gold.

I didn't know that this image was going viral when I shared the link. I'd only seen one other person talk about it, and it just seemed like a funny question to me. When my husband adamantly said it was blue and black while I saw white and gold (and we were looking at the same image on the same screen), I found it curious, not infuriating. Later, perhaps in different lighting, we each saw the picture the other way, and even though we don't completely understand the science behind it, I can accept and appreciate that this is one of many moments where our biological and cognitive functions as human beings just don't completely align.

What is more interesting to me, though, is the way that this strange little blip in internet excitement is so indicative of larger cultural practices of meaning making.

People are putting themselves into camps. #TeamBlueandBlack is feeling vindicated because the actual dress is blue and black:

But #TeamWhiteandGold insists that the picture is white and gold regardless of the dress itself: 

People have gone into different ways of "proving" that they are right, that their perspective on the dress is the "correct" one. People have gone so far as to say (jokingly, I'm sure) that this is destroying their friendships as they argue with people on the other side of the debate: 

While this is all in good spirited playfulness, the reactions are indicative of a much more serious tendency. We need to be right, to convince other people of our rightness, to have that rightness vindicated and validated. To admit that someone else can look at the same dress, see something completely different, and also be right disturbs many of us on a deep level, and it's something we need to work on.

Rhetorical theory borrows the concept of the gestalt from psychology, and it is in full swing with The Dress. A gestalt is a whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts, and a common illustration of it is the duck-rabbit image. 

Some people look at this image and see a duck. Others look at it and see a rabbit. When someone on #TeamRabbit convinces someone on #TeamDuck to see it the other way (or vice versa), then that enlightened person is now able to toggle back and forth between the two images and see the picture as a whole as duck, rabbit, and most importantly something altogether new: an optical illusion. It is only through accepting that there is a second way to see the image that we an arrive at the third way. 

Louis Wetherbee Phelps writes that making this deliberate toggle between the two images "takes the viewer from literal-mindedness, in which he sees reality as having only one ('normal') aspect, toward polymorphic-mindedness, the ability to fluently shift perspectives on reality" (Composition as a Human Science 153).

However, if we refuse or are unable to make that toggle, our single-minded brains aim to turn everything else into background noise. We are disturbed by the conflict and want a resolution.

Peter Elbow calls on the gestalt when he says that "We are like rats who have been taught to see rectangles and circles. But what happens when they show us an ellipse? . . . for literary critics or political scientists, argument about whether they are looking at a rectangle or a circle will go on forever because there are no rules for proving a mistake: neither side can show there's something wrong with the other person's model . . . People just go on seeing rectangles and circles till they have the sense to start playing the believing game" (Writing Without Teachers 169).

The "Believing Game" is Elbow's term for intentionally switching our perspective to believe what someone else is telling us, even if our instinct is to be critical. Once we've spent some time believing a perspective, we are supposed to switch to the "Doubting Game" where we can turn that critical lens back on. Doing this protects us from accepting ideas that are dangerous or harmful, but it also gives us the opportunity to learn new perspectives and to move beyond the either/or dichotomy to a gestalten third way of seeing. 

Richard Lanham says that teaching students to toggle back and forth between perspectives should be the aim of literary education: "This is a toggle to boggle the mind. It means that the two basic theories of language are placed in permanent oscillation" (The Electronic Word 82).

This extends far beyond silly pictures of duck/rabbits or friendship-ruining dresses. Gloria Anzaldua writes in Borderlands/La Frontera about feeling this push and pull within her own identity. Her multiracial identity is conflicted as she feels on the borders of Indian, Mexican, and white. She identifies as queer and feels neither fully male nor female. At constant conflict with society's attempts to pin her down, she writes that people "caught between two worlds" go on to "unknowingly cultivate la facultad" (61). This is the term she gives for the ability "to see in surface phenomenon the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface" (60). 

It's not a comfortable spot, toggling back and forth between realities. Anzaldua admits that it is painful and that after cultivating the ability she is "no longer the same person [she] was before" (70), but the ability to toggle is a key one to understanding one another and ourselves. When even our own identities are made up of conflicting perspectives, how can we do anything but toggle?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Legislating Developmental Education: How Colleges are Dealing with Changes to DevEd

My state (Missouri) has proposed legislation that mirrors education reforms many states have enacted in the last few years.

House Bill 365, the "Student Accountability Act," aims to ensure college readiness for high school graduates by requiring that any student receiving a high school diploma in Missouri pass at least one of the recognized measures (ASVAB, GED, ACT, Compass, or an exit exam administered by the school that assesses math, communication arts, social sciences, and science).

While I'm sure there will be lots of discussion for the impact this has on high school classrooms and high school students, my interests as a community college instructor who teaches developmental classes is on how this will impact college students.

Point 5 in HB365 is the most pertinent to these concerns:
Every public institution of higher education shall recognize the high school academic diploma as sufficient for a student to be placed in the first college-level course of mathematics and English composition that is recognized for the forty-two-hour general education core requirements.
Right now, students entering community colleges in Missouri (which are open access and accept students regardless of previous grades or test scores) have to take a placement exam. Many colleges use the COMPASS exam. Based on those scores, students are placed into either college-level, credit-bearing courses or developmental education courses which carry no credit but are a prerequisite for the credit-level ones. For many of the disciplines, there are multiple levels of developmental education. Students could test one, two, or up to three levels below college-credit level courses, requiring an equal number of semesters of remediation before moving on to the course they need for their degree goals. Most DevEd students test into multiple disciplines of developmental education, so it is very typical for a student to need two levels of developmental math, two levels of developmental English, and two levels of developmental reading. In addition, some schools require developmental students to take college readiness courses. That means students could be taking 6-8 (18-24 credit hours) of courses that don't count for their degree.

Whether those classes are necessary is a big point of debate. Without a doubt, many students are entering college classrooms without college-level skills. They need to get those skills to avoid failing the credit-level classes. This is what DevEd is designed to do. But, for the most part, it's not doing its job. Nationally, the completion rates for students who start in DevEd coursework are staggeringly low. Less than 25% of students taking remedial coursework earn a degree (a "two-year" degree) within eight years. At some schools, that number is much, much lower. And students requiring remedial courses are statistically much more likely to be minority or low-income students, so issues of race and class come into play as well.

All of these compounding issues have led many of the educational reforms to target DevEd, just as Missouri HB365 does. If this bill passes as written, point 5 means that students entering the community college with a high school diploma would no longer be required to take remedial coursework regardless of their test scores (and since the bill only requires test scores after eighth grade, they might be getting into college based on test scores from their freshman year of high school, scores that might not be representative of their current abilities at higher performance levels).

I have a lot of opinions about this, and while I don't think that legislative measures are the best way to get reform, I agree with a lot of the principles behind moving students through developmental education more effectively and quickly. Regardless of my personal opinion on the matter (though if you want that, you can get it here, here, here, and here), I'm interested in cataloging some of these legislative measures and the subsequent college-level responses.
The Laws


Beginning in 2011, Arkansas enacted legislation (with HB 1454) that regulates the reporting on remedial coursework and has since been expanded to include recommended test score levels for supplemental instruction (co-requisite courses where students take developmental coursework while enrolled in college-level courses).


In 2013, the Colorado Commission on Higher Education established guidelines for higher education institutions regarding funding and implementation of developmental education courses. One of the elements of this mandate is that students should complete all remedial requirements within one year of enrollment. It also requires supplemental (co-requisite) remedial coursework and reports on these courses sent to the Commission. It also grants some students (like those who are non-degree seeking or co-enrolled in high school) exemptions, but it does not go as far as many of the other legislative measures.


Public Act 12-40 mandated state-level redesign of developmental education courses beginning in 2014. This act focuses on a tiered approach to remedial education that encourages embedded-level support (co-requisite courses). At most, it allows a single semester of developmental instruction before moving on to the college-level work.


Florida's Senate Bill 1720 garnered a lot of attention upon its passage in 2013 and is largely seen as the most extreme developmental education legislation to date. This bill mandated that any student receiving a high school diploma from an accredited state high school in the past decade could choose to waive any remedial coursework requirement and enter directly into college-level courses. This is colloquially known as a "Right to Fail" measure.


In 2010, Senate Bill 7006 (known as the Complete College Tennessee Act or CCTA) was passed. This legislation banned four-year colleges from offering remedial or developmental coursework at all. Two-year colleges are still allowed to offer the courses and partnerships have formed between two-year and four-year institutions to deliver the courses.

There have been other legislative demands placed on developmental education and even more states (including West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, California, and Texas) where remedial coursework has become a target for reform through a variety of methods. There is a current student-led push for reform in Minnesota. Some states have given flexibility where schools can experiment with different delivery methods. In others, existing systems surrounding financial aid and the credit hour system make experimentation more difficult.

The Reactions

Reactions depend largely on the rigidity and extremity of the legislation enacted. In Connecticut, for example, the legislation did not completely remove remedial education and instead limited it to a single semester. There, educators now take the tiered approach outlined in PA 12-40, which has had a major impact on the way that the schools deliver remedial content. The three levels are 1) embedded (co-enrollment with college level course) 2) intensive (one semester of remediation) and 3) transitional (students below 8th grade level who work with adult education programs to improve skills.

A thorough exploration of the students admitted and the impact of these tiers through a pilot program is available here. In general, it found that intensive and embedded programs were successful in English but less successful in math.

As the most extreme measure (completely removing remedial coursework requirements for students with a high school diploma), Florida has fewer options for experimentation. Most of the discussion of Florida's response to this broad-reaching legislative measure has focused on how important advising became to help students make an informed choice about which classes they'd take. Many educators have internalized the mantra of "Students Don't Do Optional," however, and this legislation essentially removed the school's power to require any remedial instruction that a student doesn't want.

Since these changes in Florida were only implemented in Fall 2014, there hasn't been a lot of data released about their impact yet, but this article outlines some of the opportunities these changes present, including more intensive and tailored tutoring and supplemental instruction to students enrolled in credit-level courses (regardless of their test scores).

Overall, the attempts to address these public concerns (be they reactive or proactive) tend to fall along some key lines (as outlined in this article from National Council of State Legislatures):
  • Acceleration: Most legislative measures are addressing the sheer amount of time (and, therefore, money) that students tend to spend in remedial education. Acceleration models aim to shorten this time through a variety of measures. 
    • Co-enrollment: If students co-enroll in developmental courses and credit-level courses, they finish the courses faster (but the cost is often the same since they pay for both courses). 
    • Integration: Some colleges (like Chabot in California or the Community College of Denver's Fast Start program) have combined different levels of reading and writing courses into shorter sequences with fewer credit hours, reducing the time and cost. 
  • Learning Communities: Learning communities have been used to address several educational concerns, and some legislation and suggested frameworks for developmental education list learning communities as a way to help students build community and support systems to increase success rates. 
  • College-level Enrollment with Increased Support: Some colleges (especially those where legislation no longer allows compulsory remedial coursework) have worked to add more tutoring and support services for students enrolled in college-level courses. 
Missouri's HB 365 may not pass at all, and if it does it may undergo changes, but since its current form is focused primarily on high school regulations and the college-level implications are only a side effect, I doubt that future changes to the wording will allow for more flexibility in developmental education delivery rather than eliminating it.

I believe that developmental education needs to change--drastically. The flurry of legislative action surrounding DevEd is focused on the disappointing statistics for completion rates and connects them with taxpayer investments and high school performance rates.

Even if this bill doesn't pass, it seems clear that the cultural tide is turning on developmental education delivery, and I suspect that changes will be mandated in one way or another soon. A lot of these experiments are still in the early stages, and we should be watching with interest to see if there are any rays of hope for long-term improvement because the primary goal (in the sea of discussion of taxpayer cost and throwing blame for failures) should be to make sure that we're meeting our goal of making educational attainment a reality for everyone.

Photo: COCOEN Daily Photos

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What Does "Adulthood" Look Like These Days?

I'm reflecting on the notion of adulthood this week after a flurry of cultural norms surrounding the topic intersected and met with conflict in front of me.

It started when I posted on Facebook to ask for advice on how to respond to parents wanting information about students' college classroom performances against their children's wishes. While I knew that FERPA policies wouldn't allow such sharing, I was more interested in what the appropriate response should be.

I got a lot of comments (maybe even some of you reading this, so thanks), and I was interested in how different they were. Many people reacted with horror that such "helicopter" parenting was happening at the college level. Others sympathized with the parent and reflected on their own experiences as parents of college-aged children. The drastic range of responses left me wondering what was at the heart of this debate, and I think it's the concept of adulthood itself.

The Millennial Generation (of which many--but certainly not all or even most in some classes--of my students are a part) has made big splashes about its delayed treatment of adulthood. This Atlantic article on the topic cites the perfect storm of increased college enrollment (and, with it, rising debt) along with decreased job opportunities as the culprit:
If school years delayed financial independence, the Great Recession just about shattered it. Due to economic conditions, 24% of young adults have moved back in with their parents for a significant period of time. "Among those ages 25 to 29, the share moving back home rises to 34%," Pew reports. One in three!
The new economic reality is changing the way we think about adulthood. It's not that adulthood has changed, necessarily, but that  the road to financial independence is getting longer and more fraught. In 1993, a Newsweek poll found that 80% of parents said their young children should be financially independent by 22. Now that up to one-third of those very same parents are still living with their kids, one-third of today's parents say children "shouldn't have to be on their own financially until age 25 or later."
As a technical Millennial myself (I was born in 1985), the Millennial experience often wavers between familiar and foreign to me. I doubt its my on-the-cusp birth year that's to blame, though. Instead, I think that growing up in an impoverished household made my experience of adulthood much different from some of my peers. I've consistently had at least one job since I was 15 years old. I was paying for my own car insurance, phone bill, clothes, most food, and some household bills by the time I was 16. My college years were financed entirely through grants, scholarships, and the two jobs I worked as I went to school. I got an apartment with roommates my sophomore year and another one with my now-husband my senior year. Moving back home was never even on the table, and financial dependency was never an option.

I know I'm not the only Millennial who feels adrift when reading descriptions of "my" generation (as Julia Lapidos recently reflected), but I also think that generation trends (like most cultural trends) tend to be mapped along the paths of the relatively wealthy white middle class. My experience is not unique, and I know there are plenty of other people born then and now who are not going to bask in a quarter century (or more) of financial and emotional security.

But that trend has impacted all of us, and now the conversations around adulthood are skewed toward that new normal.

I saw other cultural artifacts floating around this week that connected to this topic.

A series of Progressive insurance commercials operate around the command for viewers to "act your age" by dumping our parents' insurance company and switching to Progressive.

Whenever I drive back to my hometown, I notice a billboard in the sprawling exurbs that features a young white woman's hands holding a cardboard box and implores "MILLENNIALS" who are "sick" of living in our parents' houses to apply for a housing loan.

There have been several articles written about the connection between adulthood and cutting the metaphorical cord on shared services like cell phone plans and Netflix accounts as a signifier of adulthood. 

Where are these pressures coming from? Largely, they're being supported by those with a corporate interest in getting more young people into financial "independence" by tying them down with their own contracts, monthly bills, and increasing debt. But they're doing so by playing on the notion that accruing your own debt is a sign of responsibility and independence. They're cutting to a core American value when they call into question our individuality.

Ironically,  Millennials are actually more individualistic as a whole than previous generations. We marry less and later, have lower levels of trust for others, and value individualistic pursuits like "finding ourselves" and taking selfies.

Whatever one thinks of his/her own individuality, society cares about the money.You're not really an individual, our culture tells us, until you can stand monetarily on your own two feet. Nevermind that this benefits the corporations who depend on those dollars rather than the families who could negotiate more financially responsible arrangements for everything from housing to cell phone bills. After all, in many cultures it's perfectly normal and acceptable for extended families to live together forever, not just until the moment of arbitrary adulthood. What we define as "adult" is as much a function of corporate greed as it is ethics or philosophy. It's always about the money.

This brings us full circle. I started this reflection by thinking about FERPA and parents' rights to see their adult children's college grades. Many who balk at FERPA as overreach do so on economic grounds. If the parent is paying for college, they reason, then the parent has the right to oversee their investment. I suspect this extends further than simply paying tuition as many parents are still providing food, housing, and clothing for their college-aged child even if the bill is being paid through financial aid or scholarships. This article is written by a teacher who works at a school where FERPA doesn't apply, and he reflects on parent-teacher conferences as important pedagogical tools.

And it's worth noting that FERPA was enacted in 1974 in a different generational norm.

Still, I find myself appreciating FERPA as an instructor. I made a conscious choice to teach adults. I value the philosophical differences between teaching adults who have made a choice to come to my classroom rather than children who are required to be present. Many of my students are older than me. Many have had children of their own, built and lost careers, retired, fought in wars, and generally lived adult lives before entering my classroom. It is my policy to only share grade information with the person enrolled in my class. If that student chooses to share that information with a parent, that is up to the student.

I teach adults, but I do understand that parents play a very valuable role in their children's lives, and I can certainly see how younger students who still depend on their parents financially and emotionally may benefit from some parental intrusion in their college performance, so maybe I'm just out of touch with the realities of the new normal.

But if I'm out of touch, so too are our laws which charge these "children" as adults when they commit crimes or the military that encourages them to sign up for the front lines of war. 

If "adulthood" is a moving target, then the policies and regulations that operate around that target must move, too. But we also have to recognize that even if the norm of adulthood trends up, there are still plenty of people who operate well outside of them.

Basically, I thought I had a clear understanding of my own opinion on adulthood and how that arbitrary standard should be impacted by legal codes. But now I'm not so sure. I can see every side of this debate, and I can't quite untangle my own experiences of adulthood from the mix.

What do you think? When is someone an adult and what difference should that make in terms of privacy and autonomy?

Pics: Dominick Gubi, Artotem