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Mixed message / March 19, 2009
Two weeks ago I wrote a lengthy front-page article on the dual enrollment program at Halifax County High School that I hope fairly laid out its pros and cons. So, folks with limited patience might ask: What’s the bottom line? The answer is, alas, complicated. Some people will tell you that college-level classes at HCHS are all sizzle and not much steak, and others testify to the benefits that kids and families have reaped from dual enrollment—usually measured in dollars-and-cents savings on future higher ed costs, the result of students racking up community college credits while still in high school. Everyone’s experience is different. No one has a monopoly on the truth, and seemingly everyone has an anecdote to share. What I ended up with was a mixed picture on the college-level academic program at Halifax County High School — in marked contrast, it should be noted, to the official line that dual enrollment at HCHS is proof of Halifax County’s commitment to providing a world-class education for our kids.

Halifax County’s relentless focus on dual enrollment is truly unique, at least in the state of Virginia. It is also very much a reflection of the priorities of School Superintendent Paul Stapleton. Dual enrollment is as good a jumping-off point as any for an assessment of the quality of the Halifax County schools. The degree of control that Stapleton exerts over the school system is remarkable — his influence runs well beyond the norm. The School Board, with a few exceptions, pretty much does Stapleton’s bidding, and the supervisors don’t get involved in day-to-day school operations (appropriately so). Meantime you’ve got near-monolithic support for Stapleton in the business community and, as far as the dual enrollment program is concerned, a valuable ally in Southside Virginia Community College President John Cavan. If dual enrollment or any other Stapleton project does indeed suffer for lack of quality, chances are you won’t hear so from the usual suspects around here.

I’m truly of a mixed mind about dual enrollment in particular and Stapleton’s tenure at the helm of Halifax County Public Schools in general. Just to take first things first, I ran across a copy of Newsweek magazine a few weeks ago that included an interview with Bill Gates on the woeful state of American education. The following line stood out: “It’s no surprise that Gates is a believer in merit pay and incentive pay and has little use for teachers colleges as presently constituted because there’s no evidence that having a master’s degree improves teacher performance. You never hear Gates or his people talk about highly qualified teachers, only highly effective ones.” (Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, Dec. 8, 2008).

Gates’ view strikes me as more or less valid. His critique of the runaway emphasis on teacher credentialing goes right to the heart of the problem with dual enrollment — too often, in Halifax County at least, it’s all about glossy outcomes and impressive-sounding numbers and not enough about the nitty-gritty business of determining which classes are delivering on the promise of a top-notch education, which are not, and how to tell the difference. One of the pluses of the Advanced Placement program — against which dual enrollment is inevitably compared — is that students must perform well on a nationally-normed, end-of-course to earn college credit. High-stakes testing comes with its own set of issues, but at least there’s a standard in place that allows people to tell how well students have mastered the course material irrespective of where and from whom they took the class. And with dual enrollment?

I was pretty surprised from my research to learn that Virginia community colleges have widely different standards for who gets to participate in dual enrollment, how the courses are taught, and how these programs are audited and evaluated. For instance, it’s commonly noted that northern Virginia schools show little interest in dual enrollment, preferring the panache of the AP or International Baccalaureate curricula, but another factor that might add to NOVA’s comparatively low participation rate is the requirement that students score an 1100 on their math and reading SATs to qualify for community college classes. Northern Virginia Community College also is the lone member of the state system to participate in a national accrediting initiative that was set up specifically to address quality-control concerns with dual enrollment. (I heard plenty of grumbling on that score from the college professors and administrators quoted in my piece). Here in Southside Virginia, the only guarantees of rigor are the requirements that teachers have a master’s degree, students earn a “C” or better on their coursework, and the community colleges maintain their accreditation status. Performance evaluations are fairly weak to the extent they exist at all. For instance, SVCC’s primary evaluation tool is a survey in which teachers, students and parents are asked to weigh in on the quality of the courses. You don’t need a master’s degree in sociology to realize this method has several shortcomings. What basis do survey respondents have for making their evaluations? What do they compare dual enrollment against? How much stock can you put in a survey with a 20 percent response rate? SVCC’s audit of the dual enrollment program is available on the college’s website; it’s somewhat illuminating, but also in a sense a bit like a master’s degree: it looks good on paper, but what does it really mean?

This isn’t to say that dual enrollment is worthless. Anything but. There are many extremely capable and hard-working teachers who lead classes full of bright and eager students every day in Southside Virginia and Halifax County, and it’s not a stretch to believe that something approximating college-level work could be going on inside these classroom walls. But that’s the problem: It beggars the imagination to believe the college experience is happening in every instance, with every student. Dual enrollment runs up against the common-sense perception that high school is not college, and telling people otherwise is to add another layer of hype to an already amped-up world. It’s too bad: dual enrollment’s biggest virtue is that it offers something approaching a college-level experience to students who often have no exposure whatsoever to higher education, making an academic path after high school seem more possible than ever. Why not just admit that, in most cases, dual enrollment amounts to year 13 or 14 in the K-12 progression, and not college itself? This isn’t, or shouldn’t be, only about cost: Only about 1 in 10 county residents has a four-year bachelor’s degree, so anything you can do to put kids on a glide path to college is good by me. If cost is the problem, then help kids and their families pay for college; but don’t devalue college because kids can’t pay the cost.

That’s a policy debate for a different place, on a different level. The narrow question facing Halifax County is whether dual enrollment should supplant all other possible curriculum options, including the AP initiative run by former Halifax County school administrator Paul Nichols out of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center. The plain answer is no. Thanks to grant funding options, AP can be offered at the high school on a regular basis for very little money. The argument against the program — that not enough students are interested enough to participate — falls apart when you look at some of the other classroom enrollments already in place at HCHS. (Drafting II: five students). So what’s the holdup here? John Cavan’s objections? The perception that dual enrollment is Paul Stapleton’s baby, and nothing’s going to knock Stapleton off his block? If so, that’s not much in the way of a good reason.

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