UW Admissions and Failing K-12 Education

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A week ago there was an article in the Seattle Times describing a large drop in applicants to the UW this year.  Considering that other WA State schools have not seen a similar decline and all state colleges are experiencing essentially the same tuition increases, why are UW applications down? 

Could it be the incessant articles and editorials by the Seattle Times about how the UW is turning down strong applicants to let in more out of state students?  How about this Seattle Times headline last spring:

 "Why straight-A's may not get you into the UW this year"

which suggested that
"High-school seniors with top test scores didn't get in.
Students who got into more prestigious schools were wait-listed at the UW.
Valedictorians with straight-A's were denied admission, while out-of-state students with lower grades were accepted."

The truth is that this story was essentially false--I knew this since I had a long talk with the UW Dean of Admissions about it, was well as being undergrad adviser in my department for over a decade.

The truth is that the UW does not reject strong students:  those with a combination of good grades, high board scores, challenging classes, and good recommendations (honor applicants only).  Straight A students with lower board scores, easy classes, or other negatives may be rejected, but that is to be expected at the State's flagship school and one of the top 20 universities in the world according to some evaluations. In a day of extreme grade inflation, an A average does not mean what it used to be.  The average GPA of incoming UW freshman is A-.

I believe this kind of irresponsible journalism has harmed the UW unnecessarily.

(Parenthetical note:  my mentioning the problems with this ST article on KUOW is what led to me being kicked off that station.  Irony Alert: Kicked off of KUOW Weekday defending the UW on the UW radio station, because I was worried about damage to the UW that actually occurred)

Another thing the ST got wrong was the quality of the out-of-state students:  they are generally HIGHER than in-state applicants.  Better grades and board scores, for example. (Let me make it clear, many WA State students are very strong).

Now the controversial part of this blog!  Is is REALLY a bad thing if we let in more out of state students?   

Yes, they help pay the bills by helping support in-state students.  In other words, the UW can admit more in-state students if more out-of-state students are admitted.

Let me be frank, there are quite a few UW students who don't belong here.  Whose seats would be better filled with out-of-state students.  It is distressing to admit, that a good number of UW freshmen (perhaps the lower 10-15%) do not have college-level skills.   They can't do basic algebra or middle school math (many can't even do long division or fractions).  Their spelling and writing are atrocious--unable to write coherent sentences. Their student habits are deficient, including poor attendance and note taking.  They have poor research skills and have difficulty working independently.  Some have poor attitudes and clearly would rather be some place else.

Many of them have little hope of success at the UW and a significant number drop out, or shuffle their way through their college career with marginal grades and no direction.  They leave the UW little better for the experience.   For many, the problems are not of their making:  their preparation in our state's K-12 system was so poor that they had little chance.  And the problems of poor K-12 preparation is particularly acute in technological subjects that require strong math and science skills.  Several times I have had a tearful undergraduate in my room, who desperately wanted to be a meteorologist, but had to give up their dream because their math preparation in K-12 was so poor that they could not make it up in a reasonable time.

So I ask, why not accept the creme-of-the-crop of out of state students to replace the lowest tier of UW applicants?   Many will develop a liking for our state and decide to stay here, thus enriching our state's employment pool. 

Outrageous you say?  Well folks, our country is doing just this in a major way. U.S. K-12 education is weak, particularly in math and science.   Ever check out the student demographics in engineering and technical subjects in our colleges and universities?  Or the ranks of the faculty in technical areas? They are filled with the foreign born.  Why? Our country is incapable of training enough technically skilled young people to keep our 21st century nation running, so we DEPEND on foreign imports.  Without them our society would fall into 3rd world technological status.   When I go to meetings on meteorological data assimilation, probably the most mathematically intense subject in my field, I muse that they might as well have the presentations in Chinese, there are so few native Americans in the room.   Check the faculty of the UW Statistics department--how many were born in the U.S.?  Not many.  The problem is the the U.S. can't keep this approach going indefinitely:  as China and India develop, their students will not want to come here anymore.  And then we will be in real trouble! We need to be insure our own students get the best education and are capable of filling our needs for a technically trained work force.

What is happening to WA State and U.S. student is really a tragedy for them and our society. We need to turn around U.S. K-12 education, particularly in mathematics and science.  And it is quite possible to do so, perhaps even spending less money than we do now.  Groups like the Gates Foundation, League of Education Voters, and the Broad Foundation have good intentions but they are pushing ineffective, unproven and faddish approaches such as charter schools, Teach for America, micromanaging teachers, and fixation on assessments, and they don't base their approaches on empirically proven methodologies.  They are part of the problem, not the solution.

In a future blog I provide some concrete suggestions of how we can improve our state's K-12 educational system.  Some points I will make:

1.  We need strong curricula that include all important material.  Curricula must insure students have the skills and knowledge to succeed in college, if that is what they want to do.
2.  We need to reduce use of obscenely expensive textbooks and materials.
3.   We need to insure teachers know the subjects they teach and then get out of their way.
4.  We need to spend less on assessments.
5.  We need not waste 300 million dollars on new, unproven Common Core Standards.
6.  Colleges of education are generally failing institutions that need to be restructured with more training on subject matter and how to teach effectively, and less social engineering.
7.  Decisions on curricula and teaching approaches must be based on robust research using modern statistical techniques, something nearly absent in the U.S. educational community.

...and more.
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