Monday, January 23, 2012

Are High Schools Preparing College-Ready Students?

There is a lot of interest in college-readiness these days from education policy types. They argue persuasively of the need for a substantial percentage of Americans to hold advanced degrees - if we are to maintain our economic position in the world.

Are high schools preparing college-ready students?

Each semester I ask my 150 students (college sophomores and juniors mostly; 21+ ACTs, so we're talking top third of high school grads) to briefly reflect on their own high school experiences writing on the topic - "Ready (or not) for College: How my high school (and I) prepared me for college."

As one might imagine, their opinions are very mixed. Assessing their own contribution to their education along side those of their high schools, my students report stories of great teaching and great apathy from the various faculties in the state. They are industrious. They are slackers. About half of them got a rude awakening on campus.

Many brag about their high schools and remember their toughest teachers as the ones who readied them. Others tell stories of how high school is one great big negotiation with teachers. No assignment is late, no grade is final, until the teacher surrenders and "gives" the student the grade they want. After basketball and football, it may well be the most popular sport in school. One gets the distinct impression that during high school, such rubber-spined enablers are among the students' favorites. Later on, they are derided for their permissiveness.

This is also a pretty good illustration of why student opinion of teaching should only be given a small part in any teacher evaluation. Focusing too much on student opinion is inappropriate as a goal since it will ultimately lower the standards of teachers who are trying to earn points with their students. "Ya need more time for that month-old assignment? No problem."

Here's one student's reflection on her highly-regarded high school.

This from Sarah (with permission):

My high school did not prepare me for college. Yes, it had state of the art equipment and had much money put into its development, but that does not mean that it will educate it students.

Many of the teacher’s were not concerned about the education of the students. Every subject and lesson was taught based on what was on the test. After the test, there was no real teaching.

I do remember having a few really good teachers who were very interactive and truly valued the learning process. Though these particular teachers were tough in their testing and grading, they actually taught me something of value.

Teaching to the test does not always have to be a bad thing. However, it does nothing good for students if you merely put things into their brain, like you throw trash into a garbage can, so it is there for them to dig through if they need to. Then, the test comes around, just like a trash truck, and takes all of that knowledge from you because, in a students mind, they will never need it again. And so, the information for the test has been taken away from the student forever.

This is how my high school worked. And, for the most part, everyone was okay with this method. I learned nothing from this system because my parents raised me to be critical thinker. When I was told something in school, I not only remembered it, but I thought about what it meant and made connections to other things I had learned.

I did most of my own preparation for college. I took ACT preparation classes and bought many ACT preparation books to get the best information on how to prepare. If there were any content, such as pre-calculus, that I did not understand, I would go and seek out the answers. There was not someone standing beside me telling me all of the right answers; I had to seek them for myself.

While in my senior year of high school, I decided to actually attend college classes instead of taking all of my classes at my school. I learned more in two semesters than I had throughout all of high school. The coursework was rigorous and complicated, but I set a goal and worked extremely hard to excel in everything that I did.

While most people were hanging out with their friends and going out to different places, I did all of my homework, studied, and spent time with my friends if there was time left over. Taking a full college course load while in high school is not easy, but it is manageable.

In the end, though my high school did not appear to prepare me well for college, I am glad that I had my high school experience there. If I had gone to another high school, I may not have learned the necessity of critical thinking or the difference between a good teacher and a not-as-good teacher. I also would have never known how much more difficult college really is.

Though I may have prepared myself better for college on my own, high school prepared me for the real world where you must seek out the knowledge and answers you truly want on your own.

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