A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Friday, January 20, 2006

Literacy and the college student, devolving into curmudgeonery (as usual)

According to CNN.com, they report the release of a new study assailing the real literacy of college students.
More than half of students at four-year colleges -- and at least 75 percent at two-year colleges -- lack the literacy to handle complex, real-life tasks such as understanding credit card offers, a study found.

The literacy study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the first to target the skills of graduating students, finds that students fail to lock in key skills -- no matter their field of study.

The results cut across three types of literacy: analyzing news stories and other prose, understanding documents and having math skills needed for checkbooks or restaurant tips.

Without "proficient" skills, or those needed to perform more complex tasks, students fall behind. They cannot interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees or summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school.

My students and I talk about real-life applications of what we are studying all the time. When we had a lesson on credit and debt, they were spellbound. These kids need practical knowledge.

I just sat through a staff development presentation which talked about teaching the kids through their interests. I agree with the general idea, although the day that I play the Black-Eyed Peas in class will be a very cold day in Jamaica. (I don't want to know about anyone's "humps." In fact, I would be so appreciative if you would keep those things covered at all times, before you put someone's eye out.) Anyway, my idea of "teaching thorugh their interests" is "teaching them stuff that they don't know by starting with stuff they do know." (Note my complete lack of educrat-ese doublespeak. It's not because I can't; it's because I don't wanna.) I can talk all day long with kids about Death Cab for Cutie or Keane or coldplay or Audioslave or System of a Down, or even Wilson Pickett (rest in peace) or Jimi Hendrix or the Go-Go's or Bob Marley or the Clash.

But I shouldn't. Not if I want to call myself a teacher.

Too much classroom time is spent on tripe like this-- fun tripe, but tripe nonetheless. Real education is uncomfortable, since it requires one to stretch one's boundaries and be willing to attempt to grasp the unknown. It is difficult. But the difference is, I believe the difficulty makes it valuable. Here's another secret: no one can give a student an education. Education is what YOU, the student, make of the opportunities presented to you.

I had to have my beginning of semester gentle chastisement of my students today-- you know, the one where I tell them they actually have to STUDY for a regular level course when they've been acclimated to doing a bunch of banal worksheets and getting their "Gentlemen's B." By catering to the lowest common denominator, to the "interests" of kids who live in a world that is drowning in unlimited access to information but with so little meaning, we trivialize the business of learning.

I have a feeling that these college students are the unfortunate products of this same feel-good system. And isn't that why we are here, in this school, spending these minutes we will never have again and these thousands of dollars? I'll teach you how to read John Locke and FDR's first fireside chat, and from there a credit card offer is child's play.


At 1/21/06, 9:04 AM, Blogger Lucy Stern said...

Lessons in practical life are necessary. You are right about how you should not dumb down to the lowest common demoninator.

My children have been taught how to read a credit card offer. I have been on the phone with my own credit card companies to negociate interest rates. I still keep a check register and know how to balance a checkbook. My daughter does not keep a register. She does online banking and keeps track of what checks have cleared. It drives me crazy. I guess I am still a little old fashioned in knowing the exact amount of money I have in my checking account.

At 1/21/06, 3:14 PM, Blogger Janet said...

I know it's a little premature to worry when you teach third graders, but I'll say it anyway, I'm worried.

If they can't read a simple question and write a coherent answer now, how are they ever going to be able to comprehend something far more complex?

At 1/21/06, 9:57 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

I know. These kids no longer learn how to balance a checkbook because to them, a checkbook is about as modern as an atlatl. I warned them that they shouldn't just trust the bank or trust that someone hasn't gotten access to their accounts, and that they should reconcile their accounts every month.

I was worried about my kids when they were 7th graders. Then I moved to the high school and got to have many of them again. This made me more worried.

Perhaps when they finish they adolescence at about age 25 they'll have gotten a clue. :P

At 1/22/06, 8:56 AM, Blogger NYC Educator said...

I wonder how many of us really understand the predatory nature of these credit card companies, who will offer credit to anyone, and then spend years funding a law that denies bankruptcy protection to Americans with catastrophic medical emergencies, job losses, divorces, or even income loss due to military call-ups.

Credit card offers wallpaper the classrooms of the college I teach part-time in. I read stories of college students committing suicide over impossible visa bills, and throw all the offers in the trash.

It's not only knowing how tho read the offers; it's understanding their consequences. They don't seem to point those out in the brochures.

At 1/22/06, 4:10 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Gee, I wonder why. ;-P

We had a great discussion when I talked about the difference between the prime rate and the rate credit card companies charge 18 year old with no credit history....

At 1/23/06, 10:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a rather young person with a check card and I do my banking online.

I do occasionally write checks for bills/personal transactions, but I don't keep a checkbook, since it's all on the internet (including images of my canceled checks)

Is there something I'm missing?

At 1/23/06, 9:42 PM, Blogger Mr. Lawrence said...

Er ... I have difficulty balancing checkbooks and bank statements because I'm lazy. I almost never keep track of what I've written my cheques for and had one or two bounce. I mean, I'm 25 and I still don't have a clue. :-(

At 1/24/06, 12:42 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Dear Anonymous and Mr. Lawrence,

Listen to Mom: You need to keep track of how much money you have spent, or at least check the transaction codes to make sure that no one has gotten your account information and is then either slowly skimming money off your accounts OR that the bank hasn't made any mistakes-- it HAPPENS! A clerk at a department store was caught a few months ago simply making another imprint of customers' debit cards and then accessing their accounts. If you don't check, you won't know until it's too late.

My sister once left some old checks and other records in a U-Store-It place. Someone broke in and opened up accounts and passed bad checks in her name all over Oklahoma. By the time we found out, my sister had warrants out in her name and other sorts of fun. It took YEARS to clean up.

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