Of College Readiness and Catfish: How to Prepare Students to Thrive in the Global Age

Catfish and College ReadinessCollege Competes with Catfish

Ever since I finished my college access-focused dissertation in 2005, I sometimes get the question, “So, what did you find?”  My response, while seemingly curt, is clear and simple:  “College competes with Catfish.”

You see, I interviewed “college ready” seniors from a small town Mississippi Delta high school about their awareness of college opportunities and their inclination to enroll.  About half confirmed that they wanted to go to college and pursue the opportunities afforded them.  The other half stated that they did not plan to go to college because they planned to or were already working at the local catfish plant.

Though depressing, I eventually understood. The concept of “Zones of Production,” indicates that there are certain places where particular things are produced, and the people in and around those places tend to engage in the business of that industry, only seeking the level of education needed to do that work.  We see this in Detroit with automobiles and in West Virginia with coal mining.

So, on a recent trip back home, I learned the catfish farms in the Mississippi Delta were closing in high numbers. My unexpected outburst, “Oh my God, what are they going to do now!?!” caught my informants off-guard, and they could see I was visibly shaken.  “What happened?”I asked as if I learned someone had just died.   They told me, “Them folks over there in China (and Vietnam) figured out a way to farm catfish and ship them all the way here to America cheaper than our farmers can ship them down the highway.”

Globalization and the Common Core

I felt immediate grief and began to wonder what might today’s high school seniors do without local viable industries? According to the trend that emerged in my study, half of high school seniors will set their sights on local industries that either don’t or won’t exist.  The impact on the Catfish industry and the economy is palpable.  Mississippians now know that they are competing with China and Vietnam. Those who know the Mississippi Delta know that it is unmistakably flat, topographically speaking.  Ironically, my kindred in the Mississippi Delta now know that the entire world is flat.

Were I assured that these students’ high school curriculum was both rigorous and relevant – as the Common Core Standards suggest – I believe I would have felt better.  Though Common Core Standards were introduced and adopted by most states in 2010, there still exists a debate over the implementation of Common Core Standards. The debate seemingly is focused on whether or not the federal government had a hand in the development of the standards.  I gather that this is considered bad because it represents “big government” and federal control of education (which is essentially the states’ role).  This, to me, is inconsequential.  Regardless of its genesis and the impetus behind it, there is a serious achievement gap in America and if we expect our children to make educated decisions in the future, well, then they must be educated.

I am willing to admit that the Common Core Standards movement has little to do with individual students and much to do with national “readiness” for whatever challenges may come our way.  It is an international issue concentrically framed where, yes, the individual is at the core. And equipping the individual is directly linked to equipping the nation. Individuals belong to families who live in communities located in cities and counties within states that are now united to “provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”  I believe this is at the core of the development of the common core standards and what inspired the governors of forty-four states to commit.

When I was in high school, I distinctly remember something happening in the early 1980s which caused our teachers to be visibly shaken. They said something like, “It’s about to be much harder for you all, and you need to be ready.”  I would later find out as an adult in graduate school that two things happened around that time.  The first was A Nation At-Risk, and the second was a sweeping education reform policy championed by then Mississippi Governor William Winter (with whom I had the pleasure of having lunch to talk about the 20-years-later perspective).  And yes, they got us ready.  I am indeed fortunate to have Harvard and Vanderbilt/Peabody graduate degrees on my wall but I proudly state that I got my foundation from the Clarksdale Public Schools.  It was a cadre of caring and committed teachers who despite the apparent poverty they witnessed, held us accountable for learning what we needed to learn when we needed to learn it.

College and Career Readiness

President Thomas Jefferson, who I will call our nation’s “founding philosopher of public education,” penned his rationale for establishing public education in 1818. I believe his words are still relevant now:

“The objects of this primary education determine its character and limits. These objects are: To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business; To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts, in writing; To improve by reading, his morals and faculties; To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either.”

My simple interpretation of Jefferson’s words suggests that he thought young people should be able to read well and count/calculate well.  And this is at the center of the Common Core standards. The developers of the Common Core standards were prophetic in recognizing that, like in 1983, our nation is still at-risk.  It is no secret that the fastest-growing jobs are those that require increasingly complex skills and higher-order thinking.  And for higher education advocates like myself, this most often means postsecondary education.  It is also no secret that the pipeline to postsecondary education for the fastest growing populations (e.g. Hispanics and African-Americans) is leaking at several distinct places.  In fact, an ACT study showed that of 100 8th graders, 74 will graduate from high school and while 52 will enter college, only 29 will complete college degrees.  The picture is quite bleak for the aforementioned minorities.

Hopefully, all 50 states will indeed unite around the full implementation of the Common Core Standards.  In a knowledge-based economy, the citizenry needs knowledge.  The acquisition of knowledge results from an effective teaching and learning exchange.  And as was demonstrated in my high school nearly thirty years ago by my teachers, there must be a commitment to equipping the students with the knowledge they need regardless of race, social status, and dare I say again – apparent college readiness.  As eerie as it may sound, I think we can see into the future because researchers have given us the data.  And for the next generation of Americans, the evidence is elucidating and the implications are, in my opinion, irrefutable. It’s going to be much harder for them…so, we need to get them ready.

Notes: Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia“, August 4, 1818, in Peterson, Writings, 459.

Looking for resources to help with Common Core Implementation? Check out– Implementing Common Core Standards: Three Keys for Success. The webinar recording and the presentation slides are now available for FREE download!


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