Wednesday, May 22, 2013

How high schools and colleges think differently about student preparation

Paul Riede, education reporter for Syracuse’s Post-Standard, posted something this morning that caught my eye:  “High school teachers and college professors have a different view of what ‘ready for college’ means,” and linked his comment to a SHOCKING article by the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, entitled “The college ‘preparation gap’ in a single graphic.”

Here is that graphic. Get ready to feel quite ill.


How could that be? How could high school teachers and college teachers have such a radically different take on their students’ level of preparation?

Well, having been a high school teacher for 19 years and a college teacher for 9 (often having done both at the same time – I’m not that old!), I have a couple of thoughts.

Here is a simple reason for this observation. High school teachers are under pressure to get kids "out" by hook or by crook - for HS administrations, the prize at the end is the graduation rate, so that is the target they shoot for, by hook or by crook. It's easy to "graduate" a kid (transitive verb), but that's not the same as a kid "graduating" (intransitive verb), as I have previously blogged here.

This also encourages administrators to force teachers to lower their standards, sometimes drastically, because the gold standard is not mastery or content understanding, but success on a State-mandated assessment battery, as I humorously observed, with a cool Lord of the Rings extended metaphor, here.

As I have written before, and will continue to write again and again, I believe that "Popular myth and the standardized-test culture of American public education would have one think that education is about the massive and rapid accumulation of content, the purpose of which is to succeed on a state test; the error of this thinking is that it relegates the education process itself to a secondary status, making the test score the “prize” of education. Nothing could be more removed from the truth. We have become a nation of pure data, of test scores and dropout rates, ciphers which are at best simplified abstractions of critically important ideas – but raw numbers do not tell the whole story. Any educational process or notion that has at its heart the notion that it is the data that needs to be treated, and not the students, is fundamentally flawed."

And Obama has a history of being a bit hypocritical regarding his devotion to the (Race to the) top-down model of test-driven evaluation of students, and teachers! What this all amounts to is that teachers are pressured, bribed, coerced and incentivized (and make no mistake, teachers are at least PARTIALLY to blame for their own victimhood – where’s the activist spirit that surely led them to the profession in the first place?) and threatened by administrators at the site, district, state and federal levels to move kids through the system.

Sort of like a pedagogical laxative.  Ewww…. No wonder education is in the sh*ts these days.

[insert cymbal crash]

The second half of my answer is as follows:

While high school teachers are under pressure to get kids "out," however possible, for colleges, the moment at which high schools turn out their students and wipe their hands of them is the students' starting point. In order for college-level coursework to have any meaning, there must be a set of expectations, a set of minimum prerequisites for entry and participation. If 9th graders are functioning at the 6th grade level, and 12th graders are functioning at the 9th grade level, then that forces colleges to become high schools, which eliminates the value of college altogether. And while remedial (I mean "developmental") coursework can fill some of the gaps, the fact is that most state colleges and universities and community colleges spend an inordinate amount of capital and human resources doing high schools' jobs for them, and it has a serious cascading effect on program offerings, personnel and staffing, and the robustness of the college experience as a whole.

Intermediate and secondary schools' absolute failure to impose and enforce rational, objective, consistent standards, coupled with the obscene progressivist fetish which is "social promotion" are going to destroy the notion of college as we know it. They've already destroyed high school... why stop there?

Is all hope lost?  I’m just…


  1. I don't understand how a system that requires more and more of children at a younger and younger age can be graduating students who are not "college ready." There is no way I could have handled the academic work given to middle school students today if it were given to me in 1968 when I was in middle school. I postulate two possibilities. One-The experienced, intelligent, reflective teachers have left the profession due to the inability to use professional judgement and creativity in the job. Two-It is not a good idea to teach things at a younger and younger age as eventually you will burn the students out.

    “What we see in our national assessment is improvement among our youngest kids,” notes Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which released the data. “But when you start looking at our older students, you see less improvement over time.” says Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

    Nancy Illing M.S., M.Ed.

    1. Love your username :-)

      I can't speak to 1968, as I wasn't around then, but I will say that, in my opinion, your statement "a system that requires more and more of children at a younger and younger age" contains part of the answer. The educational data culture in which we live is more concerned with the superficiality of education than the deep structure -- so yes, "more" is required, but more of what exactly? More of the easily observable, measurable, assessable stuff. But it's the intangibles that are more important and speak to the quality of a child's educational experience.

      But with regards to 1968, if you see this response, can I ask you to clarify your statement "There is no way I could have handled the academic work given to middle school students today if it were given to me in 1968?" I look at what 6th through 10th graders are doing now, and I shudder because the stuff I remember doing in those grades (for me, that was 1981-1985) was much more rigorous, not less.

      Lastly, I think that what you suggest as option #1 is happening: "The experienced, intelligent, reflective teachers have left the profession due to the inability to use professional judgment and creativity in the job." In my blog, I've made a big deal about Gerald Conti ( and Kathleen Knauth ( but even in my everyday conversations with colleagues and former colleagues -- many of the good ones are looking for a way out, but many cannot find it for financial reasons (I blogged on that here:

      With regard to your #2, "It is not a good idea to teach things at a younger and younger age," I suspect you are right, in a way. There is a level of developmental appropriateness/inappropriateness for everything, and kids should just be allowed to be kids - even in elementary schools. I don't remember ever having homework until 3rd grade myself, but my kindergartner and second-grader bring it home regularly. I'm not a K-5 expert, so I don't have too much to say about that in terms of an essay-ready opinion, so I'll just leave it as a curious observation.

      Thanks for your response. Please spread word of my blog around... I don't know that it will change the world, but I just like that it provokes conversations :-)

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