Thursday, April 5, 2012

The AdvanceNOLA boondoggle

The AdvanceNOLA program of Tulane's Cowen Institute here in New Orleans strikes me as a bizarre manifestation of the "college for everyone" crusade. According to the program's website, the funding for the program comes from a $1.6 million dollar grant from the ExxonMobil Foundation and a "generous donation" from the AT&T Foundation. This money is to go toward "drastically increas[ing] the number of students (especially minorities) who are prepared for and graduate from college." The program seeks to do this by setting up advanced placement courses in schools that serve "at-risk" students, mentoring teachers and administrators, supporting students through tutoring, "performance-based monetary incentives" for students and teachers, and "high standards with accountability for results" (I'm not sure what that means - are there punishments for failure?)

A newspaper article on AdvanceNOLA, published a little over a year ago, gave more information on those "incentives." AdvanceNOLA students, reported the article, "...are treated to Saturday restaurant dinners and are chauffeured to the AP exam in limousines [emphasis added]. Students receive $300 from the program for getting a score of at least 3 out of 5 on an exam -- the minimum needed to receive college credit -- and teachers also receive $300 for each student who passes." I have commented previously on the absurdity of paying students to pursue their own improvement.  It is a mystery to me how one can communicate to young people that they are responsible for their own lives by telling them that others should not only pay them for things they do for themselves, but drive them around in limousines. Reflect, at this point, that if your own children take advanced placement tests (assuming they don't go to a school with something like AdvanceNOLA), you will need to pay for the opportunity.

This urgent push to get the least-qualified students into higher education is taking place in a state that has traditionally had a demand for workers in skilled trades, especially welding and carpentry, and in a city that specializes in the tourist industry and needs service workers. I do favor making higher education more affordable for all those motivated to pursue it (without others giving them "monetary incentives") and I'm opposed to discouraging individuals from college or any other life path they choose for themselves. But I can't see any good reason to try to channel the least educationally prepared students into higher education when there are plenty of other constructive and more plausible avenues open to them.

Of course, the ExxonMobil and AT&T Foundations can spend their money on any kinds of boondoggles they believe will reflect well on their corporate images.  If nothing else, this might be good advertising. But what are the results of AdvanceNOLA?  At many of the schools, none of the students pass (so, presumably, they don't get the $300, but they still get the limousine ride).  The newspaper article said of students at one school, "though none passed the year-end AP exam, educators say that just taking the college-level courses raised the self-esteem of teenagers used to the stigma of attending a low-performing school."  The AdvanceNOLA website reports that in 2009-2010 three (that's right, three) student out of the 158 in the program received qualifying scores and in 2010-2011 the program celebrated a resounding success, with 19 out of 313 students receiving qualifying scores. So, millions of dollars went into intensive efforts to give students extra help and to reward them for accepting the help, and a 94% failure rate is a success. I hope the advertising paid off.

1 comment:

  1. I know this is an old blog post, but I worked for AdvanceNOLA from 2010-2011. I personally scheduled limousines instead of school buses because they were cheaper: you can rent them by the hour, instead of the whole day. It had the added benefit of making the kids feel special and glamorous, but ultimately, the mode of student transportation came down to the bottom line.
    Additionally, studies show that students who take an AP exam - regardless of the score she or he earns - and 3 to 4 times more likely to graduate from college than peers. That's why the program self-identifies as one devoted to college readiness, and leaves the actual application process (and choice to attend college) to guidance counselors, students and their families.