In reading Fredrik deBoer’s
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In reading Fredrik deBoer’s recent essay, “Some Students Are Smarter Than Others (and That’s OK),” I was struck by a similar belief system at work. He argues that “not all students possess the underlying ability necessary to flourish in some fields.” If educators would just acknowledge this reality, they could perform what deBoer describes as “a necessary if unfortunate function” of screening out students. Reflecting on a conversation with a fellow graduate student at Purdue, deBoer heard that “only one in three students who started as an engineering major would finish with the degree, and that early courses in the major were actually designed to be ‘weed out’ classes.” He writes, “it was far better for them to [drop courses] early, before they had accumulated a lot of credits.” Getting them to drop early was, according to deBoer, “an act of mercy.” (For the record, according to publicly available data, 68.7 percent of students who started in engineering at Purdue in 2013 graduated with an engineering degree within six years. In the decade before 2013, the six-year graduation rate for engineers at Purdue never dipped below 50.8 percent; and since 2009 it has always been above 61 percent.)
Viewing lower graduation rates as a measure of high quality is an artifact of an era when, as D-L Stewart writes in the June 2020 edition of Change, “a student would be a ‘gentleman scholar.’” As Stewart notes, this idea yielded a higher-education system “restricted by design to the children of the landed gentry.” That system was “never intended to be inclusive of a diversity of people or equitable and just outcomes.” DeBoer’s essay seems blind to this history and the way in which it continues to shape higher education today.
If we ignore the equity implications of our work, we will simply continue to reproduce the inequitable structures that underlie higher education.
DeBoer does not include the terms “equity” or “justice” in his essay. By emphasizing what he calls “differences in natural talent among individual students,” he fails to acknowledge that the belief in fixed intellect flies in the face of a growing body of evidence that has come from the field of psychology over the past 20 years. The work of Carol Dweck and her colleagues at Stanford University, with the help of the Mindset Scholars Network and the College Transition Collaborative, has spawned research and evidence-based practices communicating to students that they fit into the learning environment both culturally and socially.
These kinds of approaches are often grouped together under the heading of “learning mindsets.” A summary of research published by the Mindset Scholar Network reports that changes in these learning mindsets “can alter students’ academic behaviors in ways that lead to sustained improvements in performance.” In other words, there is evidence that knowledge and intellect are not as fixed as DeBoer suggests.
One of Laude’s celebrated learning-mindset efforts is the redesign of his introductory chemistry course. On the first day of class, he tells students they can all earn an A. Over the term, Laude gives them many classroom-based opportunities to work hard to do so. The changes have resulted in significant improvement in his students’ performance. Now most of the students in Laude’s course do earn an A. This is not because he has watered down the course. Rather, according to David Kirp, author of The College Drop-Out Scandal, it’s because Laude “smartened up as a teacher. He became their coach, not their judge.”
Laude is not alone in his pursuits. Prompted to act by evidence such as a 2017 study that showed highly inequitable outcomes in introductory history courses, the American Historical Association started History Gateways, an effort that is helping history faculty members at 11 colleges and universities use evidence-based strategies to redesign their foundational courses to help students see the purpose and relevance of American history to their daily lives. The kinds of issues in gateway courses that this and comparable efforts, such as New American History, are attempting to address go well beyond history to nearly every discipline.
In addition to discipline-based efforts, consortia of colleges are focusing on efforts that lead to greater mastery of course content and deeper learning. Examples include Gateways to Completion programs in Georgia, Michigan, and North Carolina. Gateways to Completion is an effort undertaken by the Gardner Institute to help faculty members work so that race, ethnicity, and family income are no longer predictors of success in gateway courses. Contrary to what deBoer argues, efforts such as these are not based on “cheery know-nothing optimism that insisted on seeing every student as an endlessly moldable lump of clay.” Rather, they are evidence-based. Of greatest importance is that these kinds of efforts challenge allegiance to the assumptions that intellectual capacity is fixed and some students must always fail.
Undoubtedly the challenges that confront higher-education institutions and educators are complex. There are students whom we will not be able to reach in the moments we have with them. But this does not mean we should view talent as fixed. If we ignore the equity implications of our work and our untested assumptions, we will simply continue to reproduce the inequitable structures that underlie higher education.
Nearly 30 years of work in higher education have led me to believe that students are not seeds with some predetermined genetic size and yield. Evidence-based and equity-minded practices can be used in increasingly sophisticated ways — methods that take into account multiple measures that can, contrary to what deBoer asserts, lead to major improvement.
In his last words in “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” James tells us to “tolerate, respect, and indulge” those whom we would, given our unchecked blindness and vantage points, deem unworthy. Setting aside our own potentially blind assumptions about fixed intellect and who does or does not belong in college can lead to improved outcomes both for students and for the society in which they and we live.