College access is essential to the success of K-12 education reform. College access is about creating an educational environment in which students are motivated and inspired to learn, make good choices, and seize opportunity. The college conversation, the hope of opportunity, and the chance to find success beyond high school create meaning and value in high school. If high school is a dead end and not about something after, our students will know it and will treat it that way.
For years, we have invested in programs, strategies, and interventions that have sought to keep kids in school, improve their grades, and ensure their graduation. We have provided tutoring and after school supports, credit recovery and summer school. We have redesigned high schools, created thematic areas of study and have tried smaller class sizes. All of these and myriad others, I believe, are noble efforts and some incremental improvement has come from them. But, to date, none of them has had the transformative effect that we have been looking for because, despite these investments, the overarching vision of K-12 has not really changed.
The functional vision of our schools – if I define it based on 1. what we measure and evaluate, 2. what we invest in, and 3. the nature of how we talk about our work – is really about getting students through the K-12 pipeline. Our ultimate metric in current discourse, after all, is graduation rates. Even as we have shifted our larger social/economic understanding that students need some additional credentialing after high school, we have yet to make the cultural, financial, and programmatic investments necessary for postsecondary success for our students.
So, what would such investments look like? Here are a few thoughts just for starters:
At times, we mistake college access as someone else’s business? But, whose? Who has the knowledge, skills, and time committed to this work? At other times, we assume “we already do that”? But, how can we make this claim without a clear, shared understanding of what college access is?
What we do know is that college access investments are, in fact, investments in transforming K-12 education. Consider the following:
If I am a student merely trying to get through high school with no sense of postsecondary opportunity, why would I invest in extra tutoring or academic support? I just need to pass; I don’t need to excel. If, on the other hand, I have a vision that includes college and I understand what that means and feel supported in that vision, I know I need to understand my class material and work hard to keep my grades up. So, maybe I show up for the tutor. Maybe I ask for help when I am struggling.
If I am a student just trying to keep my head down, stay out of trouble and off the school’s radar so I can graduate without anyone bothering me, why would I seize the opportunity to join a club or take part in a volunteer project? If, however, I know I am building a resume to get myself into college, or exploring new opportunities that might guide my college search, maybe I put forth the extra effort. Maybe that gives me a reason to get involved.
If I know the basic credits required to graduate from high school and that is all anyone has talked to me about, then why would I take the most challenging classes my school has to offer? Why would I take an extra year of math or Spanish? If, on the other hand, I have a vision and know I am preparing for the academic rigor of postsecondary education, maybe I take these classes or challenge myself with Advanced Placement or Dual Enrollment. Perhaps I seek extra help from my teacher or ask what college academics are really like.
College access is about vision. It’s about motivation. It’s about expanding the current context of a student’s life and their educational experiences, which are all too often defined by their present life circumstances. It’s about the possibilities of the future and the student’s ability to break out of his current social, cultural, and economic situations and create an entirely new context for himself. It’s about reinforcing the reason for K-12 education. College access is about increasing student investment and ownership in their K-12 experiences.
I learned in my first sculpture class in college that a three dimensional piece of sculpture communicates and interacts with its viewer in all three dimensions. (This seems somewhat obvious, I guess, but it’s not that simple.) In other words, a sculpture’s depth, width, and height (along with other elements like color, texture, and movement, that live on that depth, width, and height) each communicate based on the relative size, viewing position, and experience of the viewer as he engages the sculpture. So, if you are trying to communicate and create a relationship with a viewer through the experience of a sculpture, you had better consider it fully in three dimensions.
Herein lies a beautiful nugget of wisdom about life. We obviously live in (at least) three dimensions; so, our experiences and interactions all exist in (at least) three dimensions. (Time can be considered a fourth.) But, as we interact, process, and learn from our world, I wonder if we truly consider it in all three dimensions. Do we truly explore our world from all angles, or just continually process it from one vantage point, that of our own personal experience and comfort-level? Do we communicate in 3D? Do we observe in 3D?
To push my personal development (I typically write these blogs to increase my own mindfulness), I propose a three dimensional frame for processing my communication, relationships, and experiences:
Dimension 1: Direct experience - my experience of a relationship, image, event, circumstance, etc. This is the “I” dimension.
Dimension 2: Divergent perspectives - others’ experiences of a relationship, image, event, circumstance, etc. The “you” dimension.
Dimension 3: Determining the implications: The interactions between and implications of dimensions 1 and 2. The “we” dimension.
To truly understand my direct experience, I must be willing and able to reflect on and analyze my own perceptions and responses to various stimuli. I need to be able to identify the emotions that are, or are not, involved in my experience. I need to understand what the experience means to me and how or why it either resonates or does not. I need to clarify the messages I receive as I understand them and see how they mesh with the messages I perceive to have been intended. Finally, I must try to identify what piece of myself I project on my perception of others’ intentions. Whether it is a personal relationship, a piece of art, a life event, or even a story or commercial on television, my experience is biased by who I am, how I understand the world, and even where I am at the given moment of the experience. It is neither objective nor absolute.
This is why being open to the second dimension (divergent perspectives) is so critical: it’s the same complex web for the “other” experiencing the very same relationship, piece of art, life event, or television commercial. They bring all of their junk to it too! It is their “I” experience. If we are to communicate and relate genuinely, we must understand, or at least empathize with (we still don’t have to like), each other’s “I” experience and some of the individual bases for our respective understanding of that experience. In a world so desperately seeking political, economic, and moral truths, we have to realize that at its essence there is not ever a truly common experience; there is no fundamental truth at the level of human interaction. All perspectives and experiences are at some level divergent. The “I” experience and the “you” experience are never exactly the same. So, if we are to expand our lives to living in a second dimension, we must focus not merely on understanding the event, but understanding the experience of the event by others.
So, let’s pretend for a moment that each of us is truly invested in understanding the other, committed to living in the second dimension. Now, we have to understand how our unique and divergent experiences impact the nature of our relationship, and in return, our subsequent experiences of dimensions 1 and 2. We have to determine the interactions between and implications of “I” and “you” on “we”. This third dimension is the space between you and I that, while dependent on each of us, also generates its own dynamics and has its own independent characteristics. Candidly, unless you live in complete isolation, the world of “we” is the “real” world, and most of the challenges of this “we” dimension lie in our failures to deeply engage the “I” and “you” dimensions. We often fail to acknowledge that this relational dimension is a new and distinct entity – a sculpture perhaps.
While our lives are a process of constant ebb and flow and our identity and relational dimensions are always in flux, we can deepen who we are and how we are with the world by engaging a three dimensional process of communication and understanding. We can improve our communication, strengthen our understanding of the world around us, and even create new life through new relationships by being mindful that we do, in fact, live in 3D.