Review – Years That Matter Most

Review … The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us

By Paul Tough

Getting into, affording, and completing college has become a full-time professional contact sport. You snooze, you lose. Big data, popularized by the book Moneyball, transformed much of professional sports. Now, no surprise, colleges use big data to decide who gets in, who can afford higher tuition, and who gets left out, left behind. Hence, I suppose, the national scandal that sent some of the rich and famous to jail for gaming (cheating) the system.

The short version is that the system is rigged in favor of the rich and the white: those who go to the best high schools, those who get the best SAT scores (which often means buying the best SAT coaches). And if you are poor or middle class or of color, and do get into the school of your dreams, you may feel like an imposter who doesn’t belong. Or you may just be pushed out.

In keeping with the theme of this newsletter—hacks that save time and work better—this portion of the review does just that: mines a few equity hacks that seem to work well.

Math in general, calculus in particular, is one of the gatekeepers in college. If you can’t pass the entry test, you must take remedial math, which many students fail. Uri Treisman, featured in this part of the review, found nearly fifty years ago that UC Berkeley recruited students of color only to see mass exodus as a result of calculus. Only forty percent of African American students passed. Today, hundreds of students, including many students of color, owe their math/science PhD careers to Uri Treisman. Here are some of his lessons learned:

Hack #1: Talk to students

Treisman hung out with groups of students to see how their study habits impacted their grades. Black students studied eight hours per week as instructed, usually alone. Students who were successful spent upwards of fourteen hours per week and studied in groups, bouncing ideas off each other, figuring it out collaboratively. Go talk to students.

Hack #2: Remedial models don’t work

Treisman recruited students early in high school and brought them to Berkeley each summer. Even the best and brightest Black students failed, just as those who had gone before them. Telling bright students they need help does not boost confidence.

Hack #3: Advanced and challenging “workshops”

Pitched as exclusive opportunities for those willing to work hard, these were a better fit for students’ image of themselves as aspiring high achievers. Within these workshops, Treisman and his team picked problems designed to help students focus on needed areas, and spent six hours per week getting students to share with and learn from each other. It worked: 97% passed, up from 40%.

Hack #4: Know your students

Treisman, now at University of Texas Austin, still teaches Freshman Calculus in his mid-70s, Uri memorizes every student’s name and reads his/her bio. He requires “office hours” visits on Saturdays. He acknowledges that students from small rural high schools probably didn’t learn what they needed. He agrees that it’s hard. He knows when his students feel lost, and he affirms they can do the work. He tells them it will become clear to them. The student story shared in the book tells of a failing student who ultimately got one of the best grades in the course due to these hacks.

Hack #5: Notice what is not working

Mid-way through the course, Treisman realized he and the TAs were doing too much of the teaching. Students were not struggling to build their own understanding. They went back to the workshop model, making students interact with each other to figure it out.  They explicitly told students, “Most of what I do the first time doesn’t work.” One of the TAs realized female students seldom spoke up in groups with male students.. And they arranged for female students to study together to build their confidence and identity. Again, it worked.

Know your students. Build relationship. Grow confidence.

There is more, far more, in this book. It is well worth reading if you want to help students prepare for the college of their dreams.  And, for all of us in K-12, we will learn more about helping our students – especially our students of color – succeed in school and college. I have highlighted only a few of the many hacks you’ll find buried in this book.

Paul Tough is a good story teller. See also his other books for great hacks on making students successful. How Children Succeed; Helping Children Succeed; Whatever it Takes.


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Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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