The Poor Are Getting Poorer. Professors Can Stop Making It Worse.

This chemistry professor believes everybody can get an A. First, faculty need to change their attitudes.

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Want To Improve Inequality? Start in the Classroom.

Here’s what David Laude thinks professors need to stop believing in: Weed-out courses. A sink-or-swim approach to education. Their own importance.

His message doesn’t always go over well.

But to Laude, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas at Austin, changing these entrenched views is central to whether a university — especially a public flagship like his — is holding up its end of the bargain to the students it admits.

In the bigger picture, it’s also how professors can be moral actors, he says. They should be helping to narrow society’s divides, not double down on them.

He finds it strange, for example, that professors, especially those who teach big introductory courses, are essentially told to line students up and measure them by who does best on tests and who does worst. We mostly know by middle school, he says, who’s going to win that game (students from higher-income families whose parents have higher levels of education). Why should professors just reinforce those divides?

“The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” he says. “And the poor are getting poorer because people teaching classes are giving them Ds or Fs.”

A Grade That Still Haunts Him

Laude has a talk he gives called “Everybody Can Get an A.”

He’s not saying professors should go easy on students or reduce rigor. He’s saying professors need to do more to help their struggling students learn and — more importantly — to help them believe they can learn.

He was one of those students. His freshman year he got a C in chemistry. It still haunts him. It’s part of why he’s not a podiatrist. The C moved him off the medical-school path. More fundamentally, Laude says, the grade made him question whether he belonged there. “That C broke me.”

Everybody can get an A | David Laude | TEDxSpeedwayPlaza

Laude himself has had to change his classroom behavior to help students like the one he once was. He studies data about who is failing his courses and why. He identifies students at risk of struggling and encourages them to meet with him for help. Importantly, he says, he is explicit with students about how he views his role. “I’m on your side,” he tells them.

Changing Sides

One of the ways Laude counters questions about whether he is coddling students is with evidence. They don’t drop out. They don’t fail their other courses. They graduate.

For many years, Laude worked as a senior vice provost at UT-Austin leading university-wide efforts to improve graduation rates. The university analyzed data about students and identified those likely to need extra help. Those students were connected with tutoring, peer mentoring, intensive advising, leadership training, and other resources.

Graduation rates improved. Now, 70 percent of students graduate within four years, up from 52 percent in 2012. For first-generation students and students eligible for Pell Grants, four-year graduation rates are up to 61 percent, from about 40 percent in 2012.

Attitudes are changing, Laude says. Take the call he got from a physics professor after one of his talks.

There’s a war going on in my department over this, the professor told him. And I used to be on the other side.

But the professor had begun to see the patterns in his grades, Laude says, and they made him uncomfortable.

“I can’t get over the fact that I’m flunking poor kids,” Laude says the professor told him. “He was really blunt about it. And he was thinking about what was the moral thing to do.”

— Sara Hebel

Set in Stone

I was in Ann Arbor earlier this week for a meeting of higher ed journalists with the Education Writers Association.

Walking down the street on Tuesday I noticed an inscription on the University of Michigan’s majestic neoclassical Angell Hall: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

James Burrill Angell Hall. Photo by AndrewHorne via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a passage from the Ordinance of 1787, which organized the Northwest Territories, and it’s hard to imagine a more inspiring paean to higher education’s public good.

We don’t often put inscriptions on modern architecture in that way (more fitting, I guess, to those buildings with classic Greek pediments). But then I wondered, given our fixation on the private benefit of college, what exactly we’d say nowadays if we did. Perhaps “May there be gainful employment for all” or “So that our massive student debt shall not be in vain.”

We kid. Seriously, though, we’d love to know about other ways colleges monumentally honor their grand foundational ideas. Buildings, statues, plaques. How are we communicating to the generations yet to come what these institutions are about? Email them to us or tweet us at @opencampusmedia.

(Bonus: Here’s a great short piece about that Angell Hall inscription by a Michigan professor)

— Scott Smallwood

Spotlight

Stalling Dreams: How Student Debt is Disrupting Life Chances and Widening the Racial Wealth Gap

Report from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandies University: “Twenty years after starting college, the median debt of white borrowing students has been reduced by 94 percent — with almost half holding no student debt — whereas black borrowers at the median still owe 95 percent of their cumulative borrowing total.”

Only Half of the Flagship University’s Freshman Class Comes From Wisconsin

Wisconsin residents make up a bare majority of freshmen at the Madison campus this year, the smallest percentage of in-state students the university has enrolled in at least 25 years. (Madison.com)

The Criminologist Accused of Cooking the Books

This is a fascinating tale of an anonymous whistle-blower, a police investigation, and the battle between a professor and his mentor. (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Calendar

  • Scott and Sara will both be in New York City on Oct. 3 for several meetings.
  • Scott is headed to Chicago on Oct. 15–16 for the Educause annual conference.
  • Sara will be in Austin, Texas, from Oct. 16–18 for a workshop about business models for nonprofit news.

Reach out if you’re in any of these places and would like to meet us.

How to Help

We love hearing from you. Keep the feedback and ideas coming. Reach us both at info@opencampusmedia.org.

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