MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. In a few minutes, we will hear from former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. He had a solid eight-year career in the NFL until he was released last year. Now he's saying in a newly released open letter that it was his support for same-sex marriage off the field, not his performance on it, that cost him his job. He'll tell us more about why he thinks that in just a few minutes.
But first, we want to return to a subject we talk about often, which is education, specifically getting that all-important high school credential. Now that the winter holidays are behind us, many high school seniors are looking forward to getting that diploma in their hands because it's become an essential basic credential for most jobs in this country. Still, many Americans don't manage to graduate from a traditional high school in the traditional time frame. And for these students, the alternative is the high school equivalency exam. You might know it as the GED or General Education Development exam. In fact, according to a report from the Associated Press, more than 700,000 people took the GED in 2012.
The average test-taker is about 26 years old. And while some are aiming for college, others just want to improve their credentials enough to get a better-paying job. So that caused one community college to rethink its test preparation by tailoring those GED prep courses in alignment with the skills needed for some of the most in demand jobs. We wanted to hear more about this, so we've called Gail Mellow. She is president of LaGuardia Community College, and she's with us now to tell us more. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us, and happy New Year to you.
GAIL MELLOW: Happy New Year to you.
MARTIN: How do LaGuardia's Community College GED classes differ from the traditional prep courses? And of course, you know, I want to know how you came up with this idea.
MELLOW: Well, what we saw is that high school equivalency was so important to students here in New York City and throughout the country. And far too few of our students were getting that high school diploma. And I think that's particularly true for black and Latino males who are an endangered species in higher education. So we really thought there has to be some different way to get students to think about the high school equivalency exam.
And we decided it had to be connected to work. So the faculty at LaGuardia Community College said let's make sure that everything a student learns in preparing to take this high-stakes exam to get their equivalency diploma really relates to work. And we found that it worked phenomenally well when we did that.
MARTIN: And when you say worked phenomenally well, you mean by what standards? You mean the pass rate, the completion rate, that students were - actually stuck it through? What measures do you use to assess that?
MELLOW: Yeah, you're exactly right. We looked at completion rates - sticking it out. We looked at pass rates on the high school equivalency exam. But perhaps, to me, even more importantly, we looked at the number of students who then went on to get a post-secondary degree or credential, who went on for training or went to a college after getting the GED.
And we're especially proud that we saw almost a 30 percent jump in the percentage of students who went on because a high school diploma is essential, but it's not enough in today's economy. And so we really rethought how to frame what's going on in a high school equivalency program to have students think, wow, I've got - this is an important step for me, but I've got to go beyond. There has to be more.
MARTIN: Let me just give you - because I think you're being a little modest, Madam President. The pass rate for LaGuardia students in the contextualized curriculum - of course is using some academic jargon there - for these tailored classes is twice as high as those who took LaGuardia's regular test prep class until 2012, as I understand it. And that the students who earned their GED certificates through these LaGuardia courses are three times as likely to sign up for additional college study. That was 24 percent versus 7 percent. Now why do you think that is?
MELLOW: Oh, I think it's a lot of things. But I'll tell you a story. So we had an adult man. He had a teenage son. He was a dispatcher in - where the college is in New York City, there's a lot of taxi drivers and black cab drivers. And he would dispatch them around the city. He didn't have a high school diploma. His son came up to him and said, you know, dad, I'm going to grow up and be just like you, so I'm dropping out of high school.
His father thought that was a terrible idea, but he sort of decided to walk the talk and enrolled at LaGuardia. And what he said is that he realized that he was smart, that it wasn't just about getting the high school equivalency degree. It was about his future and where he might see himself. Because we make sure that we teach these courses by teaching you about what you might do in the world of work, he became very interested in the health field. He actually now is at New York University on a full scholarship looking at health care.
MARTIN: Well, for example, in a health-related class, you might do a math problem by saying what would be the different drug dosages between a 150-pound man versus a 70-pound child? And that's how you kind of work out the math as opposed to some random example.
MELLOW: Exactly. I don't know if you remember those - I always hated those math problems where there were two trains going at different rates at different times. We don't do that in these programs, but we teach the same concepts. So if you're doing a writing program - I have one student who is now working for a major marketing company. And so she would do all of her work writing examples of pitches for products.
So that we really say, yes, you need to learn at a high school level but you are an adult now. And you need to think about how your learning will be applied in the world of work. And that seems to really motivate the folks who are coming back for a high school equivalency exam.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about a new approach to the high school equivalency exam. Our guest is Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College. How did you develop the curriculum? Did it require all your faculty to basically do it from scratch, home-grown curriculum?
MELLOW: It is a home-grown curriculum. And the faculty worked really, really hard to make sure that they were hitting the same learning outcomes that you would want if you were a high school student. And we had to think what would you need to learn to do in business or in health care, and make sure that we taught those kinds of skills. We also think it's very important that you surround the program with two things.
One is with professional teachers, which is unusual in high school equivalency programs. And the second is that there are support services. So when you get done with a class at LaGuardia, you also might then learn, oh, maybe I should think about applying for social support for food stamps. Maybe I should also think about what it takes to write a resume. Maybe I should apply to college. You want to pack all of those social supports around the program so students are supported and inspired as they move forward.
MARTIN: But it still leads me to wonder, is the issue here the work in the classroom or is it what happens outside of the classroom - how you view these students and that the classes are offered at times when working people can take them?
MARTIN: I mean, is that - is it - so the question I have is, is it really what they're learning in the classroom or is it that you kind of respect who these people are outside of the classroom?
MELLOW: Well, I guess I can't separate those two, and I think you've said it so eloquently. It's all of those things. It's really teaching as if the whole person mattered - as if they have lives, which of course they do, and as if you have aspirations for them so that you can inspire them. But at the end of the day, if they don't learn to read and write and compute accurately, they're not going to make it. So you can't really separate out the actual learning that has to be done with the other kinds of - what I might call the affective, the emotional, the social aspects of learning. They all have to be there.
MARTIN: You were telling us earlier that you completely revamped the curriculum and that the kinds of examples we were talking about, like throwing out the whole two trains running in different directions stuff that, you know, people remember back when they were in high school, however long ago that was - and you completely refreshed the curriculum. I mean, you know, we hear about teachers having to buy their own construction paper, right, and photocopying paper. How did you afford this?
MELLOW: You're so right. I would not have been able to do this without the support of a grant from the MetLife Foundation. And we started out thinking that it was - that we had promising results. We went and did, with an external evaluator, a random control trial study in order to really demonstrate that this was dramatically different for students to take this kind of contextualized curriculum.
MARTIN: Well, we're having this conversation at a time when the general equivalency exam is going to be reevaluated. So is there something that you think that other educational institutions, perhaps more traditional high schools, should learn based on your experience?
MELLOW: Well, what I think we have to do is really create a national conversation about the importance of getting the high school degree, and helping folks do that. If you piled all the money that we spend for high schools in the United States in one place, 1 percent of that goes to support students who are studying for a high school equivalency diploma. But when you look at high school graduation rates - I'm going to use New York City here - only about 68 percent of our students - our traditional-age students graduate from high school in New York City. When we get to black and Latino males, we're down sometimes in some boroughs to 40 percent.
And what I want people to understand is what's going to happen to those kids who aren't kids now - who are 20, who are 30 - where there aren't jobs for them? I want us to really think much more seriously about reopening the door to a high school equivalency diploma and then really linking that with community colleges. I'm a community college president, so you'll excuse my bias. But I think it's important that we treat these folks as the future just as much as we treat, you know, the 17-year-old student as our future. They have lives. They have families. I think of one student at LaGuardia Community College about five years ago. She was our valedictorian. And when I spoke to her - she was an African American woman, she was 65 years old - and when I said, why did it take you this long? She said, you know, I had a tough life, and she was honest with me.
She said drugs and alcohol had sort of pulled her off, but in her heart she always wanted this thing. She's now getting her master's degree. There is extraordinary potential - human potential that we ignore if we don't put the kind of resources and intentionality into getting students who need it a high school diploma, and then to go on and making sure that bridge is there. So I think most of these programs are best done in conjunction with the community colleges across the country.
MARTIN: Gail Mellow is president of LaGuardia Community College. She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York City. Gail Mellow, thank you so much for speaking with us.
MELLOW: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.