Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Diamonds in Florida Edition: Charters? Disadvantaged Kids? Elite Universities?

In Florida news, wish I was there, a new study (pdf) from the Department of Education rings the "charter schools are not a panacea" bell. Read about it here at the Miami Herald. Traditional arguments abound in the Herald piece over similar student performance between two school types--charter and traditional. The interesting trend here is that Florida charter schools look more and more like traditional public schools. Take ethnicity. Ten year data show that percentages of minority students overall have fallen and more closely resemble the traditional public school population. There's not much bad news in this report in fact, unless of course you vehemently oppose charters because you believe they suck funding from traditional public schools. But there is always a counter argument looming that says that per pupil expenditures are markedly lower at charters than traditional publics in no small part due to lack of facilities funds.

In other Florida news, The NYTimes did a piece this morning on public higher education institutions working to up the excellence ante. The story by TAMAR LEWIN features both an Alma Matter and an institution I attended some years ago. An issue running rampant, and thankfully so, is the class divide at the nation's highest ranked (and some middle ranked) colleges and universities. One of the better if not longer reads out there on the subject is William Bowen's Equity And Excellence In American Higher Education. What we're up against, and what the Times implicitly suggests is a class divide at America's top universities. This class divide will continue to grow without efforts like North Carolina's, Virginia's, and now apparently Florida's. Incredulous "apparently" for effect.

Here's the thing. There are not that many diamond-in-the-rough kids out there. These schools need as many of the diamonds as they can get to meet the ideal student body they so desperately wish to have to address a host of concerns induced by social, economic, and political reasons not to mention U.S. News. Unless these schools lower their standards, admit kids from disadvantaged backgrounds that did well in school, but not as well as the folks who flood the academic halls of the so many top Universities, we're going to continue to see low participation in programs like Access UVA and the Carolina Covenant.

I'm all for admitting students who did well by their circumstances, but I wonder if these students belong at the most elite colleges straight from high school. The elite institutions must understand that if they do admit the students who are more like "cubic zirconium in the rough" than "diamonds," the elites will need to pour an increasing amount of resources into these kids to get them up to speed to excel at college level work. So far I'm not terribly impressed at what these schools are doing.

Some elite institutions have taken a step in the right direction, but racial diversity does not equal economic diversity, if for the simple fact that deck of cards staked against the most disadvantaged kids is real and affects how well they do in grades K-12.

It's interesting how the definition of an elite university is changing to reflect an almost charitable egalitarianism--facade may it be. University Systems like California are great at handling placement within a system. Virginia's higher education system for example arguably competes against itself in many ways. In other words in Virginia, unlike California, there is no true hierarchy of schools and a lot of overlap in institutional mission exists, no matter what SCHEV projects. I wonder if there is something to do with a state's higher ed systems' coherency that might predict if a school (flagship in the cases of Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina) feels compelled to extend this brand of charitable egalitarianism. I wonder.

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