Sunday, September 03, 2006

Graduates Who are Not Ready for College

I’m a bit late posting on this, but there was very interesting article in The New York Times yesterday concerning the number of students at junior colleges who required remedial work. This isn’t just a problem for two-year schools, as this problem also appears in four-year schools. Many students who graduate from high school are shocked to find that their skills in writing, reading, and math are not sufficient for college work. The article points out that some of the students who need remedial work are people who got good grades, even honors, in grade school. What’s going on here?

There are some obvious possible answers. Grade inflation, coupled with a lack of rigor, would be obvious suspects, and undoubtedly these play a factor. But there are some other factors I think are at work here. One is the increased emphasis in our education system on standardized testing. Teachers and school systems increasingly find that their livelihoods and their funding depend on how students perform on these tests. Let me tell you – if you told me my paycheck depended on how well students were doing on a particular test, I’m going to teach that test, probably to the exclusion of everything else. Students whose education revolves around learning these tests do not get the kind of well-rounded education required to develop the critical thinking skills that are needed for college work, which is probably one of the things that is hurting them.

The other thing I think that is happening here is that it is my experience that students do not read enough. Even good students are not reading much for pleasure now, and they read newspapers less and less. Yes, they’re on-line and are “txt msgng” each other like mad, but not enough to enable them to develop strong vocabularies, good critical thinking skills, or a broad cultural knowledge. I’m not sure what the answer is here, but in the short run at least, colleges need to put ever more emphasis on reading and writing. This may seem obvious, but I think we’re up against something critical.

If I were the curriculum god, I would put every student in a reading and writing seminar every semester, with a reading list for the whole institution that every student would be expected to finish before graduation. This is not a call to teach all the Dead White Males – I’m less concerned about the precise works that are being read, more concerned that the process of reading and analysis is taking place, and that students and professors can rely on a common set of cultural references from which to do analysis. If I were the curriculum god.

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