I started college in the fall of 1981, attending a small, private liberal arts university in Indiana. I had gone to a private high school, one that was designed to be a college prep school, so I was ready for the challenges I faced my freshman year. What took me by surprise was how unprepared some of my fellow freshmen were.
One of the first things they did was have the incoming freshman take a writing evaluation. We had to write a short, three paragraph paper on whatever we wanted. The purpose was to see who was ready for College English and who needed remedial work.
I want to pause and let that sink in for a moment. The college I was attending was not a state school or a community college, but a small private school with lofty admission standards. While not Ivy League, it wasn’t an easy school to get into.
Yet this school, taking the top graduating students from high schools all over America, had to test their incoming freshmen for basic literacy.
And a sizable percentage of the incoming freshmen had to take remedial English. They couldn’t write at a collegiate level.
I finished my paper fairly quickly. I was accustomed to putting words to paper quickly because throughout high school English class, I wrote two papers every week: one 3-5 pages for homework, and one 1-3 pages during Friday’s class. I’ve written so many papers that I am used to writing direct to a final draft. Rough drafts and revisions are for sissies! (He writes as he revises this piece somewhat hypocritically!) So for me, three paragraphs on an open topic was nothing.
After I finished, I looked at the people on either side of me. One guy’s paper was absolutely horrendous: abysmal spelling, marginal grammar, and no logical flow of ideas. I felt like I was reading a paper I might have written in the 5th grade.
The scary thing is that he didn’t get placed in a remedial English class. He went directly to Freshman Comp.
Last Thursday, the CBS news affiliate in New York City ran a story that stated that 80% of community college freshmen could not read and write well enough to do college-level work:
When they graduated from city high schools, students in a special remedial program at the Borough of Manhattan Community College couldn’t make the grade.
They had to re-learn basic skills — reading, writing and math — first before they could begin college courses.
Basic skills. Not high level skills like parsing a sentence to determine meaning from its structure, but basic skills. And these are college-bound graduates of the high school system. What percentage of those who didn’t opt for college were also deficient in basic skills?
According to Kids Count, run by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, New York State ranks 4th in spending on education, yet ranks 19th in education. First of all, if 80% of high school graduates in the 19th best education state can’t read or write well enough to do community college-level work, what does that say about the 31 states ranked below New York? Second, where is all the money going to in New York? Why are they not seeing results for the money they spend?
While the New York study is making the headlines, things are the same or worse all across the country. I work as an industrial trainer, teaching new employees how to work safely in a nuclear environment. The people taking these jobs are not unintelligent; they are some of the sharpest people I’ve ever met. But there are many of them who have difficulty reading anything more technical than a magazine article. I’ve also recently met a young lady who graduated at the top of her class with a 4.0 average who had trouble with basic English skills like subject verb agreement, and major difficulties with any math higher than the four basic operations. She’s a very smart girl, and after a semester in remedial classes, she’s now ready for college. But she never should have needed those classes in the first place.
If we are measuring high schools by their success at preparing our children to go to college, then our schools are failing, and failing badly.
And there is a financial impact on us from this failure. Students only get a finite amount of financial aid from the government during their college careers. Wasting a fair chunk of it on material that should have been learned in high school is a waste of money for both the government and the parents footing the tuition bills.
So as parents, what can we do to pick up the slack and make sure that our kids are prepared for college?
Like I said, I was lucky; I was able to go to a private school so I was ready to handle the collegiate workload. But not every parent can afford to send their kids to private schools. One suggestion has been voucher systems, but for various reasons (none of which, in my opinion, have anything to do with the good of the students), these vouchers have been opposed by teachers, unions, and politicians. So let’s skip that whole debate and start with the basic assumption that your child is trapped in a school system that will pass them along, barely getting by, until they get to college, where they will arrive woefully underprepared.
What can we do?
I can tell you what I did.
First, I was actively involved in my kids’ education. There were times when I went to the school to discuss subject materials with the teachers. I remember one particular case where the material covering the Emancipation Proclamation elided several critical passages, making it seem like Lincoln unilaterally freed all the slaves in the US. Of course, this was a completely false presentation of the Emancipation Proclamation, and I talked to the teacher about it. Her response was to ask me if I wanted to come in and teach the class for her.
She abruptly retracted the offer when I took her up on it.
Second, I checked my kids’ work. I wanted to make sure that they were able to do age-appropriate work. One of my sons had fallen way behind where I thought he needed to be. The teachers at his school weren’t overly concerned because he was “doing well enough to pass the assessments.” My wife and I sacrificed and sent him to a private school for a year. He busted his butt for that year, and with the help of a magnificent teacher (Thanks Mrs. P!), he raised his reading level from just above 7th grade to reading and writing at grade level in one semester.
Third, and this to me is the most important part, I encouraged my kids to read. Anything and everything they could get their hands on, I tried to get them to read it. A person who enjoys reading is by definition a person who can read to learn. And once you can teach yourself, you are set for life. Reading teaches you not just the information in the book, but how to write as well. You learn how to communicate, and I believe at some fundamental level, you are training your brain to process information more efficiently.
And I really don’t think it matters what you read. Well, romance novels probably don’t do much for them (I sometimes wonder how many divorces are rooted in unrealistic expectations bred from romance novels), but other than that, pretty much anything goes. Of course, the better the quality of their reading material, the better off they are, but the important thing is to get them reading.
Finally, get involved with the school itself in some capacity. Let them know who you are and who your kids are. Make sure your child is not just another butt filling another chair. When the teacher associates the child with a family, that connection results in a more effective teaching environment, particularly in a crowded classroom. And what goes along with that is to make sure your child is well behaved, well prepared, well rested, and well fed. Make the teacher’s job as easy as possible.
So that’s my recipe. What’s yours? Do you do some different things? Do you disagree with me? Let me know!