Tuesday, October 5, 2010

66th NACAC Conference

St. Louis, Missouri, October 1, 2010
Friday Morning Panel on the 500-word College Personal Essay
Panelists: Christopher Burkmar, Associate Dean of Admissions at Princeton;
Will Fitzhugh, Founder, The Concord Review; Jonathan Reider, Director of College Counseling, San Francisco University High School

Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review

I propose a thought experiment for what it may be worth.

What if we change the name of our organization from the National Association of College Admissions Counselors to: The National Association of College Completion Counselors?

Note that the new name is more comprehensive, as Completion presupposes Admission, but, as is all too obvious these days, Admission cannot assume Completion.

You are all at least as aware as I am of the numbers about the need for academic remediation in Higher Education and the numbers of dropouts from college, but I will review a couple of them. Tony Wagner of Harvard reports that in general, including community colleges, half of college freshman do not return for a second year, and a huge percentage of our HS graduates take six years or more to complete a Bachelor’s degree, and four years or more to complete an Associate’s degree.

Students who need remediation in basic academic skills are more likely to drop out, and the more remedial courses they have to take, the more likely they are to drop out.

The California State College System reported at a conference last Fall that 47% of their Freshman students are in remedial reading courses.

We may assume that these students have had 12 years of reading in school already, but they still can’t read well enough to do college work, at least by California standards.

Reading is not calculus or chemistry, it is just a basic academic skill in which we expect that the schools have offered practice for 12 years.

Now, a youngster can start to play Pop Warner football at age 6. By graduation from HS, he could have had 12 years of practice at the basic skills of football. Imagine athletes reporting for a college football team, only to be told that they need a year of remedial blocking and tackling practice before they can be allowed to play. It seems unlikely that they would not have learned basic blocking and tackling skills in their previous 12 years of playing football.

I am not just talking about improvement here. Of course, students in college can learn to read more difficult material in new academic subjects. And of course college athletes can get better at all the skills needed for success in their sports.

But we are talking about basic, entry-level academic skills. 47% of freshmen in the California State College System don’t have them in reading, after 12 years of practice in school.

When I went into the Army in 1960, I had never fired a rifle before, but in a week or two on the range in Basic Training, I was able to meet the standard for “Sharpshooter.” I missed “Expert” by one target.

I am convinced that if I had had 12 years of practice with my M-1 Garand, I really could have scored “Expert”—perhaps even by the higher standards of the U.S. Marine Corps.

I have to confess I am stunned that so many of our high school students, having been awarded one of our high school diplomas, and having been accepted at one of our colleges, are found to be unable to read well enough to do college work.

The Diploma to Nowhere report of the Strong American Schools project said that more than one million of our high school graduates are now in remedial courses each year when they get to college.

It also notes that these students, having satisfied our requirements for the high school diploma, and graduated—having applied to college and been accepted—are told when they get there, that they can’t make the grade without perhaps an additional year of work on their academic fundamentals. Naturally this experience is surprising to them, given that they satisfied our requirements for graduation and admission to college, and embarrassing, humiliating and discouraging, as well.

As you may know, my particular interest since 1987 has been in student history research papers at the high school level. I have published 912 essays by secondary students from 44 states and 38 other countries over the last 23 years.

Some of the students who wrote the required Extended Essays for the IB Diploma and were published in The Concord Review, and some of our other authors as well, have told me that in their freshman dorms they are often mobbed by their peers who are facing a serious term paper for the first time and have no idea how to do one.

It is absurd to contemplate, but imagine a well-prepared college basketball player being mobbed for help by his peers who had never been taught to dribble, pass, or shoot in high school.

If even colleges like Harvard and Stanford require all their Freshmen to take a year of expository writing, that may not exactly be remedial writing, but I would argue that a student who has completed an Extended Essay for the International Baccalaureate Diploma, and a student who has published a 12,000-word paper on Irish Nationalism or a 15,000-word paper on the Soviet-Afghan War for The Concord Review, should perhaps be allowed to skip that year of remedial writing. The author of the Soviet-Afghan War paper, from Georgia, is now at Christ Church College, Oxford, where I believe he did not have to spend a year in an expository writing course, and the author of the Irish Nationalism paper is at Princeton, where she may very well have been asked to spend a year in such a course.

If so many of our students need to learn how to do academic writing (not to mention how to read), what are they spending time on in high school?

I believe that writing is the most dumbed-down activity we now have in our schools. The AP program includes no research paper, only responses to document-based questions, and most high school Social Studies departments leave academic writing tasks to the English Department.

Now, in general, English Departments favor personal and creative writing and the five-paragraph essay, but college admission requirements have given them an additional task on which they are working with students. Teaching writing takes time, not only in preparing and monitoring students, but more especially in reading what students have written and offering corrections and advice. Time for one kind of writing necessarily means less time for another kind.

Personal and creative writing and the five-paragraph essay have already taken a lot of the time of English teachers and their students, but as college admissions officers ask for the 500-word personal essay, time has to be given to teaching for that.

While high school English departments work with their students on the 500-word personal essay, they do not have the time to give to serious term papers, so they don’t do them, and I believe that is why so many students arrive in our colleges in need of a one-year course on the expository writing they didn’t get a chance to do in school.

Lots of the public high school students whose work I publish simply do their papers as independent studies, as there is no place for serious academic writing like that in the curriculum.

I would suggest that if college admissions officers would ask instead for an academic research paper from applicants in place of the short little personal essay, while it would be more work for them, it would make it more likely that students they accept would arrive ready for college work, perhaps even ready enough to allow them to skip that year of expository writing they now have to sit through, and they could take an actual academic course in its place.

Making sure that our high school students arrive in college able to manage college-level nonfiction reading and academic expository writing might really help us earn our new credential as professionals who work not just to help students get accepted at college, but to help them complete college as well.

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