Following the Dreamers: Some Other Observations

Following the Dreamers: Some Other Observations

More observations based on Parts II and III of the Washington Post series.

My previous post based on Part I the Washington Post's "Following the Dreamers" series described how the article demonstrates why we are so far from an education system in which everyone matters. Here are some more observations based on reading Parts II and III of the series.

1) 'College tuition as investment' is a naive, simplistic notion. Consider this quote from the WaPo series (Part II):

"Pollin and Cohen had invested $325,000 in the class and would end up spending far more than that on transportation, tutors, field trips and camps. Both men were accustomed to getting returns on their investments, and what they were seeing from the Seat Pleasant 59 wasn’t enough. They became impatient when they learned of low grades and chronic absen­ces. They would ask: Why are we spending so much money if the kids aren’t showing up?

"Proctor tried to massage expectations, theirs and his own. The help they were giving the Dreamers was making a difference, he told them. But it didn’t mean that the kids would be able to transcend circumstances that were often beyond their control."

Apparently, Pollin and Cohen started with the notion that their investment of $325K would buy them a high yield of college degrees. Along the way, they seemed to have learned that things were not nearly so simple. The interesting question for us now IMO is, why then does this simplistic thinking endure, for example in the Obama Administration's emphasis on increasing college degree completions so that the U.S. is again "#1"? If anything, the Seat Pleasant Dreamers stories should tell us that the process of bringing disadvantaged children into society is a lot more complicated and involved than simply providing college tuition money and turning out degree holders.

2) Make it (more) real.

"Jeffery Norris says they were too young to appreciate what Pollin and Cohen were offering. 'You can’t just throw money. It came too soon,' he says."

"Several of his friends were expelled. With them gone, Darone’s grades began to improve. He visited Bowie State University with Proctor and a group of Dreamers, and he liked the big lecture halls, the plush lounge areas, the pretty girls. For the first time, he got a sense of what he could do after high school. He could be like the uncles his mother had always told him about, the ones who went to college."

These quotes show the value of making it real. The article's most highly touted success story (Darone Robinson) didn't really catch on until he was given a glimpse of what was out there to catch on to - uncles going to college are an abstraction without a hook; a firsthand look at the attractions of college can make it real. How many disadvantaged kids never really consider college because it is not real for them?

3) Provide alternative paths to success.

"What Proctor learned, he says, is that Dreamers’ achievements cannot be defined by a diploma, an attitude that he says Pollin and Cohen eventually embraced. The doctor and the pharmacist are successes, for sure. But so are the UPS driver and the Prince George’s police officer. They may not have college degrees, Proctor says, but they have a sense of purpose and ambition.

Ultimately, Proctor argues, the program’s enduring value lies in the relationships he and his students cultivated over time. His mission, he says, was not to bemoan their failures, but to help his students find alternate paths to success."

As my previous post noted, more of the students graduated from trade school (12) than from college (11). Trade school was not even on the radar of the benefactors when they started the program. Sound familiar? It should - because American society still suffers from the same myopia when it comes to providing alternatives to college degrees. College should be for anyone - but not necessarily for everyone. And college-level learning can be made accessible later in life, not just for traditional-age students.

Perhaps I'm especially sensitive to this because I live in a city (DC) where affluent parents are totally focused on college paths for their children and where there's a shortage of tradespeople. As I type this, I'm waiting for the plumber to arrive "sometime this afternoon" - this after the plumbing company I normally use failed to respond to a second email request posted on their web site over two weeks ago. There seems to be plenty of demand and opportunity for skilled tradespeople in this town - so why wouldn't trade school be at least as much of a successful outcome? The current policy discussion and initiatives reflect a lot of confusion about this - perhaps the WaPo article will shed some useful light on this effort.

4) Making a society where everyone's education matters requires both a lot of money and a lot of connection and engagement.

This is why I believe that the Dreamers initiative was an important and promising initiative, despite my previous criticisms of the shortcomings of the "Dreamer" approach. As this quote from Part III of the WaPo series illustrates:

"He knew a couple of millionaires, he says, and what did he get from it? A few minutes later, he answers his own question. 'I’d be dead without the Dreamers,' he says."

Interestingly, Part III of the WaPo series also alludes to two other Dreamer classes which were supported, but there is no mention of what happened to them. We know from the WaPo series that what happened to some of the Dreamers was not good even with support, so we can imagine that what happens to all the classes of disadvantaged kids who go through life without such support is likely to be considerably worse.

So how can we create a society where everyone's education matters? The Dreamers initiative demonstrates that college tuition money helps a lot, but it's not nearly enough; what's also needed is a lot of mentoring, support, making college and future alternatives real. In fact, the Dreamers initiative demonstrates both the value of free market intervention into education and also its severe limitations. Because the Dreamer initiative is arguably not scalable, it also illustrates how it is an inadequate response to create a society where everyone's education matters. That will take money, involvement, making connections and enabling engagement on a scale which we haven't figured out how to do yet...

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