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

Monday, January 17, 2011

High School graduation and college readiness: Is there a problem here?

Everyone knows that for many years, at least in this part of the Land Between the Coasts, high schools have been judged based on what percentage of their students graduate within four years of entering as freshmen. I start with this fact deliberately. More on this later.

Recently, I read this online from the St. Louis Post-Dospatch, and I include it here in its entirety in case it suddenly disappears and online news articles are wont to do. Please note the parts I have boldfaced:
More than 40 percent of area public high school graduates in 2009 entered Missouri colleges and universities so far behind in reading and math that they took at least one remedial course once they arrived on campus, data show.

Of the 7,067 area graduates who enrolled that year as freshmen in state-funded schools, 3,029 of them landed in academic purgatory, taking catch-up classes that didn't count toward a college degree, according to the Missouri Department of Higher Education.

The proportion of Missouri public school students who end up in remedial college classes has risen only slightly in recent years but is up sharply since 1996. Thirty-eight percent needed remediation before moving on to college-level courses in 2009, compared with 26 percent 14 years ago.

"It is concerning," said Rusty Monhollon, senior associate in academic affairs for the Missouri Department of Higher Education. "It's not a problem that has one easy answer."

President Barack Obama has set a national goal of having the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.

But with college remediation on the rise in some states, such as Missouri, it could be a difficult goal to attain. Studies suggest that the farther behind students are when they enter college, the longer it takes to earn a degree or certificate, if they do at all.

Nationally, about 1.3 million students are taking remedial courses at public two-year and four-year institutions at a cost of at least $2.3 billion, according to a 2008 report by Strong American Schools, a nonprofit financed in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Illinois does not track the percentage of its high school graduates in remedial courses, but other data suggest the state also struggles with college readiness.


In Missouri, state and college officials partly blame the increased demand for college remediation on high schools, where graduation standards don't always line up with what students must know to succeed in college. They also say the proportion reflects the fact that enrollments are up at two-year colleges — schools that typically accept all students no matter what their skill level.

"If we just said, 'No, you're not college ready, so come back when you are,' we're turning our backs on a huge number of students and a large pool of talent," Monhollon said.

Officials in higher education are working with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to define college readiness and a more uniform standard of what high school graduates must know to tackle college-level work.

"High expectations is a critical piece," said Margie Vandeven, assistant commissioner for the office of quality schools at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. "We need to expect that all of our students can be college and career ready."

Some recent high school graduates say they were surprised at how unprepared they were when they arrived on college campuses.

Demond Cox, a 2006 graduate of University City High School, struggled his sophomore year at Missouri University of Science and Technology, where he majors in mechanical engineering. He didn't need remedial help, but received tutoring. Cox took honors and Advanced Placement classes in high school.

Nevertheless, "I wasn't used to studying," he said.

Other graduates who'd taken college-prep classes and landed on the high school honor roll can spend several semesters catching up.

"You do get students who, through whatever system or school they've had, and for whatever reason, are unprepared," said Sandra Brady, assistant professor in reading at St. Louis Community College at Meramec. Some of these students are 'surprised, shocked, angry," she said. "They think, 'I have a high school diploma. What are you telling me?'"

Typically, colleges place students in remedial classes based on their scores on college admissions tests or on national college entrance exams, such as the ACT.

The ACT tests skills in four areas: mathematics, reading, English and science. In Missouri, just 26 percent of students in 2010 met or exceeded benchmarks in all four areas. In Illinois, the proportion was 23 percent. Students who meet the ACT benchmarks have a 75 percent chance of earning a C or better in those college courses.


In the St. Louis area, the level of college readiness varies widely among public high schools, ranging from 4 percent of graduates needing to play catchup, to 92 percent.

On one end of that spectrum is Metro High in the Central West End, a selective magnet school where students must earn C's or above to remain enrolled. Just 4 percent of graduates — or one of the 25 who attended state schools — took a remedial college class.

In contrast, nearly every college-bound graduate of Vashon High School in north St. Louis ended up in remedial college classes. Ninety-two percent of them took at least one.

Both Metro and Vashon high schools are in the St. Louis School District.

Graduates from suburban public high schools also had varying levels of college readiness.

Those who graduated from Timberland High School in the Wentzville School District were among the best prepared, with 6 percent in remedial courses. Those from high schools in the Parkway, Rockwood and Clayton school districts ranked toward the top, according to state data.

Graduates of affluent public schools aren't necessarily college ready. At Ladue Horton Watkins High School, 21 of the 76 graduates in 2009 who went to state-funded schools needed extra help once they arrived. The number of graduates needing remedial help has the school district's attention. Most of Ladue's 299 graduates that year went on to some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the nation, where remedial classes aren't offered.

Even so, "Ladue has to pay attention to those numbers," said Ken Fox, a college and career advisor at Ladue High. "We're not serving all our students if we don't."

The least prepared graduates came from the region's most struggling high schools — Vashon, Roosevelt, Soldan, and most other high schools in the St. Louis Public School District.

Barbara Harris graduated in 2010 from Roosevelt High School, where she took some college prep classes and occasionally landed on the honor roll, she said. But Harris rarely had homework.

This fall, Harris tested into remedial reading and the lowest level of remedial math at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley, where she's pursuing general studies. She eventually hopes to get into a nursing program. But first, Harris must complete two more semesters of remedial math before she can even enroll in college algebra.

"I could be taking something else," Harris said. "If high school had prepared me for college-level algebra, I wouldn't have to spend so many hours catching up."


St. Louis Superintendent Kelvin Adams said the district was working on strategies to make students more college ready, such as improving math and reading skills in all grades, and refreshing their skills before test time.

"We want to give kids the best opportunity," Adams said. "We don't want all of their dollars spent on remedial courses."

In Missouri, state education leaders say they are working to close the knowledge gap. Last year, the state Board of Education adopted a set of common core standards — a list of things students must learn to graduate — to meet that end.

In some school districts, high schools are working on personal study plans to address each senior's weaknesses, Vandeven said. "We're getting a lot of inquiries into how to best serve high school students and make that senior year more meaningful," she said.

For the time being, the demand for remedial courses is steady.

At the University of Missouri-Columbia, about 700 students were enrolled this fall in 23 offerings of Math 0110 — a precursor to college algebra. The school spends more than $70,000 teaching the course.

The demand is much higher at the St. Louis Community College system, which offered 46 different remedial courses this past semester, primarily in math, reading and English.

More than 17,000 students enrolled in 922 different sections of those remedial courses, though the actual number of students was smaller than that, because many took more than one class.

"It's not a good thing," said Brady, the reading instructor at St. Louis Community College at Meramec. "But honestly, this is the reality with which we are faced. Our job is to take them from where they are and help them move forward."

So, 40 per cent of high school graduates who go on to college are placed in remedial classes. How can this be?

First, our high schools seriously lack a vocational track that does not stigmatize. We push all students to go to college, and this is wrong for several reasons. First of all, we have made it ever easier to get a high school diploma. Why is this? Go back and look at the first sentence of this post. I'll wait.

And we're back! So there are kids today with diplomas that are barely worth the paper upon which they are printed. I know that when I teach non-honors classes, there are many students in there who expect to be entertained with movies and demand that no homework be assigned. Try to assign an actual essay or a paper that isn't about their personal experiences (gad!), and the best thing that I can say is that it will be quick work grading that assignment, since there won't be that many handed in.

Now why has this happened? Why haven't high schools maintained rigor in classes across the board while encouraging high graduation rates? Here's just one reason that has jumped out at me ever more so recently: students do not want to be made uncomfortable or "stressed" in any way. Now what I mean by those terms is this: real learning requires effort and struggle through manipulation of new information and concepts. This type of "stress" is the same type one undergoes when one is exercising any muscle in the attempt to strengthen it. We need to explain this concept to students if they are truly interested in learning.

Second, if one listens to all of the cant coming out of the talking heads who purport to be educational experts, especially those who claim to be experts, you will notice that the dominant assumption regarding students is that they are acquiescent, empty vessels waiting to be filled. A whole passel of those alleged "reformers" like to use the "consumer" paradigm when describing how to fix American public schools. Students and their families are depicted as "consumers" of educational services.

The problem with this stereotype is the absolute passivity of consumers in our consumption culture. The deluge of advertising and its claims that consumption can be transformative is probably THE seductive lie of the 20th century in terms of the lives of the common people. However, at least it is understood that consumption requires purchase, even if on credit. The concept of students as (passive) consumers leads to failure of students as students since education requires effort, buy-in, action, practice, self-discipline-- all of these things being antithetical of the consumer culture in which we marinate each day. There was an amusing movie( based on an SNL skit) a few years ago in which the characters had a tagline that is so apropos to this discussion: "CONSUME MASS QUANTITIES!" And unquestioningly, they consumed everything. Even if it had no nutritional content.

Demond Cox's story is instructive in this regard. Did Demond not realize that he was not being prepared for college when he was not required to study to earn his credits in high school? Was he never told that he should study? Now from the teacher's side, do you have any idea how difficult it is to "teach" students the good study habits they will need to not just survive but to succeed in college? When I teach college credit classes, I constantly seek to encourage students to learn how to truly study, which I consider one of the vital components of preparing them to do the college-level work in my classes.

How do I do this? I am forced to create assignments on note-taking and on vocabulary building that then take up time I would prefer to spend on more straight-forward content within the discipline of the actual class. In other words, I "game" the system by making studying and study skills in and of itself a part of their overall grade.

I often feel conflicted about the cost of this system. However, I was talking with some friends of mine who are college professors, and they tell me that they have had to do the same, especially with their freshman classes. I have to say that this made me feel better. Maybe all my effort will pay off with students NOT having to be put through these paces when they are PAYING for their education.

This is also an important distinction, for I can assure you that many students in public high schools also are disinclined to value their educations since it always emphasized that this education is "FREE!!!!!" Unfortunately, they also interpret that word as meaning "requiring no real effort." And schools often aid and abet this notion by lowering standards and removing consequences for failure to master concepts. However, even in the face of this trend, I do want to say there are more than a few of us in the classroom who are swimming against that riptide, who seek to maintain and enforce high standards and rigor. We ARE out there, banging our heads against the wall daily for the sake of our students. We do it because we KNOW that our students CAN do the work, CAN learn the concepts and skills needed. They just have to be pushed into it, in some instances.

I am also a little skeptical of students who claim that they are somehow victims of their own choices. Never had homework? Did you take the most rigorous courses? Or were you just trying to get through and out? Eventually, those who go to college have to learn how to study. One would think it would be better to learn how to do this in middle and high school, but too often students are looking for the easy "A" rather than to truly prepare themselves for college or post-secondary training. And parents are often complicit in this, demanding that teachers lower the amount of homework given or lessen the amount of time required to study for a particular class. If teachers do not comply, parents complain to counselors or administration, and students get to drop down to easier classes-- and guess what? Those are the ones with little or no homework.

I also want to point out one last thing about the use of remedial classes at community colleges and universities. These things are a cash cow for these schools. Instead of not accepting these students, they get to charge students tuition and fees for doing remedial work, AND they get to lengthen the amount of time students then need to spend on campus in order to earn a degree that just might not be right for them in the first place.


At 1/17/11, 2:33 PM, Blogger NYC Educator said...

It's kind of frustrating. I've actually taught a lot of remedial ESL classes. I'm forever warning my high school students if they don't learn what I'm teaching them now, they'll pay to learn it in college, and receive no credit for it. My daughter just got into high school, though, and she's amazed at how much more they require of her than they did at junior high. So maybe there's hope after all.

At 1/17/11, 2:43 PM, Blogger MommyProf said...

On the college side, we proffies often wonder why it is that our students are so astoundingly deficient on the "life skills" area of things. You know, like not scheduling a vet appointment for your cat during class time, or playing on Facebook during class reduces your ability to understand material, not to mention doing homework helps you understand what you are learning.

If there's no room for study skills in the HS curriculum either, when are the students supposed to learn these thing?

This is a serious question.

At 1/17/11, 3:19 PM, Blogger Kim said...

This little sweetheart made my blood boil: "I could be taking something else," Harris said. "If high school had prepared me for college-level algebra, I wouldn't have to spend so many hours catching up."

Wait, what? Whose fault is it that she wasn't prepared for college-level classes? And she's talking algebra, not calculus! Wouldn't you just love to talk to her high school teachers and find out how much effort she put into her classes?

At 1/17/11, 4:11 PM, Blogger Dan Edwards said...

"You can lead a horse to water, but ya can't make it drink."

Schools at every level can offer, offer, offer....but until students value what is being offered, and take an active role in learning what is being offered, not much will change.

I find interesting the growing battle of frosh admissions to four-year universities....how many American teens are being denied admissions because they lack the academic skills necessary for university-level work....and universities are becoming less willing to offer the "remedial" (as in high school level) courses they "need" to pass the university math and or writing exams to be admitted to "university" level classes.

OH, and I really believe people hafta learn on their own....the voce of those who have experienced it already are wasted on them.

At 1/17/11, 4:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, yes to all of your points.

The percentage in remedial classes can likely be almost directly linked to the percentage of students who used to be offered useful vocational education. They sucked it up and did their schoolwork in the morning/afternoon so that the other part of the day they could do something that they saw would lead to some sort of paying job as soon as they graduated.

Right now, some of the only non-offshore-able jobs are the ones we no longer teach in schools -- carpentry, plumbing, welding, etc. etc.

But instead of just pushing those kids into college (where I would argue some of them would end up later -- as motivated, older students learning how to run their own businesses) -- we've also lowered the ceiling for the kids with the ability and motivation.

Even my own kid left high school convinced that being really smart meant you shouldn't have to work too hard at things -- working hard at something meant you weren't good at it. Arrrrrgh. Too many "gifted" kids out there getting the same message -- you're good at enough things that we don't need to teach you how to persist and practice and get *better* at something through hard work rather than innate ability and picking things up quickly. (Not that his parents didn't try...but as is noted above, some things kids have to learn for themselves.)


At 1/17/11, 6:01 PM, Anonymous bev said...

I'm very familiar with one of the high schools listed in the article - my son is a freshman there. And I feel as though the school is rigorous considering it's one of those dreaded inner-ring schools.

One thing about urban schools is that the teachers tend to NOT assign homework based on the assumption that the kids don't have a stable place, time due to jobs, surroundings, resources, etc. to do it. This particular urban high school has a plethora of after school tutoring - but it's optional and the kids have to kind of "self-diagnose" their study problems and get themselves to tutoring (there IS a bus home, though.) And I don't know that they had these options even last school year.

There are other issues at hand, too. My son is fortunate that he has parents who can teach him how to study (we found he was "studying" for tests with study guides he'd filled out with the wrong answers!) But many of his classmates - again, in an urban high school - have well-intentioned parents who may not dig down deep enough to really be able to help. So now, whose responsibility is it in these situations to teach kids how to study? Not really a rhetorical question nor is it one I have the answer to.

At 1/17/11, 6:08 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Actually, NYC, having taught middle school, I view your daughter's comment another way, since I remember well being the "hard teacher" there too.

MommyProf, those of my friends who teach at community college have told me of students disrupting class, playing with their smart phones, getting expelled-- and this was before Jared Loughner. I feel your pain. My question is this: why am I having to teach this to upperclassman in college credit classes? Could it be that when these kids were in elementary and middle school, teaching study skills went out the window in the face of NCLB's complete and utter emphasis on the 3Rs?

Kim, that absolutely got me too. Her high school is apparently a pretty stressed urban one, but there were options for her to challenge herself.

Polski, the problem is that the dominant rhetoric takes all responsibility off the students and imagines that they are just lumps of clay waiting to be molded. However, a business that was forced to use EVERY lump of clay without regard to quality control is sure to fail.

Anon, I hear ya.

At 1/18/11, 12:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with Anon...my oldest got almost straight A+'s last semester (she got one A). She NEVER studies or and rarely (once or twice a month) has homework. Neither she nor I have any input into her classes. She is in junior high, most of her classes are heterogenous, and so are dumbed down so the low kids can pass.

She also have figured out that asking for help is a sign of weakness and something to be ashamed of.

How is she supposed to learn how to study?

At 1/18/11, 5:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very informative post. And timely: Heard a news report today stating that a significant percentage of today's college students aren't working very hard, thus rendering them unprepared for the job market. Seems that students are merely transferring the bad habits they cultivated in high school to the college/university level. Which goes to show: college is merely an extension of hs for many students.

At 1/23/11, 5:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work in St.Louis as a middle school teacher. I have a friend who teaches at a local high school. She tells me that her principal recently told she and her staff that they could no longer fail anyone -that Fs were off the table. Talk about lowering standards!! I am appalled but I also know that the average student at that school is operating so far under grade level that the entire school would be shut down if it were held to actual grade standards. I feel sorry for those students and for all of us.

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