“Windows on College Readiness”
Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review
The Bridgespan Group, working for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, released a report called “Reclaiming the American Dream.” The study was intended to find out how to get more U.S. high school students prepared for and through college.
Much of the report is about getting kids to go to college, and it finds that if there is enough money provided, and if parents, peers, counselors and teachers say going to college is important, more high school students are likely to go.
The major weakness of the report, in my view, is its suggestions for the kind of high school work that will help students to do college work and to graduate.
One of the concluding statements is that “Inertia is particularly difficult to overcome when people are unaware that a problem exists or that the potential for solving it is real.” What a useful insight. What they recommend for high school students is “a rigorous college preparatory curriculum.” What could be wrong with that?
Two very simple and basic things are wrong with that. Current “college preparatory” curricula, including AP courses, do not include the reading of complete nonfiction books or the writing of serious research papers.
That is almost as if we had a crisis in preparing high school football players for success in college and recommended a standard preparation program which did not give them practice in running, blocking and tackling. ACT found last spring that 49 percent of the high school students it tested could not read at the level of college freshman texts. And the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a survey in which 90 percent of college professors thought high school students were not well prepared in reading, writing and doing research. A true college education requires reading serious books and writing substantial papers although many schools have watered their requirements down. High school students should be ready for in-depth study.
If high school football players haven’t done much blocking or tackling in high school, no one would expect them to play well in college, but somehow we expect high school students in a college preparatory program which includes no nonfiction books and no real research papers to do well with college reading lists and with college term paper assignments.
In my state, Massachusetts, 34 percent of the students who go to state four-year colleges are in remedial classes, according to The Boston Globe. Those students had the expectations, support, access and aspiration for the college dream, but when they got there, they were not ready to do the work.
The Gates report says that “the high school environment needs to provide students with high expectations and strong teaching...” but without any real focus on students’ independent academic reading and writing, that environment doesn’t do the job of preparing students for college work.
If we want students to be able to read and understand college books and to write research papers there, then we must give students a chance to learn how to do that in a ”rigorous college preparatory program” in high school. But that is not happening, and just about no one is paying attention to the fact that it is not happening.
The inertia in this case that is “particularly difficult to overcome” is the exclusive focus on what teachers do and what courses cover in textbooks. There must be more attention to the actual academic work that students are required to do—at least in the humanities. Perhaps in mathematics and the sciences, some students are really doing the kind of academic work that prepares them, but in the world of academic reading (nonfiction books) and academic writing (serious research papers), most schools badly serve their students. This report, like so many others, completely misses that.
The Business Roundtable reported in 2004 that their member companies were spending more than $3 billion each year on remedial writing courses for both salaried and hourly employees, so even many of our college graduates may not have achieved a very satisfactory level of academic competence in reading and writing these days. With so many ill-prepared students coming into college, many professors have taken the path of least resistance and watered down their courses.
Our high school programs for students who hope to succeed in college and beyond should require them to write extended essays and papers which are rigorously graded. They should also require students to read at least one serious complete nonfiction book every year. While this may be beyond the prevailing and generally feeble educational standards of the moment, if we don’t do it, most U.S. high school students will continue to be unprepared for higher education.